Glenn Charles reflects on his youth as an East End skinhead, becoming a keen boxer over the last 26 years and turning his lively experiences into a rock opera
Growing up in a Poplar tower block in the late ’60s was an intense experience. There was enormous pressure to be known as an alpha male growler, who would “look you in the eye and never back up” (God rest Mr Cash), and there was little respect for creativity and self-expression. ‘Having it’ if someone insulted you, was the only permitted public display of emotion. To be different was an open invite to being ridiculed and targeted; so I conformed, which demonstrates the power of environment. Had I grown up in a village in Suffolk, I may have sported long hair and sung folk songs. But living in the East End, my sole focus was to stay alert to potential conflict and fight when necessary.
The skinhead culture landed when I was a young teenager and proved an extremely convenient flag of convenience. The uniform looked hard; distinctive number one haircut with Doc Marten boots, Levi’s jeans and Ben Sherman shirts. I loved the look and had a safety blanket that certified I was a member. Because my horizons were so ludicrously limited – leave school at 14, dead-end job, Upton Park on a Saturday – being a skinhead gave me something that felt real. The City with all its wealth was less than two miles away, but I felt disconnected with the establishment in dark suits. We got satisfaction from knowing they may have had all the money, but they would never have the arsehole to front a skinhead out on the street, like a real man.
I began drinking heavily at the age of 14 and actually grew to enjoy brawling in pubs (an embarrassing admission). There is something very special about a pub fight. The world slows down, sounds diminish to a distant hum and the body doesn’t feel any pain. It really is a special feeling; men fighting just because they can. I remember getting glassed in the face during a Bethnal Green pub brawl. I was so drunk, I had no idea my Adam’s apple was gashed open and after the event I had no idea what the assailant looked like. Alcohol is so addictive, yet so horribly dangerous.
By the time I hit my late teens, the indoctrination was complete. Alpha-male status was my governing principle, even though I knew deep inside, this wasn’t really where I belonged. Things came to a head when I met a most lovely girl and during one of our first dates, we drove to Southend for a romantic walk up the pier. On the way back a double flash bastard cut me up on the carriageway, then veered in front and stopped. He was all shoulders and gob, a typical Essex wanker. He got out of his car and fronted me, causing the sober version of fighting to kick-in. Butterflies in the stomach, self-preservation and consequential thinking versus impending rage. The mistake he made, was to insult my bird who was sitting silently in the car, becoming more terrified by the second. I remember delivering the perfect head-butt, flattening his big flash fucking nose. A marvellous feeling. There was lots of blood on the bonnet of my white car and when we got back to London, my lovely date told me she couldn’t see me again, because she abhorred violence. Big turning point for me; a time to wake up and look in the mirror. The hardest place for any man to look.
The Doc Marten boots persisted as the hard-nosed skinhead fashions faded, but the values were written in stone. Political correctness reared its ridiculous head, so I learned to wear various masks in order to pay the bills. I became a London taxi driver and punched the cab round on the night shift. But I still needed to belong to a tribe and mix with like-minded men. I found the answer at the Fitzroy Lodge Boxing Club. I sparred tens of thousands of rounds over a 26-year period (and still ongoing), with hundreds of hard fighting men. I matured emotionally to accept that I love to fight, and more importantly, that I need to fight. It’s part of the fabric of my being, which I believe is completely normal and healthy. The difference being, both men in the boxing ring want to be there and adhere to the rules. It isn’t barbaric, it’s a beautiful art.
As a mature man I also embarked on a nine-year academic journey and completed a couple of degrees. The first was social sciences with politics and I nicked first class honours, the next was criminal justice and I achieved a 2:1. I qualified as a probation officer and now specialise in group-work, rehabilitating domestically abusive men, who have been ordered by the court, to attend 32 sessions with yours truly, each lasting two and a half hours. I believe I am good at my job, because the men see me as a mature family man, who has been round the block a few times and experienced the majority of his life, looking up from the bottom rung of the ladder. They know organically that I understand what life in the inner-city is all about. As opposed to looking down from a more elevated positon, like many professionals who embark on careers that set out to tell others how to lead their lives.
And just for the record, you know that nervous but lovely little bird I lost? She eventually forgave me. We have spent 40 fantastic years together and have been blessed with five gorgeous grandchildren. She still hates violence with a passion, but accepts my need to box. And I also recovered from the early years of supressed self-expression. I formed a band with some other boxers and have gone on to write songs and perform in public. I have even penned a rock opera, using life experience to create the characters, but that’s another story for another time!