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British gangsters were “really lovely” – ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser on the golden age

Mad Frank at the historic Clink jail in 2002

‘Mad’ Frank at the historic Clink jail in 2001

Another day, another bit of jury service today, about which I am not allowed to write.

Different people. Different lives.

This week in the year 2000, I went on the Gangland Tour of the East End which former gangster ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser was then running in London. It was the second time I had been on the tour.

The previous time I went on it – about three years before – it had been in a luxury coach. This time it was a 13-seat mini-bus.

‘Mad’ Frank was wearing a soft light blue and white woollen pullover as he told his tales of a golden bygone era of crime when everyone was “really lovely” except dead victims like Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie who had, at one time, been “lovely” but who, shortly before his death, became “a really horrible person” and “well out of order”.

In 2000, Frank was 77 years old and had spent 42 of them in prison. Of the Kray Brothers, he said (I taped bits):

“Out of the three, I liked Ronnie the best. He was….don’t get me wrong, both Reggie and Charlie were smashing fellers….but Ronnie was right down the line. If he didn’t like ya, there’d be no nonsense. He’d tell ya. And, if it was OK, then he’d tell ya. No in-betweens. Very honest guy. Very likable.”

‘Mad’ Frank has a little chat

‘Mad’ Frank has a bit of a chat with an acquaintance in 2002

Frank claimed, rather dubiously, that George Cornell had not called Ronnie Kray “a big poof” (the supposed reason for his shooting by Ronnie in the Blind Beggar pub).

“That wasn’t true,” said Frank. “That wasn’t true. Because no-one knew for sure then. Nowadays, you can’t get to be an MP unless you’re a gay. Then it was unheard of but today it’s trendy, innit? You go for a job now, you gotta take a little handbag. Honest to God, I never had a clue. I’d heard a whisper that he was. Didn’t believe it! I thought it was some spiteful sods trying to…belittle him.”

Of George Cornell, Frank said: “George was a lovely man and, personally, I don’t think Reg would’ve agreed with it and Ronnie was (pause) …well, a bit off his head…”

Then Frank suddenly changed the subject:

“But getting back to….Maltese Frank and Bernie Silver approached us (the Richardson gang) and said they had films and they’d shown blue films in flats at the back of the Tottenham Court Road. They had the police straight: the coppers were in for their share…..”

On both occasions I took Frank’s Gangland Bus Tour, he was the epitome of the well-scripted presenter, constantly tailoring his ‘pitch’ to his audience:

“People like yourself – women and children especially – nice people like yourself – untouchable. Any rows we had was only with people like ourselves and, if we hurt one another – well – so what? It’s part of life.”

As we were driving along Bethnal Green Road, past market stalls, he told us:

“The older market traders, they can’t speak highly enough of the Kray Twins. If anybody was to take a liberty with them, then Reggie and Ronnie was there for them.” (In fact, the Krays made local traders pay them protection money.)

At the time of the bus tour, Reggie Kray was starting his 33rd year of imprisonment.

“He’s done well to stay sane,” someone commented.

“Yes, he has,” agreed Frank.

Reggie Kray was also, yet again, trying to get parole, which seemed unlikely to succeed.

“What’s done him harm, I think,” said Frank. “is Freddie Foreman the other week on television where he said he (Freddie) had shot Frank Mitchell. It’s his business he done that: it’s up to him. But the bit that done Reggie a lot of harm: Freddie said he’d done it on the Krays’ orders. Remember they was charged, – the Krays – but they were found not guilty of it.

“But now that’s opened a can of worms. Parole-wise, that’s done Reggie a lot of harm – it’s done him a helluva lot of damage. From a man who was their friend an’ all. Freddie should’ve known better. And he’s now been nicked – Freddie Foreman – and he’s on police bail on allegations of perjury because at his trial he denied killing Frank Mitchell but now he admits he did. Once you’re found not guilty of murder – which he was – no matter if you run round the streets afterwards saying, I done it! I done it! – they can’t nick you for it. But they can nick you for perjury if you denied it in the witness box.”

Mad Frank interviewed at Repton Boys Club

‘Mad’ Frank interviewed in boxing ring at Repton Boys’ Club

Since the previous bus tour I took, Frank had been given his own key to Repton Boys’ Club in Bethnal Green, the boxing club which the Kray Twins used to frequent. The photographs of the Kray Twins and of Frank had had to be removed from the walls, he told us, because “they kept getting stolen”.

Afterwards, when we were alone, I said to him: “It must be good to be a legend.”

“Sometimes,” he told me quietly and rather sadly, a wan look in his eye.

“Makes your life worthwhile,” I added.

He said nothing. His body language was slightly tired. He was a 77 year-old man standing slightly stooped, giving tours and talks when maybe a man of his age should have been having an afternoon tea and nap at home.

Frank’s monologue that day in 2000 mentioned drugs more than it had three years before. His angle was that everyone takes them, including judges, MPs, showbiz people and the police. So, he reasoned, it was like Prohibition in the US in the 1920s. Eventually, they had had to re-legalise drink in the US. And they will have to legalise drugs in the UK.

The driver of our minibus on the tour that morning in 2000 was the nephew of a famous East London gangster. I was not convinced that he had ever driven a minibus before, because he hit a car outside the house where Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie was killed and he went over three kerbs while going round corners.

If Frank told him to turn right, he almost inevitably turned the bus left.

The previous day, Frank had been up at Elstree Studios, recording an interview for a BBC TV programme on the 1970s, to be screened a couple of weeks later. He was soon to give a talk for Spennymoor Boxing Academy at Whitworth Country Park in Northumbria.

It must have been a strange life for a 77 year old man who had been in prison for a total of 42 years.

It must still be. Frank is still alive; he will be 90 this year.

When we met on another occasion, over a cup of tea in 2002, Frank told me that he wasn’t “really frightened of anything but I’m a bit worried what they’ll say about me after I die.”

So it goes.

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The quiet men: ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser, Malcolm Hardee and John McVicar

John McVicar with ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser’s autobiography

The meek will never inherit the earth but, sometimes, it is the quiet ones who are remembered. Though often only if they create their own legends.

I think I have met two, possibly three, SAS men (it is difficult to know for sure). They will probably not be remembered, except by their friends and family, because they did not write books.

The late comedian Malcolm Hardee never became famous during his lifetime. The irony is that he may be remembered much longer than many comedians who achieved fame because he wrote an autobiography I Stole Freddie Mercury’s Birthday Cake which was not just a bland quick hack book. One of the stories in the book took place when Malcolm was in prison:

___________

I used to play bridge with this bloke called Johnny Hart, who was one of the most pleasant blokes you could meet. But he started to get depressed. So he went and saw the doctor. Then he went to a psychiatrist who gave him some tablets. And, after that, he started getting extremely paranoid at certain times. When you play bridge with someone, you sometimes say:

“Well, you shouldn’t have led with that card.”

After starting the tablets, if you said that to Johnny Hart, he’d really explode and look quite dangerous.

One day, I was eating my dinner in the dining room and, all of a sudden, right in front of me, I saw Johnny Hart get up and stab this black guy. He’d stolen a 10’-12″ knife from the kitchen and he pushed it in this guy’s back. He pushed it into him right up to the hilt. The black guy literally looked like he’d turned white. He collapsed over my table. 

Johnny Hart went to court for attempted murder and it turned out it was all over the fact he thought this black guy was wearing his plimsolls.

I read some years later that Johnny Hart had committed an awful crime where he’d burgled a house, tied a couple up and murdered the wife. So maybe it wasn’t the tablets.

___________

Malcolm Hardee was quietly-spoken off-stage, rather shy, polite and sometimes had a strange inner stillness about him which I could not understand at first, until I realised he had spent rather a lot of time in prison in the 1970s. If you have lived and mixed with dangerous, sometimes psychopathic men whose personalities may suddenly turn on a sixpence, you have a certain inner wariness.

I was with Malcolm at the Edinburgh Fringe one year – it was the year he performed his show in the living room of his rented flat. After the show, a member of the audience came up to him to chat. Before the man spoke, Malcolm said: “You’ve been inside,” and he had. Malcolm had recognised something in the man’s look and demeanour and knew that he had spent time in prison.

Eric Mason died last Wednesday, aged 81. I only met him twice, very briefly. He had been in prison. He was very quietly-spoken, very polite in a slightly old-fashioned way. He had that same stillness, He was like a kindly old uncle.

One night, outside the Astor Club in London, Eric got into an argument with ‘Mad’ Frank Fraser.

Frank says he “slung him in the motor”, took him to the Atlantic Machines office and had a chat with him. Frank then drove Eric to the London Hospital and dumped him in the car park with, so the story goes, the axe still sticking out of Eric’s head.

The way Frank used to tell this story on his coach tours of Gangland London: “I wouldn’t ‘ave minded so much, except I never got me axe back and that axe was from ‘arrods.”

Frank Fraser is quietly-spoken and very polite; like a kindly old uncle. He may be remembered because he has a good turn of phrase, because he played panto and because he has been so well marketed.

He once said to me: “I worry a little bit about what they’ll say about me after I’ve gone,” but he has helped his own legend by writing copiously, notably in his autobiography Mad Frank and in Mad Frank and Friends, Mad Frank’s Britain, Mad Frank’s Underworld History of Britain et al.

The best way to control your own legend is to write the main details of it before you die.

Eric Mason may be remembered, slightly, because he wrote two books: The Inside Story and The Brutal Truth

Norman Parker was also – and presumably still is – a quiet-voiced, very polite man in a neat suit. I met him briefly, once, in 2001.

In 1963, when he was 18, he killed his girlfriend Susan Fitzgerald. Her best friend testified in court that Susan slept with a gun underneath her pillow and had a record of violence. Norman is Jewish. Susan admired Adolf Hitler and both her brothers had been guards for British Nazi Sir Oswald Mosley. Susan read books on concentration camps and her family was deeply involved in armed robberies. It was said “she was a violent and unbalanced girl.” Norman pleaded self-defence and was sentenced to 6 years for manslaughter.

He later explained: “One day we had a hideous argument. She pulled out a gun. I thought she was going to shoot me, so I pulled out my gun and fired one shot. It hit her in the head.”

In 1970, when he was 26, Norman was sentenced to life imprisonment for another murder. He had killed Eddie Coleman.

‘We had an argument,” he explained, “about the way we wanted to hijack a lorry. Edward pulled a gun on me. I struggled for it, David (Woods, Norman’s co-defendant) hit him with a hammer. He fell to the ground and I killed him with his own gun. I killed a man who seconds before was trying to kill me. At worst it was manslaughter. I don’t think the public lose much sleep when violent criminals kill one another. I covered up the murder. But we bumped into a policeman when we were trying to dispose of the body, and I assaulted him.”

Norman Parker was sentenced to 23 years.

After 24 years, he was released, having spent over half his life in jail. A week after his release, he was interviewed: “I can’t believe the homeless people on the streets,” he said. “ People actually sleep in cardboard boxes. I’m also shocked by sex and promiscuity. Take these phone lines where people talk dirty to you. If someone had come out with that 23 years ago, he’d have been dragged into a psychiatric hospital.”

His book, Parkhurst Tales, sold over 20,000 copies in hardback. He followed this with five  other books: The Goldfish Bowl, Parkhurst Tales 2, Life After Life, Dangerous People Dangerous Places and Living With Killers.

The best way to control your own legend is to write the main details of it before you die.

I only met John McVicar once, many years ago, in his flat near Battersea. He, too, was very quietly-spoken, polite and reflective. And he too wrote his own legend.

He was an armed robber in the 1960s. He, too, received a 23-year jail sentence. He escaped from prison several times and, after his final re-arrest in 1970, he was given a sentence of 26 years.

His autobiography, McVicar by Himself was filmed in 1980 as McVicar, with Roger Daltrey of The Who in the title role.

If you write your own legend, memory of what you have done in your life may survive death.

If you have a rock star play you on screen, you will be remembered.

Or – if not the ‘real’ you – the ‘you’ which you yourself have created.

The meek will never inherit the earth but, sometimes, it is the quiet ones who are remembered.

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