He was whippet thin; a stylish, handsome dog with a line on his face for every year of his life – Mick Carney was a perennial. Rain or shine; frozen or thawed; week, month and year after year he was himself. A whole, lived, lifetime of a being and mostly for the benefit of others.
Only a London “Face” like Mick, who’d been reared on Jimmy Cagney movies, could roll their shoulders just right and get away with it. Inside wrist on the belt; the suggested hitching up of trouser; the forward rotating shrug. This, the companion of a pedigreed insult, impeccably-timed and floated on a voice, deep and silky from years of dedicated and unrepentant smoking. (He wasn’t a quitter) “Bollocks, fuck off”: Jab – right cross. “Get yer fallen arches out the ring you useless cunt”, “It’s fucking madness”, he’d say during the Saturday morning spar, all comers welcome, when the weekend crowd swapped partners, round after round, in a haphazard barn dance of a dust up.
A ragtag congregation of cabbies (numerous), clerks, ex-marines, trainee coppers, local villains, local “faces”, apprentice toolmakers, plumbers, electricians, city boys, layabouts, (even, God forbid, a couple of actors), fitness fanatics, fatsos (some of us fell into two or more of these categories), retired pros and future prospects, estate agents (vicious), chartered accountants (extremely vicious), a journalist (dunno who let him in), a photographer and just about anyone who came through the door and had the stomach for it or couldn’t think of an excuse quick enough.
I don’t remember ever punching a judge but had one ever come through the door, he would probably have perished in the stampede. All of us bashing each other up in the temple; all united in the wish to prevail, to hit and not get hit; followers of a sport rarely beautiful but when beautiful, sublimely so.
The sport of poets, romantics, butchers and plough boys; of footwork, angles and sublimated thuggery. The clash of style and temperament, will and discipline; conducted within an etiquette of the utmost good manners. “Just enjoy yourself” said the bad boy (XL) as he held the rope for me and then broke my rib with his first hook.
Big Glen presides over this weekend extravaganza. A giant of a south paw, straight up and down in the old East German style, he hangs his pole of a right arm swaying out in front of him like the engorged, bell-ended phallus of a rutting Satyr, and if you can’t get under it to give him a wallop you’d need to hop on the circle line to get around it.
Now, that head of his is a large and inviting target and, by the look of it, someone, somewhere must’ve given it a right drubbing, but good luck to you if you fancy a pop. Heavy‐footed, fearless and with prodigious stamina, his appetite for fisticuffs is without limit and his hospitality in the ring warm and indiscriminate.
The soundtrack at the Lodge was always jazz (Mick’s choice). Cool, classic jazz: Stan Getz, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane. Jazz and the dull, rhythmic, arrhythmic, contrapuntal percussion of leather-on-leather; of gloves on heavy bags and speed balls and bodies and heads: thwappety-thwap; babbedy, babbedy, babbedy; thunk-thunk-thunk; thunk-thunk; THUNK. And the whipping and whirring of ropes, thrashing and tip-tapping on the shiny hardwood floor; grunts, shs and s’s expelled through the whistling apertures of gumshields and the regular, shrill interruption of round-timers.
This was the soundtrack of Mick’s workplace where pain was dealt and suffered within the strange, cellular interdependence of the partnerships that formed and dissolved day-in, day‐out; week, month and year after year. (Even those dishing it out suffer).
All of this – every detail absorbed – passed through the calm, studious, occasionally exasperated eyes of Mick Carney. Eyes that had seen it all before but were willing to see it again and again and again. Through his eyes, through him and into the nerves and fibres of the Lodge itself. “Get yer left up Dopey”. As it is with all great men, to be noticed by them is a privilege.
Sometimes, after a hard spar, if you’d taken a hiding, he’d put his arm around your waist and, as he steered you toward the changing room he’d ask quietly, “you alright?” And every now and then – “you done well. That’s enough.” Then into the changing room he’d come with mug after mug of tea for the boys, if you’d worked hard enough. Stories and slagging and mellow good-humour.
You could have as much trouble as you wanted in the ring (or thought you wanted till you got it after, which you tended to wish you could have a little bit less). Outside of it though was old fashioned courtesy, low voices and learning.
No one growls. No one throws shapes at the Lodge. They don’t need to. It’d be daft. You’d more likely get laughed off the premises than flattened. And whilst you slurped that beautiful tea and slumped in scooped-out satisfaction, Mick might be cleaning out the urinals as he joined in the slagging. (To a lad in the shower hung like a donkey, “can I borrow that for the weekend?”)
Come what may, when the day was over, off his jacket would come and he’d mop the floor. Off with this day’s sweat and ready for the next. No showmanship. The inscape of such a gesture is humble but the heart of the man and the hand swirling the mop were house proud. It needed to be done so he did it.
There were plenty who would have happily done it in his place but it was Mick’s gym, his floor: you did your work, he did his. There are gyms where no one mops the floor and others where it’s mopped, as a menial task, by someone for whom the floor has no meaning. But the Fitzroy Lodge is a treasure and that shining floor is a lovely thing in itself.
Then, before you go, drop your pound coins on the little table (he knew who couldn’t afford the subs and they never had to pay). “See you later Mick” and round the corner, mob-handed, for an omelette and chips and a Mars bar. Put back the grease you just melted off, and every punch could be remembered and written into song.
I wish I’d known him as a youngster. I wish he’d saved me from the schoolyard bully-boys and from myself and all manner of temptation and skullduggery, as he did, generation after generation, for numberless others: the great fraternity of broken noses that graduated from the Fitzroy Lodge Amateur Boxing Club.
Gov (deceased) Mick Carney MBE.
Images: Laurence Ellis