My grandfather was a conman . . .
Most people are desperate to sweep their dodgy family secrets under the carpet, but Lilian Pizzichini has made a virtue of hers. She tells STEVEN RUSSELL what it's like to have a villain for a grandfatherTHE sense of irony is not lost on Lilian Pizzichini.
Most people are desperate to sweep their dodgy family secrets under the carpet, but Lilian Pizzichini has made a virtue of hers. She tells STEVEN RUSSELL what it's like to have a villain for a grandfather
THE sense of irony is not lost on Lilian Pizzichini. Her grandfather was a fraudster who knocked around with notorious London gangsters. Now she's working with inmates at Chelmsford prison.
Lilian's childhood has significantly shaped her adult life. She remembers the London of her early years as an enticing and glamorous world - though one with a sinister undercurrent of corruption, hardship and dark secrets.
Such rich ingredients have served her well: simmering for years and emerging in her edgy book Dead Men's Wages. It paints a vivid picture of charismatic Charlie Taylor's world of criminals and corrupt coppers - his vintage Rolls-Royce, his time spent in Pentonville and the ruthlessness of Billy Hill, self-proclaimed boss of Britain's underworld and a man feared by all except the Krays - blended with family tales of intrigue, abuse and illegitimacy.
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He saw his chance in the construction boom that followed the Second World War, and the mushrooming of illegal gaming clubs, to wheedle his way into both the higher echelons of society and the Flying Squad.
“I cannot remember not knowing that my grandfather was a criminal, not that anyone told me,” Lilian says in her book. “Families involved in crime are not so crass as to spell out the obvious. It comes out in dark hints and asides. I knew we were different and was proud to be a member of this glamorous tribe.
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“Everyone was expected to think that little bit faster than anyone else; to talk sharp, fill the spaces, dispense with useless protocol; to get to the point, to go for the kill. It is a fierce and exciting pulse that dictates your every thought and action. If you use your eyes and brain that little bit better any anyone else around you, you'll be on top . . . Lean on people, raise the ante. Psychological weaknesses are the point of departure for a con man.”
The family went along with it because it was all they knew, she explains. “Charlie had seen to that. It was easy for him to prevent someone as fragile as my grandmother breaking rank.” This was a British form of omerta: the Italian code of loyalty and silence.
“My mother tried to be the moral centre of the family. She made her distaste for her stepfather obvious. Her manners were impeccable, her morals beyond reproach, but there was an unspeakable tension within her.”
Lilian's grandfather died in 1978. She hadn't seen him for three years. “I did not know that he had been remanded on bail, and that his friends and acquaintances from the past twenty years had been hunted down and interrogated,” she says in her book.
It was said he'd been betrayed by an associate, whose girlfriend had secretly recorded Charlie for MI5.
“I knew that Charlie had been charged with defrauding the Bank of England, and with counterfeiting gold sovereigns. Dolly (her great-aunt) read in the News of the World that if he had succeeded he would have disrupted the British economy. I rather liked what I heard. And felt a thrill of recognition when, eating dinner with my mother and Dolly on lap-trays in front of the television, my grandfather's face suddenly appeared on the screen.”
Lilian's mother “had sensed danger long before the raid and had removed us from the family circle. I felt entirely unmoved when she told me Charlie had died. She was overwhelmed with relief.”
Charlie, Lilian explains, had asked her mum to sell drugs on the street when she was 17. And there were whispers that his minder had killed a man. Mum said Charlie, a monarchist, racist, and far-right in his political views, was violent. Unlike the Krays, he wasn't good to his own mother - and he always hit women.
The official cause of his death was a heart attack, suffered at Waterloo station, though there was a suspicion he had overdosed on barbiturates. Meanwhile, an old friend insisted: “The word is he was murdered.”
Lilian says: “When I asked him what he remembered about my grandfather, he said: 'Charles Taylor was a man of mystery. I doubt if even his wife knew his real name.' He is right; no-one really knew Charlie, and that wasn't his real name.
“Secrecy was so integral to his way of life that he revealed nothing of himself to anyone. It is hard to recall anything about him except a continually blustering presence. He never seemed to show any genuine emotion or reveal any vulnerability. He protected himself, and instilled the code of secrecy into the rest of his family.
“As a result, his story - especially the mixed circumstances of his death - continues to haunt me.”
Her account earned rapid acclaim - The Crime Writers' Association awarding Dead Men's Wages its Gold Dagger for non-fiction. The book reflects the fact that part of her psyche is drawn to folk with a vein of colour running through their lives, along with a veneer of glamour and a touch of edginess.
There was plenty of that in her early jobs; all of which led her up to the point where she started putting her own thoughts and memories on paper.
Lilian was born in the middle of the swinging sixties and began her working life in a bookshop in Charing Cross Road before moving into the world of the literary agency. Her employers represented authors such as John Le Carre - “very nice, quite formal, old school but fascinating” - Stephen Fry and Julie Burchill.
“It was quite glamorous - a very Groucho Club, Soho, kind of life,” she recalls. “As with everything, though, you think it is time to move on. I wanted to write myself, I realised.”
Her entry into journalism was via The Times Literary Supplement in the mid 1990s - initially collecting data for the listings section before moving onwards and upwards. “I learned how to write a book review on The Times Literary Supplement - that was a real education - and went on to edit other people's work and commission content.”
Next stop, for three or four years, was Literary Review as contributing editor. It was led then by Auberon Waugh, “a great one for parties and very generous with his jelly-babies”, who was just setting up the semi-jokey Bad Sex Awards. These were designed “to draw attention to the crude, tasteless, often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel, and to discourage it”.
And then - ahem - to Erotic Review as writer and commissioning editor. Glad Lilian brought the subject up; I'd just found an “interesting” short story of hers on the internet that made me blush.
“Well, that did earn me £500,” she laughs, “but it wasn't really what I wanted to be writing about. Erotica is not my thing!”
Lilian admits it took her a long time to get around to it, but realised what she really wanted to do was write a book. She sent a proposal off to an agent and was relieved to leave her job and begin writing.
“During my life I was always hearing about my family's past - so colourful and intriguing - and that led to a fascination with it; so much so that I wanted to recreate that past,” she explains. “I have always been attracted to flamboyant personalities, because I grew up in that kind of environment as a child.”
Dead Men's Wages was written in the wake of a run of gritty crime films, such as Guy Ritchie's Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, which Lilian felt painted the gangster community with rather a glamorous sheen. “I was more interested in the effect on the people around them.”
Her research uncovered some of her family's dark secrets, such as some of the pain and distress - including her grandfather's abusive treatment of her mother. She's full of admiration for uncles, for example, who managed to turn their lives around. One, for instance, went on to be a social worker.
With her book out, Lilian wrote for the media, including the Financial Times and the New Statesman. Last year an advert caught her eye for a writer-in-residence at Chelmsford prison, working two days a week. Lilian had done some voluntary work at The Big Issue, enjoying a creative writing workshop she'd run for homeless people, and had also taught English in Rome. With her background, she felt she could bring an element of understanding.
She started at the jail last October, beginning with two prisoners who had signed up for creative writing but increasing the numbers since. Inmates produced a prison magazine before Christmas and it's hoped to publish one regularly.
A group also made a film about the prison library; writing the script and acting in it.
“Their enthusiasm and commitment is incredible and they want to involve everyone else in the wing,” she says of her students. “I think it gives them a sense of achievement and pride.”
Writing has proved an effective way of expressing feelings and giving vent to problems, she says. A prisoner's writing about his experiences of drug rehabilitation, for instance, can prove extremely helpful to fellow inmates going through similar struggles.
Students generally haven't been reticent in putting their innermost thoughts down on paper or writing about things other people might label as sissy.
“I have had someone write a lovely poem about a bluebell field, and most of them have been very willing to write about their feelings for their children,” says Lilian. “There are some talented and vibrant people there - and very witty as well.
“You do have to build up trust, and sometimes people open up more readily if you work with them on a one-to-one basis.”
She's never had any trouble being a woman among men at the jail, where the students she works with can be aged from 18 to 50 or 60.
“People are incredibly focused and enthusiastic, charming and funny, polite and courteous.” And while there might be an awareness of her family background, no-one has quizzed her about it. “It's prison etiquette not to ask about what people are in for, and similarly no-one has asked about the details. In any case, people are more interested in what they can bring to the table now, rather than what they did in the past.”
Something Lilian is keen to do is to wean some of the prisoners off crime novels - the genre of choice in many cases - and on to a wider variety of literature. (There is, though, one man who has been tackling Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.)
Lilian knew exactly what she wanted to write after Dead Men's Wages: a biography of the Dominican-born novelist Jean Rhys (Wide Sargasso Sea, Voyage in the Dark). She hopes to finish it this year, but admits it's been a very much more difficult challenge than her first endeavour.
“I think in the first year I had already come to a grinding halt. I was really quite intimidated by my subject as a writer; she's so brilliant and I suddenly felt rather overawed by her!”
The book is destined to be “rather a more personal vision” than a dry statement of facts. “I love the concision of her writing. Very few women write as well about urban isolation.”
(Lilian Pizzichini is one of the speakers at the Essex Book Festival, appearing on the afternoon of March 5 at Basildon Library. For details of the whole festival, go to www.essexbookfestival.org.uk or phone the box office: 01206 573948.
Dead Men's Wages is published by Picador at £7.99. ISBN 0-330-48446-X