Authors: Carl Merritt
‘Fifty pence,’ the old boy said.
I fingered the coins: some of them had been taken off me when I’d been nicked. I was just about to hand over the money
when I heard my name being called. I turned round to see Uncle Pete and two of his heavyweight mates in a white Cortina. Uncle Pete looks a lot like my dad. He’s four years younger, a big rock-’ n’ -roller and six feet tall. Still works out every day.
‘Forget the flowers, Son,’ he said in his strong East End twang. ‘You’re comin’ home with me.’
I certainly wasn’t going to have a ruck with him so I jumped in the back of his Dagenham Dustbin.
While we drove across London to Pete’s home in Croydon, South London, he and his mates talked about the doorman game and how someone with my skills would fit in perfectly. Uncle Pete had been running a crew of doormen for a few years down at some nightclubs in Croydon.
That night I kipped at Uncle Pete and Aunt Marge’s house. ‘You’re here till further notice, Son,’ he said. I knew I was going to enjoy myself and, to be honest about it, I knew I needed a fresh start. Maybe this cage wasn’t going to be so bad after all.
A couple of nights later, me, my mum and brothers John and Ian steamed into a few bevvies at Uncle Pete’s local boozer. Ian and John ended up having to carry Mum and me back to Pete’s house but no one was complaining. After what we’d been through, a few drinks were perfectly natural.
I had a nasty dream that night about being attacked in borstal and I was sweating heavily when I opened my eyes and saw the sun peeping through the window. I suppose I still expected some lousy screw to waltz in and start barking orders at me and kick the shit out of the end of my bed.
I’d survived all those months in borstal without even touching a ciggie but the deadly weed went and hooked me
within days of getting out. And life inside Rochester had made me grow up quickly. I’d probably seen more than most blokes twice my age. But I knew I now had to do something with my life. It wasn’t going to be easy. There’d been too many knockdowns already and I didn’t honestly know if I was up to the challenge.
I jumped at the chance of working the door at a club with Uncle Pete and his crew because I desperately needed to start earning a wedge. Mum turned a blind eye to the fact I was missing school – she just wanted me off the streets, where I might get up to no good. I assured Pete I was fighting fit and ready for work. I was fifteen and about to get a taste of the real world.
always reckoned that not much of the old man ever rubbed off on me, but now I know that’s not completely true. He was always a diplomat if ever there was any aggro. He never just steamed in and caused trouble. He liked to talk about things first and then, if someone ignored him,
, he’d go in with all fists blazing. His brother – my Uncle Peter – was the opposite. He always told me: ‘Don’t give up. Don’t lose. You ain’t gonna lose as long as you think you ain’t gonna lose.’ Uncle Pete certainly wasn’t shy about knocking a few heads together if he felt the need. He went in hard and fast and took no prisoners.
It was Uncle Pete who really taught me much of what I know today. He taught me self-respect and he also showed me the importance of manners. Not having my dad at home meant that was doubly important. And Uncle Pete was certainly quite a character. He was so into heavy rock that he used to drag me to
pop concerts in fields and events like that. He especially loved the Eagles and the Rolling Stones.
My first door job with Uncle Pete was at a Croydon night-club called Scamps. Me and all the other doormen had to wear a red shirt, black bowtie (clip-on, naturally) and a black jacket. I was still just fifteen years old, but no one back at school in Forest Gate even bothered to come after me. I already weighed in at nearly fifteen stone with a seventeen-inch neck and well-toned biceps to match. No one there (apart from Uncle Pete) had a clue how young I was. If they had, then I’d probably have had a lot more trouble with the customers.
But it didn’t take more than a few days on the door at Scamps for some aggro to flare up. ‘Get your arse down here,’ screamed Uncle Pete over the walkie-talkie, seconds after a punter outside the club had tried to smash a bottle over his head. I sorted out the assailant and we made sure he never came back to Scamps again.
I worked three full nights a week at Scamps and stood in for many of the other doormen if they were off sick. There were seven doormen in total working at the club at any one time. One night a few weeks after I’d started, I was walking up the stairs to the club entrance when a familiar-looking figure walked down the other way, right past me. I blinked twice to make sure I wasn’t seeing things. It was my dad. I hadn’t seen him in years.
He turned back. ‘Heard you was here,’ he said to me as our eyes met. I was well annoyed to find I was working at the same club as the old man, who had worked as a doorman at loads of clubs over the years. I suppose I should have known better since it was his brother Pete who was running the door. But I still couldn’t get that clash between him and my mum out of my mind. I knew he’d
been given quite an ear-bashing by my mum, but nothing gave him the excuse for tearing into her the way he did.
I said nothing at first and just gave him a kind of steely look, right into his eyes. I suppose I was waiting for him to say sorry for fucking up the lives of his four kids and wife. But instead he just grinned at me as if nothing was the matter. That really grated with me at the time. I wanted him to grovel for what he’d done to us.
‘Ain’t you even goin’ to say hello to your old man?’ he said, trying desperately to break the ice.
‘Fuck off,’ I said, surprised at my own coldness.
Just then Uncle Peter appeared on the stairs. He must have sensed the tension in the air because he immediately tried to calm things down by proudly telling my old man about how I’d handled myself during that tear-up a couple of days earlier.
Pete laughed and joked as he described how I’d steamed in and sorted it all out. Just then a smile came to my old man’s lips and I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt. Maybe he wasn’t really so bad after all. We’d get along fine just so long as we both realised where to draw the line.
Not long after starting on the door at Scamps I got my first taste of the rivalry that exists between firms of doormen across London. A mob from a club on the other side of Croydon had decided to try and take over Uncle Pete’s doorman contract at Scamps.
At first the rival firm put the word around Croydon that Pete and his crew were no better than a bunch of schoolgirls and that they were the real men for the job. Basically, they were throwing down the gauntlet to us. They wanted our business and that’s not something any doorman will give away without a real battle.
Uncle Pete and the rest of us soon heard about these prats so a meeting was organised in the car park out the back of Scamps. It
was scheduled for early Saturday evening before the club opened for business.
What followed was more like a scene out of the Wild West than south London. Pete got us all assembled out the back of the club to await our ‘guests’. Eventually two BMWs and a Merc turned up in the club car park and out jumped our heavyweight rivals.
Their leader – a short stocky fella with a bald head and moustache – was obviously itching for a tear-up. ‘How d’ you want to do this?’ he asked Uncle Pete. ‘Hands or tools?’
‘Hands,’ Pete snapped back. We knew we wouldn’t need weapons to show them who was top dog.
Pete had earlier briefed us that the moment he responded was the signal for the tear-up to start. We had been told to select ourselves an individual target and steam straight in.
I went for the bloke who happened to be the nearest and was soon swinging my fists right in his face before following through with some vicious kicks to his stomach and thighs. He was in his late twenties and all bulked up like Arnie in
. But I didn’t give a toss, I had no fear. I suppose part of the reason was that I’d turned sixteen years old the previous day. Fear just wasn’t something I understood or appreciated.
Anyway, as it happens, it turned into a right old-fashioned tear-up – and thank God there wasn’t a blade in sight! They had about ten geezers on their side – three more than us so we should have been odds on for a hiding, but it didn’t quite work out according to their plan.
I finished my first victim off by catching him with a straight left to the adam’s apple. He went down like a bag of cement. Then I jumped on the back of another fella who was handing out a right
pasting to Uncle Pete. Across the other side of the car park, my old man was giving rock-all to some fat old bear.
As I swung around on the back of the Giant Haystacks lookalike, I could hear the dense rat-tat-tat sound as the crack of punches connected with their targets across the car park. I could taste blood in the back of my throat.
I got my latest target to the floor and started whacking him hard in the back of his neck. He crumbled like a meat loaf. Meanwhile Pete had switched his battle to the guv’nor of the opposition. He definitely had the upper hand and seemed to be finishing off this other bloke. Across the way my old man had moved onto a new target and was hammering away at some poor bastard who looked as if he was about to collapse on the tarmac.
Suddenly Dad looked up. ‘It’s done. It’s done,’ he yelled ecstatically. All around us were the moaning and groaning remains of this rival firm who’d decided we were ripe for a takeover bid. They retreated so quickly, they left behind two of their soldiers unconscious on the floor. One of them was out cold and the other was moaning like an elephant. Their mates had screeched off in their flashy motors. The entire fight had lasted no more than five or six minutes.
We marched off towards the back entrance of the club just as sirens could be heard in the distance. The two injured doormen helped each other to their feet and scrambled off into the Saturday evening crowds of shoppers. The cozzers turned up to find the whole car park swimming in claret but little else. They knew what had happened but without any bodies there wasn’t much point in pursuing the matter.
Once we were inside the club, Uncle Pete came up to me and slapped me on my back. ‘You done good, Son. You done good,’ he
said. I felt immensely proud. ‘There aren’t many who stand their ground. But you certainly did,’ added Pete.
Later that night Uncle Pete warned both me and my old man that the opposition might come back for a return grudge match and we were told to keep a close eye on things for the next couple of weeks. But nothing ever came of it, although from that day on Uncle Pete made sure we were always tooled up with coshes, dusters and baseball bats hidden in strategic positions around the club.
Although I didn’t realise it at the time, Uncle Pete had watched me closely during that tear-up in the Scamps car park. He’d earmarked me for bigger things.
About a week after that clash with the rival firm of doormen, Uncle Pete took me to see a local prize fight between two doormen from the Croydon area. It was to be held behind the closed doors of another local nightclub called Lacey Lady’s. The two fighters used extra-heavy gloves, which looked almost comical because they were twice the size of normal boxing gloves.
The prize money was X400 for the winner and £200 for the loser. It was a bit of a joke, really. The audience was encouraged to have a pop at the last winner and half of them were so tanked up they could hardly see their way into the ring. And most of them looked like fat, unfit slobs to me. The so-called ‘champ’ was pretty trim and bouncy. Watching those stupid punters having a go at him was pathetic. It seemed like easy money to me.
I found it fascinating to watch, and reckoned I could see off most of those characters with a swift flurry of punches. I boasted to Uncle Pete that I was better than any of them. He laughed when I first said it but then I got serious.
‘You really up for it?’ Pete asked me. ‘Why not?’ I said.
I’d just turned sixteen years old but I had no fear of anyone. In fact I reckoned I could show most of them a thing or two about the fight game. They’d be like lambs to the slaughter.
couldn’t get that prize fight at Lacey Lady’s out of my mind. Uncle Pete made a point afterwards of asking me what I thought of the whole scene. I just shrugged my shoulders, smiled and said to him, ‘Looks like a piece of piss to me. They’re weren’t up for much were they?’ Uncle Pete smiled back and laughed, ‘I reckon you mean that, Son. Well, your time will come. Your time will come.’
I didn’t sleep much that night because I kept thinking over and over what I’d have done if I’d got in the ring with those drunken old slobs. A few days later Uncle Pete asked me if I wanted to go to another fight challenge later that week at the same club. I had my suspicions about Pete’s motives, but it didn’t bother me that he might be planning to send me in the ring. Pete then told me he’d had a word with the management and they’d agreed that I could go in the ring and have a dig at a
few of the old timers. No one other than Uncle Pete had any idea I was just sixteen years old.
‘When you get in there, just get it done quick as poss,’ said Pete. I couldn’t wait to get back in the ring and feel that leather on my fists, even if it was going to be the sort of contest that boxing purists would have hated. Uncle Pete even warned me: ‘Some of them’ll be a bit dirty with the elbows and heads.’ But I already knew all that after a good few street fights and that recent tear-up with those rival doormen in the Scamps car park.
The night before my first appearance in an unlicensed ring, I played table-tennis with Uncle Pete and a few of his mates who’d popped into his house in Croydon for a few jars. Some of them thought it was a right laugh that Pete was putting me up for a fight the next day.
‘Let’s hope you get a drunk,’ said one of them, a skinny old survivor called Tel.
‘Yeah, one puff and he’ll fall over,’ chipped in another mate of Pete’s called Reg.
I looked seriously at both of them because I was after more of a challenge than just a fat drunk. ‘I’d like someone a bit tastier,’ I said in the sort of solemn tone that all sixteen-year-olds specialise in. I could tell from the look on most of their faces that they thought I was some daft kid heading for the thrashing of my life.
We all had a few beers and a laugh that night, although I was careful not to drink or eat too much because I wanted to be in prime condition for the next day. I’d been keeping fit ever since that spell in borstal but I hadn’t been near a punch bag in ages. My main exercise had been four-mile runs across the
fields around the old Croydon Airport near where Uncle Pete lived. Usually I had his two Rottweilers, Pinky and Perky, for company.
Next morning I was up at dawn, doing press-ups and shadow boxing in my tiny bedroom at Pete’s house. After running out over the fields with Pinky and Perky, I arrived back at Uncle Pete’s and demolished a bowl of cereal and three slices of lightly buttered toast. The old butterflies were flapping around inside me by now. The countdown had begun. I glanced up at the clock. It was about nine o’clock. In six hours I’d be in there hammering some poor bastard into a piece of pulp. I couldn’t wait. All that pent-up fury for that arsehole who’d finished off my boxing career and that nasty bastard Terry was building up yet again. I could feel a twisted knot inside me stretching itself to breaking point. I hardly said a word to Pete or Aunt Marge that morning. My mind was totally immersed in what I was about to do. Pete knew it and left me in peace.
About mid-morning, Uncle Pete, me and all his boys from Scamps met up at a small boozer just a short walls from Lacey Lady’s club, the venue of my prize-fighting debut. It was jam-packed with the sort of people I expected to see later at the fight. And there in the corner, supping his customary pint of Guinness, was my old man. He looked half pissed already, but I suppose I was kind of happy he was there. He was full of it, naturally. You’d never have guessed he’d hardly seen me since I was knee-high. ‘Can’t wait to see my boy get in there and fuckin’ crush ‘em to pieces,’ he said to anyone who’d listen.
I sipped slowly on a flat orange juice; nothing fizzy in case I got hit in the gut, as then I’d bring it all back up. The old man continued rambling on. ‘Just remember, Son, fast flurries of
punches in the gut and they’ll fuckin’ crumble …’ I nodded but found it difficult to look him in the eye. His words were more of a performance for other punters than a sincere piece of advice from a father to his son.
So I sat there and let all the rest of them do the talking. About two dozen blokes came up and slapped me on the back and wished me luck. To tell you the truth, I got sick of hearing them very quickly. All I wanted to do was get in that ring.
At one stage I looked over at Uncle Pete and caught a glance from him that told me he knew what was going through my mind. ‘Come on, Son. let’s get movin,’ Pete finally said, jumping to his feet. At last the time was approaching.
Me and Pete, plus my old man and about eight of their mates, got up and headed for the door. We walked down Croydon High Street. It was peak shopping time on a Saturday afternoon and the crowds were out in full force. But the sight of us must have freaked a few of them out because most people drew aside for us like the Red Sea. I remember we passed a couple of young tearaways. They looked us up and down, and must have wondered what the hell we were up to. After all, you don’t often get a dozen meaty characters out on their own on a Saturday afternoon, do you?
We were all laughing and joking on the way. One of Uncle Pete’s best mates chipped at me: ‘I might have a go later myself, Carl.’ But I knew he didn’t mean it. Whenever a pretty bird walked by, some of the older fellas would blow a long wolf whistle. ‘Look at the bristols on that one.’ ‘What a cracker.’ That sort of stuff. But my mind remained on other things.
We must have looked terrifying; all in tight T-shirts with biceps bulging. I spotted a couple of coppers on the beat,
walking down the road from us. As soon as they saw our mob they ducked down a side road: we were that scary. And having all these heavies around me helped make me feel even more confident for the fight. I felt invincible. I suppose that’s why they make such a production of every fighter’s entrance to a big contest. But instead of Wembley or Earl’s Court I had Croydon High Street!
Eventually we got to the car park of Lacey Lady’s and I warmed up with Uncle Pete at my side. The others – including the old man – went ahead of us into the club. I found a quiet corner of the car park well away from the club and, shielded by a high-sided white transit, started doing press-ups and sit-ups on the tarmac. I didn’t want any of the opposition to spot me. Mind you, I don’t think any of them had even considered a proper pre-contest warm-up. As this wasn’t a real boxing match, I was wearing jeans, trainers and a tight white T-shirt. That way if the place got raided, the Old Bill couldn’t accuse anyone of running an illegal prize fight.
I carried on my own circuit of training behind that van until Pete whistled across and beckoned me to follow him. As we walked in, he nodded at the club doormen and a few of them gave me an up-and-downer. Inside, we walked through a long corridor towards the main bar area.
There was a slight hush amongst the punters as me and Pete walked into the main bar area. Pete gave the manager a nod. I turned round and spotted two gorgeous strippers doing their thing on a couple of small circular stages off in the corner of the main area. They looked a scrumptious sight to a sixteen-year-old kid.
‘Want a bevvy, Son?’ asked a voice.
I shook my head and carried on looking at those birds. I wouldn’t touch a drop of the hard stuff until I’d completed my mission, so to speak. And you gotta remember, I was still incredibly angry about how my boxing career had gone down the pan. Nothing was going to divert me from the job at hand.
A Duran Duran song was playing in the background and those girls were snaking their hips like Pan’s People. Lacey’s even had one of those shiny disco balls going round and round, hanging off the ceiling. The whole event looked and felt like a cross between
Saturday Night Fever.
Then Pete snapped me out of my ogling trance by tapping me on the shoulder to ask if I wanted an orange juice.
There were mirrors on virtually every wall and at least a dozen blokes were shadow boxing in time to the music. Then I spotted the ring itself across the bar-room area. It had four posts with canvas-floor decking and three layers of rope, but it definitely looked smaller than the average ring, which meant I’d have to be double quick at finishing off the opposition. I didn’t want to give them any time to recover. Pete told me they made it smaller to ensure there wasn’t too much chasing around the ring. The crowd wanted hand-to-hand action, none of that fancy footwork that I used to pride myself on.
There were three or four doormen types inside the ring, plus what looked like the club manager in a black suit and a dicky-bow. But for the moment I remained more interested in ogling the strippers – they were out of this world! One was blonde and the other brunette and they had tassels on their nipples, which they were somehow managing to swing around as they danced. I was mesmerized.
Behind me more and more blokes were pouring into the club.
I finally took my eyes off the strippers when a voice barked over the PA system, ‘If you want a fight put your name down now.’ I glanced across and saw a pad of paper sitting on the bar. Then me and Pete pushed through the crowd and got to it.
There was only one name ahead of me on the list. I was a bit disappointed because I wanted to take on a lot more than just one old drunk. ‘Come on. Sign this,’ said Uncle Pete. ‘There’ll be a bunch more later, once the booze has kicked in,’ he added, reading my mind as usual.
It was only then that it really hit me that I was about to get in that shabby-looking ring and have a pop at someone. A few minutes later I had another glance at the book and two more names had been added. ‘Told you,’ said Uncle Pete.
Then he nodded at me to follow him over towards the ring area. The atmosphere was really warming up. There was an expectant buzz in the air. And a lot of laughing and joking among the audience. I saw a few of them slapping huge wads of cash into the club manager’s palm. He had a leather bag under his arm and then pulled out a notebook and wrote down each bet. My Uncle Pete stopped and walked over to the manager and handed him a crisp new banknote. ‘Put a score on my boy Carl,’ he said.
As we continued across the room, Pete told me that two of the fighters had previously performed at the club and were fairly well known. ‘But that doesn’t mean they’re up to much,’ he said. I noticed the club manager was still writing down bets and then ripping slips of paper out of his notebook and giving them to punters.
‘Put yer money on him,’ said one voice as I walked past. ‘He looks a fuck sight tastier than the rest of them.’
I was as quiet as a mouse by this stage, leaving all the talking to Uncle Pete, who seemed to know just about everyone in Lacey Lady’s that day. Then my eyes panned the audience and the rest of the room to see if I could spot any of the other fighters.
Just then my dad appeared alongside us and pointed at a man in his early forties whose nose was seriously squashed to one side: ‘That’s one of them,’ he said. This character’s eyebrows were sunken in the way many old pros suffer once they reach middle age. I also couldn’t help noticing a big beer belly. But there was something about him that put me on edge and I hoped I didn’t get him first. Then my dad chipped in again and explained he was an ex-doorman who’d been a prize fighter for years.
‘But he’s pretty harmless, Son,’ he added before looking across at another younger bloke standing near to us. ‘Now that’s the fella you want to worry about,’ said my dad. This one looked tall and slim but so pissed out of his head, he was swaying in the wind. He certainly didn’t look like a bruiser. He was too clean cut. Maybe the old man was winding me up. Then he said, ‘He’s a gym instructor and he’s well sharp. Don’t be fooled by the state of him. He’s fast and fit, which is a lot more than can be said for most of these sad bastards.’ I wondered if the old man was including himself.
The third fighter pointed out to me was an unknown punter. Maybe he was the danger man, I thought to myself. Maybe this wasn’t going to be so easy after all.
A few minutes later, the first fight got under way. It was the old boy with the beer gut versus the mystery punter, a stocky, ex-squaddie-looking type. The ref was the same club manager who’d been taking all the bets. He barked out a few orders
and then leaned in towards the mystery punter waiting in his corner. ‘What’s your name, Son?’
I couldn’t hear the reply, but suddenly the ref pops his head up and screams: ‘Jim Phelan versus one of our best known regulars, Frank Page.’ By now they’ve got these huge gloves on. They look comical because the gloves are so much bigger than standard fight gloves. Bit like something out of Tom and Jerry.
The ref then screams at them: ‘Now remember, lads. No headbutting. No biting. No kicking. And lads, don’t take it too fuckin’ serious.’ He drops his hand and they’re off.
The rest of us had taken our places at dozens of tables and chairs spread out around the ring area. I was seated with Uncle Pete, my dad and a couple of their cronies, all of whom were doormen. They were shouting and screaming abuse at both fighters, accusing them of being a pair of right wankers.
I kept my mouth shut and studied every move really closely but the fight didn’t last long. The old boy with the beer gut might have been out of condition but he knew how to get himself into a right frenzy and he was sending in flurry after flurry of sharp, heavy punches. The other geezer had no way of handling it. He tried to hit back but didn’t even have the reach to connect any of his own punches, even though they were both a similar height. The old boy had a lot more weight on him, and his opponent had made the mistake of not taking him seriously. I learned a quick lesson watching them scrapping: never underestimate your opponent. Even if he looks like he’s wasted, be careful.