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21 July 2020

The rise and fall of the Great British gangster memoir

How the popularity of true crime ended the golden era of self-consciously hammy autobiographies by reformed East End criminals.

By Francisco Garcia

I’m still not quite sure when or why my obsession with British gangster memoirs really began. Like so many other neurotic compulsions, it must have been a fairly gradual process. At first, it amounted to the odd bargain-basement paperbacks picked up at The Works on dismal Sunday afternoons. But it became a full-blown mania. If a book promised the life and times of the most theatrical East End “villains” of the Swinging Sixties, then I was in, no questions asked. The Kray twins, “Mad” Frankie Fraser, the Richardsons, or even, later down the line, Plumstead’s own Dave Courtney OBE (One Big Ego). The more lurid the stories, the better – I’d wolf them down in a single, blissfully guilty sitting. 

Generally, they stick to the same form: venturesome autobiography, full of incident, lengthy jail time and a few unlikely stabs at repentance. If you’ve seen one on the shelves, you’ve seen them all, with their bold titles and cover photos, usually featuring the gangster in question pulling their most outrageously menacing glare for their reading public

And there are a lot of them. The sheer number of their ilk seemed to serve as irrefutable proof that I was not alone in my desire to delve into the recollections, boasts and unconvincing mea culpas of some of the country’s most colourful career criminals. From the early-1990s, right through to the mid-2010s, it hardly felt possible to glance at a Waterstones true crime section without being confronted by the latest in the long line of books with titles like Fraser’s 1994 memoir Mad Frank, or any one of its numerous sequels and imitators. The promise of these books is simple: nothing less than the full, frank and ultra-violent stories of the individuals and cliques that had once been at the cutting edge of organised crime in the country. They are full of all the juiciest gossip of an era that included the Great Train Robbery of 1963, and the infamous 1966 murder of the Richardson family enforcer George Cornell by Ronnie Kray at the Blind Beggar pub in Whitechapel.

Connoisseurs of the genre point to Lenny McLean’s 1998 autobiography The Guv’nor as the genre’s high-water mark. Published posthumously, just a few weeks after the former bare-knuckle boxer and underworld gangster (once nicknamed the “hardest man in Britain”) suddenly died of lung cancer, it quickly transcended its 3,000 print run to hit the top of several bestseller lists. Though few reached McLean’s level of success – which was bolstered by his performance as Barry the Baptist, in Guy Ritchie’s cult classic Britpop gangster fantasy Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, similarly released only weeks after his death – this didn’t seem to impact a steady stream of releases that would continue through the next decade. The Nineties boom had its origins in a convenient historical collision: the rise of a geezer-obsessed lad culture, and the release from prison of many of the key players of the British gangster scene, who were only too keen to open up about their newly sellable life stories. Dave Courtney alone managed to squeeze out six autobiographies in less than a decade, from Stop the Ride, I Want to Get Off in 1999 to F*** the Ride in 2006.      

Like all good things, it couldn’t last forever. The past few years have witnessed a shift and the start of a relative decline from the undisputed golden era of the British gangster memoir, increasingly squeezed out of the true crime market by the rise of the glossy Netflix documentary and constantly evolving public appetites. Self-consciously hammy autobiography has been usurped by the formulaic ambiguity of unsolved mysteries and a trend towards ever more extreme violence, which makes even the Krays seem halfway cartoonish.

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There had long been a sneaking sense that the genre might be past its peak, as its authors became increasingly tenuously connected to the old crimes and criminals of lore. Smaller independent crime publishers which once specialised in the topic, such as Pennant Books, have long gone quiet. Just like the early- to mid-2000s glut of misery memoirs sparked by Angela’s Ashes, there is a sense that the gangster memoir has seen its best days come and go, boiled down to a series of stale tropes and plot points, devoid of almost all of their old flavour.

It’s a change inevitably reflected in the non-fiction publishing landscape, as made clear by a spokesperson from John Blake, the UK publisher specialising on true crime, which is behind many of the most famous British gangster memoirs including The Guv’nor. “There [has] has clearly been an emergence of true crime that is more investigative and psychoanalytical, and this is influencing our publishing for 2020 and 2021. Moreover, the emergence of Netflix and various other mass media formats, including the incredible success of podcasts, is obviously expanding the subjects and audiences that the genre would traditionally have. But [these memoirs] will always be an important element of what we do here”.

Tony Buchan, an editor at John Blake, expands on this. “There has definitely been a move away from books about old-fashioned robberies, protection rackets, gang crimes, and so on, towards ‘social crimes’ that have nothing to do with personal profit and everything to do with personal gratification, especially those against children and young women. Serial killers feature strongly, as do child abductors and murderers.” 

Gangster memoirs can look almost cosy in comparison – and it’s true that, like any other beloved form of genre writing, their comfort mainly derived from predictability. There’s a reassuring fantasy to these stories of swashbuckling lawlessness, perpetrated by well-dressed cheeky-chappy criminals of a bygone age, whose love for their dear old mothers could only be equalled by their capacity for mindless violence, even if they routinely swear blind that they never hurt anyone who didn’t deserve to be hurt. “It’s a bit like the popularity of books about the American Mafia,” explains Andrew Crofts, one of the UK’s most successful ghostwriters, and the man behind numerous many bestselling celebrity memoirs. “People see a kind of romance in it all”.

These memoirs paint a nostalgic portrait of Britain that blends the excitement of the Swinging Sixties with the stolid social conservatism of the old East End – a prelapsarian land before time, where even the criminals had manners, a pound was a pound and everyone left their doors unlocked. In Mad Frank, Fraser relates how he wouldn’t have dreamed of stealing “from a ladies handbag… as that was taboo”, a moral admission that comes before several hundreds of pages of slashings, shootings and routine torture. 

James Morton, perhaps the genre’s most prolific ghostwriter, and the pen behind Mad Frank, sees the genre as still alive, if dwindling. “Are we not seeing many now?” he asks. “There’s still a steady stream, though perhaps not published by mainstream publishers. I think that perhaps shows they clearly weren’t selling.” Morton points out that while the traditional memoir may have declined in sales, the era they recount is perhaps as popular as ever, with thrillers like Kimberly Chambers’ recently released East-End epic Queenie routinely making bestseller lists.       

Of course, there is another simpler explanation for the genre’s downturn. In years past, Andrew Crofts fielded many calls from ageing villains looking for professional help in penning their books, a stream which has dried up to a trickle in recent years. “I think it has a lot to do with that generation dying off,” he tells me over the phone. 

“It started out with anyone who knew one of the Great Train Robbers, then became a case of anyone who knew a Kray or a Richardson. Many of them weren’t particularly big-time criminals. You’re hardly likely to write a tell-all memoir if you are,” Crofts says of his years as a gangster memoir ghostwriter. “What you really want are people who can tell the anecdotes about Ronnie and Reggie Kray and Barbara Windsor, or whoever. I also used to get calls from policemen from the era who wanted to tell their stories, but that always seemed a harder sell. The public is usually more interested in siding with the Dick Turpin figure”. It’s an ever-tougher sell in a world where the romanticised figures of old aren’t around to tell their side of the story, a sombre roll call that includes most of the truly bankable big names, from the Krays to Frankie Fraser. 

While starting work on this piece, I found myself digging through my shelves for some of the key texts that once served as fuel for my now-dormant obsession. As I leafed through each one, my glee in rediscovering these stories started to shift into something more melancholic. Somewhere between Charlie Richardson and Dave Courtney, it finally became clear. It wasn’t the mindlessly banal violence or messianic egotism that was getting me down. It was the sense that I was opening a time capsule: these books merely the publishing ephemera of a bygone decade. The Great British gangster memoir may not be entirely extinct, but it remains to be seen how much mileage its very specific form of cultural nostalgia has left. 

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