These tales of mob and gang will be appreciated by man and boy, but especially by those of us who have survived fifty-odd years of life in Britain. Our day-school years in the Thirties were much influenced by the public school system, expressed in schoolmasters’ aspirations and schoolboys’ comics. Simon Raven’s notorious devotion to that system began when he was only a seven-year-old comic reader, as he admits in The Old School, a loving but mordant survey of the dormitory schools: he went on avidly to Charterhouse and he fancies other men will envy or scorn that experience, as he himself scorns or envies men from rival dormitories. Such is the gang spirit. Then, in our teens or twenties, we entered the mob, post-war conscripts in the years of National Service: here the public schoolboys came into their own, hogging the Queen’s Commission and acquiring conscript valets. Trevor Royle, a serious young Scot, describes ‘the National Service Experience, 1945-63’ in his worthy book, The Best Years of Their Lives: he feels sorry that he was too young to meet this challenge himself.
By the Sixties all we conscripts had emerged from the mob, ready to face private enterprise, the gang life of Civvy Street, when the Kray Twins ruled London – or so the timorous newspapers claimed. John Dickson, a former member of the Krays’ firm, has somehow produced a well-written book, Murder without Conviction. ‘We looked like any normal businessmen in our pin-striped suits,’ he says, describing the firm’s negotiations with the Mafia. The Krays were a craze of the Sixties, adulated in the American style, like Malcolm X or Al Capone, Huey Long or Joe Bananas. They were like rock stars, they were in with the press, said to be in with the law: even today, while they lie in jail, the Daily Telegraph prints interviews with them, as if they were as respectable as the Shah of Iran. Dickson mentions David Bailey, who published a handsome photograph of the Twins, with an eloquent caption by Francis Wyndham, comparing them with Humphrey Bogart. It was the little public-school gang of Private Eye that broke through the hype: larger journals seemed awed by the potent Krays, the editors fearful of having their knees nailed to the furniture. The fallen state of Private Eye is illustrated by Peter McKay’s foolish and ill-written book, Inside Private Eye, but scornful young readers should remember that this downmarket old fogey was once a young fogey. It stood up to the Krays, a plucky little public-school rag-mag.
This brings us back to The Old School and the schooldays of Simon Raven. When he was not studying his Billy Bunter comics, young Raven was reading The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s, a more grown-up story, concerned with the maintenance of esprit de corps in a gang-torn community. The Fifth Form at St Dominic’s was against the Sixth Form, the seniors were against the juniors, themselves divided into two tribes, the Tadpoles and the Guinea-Pigs, and the whole school was ganged up against itself: the vague, well-meaning headmaster noticed that this unpleasantness was fomented by the school’s rag magazine and he summoned the sly little editor, a sour, malicious boy, unfit for cricket. The headmaster told him: ‘As long as you can keep on the round of humour and pure fun, nothing can please us more than to see you improving your time in a manner like this. But you must be very careful to avoid what will give pain or offence to any section of your schoolfellows. I want all you boys instead of separating off from one another and making division between class and class, to unite in common cause for the good of St Dominic’s.’ The headmaster of Shrewsbury should have given such sound pastoral advice to the founders of Private Eye, Richard Ingrams and his gang of merry chums: these old boys have shamed their old school, making it a byword. Shrewsbury, as Simon Raven notes, is now notorious for shrewishness.
Grand old school-stories have furnished Raven with many quotes and illustrations, pretty pictures of boys, to which he has added captions like ‘Eros with a cricket bat’ and ‘First Love’. He liked best the addictive serials of the Thirties written by Frank Richards for the Magnet and the Gem, with the characters neatly divided into two gangs easily distinguished by their appearance. There were curly-haired, pretty-mouthed cricketers, Bob Cherry and Tom Merry (Simon Raven’s favourite), and the manly, righteous Harry Wharton. On the darker side, smoking and slacking behind the fives court, were the bad boys, ugly and envious – Darcy, the chinless wonder, Bunter, the gross and hideous glutton, Vernon-Smith, the rich but vulgar bounder, Skinner and Stott, the loathsome sneaks. Juvenile readers would eventually come across these repulsive boys in real life: most of them went to work on the staff of Private Eye. The righteous Harry Wharton, of course, joined the Labour Party, under the name of David Owen or Tony Benn, and screwed the whole thing up with public-school Character and Leadership.
These Frank Richard types could have been recognised at our ordinary day-schools but (such is the gang spirit) we liked to think that they were essentially products of the public-school system. When we met nicer public schoolboys, as undergraduates or fellow servicemen, we suspected that beneath the charming surface there lurked Whartons, Skinners or Vernon-Smiths, prigs, sneaks or bounders. Simon Raven accidentally revives these boyish prejudices with his severe descriptions of many famous schools. Bounders should apply to Charterhouse, which ‘has kept up its City connections ... It is attended by many sons of bankers ... It is blood and breeding that will be despised while money will always be admired.’ Charterhouse is something like Repton – ‘tight fists clenched around Midland brass’. Roman Catholics will favour Ampleforth or Downside where ‘not only sneaking is encouraged but also spying and eavesdropping.’ As for poor Shrewsbury, the shrewishness persists long after leaving school. Raven tells a gruesome Army tale about three Shrewsbury officers, a sneak and a bounder ganging up on a prig. Only glamorous Eton escapes Raven’s censure. This deplorably interesting book also includes much material about public schoolboys’ homoerotic love affairs, but Raven is commendably discreet about his old schoolfellows. He is no sneak.
National Servicemen were hostile to sneaking, as Trevor Royle has discovered: ‘It has been a convention in British schools to frown upon tale-bearers and sneaks, and, as many National Servicemen discovered, the Army in many ways resembled a well-run, if over-strict, boarding-school.’ I am doubtful about this comparison, but I accept Royle’s view that ‘boys who had been sent to boarding-schools had little difficulty in adapting to army life.’ They did seem accustomed to following or dodging mad regulations – and perhaps they felt they had to be fags before they could become prefects. Gang prejudices varied according to rank. Royle quotes a staff-sergeant who says of the National Service officer: ‘All told, he was despised by his soldiers, barely tolerated by the senior ranks and treated as the lowest form of animal life by the RSM ... The National Service officer was thrown into a situation for which he was totally unprepared, a situation which can be compared to a trainee lion-tamer in a cage with thirty-odd wild animals, hell-bent upon destroying him.’ This is a sergeant’s wild, bitter rhetoric. A Scottish headmaster tells how he ‘escaped from the nightmare of Catterick to a commission in the Gordon Highlanders’, but while he was a Catterick ranker he thought the officers ‘shallow and frivolous men, content to leave their soldiers and their troops and squadrons to the mercy of the uncertain tempers of the NCOs’. We liked our troop officer, a decent Harrovian, and the neighbouring troop positively loved theirs, a handsome, javelin-throwing Etonian with easy manners, partly because they believed he was persecuted by the major. Catterick was indeed a nightmare – ‘bull, drill and constant humiliation’, in Royle’s words – but in the regiments the NCOs and WOs were not so merciless as the headmaster suggests. When we were cursing our superiors, the litany would end up with a sincere tribute to our Regimental Sergeant Major: ‘Ah, but Paddy is a gentleman!’
Most of Royle’s informants are less abrasive than the two I have quoted. Prejudice against tale-bearing has perhaps inhibited many of the ex-servicemen and their remarks are often as bland as a regimental magazine. Barrack-room wiseacres used to remark: ‘My dad says, “You will look back and laugh at this one day.” You only remember the good times.’ This was true: most of Royle’s informants are in the nostalgic mood now. A random group of men between eighteen and twenty will include a number of old wiseacres, as well as a selection of choirboys, looking about twelve, and full-grown, intemperate men, snorting fiercely. Locality is very important to this age-group; we could not understand one another’s dialects and local customs. I remember a Midlander expostulating: ‘Thee mean to soy, thee mean to tell me..?’ A Scouse had been telling him of Merseyside religious customs, throwing milk bottles at little girls on their way to the wrong church. ‘Yur, good laffs,’ explained the Scouse. We would walk into a new barrack-room looking for a mate: ‘Anyone from London – South London?’ I have a photograph of members of my troop and, although I have forgotten some names, I know where they came from – Suffolk, Tyneside, Canterbury, Dun Laoghaire ... Officers were less local and I only remember their schools, but their class accents were sometimes strange to the Standard English ear. As a signaller-gunner on a tank, to avoid turning over in a paddy-field, I would have to interpret the mutually incomprehensible ‘yammer-yammer’ of an officer and the ‘hooper-hooper’ of a Scottish driver.
‘The Hong Kong posting was in some ways idyllic,’ recalls a gunner in Royle’s book, and I concur. A rifleman congratulates himself more dourly: ‘Although nearly always broke we managed some trips to Kowloon to see the sights, nosh up ...’ He could have done better. He should have crossed from Kowloon to the island, to the city of Victoria and the floating restaurants of Aberdeen. We spent many afternoons there, when the tanks were too hot to touch, luxuriating on our £5 a week. We were more free than the officers, in some ways. The major was angry at the spread of venereal disease and said he would write home to our mothers – a sneaky threat that infuriated many men, often those least likely to become infected. He arranged a dance for us, with white girls – ‘reasonably respectable girls, the equivalent of your own homes’ – and a young officer in attendance remarked to me what nice girls they were. I put in a word for the local Chinese girls and he said: ‘Oh, really? They all look like little pug dogs to me.’ He had not really got into the swing of Hong Kong life: he went duck shooting.
There was a very serious side to National Service, expressed in Royle’s chapter, ‘The National Servicemen’s Wars: Malaya and Korea’. My favourite cousin was killed in Korea. On the troopship to China we put off several men at Singapore and when we came back we heard their stories of Malayan jungle fighting. These challenges were not so horrific to my generation as they might be to our juniors, for we had all lived a wartime boyhood, half-expecting to fight the Nazis: it might be said that we needed National Service, to express our pent-up, expectant militarism. After demobilisation we might query the necessity for some of those little wars, but we had become used to a kind of wary obedience, a ‘critical support’ of chosen leaders – mingled with a sourness about the British class system, of which the Army seemed a parody. For some, National Service stimulated a devil-may-care, what-the-hell spirit, instances of which are registered in my memory but not openly recognised by Trevor Royle and his tactful informants.
John Dickson, the Kray Twins’ driver, displays that what-the-hell spirit, mingled with wary obedience to his chiefs. With his mate, a fellow Scotsman, he more or less signed on with the Krays in London. He claims that he served in Malaya and Korea – but, by his own admission, we have no reason to believe everything he says. Ronnie Kray told him off for not coming to a party (when there was a party, guests laughed and said, ‘Who’s going to get done tonight?’ – it was ‘a standing joke with the firm’) and Dickson said he had just fancied a few drinks with a friend. ‘What friend?’ shouted Ronnie. Dickson ‘had to think fast. I couldn’t tell him who he was because he was in the Police Force and I had known him a long time’. These gangsters told each other plenty of lies, but sometimes they told the truth to the Police. Dickson says he knew when the Police were closing in on Ronnie and Reggie. ‘Maybe it was my Marine Commando training making me sensitive, but I had only felt like that once before, when I was in the Malayan jungle.’
He tells of the shooting of George Cornell, who had called Ronnie Kray a fat pouf, and of the murder of Jack the Hat by Reggie Kray, assisted by his cousin, Ronnie Hart (‘who had joined the firm when he came out of the army and was a good-looking guy’). The mysterious ‘Albert’ was shot in the foot by Reggie Kray but became ‘Reggie’s right-hand man – until he fell from favour.’ Dickson thinks that Albert ‘only came on the firm to wait for revenge after he got shot in the foot’. After the firm had sprung Frank Mitchell (the Mad Axeman) from Dartmoor, out of pure devilment, Dickson and his mate looked after this rather simple giant, and a girl was found for him: this part of the story is very funny, because the Axeman fell madly in love with her and she half-complained: ‘He’s like a stallion.’ Then Albert turned up to take the Axeman away in a van. Somehow the Axeman got shot and no one knows who did it. This is the ‘murder without conviction’ of the title. Albert (no surname) only did three years, so he must be out and about now. The book would be a good read, like Damon Runyon or W.W. Jacobs, if only there were no truth in it.
In some moods, the shrewishness of the Private Eye gang seems even less attractive than the leonine brutality of the Kray firm – who are certainly much better-looking, as the illustrations to Dickson’s and McKay’s books indicate. I would not bring up this point if Private Eye were not such a glasshouse of stone-throwers. McKay quotes a colleague saying of the new editor: ‘I don’t think people like midgets, especially pushy midgets’: this editor is also despised for losing his hair too early in life. Richard Ingrams, the previous editor, is condemned for his stained teeth and his ‘face pockmarked with the campaign scars of adolescent acne wars’. There is a malicious cover drawing of these editors by the Bunter of the gang. None of them seems to like or admire his colleagues. Auberon Waugh is said to have ridiculed the cartoonist Barry Fantoni by ‘saying how handsome and witty he was’. Surely the cartoons in the paper are wittier than the writing? Surely Fantoni is better-looking than Waugh? Perhaps there is some jealousy about hair. According to McKay, Waugh’s stock-in-trade is ‘irony so heavy that both the victims and the readership might be forgiven for taking his column at face value’. I have always been puzzled by Waugh’s inability to express himself clearly. His pointless rudeness may be the consequence of his hard life. According to McKay, he shot himself during his National Service and has to attend hospital to have fluids drained from his chest.
McKay admits that he is known to his colleagues as ‘McLie’. He was a Daily Mail writer, and he now edits an unbelievably bad downmarket newspaper called Sunday Sport, as well as contributing a judgmental column (‘I denounce these convicts and mealy-mouthed judges’) in the London Standard – a column as full of non-sequiturs as his chapter in this book, attempting to defend the morality of Private Eye. He has also used this column to attack Paul Foot for writing both in Private Eye and in a paper owned by Robert Maxwell, Private Eye’s enemy. In his book, he explains that the magazine is ‘particularly suspicious of those of East European origin’ and, with reference to another enemy, James Goldsmith, ‘there was also the Jewish question ... The picture emerged: Old English county society versus parvenu Middle European Jews.’ The editor of the Sunday Express (says McKay) appealed to Ingrams not to attack his own proprietor: ‘Richard, I have something to tell you about Victor Matthews. He is not a Jew.’ This may explain why Private Eye once referred to me as ‘D.A.N. Jew’: it was their idea of an insult. Since we are discussing gang spirit, it is worth suggesting that there is still a Roman Catholic gang envious of Jewish successes in Britain. Richard Ingrams is described here as a near-Catholic, son, husband and father to Roman Catholics, keen on the Roman Catholic opponents of the Jews, Belloc and Chesterton, in pre-Nazi days. Robert Maxwell has now produced a parody, Not Private Eye, with Ingrams on the cover, talking to Hitler: ‘And if anybody objects we say we were only doing it for a laugh.’
At the recent trial of Private Eye for libelling Robert Maxwell, Ingrams said: ‘Our aim is to be satirical, which involves making fun of public figures and those set in authority over us.’ Maxwell quotes this in his book about the case, Malice in Wonderland, a straightforward narrative of the trial. He comments: ‘This is a confession of anarchy, of a motive to destroy, because indiscriminate ridicule is ultimately destructive.’ Ingrams’s indiscriminate policy, he suggests, assumes ‘that all public figures are destructible merely because they are public figures.’
What was once a public-school rag-mag, ‘doing it for a laugh’, is now, in McKay’s words, ‘a shining example of private enterprise ... grossing a turnover of over £3 million a year, with a hold on an audience of more than one million readers’. Do these readers admire Private Eye, or do they read it guiltily, like pornography or the News of the World? It used to parody the follies and vices of Fleet Street: now it exemplifies them. Perhaps its worst vice is attacking people through their families. A politician sets off on the difficult task of creating an independent Zimbabwe: he is sped on his way by Private Eye with playground cries of ‘Fatty!’ and lewd paragraphs about his daughter. Private Eye men are not only sneaks in themselves but a cause of sneaking in others: they set their readers to report on a ‘fatty’ politician, spying on him in the restaurants where he eats. In today’s newspapers I read of a new escapade: the Private Eye gang wanted to counter Robert Maxwell’s parody, Not Private Eye, and so they made one of its writers drunk – and took a photograph of him. Sneaking is what this gang does best, but Peter McKay also manages to expose the characteristics of the Bounder and the Prig.