4

Dangerous – why I wrote the sequel to Rope Burns

The birth of Dangerous

I was never close to my father. In fact, to call our relationship ambivalent would be like suggesting that Tom and Jerry had the occasional spat. Indeed, if one single act sums up our relationship it is probably his refusal to see or speak on the phone to me as he lay in bed at home in the months before he died of Motor Neuron Disease. Others may have been able to offer an opinion as to why he didn’t want to see me at the end of his life; but I believe that he and I both knew the reason. It undoubtedly had something to do with his lack of confidence in my ability to keep quiet about a family secret that I’m sure he would have preferred to take to his grave with him.

He died in 2014 and even though I’d only seen him a handful of times in the preceding decades I did my fair share of crying. I didn’t expect to but I did. Initially it was a song entitled Call Me A Rainbow by a relatively obscure Brighton-based band called The Mummers that would set me off. Every time I played this song, which was a lot, I just couldn’t stop the tears from coming. It got to the point where even thinking about it was enough to make the waterworks begin. Eventually I had to just keep away from the song.

I didn’t know why I was crying. I still don’t. Even though it’s no great revelation that the death of a parent is supposed to be an unhappy event I was seriously surprised that it hit me this way. I was even more taken aback when the frequency of my tears began to escalate. Being home alone a lot because of what I do for a living I found that scarcely a day went by when I did not break down. Sometimes I cried on my own, two, three, four times’ a day. Sometimes I would cry in front of family members, sometimes in front of friends.

Being a big hairy bloke, this behavior began to trouble me. Eventually, some six or seven months after his death I went to the doctor. He told me I was probably suffering from depression and immediately put me on something called Citalopram, a commonly prescribed anti-depressant. Unusually for me I actually began ingesting these little white pills without researching their side effects or questioning my GP’s decision. I guess I was desperate.

Amazingly Citalopram made a difference. I no longer felt like crying. In fact, I no longer felt like anything: I couldn’t be happy and I couldn’t be sad. I was just stuck in the middle: a zombie-like hinterland with senses dulled and blunted. Unfortunately, there were also other effects: my arms and legs would periodically tremor to a degree in which I thought I was displaying the early signs of Parkinson’s. I could also no longer have sex. It just wasn’t working for me down there.

So I stopped the pills and paid another visit to the doctor. This time he suggested I see a therapist.

Being a big hairy bloke, the idea of therapy made me uncomfortable; in my mind it seemed like something that other people did. I also saw it as a sign of weakness, which I’m aware makes no logical sense. But I went.

My therapist turned out to be Chinese with, shall we say, not the most fluent grasp of the English language. This meant that speaking to her was a painfully slow exercise. The meaning of every other word had to be explained and she simply refused to laugh at any of my jokes. It was a frustrating experience. However, in the middle of it all something unexpected happened.

One day for no apparent reason I started talking to my Chinese therapist about boxing. More than two decades ago I was a boxing writer for a number of magazines and newspapers. I even edited a boxing trade magazine. I was in my mid-twenties and it was a very exciting time for me. However, I gave it all up, I explained to my therapist, when a friend of mine, the boxer Michael Watson, was almost fatally injured during a world title fight. Before I withdrew from the sport for good, however, I wrote a book entitled ‘Rope Burns’ which sought to explain why I was never going to write about boxing again.

For almost 25 years I had almost nothing to do with boxing. All of the many contacts I had made in the sport, some of them good friends, were forgotten about. I gave up reading about the sport and I gave up watching it. My experience with boxing was, I thought, very much consigned to my past.

However, not long after my father died I had read about the death of Boxing Monthly editor Glyn Leach at only 54. Glyn was only a couple of years older than me and we had worked together on the magazine that he ended up editing for over two decades. Out of respect I had attended his funeral and bumped into dozens of faces from my past, some ex-boxers, some boxing writers whom I had known years earlier. It was a bittersweet experience for someone who was still raw and disturbed by the death of his father. In the pub afterwards, however, people were coming up to me that I had never met and shaking my hand. They seemed to know me even though I didn’t know them. Some of them told me that they were writers and had read and admired ‘Rope Burns’ in their younger days. Needless to say this was good for the ego. Whatever the case I felt a lot of love directed towards me that night.

Perhaps in retrospect that was why I had brought up the subject of boxing with my therapist. And perhaps that’s why in the weeks that followed my conversation with her I began to take her suggestion that I consider writing about boxing again a little more seriously.

And so I began making contact with people whom I used to know in the boxing world a quarter of a century earlier. I had no idea why I was doing this and I hadn’t a clue where it would take me. All I knew is that I felt an urge inside me to talk. To talk to someone. And it ended up being boxers whom I offloaded on to.

My interviews, if you can call them that, we unconventional to say the least. Most of the time I ended up talking about myself, which must have struck my subjects as being a little peculiar. However, their kindness and patience shone through. Before long I began to understand what it was that had attracted me to the world of boxing in the first place. Almost to a man, these so-called hard men of the ring proved themselves to be sensitive, generous human beings. Somehow they seemed to understand and sympathize with what I was going through.

Then in February after meeting up with a handful of names such as transgender boxing manager Kellie Maloney, former world champions Steve Collins and Colin McMillan, my progress hit a rather substantial bump in the road when my daughter fell gravely ill. I ended up abandoning my little writing project and spending the majority of my time at her bedside as she fought to overcome a hole in her lung and pneumonia. She was in hospital for almost three weeks but just as she was discharged fate played a rather unexpected card.

Literally the day after she left hospital I discovered that the ex-boxer Herol Graham was in the ward next to her, also gravely ill. And for a reason that it took me a long time to work out I ended up spending a lot of time at his bedside. There seemed to me to be an element of fate at play: back in 1991 I had not been there for Michael Watson as he lay gravely ill in hospital. Now, here was I attending to the needs of a boxer from my past who had mysteriously dropped in to my lap.

The period I spent with Herol I would almost describe as life transforming. As he got better so did I. And as I got better it seemed to me as if a dam had burst. For eight months I ended up meeting people from my past and sharing incredibly emotional experiences with them. Tears were shed and laughter was enjoyed with these so-called hard men of the ring. Due to these experiences I also ended up confronting my mother about that secret I shared with my father that I mentioned earlier.

The result of this is ‘Dangerous’, my unlikely sequel to ‘Rope Burns’, due out on 15 September 2016.

I could say a lot about the book but truth be told I’m not sure of its value. I’m hoping that I’ve managed to come up with something emotionally moving, important even. However, a part of me suspects that what I might actually have created is something that takes self-indulgence to a whole new level.

I’d rather leave it to Andrew Fairley, another writer and the only person except myself to have read the book in its entirety. This is what he emailed to me the day after he started it:

Christ, Ian.

You don’t hold back do you? I’ve rarely come across a text that comes straight from the heart as this. You may disagree but I think it’s truly brilliant mate, and I’m not just saying that.

Some of the prose is beautiful – ‘a world where black men fought and white men thought’ – and what you’ve written grabs you by the throat and won’t let go. It has that rare quality of staying in your mind even though you’ve stopped reading.

I’m on page 80 (thanks for that, I’ve barely done a stroke at work!!) and will finish it tonight or tomorrow morning and let you know what I think once I’ve finished.

It’s remarkable. I think you’ve written another classic and if this doesn’t win awards, I don’t know what will.

Blimey mate. Many thanks for the privilege of reading this — you can rely on me for publicity. Average writers like me come along every day of the week , but you really do have a very special talent indeed.

Andrew  

Of course, it’s always nice to get a good review. But I’m sure that others will not be quite so positive. I’m already stealing myself for this statistical certainty.

11

Glyn Leach – farewell to a boxing stalwart

In the last few years so many people I know have died that I seem to be in a constant state of shock. Friends, colleagues and family: they’ve all been dropping like flies. Heart attacks, cancer, Motor Neurone Disease – fate, it seems, has no trouble in coming up with different ways of killing us all. And none of them are pleasant.

This week yet another friend of mine died. His name was Glyn Leach. He was only fifty-four-years-of-age and best known to the world of boxing as the long-standing editor of Boxing Monthly. I hadn’t actually seen him in person since 22 November 1990. I remember that date because it was the day that Margaret Thatcher resigned from government. It was also the day that I was sacked as editor of the magazine’s sister publication Boxing Weekly.

But what I’m about to write is not about me. It’s about Glyn, and Bola, and Jon, and Anna, and my father. And other people who shall remain nameless. People who have in some way touched me, been important to me. And Glyn was one of them.

Let me take you back to 1989. The dark, dusty, internet free days of 1989. It’s seems impossible to me that I’m talking about a quarter of a century ago. Not because it really does seem like yesterday but because I can still smell and taste that decade on my fingers and toes. I’d just walked out on a job as boxing reporter for the Sunday Sport and been invited to come and work for the company that published Boxing Monthly. Although the magazine was still in its first year the publishers were full of confidence and ambition. They were in the process of launching a weekly edition. They wanted me to edit it.

The operation was run from a suite of rooms above a newsagents in Notting Hill. Glamorous it was not. The place smelled of piss. The one solitary toilet was a health hazard, as was the owner of the company who operated a revolving door policy. Staff were in and out of the building on a daily basis. New faces replaced old with alarming regularity. It was sometimes difficult to remember the names of the people you were supposed to be working with.

Masterminding the chaos was Edward Crawshaw, a charming ex-public school rogue who was an accountant turned art dealer. At his side was Barry Hugman, a boxing statistician and editor of the British Boxing Yearbook (who one ex-Boxing Monthly editor – now Eurosport commentator – once cruelly observed ‘put the chin in Hitching’).

I turned up on my first morning in the job to find that I was the only one there. There were no other staff members. It transpired that there had been an argument a day earlier and all the staff had walked out. To better things, I might add. Eventually Crawshaw and Hugman appeared and brought with them some new staff members. There was Chris, a university graduate from up north, and Lee, a recent school leaver (who still happens to be one of the funniest people I have ever met). Neither of them had any experience of running a weekly paper. Neither of them had ever had a solitary word published – not even in the school magazine let alone the national press. And I was only a child myself – not yet twenty-five. It was clear that difficult times were ahead for us all.

A couple of weeks later Glyn joined the cast. From what I remember he had been regularly corresponding with Barry Hugman in the hope of getting a start in boxing journalism. Hugman had apparently invited him to his house and given him a subbing test, which Glyn had passed. What sealed the deal was Glyn’s offer to work for free.

I don’t much recall Glyn’s entrance: Boxing Weekly was only days away from launch and we were all too busy to welcome a new arrival with any pomp and ceremony. Glyn just rolled up his sleeves and helped out where he could. Even then it was clear that Glyn was a grafter. He was prepared to live in the Boxing Weekly offices if that’s what it took. And he frequently did.

I may be wrong but I think that I had the privilege of editing the very first piece that Glyn offered to Boxing Weekly. If I recall correctly it was about Frank Bruno. It was a little rough around the edges but Glyn quickly and quietly improved, becoming an accomplished writer and commentator on boxing.

I spent a year at Boxing Weekly and it was most definitely the hardest year of my life. Unless you have ever been in this situation it is difficult to understand just how tough it is to run a weekly paper. It really is like being on a treadmill. After the euphoria and relief of completing the paper in the early hours of a Saturday morning it was back to the grindstone: the planning meeting on Monday morning, the allocation of tasks to staff members and freelancers, the continual worry that the pages might not be filled, that photographs might not turn up. The constant threat of legal action from managers, promoters and boxers.

And when the day’s work was over, more work. This time spent attending the fights that would be reported in next week’s issue. Attending them to such a degree that I personally began to resent the sport of boxing for the demands it was placing upon me. The scrambling to achieve deadlines, the constant worry.

What made things harder for Boxing Weekly was the paucity of funds that were provided for the editorial team. We really did live from hand to mouth. On too many occasions contributors and suppliers would not be paid and instead of working on the paper I would find myself engaged in lengthy telephone conversations attempting to placate creditors. Even worse, staff members would often not be paid, myself included. It was the ultimate slap in the face for all the work that we had been putting in.

Of course there were laughs. Sometimes episodes of manic laughter when all of us would get drunk and offload the strain that we had been going through. Our habit of calling everyone ‘matey’ for no apparent reason. The time Lee called up Paul McCartney in the middle of the night and swore at him. The time all the computers were removed from the office by men in crash helmets as we worked. The time a drunken Kirkland Laing crashed the offices knocking over everything in his way.

Yes, there were laughs. But those laughs were mainly overshadowed by the constant grind. Grind like nothing else on earth.

The reason I talk about all this is because Glyn experienced this grind for over a quarter of a century. I lasted a year before I was burned out but Glyn, being the grafter that he was, carried on and carried on. And carried on.

He carried on when he arrived into work one morning to find all the computers gone and along with them all the staff. He carried on when the magazine went bust, obtaining a bank loan and purchasing half of the magazine outright. He carried on when the internet arrived and everyone in the world was suddenly a published writer. He carried on when paper was superseded by pixels. He just carried on. And for the succeeding generations of boxers and boxing fans it was as if he had always been there and would be forever.

A few years ago Glyn and I got back in touch. We became FB friends and began exchanging messages and emails. We planned to meet up and have a few beers. But it never happened. In one of our very last FB exchanges Glyn told me that he was arranging a lunch with another former Boxing Monthly editor, the kind and knowledgable George Zeleny. But now that, too, will never happen.

Now twenty years older, Glyn and I had other things in common. I was on the verge of having a hip replacement and he had just had one himself. I wanted his advice. Earlier this year Glyn surprised me by telling me that he had suffered a seizure, in which he had collapsed but made a full recovery. Except for the fact that he found it difficult to concentrate when he was working. In retrospect, alarm bells should have been ringing then and perhaps they were. In the March issue of Boxing Monthly Glyn confessed at length to feeling the strain of that continual grind in an editorial that was completely out of character for him.

The outpouring of grief and sadness on Twitter and on the many boxing sites that now proliferate has been genuinely moving for me and those who knew Glyn. And this is my own way of saying goodbye, of tipping my hat to someone who always commanded respect. You made a difference, Glyn, and although you’d no doubt be laughing at the the sentimentality of that last statement, an awful lot of people are already missing you far too much.

Ian Probert 2014