Frankie Fraser never seemed that mad to me. I used to meet him during the days when, largely thanks to the writer Willie Donaldson, he would be a slightly odd presence at book launches. His one-man show An Evening with ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser would soon be playing to amused, well-heeled audiences in the West End. Later he would conduct guided tours of gangland London. It was all rather fun.
Few contemporary figures reveal the confusion of these times between reality and show business quite as clearly as Fraser, the former enforcer of the Richardson gang who, after spending 40 years in prison, became a firm media favourite. This week, a TV documentary, Frankie Fraser’s Last Stand, will be broadcast. The “old rascal” as one newspaper described him is now in a home and recently, his son reveals in the film, was given an asbo for threatening a fellow patient. Press coverage of the story has been amused and indulgent.
In his post-prison years, from the 1990s onwards, Fraser quickly learned how to play the media game. He was a star turn at Oxford Union debates, put his name to four books, and later had his own website on which he expressed his views about this and that. At the launch of a book William Donaldson and I co-wrote, he was the centre of attention, a still, slightly bemused figure in a wide-shouldered suit, his hair dyed, his eyes dark and glittering.
I mentioned to him, in a rash attempt at humour, that no one was interested in the authors, but just wanted to talk to him. “Here’s what you do,” he said in his low, confiding voice. “You do something a bit naughty. You go to prison for 20 years. When you come out, everyone wants to talk to you.” It was rather thrilling, I seem to remember, being put straight by a proper villain, a man who was said to have removed people’s teeth with pliers, who had been shot through the head. In my little world of talk, where rows involved nothing more than raised voices and slammed doors, there was something exciting about this contact with real, live violence.
At that time, right-minded people, who would be horrified by lesser forms of bullying, saw Fraser’s stories as somehow morally different. It was as if they were almost fictional, providing a splash of colour – red, mostly – in a beige world.
How odd it is that a genuinely violent man, who avoided serving in the war by feigning madness and then looted bombed-out houses in the Blitz, has become a favoured figure in our culture. I suspect the asbo in the old folks’ home was less of a joke than it appears. Fraser, it is fair to say, has something of a temper on him, and lacks normal human inhibitions when it comes to getting his own way.
Donaldson, who spent time with Fraser, would tell stories about Frankie’s altercations with a taxi driver or someone who had shown disrespect on a bus. A waiter who brought the wrong bill was asked to lay his hand on the table. Fraser slammed his fist on it, hard, probably breaking the waiter’s fingers. “He won’t do that again,” he said.
In the end, Willie was scared of him, too. There was a disagreement over something – money, probably. The showbiz gangster was altogether less amusing when crossed.
The last time I spoke to Fraser was when I was writing a biography of Willie who had died the previous year. “Lovely man, Willie,” he said, “One in a million.” A few months later, I heard him being interviewed on a news report after one of his gangland colleagues had died. He was a lovely man, said Frankie. One in a million.
Aussies in the rough once more
It is a moment when one longs for the return of Sir Les Patterson, Australia’s well-endowed Cultural Attaché to the Court of St James and good friend of Barry Humphries. Only a man of the sensitivity of Sir Les could explain the recent behaviour of his fellow Australians.
First, there was the case of David Warner, the opening batsman who was so enraged by the sight of Joe Root, the young England batsman, wearing a false beard in a bar that he just had to punch him. According to a friend, Root was an unlikely target for a brawl since he “looks more like the Milky Bar Kid than Mike Tyson”.
Meanwhile, back in Queensland, the Liberal Party has been trying to explain why, at a fundraising dinner, the menu included disobliging references to the Prime Minister Julia Gillard. One dish, Julia Gillard Fried Quail, was described as having “Small Breasts, Huge Thighs & A Big Red Box”.
With an Ashes series and an Australian general election ahead of us, we can expect more examples of the Aussie sense of fun in the coming months.