When crime grabbed the limelightWhile current gang leaders steer well clear of publicity, villains of the past loved notoriety. A new Billy Hill biography remembers one of Britain's best known gangsters
Duncan Campbell The Guardian, Wednesday 30 July 2008 Article history
Billy Hill liked to be known as the Bandit King.
Fifty years ago, there was a very British comedy film called Carlton-Browne of the F.O., which starred Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. In one scene, a character is ejected from a nightclub, despite a staff member pointing out that he is a member of the royal family. "I don't care if he's Billy Hill!" says the manager of the club.
Hill was one of Britain's best-known gangsters. His ghosted autobiography, Boss of Britain's Underworld, had already appeared, and he also liked to be known as the Bandit King. He was thrilled to be mentioned in the film and never tired of talking about it. This month, a new biography, Billy Hill: Godfather of London, by journalist Wensley Clarkson, is published. It describes just how much he relished his notoriety.
"I guess I looked like a gangster," he said. "They say Humphrey Bogart could go for my twin brother, and he looks like what a gangster's supposed to look like." Hill died in 1984 and the book is an epitaph, in a way, for an era when criminals actually courted the limelight.
"Organised crime has changed beyond recognition since the days of the Krays," said Gordon Brown in last month's speech on liberty and security. And how. Where once professional criminals were tickled to be recognised and known as a "face", now they tick the box marked "No publicity". A modern-day professional criminal would reach for his lawyer or his passport if he found his name featured so casually in a comedy film.
Hill, born in London almost 100 years ago, was already cutting a swath, almost literally, through the capital in his 30s. Here is how he recalled an altercation in a pub, when someone foolishly shoved a glass into his face: "It stuck there like a dart in a dartboard. I pulled the glass out of my face with one hand and my chiv out of my pocket with the other. Then I got to work doing a bit of hacking and carving. I don't know how many blokes I cut that night. I didn't care ... "
Hill liked to carve a "V for victory" sign on his victims' faces, but insisted that the chivving was only used as a last resort. "I was always careful to draw my knife down on the face, never across or upwards. Always down. So that if the knife slips you don't cut an artery. After all, chivving is chivving, but cutting an artery is usually murder. Only mugs do murder."
The Krays also sought publicity, amazingly allowing journalist John Pearson into their lives so that he could write the excellent biography The Profession of Violence. They loved to be photographed rubbing shoulders with singers and actors. During his trial for murder, Ronnie Kray offhandedly informed the judge that if he hadn't been in court he would have been "having tea with Judy Garland".
Loonyology, the autobiography of Charles Bronson, reputedly "the most violent prisoner in Britain", was published last month. Coming shortly is Blaggers Inc, by Terry Smith, a well-known former bank robber, and a film about "Mad" Frankie Fraser is in the pipeline.
All of this publicity would be anathema to the new breed of professional criminal. But in the days of Hill and others, notoriety was a useful part of the portfolio: it meant that you were feared and your demands were more easily met. But it eventually made you a target for the authorities. The higher the profile, as the Krays eventually discovered, the heavier the fall.
Professional criminals now choose to keep a low profile. In his recent book, McMafia, Misha Glenny describes the new protagonists: "They were criminals, organised and disorganised, but they were also good capitalists and entrepreneurs, intent on obeying the laws of supply and demand." And, like good capitalists, they saw no reason to court publicity.
That is why we continue to know more about Hill - who died almost a quarter of a century ago - than about the current gang leaders. Maxim Jakubowski, the owner of crime bookshop Murder One, in central London, says: "The modern criminal would rather stay in the shadows. A lot of them are still active, so what you mainly get [in published books] are the Krays' old associates. Soon it will be the Krays' hairdresser, I expect."
Paul Boon, who handles the True Crime imprint for Pennant books, publisher of Billy Hill: Godfather of London, agrees that the current book market is for criminals of the past rather than the present. "To be a criminal now, you have to be the unseen man," he says.
What must seem astonishing to modern multinational criminals, whether they make their money through drug trafficking or cyberfraud, is the desire of their predecessors to court publicity and to offer access to people who wanted to write about them.
As the new Hill biography shows, there will never be a shortage of panic in the headlines, fuelling an interest in the more comprehensible forms of crime. In 1945, at the end of the war, as Wensley Clarkson describes, the Daily Express was reporting, "Crime is on the march in Britain today, boldly and violently. It is double what it was in 1939 and the evil grows by 10,000 cases each month." One of the Express reporters noted that "within shouting distance of a spot where Eros may soon stand again, I have seen men pull out fistfuls of pound notes. Guns, revolvers and tommy guns sold well over the weekend. There are more guns at the moment than there is ammunition to fit them ... furtive clubs are springing up."
The tommy guns have gone, and these days the clubs are anything but furtive, but no one these days is aspiring to the title of Boss of Britain's Underworld.
· Billy Hill: Godfather of London, by Wensley Clarkson, is published by Pennant Books (£15.99). To order a copy for £14.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop