For a few short months in 1951 Randy Turpin was perhaps the most famous sportsman in Britain. He had defeated the seemingly invincible Sugar Ray Robinson at Earls Court to become World Middleweight Champion and an unlikely national hero. In the rematch Robinson was badly cut and was within a round of being pulled out of the fight but he rallied and stopped Turpin to win the title back. Turpin would never regain it and so began a long, slow and grimly inevitable decline that ended with the bankrupt Leamington fighter’s suicide above a transport cafe in his home town in 1966. Turpin always claimed that he had never seen a lot of the money he was supposed to have earned and that hangers-on and opportunists had taken advantage of him. “I never shook a hand that didn’t cost me money” he is supposed to have said.
Now Outsideleft favourite Kirk Lake has written a short story focusing on the final hours of the boxer that is being published by record label turned book publisher Rough Trade Books in their new “Editions” line. Rather than look at Turpin’s ring exploits Lake gets into the troubled mind of a man on the brink who had had it all and watched it slip through his fingers and get picked from his pocket. It’s an extraordinary piece of boxing writing that contains very little boxing at all.
OL: The first question is I guess, there are a plethora of interesting boxing stories to be told, what made you pick Randy Turpin.
KL: As you know, I’m from Leamington Spa. And the Randolph Turpin story is almost local folklore. My grandfather had known Turpin in the 1940s from spending time at Leamington Boys Club and I remember him coming home one day with the Jack Birtley biography The Tragedy of Randolph Turpin. That would have been 1975. It’s the only time I saw my grandfather reading anything that wasn’t a western. The idea that somebody from my town had been famous enough to have a book written about them and that my grandfather had met him was incredibly exciting to the nine year old me. And so my grandfather told me this story and it’s always been with me and I’ve always planned to do something with it. I’ve written about boxing before. One of the albums that I recorded during my short career as an unpopular musician in the 1990s was themed around boxing. There’s a boxer as one of the central characters in The World We Knew film I co-wrote which should be out later in the year. But it took me a long time to work out exactly how I wanted to approach the Randolph Turpin story.
OL: What is it that attracts writers to boxing? And do you have any favourites?
KL: I was recently reading an essay about Norman Mailer and the writer said the reason that Mailer was so drawn to writing about boxing was that it allowed him to avoid the three main weaknesses of his writing which were identified as plot, female characters and dialogue. Now I don’t know about the last two but there is something in the first. Many fighters are just a fraction of a second away from tragedy throughout their whole career. They’re balancing on a very thin line between success and failure, the repercussions of just a fractional loss of concentration in the ring can be catastrophic. Careers can be defined or destroyed in an instant. It is dangerous and it is dramatic. Added to that far too many fighters have been, and still are, manipulated and exploited outside the ring and are ultimately left with nothing. Turpin is a great example and that’s alluded to in my story. So this is a world of hope and despair populated by incredible characters. There are a lot of really terrible books about boxing but in comparison with writing on other sports there are probably a higher percentage of good ones. My favourite boxing novel is Leonard Gardner’s Fat City. In non-fiction there are quite a few; Joyce Carol Oates’ On Boxing is good as is Nick Tosches’ Sonny Liston book. Donald McRae is consistently good and his most recent book about Emile Griffith is superb.
OL: I loved the story, the interior, so interior, sort of. If you stepped into their world you'd wanna get out but wouldn't then leave without getting something. Could you see yourself developing this as a play, or anything else, a festival circuit movie? I don't know if this means anything but the pace is so tight, the pauses so very real. I was immersed and transported all at once and I didn't always like how I felt?
KL: I have no wish to write a traditional Turpin biopic but I think in this story I’ve identified a way into the character that would allow me to develop something really interesting. We’ll see. I had actually originally thought that this might be a play and I have pages of notes going back years which were for a play version but once I started on it properly it just naturally turned itself into a prose work.
OL: Purely from your fictionalized account of this, and I know you've said it's like Camus' idea of fiction being the lie through which we tell the truth, are there legal or moral concerns when writing a story about a deceased boxer, with a very alive legend and surviving relatives?
KL: What I wanted to do was to unravel some of the Turpin myths and get away from the idea that this was just a tragedy and that Turpin should be be somehow seen as a pitiful character. I wanted to try to get inside his head. Here was a man who had seen and done so much, who was an incredibly talented boxer and who had reached the peak of his profession and then seen it slip away into nothing. But he was also a family man and no matter how diminished his circumstances he was trying to do the best for his wife and children. Now obviously given the circumstances of his death some would question that but you also have to factor in that he was clearly suffering from mental health issues. One thing I was determined to do was to treat him with dignity and not just write yet another story about a tragic boxer. In terms of legal or moral concerns… well Turpin’s children are still alive. I’d hope that they find the story sympathetic to their father and also, maybe, he’s a little more recognisable as a real human being than he has been in the somewhat perfunctory biographies that have appeared before.
OL: Other characters pop up in the story. Are these real people?
KL: Almost every character is either real or has a parallel to a real character. Most of the incidents are based on real events. The setting itself, the cafe, is real. There are a few old photographs of it around and I spoke to my uncle about it who remembers going there.
OL: It took Leamington and Warwick an age to honor Randolph Turpin, eventually with a statue outside the old Woolworths building in Warwick Town Square - can you talk about that? Why that might've been?
KL: I think if you consider the circumstances of his death and some of the scandals that have attached themselves to his story the local council may have been reluctant to celebrate him. But, as I said earlier, it’s clear he was suffering from some mental health issues which would mitigate his actions at the end. I am generous enough to not think it was an issue of race. When they did eventually come around to the idea of a memorial I believe, in the usual local council way, they took years trying to decide where it could go. What’s interesting, and important, is that one of the plaques on the statue pays tribute to Turpin’s father who was originally from Guyana and was invalided out of World War I to a local hospital and eventually married the nurse that had cared for him. So the Turpin’s were the first mixed race couple in Leamington. And remember Randolph’s elder brother Dick was the first black fighter to be allowed to fight for a British title.
OL: Did you ever get into the ring yourself?
KL: Oh no. I remember when I was really young my grandfather bringing home these huge brown horsehair gloves which probably dated from the 1950s so he could teach me how to box. I don’t know if it’s a particularly working class Irish thing but of course there was the front room that was kept “for best” and nobody would ever really go in it but we’d be allowed in there and we’d arrange some chairs into a tiny ring and he’d basically show me how to throw a punch, how to feint, combinations and all that… And then he’d have me and my cousins skipping in the yard and a heavy bag hung up in the shed. But I was useless really. I think my mother and my nan were glad of that. And I’m sure once my grandfather saw how uncoordinated I was any idea of proudly taking me down to train at the Boys Club was quickly forgotten.
OL:The short story is out with Rough Trade Books. What's the deal with that, there's a dozen different stories or pamphlets or whatever by various writers in this particular series. Have you read any of the others and how do we get hold of them?
KL: So Rough Trade have started a publishing line. This story is one of twelve small books in the first batch of their “Editions” series. There’s poetry from Salena Godden, a short story by Joe Dunthorne. There’s photobooks by Lorena Lohr and by Jon Savage. A book of drawings by Ana da Silva of The Raincoats… and lots more. It’s a great line, they’re all different and they’re all really interesting. And they’re beautifully designed. Right now you can buy them directly from www.roughtradebooks.com but pretty soon they’ll be in bookshops, record shops, galleries etc. You should start with mine and then collect them all.
Kirk alongside other Rough Trade Editions authors, Selena Godden, James Endeacott and David Keenan will appear at the Rough Trade Books Showcase, part of the Kenilworth Arts Festival on September 22nd, 2018.
Rough Trade Books Showcase
Priory Theatre, Kenilworth
September 22nd, 5pm
Price: £10 (£8 concessions)