Dave Courtney lives in a place called Castle Camelot. In Plumstead.
“How we gonna know which one it is?” asked Danny Photos, as we checked house numbers on a suburban street like any other in London, full of semi detached houses rather than castles.
At that moment, through the south London mist, appeared what I can only describe as… Castle Camelot, a shimmering white, end of terrace house — floodlit — with castle walls and turrets running around it. On one side of the building was a mural as big as the house, depicting Dave on a white horse, in a suit of armour with a sword held high.
“I think that’s it.”
Dave Courtney was one of the country’s leading underworld figures. I say “was” because he has now gracefully retired, choosing to use his somewhat colourful life as a launch pad for a media career. He now hosts one-man shows; recently wrote an autobiography, Stop The Ride I Want To Get Off; and is pursuing international film opportunities. The Vinnie Jones character in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels was based on Courtney. Remember the infamous sunbed slam? One of Dave’s, that.
Yep it’s been colourful, with perhaps a disproportionate amount of claret. Courtney has been beaten up, shot, stabbed, burnt and once had his nose bitten off. In a sword fight in a Chinese restaurant he sliced waiters into a sweet and sour mess; he has witnessed Triad murders; by his own admission he has killed two people; he organised Ronnie Kray’s funeral; he organised Ronnie Bigg’s seventieth birthday. If truth be told he very probably organised more than one or two parties that you’ve been to yourself. If not, you have undoubtedly had to cross him or one of his firm on the door before you got in.
That’s all something of a mind melt for me. I don’t do fighting. To misquote Michael Jackson: I’m a writer not a fighter. My family’s been in about two fights, including the Second World War, and the only real fight I’ve been in (with bouncers, in Prague of all places) left me with three stitches in my head, a night in the slammer and a lesson learnt. So Courtney’s Castle Camelot was truly kooky, a cross between Del Boy and Del Rey; suits of armour, swords and elaborate statues jostling for position with the paraphernalia of average domesticity. A sword in a stone in the garden; a Tardis in the bathroom. As we waited for him in his sitting room, I watched Dave stroll up to his front door on his own security cameras. “Sorry I’ve been so long, mate,” he said, shaking hands. “Bet you want to rip my head off.”
“HA HA HA,” I laughed, nervously loudly. “Erm… ha?”
He was big and bald. Big and bald with glistening eyes that contained terror and mirth in equal proportion. He led me through to the back room and we sat down at a round table, seemingly buckling under the weight of the biggest, gold, jewel-encrusted knuckle duster I had ever seen. And I’d never even seen any. Dave’s wife, a rapper called Jenny made us cups of tea, while another friend was put on joint patrol. The keys to the house were in the lock of the back door, along with a note that suggested if the police wanted to come in, they might consider using the door rather than smashing through it.
The profile the Kray funeral gave Courtney made him a prime target for the police and signalled the end of his “naughty” days. “All credit to the Krays for what they did but it will never ever happen again,” he said. “Because crime has changed and because policing has changed it’s the wrong era to be a gangster. Gangsters are finished — they’ve gone out with prize fighting and swashbuckling.” The police closed Courtney’s cab office, his pub and hit the heart of his operation. Clubland. “They went to all the clubs where I had doormen and said ‘if you keep Dave Courtney’s doormen you won’t have a licence for a fucking telly, let alone a club’.” With little left to do, Dave was forced into the crookedness business of the lot. The media. “That’s frightened the police to bits,” he chortled. “In the popularity race Dave Courtney is in front of the Metropolitan Police. And that’s sort of not right… I’m the murderer, they are the British police force but if you went to twenty people they would all rather go out for a night with Dave than Sir Paul Condon.”
I wasn’t about to pick bones with a man who picked bones out of spines and used them for toothpicks, but it’s certainly true the connections between the underworld and clubland are well forged and deep set. As Dave explained: “The underworld have got more money than most people and there’s not an awful lot of places to go and spend it apart from the nightclubs. So it’s a meeting place, I’m afraid, for numerous naughty people.” Moving from the door to actually promoting, Dave brought one of the first raves to London in 1986, under the arches in John Ruskin Street. “I employed Danny Rampling and Fabio & Grooverider for £25 the pair. They wouldn’t sell one of their farts for that now, would they?” Currently involved with Terry Turbo in the drum & bass night One Nation, Dave keeps more than a toe in the warm waters of clubland. “The old ones get on with me because of the Kray twins connection, and the young ones get on with me because of the raving thing. I can dance the bollocks off any fucker!”
But as Sir Paul Condon implied when he told people not to read Dave’s book, Courtney may be a lot more dangerous now than he ever was then. He nodded. “The authorities would hate the world to know what I know. I know very, very much too much. And can PROVE IT. They cannot allow someone like me to actually tell people what it’s like. When they nick me they say, ‘it’s not about putting you in prison Dave because you’ll be a fucking martyr, you little cunt. We’ve just got to stop everyone loving Dave Courtney because you’re a FUCKING BADDIE and there’s A POSTER OF YOU IN SMITHS!’”
Dave Courtney is a master at manipulating the media. I dislike everything that he stands for but he’s a funny fucker, and charming with it. Ask him if he is involved in organised crime and he’ll say sure, he organised the Kray funeral and that was full of criminals. When Roger Cook burst in on him, he didn’t do the old palm-over-the-camera-lens routine, he asked if he could dressed and invited Cook to do an interview on a boat in St Katherine’s dock… allowing him to change into the clothes he wanted to wear, sit in an environment that was conducive and also have the time think of his answers. He was the heavy on the Gerry Sadowitz show — all good exposure until, as Dave puts it, “some geezer viciously threw his chin at my fist.” Now there’s plans for a £12 million movie of his life. And guess who Dave wants to play Dave? “I may not be the best actor in the world, but I play a fucking good Dave Courtney,” he smirked. “And America is going to lap me up, matey.”
Dave Courtney’s done his time, done his tour of duty and he got out. If what he says is true, good luck to him. “I’m better at entertaining than I was as a gangster, to be quite honest. Because I’m quite eloquent and I’m a cocky fucker and sort of pleasing to the eye because I’ve got a bald head, the media seem to think I shit diamonds at the moment. There’s a little bit of Dave Courtney hysteria. I’ve even started stalking myself. It’s easy — I know when I’m in.”
The talking over, we stood up from the table. “So you want some photos then?” said Dave, clapping his hands together. He disappeared upstairs to change, returning in a suit sharper than one of his swords and together we walked out into the front yard of Castle Camelot. Danny Photos started snapping Dave next to his mural.
“This will be a good one,” I said to Dave and held one of his swords over his head. Danny snap snapped.
“This one will be better,” he replied and pulled open his jacket to reveal a gun in a shoulder holster. He pulled out the gun and put it to my head. Snap snap. He then put the gun in my hand and told me to put it to his head. Snap snap. I’ve fired a few guns in my time but I wasn’t about to fire that one. I had absolutely no idea — if I pulled the trigger — whether it would skewer the brains of one of the most feared men in Britain or provide a light for his cigar.
We walked down the drive and took some more photos by Dave’s Porsche. “Wave to that house over the road,” he said, pointing.
I waved. “Why?”
“I’m under surveillance!” He roared with laughter. Apparently the police had installed twenty four hour cameras in the upstairs room of one of his neighbours. I handed Dave his gun back. “I must be doing something fucking right because they’ve been looking at me for four years and I’m still here so bollocks. Listen fucking harder!”
We accepted Dave’s offer of a lift back to Plumstead station and climbed into his Porsche, Dave pulling away at something approaching warp speed. At the junction with the main road the lion roar of the engine mellowed to a pussycat purr. A man stood talking into his mobile phone turned to look in the car. “Is that Dave Courtney? It is… Dave… Dave.. how you doing, mate?”
“Starving comfortably, starving comfortably,” Dave smiled, before gunning the engine and hurtling his Porsche down the road. [January 2000]