Long Read

Giving it the Big One

Raising a glass to a legend.

Outside Whitechapel’s Blind Beggar pub, a crowd has gathered, listening intently to a gesticulating man in a flat cap. A man who must be a tour guide of sorts.

As I get closer, edging down one of east London’s more untameable thoroughfares, it appears the guide is none other than the actor Vas Blackwood – most famous for his role as Rory Breaker in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. Instantly recognisable from his nasally, Caribbean-Cockney inflections, Blackwood now hosts guided walks around ‘gangster London’, taking American tourists and amateur criminologists to spots such as The Blind Beggar, the pub where Ronnie Kray famously emptied a 9mm Luger into George Cornell’s head back in 1966.

Today, though, Blackwood’s customers are in for a serendipitous treat – akin to booking a Banksy tour of Bristol and stumbling across the man himself, aerosol in hand. Because, this isn’t just another regular Saturday at The Blind Beggar. It’s the public memorial for one of British life’s most confused and controversial figures: Dave Courtney.

Although he came to refute the term, Courtney was the ‘celebrity gangster’ extraordinaire. His persona lasted the best part of three decades, spanning pulp paperbacks and podcasts. He was an omnipresence at faux-crime events across the country, holding court at unlicensed boxing events and golf club dinners with Roy Shaw and Bruce Reynolds. He appeared on everything from a Big Narstie freestyle to an array of zero-budget crime movies shot chiefly on industrial estates, such as Killer Bitch and the seminal Triads, Yardies & Onion Bhajees!. He made branded content videos for Vice and appeared on an episode of Sky One’s Brainiac, trying to crack a safe in what I remember as a purple velvet suit. He acted in a ‘blue movie’ or two, including the comedy-porno Lock, Cock & Two Smoking Bimbos. There is even a Rancid track named after him.

Britain has an interesting habit of glorifying its organised criminals and Courtney made the most of this national fetish. His Plumstead McMansion, known as Camelot, which had deactivated guns, blunt swords and pictures of himself all over the walls, became a kind of Graceland for small-time villains and hybristophilia sufferers the nation over. In his basement, he hosted everything from film premieres and bare-knuckle fights to happy hardcore nights.

But while Courtney’s status as a minor celebrity is in no doubt, the gangster part of his brand remains shrouded in controversy. Despite being known as the ‘Yellow Pages of the underworld’, many saw him as a dilettante at best, a grass at worst. His detractors, including the infamous ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser, goaded and undermined him, often pointing to his work as a bin man for Southwark Council. In a YouTube comment under an upload of Bermondsey Boy – an early 90s documentary which depicts his time as a south London debt collector – someone who worked on the show details how Courtney staged most of the events.

The terms ‘wannabe’, ‘bullshitter’ and ‘Walter Mitty’ are never too far away when discussing Dave Courtney. And while he had his brushes with the law, they are far from the ‘ordinary decent criminal’ ideal. In 2000, he was implicated in a case which involved planting drugs in a woman’s car in order to win a custody battle for her husband. If the pettiness of this act didn’t do much for his credibility, the trial’s revelation that he was a registered police informant was even more damaging.

Despite this, Courtney seems to have maintained the respect of some serious (but largely deceased) figures, including Lenny McLean, Freddie Foreman, Roy Shaw and Joey Pyle Senior. There is no doubt that he ran the doors at several London clubs and also supplied heavies for Ronnie Kray’s funeral. The walls of Camelot may have been adorned with props and fakes, but last October, when his cases of cancer and arthritis got too much to bear, Courtney did use a real shooter – on himself.

Mythology and self-promotion were at the heart of everything Courtney did and before taking his own life he filmed a number of goodbye videos, where he spent most of his time quelling the grass rumours one last time. Still, even after his death, his reputation is a tricky one to pin down. The question remains, who was Dave Courtney, really? Was he a raconteur or a racketeer? The Real McCoy or the crime world’s Rachel Dolezal?

In what may have been a futile attempt to get a true gauge of the man and what he meant to this strange, waning subculture, I stepped into The Blind Beggar. At the bar, friends, family and admirers have all gathered to remember Dave. The dress code is pure ‘Free Charlie Bronson’; there are bald heads with bouncer’s neck creases, polyester pinstripe suits, gold chains, ornate sovereign rings and white ties worn over mauve dress shirts. There are blokes with face tattoos and spiky mohawks, women with roller curls and Elizabeth Duke hoop earrings. There is even one man in what appears to be a Victorian undertaker’s coat. Real gangsters don’t dress like this anymore and possibly never did – but this is Courtney’s world, where there is always a healthy dose of let’s-pretend.

There is an overwhelming sense that none of this milieu are ‘long for this world’. Nobody is smoking indoors, yet the pub reeks of fags, possibly because nothing holds smoke better than heavy, three-quarter-length leather jackets – which are here in abundance. The crowd is visibly ageing; I spot a zimmer frame and even a woman with some kind of heavy-duty breathing apparatus. The crime writer Kimberley Chambers is here, propped up next to a stack of her own signed novels. Next to her is Maureen Flanagan, the British sex comedy star of the 1970s and professional ‘friend of the Krays’ – a role she seems to be relishing after Barbara Windsor’s death.

Still, I am unduly excited to be here. Because, rather embarrassingly, I am an aficionado of this ‘scene’. I have read Lenny McLean’s The Guv’nor, watched Killer Bitch, VHS-ripped uploads of Kate Kray’s Hard Bastards and listened to Courtney recount his story on the podcast Anything Goes With James English. A random refresh of my YouTube homepage reveals videos titled ‘I TALK THE A TEAMS TOMMY ADAMS HIS TIME IN CAT As AND THOSE ALLEGED 2 FIGHTS’ and ‘GANGSTER EXPOSES UNDERCOVER POLICE’.

And because one side of my family hails from one of the original 1960s estates on Walworth Road, I grew up hearing tales about the Arifs, the Brindles and how my granddad was on nodding terms with Frankie Fraser. I’ve even heard a few whispers about Courtney from elder relatives and family friends – chiefly that his reputation was built off turfing students and hippies from squats, and that he had his nose bitten off in a Bermondsey pub for ‘giving it the big one’.

There are people at The Blind Beggar who I recognise from the internet, including Liam Galvin, who acts as this scene’s documentarian – a kind of camera-wielding Nick Broomfield figure (if Broomfield only ever asked ‘Who’s the hardest man in Britain?’). There’s Stephen French, a Liverpool hard nut memed for his appearance on Danny Dyer’s Deadliest Men; there’s Joey Pyle Junior, son of the genuinely dangerous aforementioned Joey Pyle Senior; and there’s Mr Fish, a gay, black ex-bank robber with a penchant for bowler hats, now self-branding as ‘Britain’s craziest gangster’.

There is another guy I half-recognise, slightly older than everyone else, who looks a bit like David Jason’s Del Boy, had he had his face blown up with plastic explosive. I notice him getting a bit weepy. ‘Everyone called him the boss,’ he blurts out to a crowd of Courtney admirers. ‘But he wasn’t my boss, he was my mate.’ Meanwhile Courtney’s wife, Jenny Bean – a formidable-looking woman with short, lacquered hair – is playing a surprisingly tasteful classic house and speed garage set.

To contrast this with the Whitechapel of today feels almost trite. But surrounded by all this retro gangster shtick, it feels striking. The adjacent high street is lined with stalls selling half-frozen tilapia, Islamic books and pleather handbags. These young, hungry, mostly first-generation immigrants are now the ‘real’ EastEnders, while the ones inside the pub have become aged suburbanites.

Wondering who these people really are, I find myself tuning into their conversations. In the garden, a group of peroxided ladies are talking about how they fell out with a friend called Hazel because ‘she wished cancer on someone… and that’s a line you don’t cross’. Although things are jovial, I can’t help but feel horribly conspicuous on my own. Shuffling around, trying to look busy, occasionally looking at my phone and moving back and forth between the smoking area, I pick up on a few glances and death stares. In a human traffic jam between the bar and the door, one enormous guy with a pint-bitten face has a pop at me for ‘standing there like a fucking idiot’.

Eventually, the speeches start. First up is Kevin Sumer, a bouncer and debt collector who once served a sentence for handing over a list of police informants to a major crime family, but we’re all waiting for Brendan McGirr, Courtney’s best friend and long-term housemate, to speak. What McGirr does for a living, or what his credentials are, is highly uncertain. But he knew Courtney better than most and Dave even recorded a separate suicide video for him (now available online). McGirr also has plenty of Dave stories, including one where he ‘took a dirty book’ to the toilets during a court case. Talking about Dave’s acting career, he produces the best line of the night, ‘If he was in the film, you knew it would be shit. That was his trademark.’

Listening to such stories, the overwhelming impression you get is that Courtney, for all his pretences, was something of a legend. Not a criminal legend, but a general legend, a force of nature, a pink-faced ball of chaos and anecdotes and hospitality – a character closer to Peter O’Toole than Pablo Escobar. I’d had my fears that the event would descend into name-calling and grandstanding, but it seemed that people genuinely loved the man. At that point, it all started to feel rather poignant. Funerals always have a unique sense of absence, a sad, glaring hole in the middle of the room, and here at The Blind Beggar it felt particularly palpable. Because a memorial piss-up for a dead gangster, at The Blind Beggar, is exactly the kind of thing Dave Courtney would have been at. And yet, he was not.

Trying to get more of a feel for who Courtney really was, I got talking to Lou Lewis, a film armourer from Watford and a member of Courtney’s ‘firm’. Despite the knuckle-duster swinging from his neck, Lewis seems too soft, too talkative, to be a genuine villain. He tells me about the abiding love for Dave in this world, what he meant to people and how much he would be missed. His affection seemed highly genuine. And then, he started to cry. ‘I’ll never have a friend like him,’ he sobbed. I gave him a quick, awkward, pat on the back. He sniffled up and handed me a business card. ‘Lou Lewis: actor, film armourer, gunsmith, silversmith, goldsmith, jeweller, published poet and consigliere,’ it boasted.

Afterwards, I looked up Lewis’s film work. Indeed, the only films he’s seemingly supplied with weapons are Dave Courtney ones. It strikes me here that aside from being something of a fantasist himself, Courtney had the power to grant other people’s fantasies.

Mulling over the appeal of Courtney and the murky paradoxes of his life, as well as being surrounded by that particular accent, the way of moving your head and holding your pint, I think back to the south London world I was born a generation too late for. From my fleeting experiences within it, I always found it to be a world of secrets, full of sudden disappearances, little white lies and things that were never spoken about again. I had one relative, a great uncle or long-dead second cousin by marriage who was also something of a Walter Mitty himself. Running away from Elephant and Castle, he told his family that he had become a millionaire and was living in a posh block of mansion flats in Mayfair, and they need not visit him. Only after his death was it revealed that he was merely the caretaker of these flats.

For me, Courtney hailed from this same kind of lineage; the one of braggards, gamblers, show-offs, self-promoters, small-time playboys and ‘local legends’. People whose lives were built on harmless nonsense, Great British bullshit artists. When trying to answer that central question – who was Dave Courtney? – I can only deduce that he was a bouncer, bin man, debt collector, comedian and somebody who brushed up against a world that inspires endless fascination in us. Perhaps what he was, was the most approachable, charismatic entry point into London gangster culture, a gate-opener of sorts.

It was at that point in the proceedings that I realised I was not the only person on their own. I noticed a young man, younger than me certainly – wearing a black-on-black suit with a thick white tie and what may have been spats. He looked more Bugsy Malone than Brinks Mat and I couldn’t help but study him. Nursing a pint by the bar, he occasionally spotted a lone, drunk villain, introduced himself, offered some platitude about Dave’s passing and walked back off. Clearly, he’s a Courtney superfan, a wannabe whose fascination with this world has led him to The Blind Beggar on a Saturday evening in 2024, where he shakes hands with old men and pretends to be the kind of gangster that has never really existed at any point in history.

Leaving The Blind Beggar, all the talk is of next week’s ‘real’ party. A massive knees-up back at Camelot, where the DJ Brandon Block, among others, was set to take to the decks. Either sadly or fortunately, I can’t make it, but a friend of mine, the journalist Jack Beaumont, does. The next day, he tells me the party was an absolute riot and stayed popping until 11am. He forwards an image to a group chat, ‘this geezer’s poem was the highlight’, it says.

I zoom in on the poem, which was written in biro on lined A4 and read out at Camelot. The first four lines read:

He told us not to rack our brains why he’s gone.

But then he had to go and rack his brains and now he’s gone.

He said don’t get the Ya Ya’s, or add another tear to the sea.

But oh my fucking god, the impression he made on me.

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