A nice man, Ronnie. And good to his mum

The death of one Kray twin will not dull the myth that has recast sociopaths as folk villains, argues Jim White
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The Independent Online
Yesterday afternoon Frankie Fraser, the one-time associate of the Richardson gang, also known as Mad Frank, and, to those more intimate with his working methods, Fraser the Razor or Frank the Dentist, was besieged by press in the north London flat he shares with his girlfriend (the lovely Marilyn, daughter of the train robber Thomas Wisbey and star Saturday night karaoke turn down at Scribes, Terry Venables's club in Kensington). Frank's comments were wanted about Ronnie Kray, the criminal twin who in 1967 shot Frank's best chum George Cornell in the head as he sat at the bar of the Blind Beggar pub, and then joked afterwards about the appropriate nature of the song playing on the juke box at the time: The Walker Brothers' "The Sun Ain't Gonna Shine Any More". Rather unexpectedly, given his career, Ron had just died of natural causes.

"You may call it natural causes," Frankie said ominously, in between fielding calls. "But, remember, I've visited Ronnie in Broadmoor. The number of drugs he was on, he must have had the constitution of an 'orse to keep going as long as he has." But now he's gone, how would Frank remember his erstwhile villainous colleague? "The media got it wrong, it wasn't all gangs and that, back then," said Frank. "As far as I'm concerned, the twins was nice people, we looked after our own. When I was charged with murder, they put up £800 for my defence. And I done the same when they was charged. When I was inside they used to drive my sister all over to visit me, Durham even. Ask her, she will tell you they was absolute gentlemen. The only thing I got against Ronnie was that he never asked me for a lend of my gold-plated dentist's tools. He never hired me to do an extraction. 'Course, I never done fillings." Many would like Ronnie Kray to be remembered like this. Not as a psychopath, but as a principled adherent to the code of never grassing on his own, a soft-hearted type who was great to his mum, did a lot of work for charity, mixed with the stars and took his punishment on the chin.

"Sure the twins killed people," Charlie Kray, the principal keeper of this myth, told me recently. "Yeah, people who had families and that, and there's no justification. But they was in the twins' orbit. What I'm saying is, it wasn't normal people the twins done." Ronnie's death will allow those who benefit to ratchet up the myth, the great mendacious rationalisation that the twins only hurt their own kind. Barbara Windsor will be able to tell her story of life with the twins to a Sunday tabloid; those T- shirts with the famous Bailey picture of the boys striding purposefully along in their Savile Row suits above the legend "East Enders" will sell by the Jack-the-Hat-full; Ron's brother Reggie, currently having property looked at in Harrogate to retire to when he is released from prison, will be polishing up the gags he will tell on the chat-show circuit: "So what did Ron tell you after he blasted most of George Cornell's head away?"

"Well, Danny, he said George had half a mind to run after him."

In truth, as we all know, the Krays were vicious sociopaths who ruled by a decidedly unhumorous brand of unpredictable violence. As criminal masterminds they were useless: whenever they seemed about to be on the brink of something big, Ronnie would ruin it with his insatiable appetite for terror, and his brother was too stupid to stop him. But what they managed to do, completely unintentionally, was to represent the tenor of the times, the get-up-and-get-with-it Sixties. They were working-class boys made rich when working-class-made-rich was the coming thing; they were anti-establishment when the establishment was at its most vulnerable; they were out and about when London was swinging and was expected to have the best of everything - pop stars, movie stars, artists, big-time gangsters.

"A lot of the Krays thing was orchestrated by the media, even back then," said Frankie Fraser. "There was a lot of people like them around, just the same. They wasn't exceptional." It was, Frankie reckoned, those David Bailey pictures that set the Krays on the path to celebrity. Though the box suits, the triangular breast-pocket handkerchiefs and the dodgy police motors may look quaint these days, when you look at those pictures now it is the timeless, sneering menace of Ronnie's face that stands out. When Buster Edwards hanged himself last year, the Daily Telegraph wound itself into a moral fury objecting to the coverage of his death, thundering that it would no longer waste obituary space on criminals. What it failed to recognise is how important criminals are and how excited we the tremulous, the law-abiding and the middle-class remain about those Sixties villains in particular. Now that it is 30 years on, and the perpetrators are old and harmless, we can still be thrilled by the vicarious intimacy with danger they offer.

And the Krays, they have an extra edge: the myth. We can all giggle about the notion of the twins as misunderstood perfect gentlemen, as community policemen, about how the East End was a safe place to walk when they were around. We laugh, even though we all know the truth. Not that we were there, but we have read John Pearson, the Boswell to this pair of criminal Johnsons, and his book, The Profession of Violence. "You have to understand Ronnie did have a problem," Charlie Kray said. "Lots of times Ronnie was not responsible for what he done. Mind you that Pearson book made him out to be some kind of walking psychopath. Ron wasn't happy with that book."

Frankie Fraser knows how much we all love a villain. Since he came out of prison three years ago, he has transformed himself brilliantly. He is a celebrity, a man of charm, polish and humour who will brighten up your cocktail party with his tales about the time he left an axe at the scene of the crime, embedded, as it happens, in the head of a certain Eric Mason. "The thing is, I was well unhappy I had to leave it there," runs the punchline. "Because it was an 'arrods axe."

A life of murder distilled into a series of one-liners.

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