7 JUNE 2003, Page 40

From gin craze to twin Krays

Ian Thomson

LONDON'S UNDERWORLD by Fergus Linnane Robson Books, £16.95, pp. 288, ISBN 186105548X 1 n this jolly history of London crime, Fergus Linnane fathoms the city's underbelly of lurkers. crack-dealers and other chancers. There's no shortage of gangland cuties along the way, from Cocky Wager the highwayman to the Brothers Kray. Like many amateur 'criminologists', Linnane grudgingly admires the terrible twins. Ronnie Kray wore custommade brogues and camel-hair overcoats; his brother Reg ran up-scale London strip clubs and trafficked in cocaine. The Krays were not the first Londoners to glamorise crime. The 1940s underworld boss Jack Spot, who tried (but failed) to raid Heathrow Airport, is another memorable deviant. Spot was so smart he could talk his way out of a safe-deposit box.

The Victorian middle classes remained largely ignorant of London's great unwashed until they read about them in Mayhew or Dickens. However, they enjoyed quantities of flagellation novels such as Lady Bumtickler's Revels and Prince Cherrypop and the Good Fabf***. While red-faced gentlemen consumed this pornography in Mayfair, tarts worked the filthy, rat-infested rookeries of the East End. Over in Soho, thieves preyed on people's credulity, mugging them with a knock-out dose of chloral hydrate or a saloon-bar Mickey Finn.

The gin craze that shook 18th-century London particularly interests Linnane, Abuse of the spirit caused a spectacular rise in murder. 'corruption and moral queasiness'. Though the 1736 Gin Act was intended to curb mass addiction to gin (by imposing a hefty licence fee on distillers and retailers), shoe-blacks, chandlers and prostitutes nevertheless continued to sell bootleg 'Kill-Grief . By 1750, every man and woman in east London was drinking two pints of gin a week. Georgian maps show Smithfield to be a fearful antheap of spirit-shops and tippling-houses.

Wartime Soho, with its steamed-up caffs, was another hive of illicit activity. But it was only during the 1970s and 1980s, says Linnane, that the area's sex industry thrived. The pimps and bouncers who used

to guard Soho clip-joints and peep-shows were mostly front men for powerful Maltese porn brokers. One of these, a brisket of beef named 'Big Frank' Mifsud, began life in Malta as a traffic policeman, then flourished in London with olive oil importation. (He died in his native Malta in 1999, an old-style vice baron gone to seed.) Now, however, Soho's sex industry is dominated by Albanians. These Albanians are a rough crew but they fleece clients in the same way as the Maltese, with a promise of sex that never materialises. It seems little has changed since John Dryden (who lived in Soho) despaired: 'When I consider life, 'tis all a cheat; Yet fooled with hope, men favour the deceit.'

Into this book. Linnane packs many curious facts. Obadiah Lemon (a London highwayman) used fishing rods to hook hats and wigs out of passing coaches; burning at the stake ended in 1789; and the first crack factory in Britain was discovered in Peckham, south London, in 1988. As an amalgam of horror stories, London's Underworld is fun to read but ultimately it cloys. Submerging rivals in barrels of wet concrete, slashing them with Stanley knives: one longs for a bit of civility. Even Ronnie Kray had his sensitive side.

Ian Thomson has won the Royal Society of Literature Heinemann Award for his biography of Primo Levi.