Saturday, 10 May 2014

April 1979

Somewhere Over The Rainbow (Part 1)

My first, vivid, memory of Frank Warren – or Frankie, as he was known back in the day − was getting a right-hander from him outside my flat when we were both five years old. It was my first fight.

It felt more comfortable getting punched close to my front door: I figured if the fight was going against me my dad would come out and break it up and, if not, he’d let it roll for a while before stepping in. He came out double quick that day. I’d bloodied Frank’s nose but he kicked the shit out of me. My mum gave him a banana and we shook hands, but from then on we were always on opposite sides. He ran with the enemy.

I lived on the ground floor of Bevin Court near King’s Cross and he lived up in the sky on the seventh. He had a lovely mum but he was always such a little bastard – forgive me, Frank. He’d throw other kids’ toys down the rubbish chute, tip up and ruin games of Monopoly that we often played in the stairwells of the flats, and generally cause havoc. He always seemed to be itching for a fight.

He was of slight build, a little below average in those below-average days, but he could punch well above his weight. He was kinda dangerous and I kinda liked that. I had one more fight with Frank. It was in the street that led down to the flats. I guess we were about nine. He’d hardly grown out of his five-year-old shell but I was rapidly turning into a tall, tubby kid. I towered over him and it was a complete mismatch. I knew it but Frank didn’t, and he steamed in like a raging bull and really hurt me. After a fierce struggle, my blubber managed to pin him to the ground and I placed both my knees on his outstretched arms.

We stayed like that for seconds, minutes, who knows? My locker no longer contains such secrets. The older boys who had instigated the fight got bored and started wandering off. It must’ve been hurting Frank because my knees were really aching. I think we both wanted to cry but our hearts wouldn’t let us. It was the way we were. And then I started to feel deeply ashamed. I didn’t want to hurt this person, I grew up with him for fucksake. What was the point of this?
Whack! ‘You bully. Get off him.’

An old woman hit me with her umbrella and pushed me over. ‘You’re twice as big as him, you bully,’ and she whacked me again. I got up quick and ran as fast as my tubby body

would let me. I knew what Frank was capable of; I knew what all of us on that estate were capable of and, sure enough, a brick came heading my way. Luckily, his arms must’ve still been numb because I wasn’t caught by the shrapnel as it landed and for a big, fat kid that was a result.

‘You bully.’ I’ve been called a lot of things in my life but those words will always hurt the most. ‘You bully.’ Me?

That was the last ‘straightener’ I ever had. I didn’t like the look of someone’s face contorted with a pain that I was inflicting, someone that I actually, perversely, liked. I also hated getting hurt. But I hated most being goaded by older boys who wanted to see a fight. We were a pair of prize suckers. Neither of us fell for that again.

We were all beasts in baseball boots, but some of us were cleverer than others. Frank passed his eleven-plus – hardly anyone from our area did that − much to the surprise of one particular parent who actually stopped me in the street and said, ‘Can you believe it?’

I could.

By then Frank’s family had moved to another estate, Priory Green, but he was still a frequent visitor to our shores, organising football matches between neighbouring estates on concrete playgrounds with walls for goals. He didn’t play, he organised. He made it happen. When you can do that at ten, the eleven-plus is a stroll in the park.

It was patently clear that the guy had brains. He shed the ‘ie’ from the end of his name, ducked and dived like we all did and became very wise very quickly, like some of us did. I’d see Frank around and we’d chat and it was easy, comfortable. He was flash, but in that good, unintentional way. Natural flash. Organic flash. And every time I bumped into him he’d grown appreciably taller, nicer, genuinely interested in what I was doing. As his reputation grew, I felt a sense of pride that a bloke from my flats could achieve worldwide fame doing something that really did come naturally.

Our paths cross on several occasions in 1979, one of which involves probably the most embarrassing moment of my life …

Frank is starting to make a name for himself as an unlicensed boxing promoter of mainly overweight fighters who beat up each other at the Rainbow in Finsbury Park. It’s popular entertainment and the media love slagging it off

I bump into him in Chapel Market and he hands me a pair of tickets for one of the shows. I take Tim (Lott) and I think he’s surprised at the sheer number of spivs in suits that pack out the venue. The fights are more like boxing matches than I’d thought they’d be. Gloves, a ring, rounds, referee, shit, it’s boxing. There are a few decent contests but no one suffers any really bad injuries. It’s boxing, it’s local, it’s a good night out.

When I meet Frank after the show, he’s backstage sitting at a desk behind a mountain of cash because it’s tickets in advance or at the door and loads of people leave it until the last minute to go. It’s all legit and includes the fighters’ purses, security payments and other staff and receipts are issued. He’s now way out of my league. He’s about to embark on his first trip to the States and I try to impress him with a few feeble stories about my travels.

‘Do you know Blondie?’ he suddenly asks.

I’m delighted. Why, only a few weeks ago I’d spent the night on the town in Manhattan with Blondie, snorting and smoking and scheming. ‘Yeah, sure,’ I reply, and proceed to relate my chemical soirée − naturally leaving out the bit about the chemicals. I figure Frank wouldn’t appreciate that, him being a teetotaller an' all.

‘Look, I’ll be honest,’ he says after listening attentively. ‘I’ve got first refusal on Stamford Bridge for a one-day rock concert this summer and I fancy Blondie to headline. Do you reckon you could set up a meet?’

Blondie are the biggest band in town. Their single ‘Heart of Glass’, released in January, has sold more than they could ever imagine. The band’s PR is none other than Alan Edwards.

‘No sweat, Frankie.’ I instantly regret the ‘ie’ but he doesn’t seem to mind. I tell him I used to be their PR and that they know me really well.

‘Well, if this comes off we’ll all do well. By the way, do you know the Stranglers too?’

Do I know the Stranglers?

‘Well,’ Frank continues, ‘that Jean-Jacques Burnel would be a fantastic attraction if he stepped into the ring against, say, Lennie McLean. He’s got a bit of a reputation of being shit hot at karate, hasn’t he? It would be perfect.’

It’s true. Jean must have every Dan in the book, including Desperate. He was as hard as nails yet supremely intelligent – a beguiling combination.

A few weeks later I’m sitting having lunch in a burger bar in Hoxton with Frank, ex-middleweight champion of the world Vic Andretti and, yes, Jean Jacques. I originally introduced Frank to Jean at a gig to promote Jean’s debut solo album
Euroman Cometh and I’d driven JJ to the Ringside bar in Hoxton, which is owned by Vic. The unlicensed boxing shows at the Rainbow were making Frank rich and famous. He was becoming a celebrity and I loved it. Of course, JJ going one on one with Lennie McClean was never going to happen, but it’s good to talk and the idea did receive some media interest.
Besides, there are bigger fish to fry …

Next: Blondie bombshell

Adapted from the book Tell Me When by Barry Cain

© Barry Cain 2013

Check out Barry’s new novel, Wet Dreams Dry Lives http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H0IM2CY



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