Arts feature

I was Reggie Kray's penpal

Harry Mount used to have a ghoulish fascination with murderers. He’s since seen the error of his ways

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

12 September 2015

9:00 AM

When I was at university, Reggie Kray was my penpal. I wrote to him in 1991, asking for an interview for The Word, an Oxford student newspaper. Kray was unavoidably detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. But he sent me a prompt, polite letter back.

‘Thanks for your letter,’ he wrote. ‘I will see you as soon as possible. We only get three visitors a month. Could you send me a copy of The Word?’

I sent him a copy — but I never did get to be among his three monthly visitors before his death in 2000, at the age of 66. Still, I’m ashamed to say, I was thrilled enough just to get a letter from him; and to drink in his wild, scrawling handwriting — three huge, near-illegible words to a line; nine skew-whiff lines to a page of prison-issue foolscap. A graphologist would have had a field day. Was this how deranged murderers always wrote? Or was this what happens to anyone’s handwriting after 20 years in jail?

Either way, the letter satisfied my ghoulish fascination with murderers. I had first been hooked on the Krays by John Pearson’s excellent 1972 biography, The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins — adapted for the new film, Legend, out this week (reviewed by Deborah Ross on p. 55).

I’m afraid I was also rather obsessed with the Moors murderers at the time. But, then again, I was only 19. That’s not a justification for my nauseating interest in these evil savages; just an explanation.

These days, I have dropped my true-crime obsession. Cinema hasn’t; nor has the art world. As well as the film, there’s a tie-in Kray exhibition, Legend of the East End, in a gallery on Bethnal Green Road, the twins’ old stamping ground.

On show is Ronnie Kray’s black evening jacket, tailored by Gieves of Savile Row, and his chunky gold ring, with diamonds that spell out ‘RON’. You can also see the familiar 1960s pictures: Reggie sparring with his grandfather, the bareknuckle boxer Jimmy ‘Cannonball’ Lee; the dear old twins having a nice cup of tea, just after having been questioned for 36 hours about the murder of George Cornell in the Blind Beggar. In the exhibition’s flyer, you, too, are invited to ‘enjoy a cup of tea in a replica of [the twins’ mother] Violet Kray’s living room, featuring family photos’. And there’s a short documentary, shown on a loop, full of sentimental claptrap about the twins.

In the documentary, Chris Lambrianou, a Kray henchman who served 15 years for being implicated in Reggie Kray’s murder of Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie in 1967, says, ‘With their own, [the twins] were genuine, kind, thoughtful.’

Maureen Flanagan, an old friend of the Krays, tells us, ‘You can meet 80- and 90-year-olds in the East End, who say, “We wish they were still here.” …The first thing I noticed about them was manners …[Reg had] wonderful manners, he was good-looking, with beautiful hands …[They had] a respect for women and children.’

Except when they were murdering the husbands and fathers of those women and children, that is.

The exhibition promises to depict ‘the softer side of Kray life’. What next — ‘The Caring, Sharing Yorkshire Ripper’?

We’ve been through this glamorisation process before, of course, in the 1990 film The Krays in which Martin and Gary Kemp, the brothers from Spandau Ballet, play Reggie and Ronnie.

To be fair to Legend, the harder side of Kray life is shown, too. Tom Hardy — who plays both brothers — faithfully recreates Ronnie Kray’s 1966 murder of George Cornell; he shot him through the forehead with a Luger. There’s also the sickening scene where Reggie Kray knifes Jack ‘The Hat’ McVitie to death at a party in Stoke Newington. But there’s a lot, lot more on that softer side of Kray life. If you want an idea about Legend’s angle on the Krays, well, there’s a pretty good clue in the film’s name.

Ronnie and Reggie often come across as heroes — not least when they take on a much bigger gang of rival gangsters in a pub and wipe the floor with them, in a punch-up straight out of a Wild West tavern scene.

The film acknowledges that Ronnie Kray was clinically insane. But Hardy’s Reg Kray is a kind of matinée idol; he’s certainly much better-looking than the real Reg Kray. Like Reg, Hardy’s version wears immaculate, razor-sharp suits and drives the grooviest, grandest cars.

The film is drenched in 1960s nostalgia, thanks to a bittersweet soundtrack: Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell singing ‘Something Stupid’; Burt Bacharach’s ‘The Look of Love’; and ‘Chapel of Love’ for Reggie’s marriage to his doomed wife, Frances Shea.

She left him weeks after they married in 1965, and killed herself two years later, aged only 23. So much for the idea that the Krays looked after their own. Shea would probably still be alive today if she hadn’t married into a family of criminal psychopaths.

Legend acknowledges the stress of marrying a criminal like Reggie — and details Shea’s anxiety and dependence on pills. But it also portrays Reggie Kray’s marriage as an East End version of Romeo and Juliet: a dashing, devoted couple whizzing from gilded nightclub to gilded nightclub.

It’s natural to be intrigued by evil — that’s why newspapers put mass murderers on their front pages. But there’s no need to take that natural intrigue and convert it into glamour.

By all means make a film about real-life killers — but show them for the monsters they are. Dominic West’s version of Fred West in ITV’s Appropriate Adult got the mix right — Fred West came across as an ordinary, jobbing Gloucestershire builder and a chilling mass murderer. You never thought him glamorous.

The Krays have been wrongly celebrated for too long. It’s a combination of those natty suits, the charm of the East End and 1960s London, and the twins’ early understanding of celebrity —thus the endless pictures with Barbara Windsor, Lord Boothby and Joe Louis. There’s also the arresting fact that they were twins: their older brother, Charlie Kray — another nasty piece of work, jailed for helping the twins to dispose of McVitie’s body — never got so much attention.

As someone who wrongly celebrated the Krays as a teenager, I can see how easy it is to fall for their surface charm. But grown-ups should be disgusted by the unadulterated evil beneath.

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

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Show comments
  • Jack Levi

    Understand something Harry-boy. At this time in the East End, there were a lot of gang wars going on.
    The Krays were tough, you needed to be in those days, after the war. Life was tough. I know. I lived there, with the Krays as neighbors
    Our neighborhood was quiet and safe. No old lady got her handbag nicked, or some pensioner got mugged
    Pity there is not someone like the Krays today to keep the peace in those run-down Bangladeshi-controlled ratholes that were once good neighborhoods

    • Petra

      I don’t think there’s any shortage of Bangladeshi gangsters.

      The reason it was more peaceful in the 50s and 60s was because the war had changed the male demographic.

    • Frank Marker

      Gawd bless em! We love the Queen Mother we do! Knocked em in the old Kent Road. Chas n Dave. Doin the Lambeth Walk. Hoy! Alf Garnett. Up the ‘ammers! ‘andsome! Er indoors. Babs Windsor. Albert Square. And so on ad nauseum!

      Oh and let’s not forget the brilliant Cockney *anker creation from Viz.

      • red2black

        ‘And so on ad nauseum!’? Ain’t never ‘eard that one before, John.

        • Frank Marker

          Lord luv a duck! How the ‘ell did poncey latin get in there. I ain’t an iron yer know!

          • red2black

            Latin wiv a capital L, you tart. I ain’t no ginger beer neever. (tee hee)

          • Frank Marker

            That’s a red brick university education for you.

            “Didn’t you kill my bruvver”?

          • red2black

            It’s that Marker geezer again…

          • Frank Marker

            Youse better be careful wot yer say me old son, or I’ll get that old slapper Pat Butcher to move in wiv yer.

          • red2black

            Anyfin but ‘er… Be reasonable Mr Marker… Fer Gawd’s sake… Pat Butcher…

          • Frank Marker

            Oh that’s more than enough mockney banter for tonight red2black. It’s been fun though. Goodnight!

          • red2black

            ‘Ang abaht…. Bricks ain’t red… they’s brahn… Frank?…
            I’m from up North, but I love rhyming slang.
            Sweet dreams.

          • Frank Marker

            ‘Ave a banar-nah!!!!
            Can I send a battered and bruised Nancy over to yer gaffe to give you a rendition of ‘As long as he needs me’?
            I’ll tell yer wot I’ll do me old china. Seeing it’s you, like, yer can ave ‘er for a pony down.

          • red2black

            Cost me a monkey last time, Guvnor…
            A pony says it’s Pat Butcher ‘oldin ‘er life an’ death.

          • Frank Marker

            Oh gawd! I think I’m turnin’ into a regular Cockney W*nker and no mistake guv. Professor ‘iggins where the bleedin’ ‘ell are yer when I needs yer.
            Oh ‘eck here it comes again: “Knees up mavvah braahn!.. Oh let’s awl go dahn the Strand’! Laverly jabberly! Someone please ‘elp me!
            Stand back please. There is nothing to see here.

          • red2black

            The trouble an’ strife ‘as just taken a butcher’s hook aht the Tommy Trinder an’ says there’s a couple of real ‘eavy geezers bangin’ on the Roger Moore… Ah fink we’ve bofe ‘ad it Frank…

  • Jim

    You being ashamed of your teenage obsession ruined your article here. You feel a need to judge gangsters and say obvious things. We know their murderers and nuts. And they are underworld legends. Take the story for what it is.

  • Jim

    And comparing gangsters that play the life and kill other gangsters to serial killers? Get real mate. Gangster are sociopaths with multiple personalities and moral codes who only kill people in the life that no the stakes. Not prostitute killers etc. Naive judgmental article where you are trying to make up for being obsessed with all sorts of nutters by being as insulting as possible.

  • red2black

    Bring back National Service! (tee hee)

    • Frank Marker

      Didn’t do me no harm.

      • red2black

        Gertcha. Mah big bravver ‘ad to do it, an’ ‘e said it wer cushty, barrin’ ‘avin ter get aht of Uncle Ted ser bleedin’ early.

        • Frank Marker

          Careful what yer say ole cock. Or I’ll send round that big copper to give yer a clip round the earhole an no mistake. Didn’t do me no ‘arm.

          • red2black

            Ooyah!… They’re ‘ere already Frank… Ooyah!…
            Two of ’em there is… Ooyah! …Broke dahn the Roger, they did… No bleedin’… Ooyah!… warrant neever… Ooyah!… Sez they’s The Sweeney… Ooyah!… an’ they ain’t ‘ad their Frank… Ooyah!… Skinner…

  • Bodkinn

    As a teenager in the east end when the Krays were at the height
    of their powers I can say that they were a product of their post-war environment. There were a lot of bad people around at the
    time and the Krays and the Richardson were far from the only gangs of family
    criminals. No one is all bad and it has
    to be said that there was a lot less crimes against the person among the old
    and women when the Krays were in charge than now. The old could open their doors and walk the
    streets at any time of the day or night without fear. This is why the general population held them
    in high esteem. They provided better protection
    than the police have ever done. It was only when Ronnie went completely off
    his rocker and became completely unpredictable that people began to turn
    against them. Associates never knew when
    for no reason he would turn on them and that meant a lot of pain.

    • omgamuslim

      Clearly you were not one of the boys chosen to be abused by Ronnie and Boothby.

      • Frank Marker

        Well said. It was either a night with that cad Boothby, or a good going over by the two twins.
        Ah, but they loved their dear old ma, so that’s ok then.

      • Bodkinn

        I’d be richer today if I had have been.

  • ArtieHarris

    “Except when they were murdering the husbands and fathers of those women and children, that is.”

    The deaths of men still don’t count for very much.

    Even though male homicide victims number three times more than female homicide victims in the UK, not a single penny of government money is devoted to trying to counter violence against men.

    “grown-ups should be disgusted by the unadulterated evil beneath.”

    Yes, they should be disgusted.

    • post_x_it

      Extreme violence is considered ever so chic in certain circles, and always has been.
      As Guido stated this morning, “Labour now have a leader who calls Hamas and Hezbollah his ‘friends’ and has met with ISIS sympathisers; a London mayoral candidate who defended a terror suspect who later pleaded guilty; and a Shadow Chancellor who praised the ‘bombs and bullets’ of the IRA.”

  • johnhenry

    You have a serious character flaw, Mr Mount, if you think we, your readers, ought to experience a shiver of interest at your juvenile approach to a criminal like Kray. In my neck of the woods, warped women write love letters to evil men every day, and so your silly adolescent attempt to do likewise was not even original.

    Loved and learnt from your book: Amo, Amas, Amat, but that’s beside the point.