Tea-Leafing

Duncan Campbell

  • The Autobiography of a Thief by Bruce Reynolds
    Bantam, 320 pp, £15.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 593 03779 0

A robber is a bandit, an outlaw, a desperado. A thief is a tea-leaf. A robber ends up at the Old Bailey – the London Palladium of the nation’s courts – and gets a ten stretch. A thief appears before the beak at Old Street magistrate’s court and gets three months. A robber takes the girlfriend off to Longchamp for the weekend. A thief goes home to the wife in Up-minster. So why did Bruce Reynolds, a main player in this country’s robbery of the century, choose to call his book The Autobiography of a Thief ?

It was, he says, a bit of homage to Jean Genet. The Thief’s Journal was being translated into English just as Bruce and Buster and Charlie were driving £2,631,684 in mail bags to Leather-slade Farm on 8 August 1963, with Tony Bennett singing ‘The Good Life’ on the radio. When Buster Edwards hanged himself last year and I rang Bruce Reynolds for a comment (an explanation, if there can ever be such a thing) he referred me to Alvarez and The Savage God.

Reynolds was always the most interesting of the train robbers and in a way it’s a pity that it took him so long to write his version of the tale. He was the one who said ‘C’est la vie’ when finally arrested by Tommy Butler, the dogged old detective who still lived with his mum. He was the one who fled to Mexico and wanted to stay there because he liked the people and the atmosphere. He was the one who liked his Charlie Parker rather than his Matt Monroe and did not yearn, when on the run, for HP Sauce and Queen’s Park Rangers. And, as far as he was concerned, a thief is what he was. He stole other people’s things. ‘The younger element, brought up after the war and influenced by Hollywood’s gangster films, thought that guns were glamorous instead of just dangerous,’ writes Reynolds, himself an evacuee during the war. ‘They made armed robbery fashionable but shut themselves off from the mainstream of criminals. It was a different mentality. All our early role models had been found in the crime classics, books which “floated” round the nick, such as I, Willy Sutton and Anatomy of a Crime, the post-mortem on the original Brink’s Boston robbery, then the biggest cash haul in history ... We watched the French classic Rififi and saw ourselves drilling through the ceiling of Mappin and Webb’s Paris branch ... ’

It’s more than 30 years since the Great Train Robbery (it picked up the capital letters shortly after it ceased to be called, rather more prosaically, the Cheddington train robbery) and there have been at least nine books about it. The robbery seems to have had a funny effect on the people who write about it – perhaps it wasn’t just the mail-van that was unhinged. Here’s Peta Fordham, author of The Robbers’ Tale(1965), whose husband was one of the barristers in the trial, describing the participants: ‘[Jimmy] White is the most ordinary and engaging little man in the world ... Charlie Wilson, the sort of father you see by the hundred in France on Sunday outings ... [Gordon] Goody, nerves of steel and the wolfish handsomeness of the pack leader ... The events were so vividly in the minds of the actors that they remember, like Henry V at Agincourt, what feats they did that day.’ Never mind Agincourt, note the ‘little man’ and the reference to France. Why France? Are fathers different there from those on Clapham Common? Of course not, but ‘France’ not only tells us that Mrs Fordham has travelled but cloaks old Charlie Wilson – shot dead by a hit-man in Spain in 1990 – in a rather different aura, more Gauloise than Craven A.

Piers Paul Read’s The Train Robbers (1978) was another one: ‘the evil ... which I had sought in the train robbers can be found in any one of us and has little to do with the law of the land. There was both a good thief and a bad thief on Calvary and the good thief went rapidly to heaven ... Politically one might describe the train robbers as Saxons still fighting the Normans.’

Read’s book was meant to be the definitive work because the robbers ‘co-operated’. But even though they were mostly free by then, they were artful dodgers still. They mischievously concocted a hoax to try and put some spice into the story, telling Read that the robbery had been organised by a bunch of German ex-Nazis. In the book, as part of the deal with the publishers, Buster Edwards is named as the man who coshed the train driver Jack Mills, although, according to the surviving robbers and detectives, the person who really did it was one of the three never caught.

It was Ronnie Biggs, by then escaped from jail and living safely in Brazil, who tipped Read off that the chaps were having him on. Read had gone out to Biggs’s bolt-hole in Rio to interview him and in Odd Man Out, published last year, Biggs describes the moment: ‘He dropped his head into his hands. “Oh, those bastards! Those dirty bastards!” ’ Read, as he admits at the end of his book, broke his promise to Biggs not to reveal how the hoax had been exposed but Biggs seems to hold no grudge. He dismisses Read’s book as a disappointment. The detectives who have gone into print have been generous enough in their assessment of the robbers. Jack Slipper, who famously hunted Biggs down to Rio but returned without him, wrote of how ‘it is a challenge to be matched against really top-class villains.’ And Nipper Read, better known for later nailing the Krays, recalls that ‘it was Bruce Reynolds who honed, polished and fine-tuned it [the robbery].’

The Great Train Robbers are the most documented criminals in Britain apart from the Krays, about whom there can surely be nothing left to write, unless Doris Stokes can reach Jack the Hat on the Other Side (although, come to think of it, isn’t Doris on the Other Side herself now?). The Krays were gangsters, not thieves, and Damon Runyan and Mario Puzo have ensured that we are more interested in heavies than light-fingered chaps. Billy Hill and Jack Spot, the Fifties London gang leaders, have both had their memoirs ghosted but few of the big heisters have bequeathed their papers to the nation. This is partly because driving a narrative for 60,000 words can be slightly more demanding than driving a getaway Montego for 600 yards, but also because the tales themselves can be fairly anodyne. Biff, bash, lolly, champagne, nick. Little self-reflection. Most criminals would think self-reflection was a design fault in a pair of Raybans.

Reynolds has avoided these pitfalls because he has managed some self-reflection during his years on the run and in prison, and because he has done some reading. He is, in fact, a perfect example of what can happen if some of those old liberal notions of making education available in jail are pursued. (If you’re ever in a London pub on Quiz Night you can be sure that the winning team will consist either of school teachers on Boddingtons or ex-criminals with Open University degrees. I once bumped into an ex-bank robber awaiting a quiz in the Nobody Inn in Highbury and found him reading To the Lighthouse. I sniggeringly relayed this information a couple of weeks later to one of his old fellow-robbers who, without missing a beat, replied: ‘Not one of her best.’)

The dark side of the robbery, of course, was what happened to Jack Mills. Here’s Reynolds on the subject:

I regretted what had happened to Mills but I believe it was exaggerated out of all proportion ... Although I wasn’t there (on the train itself), I do know it wasn’t planned. The last thing we wanted to do was injure the train driver. By the same token, none of us was overly concerned with what had happened ... There is no doubt the authorities used the attack on Mills to brand the Great Train Robbers as brutal, murderous gangsters who had to be hunted down and punished severely, scotching perceptions that we were in any way glamorous figures who had pulled off a filmscript plot. Mills was awarded compensation of £250 by the Post Office and returned to work on less onerous duties. For the record, when he died of leukaemia seven years later, aged 64, the coroner felt impelled to add that it had nothing to do with the bang on the head. Yet the belief always persisted that it did.

There had been robberies as spectacular before, most notably the 1952 Eastcastle Street mail van robbery of £287,000 in London for which no-one was ever caught. There have been bigger robberies since, such as the £26 million Brink’s-Mat bullion robbery at Heathrow in 1983 and the Knightsbridge safe deposit heist of around £40 million in 1987. But neither captured the public imagination in the same way as the Train Robbery. The first was too violent and the second had as its main perpetrator an egocentric Italian Neo-Fascist called Valerio Viccei, who also went into print after starting his 22-year sentence in Parkhurst. In Knightsbridge, the Robbery of the Century (1992), Viccei explained why he had given up bombing left-wing television stations in Italy to concentrate on bank jobs: ‘I have abandoned the rarified pure air of my idealised forest and travelled all the way down to the polluted town.’

The publication of Reynolds’s book has coincided with the death of Ron Kray and the release from a 20-year jail sentence of Howard Marks, the Oxford graduate cannabis smuggler, now also at work on his memoirs. So here we have Britain’s best-known gangster (or half of him), the perpetrator of the best-known robbery, and the best-known drug smuggler all back in the public eye. Between them, they have been the subjects of 25 books by my reckoning and many millions of words in newspapers and magazines. This is irritating to people who don’t see why criminals – usually referred to in this context as ‘common criminals’ – should be granted such space.

Probably there will be readers who will turn up their noses in disgust over a criminal setting down in cold print the unsavoury experiences of his past. I am fully aware that I represent a phase of life which is not in the least worthy of emulation. Nevertheless there is always the younger generation growing up and, if this story of mine will help the boys of today to appreciate the undeniable fact that a criminal career can only end disastrously, then all that I have gone through will not have been in vain.

That was Eddie Guerin, who carried out spectacular robberies in England, France and America at the turn of the century. In Bandits, Eric Hobsbawm describes how suitable robbers might be ‘idealised and given the attributes of Robin Hood when they concentrated on holding up merchants, rich travellers and others who enjoyed no great sympathy among the poor. Thus in 18th-century France, England and Germany, celebrated underworld characters like Dick Turpin, Cartouche and Schinderhannes substituted for the genuine Robin Hoods who had disappeared from those countries by that time.’ And Angus Wilson in his Introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of Oliver Twist also knows this: ‘Fagin, Sikes and the gang are brought sternly and horribly to justice, yet there are few readers who would deny that they and not the genteel ghosts who represent respectable society in Oliver Twist are the true kings of the novel.’

So do criminals’ memoirs glamorise crime? Do Geoffrey Howe’s memoirs glamorise politics? If people want to know about crime they should read books by criminals. If they find slopping out and losing best friends to drunken suicide (Edwards) or the hitman’s bullet (Wilson) glamorous then that’s that.

Scotland Yard decided in the Fifties to dissuade senior detectives from having a high profile. They were irritated with people like Robert ‘Fabian of the Yard’ Fabian claiming glory for what were essentially team efforts. The high-profile gumshoe was discouraged. Partly as a result of that, there have been few detective memoirs of any note since. While most crime fiction is written from the point of view of the investigator, most crime fact is written from the point of view of the investigated. So the ‘true kings’ have cornered the true crime market. This should surprise no one. You don’t need one of those Open University degrees to know that the forbidden is always more seductive than the genteel.