`Most criminals would have dumped the kid'
A Family Affair
Monday 08 November 1999
I didn't want children because they mean entanglement and responsibility and as I saw it they would hamper my career as a thief. When Angela told me she was pregnant it was soon after a car accident in which I had faced death and it seemed like destiny that I should have created life instead.
When Nick came along the whole world changed and I had all these feelings I could never have imagined. I decided then that I wanted to give up crime and I knew the only way was to go for the major prize then get out. So we committed the robbery and I took off to Mexico in 1964. We had a fantastic life - the sort millionaires can't have because they have too many responsibilities.
At that time I was imbued with my own stardom - remember The Great Train Robbers had a great deal of press - and I thought I could do anything. I spent all the money and realised I would have to go back to Britain and do another robbery. But I was still convinced I could get away with it and that Nick would always be with us.
As a working-class boy who was evacuated during the war, I never had much education, but I read a lot and I wanted Nick to have a crack education and every chance and I wanted to be close with him throughout his formative years. Of course it didn't work out like that because when I was inside there were a lot of problems with my wife about seeing him. We had our ups and downs for almost six years, it becomes a substitute for sex. But she made sure he came up every month and we had good two-hour visits and I still have some of the cards he sent me at home. His weekly letters were invaluable - you need them when you are feeling isolated and insecure. I tried, in my letters, to put my moral values over to him.
I never felt ashamed of him seeing me in prison but I was straight with Nick. I said this is what I did and this is what you get. He once said to me, "Dad what did you do with all the money you stole?" Then he looked pensive and said: "I know, you bought me all those Action Men didn't you?"
When I came out was probably the toughest period of my life. I had no home and then Nick told me he was going into the navy. I was staying with an old friend, walking the streets at night and wondering whether I wanted to break my parole and just get back inside. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life, except not get back into crime. But I got into a routine and enjoyed seeing Nick at weekends. Our relationship became fraternal. He is my best friend now. We are both aware I am far from being God, but far from being the Devil too. I'm just Dad with my weaknesses and foibles.
I didn't know Dad was a famous criminal on the run. I just knew we had left Britain to live in Mexico and that we kept moving and that we had a great life mixing with some dazzling people. My Dad and I were very close because I was with him all the time and I see that as a measure of his love. Most arch criminals, as a matter of survival, would have dumped the wife and kid, but there he was travelling with this little boy.
I didn't pick up any anxiety until we had to leave Canada in a big rush. I had about 10 Action Men at the time and there was no room in the car for them. I remember thinking `I don't get this.' Then when we were back in England and the police barged in to arrest him and I saw my mother crying, I realised things weren't all right. But even when the police took him I was convinced that, being him, he'd get out in a week.
On our first visit to see Dad in prison we had to go through a labyrinth of passageways and locked doors and there he was in the middle like the Minotaur. Then I realised he wouldn't be able to get out. But in a strange way my life mirrored his. I was sent to boarding school because my Dad had been determined I should have the education he didn't have - that was a different kind of prison. My Dad wrote to me every week, he tried to educate me and keep the bond between us. He sent drawings and lino cuts and cartoons and art postcards - one of these was Magritte's picture of a man with a train coming out of his mouth and the curious thing is that although I didn't remember that card at the time, one of the sculptures I did of Dad for the exhibition shows him with a train coming out his mouth.
He never talked about life in prison when I visited but it shocked me seeing him in a prison uniform and his hair had almost turned white and the worst was that he looked the same as everyone else - before, he had been unique. That put me off crime as much as anything could.
We bolstered each other up talking about what we would do when he came out, but when it was really due to happen I panicked. The most we had had together was two hours, so what happens, I thought, if after a week we can't stand each other. I joined the navy and moved back in with him - I'd left my mother's home when I was 15 because she had someone new and we didn't get on - but only came home at weekends. That worked, it gave us time to get to know each other. It was a difficult time for him, the world had changed a lot and he wasn't the man he was when he went inside. I'd grown up as well of course. So it seemed better that we should try to be mates rather than father and son. We've managed that. We're each other's confidants too.
We went drinking together and I met all sorts of famous criminals - of course that gave me the access I needed when I wanted to do cast heads for my show. The first was Dad's and the whole lot took seven years.
It's been important creating something from his `fame' because I feel I have stopped running away from his past and embraced him with my sculptures. I always knew my Dad was the best but I was never in a position to prove it.
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