A crisp, clear morning, bright and fresh and cold enough to make the flaunting of black anklelength crombies no burden: the perfect day for a funeral. Walking down towards Bethnal Green, through Haggerston Park and over Hackney Road, I appreciate the unnatural, expectant stillness – dispersed by the fretting of traffic that is already beginning to snag up. Outsiders, transients, put it down to road works; an extension of the tarmac hole that is London. But three helicopters to the south, somewhere over Vallance Road or Cheshire Street, that is unusual. One chopper, ferrying traumatised meat to the Royal London Hospital, we’re used to that. Three choppers, catching the light, remorselessly circling the same patch, are worth remarking; an arrogant display of budget that speaks of royal visitations, the finish of the London Marathon, or John Major on walkabout, prospecting for inner-city blight. But on this unearned, mint morning, the fuss is all about real royalty, indigenous royalty: one of our local princes of darkness, a cashmere colonel, is about to be boxed.
A mob of expectant necrophiles are packing the fringes of Bethnal Green Road, dodging motors, climbing on lamp-posts – and that’s just the salaried media. They’re here to give an elderly, Romany/Jewish businessman, who has been living out of town for a quarter of a century, a decent send-off. It’s a great turn-out for a notorious homosexual predator who Peter Tatchell, somehow, never got around to outing. George Cornell’s efforts in this direction (both sexist and weightist) having murderously backfired: ‘fat poof’ was an ad lib that was exposed in a dramatically public act of political correction. But say what you like about the doped inertia of the slacker generation, the timidity of the pensioners, give them what they want and they’ll make the effort. Give them the biggest gangland funeral since the Albert Dimes do and they know how to show their appreciation. (The Twins set the benchmark in floral tributes with their wreath for Albert: ‘To A Fine Gentleman From Reg And Ron.’ At £25 a letter.) The point is that no other social group has such a rigorous sense of tradition, such a memory for previous plantings. The East End had its reputation to uphold: sentiment backed by discipline. The salty tear trickling down the butcher’s cheek. Senior members of the Firm had been shuttling to Maidstone for days, to go over points of procedure. An entire era had been put on the spike, there would never be another Ronnie Kray. ‘Nothing to touch it since Churchill,’ said Carole McQueen, florist to the fraternity.
Splitting the Twins, divorcing Reggie from his ‘other half’, was like splitting the atom – it had done something to the sky, to our perception of time. Sharp-edged shadows were printed into the asphalt. This special quality of the light teased phallic clusters of lenses; engorged telephotos could be displayed without embarrassment.
The merely curious, the event junkies who read this day as a living newspaper, were out early, packing the pavements of Bethnal Green Road and Vallance Road, covering the route the hearse would take from W. English’s funeral parlour to St Matthew’s Church. They were tactfully backlit, tired hair scorched into seraphic aureoles. A frieze of witnesses in an El Greco apotheosis. This was one of those rare occasions when the crowd is as important as the central figure. The stature of the dead man has been weighed in the ranks of those who are prepared to stand for hours to collar a few details of the final journey.
Ron had known for some time that his earlier fantasy, retirement, dog breeding, would never happen. He’d died without that consolation. But for the others, the retirement home villains, dog love justifies everything. Reg and Ron never recovered from premature exposure to Lassie Come Home. It blighted their emotional development. It helped to formulate the lodge rules for survival in the dance halls, clubs and spielers: never badmouth a Cockney mum and never harm one hair of a dog’s head. Even wrong ’uns like Cornell and Jack McVitie didn’t go that far. They cheated, popped pills, blasted pub ceilings, did damage for cash, but they loved their families and patted Alsatians for luck. They were cursed for another reason entirely: they cost the Twins their lives. ‘It’s because of them that we got put away.’ A nice piece of sophistry – to blame your victims for making you kill them.
Now the dog days were over. Ronnie Kray had been laid out in the back room of W. English’s establishment at 464 Bethnal Green Road; painted, primped, pressed. The coming procession was significant because the journalists, the hearse chasers, said it was. Many of the crowd didn’t know, or care, who was being buried. The event was television and that was good enough for them. Messrs English were quietly ecstatic, soberly smashed by the chance to show what they could really do. It was like a bucket and spade firm picking up the contract to clear Hyde Park after the VE Day celebrations. Their trade name sympathised with the mood: English as the lettering in a stick of Margate rock.
Bethnal Green was one big street party: high ritual and low comedy, conspicuous expenditure. Newsreel crews, deals made, filmed the principal faces, while secret state technicians panned the crowd. The press lived in the confusion between burns of hyperactivity and intolerable wedges of boredom. Style scribes prepared themselves by thumbing through red pulp memoirs, to be sure that they’d recognise Frankie Fraser or Tony Lambrianou when they poodled into the churchyard. Researchers were busy inventing quotes, hammering golden nuggets into the carious mouths of bemused recidivists. Photographers risked everything, setting rickety ladders on traffic islands, dangling from stop signs. The Kray funeral was a major boost to the local economy; paydirt for florists, renters of black horses, firms that stretch limos. Know-nothings asked if the dear old Queen Mum had snuffed it.
Even with Ron stiff as a starched dicky, the duckers and divers were taking no chances with their floral tributes. They hadn’t been privileged to get a peep inside the coffin. Rumours of death had often been exaggerated. The Krays had long since moved into the realms of mythology; youngsters aping their dress code, their hairstyles, thought they were contemporaneous with Jack the Ripper. The Twins co-existed with Craig and Bentley and the Reservoir Dogs as natural-born killers of the spectral plane.
The funeral cortège would turn into Vallance Road at the Cornwallis pub, where there are two street names: the shabby original and the new Tower Hamlets-approved version. New signs, in my experience, mean trouble. Cleanliness comes with a price. ‘Safe’ neighbourhoods and restored iron railings have to be paid for with Kray-style tithes. Ecobabble underwritten with brass knuckles. Tony Lambrianou is a spokesman for this new ethic: ‘Today, if I see anyone damaging a tree, or drawing graffiti, I go absolutely potty.’
We have grievously misinterpreted the Kray philosophy: the pitch was Green, and the boys were disadvantaged precursors of the Goldsmith Brothers. Free-market capitalists who cared deeply about the environment, channelling excess profits straight back into high-profile charity. Good housekeeping that isn’t afraid, when strictly necessary, to rap the odd knuckle. Anthropomorphism so intense that it bleeds into voodoo ritual. It’s a shame that the Krays’ political careers were aborted so soon: the Twins were active members of the Bethnal Green Conservative Association. Lady Mancroft, president of the Association at that time, recalls ‘a frightful row ... they attacked someone, threw him across the road through a shop window. The police were very close and the hospital managed to sew the chap’s ear back on.’ Geoffrey Howe, a coming man, was on call to provide free legal advice. This liveliness, unexceptional in the House, was deemed to be over the top in the East End. So the careers of two grassroots Tories look a different turn.
The mortician at English’s outlined the day’s ceremonies. Six plumed black horses, with 26 top-of-the-range limousines to follow. Poland has been invaded with less. A dark oak coffin with gold handles displayed in a glass-sided hearse, borne on a gun carriage – as befits the deceased’s martial status. The dimensions of the gun carriage would test the ingenuity of Carole McQueen and her horticultural engineers: how to fit ‘The Colonel’ onto such a narrow border, how to heap the roof with such a profusion of blooms. It seemed as if the corpse had flowered; as if the body’s gases had exploded into spiral clusters of red and white and blue. A wake of pollen and steaming horse dung trailed behind the procession like the phantom traces of an ocean liner. Some of the cars had to be pressed into service as wreath transporters; there were more than enough floral tributes to replant Nevada. Four pall-bearers – Charles Kray (North), Freddie Foreman (South), Johnny Nash (West), Teddy Dennis (East) – would symbolise the seigneurial homage paid by the four cardinal districts of London. The conceit was Blakean, the Sons of Albion ‘dividing the space of love with brazen compasses’.
St Matthew’s is one of those typical East London parish churches with its own patch of grass, no particular ambience, sinister or otherwise, and permanently locked doors. The churchyard is a useful shortcut, a toilet for dogs. A moderate crowd, bareheaded, behind crush barriers watched ... nothing very much. Accredited media paced inside the fence. OB vans. Tripods on the pavement, trainee clipboard-directors letting their cameramen set up in any way that took their fancy. Production assistants plotting their coffee runs. Small groups of near-strangers working together, professionals of ennui. An outbreak of yellow cones and plods in scrambled-egg vests. Bethnal Green is en fête, a celebration that cannot quite declare itself. Freakishly stretched limos, like silver cigar torpedoes, barely make it around the tight turn into Wood Close. Some of these villains are so old they think they’re being flash by giving two fingers to petrol rationing. Hidden away behind tinted glass, they are instantly recognised by a passing bag lady, a Carpenters Arms familiar. She hoots her derision.
One minor TV mouth, toasted to an unhealthy walnut tan by studio lights, fannies about inside the fenced area, screaming into his mobile: ‘Where are we? Can somebody please tell me where the fuck we are?’ Grey bullet heads in Brick Lane buffalo jackets bunch up on the west side of the street. Down at the far end, beyond the Carpenters Arms, you find the same knot of foot-stamping ghouls that used to wait outside Pentonville for the posting of an execution notice.
It’s easy to forget: somewhere in the middle of all this is a recent corpse. The hard old men are closer to it, arthritic claws knuckled in sovereigns, throats goitred in gold. All those faces last seen making up the numbers in souvenir snapshots from the Kentucky Club: Eric Mason, Frankie Fraser, Terry Spinks (a cortisone cherub). Ruthlessly ironed handkerchiefs peeping from the gash of a breast pocket. This turnout has been a killing for the car rental mobs, the muscle agencies, the barbers. Who says London refuses to oblige major film productions? Roads closed off, police, colourful extras, banks of cameras: the funeral is a one-day epic with a minimalist performance at its centre. There’s nothing for the uninvited to witness. One hundred and forty ticketed seats barely cover the worldwide media interest; reporters book in for a taped rendering of Sinatra’s ‘My Way’ and Whitney Houston torching ‘I Will Always Love You’ – before the reading of the honour role of those who are unable to attend, ‘friends from Broadmoor and prison’.
Other business later that day prevented me from following the funeral procession on its 12-mile journey, another Blakean progress, through Old lord, Stratford, Leyton, Walthamstow, to Chingford Mount. I let it lie for a few weeks and then, on a pleasant Sunday morning, cycled out along the tow path of the Lea to Chingford.
The freshly turned earth, and perhaps forty yards of grass behind the tombstones of Ronnie Kray’s father, mother and sister-in-law, were blanketed in dead flowers, the gaudy colours faded to browns and mauves. The look was of the traditional ‘wedding cake left out in the rain’. Ribbons and bunting gave the shallow tumulus the appearance of a place of pilgrimage.
Fathers led young children by the hand, so that they would get an authentic taste of it – mortality, the survival of pre-posthumous fame. Hollywood has, since Valentino, lost its vampiric piety. Hereditary royalty is an unconvincing soap opera. The Krays have replaced all that. This site is a massive attraction. Young women in long skirts: some of them have brought small bunches of wild flowers, violets, which they drop without show onto the floral carpet.
The effect was both emotive and grotesque, an overblown rhetoric of grief. Self-aggrandising tributes to a man who had been, for years, a chemically palliated zombie; a man whose humanity had died with his victims. In a sense, he couldn’t die: he was dead already, estranged from himself. Victim and servant of the voices in his head, the endlessly repeated (and revised) fables of those short months of glory, which left him trapped for ever in a coffin of newsprint.
Dead ground had burst prematurely into bud; the sweet-sick stench of home-brewed perfume, flower heads rotting in water. Ronnie. The Colonel. The Kray Twins. Spelled out in pink carnations, with scarlet tulip crowns for emphasis, like lettering on the side of a neon gambling hell. Colour combinations too rich to stomach. Flesh pinks with broken veins. The Other Half Of Me. Floral chains linking Ron to Reg, as if they had been buried together. (The crowds outside St Matthew’s called for Reggie’s release, an end to this unnatural punishment. Which can never happen. That would be like rewriting history, opening the grave to make us see the spectre of our past, touched by time, pinched, crookbacked, shrunken.)
Ronnie iced into a birthday cake of daisies, into a boxing ring. The sacrifice of thousands of carnations, pink and white and sclerotic. Puce roses sweating with shame. Eggy bundles of lilies pinched at the waist by purple ribbon corsets. Wreaths like the wheels of articulated lorries. Hearts the size of Sri Lanka. A plethora of tributes from Birmingham: Actress & Bishop, Muldoon Auto’s (with grocer’s apostrophe). Freedom At Last, Flanagan. Showbiz signatures: Barbara Windsor, Roger Daltrey. A giant’s body woven from flowers. The East End loves them, heaped on pavements at the site of a killing or a road accident.
A nail-varnish scarlet BMW, engine running, leaking fumes into the still air, cruises the cemetery path. A couple of black T-shirt, leather jacket tearaways slouch across to the grave, primed to pick up the vibes. Blatant herb merchants, mobiles in pocket, stepping forward to make the touch. ‘This Ronnie Kray, mate?’ The five-foot letters spelling out name, rank, sobriquet, were not enough. They wanted the verbals before making the energy exchange, soliciting the blessing of the dead. An impertinence that would have the colonel spinning through the clay like a drill bit: lowlifers dressed like vagrants, German motor, peddling drugs, no bowwow. The filth he’d wasted his prime keeping off the streets.
The smell of this exterior boudoir, reds, pinks, greens, left me swaying in a state of visually induced nausea. I couldn’t wait for the undergrowth to take over, the revenge of the ivy. A child, encouraged by her parents, let a bunch of daffs drop on the mound. The mother balled up the newspaper wrapping and bowled it onto the grave of some unknown.