Gangsta rap


This week I had a drink with someone so extraordinary I almost forgot to play my "guess what he'll order at the bar" game. Let's see how you do. Dave Courtney is probably the best-known hardman in the London underworld. He will be familiar to anyone who saw Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels as the man on whom Vinnie Jones's character was modelled. He claims to have given up the bad life - "My gun now, if I pulled the trigger, water would come out," he says. "I have more morals than anyone I know."

But what will he drink? Reggie Kray was denied parole last year partly on account of the quantity of alcohol he drank in prison, though no one will say what he was particularly partial to. Traditionally, though, hardened criminals have been whisky drinkers. In 1946 the murderer Neville Heath was granted a whisky as his last wish before he was executed. When it arrived he was unimpressed. "I don't like that sort," he complained.

Gangsters flourished in the 1920s after Uncle Sam declared that the citizens of America would go on the collective wagon. You were all right if you were a Christian or a doctor. Medicinal liquor was legal, as was sacramental wine. And, strangely enough, there was something of a renaissance in alcohol as a miracle cure and the quantity of wine a congregation could sip its way through in a single communion.

But prohibition dragged on for a heartbreaking 13 years. How could they bear it, these great free pioneers, accustomed to allowing no one to stand in their way? The answer is they couldn't and they didn't. Congress passed the Prohibition Act in May 1919 and by 1922 there were already 5,000 "speakeasies", or secret drinking dens, across the country. And then there were the gangsters who saw their chance and, with bootleg liquor, consolidated their power. Alcohol became an industry; consumption banked sharply to almost one billion gallons a year and liquor-dealing gangsters, notably the most famous of all, Al Capone, made their fortunes.

It was whiskey all the way to the bank in those hot, heady Chicago days. And there was no shortage of brutality to go with it, a fact to which the Valentine's Day Massacre is testament.

But what will my modern-day gangster drink? Actually, Courtney doesn't like being called a gangster. "I see myself as more of a Robin Hood," he explains. So perhaps he will opt for a whisky cocktail. Or a beer if he really wants to be one of the boys.

We all know what Hollywood gangsters drink. Men supping with men at the casino or in a drinking den thrive on slug after slug of bourbon whiskey. The funny thing about whiskey is that one of the best-known American brands, Jack Daniels, is made in Tennessee, where prohibition already existed in 1919. In fact, in famous whiskey states such as Kentucky and Tennessee, whiskey drinking was governed by such complex rules that the only thing to do was to break them. Even until 1995 miserable local laws forbade the consumption and purchase of whiskey at a distillery. Not that this would bother any blackguard with a bullet in his back pocket.

If there are slinky girls in the vicinity, film gangsters ostentatiously knock back champagne by the magnum. So perhaps I ought to be insulted if Courtney makes a pitch straight for the spirits without even considering cracking open the bubbly. Actually, my money's on a cocktail - perhaps a whisky sour, which in the joint we're drinking in will doubtless arrive with inappropriately flamboyant paper parasol and maraschino razzmatazz.

But I am wrong. To wash down his cigar smoke, this Versace-clad man, dripping in diamonds, requests a brandy and coke. A brandy and coke, and he doesn't even specify the brand. Who would have thought it?

This article first appeared in the 24 May 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Luvvies, stop moaning