As a child I spent occasional weekends with my grandfather. He was a career criminal and a dangerous man. His convictions ranged from serious assault to burglary and armed robbery. He once threw his partner from a moving bus, a woman he had married illegally after deserting my grandmother and her young children, including my father. He was shot on more than one occasion and came close to death. He was also involved in the deaths of other people, men from the same criminal world he inhabited. Surprisingly, he spent little time in prison.
I once heard a story about my grandfather’s capacity for violence that I initially believed was either highly embellished or a complete fiction. The story goes that my grandfather and several associates, one regarded as the most notorious robber in Melbourne, raided a city jeweller. Later, while inspecting the hoard of jewels, one of the men noticed that a diamond ring was missing. Questions were asked and another of the robbers finally admitted that he had pocketed the ring and later swallowed it. Apparently, he then laughed, shrugged his shoulders and said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll shit it out’. The other men did not have the patience for nature to take its course. They cut the diamond ring from his intestines and dumped his body in a river.
Criminal identities have always enjoyed lurid tales of notoriety. While some stories are true, many are not. The role of such stories is to provide currency and power, to instil fear in others. Years after my grandfather’s death I researched his life and found extensive reporting of his criminal history, including the bus attack on his de facto wife. I also discovered the true story of the jewellery robbery and its aftermath. The facts were more gruesome than the tale that had circulated in our family for decades. Not only was it true that a diamond ring had been cut from the body of one of the robbers. Following the crude procedure, the man was thrown into the Barwon River, near Geelong, alive. Apparently the gang members expected that the injured man would quickly drown after the initial attack on him. He did not, so they fished him from the river, killed him and threw his body back into the water.
From early childhood, my father often went years without seeing his father, until the early 1960s, when my grandfather, working in Melbourne after some years away, came back into our lives. If the word can be used at all in relationship to his capacity for emotion, my grandfather was openly affectionate towards me and took me on the most peculiar outings, even for a child growing up in the demimonde of inner Melbourne’s Fitzroy. It may now appear odd that my mother, who despised my grandfather, would allow me to spend extensive periods of time in his company. The explanation, which is not particularly complicated, is based on a business transaction.
1n 1962, two young associates of my grandfather, a couple, had been convicted of murdering a woman. They supposedly shot her as she slept in her bed, although the street talk at the time was that others, more powerful people, had also been involved. My grandfather regularly visited the couple in prison ‘to keep them happy’, he would explain. The young man involved in the murder was serving a long sentence at Pentridge Prison in Coburg while his partner was housed at Fairlea, a women’s prison at Yarra Bend. For reasons I did not understand until some years later, my grandfather decided that it would be good for me to accompany him on his prison visits. He also thought it necessary that I be properly attired for the monthly excursions.
At the time there was a children’s clothing shop on Smith Street in Collingwood, the Junior Shop. The clothing was expensive and as most of my own scrubby outfits came from various op shops around the inner city, the closest I had been to a shirt or a pair of pants from the Junior Shop was looking at them through the front window. The week before my first prison visit my grandfather took me to the shop. To this day, I remember the outfit he bought me, in detail. The long-sleeved shirt was a lemon colour, and it was silk. The trousers were pearl grey with razor-sharp creases. I was also fitted with a powder-blue woollen cardigan, and accessorised with a maroon clip-on bow tie, a straw pork-pie hat and shiny black shoes.
No photographs exist of me wearing the outfit, but my mother remembers me being delivered home from the shopping trip and thought that a young Mickey Rooney had walked through the front door. I was immediately stripped of the clothes, to ensure I did not get them dirty. The next weekend, after a hot cloth wash and having my hair shaped with my mother’s hairspray, I was dressed up and waited at the door for my grandfather to collect me. He drove a Ford Fairlane, black duco, weighed down with highly polished chrome. I hopped into the front seat of the car and we drove out of the narrow street.
On that first morning my grandfather chose to commence my education—on loyalty. Other than ‘fuck me’, two words he ended most sentences with, he drilled me about the importance of loyalty in his world, in our world, delivering the same phrases, repeated over and over. He would describe his single commandment as ‘sticking fat’. Lessons and stories about loyalty drove every conversation. People who were not loyal were ‘laggers’, ‘dogs’ and ‘bludgers’, while those who did apparently stick fat were ‘princes’, ‘soldiers’ and, importantly, ‘staunch as fuck’.
Driving along Sydney Road, heading towards Pentridge, he would test me. ‘Okay, Bird,’ (his pet name for me), ‘the police come to your place, they take you out in the yard and start asking questions about something your old man has been up to. Some sort of fuck up. And they tell you that your mum said that you had to be honest, to tell the truth. What do you do?’
I was never sure what I would do if I was interrogated by the police, as I was only seven years old. My grandfather’s general demeanour of menace made me feel anxious, causing me to stutter. I soon learned that delivering the same short mantra suited his sense of entertainment. ‘I’d tell them coppers nothing,’ became my standard response, to which he’d smile and say, ‘Fuck me, Bird, you’ll make it one day.’
Although I wasn’t sure what he meant by the comment, I was certain that I didn’t want to become anything like my grand- father. Even at a young age, I understood that except for his relationships with fellow criminals, most people who came across him were either afraid of him or hated him. I also understood that my outfit, my parroting of the lore of the criminal underworld, was largely for the amusement of him and his friends. It was not until I was older that I realised that he was also genuinely attempting to school me in the lifestyle and morality of crime, and that he wanted me to follow in his footsteps someday.
I remember the visits to Pentridge as frightening. The imposing bluestone building cast such a shadow that, thinking back to that time, the weather seemed to be always dark and miserable. Every sound of the building, a large metal key in a lock, the opening of barred doors, the heavy footsteps of guards, reverberated on and on and on. My grandfather would joke with the guards and introduce me as ‘Little Caesar’, the title character from a James Cagney gangster movie. While he sat and talked to his prison friend through reinforced glass, I would closely watch the prisoner, a brooding man who refused to look at me.
After the visit, while driving to Fairlea, my grandfather would again reinforce the need for loyalty among ‘our people’. ‘That fella,’ he’d say, ‘the one doing time. He took a hit for the rest of us. He stuck with us and never opened his mouth. Don’t forget that. Not ever.’ After the visit to Fairlea, which was not at all traumatic, he would again provide a sermon about the convicted murderer we’d just had tea and biscuits with. ‘That girl, she comes from the same place where you do. When they came for her, the coppers, she knew to stick fat. Give no-one up. Fuck me.’
Later in the day, after a visit to a pub or two and a call in at the house of an old-time hood who’d ‘ran the street’ before World War II, my grandfather would finally drop me home. He would park in front of the house, open his wallet, begin counting notes, while deciding what my performance that day was worth. I could earn as much as a one-pound note. Sometimes two. Occasionally he would reward me with the same money that my father earned in a week as a labourer on the local city council. After he drove away my mum would close the front door and I would hand her the money. She would smile and remind me, ‘You’re a good boy.’ I would then remove my Junior Shop outfit and Mum would store it away until the next outing was due.
My grandfather’s world was a lie, as was the philosophy he attempted to impart to me. The criminal world more generally, with regard to loyalty, has always been a lie, a folkloric tradition upholding a dark reality. I did not know it when I was a kid, but my grandfather, like many career criminals, had a longstanding relationship with police. He was also disloyal to his own family, having abandoned them to poverty. He was disloyal to the women in his life and treated them appallingly. And he was disloyal to his closest criminal friends. An active criminal for five decades, my grandfather saw little jail time. His convictions, although serious, more than often resulted in non-custodial sentences. It was those below him, men who worked for him rather than with him, who served long prison sentences.
Others, who did not know him well at all, men who had committed major crimes that they had seemingly got away with, would suddenly have a front door kicked in at five in the morning. Handcuffed, they’d be delivered to the bowels of the city watch house, where they were beaten into submission. The same men would serve long prison sentences, sometimes in Pentridge’s notorious H Division, having been informed to the police by criminal insiders, men who protected their own freedom at the expense of others.
To call my grandfather a lagger or police informer would provide little understanding of the complexity of his relationship with police. For sure, he gave people up in order to stay out of prison. But he was also given ‘the green light’, to use the contemporary vernacular, due to damaging information he collected over the years, evidence incriminating police who had committed serious crimes themselves. He knew police who were occasional cross-dressers. He had photographs of senior police, respectable married men from Melbourne’s genteel eastern suburbs, taken in bed, naked with young women. He maintained dossiers on businessmen, politicians and associates. During his life, I’m convinced that many of his friends, if we can call them so, knew this. I know that those same men also spoke often of loyalty, but rarely practised it.
I was 20 when he died and attended my grandfather’s funeral service at Raven’s on Smith Street (on the Fitzroy side of the street). As his coffin left the chapel one of his lifelong crim mates turned to a friend and whispered, ‘the dog’, without a hint of anger. This was the culture of the old criminal underworld, engaged in a convenient fiction that allowed business to operate and occasionally flourish. This is not to suggest that loyalty was not a reality in the same world. I also knew men, some in my own family, who refused to speak to police throughout their criminal lives. Men who would go to prison, or even die, rather than give someone up. These men were the exception.
Between 1998 and 2010, 36 ‘gangland’ murders took place in Melbourne, the result of an armed war between a group of older criminals and their young associates, genealogically and culturally linked to the old inner-city empires, and a younger and more unpredictable affiliation of suburban criminals raised on the profits of the drug trade. The word ‘loyalty’ was foreign to their lifestyle, even as a mask. Many of the shooting deaths remain unsolved. In cases that have resulted in convictions, police have relied heavily on informants and even criminal lawyers ‘grassing’ on their own clients.
The last weeks of my grandfather’s life were ugly. His legs had been amputated above the knees as a result of gangrenous infections due to diabetes. At my father’s insistence I visited him at St Vincent’s Hospital. He sat up in bed, as best he could, drinking from a bottle of whisky. He took a long swig from the bottle, wiped dribble from his mouth and said to me, ‘Don’t forget this, Bird. Never deliver anyone to the Jacks [police]. Fuck me.’ He died the next day. I never have delivered anyone to the police, only because I never accepted the offer to join his career.
Tony Birch released two new books in 2021: a poetry work, Whisper Songs, and a new short- story collection, Dark as Last Night. His website is tony-birch.com.