Widows and rearranged faces: the reality behind underworld ‘capers’
Here they come, the mythical London criminals — a little bit tasty, cheerful, forgivable, welldressed, great with the one-liners, tough on their own kind when they step out of line, but good to their muvvers. Know what I mean?
But wait. The crims in King of Thieves are decrepit, greedy and malevolent. They are more likely to cop it from type 2 diabetes than from being nailed to a coffee table by a gangland enforcer. These are the diamond wheezers. They get caught.
Michael Caine and his crew of geriatric diamond thieves, recreating the Hatton Garden burglary of 2015, may be a long-overdue sign that Britain is at last throwing off its peculiar, long-running love affair with criminality, and seeing the underworld for what it is and always has been: nasty, brutish and thick.
Charles Dickens was at least partly responsible for the legend of the resourceful, happy-golucky cockney criminal in the shape of the Artful Dodger, but the impulse to glamorise larceny goes back even further, to Robin Hood and Dick Turpin, and per- haps to a lingering affinity for the rule-breaking 18th-century mob. The criminal as folk hero is a fantasy embedded in our culture, to the point where the Great Train Robbers have been described as “Saxons still fighting the Normans”.
John McVicar, armed robber and former Public Enemy No 1, wrote that crooks represent a devilry inherent, but usually unexpressed, in everyone: “The primitive side of us wants to break free from time to time, to get our own way through an awesome act of will. It’s natural to admire criminals who stood against their own society”.
If that admiration is finally waning, it is because rising crime has put paid to the hoary nostalgia for a world when whelks were tuppence a bag and criminal cheeky chappies kept the scum off the streets.
No other society has elevated the criminal to the status of celebrity. The cult of criminality even has its own language and rituals. Crimes are “capers” or “heists”, words shorn of moral weight. Old lags are laid to rest in hearses pulled by black-plumed horses, accompanied by men in sharp suits and weeping widows faketanned the colour of orange.
In the 1950s, gangland figures began to produce memoirs, largely fictional, elevating themselves to stardom. Billy Hill, a violent extortionist, had himself photographed in Soho with other gangsters, and wrote Boss of Britain’s Underworld with characters such as Square Georgie, Tony the Wop and Soapy Harry. For every celebrity-crim since, the memoir became a nice little earner.
The Great Train Robbery of 1963 set the template for romanti- cising thievery. Falling between the deference of the 1950s and the rebellion of the 60s, it coincided with a flood of anti-establishment feeling provoked by the Profumo scandal. Even the robbers themselves bought into the idea that they were really rebels, or “gentleman thieves”. As one newspaper observed: “In private many are thinking: For they are jolly good felons”.
They jolly well weren’t. They were hopeless felons, who couldn’t work the brake on the train, left a mass of fingerprints, beat the train driver so brutally he never recovered and ended up being fleeced by cleverer crooks and, for the most part, in prison.
But the gap between fable and reality was unbridgeable. As Alan Ayckbourn observed, “we live in a world where the Great Train robber is star and the poor old train driver who got hit on the head and subsequently died is forgotten”.
Then came Reg Kray’s Book of Slang, the film rights, documentaries, souvenir mugs and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Ronnie Biggs sang with the Sex Pistols. In the 1960s “Mad” Frankie Fraser extracted the teeth of those who opposed the Richardson gang, using a pair of gold-plated pliers. By the 1990s he was giving after-dinner speeches, signing copies of Mad Frank’s London, and conducting guided tours of the East End at 25 quid a ticket, peddling the myth the Krays were merely gangster gents who kept the streets safe, rather than sadistic lunatics.
Fraser liked to joke about the time he left an axe embedded in the head of one Eric Mason. He wanted the axe back, he said. He had bought it at Harrods.
Why did the British media, and the British public, allow people who were clearly horrible to frame themselves in popular culture as geezers targeting only faceless banks and inanimate trains, while in reality they left widows, “rearranged faces” and wrecked lives? The British class system played a part: some might imagine crimes as a romantic escape from extreme poverty, but for the most part the myth of the chirpy British mobster was a middle-class phenomenon, a way to experience the prurient thrill of crime while secretly sneering at the vulgarity of the working-class underworld.
Today we expect the true crime genre to be true, not a branch of the entertainment or celebrity industry. The hunger for crime documentaries and podcasts, such as Making a Murderer and Serial, demonstrates a desire to understand, and not merely to glamorise, the criminal mentality.
The all-star cast of King of Thieves are amusing but repellent. They are deaf, incontinent and incompetent. The criminal rogue, cherished for so long, is now old, exhausted and on his way out.
Rest in peace, old son. You was one of a kind. But now you are dead.
Michael Caine and Ray Winstone at the film’s London premiere last week