Who wants to be a millionaire?
Mikey Carroll is the £9m Lottery winner whose crack-smoking, neighbour-from-hell antics have turned him into a national hate figure. Our writer visits the 'King of Chavs' in his Norfolk home and (between near-death moments) discovers he's really a misunderstood poet
Sunday 22 October 2006
The first things you notice are the blown-out tyres, the paintballing rifles and a truly remarkable quantity of discarded boxer shorts. Closer examination of the debris reveals a woman's shoe, an empty packet of Viagra and a DVD biography of the notorious felon Charles Bronson. On top of the heap is a solitary £1 note from a game of Monopoly.
It's here, in the garage of his semi-detached house on a modern estate in Downham Market, Norfolk, that Mikey Carroll has preserved the wreckage from his former life. You don't need to be Sherlock Holmes - you don't even need to be Watson - to deduce what sort of existence this was. As I help sort through the clothes, the hubcaps and the crushed cans of Stella, I can't help telling Britain's most famous Lottery winner that this heap of jumble contains more windproof lighters than I have ever seen outside of a newsagent's shop.
"Those," he says, with characteristic helpfulness, "are from the time when I was on crack."
We divide his belongings into two piles. The first, which includes an artificial Christmas tree, boxed and unopened, goes into the back of a Ford Transit, bound for the tip. The second, far smaller, consists of belongings he wants to keep. After an hour or so we've almost filled the van, and uncovered, parked towards the rear of the garage, an elegant, if inoperable, blue Morris 8.
"The floor," says Carroll, opening the door of the vintage car, one of his bulkier impulse buys, "is made of wood. Real wood. Now that," he adds, "is quality."
At one point I come across his tag box - the electronic console that was monitoring his curfew on the night of 2 November 2002, when he won £9,736,131 with a Lucky Dip ticket. I put the device with the rubbish.
"Best keep it," he says. "They might want it back."
Few figures have divided British public opinion quite so starkly as the man widely known as The Lotto Lout. A part-time binman when he won the prize, he's disposed of £8m in under four years. The criminal record he began to acquire in poverty - for several dozen offences including joyriding, theft and criminal damage - has been extended in wealth. At the time of writing he's been out of prison for four months, following a nine-month sentence for terrorising patrons at a Christian disco; an act, some might argue, which proves that he can't be all bad. He won the Lottery at his first attempt; a turn of events, in the words of his local constable, that "proves God has a sense of humour".
Before his last sentence, Carroll, now 23, had vacated The Grange, a mansion he bought in the previously genteel Norfolk town of Swaffham. There, his crack-fuelled parties and banger-racing sessions horrified neighbours to the point that one informed reporters that (omega) her whippet was having epileptic fits. Carroll still owns The Grange but prefers the shelter of this modest house, 20 yards down the street from his Aunt Kelly, the one relative who has supported him throughout his life.
When I arrive in Downham Market - a town whose name seems strangely apt for the self-styled King of Chavs - I call first on Kelly. A self-confident, red-haired woman of about 40, she suggests recording an initial interview with Mikey at her house: "Because his place is full of his mates; he tends to get... distracted."
It's a few minutes before he arrives. As I wait, I can't help but brood on some of his reported misdemeanours: the supposed trashing of a bus full of schoolchildren; the unpleasantness involving a catapult, ball bearings, and passing motorists.
But the young man who arrives just after midday is polite, respectful and has a certain fragility. This last quality may be related to the fact that he was up drinking until 5am and isn't quite sure if he's going to throw up. He's wearing a short-sleeved shirt that reveals tattoos including a Glasgow Rangers badge, a naked woman and a barbed-wire bracelet.
"Don't you have 'Evil' tattooed on your neck?"
He pulls back his collar to reveal a small motif.
"That's what the papers said. It's a Chinese character. For all I know it could mean beef chow mein."
On his right hand there's a gold ring in the shape of a saddle, of a size that would render his apparently formidable punch even more memorable.
"There used to be a poster that sales managers would keep on their walls; it said, 'I've been rich and I've been poor. Rich is better...'"
"Poor," Carroll interrupts, "is better."
"Do you mean that?"
"Are you really saying that you wish you'd never bought that ticket?"
"I wish that sometimes. So much jealousy and hatred came with it."
While he was living at The Grange, he woke up one day to find his five Rottweilers dead, with their throats cut. He paid £130,000 to blackmailers who threatened his family. Eventually, Carroll called on a Belfast connection to "sort that out".
Shortly before he left the mansion, he recalls, "I got a bad kicking. These blokes arrived carrying shotguns. They said: 'You aren't so big now are you, Mr Carroll?' When I came to, I jumped into a car and drove away with the headlights off. I haven't lived there since. I feel safer here; there are so many eyes about. In Swaffham, there were none."
Eighteen stone and a streetfighter he may be, but there is a hint of vulnerability about Michael Carroll. He has a habit of ending sentences with a nervous laugh that sounds, if you close your eyes, exactly like the late George Best. Which is not to say that this is a man you'd like to defend in a balloon debate. He says he smashed the windscreen of the school bus by accident, when he was kicking pebbles. When I ask about the unpleasantness at the Christian disco, he's initially defensive.
"Sammi, who was my girlfriend then, called to say that her and her sister had been hit by four blokes, at this do in the town hall. I was in the bath, shaving my head. My mate Dave told me what she'd said. I pulled on my shorts, shirt and boots. I grabbed my baseball bat. My mate Paul got his bat. Dave got his knife. I was the last person into the hall. I saw Paul headbutt a bloke."
He sips a Coca-Cola, fortified with a little restorative vodka. "It was a fantastic headbutt, I have to admit," he says. "It was one of the best headbutts I've ever seen. Especially for a young bloke, you know. I mean it was a really good headbutt. Paul got six months," Carroll continues. "I got nine. All I did was stand there."
Though the trial was in February of this year, the offence dates back over two years, to his time on crack. His new book, Careful What You Wish For - written with the help of actor, former pipe-fitter and insurance salesman Sean Boru - emphasises the new stability he has discovered in life. His future, the book declares, will be dedicated to his new girlfriend, Jodie.
"Where is she?" "Well, Jodie, she's... she's gone now. I've got a new girlfriend. I can't mention her name. Her family don't like me."
The tone of his autobiography doesn't always conceal the influence of a ghostwriter. Certain sections contain words it's impossible to imagine Carroll using: they include "for" (meaning "because"), "equine" and "loo". Other passages capture his voice more accurately. "I have shagged," he observes in one chapter, "some of the very best tottie in Norfolk. I am well on my way to chalking up a thousand-plus birds." He says he spent roughly £1m on drugs and gave away around £4m, mostly to his family. Much of the £1.5m that remains has been invested.
"I still have my Rolls, my Merc and my Cosworth..."
"When would you say your life stopped imploding?"
"About five months before I went to jail the last time."
He insists that he's stopped smoking crack, a claim supported by people well-placed to know.
"I did it for two years. At one point I was spending £2,000 a day."
"How did you stop? Rehab?"
"Rehab is for Mickey Mouse people. It's willpower that you need. I could spend all day watching people smoke crack and never go near it. I am never going back to jail. Never."
Michael Carroll was buying lager when he picked up a couple of Lottery tickets on impulse. At his side was his then girlfriend Sandra Aiken, who was eight months pregnant and had her own flat in Downham Market.
"Sandra," he recalls, "snatched one ticket, leaving me with the Lucky Dip."
He discovered he'd won when Spike - his pet name for his Aunt Kelly - checked the numbers on Teletext.
"She was calling them out: 'Five? 28? 32?' I was going, 'Yes... yes... yes.' '39?' 'Got that.' '42?' 'Got that.' Once we came to the last number it was a head-rush. Mad, it was. '48?' I went into shock. We rang up and they told us how much we'd won."
He hid his ticket in a cabinet, and kept getting up during the night, to make sure it was still there.
"I didn't have a bank account. Camelot sent me to Coutts. That's where the Queen goes. But Coutts wouldn't have my money, I think because of my criminal record. I put it in an ordinary bank."
If anybody was more bewildered by the win than Carroll himself, it was the residents of his native Norfolk village, several of whom harboured the delusion that good fortune in gambling bears some relation to moral justice. Mikey Carroll was notorious in Wiggenhall St Mary Magdalen - by the time he was 11. Weeks before his triumph he'd been sleeping in the bandstand at the local park, drinking White Lightning with travellers. He was forced to stop living rough when he got a tagging order, and moved in with Kelly.
"If I'd been walking past your bandstand wearing an expensive watch, would you have..."
"No," says Carroll, looking hurt. "Course not. That's wrong, that is."
"You're telling me stealing is wrong?"
"Shops, cars; that's not hurting people. Rob someone in the street and you can scar them for life. That's a bad criminal, not a good criminal."
While a dysfunctional upbringing doesn't excuse criminality, in court or anywhere else, even Carroll's many critics concede that his early life was unusually traumatic. His mother, Kim, met his father, Andy, an RAF engineer, when she was 16 and working at a canning factory in Swaffham.
When Michael was 18 months old, his father got drunk at a dance and got into a row with a naval officer, Ian Warnicke, and an RAF servicewoman named Jackie McNally. He followed the couple home and stabbed both repeatedly. When Andrew Carroll fled the scene, his son admits, "he left them to die, or believed they were dead", and made an anonymous call to the emergency services. Both victims survived, though Warnicke lost his spleen.
In the days that followed, Kim found her husband burning bloodstained clothes. Andrew Carroll was sentenced to 11 years in a military jail. Michael's parents separated when he was seven. The boy's experiences at the hands of "Bill", his pseudonym for the worst of three stepfathers, bonded him to his absent father.
"Bill would slap me hard and make me cry. I was in a lot of pain. He put a bolt on the outside of my room, and locked me in for hours."
Andrew Carroll died of a heart attack on a golf course, aged 34, when Michael was 10.
"I got the Lottery cheque on 4 November - the ninth anniversary of the day my dad died. If that isn't fate, it doesn't exist."
"As a child, were you ever happy?"
"Until my dad died. Things started going wrong then."
He says he left secondary school barely literate.
"The teachers were always saying I was a thicko."
"Were they right? Were you slow?"
"I don't think so. I was in a special-needs class. I had dyslexia and ADHD. The real problem was that they couldn't control me."
He recalls throwing a chair at one teacher and telling him to "go fuck himself".
"Wasn't there a single schoolteacher who showed some desire to help you?"
"Yes," says Carroll. "That was him."
"Do you think your mother, if she was sitting here, would accept that excuse for your behaviour - that you were uncontrollable? You have two older sisters; how did they handle the experience?"
"Charlene and Zoe were up my mum's arse. I was, and always have been, much closer to my dad. If my mum was here now, I don't think she'd say anything. In the last row we had, she said: 'I hope your dad strikes you down.' I said, 'I hope he does too. But I believe the wrong person died 13 years ago.'"
"There's no coming back from that remark."
"No. But I meant it."
In February 1997, aged 13, Carroll received a custodial sentence for shoplifting. He says it was at Hollesley Bay Prison in Suffolk - then a Young Offenders' Institution - that he got his schooling.
"When I went there," he explains, "the only way I could read was to sound letters out, one by one. I couldn't write. They taught me.''
Carroll's sudden wealth spread turmoil in the lives of all those around him. He gave £1m to Kelly, indirectly precipitating her separation from her then husband, and a similar amount to his mother, and sister (omega) Charlene, neither of whom he now sees. "It would have been better," he says, "if I'd given them £250,000. Then they'd have carried on with their lives as normal."
The destabilising effects on his relatives were as nothing to the consequences for Carroll himself.
A couple of months after the win, he and Sandra, with their new-born daughter Brooke, had settled in at The Grange. They were joined by several of Carroll's friends, who shared his fondness for export lager and off-road motoring. He bought adjoining land and built his own banger-racing track. Within six months Sandra and Brooke had left, precipitating the drug-fuelled orgies described in some detail in Careful What You Wish For.
"I would buy a kilo of coke," Carroll states, "500 ecstasy tabs, 200 LSD tabs and a pound of cannabis. This would last us five days. We acted," he adds, "just like Roman generals" - an assertion which, if accurate, begs the question as to why the Empire didn't collapse rather faster than it did.
At the height of his dependency on crack, "I used to smoke and smoke until I had no more. I was getting chest pains. One time my mate Dave was there. I came round on the floor. I'd been having convulsions. All this blood was coming from my mouth. I thought I'd fallen asleep. Dave thought I was dead. He was crying. He said: 'Don't ever do that to me again, Mikey.'"
The Grange was previously occupied by actress Anne Aubrey, whose closest encounter with lawlessness was starring opposite Anthony Newley in Ken Hughes' 1960 film In the Nick. By August 2003, one of Carroll's neighbours, Mrs Leeks, publicly complained that she was "living in hell". The police visited the property 16 times in four months.
"Another ex-neighbour described living near you as 'like being in a war zone'."
"They didn't complain so much at the time."
"Maybe they were terrified of you."
"I always tried to be polite."
"I've the seen aerial photographs of your land, showing trashed cars, vans and that double-decker bus."
"Single decker," says Carroll, like a man insisting that he is not without his limits.
"Then there was your 2003 bonfire party."
"That night, we wrecked about £10,000 worth of cars. And we had £10,000 worth of fireworks - the kind that are like, you know..."
"Right. The biggest bonfire in Norfolk."
"Which contained a 40ft mobile home?"
"Yes. I was driving drunk one day and I ripped right through the caravan, so I put it in the bonfire."
"Can you understand why the neighbours weren't too keen on that?"
"But they still watched the bonfire. The reason me and one neighbour fell out was... I was on my field with my mates and this black 4x4 drove towards us. I grabbed a bat. My brother-in-law grabbed a blade. By the time I could see who it was, I was shouting: 'It's the neighbour! It's the neighbour!' but it was too late; someone had already punched him in the head."
"Have you ever considered anger management?"
"If I want to chill out, I drive. At 170, 190mph. That will unwind you."
"Though you, perhaps, risk other confrontations, at that speed."
"No. Because I wouldn't stop. Anyhow, I got banned, so I bought the field and drove on that. They banned me from there. Now I banger race on proper circuits."
The press coverage of his indiscretions at The Grange, which led to his imprisonment, in July 2004, for failure to comply with a Drug Treatment Order, is interesting in that its tone appears to denigrate Carroll not just for his actions but for his social class and lack of celebrity. It's knockabout fun for Ozzy Osbourne to admit to taking LSD 900 times, conduct screaming matches with his neighbours and find his dog defecating in his kitchen. It was amusingly reckless for Keith Moon to drive a Rolls-Royce into a swimming pool, and for Hunter S Thompson to detonate so many petrol bombs that neighbours filed complaints about their houses subsiding.
Carroll, on the other hand, is - in the words of the Daily Mail - a "tattoo-covered, chunky-jewellery- wearing, cocaine-snorting, foul-mouthed neighbour from hell" and one of the "hallmarks of modern Britain". Where Carroll had "a scuffed leather suite and a jukebox", the Mail noted, one neighbour's house boasted "polished wooden floorboards, sumptuous sofas and the finest curtains".
It's a matter of debate whether spotless furnishings necessarily reflect the character of their owner. When I leave Kelly's house with Carroll, and enter his own new property, "Miss-Be-Haven", we walk into an immaculate sitting-room which might have been commissioned by the Mail, right down to the gleaming parquet. The walls are hung with pictures of Brooke, his daughter, wearing a shirt that says "I Love Daddy".
But we are not alone.
There's a classic 1968 Alan Whicker documentary about Percy Shaw of Halifax, who made a fortune from patenting the Catseye. Shaw constructed a replica of his local bar inside his house, and invited friends round every night, to drink for nothing.
A similar arrangement - admittedly with a far edgier, more marginal ambience - exists in Carroll's new house. I get a cordial welcome from his entourage - Malty, Paul, Tommy and Terry - even though I'm the only one who doesn't have jail tattoos. The neighbours I speak to don't hate him. Friends drift in, occasionally visit the fridge for a can of beer or a vodka, or just sit around and smoke.
The only time things begin to get alarming is when one family member, who's drunk his weight in vodka, launches a tirade against the media. "Why," he asks, "don't they write about the good Michael's done?" (He has, among other things, been beaten senseless in two sponsored bouts with the Gladiator "Rhino", and donated generously to projects for disadvantaged children.) His relative gives a moving account of the grief Carroll suffered when his father died, then insists with some vigour that he won't be quoted on the record. "I hate the press," he tells me.
Carroll, on the other hand, tends to enjoy publicity. One of the many uncertainties surrounding the Lottery winner is the question of how he will find a fulfilling niche in life, other than as Britain's luckiest delinquent. He's proud of his property business, CHIC (Chelsea Harbour Investment Company) but says it's overseen by Aunt Kelly, "for obvious reasons". This explicit mistrust in his ability to govern his spending suggests that even he fears his funds will not last forever.
While there's no doubt he'd like to prolong his career as an improbable icon - he talks about a reality show and potential film deals - it's not impossible that such ambitions will prove elusive. In Careful What You Wish For, Carroll refers, rather worryingly, to his "image", which he says he would like to convert from lout to eccentric - another aim which, while admirable, won't necessarily constitute a living.
For the moment, he's concentrating on publicising his book. The best part, because it sounds most like his natural voice, is the diary Carroll kept earlier this year, in Norwich Prison.
"My PlayStation has gone," he complains at one point. "Why do they keep letting thieves in here?"
With the encouragement of Sean Boru, he's included a number of his poems. One, "The Ballad of Norwich Gaol", is a homage to Oscar Wilde, though if Carroll ever does develop a literary reputation it will most likely be as a modern William McGonagall. "My dearest darling Jodie," one verse begins, "I hate when we're apart/ I go to bed alone each night with a very heavy heart/ I miss your arm around me, I miss our legs entwined/ I wish that judge hadn't sent you down; I wish you'd just got fined."
The book includes the following tribute to Spike: "I adore my Auntie Kelly; she's always on the ball/ She isn't big like some birds; in fact she's rather small/ She does all of my washing, she cooks me loads of meals/ She helps me with investments and oversees my deals."
In the Norfolk area at least, the reinvention of Carroll remains a work in progress, as I discover later that evening, when I suggest going out for a drink.
"I can't do that," he says. "I'm barred almost everywhere, from here to Peterborough."
"I'm not joking."
Kelly arrives. We agree to meet the following day.
"What do you want to do," his aunt asks him. "Go-karting or paintballing?"
"Paintballing," says Carroll.
A peculiar silence falls.
I call on Carroll again, the following morning at 9.15. The mood, especially among those who have paintballed with Carroll before, is apprehensive. There are nine of us, including two women: Vicky, who is with Malty, and Kelly. Carroll has a couple of Stellas, and starts describing what happens when you freeze paintballs, which travel at 200mph.
"You can only use balls they sell you," somebody says, hopefully. We set out in two cars. I'm in the back of Carroll's Mercedes. Carroll, who's still banned from driving, is in the front passenger seat with Malty at the wheel. We meet a line of traffic on about 300 yards of single carriageway ending in a blind bend. Given the velocity with which we approach it, the queue appears to be stationary. It isn't.
"Go for it, Malty," Carroll urges.
Our driver, who hadn't exactly been dawdling up till that point, puts his foot on the floor and we overtake the line of lorries at speeds more appropriate to Heathrow than the A134. We've just passed the point of no return alongside the final truck, when a car appears in our path. Had there been time for a show of hands at this point, I think the majority view would have been that we were dead. By some sleight of hand, coinciding with every other driver stamping on their brakes, Malty manages to morph the vehicle into a narrow space that appears on the traditional side of the road. We're heading for the woods of Thetford, where they filmed the outdoor shots for Dad's Army; a site where they're no strangers to cries of "Don't panic."
"Safety," says our paintball marshal, "is our number- one priority." He proceeds with a lecture which emphasises the importance of never removing your safety helmet while on the military-style range, which causes stifled mirth in the ranks, I think because they assume that wherever Carroll goes is essentially a hard-hat area. Fire from a safe distance, he adds, and never target vulnerable parts of the body. Within minutes, Carroll has been warned for unleashing a fusillade into Terry's buttocks from roughly three inches.
Quite what paintballing with Carroll would have been like on a less disciplined site than Combat Paintball, I dread to think. "Fat Boy", as he lets his friends (omega) call him, shoots at his own team, strafes surrendered opponents and disappears between games for the odd sharpener... but at the end of the day it's been fun, dampened only by the fact that, of the two members of my team who had to attend interviews at the police station at 4pm, one has failed to return.
When I say goodbye to Carroll, I'm tired, soaked in mud, and covered in small bruises, mostly inflicted by his gun. And yet, in all the time I've spent with him, I can still recognise the man Rob Etherton, owner of his local post office, described as, "Basically a good lad, with a good sense of humour. He's just not had the best of starts in life."
Carroll tells me that he still does the Lottery.
"So was that win the best thing that's happened to you, or the worst?"
"I've had to grow up fast. I'd say it was a bad thing, because if it hadn't happened I might have my wife and my daughter still."
"Which things do you regret?"
"The drugs. I can't say I regret the women."
"I can't say I regret them because they did buzz me a lot, when I was younger. It was nice. The adrenaline when you get in a police chase is unreal. But I'm back on the straight track now."
If ever a man could be said to be standing at a crossroads, it's Carroll. Either he listens to the steadier influences in his life, or - and this second scenario is frighteningly easy to imagine - he experiences a moment of weakness that takes him back into what he has called "the nightmare" of drugs and custody.
"That," Carroll insists, "will never happen."
I'm convinced he believes it. And if there is one thing you might admire Carroll for, it's not the cash, or the cars, or his thousand ex-lovers, but his defiant and unshakeable faith in the way that his story will end.
'Careful What You Wish For', by Mikey Carroll, is published by John Blake, at £9.99, on 30 October
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