Wi­d­ows and re­ar­ranged faces: the re­al­ity be­hind un­der­world ‘ca­pers’

The Australian - - WORLD - BEN MAC­IN­TYRE

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




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