Posted by: martinworster | November 30, 2009

80. DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?

Notorious London gangster asks me if I know who he is…

Do you know who I am? If someone asks that question normally it’s rhetorical and the answer is ‘no’. You wouldn’t have to ask me if I did. Often this question will be delivered in haughty tones, the questioner piqued by not being known. Frequently it’s adopted by snobby types hoping to get a better table in a restaurant or to avoid queueing – as if they are somehow superior. 

I had it asked to me once by one of Britain’s most notorious and dangerous gangsters. Do you know who I am talking about? Who is Britain’s most notorious living gangster? Well I won’t leave you guessing as that would be boring. ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser once asked me if I knew who he was? When he asked I didn’t.

‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser has spent more than half of his life in prison for numerous violent offences. He was certified insane by prison authorities – whilst in prison he would frequently get his term increased for repeat offending whilst inside. On one occasion he stabbed a prison warder in the eye with a needle he was using to stitch post office satchels. In the 60s he ran with the Richardson’s – at that time the Kray twins main rivals. He has committed murder and bank robbery, in one incident he pulled out the teeth of a victim with a pair of pliers, he was one of the main instigators of the famous 1969 Parkhurst prison riots. In 1991 he survived being shot in the head in Clerkenwell. It seems he has well and truly earned his moniker ‘Mad’. This geezer is well and truly out of his nut.

I met him – accidentally – in 1997. I was studying a postgraduate diploma in journalism at City University in London. One of the exercises was finding news stories on the streets. We had an afternoon to wonder into the environs of Islington and to report back later with a story ready to file.  Hmm. Where to start?

I walked up to Angel and then into Alfredo’s Cafe at the bottom of Essex Road. Alfredo’s was a beautifully preserved 1920s cafe – it has been used as a location in numerous films. All vintage fittings, chrome taps and art deco bar stools. And a nice cup of tea. I sat there supping trying to devise a plan of action. I noticed an old man sitting next to me reading a newspaper. I thought he looked like a bit of a character and I hoped I could extract some local colour or news from him. I leant over to him and explained my assignment. He seemed interested and leaned in closer.

‘Do you know who I am?’

He said it in a low growl. His eyes turned cold, menacing – rat like as I realised how close together they were. At that instant as I stared into his old face I felt a wave of recognition come over me. I didn’t know who he was but felt as if I should. It was exhilerating, like an electric surge.

‘I’m ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser,’ he said, in a thick South London accent. No mockney Guy Ritchie faux-gangsta character – this was the real deal. Just like the period fittings in the cafe we sat in, this man was authentic. He made Lock Stock And Two Smoking Barrels seem like The Muppets.

“Wow, pleased to meet ya Frankie.’ I replied and we shook hands. I felt slightly giddy. 

‘Can I call you ‘Mad’ for short?’, I thought to myself. We started to chatting. As I stared at him I thought of all the things this man had seen and done. The necks those hands had wrung. Countless triggers pulled by those bony fingers. The sore sights those eyes had seen. Eyes that had looked into victims eyes in the moments before death. I didn’t feel afraid – he seemed like a frail man into his 70s. Although there was no guessing what might be hiding under his long overcoat – pliers, needles, a sawn off shotgun? 

I told him my dad was from Islington. We chatted about his latest projects. At that time he had become a minor celebrity. Appearing in the theatre, writing a book, guesting on songs etc. He was very friendly, helpful – and seemed sane.

I rushed back to the college excited with my afternoons work. The teacher – a notorious hard ex-hack – wasn’t very impressed and deemed it not strictly news. It was news for me – and still is.

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