Rough, tough and glamorous

D.A.N. Jones

  • That was business, this is personal: The Changing Faces of Professional Crime by Duncan Campbell
    234 pp, £14.95, April 1990, ISBN 0 436 19990 4

This quaint and inconclusive book is a compilation of tape-recorded interviews, presented as a discussion of professional crime in Britain, primarily London. A montage on the dust-cover promotes a man called ‘the Prince of Darkness’: we may wonder if this satanic figure is ‘Mister Big’ – a successor to the famous Kray brothers, a capo of the Mafia, a leader of the Yardies or the fiendish Chinese Tongs. But no: he is a veteran crime reporter, diabolically nicknamed for his habit of wearing a long black cape. He is the subject of one of Duncan Campbell’s 23 interviews. The other subjects ‘on the right side of the law’ are a judge, a barrister and a solicitor; three policemen and a prison officer; an Indian victim of crime, a (female) ‘victim supporter’ and a (black, female) probation officer. Although Campbell works for the Guardian, there are not many women in his book, and they are only there to provide the pathos.

On the wrong side of the law there are nine convicted criminals, including the Krays and ‘Angel Face’ Probyn. Most of them are jaunty tough-guys, happy to talk about their crimes and punishments: some have achieved a sort of fame, writing books or advising social workers. Then there are two smoother and more secretive criminals, anonymous, not yet convicted (it seems), both busily dealing in illicit drugs. This is, for Duncan Campbell, an important part of his book: he holds that the Face of Professional Crime is changing, that the Age of the Robber is over and the Age of the Dealer is here. This may be no more than a fashion hint for crime reporters, the Prince of Darkness and his imps: business-like, technical reports on drug-dealing are in, exciting tales of old Gangland are out of date. (Nevertheless, films, songs and imitations of the Krays seem still to be in vogue.) The only other interview is with wives of convicted thieves visiting them in prison.

These edited monologues touch on issues of current interest – the cruelty and dangerous inefficiency of our crowded prisons, corruption and Masonic conspiracy in our police forces, the alleged incompetence of our juries and the (perhaps unnecessary) distinction between our barristers and solicitors. There is also the problem of modern drug-dealing, with its multinational business and political connections – and the question: should all these drugs remain illegal? Minor topics include the characteristics of gangland criminals – the determination of men like the Krays to win ‘respect’ and hold it, the almost sportsmanly craving for ‘excitement’ among both criminals and policemen. Then there is the sensitive question of gangsters’ romantic sex appeal (a concept treasured by the jauntiest of the tough-guys interviewed) and the shy hints of homosexuality floating around the Krays.

The book ‘touches on’ all these things: but that is all it does. Each interviewee puts in his or her little collection of stories and opinions, without interruption or challenge. This is not a debate. There is no motion before the house: it is more like a ‘talk-in’ of the Sixties, or a modern radio ‘phone-in’. Although I call it quaint, this mode of discussion is not unusual: in the world of business management, it is called ‘brainstorming’. We find it in radio programmes, sloppily built round a serious theme, where nothing is thoughtfully scripted, where spontaneous chat is elicited from persons representing ‘all points of view’, spreading bewilderment, coming to no conclusion. Campbell’s publishers applaud his inconclusiveness, claiming that he ‘offers no easy solutions, no ready-made answers’. True, but neither does he offer any difficult answers – or difficult questions. Most of the opinions have often been heard (and disputed) in pubs and clubs: the factual information offered is almost equally familiar – except, perhaps, for the inside dope about drug dealing. This compilation seems to be a book to entertain crime news addicts: people can become hooked on real-life crime stories, just as they can on pornography and war books. Readers who are not broadly addicted to the whole subject may turn to the interviews that reflect their own criminal experience – and ask difficult questions of their own.

Just before Christmas, I was mugged in Hackney. Returning from a party, carrying two bags, in the small hours, I was stopped by two black youths, one of whom said: ‘Give me money or I will kill you.’ My host had warned me: ‘Be careful. There are some rough boys round here.’ In the ensuing scuffle, I lost my spectacles and one of my bags, containing Christmas presents. I reported this to the Police, half-hoping that someone had found my spectacles, and they replied with a duplicated letter, in sympathetic PR style, recommending counsellors who could offer me ‘victim support’: they added, as a personal postscript, that no one had handed in my spectacles. A month later, they sent another duplicated letter, asking if I was a. very satisfied, b. satisfied, c. not satisfied, with the police response.

Nothing unusual about this, I suppose. That is the point. The difficult questions to ask, in public, include these: Do black youths in British cities do more mugging than white youths? If so, why? And how can they be dissuaded? Some twenty years ago, I remember, a London race-relations officer (himself black) agreed that they do more mugging, but added that white youths were more likely to be involved in burglary, car-theft and football hooliganism. We might conjecture that mugging is a fashion – seen as a risky, exciting thing to do, while one is young – an established fashion, turning into a tradition.

So, I turned to the eighth of the interviews with jaunty tough-guys, scattered through the book, for it is entitled ‘The Black Geezer’. This man claims to have served seven years for armed robbery, and to have started his career after being wrongly identified as a participant in a mugging, when he was an innocent 16-year-old. He holds that ‘black robbers rob to make a living and not, like some white guys, for any thrill or notion of glamour.’ He is very ready to generalise about black people, as opposed to white people: ‘black people revere life very highly, more than white guys’; ‘a lot of people in America doing the serious crime, the violence, are black guys because they’re not in it just for the money – it’s the rebelliousness, the hate inside.’ In other words, he does sometimes accept the notion of an emotional, rather than purely monetary, motive for robbery. He admits to being affected by television programmes about South Africa: ‘De Klerk, that evil man, comes over here and the Prime Minister takes him inside ...’ As a result, he says: ‘I’ve got no respect for authority whatsoever.’ He is, like so many of these interviewees, much concerned with ‘respect’, keen to win respect from policemen and fellow-convicts. He claims to know nothing about illicit drugs and has no respect for people who use them. He disbelieves in black ‘organised crime’, the notion of ‘Yardies’ in Britain, or a ‘black Mafia’: ‘It’s a fantasy so they can kick in a black man’s door.’ This man’s tangle of opinions is not much use to the inquirer. However, he has published a book, Labelled a Black Villain by Trevor Hercules, listed in Duncan Campbell’s short bibliography.

The preceding interview is entitled ‘The Young Bill’ and is given by a London policeman, who joined the force because he ‘thought it would be exciting’. He gives diplomatic answers to easy questions: ‘There is racism in the Police but it’s not as the left wing would have it portrayed. There aren’t many instances now – there used to be more – where, say, a police officer will make a racist remark to a black man ...’; ‘I can’t see any problem in decriminalising cannabis but it’s of no consequence to me because I’m quite happy to arrest people for supplying cannabis as long as it’s outlawed.’ Though expressed with propriety and correctitude, the Young Bill’s opinions seem no more useful than the Black Geezer’s.

He believes in the existence of ‘the Yardies’ but offers no information, beyond asserting: ‘There is one estate where the Yardies have got a very strong hold and have lots of flats there and one of the flats is so well-fortified it hasn’t actually been hit.’ More impressive and persuasive, perhaps, is another policeman, a Detective-Sergeant in the Drugs Squad, who is quite informative about his job and its multinational ramifications. He was glad when ‘the Yardies’ were discussed by a crime reporter, and remarks that: ‘Three years later, we have a team rightly targetting the Yardies.’ He adds that ‘we don’t have the infrastructure of black organised crime that exists in America.’

The next jaunty tough-guy is something of a showman. Pete Gillet was recommended to Duncan Campbell by one of the imprisoned Kray brothers – who play an influential role in this book, despite being labelled out-of-date in the modern world of crime. A convicted thief, Gillet has acquired ‘a recording contract and an entrée into the music world’, on the strength of the Kray name. He has recorded a song called ‘Closet Queen’, written by Reg Kray: that was ‘sailing close to the wind’, remarks Campbell, since some crime reporters – those princes of darkness – had hinted that Gillet, while in prison, ‘was having a relationship with Kray’. Gillet concedes: ‘Initially I was called gay and “Reggie’s toyboy”.’ But he assures us, if we care: ‘He’s not gay and neither am I.’ Gillet believes he is very handsome and prefers to have women on the jury, when he is on trial, ‘because, being a good-looking fella, it helps’. Sometimes he sermonises: ‘And I say that as a God-fearing man ...’; ‘It’s morally wrong to grass your mates up’; ‘There seems to be a deterioration in codes with some criminals. And when they go to jail I have to tell you they do get badly treated. You don’t have to be a rapist these days to get badly treated.’ He has not much to say about prison, except to complain that he was not given as much ‘respect’ as criminals on longer sentences. He concludes: ‘Crime is very glamourous really.’ In Duncan Campbell’s description, he seems very contented, as ‘he passes me a copy of his latest single: the cover shows him in dungarees, tattoo, ear-ring, chain, smiling sweetly at the cameras.’ Is it right that this man should be encouraged to think himself so lovable?

An older, less glamorous friend of the Krays, ‘a regular visitor to Ron in Broadmoor’, is John Masterson, a Scot living in Peckham: ‘the longest period he has spent outside prison since his teens – he is now in his mid-forties – has been five years’. He says he has always been treated with ‘respect’ by fellow prisoners: ‘I certainly felt different from the rest because I was a bit of a star.’ He has much stronger stories to tell than young Gillet, about both crime and punishment, but he does not tell them well; he is not chipper or chirpy, but rather grim. He was the first prisoner sent to the new Control Units in the Seventies. This was an experiment whereby troublemakers were kept isolated for 90 days at a time and, whenever they misbehaved, a further 90 days began: he has complained to the European Court of Human Rights about this (now discontinued) punishment. He was keen on punishing other prisoners: he was involved in the throat-cutting of an informer and he attempted to electrocute a child-murderer and a sex-offender. He says:

Prison officers have the same attitude to rapists, child-molesters as prisoners have. One time at Strangeways a prison officer offered to open up a sex-offender’s cell for slopping out at the same time as the other men... They would tip the other prisoners off if someone was a rapist so that the other prisoners could do him. Boiling water in the bath, that sort of thing.

If these stories of Strangeways are true, they are relevant to the riot there, this April. The newspapers have been full of rumours about cruel punishments meted out to sex-offenders by the rioters. It is an old story, that prisoners try to give additional punishment to ‘sex-offenders’ – and certainly some journalists encourage such behaviour. Should we treat John Masterson’s stories as reliable evidence? He has been taken up by the Workers Revolutionary Party, the Citizens’ Commission for Human Rights (a Scientology-run organisation) and by Lord Longford. Another ex-prisoner interviewed has been taken up by social workers, employed by the Save the Children Fund to introduce young offenders to their victims. He speaks of this experience, obscurely but suggestively: ‘I find it incredibly amusing the way one plays the other off for what seems to be their own ends, in the prison-reform social-work thing. I am going to do a book about why middle-class people are so fascinated by bits of working-class rough like us. There’s something weird here somewhere, why this fascination?’

Surely the fascination is partly the result of habit, sometimes becoming an addiction, fostered by the Princes of Darkness in the traditional Sunday papers, week after week. All the same, the fascination is not entirely perverse. The April riots should remind some of us that we ought to be much more concerned, morally and politically, about the prisons where the men of law send those who rob us – dreadful places where the weak are further weakened, while the aggressive and masterful increase their power and popularity.