Saturday, March 28, 2009

Michael Duffy, Drive-bys, Honorable Sydney Criminals and the golden age of crime

(Above: sweet Sydney-sider Kate Leigh, dealer in cocaine, sly grog, stolen goods, brothels and a deft shoplifter for the fun of it).

Australians love the underworld, have done so for a long time. After all, except for poncy, wanker states like South Australia, we have a convict streak in the blood, a criminal taint that no amount of free settlering can wipe out.

Oh you can talk about the Irish being sent over here for being Irish, or kids for stealing a loaf of bread, or martyrs for eccentric beliefs, but you can't walk around the rogues and charlatans and bad people sent out here in chains. Yep, we're bad to the bone, always have been, always will be.

One of the funniest aspects of people discussing criminality is the idea that there are good ways to be a criminal and bad ways. You know, if you look a man in the eye while stabbing him to death in a frenzy, it's somehow more noble and aspirational than if you stab him in the back.

Michael Duffy, esteemed columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, gets himself in a tangle of righteous indignation about new bad criminals and drive-by shootings in Drive-bys: the coward's way to kill:

In their evil and their idiocy, they (drive bys) reveal a loss not only of morality but of any developed sense of self-preservation.

Huh? So when has any criminal act revealed a gain in morality, or has a gang land war revealed a developed sense of self-preservation?

What actually Duffy is saying is that somehow crime in Sydney has become more rotten since Middle Easterners have landed in the local crime scene, though he also allows the art of the drive-by is practised by bikies of other ethnic persuasions, and with deadly force by that recent notorious exponent, Ken Tan.

To prove whatever point he seems to be trying to make, the Duffster wheels in Clive Small, assistant commissioner of police, to blame the Middle Eastern crime gangs for starting this style of criminality (along with kneecapping), and causing rival bikie gangs to get in on the act.

Small regards drive-bys as "cowardly ways of imposing control over territory ... Traditional criminals would have regarded them as irresponsible, and stupid because they attract publicity and the police. Lenny McPherson once said killing people in the street was bad for business."

Would this perchance be the same Lenny McPherson who allegedly attempted the murder of SP bookmaker John Unwin in a busy central Sydney street in mid-evening, with shots being fired between two cars as they repeatedly rammed each other, until Unwin managed to wound McPherson's accomplice and bodyguard Snowy Rayner?

Or the same McPherson who drove up alongside a rival criminal, Robert "Pretty Boy" Walker in Randwick's main street, Alison Road, and opened up with an Owen submachine gun, hitting Walker six times, along with a nearby parked car and a fence, and killing Walker immediately?

There's more, much more, but I would have thought quoting McPherson about crime as a business would be like quoting Satan on the subject of sinning, since the man was a vicious sociopath with not even a thin veneer of civilization to hide the brittle chipboard beneath (let's not go into the time he turned up at his estranged mother's 70th birthday party with a live rabbit, asked why he hadn't been invited, tore off the rabbit's head, flung the body at his mother's feet and stormed away).

Does all this make McPherson a better class of criminal, who can therefore regard drive-bys with contempt?

I suppose we should hearken to the advice of Small, since in their time the NSW police force has sheltered within its ranks the most corrupt and criminal elements in Sydney, with the cops putting average gangsters to shame with their sophisticated corruption, but let's not rehearse the mini-series Blue Murder - just watch the show again. It still holds up, and remains director Michael Jenkins finest moment.

I suppose we could go back earlier to the days of the razor gangs in search of a better class of criminal, but I'll be buggered if I can find any, though it's nice to know that a couple of women - Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine - ran the best of the Sydney gangs. The warfare between the two culminated in the notorious Battle of Kellett Street - you used to be able to see (and maybe still can) a commemorative plaque in the street on the spot in the street where the gangs lined up in a riot of guns, knives, bricks and mayhem.

The interesting thing of course was that in those days the gangs were the result of fuzzy thinking by moralists. When cocaine was banned from over the counter chemist sales, it went underground, and when prostitution was run off the streets, it landed in the hands of tough brothel-keepers like Tilly Devine, and when six o'clock closing was brought in back in 1916 to stop 'binge drinking', people thirsty for a drink after six went to sly grog shops run with the contrivance of (and patronized by) corrupt politicians and police. 

Funnily enough the "six o'clock swill", which saw patrons down a schooner or five before early closing forced the publican to kick them out, was introduced by then premier William Holden after 5,000 noble Anzacs embarked on a drunken riot that saw them storm through Liverpool and even catch a train into Sydney's central station to confront a line of armed troops (ten were hit, one fatally). You won't find that kind of detail in John Howard's Gallipoli history of Australia. (What's more amazing, the swill absurdity lasted until the nineteen fifties, and seriously affected the capacity of Australians to deal sensibly and responsibly with alcohol).

Even though the Duffster mentions The Wire, and notes that Ken Tan's dispute was with a convicted drug offender Raymond Frangieh, he fails to follow through and make the obvious point that the gang wars of today are about much the same turf as older gang wars - control of the drug trade, and associated criminal activities. And the means - territorial pissing on turf and fear-mongering - are as old as crime in Australia. Or at least as old and venerable as his favorite topic, the Rum rebellion.

As for that other old saw, that alleged noble taboo, whereby family was kept out of violence between criminals, spare me the sanctimonious nonsense. Criminals like McPherson did it to their own families (say by pistol whipping your wife), as well as to any other families that got in their way or could be used as part of a power play, though here we have to cede fear and respect to the Melbourne gangs celebrated in Underbelly, or the glorious Painters and Dockers waterfront wars of the nineteen fifties. Nor should we fail to mention that fine fellow Neddy Smith who for no particular reason one day got out of his car in a road rage, and stabbed a tow truck driver in the eye with a screw driver, thereby killing him.

The Duffster is in fact simply and rather shamelessly recycling a fair bit of his column from some previous reports he did on Ken Tan and his drive-by shooting war with Raymond Frangieh, with the nonsense about old criminal ways and old criminal days being morally superior just a little stucco to hide the logic cracks in the brick work.

The drive-by is an act of self-expression as well as intimidation, and might be considered a criminal's version of terrorism. It is cowardly, indiscriminate and therefore vicious and idiotic. It was not alway such a feature of Sydney's underworld.

Why that reminds me of an outburst in the Truth newspaper in 1927 right after the Pistol Licensing Act of 1927 provided for an automatic term in prison for anyone carrying an unlicensed firearm. Cue cut-throat razors, with handles, as the new weapon of choice:

The razor is more effective than the revolver as a cash extractor. The sheen of its bright blade close to the cheek puts deadly fear into the heart of the victim ... Razor gangs are terrorising the underworld of Darlinghurst, that region of bohemia, crime and mystery. The razors its members carry in their hands are feared far more than the revolver of the ordinary crook. Men who will defy the black muzzle quail before the bright blade held threateningly to their cheek.

Where are the decent criminals of yesteryear, who'd think nothing of slashing your cheek open to the bone?

Most of the good gangster ideas we get in Australia have been imported from the good ol' USA, and drive-bys have always been a popular form of activity there - when you come to think about it, cars and sex, cars and fast food, cars and crime, cars and guns ... it's right for the American psyche, and has been ever since a man could ride a horse and carry a six shooter and touch up the town hotel with a little lead for refusing him service.

To imagine one particular form of cowardly, indiscriminate, vicious and idiotic intimidation is somehow morally superior to another, is however to enter into a sublime world of bizarre comparisons. Truth to tell, if an intimidatory drive-by left just a few bullet holes in the brickwork, I might be able to handle it a bit better than a cheek or a carotid artery slashed open by a cut-throat razor. Then again I wouldn't be suggesting either path was the one chosen by the better class of traditional criminals, whomever that might be or whatever that might mean. 

Meantime, we have a good Christian senator voting down a tax on alcopops and commentators groaning at the burden of taxing a good time, while bikie gangs supply muscle and drugs to clubs, and young folks do a little speed because they can, and the bikie overlords make money in a way which somehow seems to have been deemed orderly and proper, until they bunged on a do in Sydney airport.

It's a funny old world, all the more funny because a historian like the Duffster looks at the Middle Easterns in the present gangs and somehow imagines the past as a golden age of traditional, better class criminals. 

Ah yes we used to kill and rape and corrupt and murder and riot and promote mayhem in so much better style in the old days. Back then we were real gents, almost toffs. Why a crim's word was his honor, unless he had his fingers crossed. These days, these young pups, they don't even stand up when the national anthem is playing, or salute the flag.

Will the conservatives' yearning for a mythical golden age know no bounds? Trust me, the lead of our time will one day turn into a new mythical golden age, but in reality it will still just be the lead of our time.

(Below: Tilly Devine, back in those golden days when a woman was a woman, and not afraid to whip off your balls with the stroke of a cut-throat razor, nicely stropped to a keen edged, gleaming sharpness. Where have all the great female criminals gone?)

Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time passing.
Where have all the flowers gone?
Long time ago.
Where have all the flowers gone?
The girls have picked them ev'ry one.
Oh, when will you ever learn?
Oh, when will you ever learn?

So to this week's score for the Duffster, a pretty fair average one for a criminal effort:

Ability to yearn for a golden age of crime in fine conservative commentator style: 11
Willingness to slag off Middle Eastern criminals: 11
Capacity for high moral tone in relation to drive-by shootings: 11
Willingness to perpetuate myths about criminals, beloved by criminals and cops: 11
Capacity to examine how the gangs and gang warfare of today relate to the gangs of yesteryear: 2
Sssh, whatever you do, don't mention the drugs embedded in our criminal and our common culture: 2

By the way, Sydney has its very own police and justice museum down near Circular Quay , which naturally spends much more time looking at crims than at the straight and narrow. Their current exhibition? The Femme Fatale.

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