Ronnie Kray: a man among men Laurie O’Leary Headline, 280pp, £16.99 ISBN 0747270295

Published April 2nd 2001 in Newstatesman.

“Yeah, I know he was a shirtlifter an’ all, but he was a diamond geezer, who loved his mum and a pint of cockles and wouldn’t have hurt a fly, unless someone called him a poof, which he was. The streets of the East End were safer with proper gents like him and his brother around. God bless him.” This popular view – still served up in pubs from Bethnal Green to Romford in Essex – of Ronnie Kray as folk hero is one that Laurie O’Leary is keen to re-enforce in this unusual biography/hagiography.

O’Leary was one of Kray’s closest friends. He grew up in the next street, went to school with him, followed his career as a professional boxer, worked in the market and on the racetrack with him, and – though never part of the “Firm” – ran one of the brothers’ clubs for them. He remained in close touch when Kray was on the run and during his time in various prisons and mental institutions. He was always popping round to have a nice cup of tea with the Krays’ mum, Violet. So his experiences should put him in a good position to provide insights into East End gangsters and Kray in particular. But they don’t – partly because he seems wary of upsetting anybody and partly because he is far too close to his subject.

From the beginning, O’Leary fails to hide his worship of Kray. “You’re one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever met,” he tells him on a visit to Broadmoor, and he is unhappy that poor Ron has to suffer being incarcerated with such “slags” as Peter Sutcliffe. Discussing his plans to write this book, Kray instructs him: “Don’t make me a nice person, Lol.” But Lol can’t help himself. He ascribes decent motives to Kray’s random acts of violence, and even when Lol himself is set up in a fight by Kray for no apparent reason, he leaps to his defence: “There was nothing wrong in that. Ronnie often did a little mixing to clear the air and test the power of his friends.” When Lol gets into trouble with the law on the Krays’ behalf and they do something as straightforward as pay for his lawyers, he is rapturous: “That’s the stuff of true friendship isn’t it?”

He manages even to cast a romantic light over Kray’s ability to use his power and reputation for violence to seduce impressionable teenage boys (he was a stickler for good teeth, by the way). Although he gives no evidence of any genuine feeling, he speculates on how it was “likely” that Kray “displayed tenderness, affection and even a genuine love with some of his ‘prospects'”.

He asserts that, contrary to John Pearson’s view in The Profession of Violence (HarperCollins), Kray did have a sense of humour, but can produce only one example: of Kray mocking a midget and saying that he’d be useful only for doing knee-capping.

At times, the praise is hyperbolic. Lol thinks that the Krays “carried the hopes and aspirations of a generation of British society, and were cheered and feted by both the humble and the high born alike”. Not round here they weren’t, mate.

Such devotion and loyalty in a friendship would be touching in most circumstances; but when the object of the affection is a violent paranoid who took pleasure in murdering, it leaves a rather bad taste in the mouth. It’s a shame really, because Lol’s own life is interesting, and he is the sort of storyteller, with a vivid memory and a huge cast of characters to call on, whom you would happily sit with and listen to in a pub. But this is overshadowed by his infatuation with Kray and his world.

In his determination to portray Ronnie Kray as a hero, O’Leary misses the one good thing that came out of his sad life: he put to death the notion that all homosexuals were big fairies who flounced about smelling of perfume and calling each other “darling”. His example probably enabled a generation of gay man from the East End to be open about their sexuality. He brought happiness to thousands, God bless him.