We're going a bit off piste today, not my usual reading fare by any stretch of the imagination, but bought in a Kindle Daily Deal, read last November and by chance I come across some notes in my book and realised I haven't written about Frances: The Tragic Bride - The True Story of Reggie Kray's First Wife by Jacky Hyams...and it was such a good read that I'm playing catch-up.
NB: Working from notes and memory of a book read nine months ago, I can't quite be sure what may be a direct quote from the book (which would normally be in quote marks) or my own words, for which I apologise now... though the fact I can remember the book at all suggests it was a good read.
Frances : The Tragic Bride is still as cheap as chips and it maybe worth downloading a sample to see if it is your sort of thing before committing. Except this book was for me an object lesson in keeping an open mind about what I might choose to read, to be less dismissive of subjects beyond me ken. The Kray twins, gangster land and my head full of all those urban myths...but maybe they were true...bodies cemented under motorway bridges...heads nailed to the floor... and maybe for obvious reasons I've been a bit nervous about writing about it. I lived and worked in the East End in the 1970s, back then it was still quite a fearful place to be; with good reason the Krays were described as the most dangerous men in Britain and the legacy of the Blind Beggar pub just opposite the London Hospital was legendary. I worked with a Staff Nurse who used to go for a drink in there before coming on night duty which we all thought was terribly brave back in 1974... now I think we'd be reporting her.
With upmarket addresses in Spitalfields these days it's hard to imagine that the East End was once considered the territory of the renegade, the petty criminal, the poorest of the poor, all of which bred a Them v Us mentality that involved looking out for yourself and your family. Authority was there to be questioned and shunned, breeding a spirit of survival born of centuries of rough tough living; there was tenacity amidst utter deprivation and if you weren't an outlaw, you almost certainly knew those who were and would keep quiet about it, Jackie Hyams portrays this as the East London 'omerta' (the mafia code of silence) thus setting the scene for the birth of Frances Shea in September 1943, into the over-crowded and crime-ridden neighbourhood of Hoxton and Shoreditch and most significantly, living just a mile away, Ronnie and Reggie, the ten-year-old Kray twins.
Just to set this in a twenty-first century context...to rent a tiny studio flat in Ormsby Street, Hoxton where Frances was born, would leave you little change from £1200 a month in 2014...you could probably have bought a street for that in 1943.
If life in the East End was the Great Unknown unless you had lived there then Call the Midwife certainly sorted all that out, dispelling many of the myths, perhaps creating a few more along the way, but certainly giving a realistic portrayal of the life and the people.
The Kray twins left school at fifteen going to work as fish porters at Billingsgate market and holding down their only full time employment for just six months. The call to fight was not unusual in the East End, there was a love of violence harnessed and tamed to some extent in the boxing clubs much loved by the brothers, but the Krays packed a double punch out on the streets, you didn't just take on one of them, you'd better be ready for both.
Inseparable, their identities inextricably linked and impossible to disentangle, Ronnie and Reggie's steady rise to supremacy on the streets was readily paved by the post-war struggle for survival; the harsh winters and the derelict housing creating the perfect climate. The war must have seemed like a hollow victory in the face of such hardship, the black market thrived and behind a facade of respectability, by violence and manipulation, did the twins assume their power. If there was a power behind the throne it was their mother Violet, ambitious for her boys and happy to move in the world of night clubs and movie stars that their fame bestowed. The desire for respectability and social acceptance amongst the matriarchs of the East End was a common trait, a powerful force and one possessed by both Frances's mother Elsie Shea and Violet Kray. Who can know how much of this propelled the hapless Frances in the direction of Reggie Kray.
To read Jackie Hyams account is to see what lay beneath the surface and I was riveted in that way that often takes me by surprise...because this really isn't my subject at all. Except in many ways it is, because when Frances, bowled over by Reggie's wealth, succumbs to his charms what unfolds is the tragedy of a young woman's life in what we now tend to look back on as the generic freedom of the Swinging Sixties, but tradition dies hard in the East End.
Reggie, a brutal man with a penchant for sentimentality, traps Frances with his sharp dressing, the glamour, the gifts and money, a huge and irresistible temptation for the Hoxton girl. He is jealous, possessive and controlling and Frances becomes the ultimate pampered doll in the gilded cage, isolated from her friends and family, a no-go area for others. She repeatedly delays the wedding, breaks off the engagement and who can blame her because always standing in the sidelines is the more unstable Ronnie nursing a hatred that has to be read to be believed. A paranoid schizophrenic fuelled by drugs and alcohol, Ronnie could be uncontrollable and unpredictable and ultimately, as events would prove, a liability.
But the power and control are too great, Frances has no means of resisting, doomed if she does, doomed if she doesn't, and the couple are finally married in 1965...the photographer, also a local, a young David Bailey (the only wedding he ever did apparently).
No spoilers here about what happens next to Frances, even though her sad fate is well-known as is her family's fight to 'retrieve' her, but suffice to say that I was fascinated to read of a world I knew of only in relation to its menfolk, and the eventual life sentences in prison for both Ronnie and Reggie Kray, thus Jacky Hyams account of life for the women offers a new and very readable perspective and one I am surprisingly pleased to have read.
So this was my book that flew in out of the left field...I wonder if you have books that have surprised you too..
Books that have taken you far from home reading turf and that you have, maybe strangely, enjoyed...