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British Gangsters and their Curious Contribution to Literature

September 16, 2010

Aftermath of the Great Train Robbery

Just last month the Daily Mirror ran the story that convicted criminal Ronnie Biggs, who for years evaded justice for his role in the notorious Great Train Robbery, was to be given a lifetime achievement award for his contribution to crime, yes crime!, at a £50-a ticket gala dinner at a venue in Slough. The event, which was publicised as ‘To Rio and Back’, took place on August 29th. But, on the website of self-proclaimed gangster and celebrity author Dave Courtney there is a post dated August 27th in which Courtney rants about how the Home Office had decreed that if Biggs attended the event, alongside an assortment of well-known gangsters and ex-convicts, he would have his license revoked and be returned to prison immediately. I can find no reviews of ‘To Rio and Back’ on the internet, so I assume it went ahead without Biggs’ presence.

I support the release of prisoners on compassionate grounds, including Biggs who was released from prison over a year ago after being informed that he had only weeks to live, but it stands to reason that this policy is to allow them to spend the very end of their life with their family, and not to be applauded on stage by a rabble of fellow gangsters talking about how ‘ard they are. Over the last decade there has been a proliferation of grossly offensive gangster memoirs clogging up the shelves in the True Crime section of bookshops. Courtney himself has authored such literary classics as Stop the Ride I Want to Get Off (1999), Raving Lunacy (2000), Dodgy Dave’s Little Black Book (2001), The Ride’s Back On (2003), F**k the Ride (2005) and Heroes and Villains (2006). There is a silver lining to this dark literary cloud; Britain has never experienced gangsters as wealthy and powerful as those seen in Italy and the United States. American Gangsters like Al Capone, Sam Giancana and John Gotti never had the time to write books or organise gala dinners, although to be fair all these examples met their demise due to their love of the limelight. As we live in a country relatively unplagued by organised crime, perhaps we should be grateful that the worst we have to endure is the literary equivalent of celebrity gangsters parading their life around like your average exhibitionist Big Brother contestant.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2010 10:24 am

    This trend towards glorifying gangsters and career criminals seems to have infected the entire american television watching western world. Here in Australia the biggest thing on TV for the past few years has been the Underbelly series about Australian gangsters. The first series in particular led to a gangster who was serving 35 years in jail for murdering several other gangsters becoming a celebrity. When he was himself murdered earlier this year the investigation and funeral were a media circus. One must ask if the media itself is driving the public’s taste for celebrity gangsters in order to sell more newspapers and tv shows?

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      September 16, 2010 11:28 am

      Yes, I think the media is guilty of glamourising these figures. Why should people like Courtney be given a platform? Surely theatres and and publishers should refuse to be associated with his work. I’m sure the more reputable ones do. I’ve never seen Underbelly, but I’ve heard it’s really popular and has won lots of awards. Gangsters have been the subject of some classic films and television shows, but I think some people might like these shows for the wrong reasons.

      • September 16, 2010 11:24 pm

        I went to school with a couple of the gangsters in the first underbelly and they were nothing like the characters as they were depicted on TV. I think that the writers of these kind of programs tend to glamorize the life of career criminals and that makes them more appealing to the viewing audience. Ronnie Biggs is a case in point- the news reports of his life on the run, his young Brazilian wife and exotic lifestyle were a good news story. The truth was that he lived in near poverty whilst on the run. Ironically he worked at Channel Nine here in Melbourne whilst on the lamb- the same station that is making most of the gangster dramas in Australia at the moment. Keep up the great blog!

      • Powell, Steven permalink
        September 17, 2010 9:36 am

        I remember watching the film Buster a few years ago, and aside from it being a fairly mediocre film, it is full of factual errors regarding the great train robbery. Like you say, Biggs is portrayed as leading a life of luxury in Brazil. I had no idea he actually worked for Channel Nine in Melbourne for a while. The real Buster Edwards committed suicide a few years after the film was released. Clearly, he wasn’t the chirpy, happy-go-lucky guy that Phil Collins and the film portrayed him as being.

  2. September 16, 2010 2:38 pm

    Villains larger than life. Turning cold blooded killers into modern day Robin Hoods. Jesse James, Pretty Boy Floyd, Bugsy Siegel and their fictional counterparts, like Tony Soprano and serial killer Hannibal Lecter. I think it’s pretty much of a universal phenomena, although we here in America do seem to to usually win the gold medal in glorification of gore.
    Love your website. Keep up the good work!

    • Powell, Steven permalink
      September 16, 2010 10:20 pm

      Thanks Steve,

      Gangsters and outlaws have become easily romanticised figures. In books and films they have come to represent the noble criminal who is fighting against the more dishonourable criminals like the Wall Street embezzler. As a detective, I’m sure you met very few honourable criminals.


      • September 17, 2010 2:36 pm


        Criminals with an code were few and very far between. I think out of the hundreds of hardcores over the years I met maybe 3. Pros who had been pulling heists or hot prowl cat burglars who specialized in taking only the best jewelry and left the “junk” behind. Schooled in the 40s and 50s. They were right out of “M” or “Asphalt Jungle” with a philisophical attitude about getting caught and that “old school” attitude of genuine respect. Reall class acts who couldn’t tolerate “punks” who did nothing but give a bad name to their “profession.” Gotta love em.


      • Steve Powell permalink*
        September 17, 2010 9:54 pm

        I’d have thought with a work ethic like that a guy could succeed in legitimate business. I love The Asphalt Jungle, but as you detail in your book Black Dahlia Avenger, John Huston was close to being a criminal at times.


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