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TRCH The Da Vinci Code

Hoods: The Gangs of Nottingham

3 March 09 interview: Jared Wilson

"In some ways the Gunns embody the sense of community spirit in Britain. However perverted it became, there were good things about it"

Hoods uncovers a story many people have been fascinated by over the last decade: organised crime in Nottingham. It starts out in the fifties at the beginning of the modern-day drugs trade and then moves onto the tabloid fodder of the well-renowned Gunn brothers and ‘Assassination City’, with our chief of police telling the rest of the county, 'We can’t cope.' We met up with the author Carl Fellstrom in a safe place and asked him a few questions…

Are you originally from Nottingham?
I’m not. I moved here in 1995. I’d worked at various different papers in Northamptonshire, Bedford and Yorkshire before. Around 2003 I was doing a lot of crime stories for national newspapers. I was frustrated because I could always write a lot more than they would print. They were very London-centric and a story from the provinces really had to be extraordinary to get in there. The book came from that material.

Have you received any threats after writing this?
There have been a few. There’s nothing I would say I’m really worried about, but I’m aware that there are a small minority of people who I have to watch out for. In fact there’s even been a facebook site set up dedicated to getting people not to buy the book. I think the one thing some people in the book don’t like is their criminal reputations being tarnished. The fact that they have been named as informants, for example - it’s almost like they want these to be whiter than white. But generally the reaction that I’ve had is quite positive. I know that it must be hard for some of the families of the victims, bringing all the memories back. But there are so many unsolved cases too and it’s worth trying to raise their profile again. Take Tommy Lau for instance, he’s a lovely chap, but he can’t walk again because he got mistaken for someone else and shot. He still doesn’t know why it happened and it’s hard for him to live with that.

Do you think Colin or David Gunn will have read it?
I received a letter from David and he has read it. He was upset and didn’t like the fact that I wrote about Jamie Gunn and he was fairly abusive. But I think he was most upset that I didn’t go to him while I was writing it. There was a plan at one stage to do that, but I felt that the closer I got to them, the more they might expect me to give them some kind of a cloak of morality. For the same reason I didn’t try to interview Colin Gunn.
They seem to want to play up the Robin Hood myth, but these guys have done brutal things and there isn’t much room to give them some kind of makeover. I don’t think they should be allowed to rehabilitate themselves so quickly after what they have done. I’m all for rehabilitation in the long term, but I think out of respect for the families of the people who have been murdered they should wait a while. They’re the real victims of this story, not Colin or David Gunn for any character assassination.

Having read the book, I don’t think it really sensationalises anything - it’s more focused on the evidence of the police files. Although perhaps the cover and the title could be considered slightly hyperbolic…
In terms of the cover image, I had no say in that and was as surprised as anyone that they chose the image of Colin Gunn. The original cover was going to be the one of men in balaclavas that can be found on my internet sites. But the title is one I chose. I felt it summed up what I needed to say as a lot of it centres around the Robin Hood myth and Nottingham, with people trying to moralise about their own villainy.
But the story itself is sensational enough already. Only the other day I heard that David Gunn is at Lowdham Grange prison with Robert Briggs-Price, Jamie Neill and Donny Quinn (three other well-known Nottingham criminals). Why on earth would you put all those people in prison together? It’s ridiculous. The authorities make it so easy for them to carry on doing what they’ve always done and so hard for them to rehabilitate.

You must have sifted through loads of information to write this. Are there any particularly juicy bits that didn't make the final cut?
I had to take out a lot of names and there was the odd thing that didn’t make it in for legal reasons. There was one story about a former Nottinghamshire police officer who was implicated in a massive customs drug bust and yet walked free. I think there was a bigger story to that, but I couldn’t print the details.

Another one must have been the figure you call The Taxman. He’s only touched upon briefly in the book, but seems to be the biggest criminal of the lot…
He was like Colin Gunn was maybe fifteen or twenty years ago. He could be very brutal, but is now one of the most successful businessmen in Nottinghamshire, if not in the whole country. He has a lot of power and a huge amount of influence and recruits former police officers to work for him so he has a great information intelligence network. For legal reasons I had to take things out that would have identified him a bit more easily. Though I think a lot of people in Nottingham already have a good idea who he is.

Another interesting character involved in the book early on is Dave Francis. Tell us about him…
He was a very enigmatic character from the Meadows gang in the eighties and early nineties. They were responsible for lots of armed robberies and later got into the drugs trade too. Dave began to run his own drugs cartel and yet was still a leader for the black community in a lot of ways. But what he did, which was a stroke of criminal genius, was to get a job as manager of the local drugs charity. That gave him access to a database of people using crack and heroin, enabling him to set up a mini-empire, whilst garnering a lot of influence through politicians like Alan Simpson MP and Sir Geoffery Errington, the chairman of the drugs charity.

Francis became a political hot potato and a difficult fish to catch. The police even left him alone for a while as it became so hard for them to get to him. He was always playing the race card, but in the end he got too arrogant. He’d built up a pyramid of people working for him and they just took it out layer upon layer until he became so isolated that he had to come out of the woodwork and do bits himself and was caught as a huge load of heroin made its way to Nottingham. He went to prison for some time, but is out again now. He spends a lot of time in Jamaica these days supposedly doing charity work, but I believe he does come back to Nottingham quite often as he has a lot of family here.

There are so many stories about Nottingham gangsters flying about. Was it hard to separate the truth from the bullshit?
Absolutely. I’m not sure I got as far as I wanted to with it either. There will be mistakes in there, but I hope I’ve got as much right as I could have. I tried to source everything three times over to be sure. But Nottingham is a gossipy city and everyone is only really one degree removed from everyone else. Lots of things have become myths that aren’t true and some are. I’m sure that some of the stories I was told have a whiff of colouration in them, but others I’m absolutely certain were correct. For example I’m sure people were involved in the murders I’ve mentioned them in connection with.

Researching this book must have been depressing as hell. Were there any lighter moments, or times when you had to laugh?
I guess there were, but I can’t remember them. I got so caught up in it that it was occupying my every thought. I was seeing people who had been at the sharp end of it. There’s a lot of pressure on you trying to keep those people secret and safe from others finding out they’re talking to you. All these things take a great toll over a length of time. It’s taken a long time for me to get out of that headspace.

How well do you think this book will sell outside of Nottingham?
I’m not sure geographically, but it’s doing okay. The first print run of 7000 sold out before Christmas. The second print run was another 4000 and they’ve all gone. So we’re now looking at our third print run now and we’re looking at doing a paperback in February. I think that’s great as paying £17 for a book is a luxury and I’d like it to be available at a cheaper price.

Back in March 2005, when you did that ‘We Can’t Cope’ interview for The Telegraph with Nottinghamshire Police Chief Steve Green, did you realise the stir it might cause?
His comments in the interview totally took us by surprise. I think what happened was that we were so well-briefed that we got him in a corner. He then thought in a wrong way that we were going to blow him out of the water. So he gave us a really candid interview to take the heat off the situation. We didn’t realise it would be on the front page of The Telegraph, but it caught the editor’s eye at the time. It was also election time and crime was a hot potato. What was disappointing was that the next day Green accused us of blackmailing him into the interview. Which was extraordinary… Then years later he came to rely on the interview to dig himself out of a hole, using it to save his job by saying he’d pointed out the problems they were facing at the time. Life has its ups and downs and I wouldn’t have wanted to be in his situation at all. But he wasn’t the right man for the job and at that point he had screwed up! Abandoning the drugs squad was his decision and had a massive effect as they were supplying primary intelligence to those investigating gun crime. It was a massive blow to their investigations. The two went hand in hand and it was naïve to think otherwise. Other things like taking bobbies off the beat and sending them round in cars also had a bad effect, sending out signals that the police were too scared to be on the streets. There were things that he did that had a huge influence on the ability of Nottingham police to deal with their workload at the time.

Was Colin Gunn a criminal genius, or did the police really fuck up?
He might not have been a genius in an intentional way, but he was very good at what he did and that were definitely elements of professionalism in that. But certainly I believe that the police had a larger part to play in him becoming so successful. Their collective mistakes really helped him on his way.

Why do you think he stayed living in Bestwood and Rise Park, when he earned so much money he could move anywhere? Couldn’t he have just moved abroad?
Colin’s wife Victoria tried to get him to move to Spain on numerous occasions and they certainly talked about that. But Bestwood was in his blood. He hated coming into town after a while, after taking a couple of beatings and losing control of the things happening outside of his estate. He was a big fish in a small pond and when he came into the city it was different as people no longer looked at him like he was the King. A lot of it was about power. He could certainly have afforded to give up his life of crime, but he probably liked and was used to the feeling of reigning over the people of Bestwood.

Did your opinion of the Gunns change after you finished the book?
I think that it helped to understand them as human beings. It’s easy to think of people as cartoon-style gangsters, but it wasn’t just criminals who looked up to them. I talked to many people who are law-abiding citizens of Nottingham that only had good things to say about them. I feel like I’ve learned a lot about Nottingham as a city too. Not least that the connections between people are so close. It’s like one big family.

Is there anything the Gunn brothers did that you have an admiration for, sneaking or otherwise?
In some ways they embody the sense of community spirit in Britain that has perhaps been lost since the Thatcher days. However perverted that became there were good things about that, with people looking out for each other and particularly those who needed help like the elderly. They cared about their community and I think they genuinely wanted to do well by them, but the brutality of what they did to get where they were is quite shocking.

How valid do you think comparisons to the Krays are?
I think they’re entirely valid, though I didn’t touch on it much in the book. There’s no doubt the metaphor works. Everything I know about the Kray twins as a phenomenon is similar. On the one hand they were compassionate towards their own, on the other side they are business-like and brutal to anyone who posed a threat to them. As brothers there is a bit there as well in the sense that one was perhaps slightly unhinged and more violent, with the other one being the slightly stronger character in terms of getting things organised.

Has there been any interest in the book from film or TV companies yet?
Just before the book came out there was some, but there hasn’t been much since. Certainly I’ve talked about it with people and I’d be interested in being involved with something based on a similar way to how Shane Meadows gets people from the local community involved. But so many things would have to be right, the story itself and the people involved that it’s a massive job. But it is something I’ve thought about, yeah…

Colin Gunn’s own biography is bound to come out soon. If he asked you to write it with him, would you do it?
Hmmm. I’d definitely think about it, but I’m not sure they would ask me. I think there is a lot of bubbling talk from the Gunn side about publishing something for themselves. David is coming out soon and I think he’d like to restore his reputation and go back to Bestwood with his head held high. So there is definitely an interest in their story, but whether I’d be involved in it or not is another matter.

What are you going to write next?
I’m working on a book in tandem with another writer, which is the story of an undercover police officer. Believe it or not he went undercover to infiltrate the miners during the strike. A lot of people wouldn’t realise that the authorities in Nottingham would use their own police officers to resolve what was a civil law situation, but that’s Thatcher for you.

What would you say to people who are afraid to go out at night in Nottingham?
Don’t be scared. The only way things can change and you can reclaim it from the gangsters is by getting out there and making it your own city. Try to impose your own character on the place and cheer it up.

Hoods, published by Milo books, is available to buy online and in bookshops now.

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