Tabitha Potts reviews My Dad, the Guv’nor, Kelly McLean’s autobiography about growing up as the daughter of Lenny McLean, the notorious East End wrestler and associate of the Krays. It is a tale of East End gangsters, intergenerational trauma and ultimately, a loving family.
Growing up in Brick Lane – around the same time as the writer of this book was growing up in Bethnal Green – this reviewer was often struck by how nostalgic East Londoners were about the Kray Twins. ‘The boys were always polite, and they loved their Mum’ was the general tone of the comments you would hear about them – one acquaintance of my mother’s used to claim his parents were ‘butler and maid’ to the Krays, which gave me a slightly surreal and no doubt highly inaccurate picture of their home life.
The Guv’nor, Lenny McLean, fell more into the ‘loveable rogue’ than ‘vicious gangster’ category, thanks to his appearances in TV and films (The Knock and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels) and general reputation. But growing up as the daughter of this notorious East End bare-knuckle fighter, bouncer and actor was not always easy, as this memoir makes clear.
Kelly Valerie McClean and her brother Jamie grew up on Allen Road, in a block of flats just behind Roman Road Market. She describes how in the seventies and eighties, women would ‘dress up to the nines’ to go shopping on Roman Road in full make-up with their best clothes and jewellery. These proud and tough women wanted to look their absolute best and ‘anything less than being totally togged up would have been completely frowned upon’, says Kelly.
Making the best of what you had, and maintaining your reputation was important in the manor. Most people would make a fuss of little Kelly and Jamie, very recognisable with their bright red hair, because they knew they were the Guv’nor’s children.
But a group of girls decided to pick on Kelly and her friend Tanya one day. A neighbour came to warn Kelly’s mum Val, who told her, ‘Kelly’s her father’s daughter, she will be fine’ and asked her to shut the door on the way out. And when Val did finally go to look for Kelly, she found that she was the only girl left standing.
Physical toughness was very much part of the family mystique. Lenny weighed twenty one stone at his strongest: he was a big man from a family of successful bare-knuckle fighters. Even reserved, feminine Val once knocked a school headmistress out with one punch (Kelly ironically ended up working for a school).
But Lenny’s strength had a dark side as well as a protective one, for Kelly. When she was a small child, her father was a heavy drinker, and would often come home and shout and swear at their mother. Kelly describes a childhood of tiptoeing around her father, scared to trigger one of his explosive bad moods.
Val eventually had a breakdown and ended up in St Clement’s Hospital:, which was a ‘mental hospital’ as they were called then. When she recovered, she gave Lenny an ultimatum to stop drinking or lose his family, which seemed to have worked. However, as Kelly explains, unfortunately her father’s moods were not just drink-related, but stemmed from his unhappy and abusive childhood and possibly from undiagnosed mental health issues as well.
Kelly’s own unhappiness manifested itself in different ways – nightmares as a little girl were replaced by anorexia as a teenager when her father was put in prison and later, after her mother’s death, by self-harming. She describes all this with a striking lack of self-pity. It’s clear her parents loved their children and each other, despite their various issues, and this does come across in the many anecdotes in the book.
It isn’t a misery memoir, and there are lots of funny stories as well as the darker ones, because the Guv’nor had a sense of humour and liked practical jokes. For example, when the TV license inspector came around, he put on Val’s glasses and grabbed her romantic novel, earnestly explaining to the official that he was a reading man and didn’t own a television. The warmth and closeness of his family, despite the bad times, comes across strongly.
The book does leave some unanswered questions; the Guv’nor was arrested for attempted murder, causing distress to his family, but the sentence was eventually changed to grievous bodily harm. We learn very little about the crime he was accused of or about the victim. Similarly, the author hints that she is no longer speaking to her brother Jamie, but we never learn why.
It’s a vivid portrait of growing up in the East End and dealing with the legacy of a tough East London childhood. By the time you finish the book, you will have a very clear picture of how resourcefully Kelly has lived her life in spite of the difficult hand she was dealt.
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