'The twins can't understand what's going on out there,' says Charlie, his tanned brow creased in despair, his gold-encrusted fingers worrying at a cigarette. 'There's lunatics at large. Your mother, your wife, your daughter, not safe to walk the streets after five o'clock at night. Not safe before five o'clock. It really worries the twins what's happened to society since they went down.'
Charlie was released from prison in 1976 after serving seven years for his part in the family firm's activities. Reggie and Ronnie and their outfit ruled the East End in the Sixties, accruing huge sums from protection rackets, night clubs and gambling dens. In 1968 the twins were sentenced to a minimum of 30 years for the murders of two criminals: Jack 'the Hat' McVitie and George Cornell.
These days Charlie has become the guardian of the Kray myth. This sees the most notorious pair of gangsters in British history not as psychopathic hoods but as diamond geezers who kept the East End streets safe, loved their mum and gave the receipts of successful blags to others less fortunate than themselves. It casts them as upwardly mobile businessmen who moved in a social circle of film stars and aristocrats. It insists their like was never seen before and never will be again. To Charlie - now in his sixties, polished, charming, delightful company - the myth is at the core of his life.
'It's well out of order that they're still inside,' he says of his brothers' continuing imprisonment, long past the standard release-by date for murderers. 'What's the justification for keeping them there? I'm not saying the crime wasn't done - they admit it, I do. But they done their time. Anyway, compare what they done with that guy the other day, killed an innocent old man and his daughter and then cut them up. Gawd. He got less time than the twins. Sure, they killed people, yeah, who had families and that, and there's no justification. But they was in the twins' orbit. What I'm saying is, they wasn't normal people the twins done.'
While his brothers remain ensconced at Her Majesty's pleasure, Charlie lives in Spain on the Costa del Small Businessman. He was in England for a short visit recently ('I don't travel much. The customs always pick me out. Dunno why') and popped into the Mayfair Intercontinental Hotel in London's West End. It was a nostalgic trip. Here, he said with a twinkle, he and Reg and Ronnie had, in their heyday, wined and dined with Frank Sinatra Junior.
'Lovely bloke, lovely,' he remembers. 'And a gentleman.'
Thirty years after they ruled the Bethnal Green roost, the Kray twins remain an enduring fascination: Wednesday's Daily Mirror carried a blurry snapshot of Reggie exercising in his open prison, with a breathless caption claiming an exclusive. Such fascination means money. It is a happy coincidence for Charlie that the Kray myth he holds dear is also a nice little earner.
Charlie has done his bit on the selling front. There were those T-shirts he marketed (featuring a David Bailey portrait of his brothers above the legend 'East Enders'), which sold by the Jack-the-Hat-full; there was the film for which he was technical consultant ('didn't think much of the script though. I mean, machine guns? Ron and Reg? Leave it out'); and there have been the books. The kiosk at Heathrow airport has an entire section of paperbacks about the Krays. Among the various confessions by bandwagon-jumping associates, there are several books by Charlie. He has just completed another, called Doing the Business. But Charlie is modest about his role in the book's genesis.
'Colin Fry, a geezer who I'd done business with in the past, approached me and said: 'Why not let's do a book?' I thought, what's there left to say? He said: 'Well, I've heard you mention things about the Mafia, Nigeria, there's a book in all them
bits and pieces.' I couldn't see it myself.'
The book, while lacking the narrative coherence of The Profession of Violence, John Pearson's seminal account of the brothers, has its moments: Kray trivia collectors will be fascinated to learn that at the moment Ronnie shot George Cornell as he sat at the bar of the Blind Beggar pub on the Mile End Road, the juke box was playing 'The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More' by the Walker Brothers.
And while obviously intended to endorse the myth, the book unconsciously reveals the pathetic fallacy at its heart. Inside the Krays' secret network of glamour and violence, reads the cover line. Including the untold story of the MAFIA CONNECTION.
Glamour? Those brushes with the stars were, as often as not, simply the result of paid minding duties. Frank Sinatra Junior, for example, needed some protection against a flurry of kidnap threats when was he was in England: the boys never met his old man. Mafia connection? They were no more than money launderers, with Charlie, in the days before the customs had it in for him, the mule, carrying huge quantites of stolen bearer bonds into the country to dispose of. International business? Their scams generally ended in farce: their venture into Nigerian real estate collapsed after a local builder was threatened by a Kray associate and everyone was bundled into prison, let out only after Reggie raised pounds 3,000 in bribes.
'There was a fabulous business in Nigeria if they played it sensible, but they blew it,' remembers Charlie. 'Mind you, maybe it was fate. Where we were building was where the Biafra war happened later, so you look back and think, well maybe it's better to get out alive and lose money than to be dead.'
The one area of life of which the Kray twins were undoubted masters, however, was violence: sick, sadistic and frequent. Charlie was an unintended victim of that violence. With his good looks, smoothness and unaffected charm, he tried unsuccessfully to steer the firm towards semi-legitimacy. Indeed, when Ronnie had a 24- month spell inside in the middle period of the empire, things flourished with Charlie and Reggie at the helm. No violence, just a steady progress through the illicit East End world. They were just about to secure a big deal in West End gambling when Ronnie was released and spoilt it all.
'You have to understand, Ronnie did have a problem,' claims Charlie. 'Lots of times Ronnie was not responsible for what he did. He was sometimes, but a lot of the time he wasn't. Mind you, that John Pearson book made out he was some kind of walking psychopath . Well out of order. Ron wasn't happy with that book. But Pearson went to see him in Parkhurst. Ron said: 'John, you come here and faced me. I respect that in a man. End of story.' '
If Ronnie had behaved, Charlie would almost certainly have enjoyed a successful career as a businessman, albeit a fringe businessman. Instead he spent seven years in prison (his crimes were not much more than filial association) and since his release has found himself suffering from the family's reputation. 'It is not the easiest thing in the world,' he says, 'making business people believe you are legit when your surname's Kray.'
Yet he remains remarkably fond of his brothers. And true to the myth. Ironically, the myth is perhaps the strongest reason why the brothers stay inside. Instead of being seen as old men without the capacity to harm anyone any more, it bolsters their image as potent movers and shakers.
'That's definitely true,' says Charlie, who, according to Pearson, always had a habit of agreeing with whatever anyone said. 'All Reg does these days is write, write, write. And when he isn't writing, he's telling the kids in prison: 'What are you doing? Do you want to end up like us?' The prison people, the screws and that, have said when Reg comes out he could do the social work real well.'
For years after his release, when the twins were category A prisoners, Charlie, as a former convict, was not allowed to visit. Now that their status has changed, he can. But he doesn't go often. He finds it a painful experience.
'I have neglected them, I must admit, of late,' he says. 'I will go see them, though, let them tell me off for writing another book. One thing I have learnt from the twins, they never ever crab about what's happened to them. They accept these decisions to keep them inside and get on with their lives. Like proper men.'
'Doing the Business' by Colin Fry with Charlie Kray is published by Smith Gryphon ( pounds 14.99).
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