DEATH OF A GOOD COPPER
DCS Read added in his report that he himself, indeed, considered Ronnie Kray to be 'a fat poof'
Everyone of a certain age from London has a Kray Twins story. Americans not up to date on modern British criminology may not have heard of the twins or, as newspapers of the time set them in type, the Twins.
Ronald and Reginald Kray, Ronnie and Reggie, ran London’s criminal underworld for over a decade from the late 1950s. They were the most violent gangsters London had seen and operated on a business principle based around going a good deal farther than the other fellow. Particularly with extreme violence, for which the Twins were known and feared.
The Krays went about business as gangsterism, not vice versa, theirs wasn’t some attempt to add a professional flourish – the suits, the high-life social set – to mere extortion and thuggery.
They mimicked the mafia, although failed to impress them with an arranged hit which went, as the Krays’ fellow London east-enders used to say, for a posh shit. Perhaps this is the sub-plot of the movie The Long Good Friday, where the British underworld entertaining la cosa nostra come across like the gang who couldn’t shoot straight. The botched hit would help send the Krays to jail for life.
Although they are receding into history, the Kray Twins used to be a moral litmus test for the English, particularly London east-enders. Yes, under their rule, you didn’t have to lock your doors and if anything happened to the community, then woe betide whoever it was that did it. But also yes, extortion, theft, fraud, tax fraud, an inventory of high-level financial criminality. And that is before you even get to the violence, the murders. But every protagonist – even savagely violent identical twins – has a nemesis.
The man who brought down the Kray Twins was Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, who passed away this week. ‘Nipper’ is English for a little lad. Read was 5’ 7”. Ronnie Kray bought a python he called Mr. Read when Nipper was firmly on their trail. Kray fed the animal live mice.
Nipper Read was what the English once called a good copper. He was successful because the London Metropolitan Police Force was then a meritocracy, not the loyalist conformity to bizarre political orthodoxies it is now. You nicked villains and up through the ranks you went. It is unlikely that Read gave any talks on gender fluidity.
A good copper. You wonder if are any left, like type-setters or roof thatchers. He was good enough for Ronnie Kray, possibly while feeding the python, to refer to Read as ‘a cunning bastard’. Like the Twins, Read was a good boxer. Ringcraft was to play a large part in their relationship, but it was Read’s approach in one specific area of policing that knocked down a criminal empire; intelligence.
Read was installed as detective chief superintendent of Scotland Yard’s (British police HQ) murder squad with a simple brief from his boss; get the Krays. What he found among his men was apathy. Even though Ronnie Kray was widely known to have shot a man named George Cornell in a London pub called the Blind Beggar, there was no serious attempt to arrest him. Cornell had called Ronnie a ‘fat poof’. Kray was openly gay, but there are protocols in the underworld, things you don’t say. I have drunk in The Blind Beggar, but it has been modernised. The legendary bullet hole in the wall from Ronnie’s gun has long gone.
In fine Untouchables style, Read assembled a dossier and a team to act on it. He had men visit every pub and club, every bar and restaurant to pressure the owners – in a nice, good cop way – for even a sniff of financial wrongdoing by the firm. Read kept a notebook, his ‘delightful index’, detailing all the Krays’ known business associates. It was a mark of mob influence. In other circumstances, Read would have been leading a firm of forensic accountants. Now the gangs were big business, they had to be investigated as such. In Leslie Payne, the Kray Twins’ business manager, the firm even had its own Meyer Lansky.
Read finally got his men. As we saw, the Krays tried to impress a visiting Philadelphian mob boss, but the botched hit cost more than prowess. Read’s squad arrested the bag carrier, but this was just icing on a cake Read had already baked. The Kray’s flats were raided, along with those of over 20 ‘associates’. Reggie was in bed with his wife, Frances. Ronnie was in his with a ‘young man’. On March 8, 1969, the Twins went to jail. They would die there.
In the end, Read recognised what had to be done and he did it, free of red tape, diversity briefings over the gay Ronnie, the static of a thousand pre-emptive lawyers’ briefs. He was also responsible for the arrest of the villains who carried out the ‘Great Train Robbery’, another piece of English criminal folklore, along with the more modern Brinks Mat heist. Read was just what the job took; a good copper.
What’s that? You want to hear my Kray Twins story. Sure. It’s 1977 and I am at my mother’s boyfriend’s house learning to play punk bass guitar. The telephone rings, a landline, naturally. A male voice, London Cockney, asks if my mother’s boyfriend is there. I say no. Was he at the house of another party known to me and the voice? I don’t know. The other party doesn’t have a phone. ‘No’, said the voice. ‘He doesn’t. Thanks very much’.
It was Charlie Kray, the Twins’ elder brother. In the margins of the firm, Charlie kept his nose relatively clean. I have two younger brothers. They are identical twins. There is the same age difference between Charlie, and Ronnie and Reggie, as there is between me and my brothers. My mother often reminded us of that.
Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read died on April 7, 2020. Policing, the kind where violent criminals go to jail and stay there, may well have died with him.
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