Lenny Hamilton: 'I'll never forget when Ronnie Kray burnt me with pokers'

British Gangsters: As an exhibition of photographs and a TV series document the murky underworld of the country's criminal gangs in the Sixties, Christina Patterson takes tea with some of the faces
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"It's nice," says the old man in the white jacket, "to see nice people. That's what it's all about." Well, yes. You could, I suppose, say that the people standing around drinking wine, and eating strawberry tarts, at this little cafe in Soho, are nice. You could also, I'm tempted to say, make quite a strong case that they aren't, but instead I ask him if this gathering is making him feel nostalgic.

"Nostalgic?" he says in his rasping East End accent. "What's that?" It means, I tell him, fond memories. "I've got memories," he says. "I'll never forget when Ronnie Kray burnt me with pokers. I used to have black curly hair then. He burnt me hair off me. He 'eld a poker across me eyes and said: 'Now I'm going to burn your effing eyes out.'"

Right. It's quite hard to know how to follow that, but I'm being asked if I'd like to meet Eddie Richardson, so I thank him and get up. Richardson, like Lenny Hamilton, the man I've just been talking to, who was a jewel thief when he crossed the Krays, is one of the "faces" in the exhibition of photographs downstairs. The photos are from a book called Faces: A Photographic Journey Through the Underworld, and were on display at a Soho cafe to launch a new TV series. The series, which is called British Gangsters: Faces of the Underworld, is written and presented by Bernard O'Mahoney, who wrote the book. The photos are by Brian Anderson. The photos, it has to be said, are black and white, and moody, dark and beautiful.

Here's Hamilton, standing in a pub with Billy Frost. Here's "Mad" Frankie Fraser, staring at his face in a mirror. Here's Vic Dark, in a dark suit and dark glasses. "Faces", which is what gangsters apparently like to call themselves, do seem to like to look smart.

Charlie Richardson, who used to nail his victims to the floor, electrocute them and pull their teeth out with pliers, died just a few days before this party, which is being filmed for the series, but his brother Eddie's here anyway. There was, apparently, not all that much love lost.

Eddie, who was co-boss with Charlie of the Richardson gang, which offered "protection" to the pubs and clubs that installed their one-arm bandits, but not, unfortunately, to the people who crossed them, was described by two Home Secretaries as "the most dangerous man in Britain". Now he's an artist. Some of his paintings, of wolves in the snow, and a jester, and a man in a cap, are included in the exhibition. He learnt to paint, he tells me, during his last spell in prison. Now he has exhibitions of his own. "I did 30 grand in one day," he says. "Not too bad." Something in his voice makes me not want to ask about the nails, and the pliers, and the cables. Instead, I ask about the photos and the book. They look, I tell him, as if they're glamorising a lost era. Richardson stares at me, and his eyes, I think, look dead. "I don't really look back," he says, "I'm thinking about tomorrow."

Vic Dark is thinking about "tomorrow", too. In the photos, he looks like the kind of man you definitely wouldn't want to meet in the dark. "Someone invited me on an armed robbery when I was about 17," he tells me, "and that was it. I was never against any working-class people. I can honestly say I never robbed a working-class person in my life."

It's quite easy to forget, when you're talking to him, that this is a man who spent 19 years in jail for shootings, stabbings and hijacking a police car. Now, he says, he does "body security", debt collecting and charity work. The photos, I tell him, are like a glimpse of a lost world. "That era," he says firmly, "is in the past." He adds: "Can I just say something about gangsterism? My house is like a fortress. I wake up at four every morning because I think the door's coming off. If you're living the life of a gangster today, it's a load of crap, you can't relax."

Well, no, I'm sure you can't. And I'm sure he meant to say "ex-gangster", but some ex-gangsters do seem to be having quite a nice time. O'Mahoney, for example, who is doing very well out of his true-crime books. O'Mahoney was a key member of the Essex Boys firm and head doorman at an Essex nightclub where, he tells me, he had ways of "making sure" that "bullies" stayed out. When Leah Betts died after taking an ecstasy pill supplied by his "business" partner, he decided to call time on the firm. Two weeks later, three of its members were dead. He got out and turned to writing. But isn't he glamorising that world? "No. I refuse," he says, "to write anything that glamorises it. No frills. No gimmicks. I just write it as it is."

The series is pretty gripping; Eddie Richardson saying that "some people did get chopped up a bit" sends a little chill through you, and so does Fraser boasting about the prison officer's ears he cut off. And when a fat, old bloke with tattoos, who turns out to have been a key member of Manchester's Quality Street gang, says, "We was massive, it was like royalty", and that he has "no regrets whatsoever", you can't help feeling that there's at least as much pride around as remorse.

But what isn't in doubt is that this world is lost. Class A drugs and guns have changed the rules. "If Ronnie Kray walked into a pub and threatened someone," says O'Mahoney, "they'd walk out, buy a gun and fucking shoot him in the head." Which sounds very much as if what he's saying, and also in his books, and also in his TV slab of social history, is that things were quite a lot better before.

'British Gangsters' will be broadcast on Yesterday at a later date and is out on DVD from Revelation Films on 19 November