Glamourized on screen by the effete Kemp brothers (1990) and with psychological menace by Tom Hardy (2015), the vile and vicious Kray twins live forever in the pantheon of London’s East End. Every cabbie knows someone who knew the Krays. Immortalized eternal in cockney myth alongside Jack the Ripper and jellied eels, Alf Garnett and East Enders.
The Krays. Long-firm fraud and fruit machines. “Protection”. Fledgling peddlers of pills and porn. Whispers of police corruption.
London’s first celebrity thugs, lionized by the likes of David Bailey: “To be with the twins is to enter the atmosphere (laconic, lavish, dangerous) of an early Bogart movie”. Friends in high places: Lord Boothby, Tom Driberg. Criminal enterprise curtailed in 1969 with both Ron and Reg sentenced to life for the futile murders of George Cornell and Jack “the Hat” McVitie. Twins separated at thirty-four.
Pre-mortification sanctification. By the time of Ron’s death, the twins were raking in over £100,000 a year – via intermediaries – on back of the Kray name: the Krayleigh Security firm of “minders”, photos, T-shirts and other trinkets boosted by the 1990 film The Krays.
Depressed by the end of his marriage and smoking over 60 cigarettes a day, Ron Kray died of a heart attack on 17 March 1995. In Broadmoor.
Funeral as pornography. Wreaths from the American Gambino and Genovese mafia families. Hangers on: Roger Daltrey and Barbara Windsor. £950 coffin carried by six plumed black horses. Black limousines. Dave Courtney, Freddie Foreman, Johnny Nash, Joey Pyle, other shit of the earth. Gangster chic. Lapped-up by on-lookers. Recorded by John Pearson, the chronicler of the Krays:
The crowds turned out in their thousands and reverently lined the route. Young mothers born long after Ronnie was arrested lifted their own children to catch a glimpse of this historic moment as the cortege passed. Old cockneys in the crowd talked intimately about their friends “The Twins”, when most of them had never met them.
A sentiment noted by Iain Sinclair, the seer of the city:
Young women with long skirts and shoulder bags. Some of them have bought small bunches of wild flowers, violets, which they drop without show on the floral carpet.
The effect was both emotive and grotesque, an overblown rhetoric of grief. Self-aggrandizing tributes to a man who had been, for years, a chemically palliated zombie; a man whose humanity had died with his victims. In a sense, he couldn’t die: he was dead already, estranged from himself. Victim and servant of the voices. The endlessly repeated (and revised) fables of those few short months of glory, which left him trapped forever in a coffin of newsprint.
Myth bleeds into history. Mourned by “Nipper” Read, the Yard’s man who caught the Krays:
Perhaps the way the Krays were regarded in the East End is summed up by the attitude of a man I interviewed. He had been a prosperous businessman in good health and socially secure. Now, as a result of persistent pressure from The Firm, he was a sick, penniless outcast. I pointed out to him he had been ruined physically, socially, and financially by the Twins and he agreed. “But, Mr Read.” he said, “they’re such nice fellas.”
Who was Ron Kray?
- John Pearson, The Cult of Violence: The Untold Story of The Krays (London: Orion, 2001)
- __________ The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins (London: William Collins, 5th edn., 2015 )
- Leonard Read with James Morton, Nipper: The Story of Leonard “Nipper” Read (London: Macdonald, 1991)
- Iain Sinclair, Lights Out for the Territory: 9 Excursions in the Secret History of London (London: Penguin, 2003 )