Crime committed by the over-sixties has risen by 35 per cent in the past ten years. Wensley Clarkson visits a care home for the criminal classes, somewhere in England
In the gym, a yellowy old fellow in baggy shorts and a string vest pumped away desperately on a cycling machine. In another corner, a slightly younger and fitter-looking man with a spray-on tan danced nonchalantly up and down, aiming a few casual air punches towards the leather punch bag, until – in an unintendedly comic climax – he unleashed a surprisingly vicious flurry of left-hand jabs that caused the bag to swing wildly forward and back again, nearly catching him hard on the chin.
That brought a knowing smile to the face of a third elderly man, with a crew cut and triple chin, who lay on his back, struggling to perform a bench press. He was the man I’d come to meet as part of my research for a new crime book; I’d contacted him through an armed robber from south-east London who’d helped me with a previous book I’d written about the Great Train Robber Charlie Wilson.
The location was interesting and might best be described as a care home for the elderly criminal. I can’t give away its location, except to say that it doesn’t hold Europe’s all-year-round sunshine record and it’s a two-hour drive from London’s West End, where so many of its residents once held court. From the outside, the building looks like nothing more than a block of 1970s council flats, which is how it began, but inside there are signs that money has been spent by the ‘collective’ of wealthy London gangsters who set the place up, hoping to find a final destination for themselves and their cash.
My man – we’ll call him Billy – had a flabby bulk to which alcohol and fine food had no doubt contributed, but his vice of a handshake demonstrated that he’d retained considerable power and strength for a man getting on for 79. He was an old-fashioned south London villain, who’d come of age as a criminal when the underworld was ruled by legends such as the Kray Twins and the Richardsons and armed robbery was the favourite way to make money. The criminal life is no longer quite so homespun; Kent, according to Billy, is a mishmash of foreign criminals who’ve just stepped into England at the ports of Dover and Folkestone.
‘Those foreigner gangsters are bleedin’ psychos and they’re nickin’ all our best work,’ he said to me as we settled down on a sofa in his tiny sitting room. ‘They come after you and yer family if you cross ’em. So this place feels safe because it’s run and owned by other villains, who I know and trust.’
According to Billy, the criminals who crossed the Channel had shown the old native gangsters that there was still a good living to be made, a thought that was especially attractive to those who’d returned to the UK after blowing their ill-gotten savings on golf courses and in tatty bars on Spain’s so-called Costa del Crime. The state pension wouldn’t support the life to which they’d become accustomed, and they weren’t usually eligible for one in any case: National Insurance contributions aren’t easy to deduct from an income derived from armed robbery and drug smuggling.
A constant regret, Billy said, was that he and his mates had never pulled off the Big One that would secure their retirement, which had left them ‘still out and about and duckin’ and divin’ … a man’s gotta earn a crust and this place ain’t cheap, either, but at least they take cash.’
His crime of choice these days is ‘dabbling’ in the occasional cannabis deal and touting Premiership tickets. ‘I flogged a small shipment of puff the other day that came in through a mate of mine in Spain,’ he said. He assured me that most of his old-time gangster associates are also still ‘up to no good’ – a fact clearly borne out by those elderly professionals who pulled off the Hatton Garden heist. Billy met three members of the gang earlier in prison and insisted to me they were ‘brilliant operators’. The job, he said, had been waiting more than thirty years to be done. ‘We all knew about that Hatton Garden vault. And of course we’d all talked about doing it when we were locked up together. That’s what happens in prisons.’
The care home is itself a kind of prison. The man who runs it – we’ll call him Jimbo – is a former safe cracker who, after his wife died of cancer, deliberately got himself arrested so he could avoid both do-gooders and solitude. ‘I was lonely but I didn’t want anyone’s help,’ he told me. ‘It was the easy answer. People like me get respect inside prison. And being inside when you’re old and lonely can be preferable to life outside, especially if your loved ones have passed on or your close family has moved away.
‘That’s why this place exists. Most of these characters consider themselves soldiers of crime and they don’t mix well with people from the so-called outside world. They need a bolthole – somewhere they can lay their heads and not worry about a rival criminal blowing them away or an ambitious copper hauling them in as one of the usual suspects.’
The home opened in 2014 and Billy moved in soon after. Towards the end of our conversation, he went to a sideboard drawer and pulled out a big cuttings album. ‘Those were the days,’ he said, turning over page after page of stories and headlines that had been clipped from the tabloids in the 1970s. ‘Did you know there was twenty armed robberies every week in London in the late 1970s? Crime was a proper business back then.’
He smiled wistfully. ‘We’re all livin’ too bleedin’ long. We gotta do something to relieve the boredom.’ Dunthievin? Dundealin? Dunblaggin? Perhaps not quite yet.
‘Sexy Beasts: The Real Inside Story of the Hatton Garden Mob’ by Wensley Clarkson (Quercus £14.99).