You’ve got it or you haven’t

Iain Sinclair

  • Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays’ Reign of Terror by Tony Lambrianou and Carol Clerk
    Pan, 256 pp, £4.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 330 32284 2
  • Gangland: London’s Underworld by James Morton
    Little, Brown, 349 pp, £14.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 356 20889 3
  • Nipper: The Story of Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read by Leonard Read and James Morton
    Warner, 318 pp, £5.99, September 1992, ISBN 0 7515 0001 1
  • Smash and Grab: Gangsters in the London Underworld by Robert Murphy
    Faber, 182 pp, £15.99, February 1993, ISBN 0 571 15442 5

Anthony Lambrianou, the self-confessed author of Inside the Firm: The Untold Story of the Krays’ Reign of Terror, admits that Ronnie Kray did shock him. Just once. An unforgettable occasion. A motor eased alongside Tony at the corner of Blythe Street, Bethnal Green. Ron and Reg were inside, keeping company with a known associate, Dickie Morgan. Reg was nicely cased in a blue three-piece by Woods of Kingsland Road. Dickie matched him. (The Twins were very influential that way. All the faces were expected to dress to a middle-management standard.) Reg was, as Tony acknowledges, ‘one of the smartest men London ever turned out’. But Ron, the younger twin? There he was, large as life, out and about in his own manor, wearing ‘slacks and an open-necked shirt’. He didn’t have a tie!

That was the moment. The tickle of ice on the spine. Put it down to executive stress, the ravages of Stemetil, Largactil, Reserpine. These were anxious times: pharmacological excesses joining battle with an increasingly visible chorus of demons. The double act was in serious trouble. Ronnie Kray, performance artist and comedian of terror, was beginning to lose his audience. Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read’s weasels were infecting the landscape with rumours: all the creeping, ugly dream-things the Twins had always vigorously suppressed were daring to emerge by daylight. The aura of magical protection that encircled these backlands, the dusty parcel of spielers, drinkers and markets, was fractured. The blue slacks were a signal, a flag of surrender to the inevitable. Tony read it instantly. He understood that for future analysts the temporal reservation known as ‘the Sixties’ would be seen to consist of three elements: ‘villainy, business, image’. Ron had blown his cover. No tie, no credibility. (That dreadful nanosecond of recognition, like something out of Performance, gangboss bare-necked in the window of the car, was a prophetic flash-forward. A jolt of bad karma carrying Ron directly to Broadmoor, where ties would be forbidden, and shoelaces a guilty memory.) It was over. Act V, scene vi of the Scottish play. Epping Forest on the move. The power of the name would never again be enough. (Kray being the Anglicised form of Krähe, the German for ‘crow’. Tell that to Ted Hughes.) The Bethnal Green labyrinth was still guarded at each of its four corners by pub signs bearing the portraits of birds, but the missing tie had undone all the familial superstitions. Reg was divided from Ron. The chicken-entrail voodoo of the Twins had definitively lost its sting.

Membership of a tribal society (Gangland as much as Metroland) depends on conformity to agreed parameters of dress and behaviour. When that society is made up of the great unwashed, slags staggering around the streets looking like mere labourers, artisans, then it is vital to acquire the status bestowed by top dollar tailoring. Villains, fighters, crooners: their privileged uniqueness is necessarily reinforced by suits cut with all the precision of samurai armour. The alpha males, enforcers trading on reputation, need an additional edge: the Look. A retinal freeze-frame, a graveyard wink. Colour dies in the face. The cheeks collapse and weather to the grain of a high-speed print. The Look is what separates the wide boys from the punters. Neophyte hardmen must master the shtick whereby a single glance transforms the victim’s backbone to play-dough. Psychosis on tap: no limits, these franchised damage merchants are happy to go all the way. Beserker mayhem is then neatly balanced by a carapace of sartorial respectability, showbiz conservatism; the sort of charity-show swagger that mugs you with its understated discretion. Brilliant white collars, sharp enough to chop onions. Exuberant manacles of cuff. Silk ties forcibly repressed into knuckle sized knots. Ferociously bulled black shoes to mirror the action, dizzy from stomping on rib cages, hacking at kidneys, leaving hoofprints of polish on the client’s chainstore shirt. Torpedo suits: riveted, not buttoned. Lambrianou glossed the style, perceptively, as ‘meticulous ... without being flash’. No excess tomfoolery on the fingers, no medallions around the neck. You didn’t want to be mistaken for a street-trader or a football manager. The semiotics were clear, hard-edged: Italian elegance with British bite, a Whitechapel translation of second-generation Mafia mufti. The business for the aspiring businessman, the boxer in the boardroom. (A high-profile exemplar of this style was the magnate, George Walker; once, according to James Morton, an ‘ally’ of Billy Hill and Eddie Chapman, later a frequently puffed adornment of the Thatcherite open market culture.)

There is nothing new in the concept, quality tailoring bonded over primal naughtiness. It has been spelled out frequently in the underground literature that shadows the nightworld of clubs, dog tracks, the ring. Ghetto fiction, under-the-counter page-turners, authors whose names are whispered among the cognoscenti like a confederation of secret masters: Gerald Kersh, James Curtis, Mark Benney, Robert Westerby, Alexander Baron, John Lodwick, Jack Trevor Story. They have been struck from the canon, these technicians, these life-enhanced witnesses. They are noticed only by slumming journalists (who have built up their own collections of the stuff) or by condescending arts programmers prepared to suffer a ten-minute Patrick Hamilton retrospective – as long as it goes out at midnight. Lowlife fictions, closer to the action than any scissors-and-paste ‘true crime’ anthology, inform us, involve us, excite us, return us to a lost sense of our own mortality. Here the gangs are depicted not by court cases, length of sentence, medical reports, but as energised individuals fated, wriggling and writhing in a real world. So that, even as early as 1938 in his masterpiece, Night and the City, Gerald Kersh tags the metaphor: violence expressed by choice of wardrobe. He describes his street-wise ponce, Harry Fabian. ‘He dressed far too well. There was a quality of savagery about his clothes – hatred in the relentless grip of his collar, malice in the vicious little knot of his tie, defiant acquisitiveness in the skin-tight fit of his coat.’

Published histories of the criminal sub-culture, fattened with sheafs of syndicated photographs, come on like auditions for the V & A. They are source-books for retro fashion, a crib for alternative comedians. James Morton’s Gangland: London’s Underworld is a brisk and efficient trot through all the familiar legends of blood and mohair. The flavour is gossipy, anecdotal. It’s like eavesdropping in the snug of some public-house adjacent to the Bailey, when the gents in the greasy raincoats sit down with a coven of bent briefs. Morton, a former solicitor, has filleted his sources with a notable absence of fuss. He is not embarrassed at recycling large chunks of his Nipper Read pseudo-autobiography, Nipper: The Story of Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read. Most of the yarns (Krays, Richardsons, Billy Hill and Jack Spot, the Messinas, the Great Train Robbers) have been polished by repetition. Odd nuggets that float to the surface might prove useful to some researcher working on one of the ‘major’ gangland documentaries now in development. (Even as you read, old lags, drenched in scent to kill the memory of the bucket, are spilling out their hearts, for a consideration, in obscure bars and coffee-shops; busking for a ‘technical adviser’ spot.) Researchers should be warned: Morton’s bibliography, offered like a boastful list of ‘previous’, is fulsome but inaccurate. Jack Spot: Man of a Thousand Cuts was not published by the Olympia Press but by Alexander Moring. The ghost’s nom de guerre is Hank Janson, not ‘Jansen’. The index is also dodgy (as I discovered by trying to check on George Walker: no trace on page 80 or page 178). This might, of course, be strategic confusion, some reflex habit of legalistic discretion.

Robert Murphy’s Smash and Grab gets Jan son’s name and publisher right, and offers an altogether sparkier bibliography, with a list of films as an entertaining extra, and a useful glossary of underworld slang (for aspirant screenwriters trying to knock out an episode of The Bill). This is a considered and intelligent study that deserves its place on the shelf alongside the best subterranean fiction: There ain’t no justice, Wide boys never work, The Lowlife. The sympathetic relationship between unofficial lives and uncatalogued literature is confirmed by Murphy’s discovery that convicts in Parkhurst had a ‘high regard’ for the works of Patrick Hamilton and no time at all for Galsworthy. A willingness to dig a little deeper than the cuttings file has its rewards. What Murphy demonstrates is that our perceptions of gangland are entirely dependent on a network of scarcely credited ghosts and headline grabbing investigative reporters. If your villainy remained unexposed by the yellow press, you were a nobody, a faceless face; a local celebrity on nodding terms only with bouncers and struck-off quacks. Who, outside the fraternity, appreciates the sterling qualities of the Upton Park Mob, the Tibbs family of Canning Town, the Nash brothers, Alf White? Get your PR in first, before you pick up a shooter from ‘Dukie’ Osborne, if you’re into immortality. Hire your Joe Haines, like any other self-respecting tycoon. Give the legend a bit of a massage. It could be the difference between being a statistic in a Channel 4 filler and being reincarnated by Richard Burton. Only losers leave their stories to the East London Advertiser and the more literate class of probation officer.

Take that McVicar. He was totally out of order. An armed robber, ‘one of the top men of his profession’ (Lambrianou), he blew all his advantages. Flash bastard, he decided to become his own ghost. Someone should have marked his card. Living off your own entrails is for middle-class tossers, leave it to your Jeffrey Bernards. A real mirror chaser, that one. McVicar lost the respect of his peers when he went public. It was like grassing yourself. Why didn’t he settle for an ‘as told to’ like any other hardnut looking for a stock-market flotation? Reg Kray saw through him from the start. ‘One could judge the slags from the genuine people and the nobodies from the somebodies by the clothes they wore.’ McVicar was not to be trusted. ‘He looked like a garage hand.’ This was a sub-human, a creature incapable of gipping his way past the doorman of a decent club. What would become of such a man? A sociologist for hue, a hitman for New Society, a violence pundit. He got everything that was coming to him: he was played by Roger Daltrey. But the real clincher, as far as Reg was concerned, came with the last rites for his mother Violet. ‘Last but not least, when he attended my mother’s funeral in the role of reporter, he did not wear a tie. He was never a true villain.’

The only ranking gangland capo who made it with an uncovered Adam’s apple was Darby Sabini of the Saffron Hill mob. And he was Italian. An immaculately turned-out man in a flat cap and a collarless shirt. That was his gimmick, the thing that made him different. He never wore a tie. It could also be what held him back, kept him out on the race-courses in all weathers. He looked after his family, forged a workable alliance with the Jewish teams in the East End; an admirable man in many ways. Yet he has slipped from public consciousness (if you exclude being one of the inspirations behind Brighton Rock) because he did not have the foresight to appoint his own biographer.

The Krays, those upstanding venture capitalists, made no such error. They looked like businessmen, only more so. They thought like businessmen, a steady expansion from a secured base, international connections, Africa. Their disadvantage was that they were embarrassingly cash-rich. Then credit was too good. They could never be quite respectable without decent debts. The PR was fine. Quality photo-opportunities: Lord Boothby and Sonny Liston. Bags of conspicuous chanty, widows and orphans, cigars and monkey suits. Corporate entertainment was well in hand, with a court of tame freaks, a Circus Velazquez of dwarfs, strongmen, divas and screamers, all waiting on the end of the phone for the summons to the Carpenters Arms. But Ron’s social interlacing was beginning to give cause for concern. Paranoia was rapidly becoming a non-optional extra. He saw people as dogs. Literally. Pelt and claw half-hidden beneath a well-cut hop sack. It was time to underwrite the mythology. They sent for John Pearson.

The ensuing case history, The Profession of Violence, is still the guv’nor among all the ranks of red and black jackets, competing for space on airport shelves with computer manuals and recycled Paris porn. Along with the Roeg/Cammell film. Performance, it defines the period: that cocktail of Borges and rat poison, half-drunk Coca-Cola bottles on the table at the Astor, hairy shoulders, Francis Bacon, ‘The sun ain’t gonna shine any more’ stuck in the groove on the Blind Beggar’s jukebox. But if they were looking for a hagio-graphic fix, a corn-plaster to staunch a terminal haemorrhage, they miscalculated badly. Pearson was not a tame hack to be paraded through the territory, like some Wild West bard hot to make a name rewriting the legend of Jesse James. He was a punctilious assembler of evidence, an avatar for Nipper Read. He audited the verbals. But he was not conspicuously a moralist: he gave the Krays what they paid for – paper fame. They saw themselves as neighbourhood godfathers, benevolent cardinals, firm but Fair, dispensing justice to the just. Pearson shades the portrait to reveal the Twins as a pair of Robin Hoods, by way of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The difference between Pearson and the B-team that followed in his footsteps is that he became a ghost before the corpse had died. His name is above the title: in yellow print, superimposed over the famous (and uncredited) David Bailey portrait, the Sixties icon that makes the Twins look like two portions of Robert Maxwell, split by an axe. The Krays allowed Pearson the status of a nightclub photographer with a flash in his fist. He was supposed to offer his contribution to their albums of vanity.

Lambrianou, in his revisionist, post-prison version, explains what happened. Pearson was banged up in a basement flat in Vallance Road known as the Dungeon. ‘I’ll show him the fucking East End,’ promised Ron with a characteristic twinkle. The flat was equipped with a bed, payphone and second-hand telly. The telly was the giveaway – the indignity of having to accept a piece of junk out of the gutters of Cheshire Street. In Bethnal Green, it was an insult that would have initiated a blood feud. You might as well expect Reg Kray to shop in Oxfam for a pullover. Admitting to the use of second-hand goods ranked alongside child-molesting or pimping your golden-hearted mum. The correct accessories were everything. As Tony Lambrianou proudly recalls, Ron was always the first to notice. ‘I do like that suit, Tony.’ Get the suit right and the rest follows. Shirts, ties, motors. A Mustang or a Ford Galaxy 500. The Lambrianou brothers were sub-contractors, but they kept a decent arsenal: ‘shotguns galore, three rifles and half a dozen handguns, a Thompson sub-machinegun, a couple of grenades and numerous knives and swords’. All the trimmings for a good night out.

There was nothing casual about the way the gangs dressed for history. They were as serious as the America-obsessed Parisian hoods of Jean-Pierre Melville. The style was different, hair instead of hats, but the measured narcissism was equally threatening. One look at the mean three-point handkerchief in Reg’s breast-pocket, a glimpse at the stark geometry of tine-trenches in Ron’s barnet, and you knew you were confronting a warrior class.

The Look had to be recorded, so that the photographs pasted into the centre of all those ghosted confessions could be animated into a sub-Melvillean morality tale, Tower Hamlets film noir. Black and white portraits, kitchens, gyms, clubs, celebrations. (It’s curious that Billy Hill’s biography, Boss of London’s Underworld, ghosted by the notably strange Duncan Webb, was launched in a blitz of flashbulbs, at Gennaro’s in Soho. Most of the faces – Ruby Sparkes, Eddie Chapman, Tommy Smithson – were in attendance; along with Lady Docker and ‘William Hickey’. Literary life has made few advances from that day in 1955. Gennaro’s being the aboriginal aka of the Groucho Club.)

With the passage of time images from the Kray scrapbooks, once seen as the harmlessly boastful trophies of a pair of Proustian parvenus, have been promoted to the status of evidence. The pickings are indeed rich for the analysts of pictorial space, the aesthetes of mayhem, the gesture mechanics. Hierarchies shift in a haze of bad smoke. Deadly warnings are issued in the twitch of a thumb upon a narrow lapel. Inky-eyed molls, minders, punched out pugs in rented dinner-jackets: they fiddle compulsively with Winstons, uncut Players in the back of the hand. The Twins, unsmiling public men, fists clenched, shoulders back, distance themselves from a froth of mugging celebs Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey: the real ones and the impersonators. The amazing Barbara Windsor with her Don King candy floss hairdo – a fashion victim who has just dropped from the top of the Post Office Tower with her beehive as a parachute. Christine Keeler, Paul Raymond, Malcolm Allison. The Society Restaurant, The Colony Club. Crisp white linen and more bottles than the bottling-plant at Truman’s Brewery. James Booth and Victor Spinetti semaphoring idiotically in the corner of the frame, as they trawl for talk-show anecdotes.

Who shot all this stuff? Where on earth does it come from? The syndicates have muscled in on the credits: Syndicate International, Rex Features, Halifax Photos Ltd, Mirror Features. Anonymous craftsmen who were sharp enough to walk out of the clubs with their film unconfiscated. (Anything untoward was immediately snatched by the minders.) David Bailey was the only authorised scruff. He was famous enough to dress like a slob: tennis shoes, baggy jeans, a soft hat. The Howard Hughes of the paparazzi, an artist with funds. The Roller would be parked around the corner from the Carpenters Arms. Bailey handled the studio portraits, the direct entry to official glamour. The Krays were catalogued with all the permanent ephemera of the period. Thunder demons, hard meat: risk was trumpeted in this too-public division of cells. You are who you are photographed with. Poor Tony Lambrianou. The only time he made it into a group portrait with Reggie Kray was from the porthole of the prison-van.

Where Tony struck lucky was in his choice of ghost. Without a skilled fixer gangland confessions are so many unstructured anecdotes, memory loops, posthumous justifications. The ghost constructs a narrative that persuades because it has all the qualities of good genre fiction. It is brisk, sharp-eyed, dramatic – and it guides outsiders through a previously prohibited landscape. Without Carol Clerk’s assistance in shaping his autobiography, Lambrianou’s reputation would have been left to the mercy of several stridently unsympathetic witnesses. Charles Kray (in Me and My Brothers) saw the Lambrianous as ‘paper villains, concerned only to take whatever glory attached to their connection with the twins’. Brain McConnell was equally tart in his 1969 investigation, The Rise and Fall of the Brothers Kray: ‘two drifters, recently employed as car washers’.

Something richer and stranger has been brought to the surface by Clerk’s acts of serial archaeology. Inside the Firm finds its occasion in the Lambrianous’ connection with the Krays, but it is incidentally a compelling portrait of inner city life in the immediate post-war years: hunting rats along the canal bank, scavenging the coalyards, admiring horseflesh. These immigrant brothers and cousins attended the kind of schools where visits were arranged to Wormwood Scrubs and not to London Zoo. The honours’ board would soon fill with the convictions of lorry hijackers, wheelmen and lifers with blood on their hands. The foot soldiers of professional crime.

The collaboration is exemplary, Clerk’s persistence triggering spasms of nostalgia, uncensored reports from the adventure of violence. She allows Lambrianou the privilege of instant authorship, and he provides her with material which would otherwise remain untapped. They are equals. Clerk deserves something better than contractual courtesy: a name, banished from the cover, tucked out of sight on the half-title. It may be a superstition, but the ghost is rarely represented in the gallery of photographs. There are no staged intimacies, arms around shoulders, triumphal gestures. Perhaps it would be too unnerving if we discovered that these sagas of thuggery and revenge were assembled by the news editor of Melody Maker, moonlighting, working through the night to meet her deadline. A slightly nervous, chain-smoking journalist in a pink sweater transcribing the tale in shorthand, prompting and nurturing her stable of villains. Sometimes in her local, sometimes in Tony’s council flat. It’s a weird knack – like conducting a seance, tapping the facts from revenants who have died during their imprisonment. The life contracts in them, the faces shrink. Memory is the only thing they can trust. It is vital to hang onto the story they have already told so many times. The streets are unfamiliar. The new faces are younger, crazier, without names. Nobodies who will kill on impulse. If a single detail is misplaced, the narrator will vanish.

In the end all that is left is the spectre of the Look. Tony Lambrianou photographed with his Wendy: the sharp-edged, rectangular ring, the discreet pinstripe, the blunt relict of a cigarette. That heavy-browed leonine head, the anachronistic hair – just so – over the collar. (Ronnie had his personal barber, happy to make house calls. ‘Razorman! The Inside Story of the Krays’ Hairdresser’ must be the only unpublished memoir.) The dramatised presentation of self in the world becomes life-sustaining. Clerk explains how Lambrianou, indoors, will slop around in tracksuit trousers and woolly cap, unshaven, playing with the dog. But on Friday nights all the old finery is revived as he generously blows his giro on the attentive crush at the local. The book has given him a second career, especially in Kenya where the Twins are still very big. Lambrianou has been snapped with a class of schoolkids proudly holding up their copies of Inside the Firm. And again with an already serious pair of black infants, twins, who have been christened ‘Ron’ and ‘Reg’.

Even the Old Bill have their version of the Look. As James Morton makes clear in Nipper, the ambitious copper is a mirror image of the villain upon whom he depends for success in his career. Leonard Read favoured the cashiered-major look patented by Cecil Parker in The Ladykillers: bowler, sternly-buttoned camelhair. He was a thief-taker of the old school; any form of rehabilitation for prisoners was ‘the biggest load of rubbish that could ever be devised’. An ex-boxer, he shared the pragmatism of the Krays. ‘If is could have got one on the table and screwed him enough he might have blurted out a name.’ The ring, with its masculine freemasonry, was a useful interface. Hunter and prey had no differences that couldn’t be sorted out over a lively six-rounder. When Read hit his career-ceiling, he opted out for a spot on the British Boxing Board of Control (and the opportunity to meet, and be photographed with. Jack ‘Kid’ Berg, Sugar Ray Robinson, Mike Tyson etc). The Choker that forced Read to leave the Yard came at the conclusion of the triumphant Kray enquiry. The men upstairs refused permission for the celebratory tie for which Read had designed the prototype. ‘The double initials K, the flagstaff of Tintagel House which featured a ball and crown ... and the logo Noster Firmus which, I assured everybody, meant Our Firm.’

Taste. You’ve got it or you haven’t. Your shelf on the wheel of life is fixed by the clothes on your back, the symbols on your tie. There is no excuse for exhibiting powder burns in public. As Reg Kray once remarked, ‘How can you trust a person you’ve shot?’ That was it. That was why they called in Jack McVitie. The hat. A sartorial solecism of the worst kind. Trilbys and snapbrims dated you so badly. Antediluvian Gerald Kersh gear for pimps and Mediterraneans. (‘If you’re interested in a rather wider brim, sir, we have a model, the (Cicero, exactly as worn by Al Capone.’ Night and the City.) Agreed, Jack was ‘unpredictable’, a social inadequate – blowing out the bar at the Mildmay with his Colt .45, heckling Dorothy Squires, taking cash for a hit he had no intention of performing. Small potatoes, not a topping offence. Tony Lambrianou, who chauffeured Jack’s corpse, found him an agreeable companion with ‘a very good sense of humour’. It was the hair. Like some made-over geek in the Shadow Cabinet. And the hat on top of it: an affront to any respectable Firm. He had to go. There was even a photograph of Jack in his garden tieless, wearing a cardigan. Goodnight, and amen. Nobody is rushing to take responsibility, but the word is that the funeral went off like a dream. They gave the hat the respect it deserved, and buried it along with Jack. Who could disagree with Charlie Kray? ‘The ways of fate are strange.’