It was a sell-out. I was too late. Pete the manager looked me up and down. "No tickets left, sorry." He watched my face drop. "But I'll tell you what, I'll squeeze you on to the top table with Mad Frankie and the comedian. How about that?"
We were standing in Pinegrove Country Club in Stannington, Sheffield, a country club "for the ordinary working man", Pete had explained. It was launching its series of Gentlemen's Evenings with Mad Frankie Fraser, the self-confessed "most violent man in Britain", a member of the notorious Richardson gang that, along with the Krays, dominated London's underworld in the 1960s.
"A man who needs no introduction, really," said Pete, "even though he's never been to Sheffield before. The Krays, Jack 'the Hat' McVitie, Mad Frankie. He's a bit of all our lives."
I was told to get there early, so I found myself in the foyer of the club waiting alongside a short, roundish man with a perm, who was wearing a yellow jacket with a matching Bart Simpson tie. The punters were arriving in good time: lads from the boxing gym, marked out by their lean, mean faces; older businessmen, some with blotchy skin and paunches ("the corporate sector", Pete called them); groups of young men in their early twenties, laughing and pushing each other.
Then I saw him. A small, dapper man, the build of a bantamweight still in training. He was instantly recognisable. The man in the yellow jacket recognised him as well. "Hello, Frank, I'm the comedian tonight. I've never worked with you before. But I'm really looking forward to it." Frank shook his hand, and then paused for some photographs.
I followed the comedian to the top table. I printed his name carefully in my notebook. I heard it as "Ian Sludge-sleaze". "No, no, no," he said. "It's Ian Sludge Lees, not 'Sludge-sleaze'. 'Sludge' is in brackets, like Jim (Nick, Nick) Davidson."
"Or (Mad) Frankie Fraser," I added.
Mad Frank and his minder took their seats beside us. Frank started on his first course and I was mesmerised by how he ate. It was so delicate. A few of the punters stretched out on the tables in front of us threw quick glances his way, but they were glances of curiosity - fleeting, information-collecting glances that were not meant to catch his eye. I asked Sludge whether he would be telling any jokes about Mad Frankie that night. "No," he answered, almost in a whisper. "I sometimes kick off with a few jokes about the main speaker, but not tonight. Tonight, Gary Glitter's going to get the hammering. Here's one for you. What's silver and sticks out of a pram . . . Gary Glitter's arse."
I glanced over at Mad Frankie. "I'm sure that you could get Frank into a joke, if you tried," I said. "What about him that time with the axe? That could be very visual."
"You leave the jokes to me," said Sludge, turning away slightly. The boxers were passing a dainty blue mobile phone among themselves. I pointed this out to Sludge. Some good observational humour. Sludge grimaced again.
It was getting noisier in the room - the noise of expectation. The MC asked us to toss two quid into a champagne bucket "for a good cause" for a quiz about Mad Frank's life. We were given sheets of paper with true and false printed on them. The prize was a copy of Mad Frank's book, 24 cans of lager and a cassette player. I decided this was going to be easy. I was going to watch Mad Frank's reactions, like a thousand police officers before me. His body language would tell me the answers. I watched him surreptitiously. He was gesturing deli-cately as he spoke to Sludge. He neatly cupped his hands, and then his hands would part to illustrate some point and then return to the cup position again. It was a gentle sort of movement made with quite delicate hands, at odds with that nose - fractured, cracked and bent.
We all had to stand for the quiz; when you got an answer wrong, you had to sit down. "The first question is," said the MC. "Is it true that Mad Frankie Fraser has been certified insane three times?" I watched Frankie smile quietly with pleasure. I held up my bit of paper with "true" printed on it. "That is true!" said the MC. "Frankie Fraser has been certified insane a total of three times." I watched Sludge bite his lip.
"Is it true," continued the MC, "that Mad Frankie Fraser has served 42 years in prison?" I knew this one. I didn't even have to look at Frankie, because Pete had told me. I was right.
"Is it true," asked the MC, "that once when Frankie was released from prison he was met by his son driving a Bentley?" I looked at Mad Frankie again. His eyes were reliving the moment. He was smiling again, happy days. I confidently held up "true". "False," said the MC, "his son met him in a Roller." And Mad Frank laughed even more.
"Is it true that Mad Frankie has been shot in the head?" Even though I was out of the game, I wanted to play along. I was looking for a sign in his face, a glimmer of the horror if it were indeed true. But there was just that quiet laugh again. I thought that it must be false, but I was wrong. These questions were sorting out the men from the boys. One man won the armful of lager and got to shake Mad Frankie's hand.
We were on the main course. Waitresses were hovering behind us. Sludge was looking worried. He saw my look of concern. "I had a load of chicken chasseur tipped over this jacket the first time I wore it," he explained. "You have to be on your toes at functions like this."
I leant across the frightened Sludge to Mad Frankie and introduced myself. "Ah, you're Irish," said Frank. "My mother was Irish. You know what they say, don't you? If you meet somebody and their parents or grandparents aren't Irish, then don't bother with them."
"Why not?" I asked.
"Because they're liars," said Frank, and we both laughed.
I was having to lean right across Sludge to talk to Frank. "Why do they call you Mad Frankie?" I asked. I could feel Sludge wince quite distinctly under me. I watched Frankie's gestures rise in front of his body. He reminded me of a slim Alfie Bass for some reason.
"Well," he said, "when you've been certified insane three times, it's bound to stick."
"Nothing to do with a temper then?"
"Oh no," answered Frank, although why I found this reassuring at the time I don't know.
"What about being shot in the head, what was that like?" He answered politely. "Well, not so bad," he said, "but if I hadn't been drunk, it would have killed me because, when the bullet went in, I was all over the bleedin' place."
He asked me where exactly I was from, and when I said Belfast, he told me that he had been to a top IRA man's wedding in Belfast. He had met him inside. Frankie loved Belfast, and we were now getting on great guns, with him passing me chocolate liqueurs. "My girlfriend's mum made the balaclavas for the Great Train Robbery, you know," he said. "The eyes weren't level. She got a bit of stick for that, I can tell you. I should have been on that job, but I was red hot at the time. Red hot."
He started telling me about all the celebrities whom he had met - Frank Sinatra, Lucky Luciano.
"Rocky Marciano," said Sludge helpfully.
"No, Lucky Luciano, the Mafia boss," said Mad Frankie. "Sinatra always had a thing about gangsters. He was born on 12 December, by the way, and I was born on the 13th. He had a thing about birthdays and that always gave us a little bit of a bond."
Frank's minder got some paper out for him and together they made some notes. "In case he forgets," said the minder. "He is 76, after all." The audience was offered a "comfort break" before he started. "That means you can go to the toilet," said Sludge.
After the break, Frank rose to polite applause. He told us about the life of the criminally insane. The 42 years inside. The 18 strokes "and all the trimmings" on his "deaf and dumb". He told us that he preferred the cat-o'-nine-tails because it was across the shoulders - it was more manly than getting it on your bum. "I did have some laughs in Broadmoor," he said with a smile. And throughout his speech, he stressed that the violence was only ever directed against other villains and that it was never, ever directed against "the lovely, ordinary people like you here tonight", except when they were prison officers or prison governors.
He told us he had cut someone's ear off and flushed it down the loo when he was inside. "I knew that they'd never find it." He had "done" people with an axe. "I bought that axe in Harrods, I wanted it back."
He had led riots and been on hunger strikes. "I was a glutton for hunger strikes," he told us. You found yourself waiting for the punchlines. "The police say that I've killed 40 people," he said. "Well, I always say that I like even numbers." That got a big belly laugh.
Those on the table in front were lapping it up. You could hear them repeating the odd word or phrase - ear, axe, shooter, Ronnie, Reggie, even numbers - and they shook their heads in disbelief. From the top table, I could see the corporate sector, hanging on his every word. Reggie Kray, we were told, was "a smashing fellow. He rings me twice a day. When he gets out, he'll be the celebrity of celebrities . . . He'll be red hot. Red hot."
After Frank finished to rapturous applause, there was a question and answer session. It was remarkably specific at times. "Who killed Freddie Mills?" asked one. "Who shot Ginger Marks?" asked another. ("Who's Ginger Marks?" asked Sludge. "No idea," I said.) "Who was the hardest man you ever met?" asked a voice from the back. "Who was the most evil man you ever met?" asked a huge man just in front of us, with saliva all over his fat, wet lips.
It was like somebody else's story. That was the problem. It was hard to think that the man with the impeccable manners did any of this. They queued for his autograph. "Mad Frankie Fraser", he wrote with my pen, and he thanked me every time he handed it back. He invited me to his next birthday party. Meanwhile, I noticed that the table in front, with the row of champagne bottles face down in the silver buckets, had got noticeably more boisterous, fuelled by all the drink and all the stories from Mad Frank. One young man, who had shed the jacket of his suit, raised his boot slowly to the level of the table and playfully kicked his big friend on the side of the head. It was more a tap than anything else, just to provoke him. They were both glowering at Sludge, the next turn.
But Sludge, with his tales of Gary Glitter, Eric Cantona and other living legends (except, of course, Mad Frankie Fraser and the Krays), soon had them eating out of his hand. There were two old pros at work that night. And then it was time for the punters to pay £10 for their photo with Frank in the foyer. This was a brief interlude to reflect.
"It's all about credibility," said a man from the boxing gym. "You and the hardest man there ever was." But what about all the nasty, vicious violence? I directed this question to one businessman queuing for his photograph. "It was all a long time ago," he said, with a nonchalant shrug. "It's history."
"So Gary Glitter himself might be back here one day?" I asked, and on that note, without saying another word, the businessman turned his back on me and left me quite alone. Alone and staring at the long, snaking line of lovely, ordinary people stretched right across the foyer of the club.