By Jim White
He was sitting at the bar, and hadn’t moved all evening. Small, bullet-eyed, his hair slicked back, he was dressed in banker’s pinstripe. He sat nursing a vodka, holding court. A succession of young, clever metropolitans were lining up to speak to him. When it was their turn for a word, you could see them lean forward to catch his slow, light wisp of a voice, then rock back in sycophantic laughter. They would then go off and re-find their mates, tell them that they had just had a chat with a gangland legend, that they had just met Mad Frankie Fraser.
It was 1995 and I had written a book. To launch it, the publishers were hosting a party. It wasn’t clear how Mad Frankie had heard about it; he had probably come along with his friend Willie ‘Henry Root’ Donaldson. But nobody was going to turn him away. This, after all, was the guy who had spent 42 years inside for a catalogue of grotesque crimes. This was a man who boasted that he had pulled the teeth from rivals with a pair of pliers. Sure, Frankie could come in and enjoy the free bar.
Besides, why would you want to turn him away? At the time, nothing added cachet to a literary gathering quite like having the Richardson Gang’s enforcer there in person, proper danger sitting at the bar. And Frankie represented danger all right. He was nasty, nasty, nasty. An Army deserter, he had turned to crime in the war, when it was easy to prey on the vulnerable in the blackouts. After the war, he had progressed to organised gangsterism, inflicting terror on those who crossed him, spending much of his time inside.
For a lot of the Sixties, Frankie terrorised on behalf of the Richardson Gang. His renown quickly spread: this was the most dangerous man in London, somebody only the foolish crossed. He may have been small, but then you didn’t need to be big to wield a pair of pliers. You just had to be unhinged.
When he was finally sentenced to life imprisonment, the judge said it meant life. But he was released in the early Nineties and vowed he wouldn’t go back inside. To earn a crust he co-wrote a book – Mad Frank: Memoirs of a Life of Crime – then played himself in Donaldson’s show A Retiring Fellow, before touring theatres with An Evening With Mad Frankie, a hoot a minute about the good old days of murder and mayhem. He carried on being Mad Frank right till the end: in 2013, a year before he died, he became the oldest person ever to receive an Asbo when at the age of 89 he was issued with a banning order for threatening a fellow resident at the Peckham care home where he ended up.
Long before that, though, he was enjoying being the centre of attention at my party. After a while someone let it be known that Frankie wanted a word. I made my way over to where he was, and waited my turn. When I was ushered into his presence, he fixed me with his fearsome gaze, held on to my hand for a little longer than was comfortable and pulled me close. ‘Let me give you a word of advice,’ he rasped in my ear. ‘Author to author.’
What gems did he have to impart? Had he discovered the secret of creativity? Had he supped from the holy grail of literary invention? No, it turned out his advice was rather more practical.
‘When you pass a bookshop, always go inside and sign any copies of your book they’ve got,’ he rasped. ‘Because once the fucker’s been signed, it cannot be remaindered.’
A couple of years later, I happened to pass the bookshop in Islington that was close to where Frankie then lived. There on a table by the front door was a tottering Himalaya of copies of his autobiography. On the top was a hand-written sign saying: ‘Memoirs of a local author, half price. All signed.’