Redemption: A Street Fighter's Path to Peace
"A hasty temper can be provoked by insults. Then recklessness leads to destruction."
–Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Being born the fifth child into a working-class family of six children guaranteed I had a fight on my hands from the very beginning. That my siblings and I grew to be productive members of society suggests that my childhood, although often chaotic, served me well. Dublin, Ireland, was not the attractive city in 1955 that it is today, so my birth on the fourteenth of May that year, in the upstairs front bedroom at 88 Kylemore Drive, rekindled thoughts in my father's head of returning to England. And in 1958, when I was three years old, the family moved to Manchester in the heart of England's industrial northwest.
Settling the family in a new country was not easy for my parents. Although my father had secured work before leaving Ireland, his income provided barely enough to keep the family housed and fed. I was much too young to understand what was happening around me, but my parents had a struggle on their hands that would continue long after our life in England settled down.
By today's standards, I grew up in abject poverty, but I never grew up unhappy or under the threat of abuse. My home was a safe place. I have never lived a day of my life without the knowledge that I am loved: I'm not sure how many people can say the same.
Yes, my childhood situation was impoverished, but there was no sense of that in mind at the time: everyone I knew lived as we did. My parents were imbued with the natural quick wit of the Irish and the blarney flowed through our home like the soundtrack of a movie; when neighbors gathered together the 'craic' (fun, entertainment, enjoyable conversation) was something fierce. My siblings and I grew up in a harsh world for sure, but it was an existence protected by a doting mother and a loving father.
Street School of Violence
As a schoolboy, I was rarely involved in fighting past being a witness, but this changed soon after leaving school at the age of fifteen. That's when my pugilistic activities began and grew rapidly, becoming a major part of who I was, or at least, who I saw myself as at the time. Over the months following my departure from the world of formal education, I enrolled in a different kind of school: the classroom was the street and the lessons were provided by exchanging 'ideas' with my fellow pupils. I happily attended class as often as I could, becoming involved in violent altercations with those who sought to inflict their will over mine.
During my first year attending fight-school, I initiated few, if any, of the conflicts that came my way, but a teenager's life in a city like Manchester has always had its problems. In the summer of 1969, the skinhead cult found its way from America to England, and all over the country, young working class men and women were embracing it with fervour. Unlike their American counterparts, however, British skinheads had little to do with Adolf Hitler or a love of the Nazi Party. Skinheads in England were racists, for sure, but the attraction of the cult in the UK had more to do with music, fashion, and fighting, rather than establishing a new world order.
The year after I left school, in 1970, I was ready to become a skinhead. It didn't happen straightaway, as the look wasn't thought well of by prospective employers and the media were doing their best to blame everything from school truancy to the state of the national debt on the out-of-control youth who were now terrorizing the country. The idea, as far as I understood the role of a skinhead, was to look as tough and menacing as possible; so to this end I bleached Levi denim jeans, wore high-laced Doc Martin boots, and had my head completely shaved. Though such a look would cause hardly a glance these days, back in the early 1970s it was enough to make people cross the street to avoid me. Of course, looking tough didn't necessarily mean that you were, and so for most skinheads it was important to belong to a gang. From a gang you could gather the courage to front up to almost anybody or anything.
An older brother of mine was associated with leading members of the Hulme Team (gang,) and this in turn gave me a certain amount of standing on the street by virtue of the family connection. Fortunately for me, I learnt I could fight and fight well. These engagements often served as an invitation to others to try their luck, and like moths to a flame, they did just that. Frequently resembling a scene from a Wild West movie where two gunslingers would step outside to settle their differences, I'd be called out to fight in front of an expectant crowd who stood just far enough back to dodge the blood, but close enough to witness the gore.
Strange as it might seem, I began to enjoy these fights and the adulation that followed them when I emerged victorious; had I lost as often as I triumphed I may well have held a different point of view. Still, I was now averaging two fights a week, almost always on a Friday or Saturday night. Fuelled by alcohol—yes, I was an underage drinker too—and a simmering anger, I began to look for conflict with people from the very crowd I'd been fascinated by: skinheads. A veteran of conflict on the streets and only seventeen years old, I let my hair grow again and stopped listening to reggae, the music skinheads had claimed as their own. Even that irony was not lost on me: a racist group of white people had adopted the black music of the Caribbean! Almost every weekend saw me fighting in dance clubs, pubs, at soccer games or in the street as I made my way from one drinking establishment to another. It wasn't difficult to find a fight in Manchester's Piccadilly bus station in the 1970s, or in the park that once stood alongside it.
Inevitably, my anti-social ways led to problems with my parents, and of course, the police. A trail of particularly nasty clashes led to a number of arrests throughout the latter months of 1972 and into the following year, but the arrests only added to my already growing reputation as someone to be wary of. On Friday, May 11, 1973, I found myself standing in the dock in the Manchester Crown court. As I sat on the bench waiting for the judge to enter, I knew I was facing the very real prospect of a custodial sentence. Up to then I had managed to avoid time behind bars due in part to my age and the gullibility of a judicial system that looked upon out-of- control adolescents like me as lost souls in need of nurturing, instead of the selfish, uncaring, and malicious individuals we truly were. My parents who, with all the love they could muster for their wayward son, had paid all my previous fines while clinging to the remote hope I would start behaving myself, had, in reality, enabled my bad conduct. It is with no small amount of shame that I look back on the love of my parents and their deeply felt fear for my future well-being, and how that love was met with sullen indifference on my part. At the time, I simply didn't comprehend the additional pressure I was placing on the two people who loved me the most. It was an attitude I grew out of in the years that followed, but I have never truly forgiven myself for the trouble I brought to their door and the shame I put them through.
The incident bringing me before a judge on this occasion had its origin in my dealings with three young men that I now stood accused of beating so badly they all required hospitalization. In the weeks and months prior to our meeting, they, along with others in their gang, had taken it upon themselves to regularly and systematically beat the retarded brother of an old school friend. Not content with giving their victim a regular kicking, on one occasion they decided to add to his humiliation by stealing his belongings and leaving him stripped to his underwear in the middle of the street. When I heard this story, I was outraged, and as fate would have it, the paths of three of the gang members involved crossed mine later that very same night.
The judge said it was a case of "misplaced loyalty" toward my friend and his brother, adding that the world would descend into chaos if individuals took it upon themselves to settle matters in this way. He continued, "The charges you are facing, and of which you have been found guilty, have to be dealt with harshly. Grievous bodily harm, actual bodily harm, and assault and battery are serious assaults against the person, and while I understand what motivated you in this instance, your record before the court leads me to believe a significant custodial sentence is necessary." The judge went on to say that he hoped the two-year prison term he was about to impose would give me time to ponder my life to date, as well as the destructive direction it was headed.
I can look back now with a sense of gratitude for the 'time out' the judge provided. It allowed me to take a long, hard look at myself and to conclude that I had indeed been wasting my life for quite some time. Sitting in the holding cell below the court, I looked around at the others in the room: misfits, all of them. I knew right there and then that I'd made a major mistake. Time slowed to a standstill that day. It was difficult to collect my thoughts and get my head around what had just happened: I was going to prison! Sitting handcuffed in a prison van, as it made its way through evening traffic to one of Britain's harshest jails, brought my life into sharp focus; just two days before my eighteenth birthday I was on my way to Strangeways Prison. Renamed these days, Her Majesty's Prison Manchester, it had always enjoyed a fearsome reputation. Opened in the summer of 1868 to hold a thousand prisoners, Strangeways Prison remains to this day a notable landmark on the Manchester skyline. Nicknamed 'psychopath central' it was, just nine years before my arrival there, the site of Britain's last execution, that of John Walby (aka Gwynne Evens), who was hung for the murder of John West, on August 13, 1964.
The Victorian prison, with its haunted-house gothic architecture, did little to put my mind at ease. Even now, over forty years later, I can still call to mind the sound of the gates crashing closed behind me and can connect to the feeling of sickness in the pit of my stomach. The uncertainty of what the next two years might bring my way was overwhelming. It's interesting to note that Strangeways Prison has the highest number of suicides of any correctional institution in Britain; having come of age behind its walls, I am not at all surprised by this statistic.
The above is an abbreviated version of Chapter One in the book, Redemption: A Street Fighter's Path to Peace by Michael Clarke.