When Bruce Reynolds had finished the manuscript of my novel Signal Red, he asked if he could pen a postscript ‘just to set the record straight’. This is what he gave me, written in a shaky hand from his sick bed (he had flu) on foolscap paper. It can be found in the end pages of the novel.
“A Glasgow to London mail train was stopped and robbed in Buckinghamshire early today. It happened at Cheddington, near Tring, at about 3am. The driver and the fireman were attacked and injured and two coaches of the train were detached. They contained mail of all kinds, including registered post, said a police spokesman a short time ago. It is believed a large number of men took part and that they got away with a considerable amount of cash. Neither the driver nor the fireman was seriously injured. Senior officers of Buckinghamshire police are now at the scene.”
Above is the original transcript of the BBC’s first radio broadcast concerning the theft from the Royal Mail of 2.6 million in used notes on August 8, 1963. It was initially known at The Cheddington Mail Train Robbery, but this was deemed not snappy enough. Instead, they lifted the title of The Great Train Robbery from an American film dating back to 1903. With massive public interest in the event, the authorities became angry and agitated. There were questions in Parliament, with the reverberations spreading through the country and across the globe like a distant but persistent drumbeat. The words echoed down the corridor of power: ‘They must be caught and convicted’.
So, the police were given carte blanche, and the ‘big boys’ called in, notably the Flying Squad, with Tommy Butler as the Thieftaker General. It was a job he was admirably suited for, as he remarked with conviction to his colleague ‘Nipper’ Read: ‘We’ll get the bastards.’ The hunt was on.
Rumours were rife. Informed sources said the organiser of the robbery was an ex-commando, Major Johnny Rainbow; others claimed that Billy Hill, the self-proclaimed King Of The Underworld, was involved. Both wrong, of course. Names were bandied about, reputations besmirched, with plenty of winners and losers in the media frenzy that surrounded the robbery. The biggest losers, of course, were the men who robbed the train.
None of the actual robbers appreciated the full consequences of their actions; it only became apparent at a later date just how determined the authorities were. The scale of the manhunt, the size rewards offered and, especially, the eventual sentences were all unprecedented. Thirty years was unheard of, even for terrorist bombers.
But ‘stone walls don’t a prison make, nor iron bars a cage’. And so it proved. Charlie Wilson and Ronnie Biggs refused to accept their dire situation and promptly escaped. The media revelled in this turn of events and the hunt stepped up a gear. As did the whole story of The Great Train Robbery, which went through peaks and troughs of public interest, subsiding when the chase went quiet, thrusting its way back into the limelight with Ronnie’s rip-roaring adventures in Rio. The public applauded this cheeky chappy, their emotions switching from curiosity, through admiration to envy: who wouldn’t want to live a free and easy life adjacent to Copacabana in Rio?
The story has been told many times now, but continues to fascinate the media and readers, perhaps because it ‘all begins with intrigue and ends in mystery’.
Now, Robert Ryan has fictionalised the tale based on known facts but using imagined situations and dialogue, a technique he has used before in his novel Death on the Ice, about Captain Scott, and with Lawrence of Arabia in Empire of Sand. They were both key characters from my boyhood days, which is what attracted me to his work. The story he tells in SIGNAL RED is impeccably researched and the salient facts are all there. However, for his characterisation he had to rely on contemporary accounts, memoirs, other writers’ descriptions and conclusions (many of the major figures on both sides of the law being deceased) and his own interpretations, and that doesn’t always fit into my own memories of some of the personalities.
That is not to say he is wrong. In fact, he could be correct. At the time I might well have been blinkered: the light that he shines illuminates some dark corners whilst throwing shadows on others. But while my memory and his version don’t always see eye-to-eye, he captures the times perfectly and particularly the essence of camaraderie which existed and flourished under the banner of crime, specifically robbery. When a group of men embark on a nefarious series of enterprises that will, almost certainly, see some of them in prison, losing everything, then your relationship with your fellow robbers become the most important element of the undertaking. Being able to trust them is of paramount importance (and remember, none of the robbers turned Queen’s Evidence or co-operated with the police in any way).
Ultimately, as a robber, you are facing losing your freedom, but I don’t think you fully appreciate what this means until it is taken away from you. That realisation comes too late, even though you are aware every time you go to ‘work’, it might be your last job. The mind plays tricks on you anyway, about the consequences of your action and the chances of being caught. Is it worth the risk? you might ask yourself. But if you’re a grafter, you’ll dismiss the risk factor and go for the adrenaline. That’s the addiction.
True, old-fashioned greed is also a motivating factor, whether it is for money, power or reputation. I guess we all craved one or more of those categories, and some of us embraced them all. Upon reflection, I realise that I never, at the time of the robbery, questioned people’s motivation for being ‘at it’. In fact, I hardly know them now.
Charlie Wilson lived in the next street to mine in Battersea and we went to school together. He was younger than me, and we were pals without being bosom buddies. I only really got to know him in his twenties. In my eyes, he never changed: always cheerful, game for a lark and totally reliable. A very sound man.
I was shocked to hear of Charlie’s death, shot by the side of his swimming pool at his home in Marbella, evoking the end of Gatsby. The theft of his life only led to retribution and further theft of lives. The moral there is, no matter how big you are, there is always someone bigger and with more power.
Charlie was buried in Earlsfield, local to us Battersea Boys. The service closed with a final flourished of bravado, as the coffin was accompanied by Sinatra doing his version on My Way. That was Chas all right.
Roy James had one ambition when he received his 30-year sentence: to get out of prison and pursue his motor racing career to his ultimate aim, becoming World Champion. He embraced Seneca and the Stoics’ principals, as defined by prison doggerel: ‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime’, or my favourite ‘Eat your porridge every day and do your bird the easy way.’
Nice constructive sentiments, but nobody serves a decade inside without physical and mental damage. In spite of Roy’s pursuit of his physical fitness, something had gone when he finally got out. He transferred his ambitions in other directions, and was very successful financially, but perhaps less so emotionally. He had a long-term relationship that broke up and eventually ended up marrying a younger woman and fathered two daughters. It appeared he had made it. He had the country house, complete with ponies and stables, an attractive young wife and lovely girls. But somehow, it was not enough. Nothing satisfied him. Probably because the grand ambition – to win the World Championship – was lost and gone forever.
What caused his confrontation with his wife and father-in-law and the events that followed is a mystery, yet such events are all too common in the real world of domestic discord. Ignominiously Roy (forever saddled with the media-invented, or at least media-popularised, nickname of The Weasel, which he hated) went back to prison.
Inside, his physical condition declined. He had seen Bill Boal – innocent of the crime, yet convicted – die inside. He had seen Biggsy kidnapped from Brazil and promptly stolen back by Brazil. He had seen Buster’s tragic suicide. He must have asked himself, as most of us of a certain age do – what is it all about?
He died in hospital of a heart attack. He was 62.
Roy’s mantra was best expressed as pitting yourself against the world, going to the extreme to see if you can hack it. Will you match up? It’s a hard code to live by. There is a consolation: I now know you don’t recognise success unless you have first experienced abject failure. Your ambition to drive to the edge of the abyss, to seek the impossible and make it possible, certainly invites failure. But if you do fail, it’s an honourable failure.
Bruce Reynolds, author of Autobiography of A Thief (Virgin Books)