In the darkest hours of notorious gangster Reggie Kray’s life – and let’s face it, there must have been many – the one thing that gave him solace was recalling his roots in the East End of London.
Twins Reggie and Ronnie, both involved in crimes ranging from protection rackets to torture and murder, were a product of the grinding poverty of Britain in the 1930s, an era in which certain sections of the population felt abandoned by the government and consequently owed little in return.
Amongst young men, only too aware of the hardships endured by their close relatives, this in turn gave birth to a deeply held pride in one’s own ‘patch’ and a dangerous defiance characterised by fierce machismo.
And in a world of limited options and commonplace violence, these budding villains soon discovered that crime was a rich source of both power and money.
Reggie Kray, who died in prison in 2000, wrote his East End memoir back in the early 1990s but it has taken over 20 years to see the light of day.
He fills the pages with anecdotes about the area’s most outlandish characters and infamous villains as well as taking us on a detailed tour of the ‘manor’ and gangland that he and Ronnie inhabited and later ruled.
Even more revealing is the history of his family. ‘For you to understand me,’ he writes, ‘you will have to be aware not only of the environment I came from and the people I grew up with but my life in the context of the morality and hardships of those times.’
His great grandfather, ‘Crutcha’ Lee, was a rag-and-bone man who graduated to opening the first butcher’s shop in Smithfield Market, and his grandfather Jim Kray owned a second-hand clothing shop in Brick Lane.
His father, Charles Kray, found himself on the wrong side of the law when he deserted the Army, reluctant to ‘serve’ a country which he believed had shown an utter disregard for the welfare of his grandparents, parents, wife and children.
But it wasn’t just the men of the East End who had a lasting influence on Kray; his mother, Violet, fought a constant battle to keep her children safe and healthy.
With her husband often absent, she was left to raise her sons and provide for them too and one of Kray’s enduring memories was of his mother pawning her wedding ring to put food on the table. Her sacrifices had a profound effect on him.
The twins tried to emulate their boxing heroes and had some success in the ring, but it soon became clear that there were faster and more lucrative ways to make a living.
East End Stories sheds new light on the formative years of the Kray twins as well as painting a vivid portrait of the dark underbelly of mid-20th century London.
(Sphere, paperback, £6.99)