Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Children of the Abyss: 'Fighting Frank'

One of my occasional (true) stories from my future book, set in the East End of London ...

I met Frank running his jellied eel store on the outer fringes of the East End of London. It was a cold night. Winter had dropped hard on the outer London/Essex borders. He was a cheerful soul, silver-haired and walnut-faced; small; full of easy recourse to cursing and cussing.

Frank had also led a fascinating life. One of 10 kids, he grew up poor, was bright but never had the chance to study. He became a boxing star as a teenager then drifted into the murky world of 'door work', policing clubs for the various villains operating in the late 1950s and 1960s, through to the early 1970s. He became part of a gang hi-jacking lorries, living in the East End during the Kray Twins period, serving jail time for one notorious heist, becoming pals with parts of the Kray family (Charlie Kray welcomed him out of prison), saw people shot, got stabbed himself, ran country clubs, and earned a reputation as a 'hard man', a-la Lenny McLean ('The Guv'nor').

Frank was also an unlicensed fighter. He took part in numerous violent contests for pay. One infamous bout took place on a barge on the Thames, as he battled an 'unbeatable' Australian fighter flown in specially for the event. There were Arabs all around as the men fought, betting on the event: he won.

"I've seen some terrible things, terrible Nick," he said in his guttural Cockney accent. "I've watched two grown men tear at each other, big blokes, villains, like they want to kill each other – biting, gouging – horrible. Then my friend just pulled out a gun and shot the guy, in front of me."

No angel himself, Frank has been on the run but his life turned around when he happened to be training in a famous London boxing gym. The American actor Mickey Rourke was there (filming A Prayer for the Dying) and asked to spar with him. Suitably impressed, Rourke's agent called Frank the next day and asked him to come to work for Mickey. That was the start of a close relationship between the two men which lasted for several years.

Frank became Mickey's minder, almost a mother and father-figure in certain ways, for the next five years. He saw the tantrums, the difficulties, the women whom Rourke had relationships (like Daryl Hannah), and watched as the actor threw away his talents. Frank was Mickey's closest friend in that time, but he finally quit after Rourke admitted giving £3 million to the IRA.

Frank shakes his head. "I took him down the Falls Road [Belfast] once, when he was making A Prayer for the Dying, and he shat himself. He had to leave after five minutes. He still got that bloody [IRA] tattoo though..."

Also a minder for other stars such as Frank Sinatra (having befriended Sinatra's bodyguard/minder, another famous US mafioso) and Yul Brynner, the money from his various activities afforded him enough to buy few properties in east London and Essex. But when I met him he was living very unostentatiously with his eel store, in a comfortable semi-detached house, with a rather nice-seeming wife whom others, uncharitably, suggested had once been known for her 'availability' with men over the years.

That was the last I saw of Frank, seven years ago – though I've since heard he met and ran off with a rich woman, and has set himself up with the life of Riley in Spain. And why not? It would make a fitting coda to a rather extraordinary life.

You can read more on Frank's story, and other extraordinary lives, in my future book on the East End of London.

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