When Reggie Kray teaches you the meaning of life.
Some of you know this story, most of you probably don’t, but as I’m now motivated to write my life stories out, to begin telling my tales and to start reflecting on it all, I bring it here first with a hope it inspires, provokes, or stirs something in you on reading.
I picked the photo above as it’s one of the infamous Kray twins with their mum Violet. Reggie and Ronnie Kray were renowned fearless gangsters in London in the 1950s and 1960s. Arrested and convicted in 1969, they reigned the London Underworld with an iron fist for a good twenty years, ruthlessly killing and taking out whatever and whoever stood in their way of dominating the city, whilst remaining their mother’s blue eyed boys until her death in 1982. Paradox one.
I met Reggie Kray in Parkhurst Prison in the mid eighties. It feels like another lifetime to me now; who I was then, what my life was governed by and how I lived it, but it was me. It was the me that was forming the woman I am now. It was as much of my vulnerable, tough, determined self as I am today only in a different form, the chrysalis if you like, the chrysalis that became the butterfly with gloriously painted wings.
Reggie had been in prison almost 20 years by then and he was to die aged 66, freed from prison on the grounds he was terminally ill and having served 31 years of a life sentence. When I met him, he was in the middle of writing a book on Cockney Rhyming slang (hence the title of this post) which is actually available to this day – check Reg Kray’s book of slang on Amazon!
Human beings are strange paradoxes most of the time, but why so? How and why do our moral values change? What influences our perception of what is ‘right’ and ‘wrong’? Is there a generally accepted ‘code’ of life?
There was a gangster code of honour when I grew up in and amongst the Manchester Gangland scene, which I later discovered in London too. Certain things that were seen as not acceptable to do amongst your gangland peers and so there was this weird contrast of shocking things people would do outside their circles, to a kind of piracy code of honour about what must never happen within those circles. Are moral values selective? Can we justify not killing the women and children whilst abusing our own (Reggie Kray’s story around is wife until her death is loaded with allegations)? Paradox two.
Back to Parkhurst visiting room – so Reggie Kray is sitting there animatedly talking about this book he’s writing and I’m sitting there right beside him animatedly listening. Suddenly I catch myself on – am I listening because I have forgotten who he is and what he did in this moment of relatively ordinary exchange, or am I afraid and smiling all the wider because of it? No, not that. I have forgotten his record sheet whilst this man chats amiably about writing. I have forgotten where I am, and why I’m there. Paradox three.
I am all Kate Moss-ed; I am lost.
I’m 24 years old, I’m naive as hell yet streetwise as anything (paradox four). I’m visiting my boyfriend who is also in Parkhurst prison serving a five year sentence for aggravated burglary. I am coping; on the outside of those heavy key-laden locked iron doors I am coping by filling myself with class A’s, ignoring my heart, and locking away my own worth as securely as those doors in the jail are locked once visiting time is over.
I looked like this (on the right)
I write all this not to just tell you about my life, although I am documenting it for my children in doing so, but more to pose the question – who were you in the journey to becoming who you are, and if that is an endless changing rhythm (which it is as it’s impossible that this can stay fixed – law of nature etc) then surely we are all just in eternal flow? If we are all in eternal flow, can we let go of attachment, recognise that our lives, the people in them, the moments we share are all just that…life! Just one big, juicy, terrible, wonderful carnival.
I learnt about myself that my resilience is strong, my ancestors embedded that into my DNA, that we are survivors of hard lives, lives which were ruled by struggles with poverty in the Lancashire cotton mills, forged in monumental effort and lifted out of that through education and self made opportunity. I’m entrepreneurial – it’s in my blood, but many of you may not have known why that is. It’s down to my ancestors, but it’s also down to me, to my constant knowing that even when times were shit, they could be different, better, and more true. That this was not all there was and damn but I intended to find the ‘what is’ rather than accepting this half life and half truth. So I left that life, I finally admitted myself to hospital to clear the class As from my body (one of the toughest things I’ve ever done) and then began the long, slow haul of clearing them from my emotions, feelings and my spirit. I could just as easily have chosen to stay there and watch myself slowly die; others did and I watched them die instead, sobered into a tougher resolve that this would not be my life, that I would not end here in a crummy London Basement absent from my pain and absent from all of life’s riches.
There is an old saying “necessity is the mother of invention,” one of the most true sayings I know! Whether that necessity breeding inventiveness is born of poverty, hardship, desperation and despair, or simply a knowing that anything is possible if we believe it is so, then it has worked regardless of its origin. If you have moved even one step from where you were to where you are now, then you are learning, growing and changing. Give yourself a break, let life serenade you, congratulate yourself for every battle you’ve overcome, but don’t take a seat on that armchair of pain and suffering whatever you do, for you may just find you take root in that chair and forget how to be alive, and that would be a most tragic waste.
So meeting Reggie Kray and realising this man I was looking in the eye had committed these terrible crimes; had driven his wife to suicide, had killed people in cold blood so de-sensitised that he could just keep doing it until he was stopped, and yet was vulnerable, childlike and in some way charming by then (paradox five), I realised that life has whatever meaning we ascribe to it. I recognised that I was only responsible for the living of my own life, and for the the ripples I create in the living of it in the lives of those I love who surround me – in other words there are consequences to our choices. Now I live with that knowing and it has become my teacher and my guide, as it probably always was.
Totally Kate Moss-ed? Not any more…no.