HOBNOBBING WITH VILLAINY
The Upsetter interviews Professor Dick Hobbs about his new book 'The Business'
Professor Dick Hobbs grew up in the east London borough of Newham and his new book The Business is a love letter to a world of skullduggery that changed with the decline of the docks, gentrification and the rise of the drug dealer.
The unconventional academic fielded a few questions from The Upsetter about the changing face of so-called organised crime in London and unleashed an assault on ‘ivory tower wankers’, those cashing in on Covid, crooks in leisure wear and the concept of a McMafia.
How does a man who left school at 17 become a professor of criminology?
“I failed my eleven plus and I had problems at secondary school, I just couldn't cope and I had handwriting that made my homework look almost insanitary. I was useless and the teachers never shied away from telling me so.
I came 31st out of a class of 31 twice a year, every year, with one exception when one of the girls in my class became pregnant and didn't turn up for the exams. That year I came 30th.
I left school with 2 low grade O levels and for the next two years worked in a series of soul destroying clerical jobs. I then found a lot of freedom in various labouring jobs and attended night school, and it took me two and a half years to get an O level and an E grade A level.
Through most of the seventies I combined working as a dustman, roadsweeper and warehouseman first with night-school and then with teacher training. My main takeaway from teacher training college was that psychology was a con, sociology could be interesting, and you should never run while carrying scissors.
I taught for four years which was long enough to know that I did not want to be a teacher, but the little bit of academic work that I had carried out at teacher training college had made me wonder what I could do academically. So I used my teaching qualification to apply to universities and polytechnics. The only institution that would have me was the LSE, and the place terrified me.
I devoured anything readable in the LSE's magnificent library, and the reading list for my course included Hunter Thompson and Tom Wolfe. I was also drawn to the wonderful qualitative work that came out of the University of Chicago.
New Society was a really important journal for me where writers such as Ray Gosling, Laurie Taylor, George Melly and others were putting academic sociology to shame with their witty descriptive style.
But it was the historians who made the biggest impact on me, and when I was able to take home a copy of Raphael Samuel’s East End Underworld and talk about it to my Dad, who knew some of the people mentioned in the book, this helped confirm something that I had absorbed from my background: crime was normal.
By now I had acquired via fear of failure a terrific work ethic, and as a man in his thirties I had also become accustomed to the little luxuries in life such as food and shelter, so I ducked and dived doing a bit of buying and selling, worked on a building site and in a warehouse in Shoreditch, and as a supply teacher.
I ended up with a MSc with distinction, and was funded to study for a PhD at Surrey University, which I turned into a book called Doing the Business. This was followed by a research job at Oxford University which was a miserable experience, but after Doing the Business won a big academic prize I landed a job at Durham University where I stayed for 15 years, was made a Prof, and had a really great time teaching and researching exactly the subjects that interested me.”
You seem to have had a laugh writing this highly enjoyable book and the sing-song prose is a million miles from a strangulated academic style. Do you care what criminologists think of it?
“It would be great if they all loved it and insisted that all of their students bought it, but realistically, nah fuck it.
My writing style was always quite vivid, and given the subject matter any honest depiction of criminal life would have to feature a tidy portion of humour.
The trouble with academic culture is that it is self-contained and most academics do not seem to realise what a small world they are living and working in.
Frankly most civilians don't give a fuck what goes on in between the covers of specialist journals which at their worse are little more than echo chambers for self-righteous obscurantists.
But while the rigorous discipline of research and publication was good for me, it is all too easy for academic patois to swamp the essence of the whatever world we are trying to understand.
About ten years ago at the end of a seminar I asked my students if they had any questions, and one particularly smart mature working class woman said that she had read something that she could not unpack. I asked her to read it out loud, and what followed was the most impenetrable pretentious stream of vaguely sociological shit, it was appalling. I slagged off the anonymous writer and expressed my opinion that this was typical of the elitist nature of the university sector, utilising language that was designed to intimidate and exclude working clas people from its discourse. I finished my outburst by asking which Ivory Towered wanker had authored such an abomination? She said "You".
At that point the idea of presenting my already published academic work in a more accessible style started to take root.”
What should the study of crime, criminals and policing tell us about the current state of society?
“That it is constantly in flux and subjected to socio-economic forces that the pseudo discipline of criminology is ill equipped to deal with.
Criminology is a cash cow for the university sector, and the more gullible kids who sign up for expensive courses in "How to Spot a Serial Killer", or "My Friend the Maggot: Digging for the Dead", the less time will be spent on understanding how de-industrialisation and neo-liberal governance has normalised crime and blown apart any conceits that we may once have had about community.
Processes such as gentrification, the end of social housing and the failure to replace well paid working class jobs with something more meaningful than a gig delivering pizza or sushi are all part of the urban soup within which crime is just another ingredient.”
You dedicate the book to skulduggery. What does it mean for a born n’ bred Eastender like you?
“Being sharp and resourceful in an environment that is inherently hostile. Bending rules that sometimes break is just part of life, and even the most unlikely citizens enjoy the frisson of a bit of skulduggery. For instance due to no reason other than the deviant connotations of my accent, one of my colleagues at Oxford asked me if I could lay my hands on some stolen building materials, while another inquired about my ability to source Class A drugs. Everybody is at it.”
Much has been written about UK Mr Bigs, why did you concentrate in this book on what you call the ‘poor bloody infantry’?
“The idea of Mr Bigs feeds the constant desire to understand the world as ordered and hierarchical. The contemporary world is chaotic and confusing, in a state of constant flux, and the notion that somewhere there is somebody with a plan pulling the strings can be somehow comforting.
But the world does not work that way. Sure there are individuals who emerge with more influence over a specific sphere than others, but they are few and far between, and apart from being difficult to locate and engage with, I am always wary of the Kingpin thesis, especially when they tend to be identified by the police.
However, the PBI are everywhere, working scams and fiddles, buying and selling, going straight, becoming more bent, earning and burning money. They are visible, accessible. They are our neighbours, our relatives, sometimes they are us, and hide in plain sight as part of the lifeblood of the city, yet our obsession with "Organised Crime" all too often renders them invisible.”
Why is violence and the men of violence attractive to the non-violent?
“I think that it is a cowboy fantasy, where men with dull boring lives can fantasise about revenge, retribution and heroic blood letting, before getting back to watching the football on the TV.
The reality is that violence is humiliating, never heroic, and leaves psychological scars on both perps and victims.
All of the genuinely violent people that I have known have been small men, untrained in martial arts, but they have been willing to do things to another human being that seldom feature in Guy Ritchie's scripts.”
Is there any uniqueness to the British crime scene compared to the way the game is played in the US, Europe and Latin America?
“It is like football, each country has its own characteristics. We do not have mafias, and British crime is built on British urban socio-economic infrastructure. It is distinctly disorganised, chaotic and difficult to predict.
But the way we think about OC, and indeed the way that it is performed, is like everything else in the UK - defined by class. For instance, fraud is only described as organised crime when it is committed by working class "gangsters", but the big frauds that do serious damage never receive the OC sobriquet, and are seldom reported in terms of the harm that they do.”
Can the police ever regulate what you call unlicensed capitalism with any integrity and consent when licensed capitalism and the legal system is so corrupted by cronyism and greed?
“I have always been struck by the working classes ability to understand the very essence of how capitalism really works, that it is all about exploitation.
I have an old friend who runs a building firm and he is quite upfront that if a man who is subcontracting to him is charging £25 per hour, my pal will charge the customer £40 per hour, so every hour that man works my pal will earn £15.
It is simple, and working class criminals tend to have a similar attitude to theft or dealing in contraband. We live in a market society and profit is the king. I don't see the cops queuing up to nick those businessmen who have exploited the Covid pandemic, but they have the same mentality as the lorry highjacker, or drug entrepreneur.
With so many "normal" people engaged in unlicensed capitalism there is no longer an underworld, and as a consequence prisons are jam packed with the incompetent and the unlucky.”
How does the real threat of violence regulate criminals?
“If things go sideways you cannot go to the cops or the local ombudsman. So you can appeal to trust as being integral to good business practice, and it is surprising how often that can work in resolving disputes.
But there are limits, and you might find yourself dealing with someone like John Gotti who lived by the ethos, “And every time we got a partner that don’t agree with us, we kill him”.
Violence can help establish a crime group, especially in the early years of a group’s career when reputations are being established, and this comes easy to gangsters whose stock in trade is extortion, which in unlicensed capitalism, is little more than informal taxation, and is a highly efficient way of consolidating control of territory.
Deference to the violence of an individual or group goes a long way in maintaining order, whereas actual violence, in particular fatal violence can bring unwanted attention to the activities of criminal entrepreneurs, and so is far more common at the lower rungs of illegal enterprise.
Although when it does go tits up for a crime group it is interesting how often the firms accountant or money man becomes vulnerable for a trip to the marshes.”
What explains the rise of the family firms of brothers and how has that changed?
“Brothers and family more generally are central to criminal collaborations, establishing and ensuring trust amongst members.
Trust is a vital component of illegal enterprise as it reduces risk and it is here that family members become so important. You can see this with generations of gangsters who started their careers dominating their local neighborhoods: in London - most obviously think the Sabinis in Clerkenwell, the Krays in East London, the Nash's in North London, and the Richardson's in South London.
However, let us not forget the role of violence in the development of so called legitimate family dynasties, for instance the Astors, the Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers.”
What was the effect of the ‘slow death’ of the London docks and pubs on the criminal landscape?
“The culture of East and parts of South London, as well as Liverpool, was founded on casual work, which meant not only poverty and deprivation but also that dockers had no allegiance to an individual employer.
This meant that they were not part of the hierarchies that were formed in the industrial revolution, and independence and resistance along with a fierce class consciousness that was allied to union membership blossomed.
This was all complimented by a piratical attitude to stolen goods that effectively normalised theft and stolen goods networks in a way that is hard to describe.
When the docks closed the culture and particular the attitude to theft remained, as warehouse and lorry theft became a way of life,. This was the age of the blagger and some of the eras most prominent armed robbers in lived in Canning Town and pre gentrified Bermondsey.
Indeed, friendly professional rivalry and a desire to confuse the police sometimes inspired the Bermondsey blaggers to dump there getaway cars in Canning Town, while the East London pavement artists would make the reverse trip through Blackwall tunnel and dump vehicles in Bermondsey.
But over time, and as the redundancy pay-offs were spent or made there way to Basildon or Ockenden, the area declined and every day life became notably more fractious. Those that could moved out, and the drug economy started to take the place of the informal stolen goods networks that had added a little sunlight to otherwise bleak lives.
The pubs that had been at the centre of the stolen goods trade as well as providing one of the few areas for communality in such a harsh urban landscape, emptied out before they were obliterated by new road schemes or by arsonists paid to clear the land in order to cash in on housing shortages.
While some local faces adapted successfully to the possibilities offered up by drug importation, the drug trade also created a different kind of entrepreneur, younger and with little concern for the old boundaries and restraints, and the time honoured battles for street corner superiority were transformed into conflicts for market share.
Much of the vast stock of council housing was sold off, the East End became the centre of the buy to let boom, and those left behind hunkered down with daytime TV, a bottle of supermarket spirits and a pack of bootlegged baccy.
Is it your view that a pavement artist can make a good drug dealer but not visa versa and is that because of the low skilled nature of the puff and pill game?
“Some of the armed robbers from the golden age of armed robbery were able to use cultural and economic capital to successfully switch to the drugs trade, which in the 70s and 80s was open to both investment and new talent.
But now successful dealers are involved in a somewhat bland trade that seldom requires the bandit mentality of yesteryear. If they need violent labour, they can hire it. When you get to the heart of cases that the police have hyped up as "sophisticated", and thrown in a few "kingpins", "godfathers" or "masterminds", you usually discover a quite rudimentary trading network involving levels of skill apparent in any business where you buy cheap and sell expensive.
How has hooliganism and gym nut culture affected the entry points to drug crime?
Before the drug trade came to dominate, local men of violence would come together to protect the local community from invading forces from adjoining neighbourhoods. The most effective of these groups received payment for their services from local businesses, and this was the tipping point into the world of extortion. The Sabinis, Krays, Richardsons and so many other serious crime firms started off as teenage Jack the Lads protecting local territory, before commodifying this service and turning security into extortion.
British cities were founded on industrialism, but when that era ended British cities had to look beyond factories mines, docks and mills in order to generate wealth.
In the 1980s football hoolies were amongst the most prominent local men of violence, and when Thatcher and then Blair deregulated the night-time economy and the police could no longer cope, members of football firms stepped into the vacuum.
On the door you could sell your own gear, licence your own dealers, strike lucrative deals with the club or pub owners, and overt hyper muscular bodies were a symbol of the new economic power that marked the switch in the British economy from industrial power to leisure. They were already running the doors for illegal rave events, understood the new drug culture and enthusiastically switched from muddy fields to lucrative high streets.
Ex hooligans became major players in the night-time economy, and as what [the playwright] Al Hunter called "Thatchers Eagles", quickly embraced a wide range of entrepreneurial pursuits.
The way villains dress has changed. Sharp Italian suits replaced by leisure wear. Does that say anything about attitudes to work, family and community?
“For me the old villains regarded themselves as part of a working class elite whose standards were set long before off the rack suits, and a million years before grown men wore "sportswear".
Most working class men would wear a suit on the weekend, and being smart was very important. The villains fetishised the suit shirt and tie, and when they walked into the Dog and Bastard on a Friday night it was like a broken nosed Liberace had arrived.
Silk tie, white on white Egyptian cotton shirt, a fine midnight blue mohair three buttoned suit from that little tailors on the Hackney Road, gold tie pin and cuff-links, all finished off with a pair of handmade Lobb Oxfords. They were working class Dandys.
As my friend Bobby Cummines [pictured] explains in The Business, ‘When people ask why I used guns I always tell them I was sick of getting my nice suits messed up.’
The switch to heavily branded sportswear was a marker of the end of the old elite underworld. The newcomers were kids and so were their customers. They were hanging around the same venues in the night time economy and the elite menswear market that was championed by the football hooligans as they morphed into drug dealers produced a new deviant culture packed with spotty kids dressed as tennis champions and golf pros.”
Are pubs, clubs, mini-cab firms and security companies still essential cash businesses for doing the business? If so, what then has changed beyond the soundtrack or BPM?
“It is interesting how much laundering goes in these little businesses. Sure the big players have access to the same financial resources as other successful capitalists, but a lot of money still goes through small local businesses, and the building trade and property market are especially interesting outlets.”
At mid to top tier drug trafficking of 100s of kilos credit is essential in a business where trust is in short supply but paranoia and violence are not. How does that work?
“A lot of the business works on a credit cascade, where the cash travels back up the line of supply on an agreed timescale in order to finance a further cycle of drug importation and distribution.
Separating drug transactions and cash transactions is not simply a question of trust. In terms of security, it does not make sense to have the drugs and cash in the same place at any one time. Since, in the event of arrest, then both drugs and cash are lost.
When things go sideways the demand for money comes from the top and violence is passed down the tree until you find street dealers. Credit can come at a price.”
How has the drug game empowered women?
“Women were always involved in crime, not only in areas such as shoplifting, but more importantly in the stolen goods trade.
Back in the day women, especially if they worked in one of the big factories like Tate and Lyall, Clarnicos or Lesneys were terrific outlets for hookey gear. They would sell to their workmates and some of them would buy in bulk and sell to friends , family and neighbours. It was a great way to make money and spread a bit of happiness.
The everyday stolen goods networks have now almost disappeared, but the drugs trade offers a way way of making money and I came across a number of women working at the lower end of the middle market who had thriving businesses, but they all stressed that some kind of relationship with potentially violent men was vital.”
Do you subscribe to the McMafia thesis of international franchise gangsterism with a few overlords or is that another lazy TV and media soundbite with no substance?
“As I said, the idea of a handful of foreigners controlling things can be quite comforting, but the free for all of the crime market suggests that probably the only overarching organised conspiracy is within the financial markets where the big money is cleansed and nurtured.”
What impact has the ‘fetishisation of the US entrepreneurial spirit’ had on the British criminal landscape?
“The same as its impact on the legitimate political economy. It has coarsened it and extracted any notion of communality, reducing human life to an economic unit. Consequently we are all highly competitive buyers and sellers, whether we operate in straight or bent market places.”
What is wrong with the way crime is reported in this country since the Krays? Do we give it the importance it deserves?
“We have lost so much of the investigative capacity typified by, for instance the Sunday Times Insight team, World in Action etc.
This means that the media are heavily reliant on crumbs off the cops table, and I preferred the off the record chats in pubs with a friendly DI than the carefully contrived corporate press release.
Consequently, media accounts of OC mirror current governmental concerns, and alien conspiracy theory abounds. Albanians, Colombians, Russians, Martians, you name it.
Whatever politically expedient enemy is fashionable this week is guaranteed to make the headline. Meanwhile the mundane drudgery of everyday skulduggery, which is overwhelmingly populated by Brits, carries on regardless.”
What has all your research told you about winning the war on crime?
“That the State cannot go to war against its own citizens.”
In November The Upsetter publishes two investigations into corruption in the UK’s most secretive policing units. Don’t sleep.