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Lenny McLean The Guv'nor
By Peter Gerrard
John Blake Publishing LtdCopyright © 2000 Peter Gerrard
All rights reserved.
A Tribute to Lenny
by Peter Gerrard
SINCE PUBLICATION of The Guv'nor – Lenny McLean's autobiography – in June 1998, it has never been out of one chart or another. Number one bestseller, best autobiography of l998 – eighth best a full year later and still selling like hotcakes. A phenomenal success that has overtaken the books of such people as Richard Branson, David Attenborough, John Major and other names known the world over.
Feedback told us that throughout the world someone somewhere was reading the book. On a Concord flight to New York, a beach in Tangier, Golf Club in Hong Kong, poolside in Spain. This story of one man's struggle to survive and to, in his own words, 'put steam on the table', seemed to grip the public imagination.
I have personally received hundreds of letters and emails posthumously congratulating Lenny, through me, for a read that was both moving and inspiring. These came not only from the length a breadth of the UK, but from places as far flung as Hawaii, Australia, South Africa, Japan and even one from Russia. Almost without exception they asked the question 'What was Lenny really like?' as though they found it hard to believe that he could be really the same character as portrayed in his autobiography. The only reply I could give was that he was exactly as he came over in the book.
With certain characters within this genre, it can take a fair bit of imagination and airbrushing of their lives to paint an acceptable word picture. They loved their mums; they subscribed to Christian weekly, loveable rascals all, who in fact were innocent victims of the murder and mayhem they were guilty of. This was not the case with Lenny. I can't say that what you saw is what you got, because in his case if you only knew the public face you could only have the impression of an unbeatable fighter, a hard case – a man as tough and unbending as he looked. But you would only be seeing one part of his many sides. Violence and intimidation when called for was Lenny's work. Most of the time he hated what he had to do, but it was something that was thrust upon him and he accepted that it brought bread into the house and gave his family everything they could want. Which he often said was what his life was all about.
Many things set him apart from the stereotypical tough guy who could have a fight, but three things stand out. His very sharp mind, a protective instinct for the underdog and, above all else, an infectious sense of humour.
He was no academic, but then this has never been a mark of anyone's intelligence, of which Len had more than the average. In a sense this was a secret weapon, for anyone deluded enough to presume he was just another grunting thug would get a very rude awakening indeed – whether an opponent, a chancer or someone taking him on in a business deal. Nothing got past him. He could read whoever he met in a matter of minutes and though he didn't always act on what he saw, that person would be compartmentalised into friend, foe or of 'no value' very quickly. Once established as a friend you'd be under the Guv'nor's wing for life – anything less and everything you said after that would be mentally taken apart as he established in his own mind what your angle was or how you were trying to graft him. The subtlety of it was that on the outside he never gave a clue as to what was going on inside. He often said, 'Peter, some people never learn that they can't graft a grafter – I'm always ten steps in front of them.'
One of the few other people I met who were gifted in this way was Ronnie Kray. His eyes, like Lenny's, never left yours in a conversation. And many times I sat across from Ronnie on visits to Broadmoor thinking, God help anyone who thinks they can lie or flannel this man. He seemed to look right inside your head. In a way with Ronnie that was chilling, though I never felt that with Len, even if the end result was the same.
Unless you had been on the end of a right hander, it was his humour, if nothing else, by which you would remember him. Nothing, apart from work, was too serious or too sacred for him not to break into some sort of joke. These were not of the 'Did you hear about the nun and the bishop' variety, but more clever and very funny observations on the people and things that were going on around him. Many of these, though, were 'in jokes' which left others puzzling as to what was so funny. Though he could put on a menacing face at the drop of a hat, it is that grin of his and that laugh, as big as the man himself, which will always stay in the minds of those who knew him.
As for his capacity for looking after, or at least wanting to look after, the interests of those he saw as weaker than himself (a category most of us would fall into), it was an integral part of his character. He seemed to take it personally that there were slags out there that could mug old ladies, abuse little babies and sell drugs to schoolkids. He'd read such news out of the paper and fume with anger – 'If I got my hands on them fuckers I'd rip them to pieces.' Sometimes he did – other times he passed the word on to people in a better position to right a wrong. But he couldn't take on everyone's problems as much as he wanted to.
Along with a number of others in our village we were burgled. Everyone including the police knew who the two men were, but as often happens in these cases the hands of the law were tied. When my wife Shirley happened to mention this to Lenny he was outraged – absolutely beside himself with anger that anyone should dare to rob friends of his. He said to her, 'Don't go away from that phone, I'll be back in two minutes.' One minute later he was telling her that first thing next morning we were to expect two very large fellas to turn up on our doorstep. 'All you got to do is tell them where those dogs live and leave the rest to them – you ain't involved.'
Fortunately for the thieves they were arrested later that day in an unrelated incident and subsequently were given sentences of two years. If they'd known what punishment Len had arranged for them I'm sure they would have considered prison as the easier option. Lenny's immediate reaction that day brought home to us both exactly what he meant when he said, 'You're under my wing.'
You only had to meet Lenny once and it would stay with you for the rest of your life. I've often tried to understand what special something he had but have never quite pinned it down. A lot of people imagine meeting Lenny would be akin to meeting someone like Mike Tyson – big tough guy, and there it ends. But they would be wrong, as there was so much more to him than physique. If you had something to say he listened and took every word in. Too many of us must have come across somebody of importance who hogs the conversation with self-self-self, then when it's someone else's turn to get a word in the shutters come down and their eyes glaze over. Not with Len. He made you feel he was genuinely interested in what you had to say, which he was. He'd got no time for arse-lickers or bullshitters, even though he'd listen politely, but you could always see that he'd got their mark.
Time and time again I'd be with Lenny when he'd be accosted by someone or other that had known him in prison. Invariably they'd all be cast in the same mould, tattooed from arseholes to breakfast time and wearing fistfuls of sovereigns. 'Hey Big Lenny, remember me? B wing, I used to slop out for you.'
Down would come the eyebrows. 'Bill, ain't it?'
'No Len, it's Fred.'
'Course it is, but you look just like Bill. Good to see you pal – how they treating you? All right for a bit of scratch?' A handshake and a 'Mind how you go' sent off whoever it was, buzzing with pride that the Guv'nor remembered him from all those years back. Out of sight, Lenny would say to me 'Who was that c–t? Now do you see those sort of people I want to get away from? I don't want to be involved with them, I don't want them knocking on my door and getting near my family and I don't want to speak to them.' But the point I'm making is that he had spoken to them, and with a polite friendliness that cost him nothing but left the other fella feeling good.
Success breeds jealousies and no exception was made when Lenny's book took the publishing world by storm. Remember that apart from everything else this man was first and foremost a father, a husband and loyal friend of many. His family was in mourning, yet this didn't prevent one journalist from suggesting that Lenny's death was the greatest publicity stunt ever. He knows who he is and he's nothing but scum. Another printed that Lenny died through taking drugs and steroids. No basis in fact at all, but no doubt it made this obviously failed author feel he was man of the moment as he attacked someone whose boots he wasn't fit to clean.
A spokesman for one of the country's top publishers, a company who to their everlasting regret rejected Len's story, rubbished the thousands of book buyers in a fit of pique by describing them as 'upwardly mobile white trash'. Yet I know for a fact that those people who read and were knocked out by the book came from all walks of society. These pathetic critics and others are beneath contempt so I shouldn't let them get to me. Perhaps I should think of what Len is saying as he's looking down: 'They ain't no value son – Fuck 'em.'
The saddest part of this phenomenal success is that he died one day before his book rocketed to the number one slot, where it was to stay for two months. This was Lenny's dream and the thought of seeing his life in print kept him going in those last months of his life. Yet only he could say why it was so important to him, and he never did.
Surprisingly, for a man who had overcome obstacles that would have flattened mere mortals like ourselves, become the best in the business and above all gained respect from everyone who knew him, occasionally he needed reassurance that he was what he was. He didn't ask this of his public – they got what was expected – the big tough guy exuding confidence. But away from the limelight he often asked, 'How am I doing? How do I look?' And as far as the book was concerned, particularly nearing publication, he would often ask, 'What do you think Peter? Is this going to be a bestseller? Will it be better than all the rest?' I had enormous faith in his book and had from the beginning, but I could no more predict a bestseller than I could the winning lottery numbers. Nevertheless, I'd assure him that we'd be way up there with the best and he'd be happy with that until the next time doubts crept in.
I suppose that for anyone to have their life set out for posterity between two hard covers is the ultimate accolade. It means you've arrived, and this is what it must have meant to Lenny. He'd be the first to admit he wasn't an educated man. He'd never needed writing skills and his spelling was not good at all, which reminds me of a time someone asked me to get a signed photograph of Len. I gave it to him and he said 'Go on then, what shall I put?'
I said, 'Just write To Neil, all the best ...'
'OK, how do I spell that?'
Letter by letter I said 'N.E.I.L.' then without thinking carried on 'A.L.L.'
He growled, flung the pen down and gave me a look saying, 'I ain't that bad, I can spell ALL you c — t.' He saw the funny side of it though.
He was no exception amongst people who'd had no real formal education. Books were a mystery and something special, and those who had their name on one were set above everyone else. That's what Len wanted – nothing to do with vanity but simply to prove to everyone that an East End boy could get right to the top
Though the book had been written and finished shortly after we met, it was to be years of setbacks and frustrations before it saw the light of day. In Len's words everyone who got involved in either the book or the film had led us down 'the happy road'. Meaning too many arseholes in suits had been telling us what they thought we wanted to hear, but always projecting their promises – next month, next year. Len was getting more disillusioned by a business world that couldn't or wouldn't make decisions with the speed that he always conducted anything that needed to be done.
If he was asked to do a bit of work – a favour or a phone call, it was done there and then. No excuses, no promises for next week – it was done immediately. He thought he should be shown the same respect, but unfortunately in businesses most decisions are made by committee, and it never happened.
So no wonder when years later he held his book for the first time he said to me, 'This is one of the best days of my life.' I'll always carry a picture in my mind of him sitting there with a copy on his knee, grinning and thoughtfully nodding his head. I felt privileged for having been instrumental in bringing about this moment for him. Privileged that I could repay a debt to this man who never asked for anything, never kept a note of favours done and spent so much of his time helping to push others up the ladder, accepting nothing in return.
But back at the turn of 1998 he was feeling pissed off in general with lack of any concrete interest in either book or film and an ongoing cold didn't help make him feel any better.
Early February Len and Val took off for a holiday in Spain and two days after they left John Blake agreed to publish The Guv'nor in the Autumn of that year. Not wanting to give Len reason for another disappointment I hadn't mentioned that I had been in contact with Blake's small publishing house. Now after a day or so in negotiation a deal was agreed and the big fella was out of the country so I couldn't let him know. The remainder of that fortnight seemed like a year, as I couldn't wait to give him the news.
When he rang me after the holiday his voice sounded a bit flat – not like himself at all. What I didn't know at that time was that the trip to Spain had not gone well. He'd felt weak and tired and wished he'd never gone. Still, I was going to cheer him up. I said, 'Len I've got good news and bad news – how do you want it?'
He thought for a minute and said, 'Gimme the bad.'
I said, 'Len, the upfront deal is shit – the good news is we're going to get your book published this year.'
All he said was, 'Fuck me. I don't believe it.' There was a long pause then like he'd had a shot of adrenaline and the old Lenny was back on the line. 'Good boy – set up a meet – never mind the money, that'll come later. We're on the way, nothing's going to stop us now.'
With the cruellest irony possible a few weeks later Lenny was diagnosed with cancer. Four short months later this humorous giant, this invincible man, was to die at the age of forty-nine without knowing the impact his life would have on thousands of ordinary people.
After that phone call, when I felt at last I was repaying a great debt to Len, I made a visit to see him at his home in Bexleyheath. We sat in his conservatory smoking, drinking tea and talking about this and that. About lunchtime he suggested we drove into the East End so he could get a haircut. It seemed just another day – but it wasn't. In himself Lenny seemed his usual self – snatches of song, a joke, droll comments on passers by. But when we parked up and walked to the barber shop, I couldn't help noticing two things. One was that he was throwing his foot slightly with every step and the other was that he kept veering into me. Possibly the only reason I noticed this was that it reminded me of my own father after he'd suffered a minor stroke.
Haircut out of the way we headed home and it was the most erratic and nerve-wracking journey I'd ever had with Lenny. Usually he drove his black Mercedes nice and sedately, but that day he hit top speeds through the town, braking at junctions with inches to spare behind the car in front. When we pulled into traffic on the Blackwell Tunnel approach without stopping my heart was in my mouth. What was I going to say, 'Fuck's sake Len, slow down'? He'd only recently bothered to get a driving licence but he'd been driving for well over thirty years. I just thought he was preoccupied. That was the last journey we were to make together with Len behind the wheel. I can't say that in any way this was a sign to me of things to come, but it gave me pause for thought and I remember getting home and saying to my wife that I thought there was something wrong with Lenny.
Shortly after this we had our lunch with John Blake and, showman that he was, Len rose to the occasion no matter how he felt inside. Len knew what he was and knew the sort of impression he could make on anyone who met him. For three hours he kept us and surrounding tables entertained with his stories. A slight downside, though not obvious to anyone who didn't know him well, was that he forgot the punchline of many of these stories. Invariable I knew the ending and all it took was a word to put him back on track. When it was new to me I had no choice but to leave him floundering and I could see the frustration in his face.
What none of us would know for some time was that Len was keeping to himself the fact that he was going through what he would later describe as having bells going off in his head. Angry at what he must have thought as an uncharacteristic weakness on his part, he verbally lashed out at me. When John left the table for a few minutes he said, 'Fuck's sake Peter – don't just sit there, you've got to help me out. You're making me look a mug in front of people.' The criticism was unreasonable as Lenny's bollockings often were, but equally they were forgotten in minutes.
Excerpted from Lenny McLean The Guv'nor by Peter Gerrard. Copyright © 2000 Peter Gerrard. Excerpted by permission of John Blake Publishing Ltd.
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