Diamond mystery of the Great Train Robbery

The Yard knew it never got the whole gang ... but the whole principle was that no one would talk. Old Bill could chop your legs off and you wouldn't grass - Ronnie Biggs

PHIL DAVISON

Thirty years after Ronnie Biggs started his life on the run, the great train robber has hinted that the gang which carried out the famous railway theft may have been after something more than old banknotes - a package of priceless gems.

It was 30 years ago this week that Biggs last saw England following his escape from Wandsworth prison. Now 66, he has lived in Rio de Janeiro for 25 years after initial plastic surgery in Paris and more than four years in Australia.

It is not difficult to believe that he blew his "whack" from the robbery on 8 August 1963 - pounds 147,000 then, the equivalent of close to pounds 2m now - on the escape to Australia and the first few years of extravagance. But what if there had been a bunch of uncut diamonds on board the famous Glasgow- Euston train.

The first intimation that there might have been diamonds on board the train came from Biggs' QC, Michael Argyle, some years ago.

But now Biggs himself has suggested that they might have been on the train. "I didn't see any diamonds. But somebody nicked them," he said.

Further hints about the presence of gems on board the train emerge in Biggs's first novel, Keep on Running, which "draws on the true events surrounding the Great Train Robbery". In the book, Biggs writes that 50 uncut diamonds were snatched from the train along with the cash-filled mailbags.

One of the robbers, named in the book as David and one of three gang members never caught, got away with around half the diamonds, whose total value may have been more than the pounds 2.6m cash haul, according to the novel to be published in Britain on 31 October.

The rest of the book echoes the "crime of the century" and begs the question whether the book is fact or fiction. For example, could the man who got away with the diamonds have been Biggs and not " David"?

"No way," said Biggs. "Scotland Yard always knew it never got the entire gang. But the whole principle of that robbery was that no one would talk. Old Bill could chop your legs off and you wouldn't grass on your mates."

"The book is fact mixed with fiction. It's basically the facts with a dash of fiction," Biggs insisted. "The story is very close to the facts. But I had to disguise the identities of the people involved."

The three robbers who got away are given the pseudonyms David, Freddie and George. The latter, in real life, was the "heavy" who coshed train driver, Jack Mills, but was never caught, according to Biggs. In the prologue, Biggs said he wrote the book after "Freddie" called him to congratulate him on 30 years on the run. "Ron, you tell the story," he said. "You know what happened ... but no real names, Ronnie, not even the initials."

The man described on the jacket of his autobiography as "truly the quintessential lovable rogue of our time" spoke as he sipped a beer in his hillside apartment in Santa Teresa.

Biggs's 21-year-old son, Mike, whose mother was the train robber's former girlfriend, Raimunda , sat on the arm of his dad's armchair in a T-shirt reading. It was Raimunda's pregnancy that allowed Biggs to stay in Brazil in 1974 after the Scotland Yard detective Jack Slipper tried to detain him in Rio. Biggs also has two grown-up sons in Australia, Chris and Farley.

The novel is far from Biggs' first money-spinning venture, developed on the back of his notoriety. He has recorded punk songs (as with the Sex Pistols in 1978), appeared in Brazilian television adverts (for burglary alarms) and run "The Biggs Experience" - inviting British tourists to listen to his robbery tales in return for pounds 30 a head.

The book is likely to bring in a few badly needed bob for the former petty crook from Brixton, who believes he helped "create a major moment in history. The train robbery was the last decent crime".

His next project? "A cookery book. With a difference. I want to call it Autobiography of a Cook, but there'll be an 'r' wedged between the letters 'c' and 'o'. The idea is that I'd steal all the recipes, give them different names and no one would ever know they'd been filched. Porridge would, of course, be included since I've done so much of it."

Biggs is now slightly hunched, but he is still an imposing, charming and youthful figure although the 1965 plastic surgery has left his cheeks bloated. His longtime companion is an Argentinian-born woman, Ulla, whom he has known for 20 years. "We're sort of good mates but we keep our separate lairs."

After his usual request for cash in return for an interview - "times are hard" - he settled for a "decent" lunch and a few beers in his local amarzen, or grocery store-cum-bar, where the Englishman in the flat cap and trendy, though greying, pony-tail is a local hero. He has, after all, lived here or hereabouts for 25 years. His only excursions abroad were to Argentina and Bolivia to renew his (borrowed and falsified) passport in the early months of his stay and a cruise to Barbados in 1981 after he was kidnapped by a group of former British soldiers. A Barbados court eventually returned him to Brazil rather than Britain.

In the bar, the drinks appear to be endlessly on the house, while in the churrascaria, or steakhouse, "Senhor Beeg-eez" gets the best cuts. On a bus to Botafogo beach, passengers nod to Biggs and smile.

Biggs said he had heard nothing from the Brazilian authorities about any change in his status now that Mike has turned 21 and legally no longer needs protection. Nor did he seem concerned over a new extradition treaty between Britain and Brazil that is likely to renew Scotland Yard's interest in him.

"I don't think that treaty had the vaguest thing to do with Ronnie Biggs," he told me. "When Mike turned 21 in August, I had all of Fleet Street on the line, saying, 'are yer knees knockin', Ronnie?', But I've heard nothing from the Brazilians and I don't expect to."

He remains aware of the dangers of returning to England. "I wake up every morning and the first thing I do is make a nice cup of tea. But if I went back to England, I'd have to go to jail. I got 30 years and only served a year and a half."

"If I went back, I feel they'd be obliged to reduce my sentence. I believe the Home Secretary could reduce it but I'm not sure he'd want to. I'd rather fight to the last round. I think there'd be zero point in going back. After all, I'm the only one who's beaten the system, so to speak.

"I think secretly even Jack Slipper would be quite happy to see me left 'to suffer in lonely exile', as he once put it ... I suppose if you asked me what I wanted out of life, it would be to live in complete freedom to come and go as I like."

Any regrets? "I don't think anyone should have any regrets ... You're an adult, you know the difference between right and wrong, and if you go down, you have to bite the bullet. That's part and parcel of the whole scam, you know?"

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