During the interval Mr Keeley bought me a dodgy-looking meat pie and a drink. When he handed me the pie, I told him I couldn’t possibly eat it, as it was smothered in gelatine and didn’t smell too healthy. Mr Keeley laughed, ‘If you want to get fit and be the best, son,’ he said, ‘you will have to eat these pies every day.’ I looked down at the lump of saturated fat, thought about what had just been said and sunk my teeth into the foul-tasting concoction. It made me feel sick, but if it was going to help me, as Mr Keeley claimed, then I was more than happy to eat the muck.
A short while after getting to know Mr Keeley, he set up a boxing ring in his back garden, and on Saturday afternoons kids would travel from all over the area to fight. Mr Keeley supplied the gloves and refereed the bouts. Crowds of local people would gather at his garden fence to watch. Mr Keeley did not make any money out of staging these fights, because no money ever changed hands. He organised everything, and we competed because we all loved boxing. I can recall one particularly mouthy kid who lived near me. He fancied himself as a good fighter and told everybody that he was going to make me look stupid if I ever got into the ring with him. The following week he was at Mr Keeley’s, so I jumped into the ring and offered to fight him in front of everybody. After all of his boasting and bragging to his friends he could hardly refuse my challenge. Within moments of him entering the ring I was pounding his head and body. As he lifted his head to try to regain his composure, I hit him as hard as I could in the forehead (or straight down the middle, as I call it). He went down instantly and was so badly concussed that Mr Keeley and his friends had to carry him home. Mr Keeley continued to stage these fights for a couple of years, but complaints from the parents of damaged and defeated combatants forced him to stop.
I remained at the Britannia Boxing Club for approximately five years. During that time I had become a super-fit, powerful and courageous fighter. My Achilles heel was my temper. However hard I concentrated or trained, I could never control it. In the ring it got me disqualified; out of the ring it got me into trouble. ‘If’ and ‘only’ became the most commonly used words in my vocabulary.
For at least 200 years fairground boxing booths were the seedbed for many of this country’s greatest fighters. There was a time when each county had three or four fairground booths travelling the circuit, with boxers fighting for championships at both regional and national level. Booth boxing has been set aside by some historians as being sleazy and immoral, somehow responsible for bringing the sport into disrepute. But booth fighters were all good professionals, strong and healthy enough to fight in all kinds of conditions.
Freddie Mills, Randolph Turpin, Rinty Monaghan, Jimmy Wilde and Benny Lynch were all world champions. All had learned their trade in the booths and were proud of it. I loved going to watch booth fighting at Sutton Oak fairground. Licensed fighting was sterile and all about discipline. Unlicensed fighting did maintain a degree of discipline, but rules could be broken and the perpetrator would not always be penalised. I think that’s why the more competitive unlicensed fighting world appealed to me. I could not only box, but I could bend and break the rules without having to face punishment. I told my parents that I wanted to leave home to travel and work on the fighting booths, but they would not allow it because a friend of Uncle Bob’s had done so and ended up permanently punch-drunk. Still a teenager, I had little choice but to accept their decision – but I wouldn’t always be a teenager. The fight game had become my life and, one way or another, I was determined to earn a living using my fists.
The day I left school was, without doubt, one of the happiest days of my life. I can remember standing in the main hall with all of the other children who were leaving that day. An air of excited expectancy filled the room. The headmaster clambered onto the stage, cleared his throat with a series of grunts and called for silence. For the next ten minutes we were forced to listen to him drone on about just how successful he had become. Gazing through the window at his rusting second-hand motor on the staff car park did make me wonder if he was being entirely truthful. ‘You’re all going out into the big wide world,’ he said. ‘It won’t be easy; I know that. When I was your age, I didn’t think I would make it, but look at me now. Who knows, in twenty years, one of you could be standing here doing my job.’ The thought of standing in his cheap plastic shoes filled me with dread. There was no way I was going to be wearing a tacky navy-blue bri-nylon suit like his and teaching brats like me for a living in the future. Surely there was more to success than having a menial steady job, a tired-looking wife, two snotty kids and a second-hand car? I did crave success, but I wanted to achieve my success in the boxing ring. I wanted to defeat all challengers. I wanted to become the British champion, no, the undisputed world heavyweight champion. OK, it was only a dream, but surely my dream was better than aspiring to become my fucking headmaster?
Before I had even walked out of the school gates for the last time, I had managed to secure employment. After hearing about a vacancy for an apprentice mechanic at Crows Nest garage in Clock Face, Bold Heath, I had telephoned Mr Critchley, the proprietor. Initially Mr Critchley cast doubt on my suitability for the post, as Bold Heath was a small village located two or three miles from central St Helens, with little or at best infrequent public transport servicing it. ‘I wouldn’t get the bus even if there was one,’ I told him. ‘I’m a boxer. I’m in training. I cycle everywhere.’
‘I take it you don’t smoke and don’t drink then, lad?’ he asked.
When I told Mr Critchley that I did neither, he offered me the job straight away. He obviously thought I was a good, honest, clean-living lad – a very rare specimen on Merseyside.
Billy Redfern was the head mechanic, and it was his task to assist Mr Critchley in teaching me the tricks of the trade. Billy was a decent guy who would spend time with me explaining how things worked and how to fix them when they didn’t. I felt that Mr Critchley, on the other hand, treated me like his underpaid overworked personal servant. The only thing we seemed to have in common was the fact we disliked each other immensely. Any menial mind-numbing thankless job that Mr Critchley had to undertake was handed down to me with a grunt and a snigger. Not once did he attempt to teach me anything about the mechanics of a car. It would be clean this car out, Martindale, sweep that mess up, Martindale, or make me a cup of tea now, Martindale. Only God above knows how I managed to restrain myself. God also knows that Mr Critchley would never have drunk his tea if he had known what I used to top it up with. The walk to the toilet was always too much of an effort for me.
In fairness to Mr Critchley he did organise, via some local government scheme, to have me sent to night school, where I was to be taught the finer points of my trade. The downside of this was that my tuition clashed with my training nights at the Britannia Boxing Club. My training should have taken priority, but I was a teenager who wanted to wear the latest fashions, be seen in the right places and have cash to splash. Reluctantly I quit the Britannia Boxing Club and trained alone at home in the garden when I had the time – which, to be honest, wasn’t all that often. The dream was temporarily put on hold.
In my defence I have to say that this was no ordinary era for a teenager to be growing up in. Had it been any other decade, I may have reached a different decision, but this was the dawning of the swinging ’60s. Liverpool, a short trip down the East Lancs road from St Helens, was reverberating to the sound of the music that was to become known around the world as the Mersey Beat. Local bands such as The Fourmost, The Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Merseybeats, The Mo-Jos, The Swinging Blue Jeans, Billy J. Kramer and the Dakotas, Billy Fury and, of course, the four lads who went on to shake the world, The Beatles, were all teetering on the brink of global success. As well as the exciting music scene Merseyside was revelling in the fact that it was dominating English football. In the 1962–63 season Everton FC were league champions. The following season Liverpool FC claimed the title. In 1964–65 Liverpool won the FA Cup for the first time, and in 1965–1966 they won the league title. Everton lifted the FA Cup in the same season. In the world of boxing local lad Alan Rudkin was crowned both British bantamweight champion and British Empire bantamweight champion in 1965.
Merseyside was alive, brimming with confidence and well-deserved pride. And I was determined to savour every possible moment of it. My friends and I would catch the train from St Helens to Liverpool Lime Street station, then walk the short distance to the famous Cavern Club in Mathew Street, where The Beatles regularly played. The first time we made the journey to watch them perform, we arrived an hour before the doors were due to open, but the queue was so long there was absolutely no chance of us getting in. The following week we arrived two hours early, but the queue was twice as long. The more popular The Beatles became, the larger the crowds became and the longer the queue grew. Eventually, after striking up a friendship of sorts with the bouncers, we got in to see them play on four occasions. Those nights I shall never forget; the atmosphere was unbelievable. I knew I was witnessing the birth of legends.
The Beatles were not the only ones giving off sparks around Liverpool at that time. My night-school teacher was constantly giving me grief – not about my work, but about petty meaningless things such as the way I was sitting, the way I leaned on my desk or the way I spoke. Snide remarks descended into open hostility. We began to argue until one day matters came to a head.
My father owned a Mark IV (SS) Jaguar, which needed a new needle for the carburettor. There happened to be one lying around in the workshop at college, so I took it home for him. I honestly didn’t think anybody would be bothered about it. However, one of my fellow pupils saw me take it and informed the teacher. Relishing an opportunity to punish me, the teacher ranted about getting me thrown out of college, before ordering me to report to his office at home time. To be honest, by the time he had finished shouting I knew my college days were over, so I couldn’t have cared less about his threats. I did care about the boy who had grassed me up, though. I grabbed hold of him as soon as I saw him and gave him a good hiding. As he lay on the floor moaning, I poured a can of brake fluid and a tub of Vim scouring powder all over him. The teacher appeared just as I was tipping the last of the Vim over his informant’s head. ‘Martindale! Martindale! Get in my office, boy!’ he screamed.
I shouted back, ‘Boy? Boy? Who are you fucking calling boy?’
The teacher put his hand out to grab me, and I hit him with a right hook that dropped him to his knees. All of the other pupils were laughing and cheering. The college principal was summoned, but all he did was lecture me about respect and manners. I’d had enough of advice, so I chased him down the corridor. Running with his eyes flickering madly as he looked over his shoulder in fear, the principal managed to lock himself in his office before calling the police. The teacher I had assaulted refused to press charges. He told the officers that he was afraid to do so in case I sought revenge. However, he made it plain that he no longer wanted me in his class or anywhere else on the premises. Mr Critchley was far from happy when he heard the news. He droned on for hours about the unique opportunity I may have thrown away. Eventually, after much hand-wringing, he agreed to keep me on until he had looked into the matter.
I knew I was on borrowed time, so my interest in the job waned dramatically. One of my daily tasks was to go to Mr Critchley’s taxi office in Shaw Street, St Helens, and clean any vehicles he had hired out for weddings or other special occasions. At lunchtimes I would be left alone on the premises, so I began driving the cars around the yard at speed, showering the buildings and other vehicles with small stones as I swerved, skidded and attempted handbrake turns. As well as the fleet of taxis Mr Critchley kept his pride and joy at this yard. It was an American Chrysler 300F in pristine condition. I truly did not mean to do it, but one afternoon, while reversing a taxi into the garage at speed, I misjudged the stopping distance and slammed into the back of Mr Critchley’s car. When he saw the crumpled rear end of his beloved vehicle, he jumped up, jumped down, clutched his chest and then sat on an old bench mumbling and cursing. To put it mildly, Mr Critchley was distraught. When he finally stopped gasping for air and got to his feet, he escorted me to the yard gate, pointed the way to St Helens and told me never to set foot on his property again.
It wasn’t long before I found another job. A man named Tommy Hankins took me on as an apprentice mechanic at his garage on King Street in St Helens. Tommy had lost his right hand in an accident and had made a crude steel hook which he wore in its place. Tommy drove an old MG sports car, and in order to manoeuvre it he had bolted a circular socket to the steering wheel. Tommy would unclip his hook when he wished to drive and replace it with another attachment, which had a steel ball bearing welded onto the end. The ball bearing was designed to clip into the round socket on the steering wheel, so in effect the wheel became an extension of Tommy’s arm. To this day I will never know how he managed to drive around St Helens at speed like he did. The lads in the garage used to call him Captain Hook. In a bygone age he probably would have been a pirate. He certainly was unorthodox, if not slightly mad. He would dangle the kettle from his hook and shout through an unnecessarily loud PA system that he wanted tea. In fact the whole PA system, loud or not, was unnecessary, as his voice didn’t actually need amplifying at all. The office was so small and positioned so close to the mechanics’ pits that we would have been able to hear Tommy if he was whispering. The PA system was also used to ‘encourage’ the labour force to work harder. Like some deranged tin-pot dictator Tommy would stand in his office, microphone in hand, bellowing abuse, or encouragement, as he preferred to call it, at anybody within sight.