Author: Dick Kirby
Publisher: Pen and Sword Books (£19.99)
Jeffrey Bernard, the late gutter diarist who wrote The Spectator’s Low Life column, used to take issue with fellow Soho barflies who complained that the louche London district ‘is not what it was’.
‘Soho was never what it was,’ he’d growl, enigmatically. Yet in our antiseptic age, that tight enclave bound by Oxford Street, Regent Street and Charing Cross Road still retains it capacity to seduce – and no more so than for devotees of the true crime genre. Indeed, one could argue that gangland grotesques such as Jack ‘Spot’ Comer, Billy Hill and ‘Mad’ Frankie Fraser have attained legendary status in death (or, in Fraser’s case, extreme old age). The French call it nostalgie de la boue.
It’s been done so many times that another book which promises to ‘lift the lid on the murky world of Soho criminals in the 1950s and 1960s’ does not tantalise. The Gazette’s own James Morton, for one, is a peerless chronicler of place and period, and I have all his books.
Fortunately, policeman-turned-author Dick Kirby has chosen his fascinating subject well. An indispensable lubricant for the engine of villainy which Soho became was the seemingly limitless corruptibility of the Metropolitan Police. One can look back as far as the 1920s and the £6 15 shillings a week beat officer George Goddard, whose interests in brothels and clubs earned him so much that he salted away £12,000 in a Pall Mall deposit box and drove a ‘beautiful Chrysler Motor Car’.
Flying Squad alumnus Detective Sergeant Harry ‘Tanky’ Challenor is altogether more interesting. Beside ‘Tanky’, an SAS veteran decorated in World War Two, The Sweeney’s feisty thief-taker Jack Regan appears positively effete. Challenor told a friend that ‘when a man is obliged to spend months behind enemy lines and is taught to take a pleasure in killing, it is bound to leave some mark on his personality’.
So it proved. Sent to ‘clean up’ Soho, ‘Tanky’ was a stranger to the police manual. Pimps, racketeers and crooks were rounded up and often found themselves in possession of a bewildering assortment of armaments of which they denied all knowledge. A reward of £1,000 was offered by gang leaders to get him transferred, and it is said that ‘Ronnie and Reggie’ steered well clear.
But a vigilante anti-hero Challenor was not. Colleagues later testified, for instance, that he had punched a black man arrested on suspicion of living off immoral earnings while singing a popular song of the day, ‘Bongo, bongo, bongo, I don’t want to leave the Congo’. Just how atypical such behaviour was in the Met in those days remains a moot point.
Challenor’s downfall followed a political demonstration in 1963 when bricks were planted on innocent protestors. He was subsequently diagnosed as a paranoid schizophrenic – but was he actually suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder?
Whatever the correct diagnosis, Challenor later found work as a solicitor’s clerk. For good or ill, it was a more forgiving age.
Paul Rogerson is editor-in-chief of the Law Society Gazette