Thursday 19 December 2013

A Very Bad Man

Ronnie Biggs was a living example of the word ‘fluke’.

First, he was a lucky sod. He was destined for a life of petty thievery when offered a minor role in the greatest robbery of all time , and dodged justice afterwards more by accident than planning.

Second, he was never anything more than the tail on someone else’s beast. If you had met the gang behind the Great Train Robbery in the street Ronnie would have been the one at the back pulling faces.

And lastly, he was a parasite. He lived off others his whole life and in his death he’s doing much the same. He came home to Britain old and unwell – a benefit tourist, if you will.

But for the journalists who helped Ronnie make so much of so little he was – and still is – one thing alone: A great story .

In 1963 he was married and working as a carpenter, having gone straight after a youth spent in and out of prison. He asked renowned crook Bruce Reynolds for a loan to help buy a house, and instead was offered a role in Reynolds' audacious plan to rob the mail train .

Biggs’ job was to recruit a retired train driver to help. Unfortunately the man he picked had no idea how to drive their captured booty to sidings for unloading, and the gang had to force the actual driver Jack Mills to do the deed.

They persuaded him by means of an iron bar around the head, from which he never recovered. There were no guns among the gang – the one bit of violence was due to Biggs’ incompetence.

As the gang divided the loot at nearby Leatherslade Farm Biggs boobed again, this time leaving his fingerprints on a Monopoly board and a ketchup bottle, while the others kept their gloves on.

In 1964 he was sentenced to a savage 30 years, and just 15 months later he hitched a ride on a break-out from Wandsworth prison, going over the wall with a handmade rope ladder along with three other criminals.

He went to Paris, got a new passport, had £40,000 of plastic surgery and met up with his wife. They went on to Australia but were terrified of being caught, and after four years Biggs lit out, first for Panama and then Brazil.

His wife, Charmian, was abandoned along with their three sons. The police turned up two hours after Biggs left, and when the journalists followed Charmian - unable to fund the family any other way - sold her story, repeatedly.

In 1971 their oldest son died in a car crash, and Biggs did not reappear. Charmian was left to deal with it, and the police and hacks who turned up hoping the fugitive would do the same, on her own.

In 1974 Biggs finally surfaced. He was in Rio, going by the name Michael Haynes, and as usual had let slip to some drinking buddies he was notorious Ronnie Biggs .

One of the buddies was friends with a reporter on the Daily Express, who saw the story as a way to make his name. He spoke to Biggs by phone, and found the criminal pining for the green fields of home and hopeful of a new trial and lighter sentence if he gave himself up.

Biggs even sent a letter with his inky fingerprints on, to confirm his identity. But the editor took legal advice about paying criminals for their story, and turned over his own journo by going straight to Scotland Yard and Detective Chief Superintendent Jack Slipper.

The journalist was furious but had no option except to go along with the plan. They would fly to Rio, the paper would get Biggs in a hotel and wring him dry, then be on hand to get the pictures when Slipper of the Yard knocked on the door and finally found his man.

That much went according to plan, except for the crook’s woefully poor speech. "F*** me," said Biggs when he saw the policeman. "How did you get here?" In another fluke, it turned out the police didn’t have the right permissions to extradite him, and the non-arrest turned into a media circus.

An Australian newspaper flew Charmian in to be reunited with her husband, only for him to tell her he had got a Brazilian dancer called Raimunda pregnant and wanted a divorce. Slipper flew home utterly humiliated, photographed next to the empty seat the crook should have been in.

After that Biggs earned money hosting barbecues where tourists could come and meet him, for a fee. He sold mugs and t-shirts with his face on. In 1981 he was kidnapped by a group of ex-soldiers for a reward, but again he lucked out, their boat broke down and he was sent back to Rio – accompanied, this time, by ITN.

He sang on Sex Pistols’ tracks, he had drinks on Royal Navy vessels, and when in 1997 Brazil finally signed an extradition treaty with the UK and Biggs agreed to come home, a Brazilian court threw it out and he had to stay.

He finally returned in 2001, thanks to a private jet and another newspaper deal. He went straight to jail and had he stayed there he would have served, by the time he died, half his original sentence.

But he was released on compassionate grounds in 2009, an ill old man with apparently not long to live. He has spent most of the time since in hospitals and nursing homes, suffering strokes and heart problems.

In all Biggs served nine years for a crime which thanks to Biggs alone saw a man brutally beaten. He had more than 35 years on the run, revelling in his notoriety and existing purely on the perceived glamour of his misdeeds.

But he was no lovable Cockney rogue.

Ronnie Biggs ultimately abandoned his two oldest children. He treated his wife appallingly. He never said sorry directly to Jack Mills’ family – he said it to a newspaper. All he was good at was dodging justice and providing fresh scandal for hacks to enjoy. He was a stupid, selfish braggart: Robin Hood he was not. 

Ronnie Biggs was a great story, but a very bad man.

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