Our love affair with low life

What qualities do you need to make yourself into a loveable rogue on the model of Reggie Kray? And w

We don't like crime; we want government to be strong on law and order. We train our children to bay for the death penalty.

We think Myra Hindley should rot in prison.

We are appalled by organised crime.

We are isolated and trapped by our fear of street violence.

We grossly discriminate against the mentally ill and want them locked up.

We love the Krays.

Funny, that.

(Yes, Reggie and Ronnie were "good to their old mum", which is very commendable - but so are lots of people who don't go around terrorising, maiming, murdering, corrupting justice and getting rich off other people's fear.)

It is very interesting which crimes we tolerate, and which we despise; which criminals endear themselves to us culturally, or even achieve heroic status, and which we loathe. (I'm going to leave sex crimes out of this discussion. The word "nonce", which, along with "perv", has been heard too much recently, derives from the prison service: it is an acronym for Not Of Normal Criminal Ethos, and used to be written on sex offenders' dossiers.)

Reggie Kray somehow fits into the "criminals we've grown attached to" category, even though he and his psychopathic twin, Ronnie (who was sentenced with him in 1969 and died of heart disease in Broadmoor five years ago), imposed a rule of gangland violence on London's East End in the Sixties. The twins may have been convicted for the murder of the mobster Jack "The Hat" McVitie, but when Jack Straw freed the cancer-stricken Reggie on compassionate grounds, the hospital that took him in was besieged by hundreds of well-wishers. At the Norfolk and Norwich, they are still considering setting up a special phone line.

You can get some idea of the crimes that are seen as glamorous, even sexy, by the types of criminal that are played by major stars in blockbuster films: for example, pirates, highwaymen, outlaws and smugglers score highly. All of these are highly violent professions, but tend to be practised a long way away, in either time or place. The Scarlet Pimpernel is a hero, bravely smuggling victims of oppressive regimes into the safety of democratic and liberal Britain - but it is hard to imagine a film in which a noble and heroic lorry driver rescues the victims of oppression and hunger, outwits the immigration service and brings them safely to our free and welcoming shores.

But film can only give the broadest guidance here because so many films are American, and their beloved gangsters are slightly different from ours. Prohibition, and the puritanism that underlay it, threw up a special sort of criminal who is not really replicated in the British canon. In contemporary America, there seems no equivalent of Al Capone; the Godfather has gone either respectable or sleazy. And in films, as in books, the detective has become hero, instead of the Policeman Plod of earlier times, leaving the criminal less space to manoeuvre.

In Britain, however, our detectives remain intellectual and middle class, and we continue to have a cultural love affair with a particular type of low-life scum. They are very well represented by the Kray brothers; by the astonishing performance of Vinnie Jones in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels; by Lenny MacLean's autobiography, The Guvnor; and (lest you think this is a Cockney thing) by the vile youths of Trainspotting. In the real world, the loutish behaviour of some football stars and the brain-damaged rudeness of some boxers confers on them a sort of magical status, while the Great Train Robbers have always been surrounded by this aura of glamour.

I am not using "we" casually here. I enjoyed all the films mentioned. I got a curious buzz from the endless criminal gossip of the inner East End when I lived there. When I was working as a writer-in-residence in the prison service, only cowardice and self-interest protected me from falling hopelessly in love with several of the more thuggish of my students. (A surprisingly common phenomenon, actually: Kray is enjoying a rather odd sort of honeymoon himself just now, as his 41-year-old wife, Roberta, whom he married in prison, sits, constant and watchful, at his bedside.) There was something so sexy, so delightfully humiliating, so mysteriously glamorous about the whole set-up.

There is nothing new in this predilection. The loveable rogue was deployed by Chaucer (the Alchemist) and by Shakespeare (Falstaff, Autolycus). Milton's Satan has many of the features, and his creator's best efforts are not enough to prevent the reader finding him infinitely more appealing than God. But, in the 19th century, Dickens enshrined and fixed the type. What has happened since is that repentance or punishment is no longer obligatory, and the level of violence has escalated.

The basic requirements for the role are clear. First, you must be male: I can think of no female criminals who have this sort of status. Bonnie and Clyde and Thelma and Louise gave it a shot, but one ended up feeling sorry for the women, seeing them as victims. You cannot feel sorry for the low-life criminal icon, you have to feel a little scared. In The Guvnor, MacLean speaks constantly of the need for "respect": a euphemism for fear. It is a central feature - pity will not do. We know there are criminally violent women around, but we do not want to iconise them (probably too frightening).

You must be working class and under- educated for your intelligence, which manifests itself none the less (this gives you the sympathy of guilt-ridden liberals). You probably need a difficult childhood (ditto psychologists, newspaper columnists, me, etc).

You should have a strong local base - ideally, as Dickens demonstrated, one with so marked a regional accent that people use funny spelling to denote your speech (ditto the local vote: they enjoy the attention). Not any old locality will do, however. It is hard to imagine twin boys from a Northumbrian smallholding gaining this sort of status. Nor, at present, could you do it from, say, a Welsh mining community - you are still meant to be noble through suffering there.

You have to be bizarrely loyal to something, ideally your family - which is why twins work so well, and why being good to their old mother is important; the Vinnie Jones character is allowed to behave as brutally as he does because it is in defence of his son. You should talk about this loyalty often and very sentimentally.

Above all, you need to be extremely, shamelessly and openly brutal; a little sadism helps. You need swagger. You need hangers-on to boast of your violence and feel tough through association. You must be self-aggrandising: Robin Hood has had his day. Whatever the myths tell you, the Krays preyed on the East End, not on the fleshpots "up west".

And, in the end, you have to be betrayed. The final "not my fault" - the wretched envy of others brought you down. You are invincible - you have money, you have "respect", you have fame. The rest of us can't resist this heady brew. This is a deep-seated, potent and very dangerous myth. I have every confidence that Jack Straw responded to "the will of the people" when he let Reggie Kray go home to die. I would have released Reggie. Mind you, I would let the others out, too - even Myra Hindley and Jamie Bulger's killers - if they were in prison and dying. But I'm a "silly liberal" on this one, and I don't think the Home Secretary is.

The "will of the people" needs examining: his cult following (those switchboard-jamming well-wishers and those fans who poured out for Ronnie's funeral five years ago) make Kray more dangerous to law and order, to safety on our streets and so on, than Hindley or Jamie Bulger's killers could ever be. "On the out", they won't swagger, they will cower. They won't be adored, but despised. We need to ask ourselves very carefully why it is we want to let him out and keep them in.