In the late fall of 1994 I was in Rio de Janeiro for a meeting of the International Federation of Food, Wine and Travel Writers—a junket, really, largely financed by the Brazilian tourist authorities. Of the 60 or so people at the conference only a handful were real journalists (as opposed to people who write about restaurants and travel) and none of them were there to do any serious digging—not that the Brazilian tourist authorities would have encouraged it, though they did set up a press meeting with the local police chiefs, who gave us the usual warnings about sensible conduct on the beach.
In terms of stories, I wasn’t really interested in the food, wine and travel angles. You can only digest so many meals and attend so many receptions. I was more interested in the underside of the place (the local criminals call tourists filet mignon). One afternoon a writer from LA and I took a taxi into the favela that was the main drugs pipeline out of Colombia, and I let it be known that I’d be interested in meeting Ronnie Biggs, the Great Train Robber who was in hiding in Rio from British justice, if anyone knew where he might be.
I thought it was a long shot, but on the day I was due to go home someone drove up beside me as I was walking in the street beside my hotel and slipped me a piece of paper bearing a phone number. When I called it, Ronnie himself answered. “Sure, come on over,” he said.
The nervous taxi driver insisted on dropping me a few streets away from the actual address, a twisting, cobbled street in a village-style neighborhood of Rio called Santa Teresa, and I found the house with the help of a passing local who asked if I was looking for “Mr. Biggie.” Mr. Biggie was taking a nap when I knocked, and answered the door in a green singlet and khaki shorts, his long, silver hair pulled back in a ponytail. Here’s my diary entry.
November 14, 1994: RIO DE JANEIRO: Ronnie Biggs, one of the best known criminals of the 20th century, has the scoundrel’s glitter to his eyes, seductive and cheerful and ready.
On August 16 next year, his Brazilian-born son Mike will reach the age of 21. On that date, as far as anyone here can determine, British authorities will be free to arrest Biggs and take him to England to serve the 28-year balance of his thirty-year jail sentence for his part in the Great Train Robbery of 1963. Will they? Ronald Arthur Biggs himself doesn’t know what will happen.
He takes a sip from his Antarctica beer beside the pool at his hilltop hideaway here. “I’d like to think that this is my final point, that my travelling days are over,” he says, in the South London accent that has never left him. “But who knows?”
It must be like, he says, “something like someone in a condemned cell, waiting for that particular day to arrive … To think that on the 16th of August there can be a reprieve, or there can be like the opening of the trap doors as it were—down goes the old body.”
According to one theory, he’s safe in Brazil as long as his son, whose bedroom walls here at their home are lined with platinum records from his days as the leader of Brazil’s top kiddy rock band, the Magic Balloon Gang, remains a student. According to another theory, there might even be a reprieve by the British authorities. But it was Britain’s biggest heist, and when Biggs escaped from Wandsworth prison two years after sentencing he became the world’s most wanted man.
He led Scotland Yard, Interpol and bounty-hunters on a chase across three continents before he finally took refuge in Rio 24 years ago. Scotland Yard caught up with him in 1974 but Brazilian law forbade the deportation of the father of a dependent Brazilian child. He has lived here ever since.
Over the years Biggs has become a folk hero not only in Britain but around the world, though the death of one of the guards on the train has tended to take the romantic, larky edge off the story of the biggest heist in British history and he has never become an accepted member of the expatriate Brit community in Rio. “There was a time when the people from the British consulate were all told that if ever I appeared anywhere they were, they were to up and leave,” he says. “It was a great way of getting a good place in a restaurant.”
He grows wistful about the things about England that he misses: “atmospheres,” he says. “Pub atmospheres Sunday morning … country or rural scenes—I like rural life—those nice little pubs you come across down in Surrey, walking in fields. I like to remember climbing over hedgerows and seeing rabbits and picking mushrooms, the smells of the lanes.”
Looking out over the hilly, village-style district around his home, I comment that it looks like Clovelly. “Ah, yes,” he says. “Devon. The only place I’ve been to in Devon is Dartmoor.” It was in the maximum security prison on Dartmoor that he befriended “the mad axeman,” Frank Mitchell, “a gentle giant, and a damn good bloke, especially when it came to having a bit of a problem with anybody.” When I tell him I wrote for Reveille, a magazine featuring tasteful pin-ups for the weary working man, in London in the late ’50s, he says: “Wor, yeah—great wankin’ material in the nick, Reveille.” Nice to know one has done one’s bit for the incarcerated.
He always regretted, he says the violence involved and the damage it did. The robbery was meant to be all about the money: no one was supposed to get hurt. So is he living the life of luxury on the proceeds? Not a bit of it, he says. The money was all gone in three years.
The actual robbery took place on his birthday. “Not the most usual way one might expect to spend a birthday,” he says. “I remember my wife making a protest about the fact that I would be away for my birthday when I was going off to do the robbery and I said, well, hopefully, we’ll be able to celebrate when I come back. Of course, she didn’t know where I was going.”
That morning, if he’d known then about what happened since, would he still have done it?
“Yes. Yes. I think so. Yeah, because it provided me at least with the kind of life that I used to really want and think about. You know—there must be something better than freezing my balls off on this building site. There has to be something else. I’d earn enough money to pay the guys back I’d borrowed from earlier in the week, bus fares, food, some money for a trip down the pub, and then there was nothing left over.”
He becomes philosophical again. “I dunno,” he says. “Where does anyone go wrong, where does anyone make the wrong decision? All the kids I went to school with, they become architects, surveyors, whatever, and I become a crook. They say thieves are born, and I guess it’s true. I guess I’m a crook at heart even until today, if I’m going to be honest.” Then he hears what he has said: “‘I’m a crook if I’m going to be honest’ –how do you like that?” He gives a big guffaw.
But after the robbery didn’t he say: “Now I can afford to be an honest man”?
“Ah, you probably read that in a newspaper,” he says. “I probably said let me get the hell out of here.”
An extradition treaty signed between the UK and Brazil in 1997 enabled the UK to formally request Biggs’s extradition, but the request was rejected by the Brazilian Supreme Court. However, Biggs returned to the UK voluntarily in 2001—not for free health care, as was widely supposed, said his son, but because he wanted to “walk into a Margate pub as an Englishman and buy a pint of bitter.” He was immediately jailed. His health declined and after many appeals he was released in 2009 on compassionate grounds. He died three years later. At his funeral his coffin was covered with the Union Jack, the flag of Brazil and a supporter’s scarf for the Charlton Athletic soccer club. His hearse was escorted to the crematorium by a team of Hells Angels.