The Autobiography of a Thief is the self-explanatory title of Bruce Reynolds’ memoir. As the late Reynolds would like you to know he was the mastermind of the Great Train Robbery of 1963.
This is a straightforward yet rewarding read. The prologue is from the most dramatic and memorable event in Bruce Reynold’s regrettable life: the night he and his mates stole GBPP 2.5 million from a train. That passage is one of the few that he seems to have put some work into. He wrote it with verve and colour. Thereafter the book becomes a chronological biography.
The details of his childhood need not detain us. He was born into a Cockney ( working class London) family in 1931. His mother died when Bruce was 4. His father remarried and Bruce did not get along with his stepmother. Even then he was a miscreant – stealing from her purse. Bruce was evacuated to the West Midlands of England during the Second World War.
According to Reynolds he performed creditably in school. His writing suggests he is a man of just above average intelligence. He certainly did nothing to further his education during his many years of incarceration. He left school at 14 as was the norm. He did various odd jobs. As an adolescent an older boy led him into crime. His larcenies became bigger and more audacious. Reynolds was given a few chances. His first few scrapes with the law saw him let off. But he pressed his luck and ended up in borstal.This juvenile delinquent does not seem to be at all fazed by being locked up. He escaped easily enough. His accounts of running away from the young offenders’ institute repay the reading. He was idiotic and was easily recaptured. His sentences got longer and his crimes became better planned and more lucrative.
Reynolds was eventually called up for National Service – i.e. compulsory army service. He deserted from that a couple of times. He was so incorrigible that the army decided not to use him. He had made himself all but unemployable by the age of 21. He ought not have been set at liberty so soon. He as incorrigible and had evinced no intention of going straight. Had he been kept incarcerated then dozens or even hundreds of people would have been spared his depredations.
The author claimed to have been convinced by Marx. He also said he had left wing convictions. He certainly bore a grudge against the Establishment. This did not result in any empathy of the working class. He seldom stole from them but that was solely because they rarely had high value movables to steal. Reynolds never gave away any of his ill gotten gains to the needy.
Some of his accounts of thieving are banal. This is not always a racy book. It is at times perfunctory in its description. There are other passages he has put more thought into particularly the highlight of the autobiography: the Great Train Robbery. There he endeavours to be literary.
The conditions in prisons in the 1950s seem severe bu today’s standards. Yet these were not sufficient to put off a determined enemy of society like Reynolds.
Bruce and his pals frequently used violence in their robberies. They whacked people over the head with iron bars. He never expresses remorse about this. Reynolds boasted that he and his gang never carried guns or ”shooters” as he calls them. This was not due to humanitarianism. If someone was murdered in the course of a robbery then the death penalty was mandatory for all concerned. Under the law of common purpose (”the law of parties” for American readers) any member of a criminal conspiracy which resulted in murder was guilty of murder. The Derek Bentley case was an example of his. Reynolds’ decision not to use firearms was entirely self-serving.
Reynolds boasts about his womanising. He had a girlfriend named Rita. His relationship ended with her and he then embarked on a liaison with Rita’s younger sister Angela. This may have led to some moments of gaucherie at family events. When Angela became pregnant he was minded to demand an abortion. Because he had recently survived a car crash he chose not to ask for his baby to be killed. I suspect that on earlier occasions he had done that. He was sexually active from the age of 16 – according to himself. He became a father aged 30. It is hard to believe that no pregnancies arose from his relationships. He was often two timing.
Bruce Reynolds describes his goals. He was chiefly motivated by avarice. He also craved recognition. Respect from his peers among thieves also mattered to him. He seems to have been driven but a horrific sense of inadequacy. This is what moved him to buy flash clothes and dine in swanky restaurants. These are not the things that would actuate someone who cared for the working class. He detested the upper class but strove to ape it.
Reynolds felt worthless. Indeed he never contributed to society. He was worth much less than nothing. It was because he believed he was no good that he pined for adulation from his criminal peers. He was dressed up to the nines partly to earn kudos. There was a more logical explanation – it was to avoid suspicion when scouting possible targets in affluent areas.
The most scintillating aspect of the book is when he writes about his tactics. He strategised carefully. He would reconnoitre possible targets. He used informants to fill him in on where to find high value chattels. He writes about when to steal, where to steal and how to sell stolen goods to a fence. Crime was his career so he devoted a lot of time to surveillance, counter-surveillance and planning. He is patently proud of the artistry and audacity of his crimes. He indeed describes it as art.
Reynolds’ become more adept at thieving overtime. As a young tearaway his crimes were often on the spur of the moment. As a scamp he sought to outdo his rivals in effrontery. Later he came to make a study of larceny. He became meticulous. He did a cost-benefit analysis before embarking on a crime. As he weighed up the likelihood of being apprehended and the probable sentenced if convicted it was clear that a harsh sentencing policy would have reduced his purloining very considerably. He was a calculating thief. He was daring only insofar as he judged that he ran little risk of being caught.
The author claimed to have been slapped around by the police and even severely beaten up on one occasion. Such claims are commonplace and may well be true. In the 1950s such behaviour was par for the course.
Bruce Reynolds is notorious as the brains behind the Great Train Robbery. As with all major thefts this required inside information. The operations was painstakingly planned. His meticulous planning paid off. The particulars of this heist are too well known to require repetition. The plan did not go off without a hitch. One of the gang hit the train driver Jack Mills twice over the head with an iron bar. Reynold’s train driver could not drive the train. They had to use British Rail’s man Jack Mills to do so.
Reynolds’ tried to minimise Mills’ injuries. A blow with an iron bar to the skull could kill someone. If Reynolds’ really felt sorry for his victim he could have given him some of his wealth. He could have surrendered to the police.
One of the men arrested in connection with the Great Train Robbery was Mr Boal. Reynolds’ had never heard of Boal and claims that Boal was totally innocent. Despite this Boal was found guilty and given a long sentence. Boal died in prison. Reynolds’ said the Establishment was responsible for Boal going to prison. Boal was found guilty in a court and his conviction still stands. Reynolds’ confesses to hundreds of crimes in his book. It is hard to trust him but on the other hand why would he falsely claim that the long dead Boal was innocent? Without a Great Train Robbery there could have been no wrongful conviction for the crime. To spare Boal the other robbers could have pleaded guilty and then said that Boal was blameless.
Bruce had to of into hiding after the Great Train Robbery. This is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. How did he hide in a city where he was very well known. Brucie on the run was one of the more enthralling episodes. He went through various aliases. He obtained a passport in the name of another man. At that time it was staggeringly easy to attain a passport in the name of another person.
He later made it to Mexico. He and his wife and child lived it up. He felt compelled to live in luxury. What was the point in stealing millions if not to enjoy oneself? Had he been sensible the money would have lasted a lifetime.
It was an insight to see how Reynolds’ felt about the police. He respected and even liked some of them. He was their quarry and saw evading them as an honourable sport. Among the Criminal Investigation Department there seems to have been some regard for him. He noted the irony that petty thieves were treated with disdain and even brutality by the coppers but an elite thief like him was handled gently.
Money ran low in Mexico because Reynolds had lived an extravagant lifestyle. His wife was lonely and missed her own country. Reynolds then returned to the United Kingdom under a false identity. He contacted some of his old pals in the underworld. This was with a view to returning to ‘work’ which meant theft. He was involved in some minor thefts. The police were in touch with villains. The police had informants inside different firms. The law could only keep crime down by striking a deal with felons. The police would let some crimes go in return for being kept abreast of developments in the criminal fraternity. As in all areas of life on must prioritise. Reynolds’ had been the honcho of the biggest robbery in British history. He was therefore a top priority for the Old Bill. One of their sources among the villains told them where Brucie was holed up. The cops nicked Bruce in Torquay.
The philosophical aspect of the book is how towards the end of a 10 year sentence Reynolds was content in prison. His life there was humdrum but being a large scale thief he was near the top of the pecking order in prison. He was released in 1978. He was then doing minimum wage jobs. Bizarrely he and his wife felt happy with their meagre existence. It demonstrates yet again that money does not guarantee happiness.
There appears to have been little honour among thieves. Reynolds said that criminal firms often stole from each other. Gangs would extort money from others whom they knew to do doing well.
One of the more emetic claims in the book is when the author likens himself to Lawrence of Arabia. It is astonishing that this contemptible rat has the temerity to compare himself to a war hero. Lawrence of Arabia was fighting for his country. He ran a high risk of being killed. He saw many of his comrades killed. He was not well paid. Lawrence of Arabia became wealthy after the war for his writing rather than his fighting. Millions of soldiers fought in that war and precious few of them made a mint.
The Autobiography of a Thief introduces the reader to some criminal terms of art. These include ‘stow’ – place for hiding loot – and ‘stretch’ (a period in prison) as well as ‘tom’ (meaning jewellery).
Reynolds felt so sorry for himself due to his self-inflicted travails. His self-pity is one of the most loathsome of his characteristics. He confessed to weeping in his cell. Yet he never spared a thought for all the anguish he had inflicted on others. The material loss, the stress, the injuries and the economic loss to society did not bother him one whit. He felt aggrieved at the way he was treated in prison. Overall he seemed to get along well with prison officers and sometimes with the police. Even he admitted he deserved to serve 9 years for the Great Train Robbery. This means that in reality he deserved at least twice as long to actually serve – not just to be sentenced to.
If Reynolds and his associates had only stolen a fraction of the wealth of multimillionaires then one would not detest him so much. He also stole from many ordinary folk who had little wealth to lose. The author noted that many of the patrician families he stole from had made their lucre from similar acts of thievery in bygone centuries. In this claim he is on the money. However, it was wrong to punish the descendants of these robbers. Reynolds disliked it very much when his child suffered for the father’s crimes.
The author claimed that he and his acolytes were not evil. It is true that so far as is known they never killed anyone. They easily could have killed someone. Hitting someone on the head should be seen as attempted murder and punished accordingly. It is a minor miracle that no one died. That fact that no one died from it makes no moral difference. Enough injuries add up to the same evil as a murder. How many people did he cause to he whacked on the head? Was it 10? Was it 20? Reynolds was detestable and he got off very lightly for his myriad rebarbative acts.
Bruce was a contemptible and disgustingly selfish criminal. This fiend did not suffer half enough for all the harm he inflicted on others. There is no expression of remorse for all the grief he caused to other. Had he written of his contrition in his book it would presumably have been self-serving and disingenuous. He is at least candid enough to say he was not Robin Hood nor was he a gentleman thief. He often used violence. He terrorised decent people to deprive them of what they had worked for. The author had very little conscience. He was not even good to his family. Despite being a very wealthy man he seems to have given nothing to his father, grandmother or his half-brother. He was grossly selfish. Reynolds and his ilk are a waste of space. People like this are conceited but deserve only disdain. The system is far too lenient on filth like him how have no intention of ever reforming.
Reynolds avoided crime after the 1980s. He said he did not wish to see the inside of a prison cell again. This proves that sufficiently long sentences do deter recidivists like him. The likelihood of serving 10 years for the Great Train Robbery was not enough to deter him. The probability of serving 20 years or more will put off all but the most irrational criminal.
His prose is sparse but lucid. This book has pace. It is a more enjoyable read than How to rob a train by his accomplice Gordon Goody.