The two men sitting in the front seats of the Range Rover in an Essex country lane one icy morning last December had no faces. They had been blown away by a hitman. They and their companion, who was lying in the back seat, had all been shot dead before they could even reach the car door handles. We got their names soon enough – Tony Tucker, Patrick Tate and Craig Rolfe – but who were they?
They were businessmen. Drugs was their business. And they were Faces, ‘Face’ being the word which, in the criminal world, denotes a successful, known professional. They had discovered, as had other unsuccessful businessmen before them, that failure can lead to liquidation. Success in the drug business, they already knew, could lead to all the other things to which successful businessmen aspire: Range Rovers and snappy suits and clubs and good service – the night before his death, Patrick Tate had beaten up the manager of a pizza restaurant that did not serve his required topping.
Dick Hobbs is a sociology lecturer at the University of Durham, a city whose other two well-known institutions are its cathedral and its awesome jail, where Rosemary West and an assortment of more than five hundred of the country’s Faces, murderers, arsonists and felons are currently detained. In Durham, the wicked can be punished, forgiven and studied without anyone having to leave town. Hobbs has been speaking to some of the people who may one day end up incarcerated there: bad businessmen, dope-dealers and racketeers and thieves and threateners, many of them just the kind of people whose misbehaviour could also have led them to a messy end in that icy country lane.
One of Hobbs’s previous books, Doing the Business, contained the helpful observation that the only Robin Hoods in East London were pubs and he brings the same sardonic approach to this account of ne’er-do-wells and worse. He opens with perhaps the most inviting come-on line of any recent book about crime: ‘The idea for this book began when several people informed me that my previous work was crap.’ He wanted to write a book that would be read both by academics and a general readership. Academics and criminals, of course, have much in common: both live in tight-knit communities with a strict pecking order; both have devised a complex jargon for themselves; and both live in constant fear of being stabbed in the back by their colleagues. Bad Business is a crossover book, one that will be accessible to the dons of both the criminal and the criminological disciplines.
A strange cast of characters have made themselves accessible to Hobbs. Dick Pooley is a safe-cracker. Here is his account of a career change:
When we were casing the job I went into a library and looked at a poetry book and I come across a poem which I like to this day and it was by Christina G. Rossetti, so I wrote it down. ‘Remember Christina G. Rossetti.’ Well, when they found the car, this piece of paper was in the car, so the police spent weeks scouring London for a Miss Rossetti, but the judge pointed out to them during the summing-up that although the police were looking for this woman, they weren’t to know she’d been dead for ninety years.
And at the end, before he sentenced me, he said: ‘I think there is no doubt in this court’s mind that this man Pooley is one of the top safe-blowers in this country, and as such the public needs to be protected. But before I sentence him I think Pooley would appreciate this.’ And he got a poetry book out and he read: ‘Remember me when I am gone away, gone far away ...’ I can’t remember it all but ‘I can no more hold you by the hand’ – this was the poem she wrote about death and he read it all out in court to me and my pal said to me: ‘Dick, we’re going to get away with this.’ I said: ‘Dave, this man is the most cunning man I have ever been in front of, he’s going to ten us up.’ He said: ‘No, he’s reading you a poem.’ When he finished he came out and said: ‘You are known to the police to be one of the top safe-blowers in this country and as such the public needs to be protected. I sentence you to ten years in prison. TAKE HIM BELOW.’ And he sentenced the other bloke to ten years’ imprisonment – he fell down the stairs. (Laughs) ... So I decided to do me bird, come out, turn it all in and finish it.
Who says that judges don’t have a sense of humour?
Moira, a dope-dealer – they are not quite all businessmen – recounts a narrow squeak. She had been in her car with four kilos of dope and a passenger well known to the police when they were pulled over. The officers who stopped them asked if she knew who her companion was. She told them she had just met him in the pub.
Fortunately, I look quite smart so I started doing Miss Innocent and this sort of fatherly copper said: ‘You do realise who he is, don’t you?’ And I’m going: ‘No, no, has he been in trouble then?’ And he’s going: ‘Oh yeah, he’s got form as long as your arm.’ And I’m going: ‘Oh, my mum will kill me.’ I’m practically crying, you know, and I turned round to him and goes: ‘You’re not getting back in my car. They’ve just told me you’re a big nerd.’ And he’s going, ‘What, you what?’ and I’m going, ‘You told me in the pub you were in business’ and getting really hysterical.
Moira was allowed to drive off with her four kilos of dope safe in the boot.
There is also a truly dreadful family team called Danny and Chris, a sort of Steptoe and Son as conceived by Tarantino. Here’s Chris, the son, describing an important rite of passage for himself and his father:
He’d give me a slap, then just stand there and look at me. Put me across the fucking room sometimes, then stand there giving it the big ’un. So when I was about 14 I thought, that’s it, so I hit him hard – punched him in the face. Shouted, ‘I’m a man now’ or something fucking stupid. He walked out the house – just went, don’t know where, just went. I went to bed shitting myself. That night he comes in like nothing was on, just normal like, sits down. Then when I was having my tea he just punches me in the head. I though he was going to kill me. I was on the floor and he’s hitting me with a chair. Mum got him off.
Not all the subjects of Hobbs’s study were bowled over by the idea of being immortalised by an academic. Here’s Teddy’s response to a request for an interview: ‘You fucking come and see me, fucking write about me, you fucking long streak of fucking useless – Come and put this in a fucking book, fucking Professor fucking Thunderbirds Brains.’ But those who do comply are happy to fill him in on the comparative merits of their calling. Robin, a thief, strikes the right note:
My daughter fitted her kitchen and the dope what did it couldn’t saw wood but the money he was charging, proper fitter prices. That’s criminal ... If I do something a bit slippery and it comes on top, I can’t say: ‘I’m no good, that’s all – you can’t nick me.’ But this little fucker, he’s billing me £250 a day and I’m supposed to keep a straight face. He was useless believe me ... Is that criminal? Is that taking money out of people’s pockets? Course it is. Nobody’s put a gun to your head but you are done, just as well fucking skint when he’s gone ’cos he’s got what’s yours.
Hobbs has a sense of humour and a good ear. He allows the vainglorious their day in court, as it were, and his subjects open up, confident that they have found a listener. But verbatim accounts have their pitfalls. Tony Parker’s The Violence of Our Lives, about people serving life in American jails, is a model in this respect. After years of interviewing and recording and writing he knows exactly when to include the pertinent banality, when to cut the grinding repetition.
What would he have done with this, from our dope-dealer, Moira?
It’s not a glamorous business, it’s a horrible ... it’s not at all glamorous, there’s nothing glamorous about it, nothing goes on in posh hotels, nobody meets under clocks at stations, there’s nothing like James Bond, nothing glamorous about it at all. Maybe if you get into top level it is glamorous because you’ve got a lot more money, but it’s not glamorous, so maybe dealing with a woman is a bit more glamorous, I don’t know.
I think we get her drift.
Essentially, Hobbs is anxious to move the geography on from the Krays, the Train Robbers and the old hit-and-myth narratives that clutter up too many of the True Crime bookshelves. He identifies what is normally referred to as the underworld as Soho between the late Thirties and early Seventies, a world revolving around drinking and gaming clubs. He sees that period as irrelevant now – and nostalgia for a golden age of crime as being closely linked to the conservative nostalgia for a golden age of law and order.
Wayne, who features in a chapter entitled ‘Buck the Market’, epitomises how far removed what passes for the underworld now is from the cosy days of Jack Spot and Mad Frank and Billy Hill. He takes and sells cocaine and gives a graphic description of an encounter which took place under its influence:
Everything is like crystal, clear as a bell but like controlled by me. Then she walks in and the boozer’s only got about twenty people in ’cos it’s so early but it went like a fucking tomb, like everything stopped. She walked towards me looking like something out of a fucking advert. And I’m thinking either this gear is fucking wonderful or I’m in love.
They head off together to a wine bar. ‘I had another fucking toot and off we go. Me, I’m a millionaire with Miss World on me arm.’
The other chaps in the wine bar are less impressed and make remarks about his new companion. He chivalrously escorts her to his car, then returns to do terrible damage to the men who have insulted her. ‘It was sweet, so clean, so quick. I walked to the car, got in and drove off for an Indian. The sort, she weren’t too impressed as I remember. Nothing came of it.’
Hobbs was as unimpressed as ‘the sort’:
Wayne’s self-image as a yuppie gangster, dealing in coke and controlling his environment through his own use of the drug, is somewhat at odds with the spotty, slightly dishevelled figure in the saloon bar of the City Arms. Wayne’s skin is at once acne-scarred and semi-transparent, his suit is off-the-peg, and the jacket appears to contain someone else’s shoulders, with crinkled grooves on the padding. His shoes are cheap and his shirts polyester cotton mix. He is unconvincing. On a warm day, Wayne will smell.
Personal hygiene mattered more in the Soho of the Fifties, when the vice-racket enforcers, living on a diet of purple hearts and black coffee, would breakfast together at a corner café and then go up to the Turkish baths, where they would throw away their dirty vests, pants and shirts and replace them with brand new ones before plunging back into the day’s work. They may have lived on speed but they knew long before The Godfather came out that a gangster needs a clean singlet if he’s to maintain his credibility.
Wayne moved on to crack cocaine and fantasised that he was a gunslinger, an armed robber. ‘When the police visited his flat following a neighbour’s complaint of a noisy argument, he had two rocks of crack in his pocket and a vintage air-rifle under his bed.’ He died of pneumonia while the book was being written, having lived rough on the streets for a couple of months.
It is important, Hobbs suggests, not to be seduced by the tendency to see serious crime as a rational activity, driven by commercial imperatives. But do we any longer? The Train Robber Bruce Reynolds’s Autobiography of a Thief makes it clear that it was the idea of an extraordinary coup rather than the chance to buy a mansion in Hertfordshire that drove him. The recently-published Gone Shopping, the story of the shoplifter Shirley Pitts, shows how she started out with the ‘commercial imperative’ of stealing milk bottles at the age of seven but continued hoisting almost for its own sake, spending the money as fast as she got it. And Hobbs himself dedicates the book to ‘skulduggery’, a concept always slightly more attractive to academics – and journalists – than to those more closely concerned.
He also wants to have his porridge and eat it. In the concluding passages of the book, it is as if Dick has slipped reluctantly off his stool at the Luger and Lime and turned into Dr Hobbs padding his way down the corridors of the sociology department, back into a world where your footnotes are more important than your footwork. This is the frustrating side of many ‘academic’ books on crime: that a wealth of first-hand material, laboriously assembled, is made impenetrable to the people who have provided it and many others besides.
I think we can guess what Teddy (see above) would say if asked to consider the view that ‘definitions of competent practice are, of course, negotiated within specific indigenous cultures which in turn have been created as communal responses to the demands of local economies and will be in a constant state of flux.’ Or that ‘working-class communities often cling to a communal imagery that is reliant upon highly specialised craft competencies and complementary muscular signifiers in order to define essences perceived as essential for maintenance of internal hierarchies.’ Put that down, Teddy!
Bad Business arrived on the scene at the same time as what must be the seventeenth book on the Krays. This latest is by Mrs X, the barmaid who worked in the Blind Beggar when Ron Kray came in and shot George Cornell dead in 1966. What next, as the Guardian diarist asked at the time of publication – the memoirs of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie’s milliner? And what, by the way, is a ‘muscular signified’ – a bouncer?