Charlie Richardson - not a Prince of darkness, just a bully

Dead or alive, the sad or sadistic are glamorised. The reality is that of those who endure the lingering consequences of evil's  reckless actions.

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They call him Charlie. Even when they are recounting horror stories about how he snapped people's fingers off with bolt-cutters or nailed his victims' limbs to the floor, they call him Charlie. Not Richardson. No, they refer to him with an affectionate diminutive – as they do with those other Sixties gangsters Reggie Kray or Ronnie Biggs.

One minute the media are reporting in tones of sombre horror the murder of two policewomen and grenade-and-gun lawlessness on the streets of Manchester; the next, the BBC is recalling how Richardson gave his victims a clean shirt to go home in, as if that were quaint rather than sick. Huge obituaries in papers like The Daily Telegraph end with the sepulchral conclusion: "Charles Richardson, born January 18 1934, died September 19 2012", as though he were someone who achieved something.

There has been a Hammer-horror indulgence about the lurid detail of his crimes. But, added to that, there has been a terrible false romanticism about much of the reaction to the death of the 1960s gangster Cockney boy made bad.

In part this is to do with a distinctly British tendency to allow the passing of the years to soften and sentimentalise our view. Enoch Powell went from being a chilling racist to a great parliamentarian, Tony Benn from a dangerous revolutionary to a national and constitutional treasure.

Evil is routinely glamorised and romanticised in cinema; in the 2004 film Charlie, Richardson is portrayed as both likeable and charismatic. It is part of the individualist Hollywood myth of "one man against the world".

The same perverted impulse is there in the adulatory Facebook sites which sprang up about Dale Cregan, the man charged with the two Manchester police murders. Posters praised him as a "hero", a "cop-killer" and "the greatest legend since Raoul Moat". Nearly 30,000 joined an internet tribute group to Moat who died in 2010 following a police hunt which 24-hour television news reported as though it were a live action movie.

Criminals become legends only if popular psychology makes them so. There is an Anglo-Saxon tradition in Robin Hood and Dick Turpin of the outlaw as folk hero, an anti-authority symbol of hope for a people who can do little to change their lot. But, in reality, Raoul Moat was a pathetic, washed-up loser.

Yet the devil gets the best tunes. The phrase "the glamour of evil" comes from the Catholic baptism service, which also refers to Satan as "the prince of darkness". The elevation of evil to princely status goes well beyond gun-toting Hollywood anti-heroes. The human fascination with the excitement of the transgressive rule-breaker is lauded by Nietzsche's notion that we can love life in its entirety and reach a sort of bliss only when we are in danger. Freud understood this. Bad people make better stories than the unresolved messiness of everyday life. But it is all bogus.

The reality is that of those who endure the lingering consequences of evil's moments of reckless action. PC David Rathband, who was blinded by Moat, struggled to cope, with unimaginable courage, for two long years before giving up. He posted a message that he had "lost my sight, my job, my wife and my marriage" and committed suicide.

Reality is the feeling that creeps across the families and fiancée of a dead policewoman each morning as they wake and the slow, leaden realisation of their loss seeps once again into their consciousness. It is a world of dark days because the narrative simplicity of evil does not tell the real truth about life where, in the end, ordinariness may be our strongest resource.

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