Obituary: Ronnie Biggs
One of the Great Train Robbers whose notoriety endured despite being a two-bit villain, writes David Robson
IT is hardly surprising that Reginald Bevins, postmaster-general in Harold Macmillan's government in the Britain of 1963, had to break off his summer holiday in August -- the Glasgow-to-London night mail train had been robbed, the driver badly beaten.
But Bevins's public statement didn't follow the script when ministers parrot the pat condemnation -- "an outrage ... a dastardly act". Bevins had a rather different situation to deal with. Far from being appalled by the crime, the public was engrossed, captivated by the planning, the drama, the bravado, not to mention the scale of the haul.
These days, we are accustomed to bankers being paid millions and banks losing billions. Computerisation has given money an air of only virtual reality.
Although Macmillan had said in 1957 that "most of our people have never had it so good", almost everyone still had to count their pennies. When the news broke that the gang's cunning scheme had landed them £2.6m in used notes belonging to Scottish, English and Irish banks, many could scarce forbear to cheer.
So how was the minister to restore the nation's moral compass? "I don't feel any admiration for these gentlemen at all," said Bevins. "In fact, I would not use the word gentlemen."
It was a strange word to use in connection with a bunch of criminals. And a rather mild condemnation.
But the judge at the gang's trial applied the smack of firm government. He imposed prison sentences of exemplary length: seven of the robbers were given 30 years. Doubtless they were being punished for the scale of their crime, but it seems they were being further punished because the press and public had enjoyed it too much.
In a masterpiece of timing the BBC last week screened its dramatisation of The Great Train Robbery. That Ronnie Biggs has died to coincide with it is either a conspiracy, his last act of self-publicity, or a piece of good fortune for all concerned.
Whether Biggs has been the lifelong beneficiary of good fortune depends on how you regard world travel and sleazy minor celebrity. The truth is he was fortunate even to be part of the story. The Kray brothers, the only British contemporaries to vie with him as national anti-heroes, were at least villains who maimed, killed and terrorised, and as is often the way, engaged with the titled and famous. Biggs was a two-bit villain. Even among the train robbers, he was a minnow.
None of the gang was exactly a major criminal, but Biggs was neither the brain nor the brawn. In fact his main credential was that he knew Bruce Reynolds, one of the coup's masterminds. What did Biggs bring to the party?
He brought a retired train driver of his acquaintance who was supposed to take the train into a siding after the real driver had been removed.
Biggs's friend wasn't up to it. So they had to force the real driver, Jack Mills, to do it. They encouraged him with a hefty blow to the head that left him badly impaired for the rest of his shortened life.
Biggs didn't execute the blow but he was guilty of contributory incompetence.
Biggs retained a lifelong notoriety he had no interest in escaping. It was his meal ticket and if this is iniquitous, the British public and certainly the press have been complicit in it. The train robbers have been one of those stories told and retold. Buster Edwards, in later life Waterloo station's most famous flower seller, prompted a biopic, Buster, starring Phil Collins. But Biggs's was a much longer-running story than that. Within 15 months of being incarcerated he had escaped from Wandsworth jail.
It was what is described as a "daring" escape and was the beginning of an odyssey that took him to Australia, later to Panama, then to Brazil. It was often recounted to the public as a double-edged tale -- on the one hand, he was a criminal who should be brought to justice; on the other, here was Jack the Lad leading the lotus life on Copacabana beach surrounded by good-looking women. What's not to like?
He wasn't exactly your lovable cockney but he had a way with a grab-bag of phrases and became an increasingly practised media hand. When British journalists were in Brazil, they dropped in on him and for the price of "a drink" -- maybe 50 quid -- he would provide them with some quotes. He tried to give the air of living the good life, but the more perceptive observers sensed that he wasn't entirely happy.
By the Seventies he was a rather old-fashioned figure -- the sort who might have featured as a minor villain in a British "what sort of a joker have we got here?" cop movie. In 1974, when reporters found him in Rio and informed the British police, Det Chief Supt Jack Slipper of the Flying Squad was despatched there to bring him back. Biggs's fathering a Brazilian child prevented his extradition.
By 2001, Biggs was old and ill and wanting to come home. He was in Rio but dreaming of Margate, and when he came back and appealed against imprisonment the story moved into the realm of "Is he as ill as he pretends?" -- or "For heavens sake, is he going to live for ever?"
For a man of no importance, he loomed rather large, or at least very long.
If he'd come from Birmingham he might not have played us so well, but he did the love-a-duck cockney, which is such a part of British national comedy.
A dozen years ago in Rio, Biggs said: "I'm a celebrity, get me out of here," and he meant it. Now he is gone altogether. End of story.