Let's bury the gangster myth alongside Reggie Kray

'You shouldn't worry that they pulled out some poor sod's fingernails. They were only being ironic'
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The Independent Online

Plumed horses, billions of pounds worth of flowers spelling "Reggie", blacked-out limousines - his funeral was the Paris fashion show of kitsch. If the undertakers who put it on were shrewd, they'd have made a short speech to say that, while it was a sad day, life goes on. And they could arrange pebbledashing, crazy paving, fake Greek statues for garden ponds or a limited edition, staggeringly detailed, wood carving of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent crossing the winning line at the Olympics.

Plumed horses, billions of pounds worth of flowers spelling "Reggie", blacked-out limousines - his funeral was the Paris fashion show of kitsch. If the undertakers who put it on were shrewd, they'd have made a short speech to say that, while it was a sad day, life goes on. And they could arrange pebbledashing, crazy paving, fake Greek statues for garden ponds or a limited edition, staggeringly detailed, wood carving of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent crossing the winning line at the Olympics.

The only disappointment was the absence of Chas 'n' Dave, performing a number called "I was feeling sort of edgy on the day we buried Reggie 'cos I hadn't bought me veggies from the stall at Bethnal Green. And I promised him a marrow if he found the straight and narrow and now he's stiffer than a barrow he's the straightest he's ever been. Oi!"

Surely Reggie would have preferred them to the singer from East 17 who ended up as a pall-bearer. Reggie must have misunderstood when told "this lad is big in East 17". He obviously thought this meant the lad controlled Dalston, not that he mimed to shitty ballads from the Fifties.

Even more predictable than the style of funeral were the comments from journalists and passers-by. Shops, according to one report, were "closed as a mark of respect". Though it may just have been that the shopkeepers weren't taking any chances. They were probably worried the whole thing was a scam, and Reggie would leap out along the way and yell: "Oy nosher, where's my three pounds seven and six?"

One onlooker, it was reported, said: "Criminals were different in those days. These days, they've got no respect. And another thing, back then they had short hair. These days, you don't know whether your head's being put in a vice by a boy or a girl!" Other mourners echoed the cliché of the noble criminal who only ever tortured his own, etc. I expected someone to say: "And one thing you can say about the Kray twins. At least they weren't gay. Except for one of them."

The love of nostalgia must be the reason for the music at the funeral, including "Morning Has Broken". The congregation was probably muttering: "I've always liked that Cat Stevens because in them days, your Islamic Fundamentalists had a bit of respect. Say what you will about the Black September Group, at least you knew where you stood with them. They might have hijacked the odd plane, but there was always order, not like with this Taliban rabble".

The stereotype respect for the Krays among some older white East Enders is almost a working-class version of the sycophancy that flows from parts of the media towards anyone rich and powerful. Feature writers swoon, "She's a marvellous hostess", or "She's ever so warm-hearted" about Elizabeth Murdoch, ignoring the wider picture. Just as I'm sure there are journalists in Cambodia who said, "but when you get to know him, Pol is actually a really sweet guy."

Most people don't get to attend the charity balls and banquets frequented by really important people, but most of the East End of London in the Sixties could claim a connection to the Krays. "My mum used to mend their mum's dresses," someone once told me proudly. I'm sure there are people who roll up their shirts in pubs and say, "Guess who done that knife wound. Go on. Ronnie Kray, that's who. I'd have asked him to sign it for me if I hadn't been on a life-support machine."

But the contemporary affection towards old gangsters doesn't only spring from these areas. Villainy is chic in literature and film, and a history of torturing people in council flats seems to guarantee a table at any society function. Petty criminals will soon be followed around by agents and promoters, who hug them and splutter, "Oh darling, when you plugged in those electrodes you were simply maaaaarvellous." Hit men will turn up at their hide-out before going on a job, and find a bouquet of flowers and a bottle of champagne with a message saying "good luck".

Attitudes to gangsters have gone the same way as sexism. You shouldn't worry that they pulled out some poor sod's fingernails, they were only being ironic.

So the next time one of them dies, they may well get the same treatment as other celebrities. The newsreader will adopt that solemn look and say: "Tributes have been flooding in for one of Britain's best-loved gangsters. Frankie Fraser said he was 'a credit to his profession', and Barbara Windsor said 'he was a doll, and he only ever scalped his own kind'."

When I go, however, I want no plumed horses. I say this because following a column about East End gangsters and Islamic Fundamentalists, it's an issue that may need addressing some time around next Tuesday afternoon.

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