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Once I even allowed my students to read something that was good | COMMENTARY

In my editing class at Loyola University Maryland, after subjecting my students to thirteen weeks of dreck, I gave them one good story on the last day of class and told them to analyze it and explain why it is a good story.

The article, written by Bill Glauber, then The Baltimore Sun’s London correspondent, is a feature describing the funeral of a British mobster. I have appended my comments to explain why I think it is a good story.

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This is a substantially longer post than anything I usually post, but if you are patient, you may find it worth your time.

KRAY

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LONDON — The streets of the East End were filling with kids and grandparents, shoppers and photographers, all following the six black-plumed horses, the Victorian glass hearse awash with flowers and the 27 Daimler limousines on a final journey from funeral home to church.

Yesterday, Ronnie Kray — mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic — was given a funeral fit for a king.

For a few hours, it was just like the 1960s, when Ronnie and his twin brother, Reggie, ruled the East End underworld and became folk heroes. Like the Beatles and Carnaby Street, the Krays had become part of London’s fabric, carousing with boxers, singers and politicians. They were wise guys with Cockney accents, the subjects of 11 books, a musical and a movie.

They were also murderers who in 1969 were sentenced to life imprisonment. But yesterday the mayhem of the past went ignored, because an era was approaching its end.

Reggie Kray, 61, a stooped, gray-haired figure in a dark suit, was let out of jail to attend his brother’s funeral. He wore a gold watch and a silver-colored handcuff. The other handcuff was around the wrist of a policeman. Wherever Reggie Kray appeared before the crowd, he drew cheers.

“The Krays were bad boys who for some reason became some sort of heroes, like the old American West with Jesse James,” said Winnie Cracknew, 63, who paused from her shopping to watch the funeral.

“Some say they were famous because of the good deeds they did in the community,” said Rose Stone, 70, who waited two hours to see the hearse. "Some say they hurt people. I don’t know.

“But things were a lot better in the 1960s when they were around. The streets were a lot safer.”

With the Krays, fact easily blends into colorful myth. The legend surrounding Ronnie was summed up in a tabloid headline: “OK, he was an evil killer but he never swore at old ladies.”

Raised by their mother, Violet, to become amateur boxers, the Krays became mobsters who ruled the East End through fear and force.

In business, Ronnie was the brawn; Reggie, the brains. Unpredictable violence became their calling card as they watched over their gambling and protection rackets.

They also had a scent of glamour that still comes through in black-and-white photographs — earnest, young working-class men in matching dark suits, white ties and monogrammed handkerchiefs.

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In the world in which he traveled, Ronnie earned additional fame by being open about his homosexuality, long before others were willing publicly to do the same. Indeed, because of “the potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness and nostalgia,” the Independent newspaper has observed, “he will not be forgotten.”

But the truth is, the Krays were lousy gangsters. They reached for power that was beyond their grasp. Eventually, they were jailed for the murders of fellow gangsters George Cornell and Jack “The Hat” McVitie.

“You were born to hang,” Ronnie’s Aunt Rose told him when he was a boy.

Instead of hanging, Ronnie withered away. In 1979, he was certified a paranoid schizophrenic, and he served out his sentence under heavy medication in Broadmoor prison. He died of a heart attack March 17 at Wexham Park Hospital.

Yesterday, 140 mourners prayed for the soul of Ronnie Kray.

As a Frank Sinatra recording of “My Way” echoed through St. Matthew’s Church, the pallbearers wheeled in Ronnie’s dark oak coffin, covered in white and red carnations arranged in the shape of a cross.

“Ron had great humor, a vicious temper, was kind and generous,” Reggie Kray said in a prepared statement read to the congregation. “He did it all his way, but above all he was a man — that’s how I will always remember my twin brother Ron. God bless.”

After the service, the mourners followed the horse-drawn hearse on the 12-mile trip from the East End to Chingford Mount Cemetery. They laid to rest Ronnie Kray beside his mother’s grave, near a maple tree, on a cold spring day under a bright blue sky.

Reggie Kray left behind a 4-foot-high message made of white chrysanthemums: “To the other half of me.”

When the graveside service ended, most of the mourners went to a pub for a celebration.

Reggie Kray went back to jail.

Comments on KRAY

Look at the opening paragraph: The description of the classes of people, “kids and grandparents, shoppers and photographers,” is emblematic, suggesting both a crowd and diversity. Then come the carefully selected details: the six black-plumed horses, the glass hearse, the 27 Daimler limousines. He counted the limousines!

This leaves the reader wondering who’s dead. And the second paragraph could not be more succinct: “Yesterday, Ronnie Kray — mobster, murderer, paranoid schizophrenic — was given a funeral fit for a king.” The rest of the article addresses why such a thug should get a hero’s funeral.

These two paragraphs are a highly compressed version of the stock news feature device of an introduction, descriptive or anecdotal, followed by a nut graph summarizing the point of the article.

You will have noted that the structure of the article is narrative. The reader starts at the street with the funeral procession, moves to the church for the funeral service, ends, as all shall, at the cemetery. The story is so nimble and so spare that the reader has a sense that these events are taking place in something like real time; they feel immediate. And each temporal shift in this narrative is signaled by a clear transition: “For a few hours, it was just like the 1960s” opens a flashback; “But yesterday … an era was approaching its end” fades back to the present.

Consider also that this is an article written for an American audience about a pair of British criminals who have been out of circulation for decades. It would be easy to lumber up the article with background material harvested from old newspaper clippings, but Glauber keeps the account spare, providing just enough background at each point to make the action comprehensible.

One editor objected to this story during a workshop, saying that it didn’t tell enough about the Krays' criminal careers. But as the nut graph indicates, the article is not about their criminal careers; it is about reputation. It is about, as Glauber quotes the Independent, “the potent mixture of money, violence, sex, madness and nostalgia.” The Krays' odd heroic stature with the public has outlasted the facts.

The reader will also recognize, though probably subliminally, the metaphoric unity of this article. The Krays are twins, one alive, one dead; one the brains, one the brawn; one gay, one straight; one sane, one a paranoid schizophrenic. These twinned opposites are reflected elsewhere in the text. Reggie Kray “wore a gold watch and a silver-colored handcuff.” Or “he was an evil killer but he never swore at old ladies.”

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It seems improbable that Bill Glauber sat down at the keyboard and said, “I’m going to write a news feature with a narrative structure onto which I will overlay a metaphoric texture of paired opposites.” Most writers do not appear to work that way, but rather through intuitive selection of detail and structure. It is left to editors to identify structures and methods, to clear away obstruction and streamline the text for the reader’s benefit. Writers work intuitively; editors work analytically.

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What can writers learn from this? It is possible to write a fully satisfactory news feature in just over 700 words.

What can editors learn from this? Sometimes the best thing to do is to take your hands off the keyboard.

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