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.”
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.”
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.