To my surprise the man laughed and said, ‘Don’t worry about that. I want to talk to you about something else.’ Cautious, but not sensing any danger, I followed him out to a fire exit. ‘Do you fancy working here, Lew?’ he asked.
‘Working here doing what?’ I replied.
‘As a bouncer,’ he said. ‘I have seen you fight more than once, unfortunately, and we could do with a handy guy like you here.’
A bit of extra cash was always welcome, so I said, ‘OK, I will give it a go.’
The bouncer stuck his hand out. ‘Welcome aboard, Lew. I will see you here tomorrow night at 8 p.m.’
I shook his hand and thanked him. ‘By the way,’ I said. ‘I take it I’m no longer barred, and as I am already in the club I won’t have to go back out to reception to pay?’
The bouncer looked at me and laughed. ‘Go on, Lew, fuck off inside and join your mates before I change my mind.’
The following night, dressed in my best black suit, I walked into the Plaza. It seemed odd that I was going to be paid for fighting in a club that had recently banned me for fighting. Taffy, a fellow bouncer who I correctly guessed was Welsh, took me to one side and asked me how I was feeling. ‘Bit nervous, I bet,’ he said. ‘I know it’s your first night. If it will make you feel better, you can borrow this.’
Taffy offered me a leather-bound cosh, but I told him I wouldn’t need it. ‘Thanks all the same,’ I said, ‘but I prefer to use my fists.’
Taffy laughed, patted me on the back, said, ‘You’ll learn, mate,’ and walked away. I was introduced to the other three doormen who were working that night and informed that the manager was expecting a full house. ‘That means there will be eight hundred and fifty of them, Lew, and only five of us,’ the head doorman said. ‘I know you have been in here as a customer, but working here is a different ball game. As a punter you don’t see half of what goes on. As a doorman you should only miss a quarter of the shit.’ He advised me that the reputation for trouble that the club had earned at that time was well deserved. ‘People only come in here for two reasons, Lew: they either want to fuck someone or fight someone.’ While still absorbing these prophetic words of wisdom, I was pointed in the direction of the main bar and dance floor.
‘Your mission,’ the head doorman said, ‘is to go mingle and ensure drunks don’t lay, sit, fornicate or fight in that area.’ I felt uncomfortable walking around sober in my best suit seeing drunken friends and enemies of my own age enjoying themselves. While pausing momentarily to take in the chaotic scene, I felt two arms wrap around my chest and hold me in a vice-like grip. Without hesitating I threw my head forward then smashed it back as hard as I could into the face of my attacker. I felt his hold on me loosen, so I turned, ready to unload a barrage of punches. Taffy was doubled over, holding his nose, trying to stem the flow of blood that was quickly turning his white shirt red. ‘You bastard, you bastard,’ he said as he sank to his knees. ‘I was only messing about, Lew. It was a fucking joke.’
‘Just as well I didn’t have that cosh, then,’ I replied laughing. Taffy never did see the funny side of his own joke, nor did he ever offer me advice on how to look after myself again.
Despite having an income from working on the door at the Plaza, I realised that I would have to find full-time work in order to make ends meet. Running a car, looking good and taking Jean out was certainly not cheap. Instead of pursuing a trade, as I had done in the past, I went to work as a labourer on a building site. It was hard graft, but to be honest I enjoyed the work and it kept me extremely fit. For the first time since leaving school I felt content with the way my life was going. I had a beautiful girlfriend, a car that was almost reliable, a day job and a part-time job at weekends. Money appeared to me as if it was in abundance, and I was happier than I had ever been. Nine months after meeting Jean she told me that she had something important to tell me but I had to promise not to get annoyed. My heart sank: she had found somebody else, was moving away or didn’t like me any more. Every possible dark scenario swarmed around my tortured mind. ‘I promise I won’t get annoyed,’ I lied. ‘Just tell me, Jean, tell me.’
‘I think I am pregnant, Lew,’ she said. ‘I think we are going to have a baby.’
I was overjoyed but also concerned about how our parents would react. ‘Are you sure?’ I asked her. ‘We can’t tell anyone until you know for definite.’
A week later Jean’s doctor confirmed what she already knew: she was having my baby. I offered to go and break the news to her parents, but Jean was adamant that it was best coming from her. Eventually we agreed that I would tell my parents and she would tell hers. My father took the view that what is done is done and we would just have to get on with it. My mother was unhappy. She told me that I had thrown my life away. I was, according to her, incapable of looking after myself, let alone a woman and child. Jean’s father hit the roof when she told him. He vowed never to let me in his home again. Her mother, on the other hand, accepted what had happened and said that she would do all that she could to help Jean, our baby and myself. When everybody had come to terms with the news, tempers mellowed and within a month Jean and I were living together at her parents’ home. Acceptance did not mean forgiveness: Jean’s father would make sarcastic comments about me and sit in silence if we found ourselves alone together in the same room. It didn’t bother me because I had never thought much of him or his opinions.
In those days unmarried mothers were a rarity, and unplanned pregnancies generally resulted in shotgun weddings. Before Jean and I had even been consulted, our mothers were making the arrangements. One evening after work Jean and I had to attend a meeting with a vicar at St Matthew’s church, where our wedding was to take place. Sitting in the vestry counting the seconds until it was time to leave, I listened to the vicar drone on and on about God, the sanctity of marriage and the importance of the vows Jean and I were going to make. ‘Of course, Lewis and Jean,’ he said, ‘before this marriage does take place, I expect to see you both here every Sunday.’
‘You won’t see me here every Sunday,’ I replied. ‘I am a busy man.’
‘I am afraid you don’t understand, Lewis,’ the vicar said. ‘You have to attend if you wish to get married in church.’
I told the vicar it was him that didn’t understand. ‘I am not coming here every Sunday, and if that means I can’t get married in your church, fine.’ With that I stormed out, with Jean following closely behind in tears.
When Jean’s mother heard what had happened, she went to speak to the vicar, and another appointment was made for the following week. ‘It’s a different vicar, Lew. Please just go and keep quiet,’ she pleaded. Reluctantly, for Jean, I complied.
Jean’s mother had obviously briefed the second vicar. The meeting was very brief and businesslike. ‘You will stand here, Lewis. Jean will enter through that door. You’ll say a few words, kiss your bride and be on your way,’ he said. Before I knew it, Jean and I were back in the car and heading for home; our big day had been arranged.
When the wedding did take place, I was pleased I had allowed myself to be talked into cooperating. Jean looked absolutely beautiful. After the ceremony we climbed into my old Ford Anglia and headed for our honeymoon destination. Somebody had used red lipstick to scrawl ‘Just Married’ all over the windows. Old boots and a dozen tin cans had been tied to the bumper. The noise as we trundled along the M6 was horrendous. One hour or fifty-five miles later we reached our destination: Blackpool Pleasure Beach. I know it is hardly Barbados or Hawaii but it was all we could afford at the time. We had not bothered to book a room in advance because we thought at least one of the countless guest houses would have a vacancy, but we were wrong. I drove around looking for a room until the rattle of the cans tied to the bumper tested my sanity. ‘Fuck this, Jean,’ I said. ‘We will have to sleep in the car.’ Moments later I found a parking space just off the Golden Mile and pulled in. It may not have been the ocean view Jean may have once dreamed of looking at from her honeymoon suite window, but it was certainly a view she was unlikely to forget.
The following morning a milk cart rattling past awoke us. I started the engine and resumed my search for somewhere to stay. Jean sat next to me in silence; her first night as Mrs Martindale had hardly been magical. The tin cans, which were still attached to the bumper, rattled along the street disturbing the early morning silence and destroying my concentration. After what I had endured, fortune just had to smile on me. The first guest house I found had a vacant double room, which we booked for a week. I was overjoyed. We had a roof over our heads, and a bed, but the icing on the cake was the fact the landlord was an ex-fighter who had adorned the walls of every room with photographs of boxing legends. Happy? I was in heaven.
When we returned from Blackpool, Jean’s mum greeted us with good news. A lady she knew had advertised a flat to rent in Thatto Heath, St Helens. Jean’s mother had been to see her, explained we were looking for our first home and she had agreed to rent it to us. Jean cried, she was so happy. I too was happy, mainly because I hated being under the same roof as her father. Over the next few weeks our mothers helped us to furnish and decorate the flat, which was above a chip shop in Grange Park Road. Shortly after moving in, Jean went into labour and was rushed to hospital. When I heard the news, I drove to the nearest public telephone box. ‘It’s a boy, Mr Martindale,’ the nurse said. ‘You have a son.’ I went home, got changed and rushed to the hospital. It’s hard to explain how I felt when I first set eyes on my son. It’s a unique experience that only people with children can appreciate. We named him Glynn, in recognition of my mother’s Welsh heritage. My future appeared to be mapped out. I had my menial steady job, a wife (who didn’t yet look tired), one snotty kid and a second-hand car. Jesus Christ, I thought, I’m turning into my old school headmaster.
I don’t know what possessed me to do it – visions of leapfrogging my headmaster’s success, perhaps – but I exchanged my reliable Ford Anglia for a Ford Zodiac Executive with a Scouser who had ‘don’t trust me’ written all over him. The vehicle looked the part, but halfway home the oil light came on. I pulled into a garage and topped the engine up, but a few miles further down the road the light came on again. After topping the engine up a second time, I managed to get the vehicle home despite a glowing engine that threatened to melt the bonnet. Parked outside the chip shop, the car looked the business. Mr and Mrs Martindale, the neighbours must have thought, were doing very well for themselves. We were in fact doing far from well. The truth was the car was a heap of scrap and the wedding, honeymoon, flat and birth of our son had left us in debt – so much so that I couldn’t afford to tax the car, so I ‘acquired’ somebody else’s tax disc and altered the details on it. A few days later a policeman pulled me over for a routine check and spotted the tax disc had been tampered with. I was arrested, taken to the local police station and interviewed. I told the police that I had no idea who had stolen the tax disc and altered it. ‘I only purchased the vehicle three days ago, and the tax disc was on it,’ I lied. I was released on bail, while the police made further enquiries. When I returned to the station a week later, I was told that there would be no further action against me.
‘That Scouser had plenty of previous convictions for this,’ the policeman told me. ‘We searched his garage and found lots of false paperwork. I’m sorry for troubling you.’ I had to laugh to myself. I had taken the tax disc from a car in a scrapyard, but I didn’t feel guilty about the Scouser getting nicked for it because he had told me the Zodiac was in good condition when he must have known it was a mechanical wreck.
I read in the local paper that a man named Johnny Sullivan was appealing for top amateur fighters to join him at a gym in Preston and turn professional. I knew all about Johnny. He had started his remarkable boxing career in his father’s ‘Battling Sullivan’s Boxing Booth’, with which he travelled nationwide fighting all comers. After brawling in the booths, Johnny had turned professional at 16 and soon earned a reputation for being a very stylish, exciting, heavy-handed puncher with the ability to analyse his opponents’ style very quickly. Every one of his ninety-seven professional fights was a crowd-pleaser. After knocking out an opponent named Ronnie Grogan in the second round of a bout, Johnny was awarded the prestigious
‘Fighter of Merit’ award. He then went to America and topped the bill at Madison Square Garden against top opponents Gordon Wallace, Mike Gillo, Rory Calhoun and Joey Giambra. On his return to Britain Johnny knocked out Gordon Hazel in the first round to win the British middleweight and Commonwealth (British Empire) middleweight titles aged just 22. But a controversial decision later saw him lose these titles to Pat McAteer. He returned to have six more bouts in America, then became a light heavyweight in Britain, where he finished his career against Tonga’s Johnny Halifihi and Trinidad’s Yolande Pompey.
The opportunity to have such a seasoned fighter as Johnny as my manager was too good to miss. I telephoned the gym, and Johnny invited me over to assess my ability. I don’t know what came over me, but even before meeting Johnny I told Jean that we were moving to Preston. ‘Are you mad, Lew?’ she asked. ‘We have a home here. You have a job. In Preston we have nothing.’
‘And we will end up with nothing if we stay here,’ I replied. ‘I want to do something for us. I want you and Glynn to be proud of me. I want to be a champion fighter.’
Jean looked at me as if I had finally gone mad. ‘Unfortunately you’re the boss, Lew,’ she said, shaking her head, ‘so if that’s what you really, really want, we will go.’
I didn’t know it at the time, but leaving St Helens, where Jean and I had been so happy, was going to prove to be one of the biggest mistakes of my life.
When I arrived at the gym for my assessment, I was told that I would have to spar with three separate opponents. ‘Each of these fighters has a different technique,’ Johnny said. ‘I want to see how you defend against different attacks and how you attack different defences.’