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Biggs had chutzpah but he was no hero

FROM some of the coverage, you would think a hero of light entertainment had passed away.

The airwaves yesterday were full of Ronnie Biggs. First we had the rundown of his life - the hijacking of the Glasgow to Euston mail train in 1963, Biggs' imprisonment and escape and his subsequent 36-year stint on the run, mainly in Brazil - then came the chuckling appreciations of a daring cheeky chappy.

John Humphrys on the Today programme recalled visiting him in Rio, talking about how he kept a cheetah in the back garden, telling the story like a pub anecdote. Writer Chris Pickard talked like a starstruck fan of Biggs having "no airs and graces, he was just always Ron all the way through in spite of how famous he was".

A former sailor in the Royal Navy talked of how Biggs came aboard his vessel in Rio and had cans of beer pressed on him from all sides, before being removed on a senior officer's orders. That Ronnie Biggs, eh? Hearing these snippets, anyone would think the nation was mourning a national treasure, some harmless geezer who got up to a bit of mischief in his reckless youth.

He wasn't though, was he? For all the heist movie motifs - the bold prison escape and the life in Brazil - Biggs was not a character played by Sid James, he was a criminal who was prepared to involve himself in a violent crime for money.

Train driver Jack Mills got so savagely coshed with an iron bar - reportedly by Biggs, though he always denied it - that he never fully recovered. Mr Mills died a few years later. While Biggs' original crime may have been eclipsed in many people's minds by the romantic story of his escape, it never was for the Mills family.

Mr Mills' son Stephen died two Christmases ago, aged 48, but his widow Barbara has said she sees Biggs as a "villain". Who can blame her?

No person is one-dimensional. Biggs was a loving family man, by all accounts, whose children and wife will miss him greatly. Did he have chutzpah? Plenty. Did he make the most of his stolen freedom? Certainly. He had charm and a sense of humour, he made the most of what was a good story and it is not hard to see why people liked him, but portraying him as a lovable rogue is to ignore the facts. This was no little man fighting his corner against a corrupt self-serving system, even if that's how he has sometimes been seen. Biggs was in it for the money and showed scant regret for his involvement in the crime; quite the reverse.

He told anyone who asked he was "proud" to have been a part of the gang, boasting of his involvement in The Crime of the Century. His notoriety was a nice little earner. He sold merchandise - mugs and T-shirts with his face on them - and used his infamy to great personal advantage.

He did say he found it "regrettable" Mr Mills got injured, but then commented that the people who paid the "heaviest price" for the Great Train Robbery were in fact the families of everyone involved, "a very heavy price, in the case of my family", once again putting his own experience centre stage.

For all these reasons, the excited coverage of Biggs, both now and in the past, has been jarring.

The Transport Salaried Staff Association underlined the point when they tweeted: "In case today's media confuses you: attacking railway staff with an iron bar to the extent they're barely able to work again really isn't OK."

Myth-making is a common feature of modern celebrity culture and Biggs has benefited more than most, since for all his talk of involvement in the hold-up, he was only a minor player. Still, he features in the BBC's two-parter The Great Train Robbery which began last night. And so the legend continues.

A week ago, the world was looking back on the life of another old man. The internet and airwaves were full of people from all walks of life who had been inspired by Nelson Mandela's example, reflecting on how a person's actions ultimately define who they are. If that is a universal rule that applies to all of us, then this should be the moment to remember the real Ronnie Biggs, not the romanticised version.

He was no monster, but he was no folk hero to be feted either. He was a man who took part in a violent crime and capitalised on its notoriety.

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