How these two hellish creatures became heroes

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The Independent Online

As six black-plumed horses clip-clopped the last of the Krays into history yesterday, those east Londoners who saluted Reggie's coffin with dry eyes must have marvelled at the enduring status the brothers had earned.

As six black-plumed horses clip-clopped the last of the Krays into history yesterday, those east Londoners who saluted Reggie's coffin with dry eyes must have marvelled at the enduring status the brothers had earned.

Many among the throng would be hard-pushed to identify the site of Fort Vallance, the family home in Vallance Road, Bethnal Green now demolished. Yet the Kray legend here is as prolonged as that of Al Capone in the United States.

They were not prepossessing figures in their heyday. They were simply boxers who punched harder outside the ring than in. Their criminal achievements did not stupefy; they amounted to nothing more sensational than protection rackets, dodgy clubs and eradicating a few minor thugs.

So why their abiding fame, 31 years after being ejected from society, Ronnie to die behind bars in 1995 and Reggie to become terminally ill there until his release a few weeks ago? The answer is that people continued to mention them: in books, film, poetry, newspaper articles, on television, in sociological analyses and dissertations. Not exactly folk heroes, they became folk tyrants; characters who could inspire fear in adults as the Brothers Grimm did in children.

Further than that, they did "favours" for their neighbours and attracted "respect" in return. And by their incarceration these hellish creatures may even have gained something of an aura of martyrdom.

Yesterday, listening to the holy and secular favourites in church, I recalled another Kray ceremony with church music. It was 1965 and Reggie was marrying Frances Shea, a young woman who didn't quite know what she was taking on. Ronnie was best man.

The organist belted out a popular hymn. I glanced around me, hoping to witness some tight-faced intimidators go slack-jawed in response. Not far into the rendition, however, it was embarrassingly obvious that nobody knew the words.

Ronnie turned his head, flicked his dead-fish eyes over the pews behind him, jabbed a finger at his mouth and threw up his hands. And still the wedding guests were silent. I observed his powerful shoulders heave and slump repeatedly as he sought control of his famously murderous temper.

Finally, he strode down the aisle, cheeks aquiver, and whispered loudly. "Sing, fuck ya!" he ordered, just as the organ's last note died away and the nervous clergyman shuddered.

The noise that ensued appeared to satisfy the best man; strange moans and whines that lacked melody yet conveyed a harmonic urgency. The fact that the lovely Mrs Reggie Kray committed suicide shortly afterwards has added a certain poignancy to that memory.

In those days, East Enders closed ranks when such tragedies struck. Stoicism and solidarity were important. These enterprising people had a draw-string stealth which, with great hardships and communal sharing, helped to create a no-go area for outsiders.

In the 1960s, as the docks began to close and immigrants from the West Indies settled in, the draw-string slipped a little, allowing strangers a glance into a grainy, enshadowed, black-and-white world. And, it being clear that world would soon disappear, the strangers lavished their appreciation on it. This did Ron and Reg - and their older brother Charlie, now also dead - no harm at all.

By the middle of the 1960s, for well-heeled sophisticates with homes in Kensington, Chelsea and Hampstead, the place had become fashionable for visits, though not yet for residences or upmarket business. The "cultural exchange" led to an insatiable curiosity among outsiders about the East End's "ethos" and gangster-chic.

Yesterday, I also recalled a long-ago conversation in Fort Vallance. The Krays were in an amiable mood and unusually garrulous. Their intimacy with eminence had given them a sense of invulnerability. Violet served us tea and cakes on her best china. Her twins became sentimental about neighbours and said they believed in God.

Taking advantage of the friendly atmosphere, I asked: "Did you ever kill anyone?" Ronnie stubbed out a cigarette and lit another before gazing at me. He mumbled: "Why do you want to know that?"

But it was Reggie who answered me. When they were young boys, he said, they got into a parked bread van, let off the brake for a lark and crushed a child to death against a gable wall. He glanced at Ronnie. "An accident," Reggie said. "Yeah," Ronnie confirmed.