78. ‘Dead mens wages’ by Lilian pizzichini

This is a book about London and it’s people, snippets of history, a family both held together and torn apart by greed and crime and drugs…and the effects all of this had on the author. It’s about her own family; her criminal grandfather Charlie Taylor to be precise, a contemporary of the more infamous Kray twins. It is a real life thriller, charting the progress of Alfred, born in the middle of World War I, the eighteenth son of a Willesden labourer and an Irish immigrant known as the ‘funny’ Taylor’s, through the Depression, the War, and his reinvention as Charlie, the spiv, gambler, con man and thief.

From small beginnings running scams with his brothers, he ended up in reform school and then Borstal, which was described by another contemporary criminal, Billy Hill, in his 1955 autobiography, ‘The Boss of Britain’s Underworld’, as being somewhere that, ‘If I were a modern Fagin, a professor of crime that wanted to breed hard, ruthless, merciless and desperate killers of criminals, I could not wish for a better academy than a Borstal institution’.

By the time he was in his twenties, he had become a supporter of Oswald Mosley and developed his illegal bookmaking skills, and when the Second World War began, he came into his own, deserting, eluding the Red Caps or Military Police, and making his money fraudulently on the black market – the title, Dead Men’s Wages, comes from his profitable enterprises claiming wages for non-existent workers, names of men who had actually died in action.

And, by the 1950’s, he had contacts in the aristocracy, seducing their wives, and stripping them of their money and property at his gambling clubs, and towards the end of the Sixties, he and his family were living in the heart of the West End, at the house the author, born in 1965, has clear memories of…as well as memories of how even as a child, she knew you didn’t talk about the family. And, in a moment of sheer candour, how glamorous this made her feel.

It’s really well written – very observational and dry in style, and yet clearly with deep sympathy for in particular the women in the family and peripheral to it, like Charlie’s mistresses, with Charlie’s own mother possibly being the exception, the suggestion being made that her almost complete lack of mothering skills played a large part in her children’s subsequent actions. There is also considerable empathy for Charlie’s sons, all of whom slid into drug addiction, and whose excesses and disasters were covered up by their fathers connections with the police. Overall, it is almost confessional; I had a sense that the author regretted her childhood fascination with her grandfather, and as the book closes, with his downfall and death, she admits she was lucky – ‘I came in at the end, when the worst and the best was over’.

I definitely recommend this. It’s a London book, Mum was through and through a Londoner, and I would have liked the opportunity to have discussed this book that she read in 2004 with her, as she lived through the Swinging Sixties there. But I didn’t – I was in Australia.

Anyway, her copy is now looking for a new home, so please get in touch if you would like it – alternatively, here’s a link to purchase it on Amazon, and in the interests of full disclosure, yes, it will help me if you do!