A life that began in poverty. Surrounded by bullies from earliest memory and too skinny to fight fair he learnt to fight back ‘dirty’. Yes he could have chosen a different route but something snapped inside him. One day he had enough of the bullying and decided to take action, smashing one of them with a brick…. It was downhill all the way after that…. So began the telling of the true life story of Danny O’Halloran – known as Skinny Dan or Longdog. Half Irish, born into East End poverty, he grew up in the depression and the war, He saw the hardship his parents faced even just getting somewhere to live – ‘No Dogs, No Irish’ was a familiar sign back then…
We entered the small theatre through the Gatehouse, an old pub in Highgate – up some crickety stairs into a dark room with one chair and a spotlight onto the ‘stage’. The audience were soon drawn into the seedy and violent life of East End criminal gangs of the 1950’s and 60’s. Danny had TB as a child and missed fpur years of school. By the time he recovered he was totally uneducated and lonely. He befriended a lone Romany gypsy crook who taught him petty thieving.
By 14 he was in Borstal, learning more from other petty crooks – ‘ridiculous’ was Danny’s own opinion – he just learnt more criminal ‘skills’ from older boys. He spent some time reading, but after looking around at the poverty others lived in, decided it wasn’t for him and that a life of crime was the only way. He swiftly moved on to more prison stints, learning ever more from older prisoners, moving onto holding up lorries, then burglary, and eventually bank jobs, making newer, more ‘experienced’ criminal acquaintances with every incarceration.
At first he proudly claimed that he only stole what could be replaced by insurance – never from individuals, and that he was not a murderer. But as his life rolled on of course things changed…. Pressures from those higher up the chain often left you with no choice – you ‘went along’ with violence, or retaliated with it, or you yourself would become a victim…
Many poor East Enders didn’t take this route, even though they also grew up in the same overbearing poverty. They made do, made money stretch, worked when and where they could and kept themselves and their children on the straight and narrow. But Danny found this idea horrible – it was not for him. He married his wife in their teens and set about providing for his family through crime, using a cab office as a front. This was the days of the Great Train Robbery, and Ronnie Biggs was a respected prison acquaintance…
The criminal gangs were often violent – and there was huge rivalry, using knives, ‘shooters’, home made razors, ammonia, fists, bricks, whatever was at hand to beat rivals with. Loyalty was key. A ‘grass’ had to be hunted and killed – there was nothing worse than shopping one of your own.
Interestingly they had no problem with ‘normal’ people calling the police – it was, after all, as Danny said, ‘their only form of recourse’. And the public were at no danger from the gangs who had no problem with ordinary people so long as they stayed on their own ‘side’ and didn’t venture over the line..
Danny was an opportunist – sent to kill someone, he knew he wouldn’t do this, he would simply use the information he had to rob them instead and leave. Subsequently, and to his surprise, the victim refused to pick him out in a line up! Perhaps because he had let the victim keep all sentimental items.
The story was frightening and revolting (including a garage slashing and ammonia drenching of a grass). But we learnt a lot about the crime and gangs, and indeed life, of that era. Paedophilia, bullying, beatings, humiliations, from the ‘screws’ even more than from the other inmates, in borstal and young offender institutions, happened every day. Prison even worse. You had to be ‘hard’. The crying, screaming and whimpering every night was apparently ‘unbearable’. The justice system was much harsher – two years or 10 years meant what it said, parole only came in half way through Danny’s criminal life – getting married in a church while handcuffed to a police officer apparently improved his chances of getting it!
The police often turned a blind eye to a lot of the crimes that hardened criminals had committed – sending them down for smaller crimes and shorter sentences, Danny eventually getting 10 years for a smaller crime even though the police knew he was implicated in an attempted murder. There were few rules – prisoners could be moved at a moment’s notice, their families not told. Solitary meant three months with the lights on the whole time.
Questions were invited: Danny’s thoughts on modern prisons? ‘A joke’, ‘too soft’, back in his day there were no phones or privileges, no rights – prison was not a deterrent – just part of the ‘job’. prisoners came out more criminally informed than going in.
I didn’t feel sorry for Danny. He admitted he thought about his life and chose to continue along the same path, deciding to live that way. But it was riveting, the harshness of criminal life and how he went from an uneducated, lonely boy to a hard and spiteful man who would bite off someone’s ear or slash them in the face.. And there was humour too – the antics of the bank robbers in their disguises..
Danny died in 2005. His son Ryan Simms played him. So Danny had at least made sure none of his children went into crime and paid for his son to have acting lessons. The Prairie Flower? Danny’s wife – the only beautiful and shining thing in the desert of Danny’s miserable and lonely youth….
Would I recommend seeing this play? Yes, I would.