Brian Viner: 'Forget the Krays. Round here it's the crows who put the frighteners on us'

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The Independent Online

If there is a lovelier, more tranquil part of Britain than the Welsh Marches, I have not yet seen it. But from AE Housman's blue remembered hills down to the peaceful Black Mountains, these rolling border lands, like most border lands, were once home to thugs and tyrants. That was many centuries ago, of course, but now the tyrants and thugs are back, albeit briefly, and posthumously. Today, at Ludlow racecourse, 13 pallid watercolours painted by Adolf Hitler (none of which offer the slightest suggestion that the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna was wrong to reject him as a pupil in 1909) are to be sold by the auctioneers Mullocks. And on 13 May in nearby Leominster, at the auction house Brightwells, a load of memorabilia relating to the gangsters Ronnie and Reggie Kray goes, as the twins might have put it themselves, under the 'ammer.

Earlier this week I went to have a look at the Kray memorabilia. It has been put up for sale by a woman called Kim Lane, whose son Brad, when a schoolboy in Doncaster 21 years ago, started a correspondence with the imprisoned Reggie Kray that eventually led to Brad changing his name by deed poll to Kray, and Reg claiming him as an unofficial adopted son. Brad died suddenly last year, hence the sale. It features such diverse items as Reg Kray's crucifix, a Spitting Image puppet of a baleful-looking bird (Reggie Crow, one of the Crow twins), and a chatty note thanking Reg for his lovely birthday flowers from his friend Barbara Windsor, who, if I know my East End lore, once stepped out with the twins' brother Charlie.

But my favourite is a 1990 letter to Reg, then in C wing at Nottingham prison, from Max Bygraves: "Dear Ronnie K, a chap in Melbourne informed me that you were displeased with a line in the book I wrote ... it was an attempt at reflected glory and not intended to make your life any harder." One can only imagine the anxiety that prompted the old crooner to put pen to paper. Maybe he was worried that Reg's displeasure might cast a whole new light on his song about needing hands to hold the one you care for, and maybe he saved himself from nasty retribution by what might be termed his C wingalongamax initiative. Not that it appeared to win over Reg, who responded by referring to Bygraves, in a letter to Brad, as a creep.

Anyway, the bloody history of the Marches notwithstanding, it does seem marvellously incongruous that all this stuff should wind up being auctioned in Leominster, a place as removed spiritually as it is geographically from the mean streets of Bethnal Green, where the Krays ran their brutal empire. Round here, it's the crows who put the frighteners on us.

You raise them lovingly from infancy, feeding and protecting them when they are little, cherishing and nurturing them, before giving them space to mature on their own. But for all the spadework you put in, for all the grounding you give them, sometimes they let you down. Truly, the relationship between a man and his vegetables is a complicated one.

The parallels with fatherhood are not entirely fanciful. For three years I have invested bags of energy and hope, not to mention bags of mushroom compost, in my small asparagus bed. I have followed the textbooks to the letter, cutting back the fronds in late autumn, waiting for the all-important third season when cropping can finally start, yet here we are in late April, a time when we should be carrying trugs full of freshly-picked asparagus from garden to kitchen, and not a single purply-green head has yet speared through the soil. I feel like the father of a teenager on whom a fine education has been lavished, who then flunks her exams. Not that this feeling will be replicated when my daughter takes her GCSEs next month. She shows far more promise than the bloody asparagus. And, of course, I would much rather it that way round. A trugful of As, and perhaps even a few A-stars, will be more satisfying than just-picked spears gently steamed and prodded into the bright orange yolk of a lightly poached egg freshly claimed from our Black Rock chickens. Do I sound ambivalent? I'm not. But all the same, to paraphrase King Lear, how sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have thankless vegetables.

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