HAVE YOU SEEN THESE MEN?

Too right you have - at book signings, literary festivals, publishers' lunches, all around town. Matthew Sweet on the rise of the criminal-turned- author

It all went down in Clerkenwell. This young geezer, Nick Reynolds, invited a gang of Britian's best-known villains to his workshop. Freddie Foreman - the man who fed the dismembered body of George "Mad Axeman" Mitchell to the North Sea fishes. Roy "Pretty Boy" Shaw - who once shattered the jawbone of the governor of Broadmoor. "Dodgy" Dave Courtney, who had a spot of bother in 1980 with five Chinese waiters and a machete. "Mad" Frankie Fraser, the Richardsons' torturer-in-chief, nicknamed "The Dentist" for his predilection for popping out the molars of the unco-operative. And nicknamed "Mad" because he's been certified three times.

Once they were inside, Reynolds secured his victims, stuck straws up their noses and encased their heads in that gooey pink stuff used to cast dentures. All in the cause of art, of course - and possibly the nearest they'll get to being hefted into Deptford Creek in a concrete overcoat.

Reynolds's sculpture show - "Cons to Icons" - opens at the Tardis studios in September. More imminently, however, he's rounding up the same gang for an evening of criminal conversation at the Clerkenwell Literary Festival. The panel - which includes his dad, the train robber Bruce Reynolds - will be grappling with a tough subject. These days, public school dorms up and down the land echo to the catchphrases from Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Seven more gangster-themed British films are currently in production. Anybody with a record and a mug like a Rottweiler's arse can get his memoirs into the bestseller charts. Maybe Edgar Lustgarten was wrong. Maybe crime does pay after all.

It was Lenny McLean's The Guv'nor which sprang the criminal memoir from the true-crime section and into the Waterstone's window display. McLean was a bare-knuckle boxer, East End rent-a-heavy and, later in his career, an unusual presence in films such as The Fifth Element and (inevitably) Lock, Stock. He didn't live to enjoy his success, however, expiring from lung cancer as his book muscled up the hardback charts.

Undaunted, his publishers signed up Roy Shaw, another wideboy and bare- knuckle fighter. From the sofa of his luxury bungalow in Essex, he dictated his life story to a ghostwriter with a specialist interest in the field - Kate Kray, who married the late (and the gay) Ronnie Kray, in his Broadmoor cell in 1989. Shaw changed little details to protect the guilty ("I stabbed in geezer in one prison wing, and we made out it was another wing, that kind of thing ..."), and the book sold just as healthily as McLean's. A movie adaptation is on the cards. "Ray Winstone's going to play me," he says. "He's a mate, and he said he'd be delighted to do it."

Shaw's reasons for joining the criminal literati were simple. "Everybody was writing books, and I was told that unless I had something really special to say, I shouldn't bother. Then I saw Lenny McLean's book go to No 1, and I read that. And it was a load of shit and full of lies, and I thought, well, if he can get to number one, so can I."

This Christmas, "Dodgy" Dave Courtney will attempt to grab himself a piece of the action by publishing his memoirs. They'll be the first stocking- filler probably best read with the stocking over your head. When I ring Courtney, he's only too keen to tell me all the bloody details of his exploits. More than the police or his publishers have ever heard, I suspect. His book, Stop the Ride I Want to Get Off, will reveal information about his involvement in at least one murder, and expose the workings of contemporary London gangsterism. And whether you like it or not, he's going to enjoy the attention. "I've done the crossover between infamy and celebrityism," he boasts. "And I now, more than any of the others, am earning a f---ing good living from books, films, records and telly."

He hopes that the audience at his Tuesday night literary discussion won't pull their punches. "I hope people will ask me the nastiest questions possible. What's it feel like burying a body? Do you get a hard-on after you've shot someone? Whatever anyone asks me, I'll tell them from the hip." If you're interested, the answer to the second question is yes, in Dave's case at least.

But how acceptable can such questions ever be? Can the celebrity circuit cheerfully absorb this bunch of thieves, murderers and heavies? Not very cheerfully, it seems. Victoria Hull, the director of the Clerkenwell Literary Festival, is now trying to distance herself from Reynolds's event. Last year's programme featured an evening focusing on criminal writing, but there weren't any self-confessed killers on the bill. "We had Frankie Fraser's ghost writer, but we wouldn't have Frankie Fraser himself. I don't want to glorify these people." Dave Courtney and friends seem to have slipped through the net. All very embarrassing for her, and for the festival's sponsors, the Guardian.

The villains, meanwhile, are happily pursuing their media careers. Roy Shaw says he'd never go on Blankety Blank, but Frankie Fraser has made a quiz show pilot, and his website (www.madfrankie-fraser.co.uk, of course) is an advert for his services as a cabaret entertainer. "You can manufacture any image if you do the right promotion," argues Freddie Foreman. "You can make somebody a household name through the media with very little background. Just like developing the Spice Girls."

Are these men becoming comic turns to amuse and titilate a middle-class audience with stories of safely historicized carnage? Are they destined to join Rolf Harris and Brotherhood of Man as po-mo celebs for hire by student unions? "I should hope not," protests Foreman. "I'm quite shy of that sort of thing. I don't want to exploit myself to that extent, or become an object of fun. There's nothing trivial about my past and I'm not proud of what I've done. I don't want young people to follow the same path and do the things I did."

But the more you read of these books, the more they seem like any other sort of showbiz memoir. True, there's an element of rehabilitationism in the books by Reynolds and Foreman. But McLean, Shaw and Fraser are like a bunch of fruity theatricals dining out on stories of their past triumphs. Instead of rehearsing an old anecdote about some scenery collapsing during a rep production of Blithe Spirit, they're re-telling a belter about a tasty bank job, or some slag having his fingernails peeled off one by one in a back room over a Woolwich pub. Pretty Boy, perhaps, would have been a much more fluent book if it had been ghost-written by Ned Sherrin rather than Kate Kray. And there is, perhaps, something inherently camp, something quietly farcical about that whole gobby mobster routine. Take a look at the back cover of The Guv'nor, and you'll see a chunky bloke with a No1 crop, skin-tight T-shirt and comically overdeveloped biceps of an Old Compton Street Muscle Mary. "It'd be too easy to reduce it all to the idea theat they're closet homosexuals," argues Jake Arnott, author of The Long Firm, a fictionalised account of the Krays and their circle. "But look at this ..." He gestures to a photograph of a topless, gold-festooned Roy Shaw. "If he went down Trade on a Saturday night he'd have to beat them off with a stick."

It's also easy to see the Soho gangster's posturing as a form of macho drag. It's there in the suits, the stares, the snarls, the fist fights, the mother fixations, the sweatily homosocial world. As products of that environment, figures like Fraser and Shaw carry a kind of theatricality with them, a Cocknified take on the Raft or Cagney swagger, learned second hand in the one and nines.

It's the almost mythological masculinity of these figures that makes them so attractive to the Loaded readers and City boys who devour their memoirs so greedily. Not all of them, however, are comfortable with such adulation. "We never called ourselves the Great Train Robbers," insists Bruce Reynolds. But even he can't resist ascending to high metaphorical terms. "The train was Moby Dick," he says, "I was Captain Ahab."

Jake Arnott suggests that much of this mythology has been generated by the cons themselves. "They think of themselves as adventurers. Empire heroes like Gordon of Khartoum or Laurence of Arabia." He sees this self- fashioning in Brechtian terms: "Brecht argued that in the modern age, adventures per se are criminal. Crime narrative has become incredibly important in this century because there's nowhere left to go to have an adventure."

The current gangster vogue might be a matter of a nostalgia for a period when masculinity was less complicated. A retreat to a time when the opinions of women were easier to ignore, when the notion of Britishness was still taken seriously, and when gangland argot hadn't been familiarised into daftness by John Thaw and Denis Waterman.

Warmed by these comforting thoughts, your middle-class Estuary geezer can show his boat down the pub and tell his mates that Ronnie Kray was a sprauncing slag who should have been lifted for slicklegging with chicken, but kept his manor safe for old ladies to walk the streets at night. Through the writings of his criminal heroes, he can take vicarious pleasure in the world of bare-knuckle violence and fast cars; indulge in boysy daydreams about bank jobs and sex with slutty broads. Then it's time to totter back to the wife and kids, slump in the armchair, and remember his Monday morning desk with a dull sense of dread and disappointment. Better, I suppose, than having one of Dave Courtney's post-atrocity orgasms.

Criminal Icons at the Tardis Studios, Clerkenwell, EC1, Tuesday, 7.30. Tickets 0171 771 2000

NAME `DODGY' DAVE COURTNEY

FORM Jailed for attacking five men with machete; self-confessed murderer

CREDIT `Stop the Ride, I Want to Get Off'

NAME `MAD' FRANKIE FRASER

FORM Worked for the Richardsons gang from South London; 41 years behind bars

CREDIT `Mad Frank and Friends'

NAME FREDDIE FOREMAN

FORM Ten years for disposing of body of Jack `The Hat' McVitie; nine years for handling stolen cash

CREDIT `Respect'

NAME LENNY `THE GUV'NOR' McLEAN

FORM Jailed for 18 months for grievous bodily harm

CREDIT `The Guv'nor'

NAME BRUCE REYNOLDS

FORM Ten years in jail for his part in The Great Train Robbery

CREDIT `The Autobiography of a Thief'

NAME ROY `PRETTY BOY' SHAW

FORM Jailed for 21 months for robbery (1959), and for 18 years for armed robbery (1963)

CREDIT `Pretty Boy'

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