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The Independent Online
Two generations of villainy regarded each other across a Dublin restaurant last week. Representing the East End of London was Francis "Mad Frankie" Fraser, former hatchetman of the Krays and Charlie Richardson and a legendary figure in the arts of persuasion. These days, he has a travelling roadshow in which he explains to delighted audiences the niceties of blagging, fronting up, grassing, totalling and (Fraser's own refinement) extracting the teeth of ill-favoured associates with a pair of gold-plated pliers.

He has been over in Ireland, appearing on The Late Late Show and putting himself across as a bit of a rough diamond. After one such show, he was dining in a swish restaurant called the Courtyard with his girlfriend, Marilyn, and others. A friend of mine was at a nearby table with an elderly gent called Sean, an IRA man of the old school and the last surviving member of Michael Collins's "intelligence squad" who routinely gunned down the Black and Tans during the war of independence. At 96, he is an unashamed ex-guerrilla who was pleased as Punch to see himself impersonated on screen in Neil Jordan's recent film about his former boss.

The aged Sean could not take his eyes off Mad Frankie, with his triumph- of-the-embalmer's-art complexion and his dubiously blackened hair. "Who's yer man?" he asked my friend, and sat nodding sagely through a recital of the Fraser curriculum vitae: the 40 years in prison, the deaths, the gangsters, the certificates of insanity, the incarceration in Broadmoor, the lot. With the high-mindedness that characterises a lot of terrorists, Sean tut-tutted about Mr Fraser's bad-boy record. He had, he said, the strongest objection to criminals (as opposed to "freedom fighters"). "In fact," he said, narrowing his eyes, "I'd drop him, no problem, if I had me Luger with me now." And the former hard man of London gangland was more than a little surprised to see a wizened Irish nonagenerian at the next table point a spindly finger at him and go "Bang!"

Having devoted myself to a life of ceaseless work and charitable endeavour, interrupted only by moments of sober meditation on the futility of human wishes, I was surprised the other evening to find myself blissfully and fantastically sloshed at midnight in the depths of Soho at a basement club called Gerry's. We had been launching a novel by Joseph Connolly, the former bookseller turned prolific writer of black comedies about people you would rather not have round for dinner. Drunkenness, adultery, madness, sexism, kidnap and blackmail make starring appearances in his new book, Stuff, along with the author's trademark: irascible conversations. The pages of his books are strewn with enraged italics, as people called Raymond and Gideon have furious rows with each other or say "You're such a bitch, Emily" to their wives. It's no surprise to find that Rik Mayall is slated to play Eric, the hero of Connolly's second novel, This Is It, which Granada is televising in the autumn.

The author himself is famous for two things. One is the prodigious amount of hair he has managed to grow all over his face, spreading like a mohair tarpaulin over the entire surface of his head and neck. From 10 yards, he resembles an amiable yak. Close up, he comes into focus as a younger (and hairier) Captain Bird's-eye.

Connolly is, as far as one can tell, a perfectly reasonable-looking chap, so nobody can explain why, since the age of 24, he has allowed this shaggy efflorescence of beard, moustache and hair to spread across his fizzog like a Rastafarian triffid.

The second thing is his aversion to being compared to Kingsley Amis. Everyone compares him to Amis - the New Statesman does, the Ham & High does, even his publisher does. Connolly would much rather his works were considered to be sui generis. He has, however, only pleasant memories of Amis, whom he knew as a customer in his Flask Bookshop in Hampstead and as a drinking companion in the Flask pub next door.

"I remember Kingsley once going home to judge a poetry competition for the Express or the Mail, whose readers had been encouraged to send in their work," he recalls. "Kingsley had asked to be paid in Scotch, to bypass the taxman, and had been sent six cases of The Macallan that day. When I came by later in the evening, he and Laurie Lee, his co-judge, were rolling on the floor amid lots of empty bottles, shrieking with laughter at the awfulness of the entries and choosing a winner by sticking a kitchen fork into the pile."

Nice to see the literary world displaying the ethical rigour for which it is so justly famed.

Bad sight of the week was the man from Great Eastern Railways who appeared on the regional news on Tuesday night to explain about the dead body on the track. On 6 February, a young woman apparently committed suicide by jumping in front of a train on the Shenfield-to-Southend line in Essex. They discovered the body at 5am. What did Great Eastern Railways do? Shut down the line until the corpse could be taken off the track and borne respectfully away? Well, no. Instead, the bosses told drivers that there was a body on the line but that they had to drive over it. Twenty trains thundered over the mortal remains of a 28-year-old woman who had had no wish to live, but who might have expected a slightly more dignified send- off.

When the news got out a month later (which it did only because Lew Adams, the general secretary of Aslef, was told by drivers last week) the rail union was, quite properly, appalled. "Sick and uncaring" was how Adams described the rail company.

Then Mr Dave Sergeant came on to explain for Great Eastern Railways. It wasn't our fault, he said. We couldn't just close down the line. That would mean fouling up all the services and inconveniencing customers. The customers expect the trains to run on time, you see ...

You could hear the collective jaw of the nation drop open with a thud. Had this guy any sense of the human body as anything more than a business unit?

What is, of course, obvious is the mendacity of Great Eastern's position. They are at the mercy of the "penalty regime" that came in with privatisation - stipulating that if services fail to run on time, the company under contract must pay a penalty. It is an extension of the "passenger's charter", and its heart is in the right place. But to elevate the importance of the timetable or the financial penalty above the last corporeal presence of one of those very passengers is to take the "charter" insanely literally.

One more thing. When they found the woman's body, it wasn't conveniently lying between the sleepers. Her mangled remains were hanging over the track. Some helpful railwayman had to move them into the middle and cover them up before the first of the 20 trains arrived to hurtle over her demolished form. Could we get him on telly, perhaps, to explain the need for Customer Throughput Efficiency Maintenance, or whatever they call it at Ghoulish Eastern Railways?

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