I really hate name dropping. I do. I have several famous friends and their privacy matters to me, quite apart from which I value them no more and no less than I value you, or you, or you. So why should I use any of them as currency?
But I want to tell you about one famous (infamous) bloke I met.
When I was researching for a TV series I went to Nottingham jail, which was then a lifer’s unit, and there at 10am in the morning I met Reggie Kray. The prison was Victorian (it’s since been rebuilt) and the later additions of a heating system and internal sanitation, coupled with hundreds of men, plus locked doors and sealed windows made it stultifyingly hot that day, horribly smelly and airless. We hadn’t come to meet anyone in particular, but just to look at the accommodation, and to get a feel of the atmosphere. As we stood talking to the Prison Officers, Reggie Kray trotted down the metal stairs towards us, beaming. He was dapper in white nylon shorts, pristine white trainers and socks, and a La Coste shirt. He was also slightly drunk, gracious, affable and relaxed. If this was punishment, he was making the most of it. My fellow researcher (the director) and me were stunned. The murderer Kray shook our hands, saying that he’d been told who we were and what we were doing and that if there was anything we needed, we were just to go to him. We just about managed not to say, incredulously, “Really? Are you having a laugh?”
When he had ambled on his way, followed by what seemed like his acolytes (fellow prisoners less well turned out, sporting only dull & faded sweatshirts), the officers told us that he held court, in effect, not just on his wing but in the whole prison, and it was common knowledge that he still ran a lucrative illegal enterprise on the outside, from his cell. This man’s life, and that of his mentally ill twin Ronnie, had been ruled and controlled by their determination to do whatever they wanted to whoever they wanted. They lost their freedom because of this drive for power and gratification, and it had ruined their lives; neither he nor Ronnie had established any real family life, (one marriage ended by a wife’s suicide, one by divorce but Reggie did spend the last three years of his life with his second wife) and when we met Reggie he was in his 60’s with nothing to show for all his scheming but anecdotes, money he couldn’t access, a brother he loved but was separated from, and a cell full of gleaming white trainers that would never walk on grass. Was he aware that he had made some truly stupid decisions in his life? He didn’t appear to be. His attitude was careless, confident, patronising. He treated me and my fellow researcher with condescension… but we were free and he was returning to a padded cell, in his case padded with illicit goods, in his brother’s case probably truly padded.
When I think of the life he led, a gangland boss, crook, thug, murderer, thief and pimp, I’m weirdly reminded of someone else. A sweet old nun. That’s really odd, isn’t it? So, I’ll tell you about her, or the little bit about her that I know.
When I was 16 my Dad wanted me out of the house, but in the 1960’s a 16 year old girl didn’t have many options. None in fact. Was that why I thought of joining the convent as a nun? Maybe, but also my school in Bath was the nearest thing I knew to a family, and I loved it. If I entered the novitiate then I would have a home and a family… surely? Plus I really really wanted to love God. Maybe if I became a nun I would learn how to love Him.
So, I told the nuns at my school and they got very excited and sent me away to the mother house in Highgate for a weekend retreat. I loved it! I really really loved it. I loved my little room with its perfect white bedlinen and its simple crucifix, and the missal in the bedside cabinet. I loved getting up early (I think it was about 5 but I may have misremembered) and the prayers, the hushed corridors, the lingering smell of incense after Benediction, I loved the familiar mid-day ritual of the Angelus, and the early bedtime when the whole house slipped into a soft fuzzy blanket of sighs and a consciousness of other beating hearts. This was my mother convent and the routine and the nuns were familiar, the way of life an echo of my school life, sans friends and noise and lessons. By the Sunday my mind was made up. This was my future.
At tea time we (me and a few other prospective novices, all from Ireland) were treated to a farewell tea in the garden. Now, La Sainte Union Convent was on Highgate Road, not far from Highgate Cemetery where our neighbour was the late Karl Marx. You’d think, wouldn’t you, that it would be noisy, diesel-smelling, busy? But the gardens were wonderful, encircled by a high wall behind which the traffic was muted and distant. One old Irish nun, the one I want to tell you about, whose name I don’t even know, came to sit with me. I was so happy, I told her, that I could just burst. This was the life for me. Well, she knew that although I had terrible academic records, I had won the De Brabant prize four years running in my year group. The De Brabant prize, I should explain, was not for achievement or excellence in anything at all – it was the prize given to the hardest working pupil (or, as my dad said, the pity prize). So she suggested that I should spend the first year or two in the classroom, catching up on my exams; it is, after all a teaching order so they’d try to get me into some role in the school environment. Bum. All I wanted to do was work in the kitchens or gardens, and dream my way through Mass and devotions. Never mind, I rallied gamely and said that was OK, I would buckle down and improve my exam results. I think by this time she could see that I wasn’t going to be put off easily, so her little homily to me developed into something like this
“It’s lovely here, isn’t it? In the garden… with the sun shining?” I agreed it was – there were squirrels running around and a sleepy old convent cat was stretched out in the sun.
“And everyone’s made a fuss of you girls, and we’ve put on special food. And it’s summer after all. But you know, it’s not summer all the time. Sometimes it rains. So if you can’t sit in the garden, well, you just sit indoors. And when it rains, that building behind us is just full of women. It seems so full of women that you can’t find a quiet corner to yourself anywhere.” She leant towards me, her hand on my hand, and whispered confidentially “And do you know, on days like that, all those women just want to kill each other.”
And that’s how that sweet old woman put me off convent life. I took her words away with me and thought about them overnight. Fortuitously, the next morning, as I picked up my little case and caught the bus back to Paddington to go home, it poured down and the world wasn’t so rosy. I still wanted to join the convent but my kindly mentor had given me a more realistic view of a nun’s life. And when I was called to the Reverend Mother’s office a few weeks later to be told that the order would accept me, but that they didn’t think I was suited to the life, and weren’t able to recommend it to me, I declined.
So, what has my nun got to do with Reggie Kray?
Two lives, spent largely in an institution, shut off from the world, and both coming to old age after a life dictated by the choices made earlier, much earlier, way back. One self deluding, selfish, corrupt and perverse. One simple and self sacrificial. So very very different. Both lives hemmed in by the choices they made, both hard to escape from once the course was set. I wonder what Reggie could have achieved if his choices had been wiser, if his heart had been different? And yes, I wonder what my mentor would have achieved, if she had chosen another road. I remember her with gratitude and affection, and wonder if she was looking at this 16 year old girl but seeing herself, and saying to herself, her younger self, “No, no, don’t do it, don’t imprison yourself, don’t throw away so much. ”
That’s a sad thought, isn’t it? I hope that the Convent was always enough for her, that she met God there, that she was happy and fulfilled, and that her warning came only because she could see that I wouldn’t be.
Two lives. Bless them both. Sometimes, when you look at life from a distance, you get a glimpse of the love and the compassion of God, and you almost understand how much He loves us. How He must see our foolishness, our stumbles. And love us anyway.