Main Site         

Why everyone loves a gangster – and really shouldn’t

2012 September 23
by Paul Vallely

They call him Charlie. Even when they are recounting horror stories about how he snapped peoples fingers off with bolt-cutters or nailed his victims’ limbs to the floor, they call him Charlie. NotRichardson. No, they refer to him with a familiar affectionate diminutive – like they do with those other Sixties gangsters Reggie Kray or Ronnie Biggs.

One minute the media are reporting in tones of sombre horror the murder of two policewomen and grenade-and-gun lawlessness on the streets of Manchester. The next the BBC is recalling how Richardsongave his bloodied victims a clean shirt to go home in, as if that were quaint rather than sick. Huge obituaries in papers like the Daily Telegraph end with the sepulchral conclusion “Charles Richardson, born January 18 1934, died September 19 2012” as though he were someone who achieved something.

There has been a wallowing Hammer-horror self-indulgence about the lurid detail given on his crimes. But added to that there has been a terrible false romanticism about much of the reaction to the death of the 1960s gangster Mayfair-based East End Cockney boy made bad.

In part this is to do with a distinctly British tendency to allow the passing of the years to soften and sentimentalise our view. Enoch Powell went from being a chilling racist to a great parliamentarian. Tony Benn from a dangerous revolutionary to a national constitutional treasure. When enfants terribles stop being enfants they also somehow stop being terrible.

But there is something else too. It is to do with the glamour of evil which is routinely  romanticised in movies, and not just in gangland films like Guy Ritchie’s Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels or the 2004 film Charlie in which Luke Goss portraysRichardson as both likeable and charismatic. It is part of the whole individualist Hollywood myth of ‘one man against the world’.

The same perverted impulse is there in the adulatory Facebook sites which sprang up in recent days about Dale Cregan, the alleged killer charged with the twoManchesterpolice murders. Various sites praised him as a “hero”, a “cop-killer” and “the greatest legend since Raoul Moat”. Nearly 30,000 joined an internet tribute group to Moat who died in 2010 following a police hunt which 24-hour tv news reported as though it were a live action movie.

Criminals only become legends if popular psychology makes them so. There is an Anglo-Saxon tradition of the example of Dick Turpin shows. He was a burglar, torturer and murderer as well as a highway robber. But he has been turned into some kind of latterday Robin Hood, the outlaw as folk-hero who stands as an anti-authority symbol of hope for a lumpen population who can do little to change their lot. But in reality Raoul Moat was a pathetic washed-up loser.

Yet the devil gets the best tunes. The phrase “the glamour of evil” comes from the Catholic baptism service which also refers to Satan as “the prince of darkness”. The elevation of evil to princely status goes well beyond gun-totingHollywoodanti-heroes. The human fascination with the excitement and vitality of the transgressive rule-breaker is lauded by Nietzsche’s notion that we can love life in its entirety and reach a sort of bliss only when we are in danger. Freud understood this.

That is not how we live our daily lives. But the ruthless single-minded self-focus of the villain, like that of the saint, makes for a narrative of dramatic simplicity. Bad people make better stories than the unresolved messiness of everyday life. But it is all bogus.

The reality of life is that of those who endure the long lingering consequences of evil’s moments of reckless action. PC David Rathband, who was blinded by Moat,  struggled to cope with unimaginable courage for two long years before giving up. He posted a message that he had  “lost my sight, my job, my wife and my marriage” and committed suicide.

Reality is the feeling that creeps across the families and fiancée of a dead policewoman each morning as they wake and the slow leaden realisation of their loss seeps once again into their consciousness. It is a world of dark days because the drama of evil does not tell the real truth about life where, in the end, ordinariness may be our strongest resource.

Comments are closed.