A Good Fist

Harry 'Slap Happy' Hagan decided he had to give up trying to earn a living as a boxer and find a proper job. Miriam was expecting.

He enjoyed touring, setting up the fairground boxing booth with Solly and then peeping through the curtains to watch the crowd drawn by Solly's skills as barker. It was thrilling to make his entrance onto the narrow platform, centre stage, announced as the champion bantamweight, wearing his shiny black shorts, soft leather boots and open scarlet dressing gown, his monogrammed towel around his neck - arms raised, clutching a gloved fist in a show of victory. If business was slow, Solly would attract a crowd by introducing him as Harry 'Houdini' Hagan, tying ropes around Harry's wrists and ankles, then plunging him into a sack. Solly had taught him the tricks of the escapologist's trade.

On quiet days, they relied on plants in the crowd. Any local challengers were thrust forward, nervous and ambivalent, ensuring a weak challenge to Harry's expertise. The trick was then, in the early rounds, to make them seem more capable than they were, engendering a false confidence and a belief in Harry's fallibility. Invariably, the professional won and the prize money remained unclaimed. It was more show business than sport.

On the dirt track around the fairground sites, Solly had taught Harry to drive: firstly the steam lorry, then the Austin 7, which Harry drove through the town, festooned with placards and streamers, Solly's patter blaring out through a megaphone. The motorcar was a novelty to working people. By the Spring of 1933, times were hard. There was little work and the dull eyes of the grey-faced men and boys brightened at the prospect of a pugilistic spectacle.

Once inside the tent, Harry breathed in the pungent downtrodden grass, the canvas, the sweat and cigarette smoke.

He was going to miss the atmosphere, the cheers and boos as he entered the ring, the diversionary tactics, the quick-footed reactions and the exhilaration of landing an unexpected left hook.

He owed a lot to Solly; it would be painful telling the old man he was throwing in the towel.

And there were enough men seeking work already. Harry would have to drop the boxing pseudonym, for local folks would not take kindly to a rival they assumed to be Irish competing for a local job. Outside Watford labour exchange, he had witnessed riots against the Welsh. Now look what was happening in Germany to Jews. He would forget the family name, Demski, and use the English-sounding name his father had adopted on arrival here, Tanner.

Miriam had been patient; but since her pregnancy, she created a schlimazel about Harry being away from home. She showed less joy in the few pound and ten-shilling notes Harry handed her every so often, and in counting the pennies and threepenny bits punters had tossed into the ring at the end of the match. Saturday night was lucrative, but Mondays to Thursdays, the punters were few.

 

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