The Autobiography of a London Gangster

by NB Armstrong (October 2013)


Benny Strong was a member of The McCowell criminal firm that “worked the pavement” and spread terror across London from the 1960s until very recently. He has now published his memoirs, This Gangster is One of Your Own. In the extract which follows, Benny starts by recalling some of the “faces” he came across over the years.

Back in the very early days there was Nips Farago, a great fella (or face) who was very very unlucky. He got turfed out the firm cause no one really has a name like Nips Farago, do they? OB followed him round from a young age waiting for Nips to do naughty things cause of his lovable rogue name. We couldn’t be dealing with all the agg he got off of wilf. He was a lovely man was Nips, despite the kids and fallen arches, and it was a sad day when we asked him to leave the East End, which by this time had expanded to include South Yorkshire. I’m sure Nips could have held his own in the firm, despite his name, if he’d had some skill we could have put to work. He did have a little bit of education, but there isn’t much call for a Masters Degree in Land Surveying on the pavement. I just hope Nips could put his paper qualifications to good use somewhere and managed to land a basic welding gig. I hope he’s done well for himself and his family cause that’s what it’s all about.

Then there was Anderson (“Anders”) Martinson Richardson, who made up in “son” names what he lacked in brothers and sisters, of which he had none. We used to call him “two names,” cause of the two surnames, even though he really had three names, I suppose. Some of the fellas used to call him “two names” and some of the fellas used to call him “three names”. They’d wind each other up about it, and one day it led to a very vicious fight in which there were ears on the pavement by the end of the evening but it was all forgot about the next morning until someone remembered at lunchtime and it kicked off again in an all day café run by a geezer with a very full upper lip.

Ander’s initials was AMR, which sounds like ammer if you say it in loud words, so he was known as The Hammer, which was very fitting cause he was hard and had the scars to prove it. “I got this one catching a safe, I got this one in a fight with Shirley Crabtree, I got this one opening a roll can of spam…” he’d say. So we used to call him “I got this one.” He didn’t like that, though, and when anyone called him “I got this one” he’d get the hump and tell them to “fack orf”, by which he meant “fuck off” but it came out that way cause of his accent which was proper east. So in the end his full name was Anderson (“Anders”) Two Names Three Names The Hammer I Got This One Fack Orf Martinson Richardson. We decided to fuck him off at this point. Someone put him in a lorry that went for a swim. But he was lovely, a real 200 carat diamond was Anderson (“Anders”) Two Names Three Names The Hammer I Got This One Fack Orf Martinson Richardson.

Steve Nicks out of Hove is someone I can’t forget. Cause of the similarity of his name to a very well known singer of the time, we used to call him “Well Known.” Now Well Known, believe me you, was not to be trifled with. He had a fearsome temper did Well Known. And I don’t use those what I’ve just learned are called italics lightly. One time a man I’ll just refer to as X was dicking Well Known about, swearing on his Toby jug that he was in on a real nice bit of work and that he wanted Well Known in on it and that when the time was right he’d bring him in on things. Well this was too many in ons for Well Known, and soon enough he found out the job had been done without him being in on anything. I was there when he found out and I can assure you he was absolutely livid, so angry in fact that he immediately put down the silk doily he was working on, Austin Allegro 1750ed it round to X’s house with a chainsaw, and cut it right down the middle. The house fell apart like an Easter egg, revealing X’s wife (and you understand how I can’t, why I don’t want to give X’s identity away), X's his wife Diane “Libby” Pritchard, exposed to the world in her nightie, still vacuuming the family retriever. As often happens in situations where a woman has been totally humiliated by a man, Mrs Pritchard was turned on (or ripe for taking, which is much the same thing in our world) and invited Well Known into her broken home. They started an affair that day what carried on even after Well Known passed away when he got shot by a mourner on his way to X’s funeral three days later. Well, if you want to dance you must pay the fiddler.

Seepak Shakur we used to call The Englishman as a sort of joke, cause his name sounded so Indian, see. We called it him to make him feel a bit of a spare part and not involved in things. Now about this time Seepak starts to behave like an outsider. Well, we couldn’t trust him no more and he got bought a one way train ticket to Sheffield, which looking back I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy. But we also gave him a hamper which included some very long lasting cured meats to cushion the blow, so he couldn’t really complain. A close pal of Seepak’s was Desmond Villon -his real name. He never really had a choice in life, now did he? Desmond had several winter coats and was ever so slightly older than he looked. He was a very popular member of the outfit until he was caught reading. Bye bye Desmond. Then there was Curtis who wasn’t high enough up in the organization to have a surname or a nickname. Curtis had this brown hair (on my life). And there was a bloke used to do a bit of driving for us, I swear, called James Bond, and he never had a nickname either, which is strange when you come to think of it cause he had the same name as Sean Connery.

Now I nearly forgot George the Pikey! We always called him George the Pikey. George begged us, though we always refused, to call him by his real name, George Pike. George was a real traveler and had the depressed horses to prove it. He came from a very big family, none of who were related to each other. He was said to have had several mothers, all of whom looked exactly like him, including the shattered chin. George was the strongest man I’ve ever known but he was a decent and fair man who would never look for trouble after his third fight of the christening. He introduced me to every member of his whole family but after the second one I asked him to stop. Like I say, he asked that we call him by his real name but we refused and I know this aint very pc of me (these was different times, right and wrong made no sense) we said no. Cause if George Pike isn’t the name of a shirt lifter I don’t know what is. Finally there was Rupert Tart. A tough man rumored to like boys.

__________

A club is a strange thing. To some men it’s a place to drink and meet a woman. To others it’s somewhere to get pissed and pull. To us it was a mixture of the two. All the chaps, every serious face of the day, was involved in running a club. You had to be. A club opened doors. A club was status, it was like a passport (a couple of the fellas used to say at Gatwick on the way out to the costas “I’ve got a nightclub up Beckenham east” and customs would wave them through, god’s honest). A club was just good public relations, and worked a lot better than those adverts for gangs which appeared in local cinemas for a while but got pulled by the council. The McCowell's place, The Sharndalier, was for a while the capital of Swinging London and every man in there had a serious case of jut jaw, otherwise what was the point? 

One fella, a man who made a fortune off double glazing before Ted Moult betrayed his fan base, paid three grand just to meet Richie McCowell. All he did was shake his hand and ask him a couple of basic questions. That’s how well regarded Richie McCowell was in the window industry of the day. A meet in his back office, a few hellos, a few questions, thank you very much, here’s three grand. He could have made a fortune like that, Richie, but he put a stop to such meetings when the double glazing salesman turned out to be a police officer who now had enough to charge him on tax avoidance and money laundering. Frank McCowell had the last laugh though, paying the three grand back in fake twenties and only getting six months for it.

The club was twenty four hour, meaning that you could get a drink at 4am of course, but you could even get one at lunchtime. It was a special special place and a lot of special special people blessed it with their presents. I’d like to share with you now a few memories of some of the famous individuals I met in my time as part of the firm. Celebrities sometimes get a bad write up in the press but I can tell you that, on the whole, they are easy people to get on with and every bit as pleasant as gangsters.

The Beatles came in to the club one night because we’d just changed its name to LSD. LSD stood for Lights Singing and Dancing but some people got the wrong idea and we had to slap a lot of grubby fellas with long hair but not the Beatles cause they was all well brought up, you know. And they’d done the decent thing and got out of Liverpool as soon as they could. It was a great night and we talked about what great fellas they were before, during, and afterwards. It was during the afterwards that we learned we’d each given them a song. They very kindly accepted the songs from us even though they must have been sick of fans giving them crappy tunes they’d written. Richie McCowell gave John Lennon something he’d written a couple of years back at a time of high tension between the three families. It was a song called Come Together, a peace anthem about warring families uniting to take over London. John smiled and said thanks. Leon gave George Harrison a song called Something which he said he named “something” after George asked him what it was called and he was embarrassed cause he never had a title for it so he just came up with “something” on the spot. He was a very quick thinker like that, Leon, a staunch thinker. Well Harrison, to be fair, was the most approachable of the lot. So later on that night I gave him my own song. It was about a sun coming and I called it Here Comes The Sun. I’d always wanted, right from being a young boy, to write a song which had the word sun in it a lot. It came to me one morning when I woke up in my flat very early, before light in fact, as I looked out the window and up at the sky as it turned orange, and I watched and waited as the orange turned to yellow, for the paper boy to deliver The Sun. George laughed and put it very carefully inside his top pocket which I thought was ever so nice. Paul said don’t worry about it because it was fans giving them songs that had inspired them to write their own music in 1960. He winked at John and said it looks like we’ve got another album fellas. I thought it was a nice gag and a nice touch, him using the word fellas. To be perfectly honest we wasn’t really number one fans of the Beatles and so we never checked whether they used our songs or not, but we wasn’t stupid enough to bother looking then and nor am I now that I’m much older in years now.

Ella Fitzgerald was known as the first lady of Jazz and was married to the president, which I thought was a brave thing for a white man to do. She came into the club one night with an entrain of it must have been at least two people, no word of a lie. She sang a chorus of Happy Birthday Mr President and it brought the house down. The singers did their singing up on what we called the stage whilst the audience sat in chairs. It was an arrangement that worked very well and I believe a lot of clubs copied us in the early sixties. Nowadays it’s standard. Miss Fitzgerald had a wondrous voice and sang like a black angel. We invited her back, promising to bill her as the black angel but she didn’t seem keen on the idea and left soon after. Lovely fella (woman).

I was very young in the early days of the club and didn’t recognize some of the actors, presenters, and people in the music industry who brought their young nephews to the club but didn’t stay long. At the time there were so many new entertainers coming along that if you put your hand into a pool of humans to drag one out by the hair, chances are you’d grab yourself a radio or TV personality (or music nephew). So it was hard to keep track of them all, and much much harder than keeping track of nonces. One night in particular I said to Richie McCowell, “those two bald fellas must be brothers or something”. Well Richie has nearly spat his drink out before it’s reached his lips. “Stone me,” he says. Turns out “those two bald fellas” are Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner, the classic American actors of screen and stage, though no one’s ever seen them on a stage.

Yul and Telly are playing at separate craps tables and the crowds are loving it. This is very good news for the club. I goes up to Yul and says, “Who loves ya baby.” He just looks at me all unfriendly but I leave it because these people are paid very well but are under an enormous amount of pressure in their social lives. Then I goes up to Telly and told him no one would ever believe he was Russian and he stares straight through me and now I’m getting the right raving hump. In truth I don’t rate either of these men as actors and I don’t trust them as men. Going bald is a well known nonce trick to garner pity. I head under the counter and take out the largest cosh shaped object I can get my hands. It just so happens to be a cosh and now I’m gonna do these fellas rich and disabled or not. I’m on my way over there when Richie stops me. I explain what’s happened and he says look, you’ve made a mistake, you’ve got them mixed up. He says people are always making the same mistake I did and I’m like, “What? That’s happened before? Someone has gone up to Telly Savalas and mistaken him for Yul Brynner? Someone has gone up to Yul Brynner and mistaken him for Telly savalas?” Well, apparently it’s true. I calm down immediately and approach the two fellas and Yul and Telly, it turns out, are lovely men, though they remain cautious and actually seem relieved to leave as I wave them off still holding the cosh. But we all had a good drink. After they’d gone. And do you know they never even spoke a word to each other not once that night, old Yul and Terry. Has to be ever people would mix up Telly Savalas and Yul Brynner known the oddest thing I have to this day in all my years in the underworld criminal London.

Know what I mean?

_________________________

Extract taken from This Gangster is One of Your Own.

Benny Strong tweets on world issues at @strong_benny


NB Armstrong is a writer and translator. His latest books, This Gangster is One of Your Own and Korean Straight Lines, are now available. [email protected]


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