Ever since I first saw the Mauch twins, Billy and Bobby, in the movie version of Mark Twain’s Prince and the Pauper, I’ve been keen on films where the actor plays a multiple role, like Alex Guinness in Kind Hearts and Coronets and Eddie Murphy in The Nutty Professor.
The latest is actor Tom Hardy’s portrayal in Legend of the real life criminals Reggie and Ronald Kray who ran, and terrorized, London’s underworld in the Swinging Sixties. I knew both Krays who were psychopathic killers on the celebrity circuit.
As a journalist for an upscale Sunday newspaper and a Vogue magazine reporter it was almost impossible not to know the Krays who craved publicity and went out of their murderous way to cultivate us. They were painfully eager to have their names in print and to be anointed as glamorous by Vogue preferably with a David Bailey photograph and an admiring caption alongside the models Twiggy and Jean Shrimpton.
London, once the world’s gang capital, has an ancient mob history going back to when pickpockets were hanged at Tyburn (Marble Arch) to the thunderous applause of 200,000 cheering spectators. A performance in which the soon-to-be-executed acknowledged with a theatrical bow his audience baying for his broken neck. So from the start showbiz and crime were indelibly twinned, which the Krays fully exploited because they enjoyed the notoriety and it helped cover up their extortions and sadistic murders.
Underneath all the pizzazz Reggie and Ronnie were pure nutsville. They’d kill anyone inside their criminal culture for an unintended slight, or revenge or no reason at all. While I knew them, among other murders, Ronnie shot a rival gangster at the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel because the victim, from the hated Richardson gang, called him a “fat poof” (Ronnie was homo or bi-sexual). Around the same time both brothers butchered one of their own gang Jack “The Hat” McVitie on some pretense or other. Motive really didn’t matter; the boys enjoyed the blood sport while their crimes were hidden behind celebrity status and “front” businesses. Rumor claimed that Ronnie had affairs with a Conservative member of Parliament and an influential journalist who protected the twins.
This was when crime was segregated in the East End or south of the Thames; today the shootings and stabbings and dope deal killings are all over the place…and younger. The “oldies” structure has collapsed, along with its informal apprenticeship program in crime, because the “yout” is wilder and disrespectful. “Yardies” (Jamaicans) fight British-born blacks who fight Turks who fight the Muslim Patrol.
But in the “good old days” structure mattered. You “bunged a rozzer” (bribed a cop), drank in the same clubs as the Met’s Flying Squad allegedly hunting you, and Mafia-style “respect” prevailed unless on a whim you felt otherwise and pulled an axe on your best friend.
I always felt safe hanging around the criminal underworld because journalists were offlimits to a shooter. Also I was “spoken for” because I’d run with rioting Teddy Boys and Rude Boys who had relatives in the East End and they vouched I wasn’t a snitch.
For the Left the Sixties was a strange time, when normal activism – leafleting a demo – gradually blurred into real crime.
You could excuse any damn thing by claiming a lofty political motive. Theft, bombing, cheque fraud, whatever. One of my closest working partners, a mere slip of a girl, a charity aide, by painless stages became an ace burglar and car thief (from the Police Commissioner yet!). Politics.
At the time I ran a sanctuary in central London’s Queen Anne Street for runaway American soldiers who had deserted the Vietnam war. I needed money to keep it going. A collection we took up in a Hyde Park Rolling Stones concert attended by tens of thousands netted us almost zero. Where to turn?
Obviously to where the money was. I paid a visit to a Kray-owned Knightsbridge club, Esmerelda’s Barn, and lied to the manager that the Krays’ hated rivals the Richardson gang had pledged. (I counted on the fact that both Reggie and Ronnie had been army deserters too.) Not to be shamed, the Krays outdid the Richardsons with enough “wonga” to keep us going a while.
The new Tom Hardy movie probably won’t include any of the above. You could take a moral view that our GI pad survived on the blood of the psychopathic brothers’ homicides. No disagreement on the ethics.
Ronnie ended up in a prison for the criminally insane, and 60,000 East Enders attended his funeral in 1995. Five years later many fewer came to his brother’s Reggie’s funeral when he died of cancer. As the cockney song says, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’be.