Sweating with Granny, Kendo and Giant Haystacks: Books

Harry Pearson is still in the grip of a passion for grappling
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The Independent Culture
The Wrestling by Simon Garfield, Faber, pounds 9.99

When I was ten my greatest treat was to be taken to the wrestling at Middlesbrough Town Hall. I would sit in the dress circle between my grandmother and her friend, Millie Whiting, gazing down at the ring and the Breughelian carnage that surrounded it. Girls yelled, old ladies shook their fists; toffees, coins, spit and lighted cigarettes flew; every once in a while some middle-aged woman emboldened with drink and incensed by repeated illegal shenanigans would leap onto the ring apron and whack Brian "Goldbelt" Maxine or another such villain with her handbag. It was wild, sweaty, vulgar and massively entertaining. And like everything else I seemed to enjoy - cherryade, sherbet flying saucers, DC comics - my parents fretted that it would have a corrosive effect on my well-being.

They needn't have worried. My passion for grappling wore itself out. My grandmother stopped going to the wrestling at Middlesbrough Town Hall. Soon after she was banned even from watching it on television. The official explanation was that it was bad for her heart. Years later my mother would reveal the real reason: granny had taken to yelling so loudly and obscenely whenever Mick McManus appeared on the screen the woman next door had phoned the police.

A tidal wave of such memories will doubtless engulf Britain in the next few months thanks to Simon Garfield's wonderfully evocative book. The index of The Wrestling alone is likely to result in the cumulative loss of hundreds of manpower hours, as readers run their fingers down it muttering "Logan, Steve! Ah, yes, Came from Bermondsey. Black hair. Protruding eyebrows. Put you in mind of a caveman" and recall noisy nights in theatres, holiday camps and drill halls from Sidmouth to Aberfeldy.

The joy to be had from The Wrestling is not merely nostalgic, however. It is a brilliant piece of work which manages the considerable feat of being hilariously funny without slyness or mockery; poignant without resort to sentimentality. It also obliquely reveals a considerable amount more of the true and eccentric nature of Britishness than any number of literary novels or sociological texts.

Using interviews with wrestlers, promoters and fans, with only the occasional, though often telling, authorial intervention, Garfield tells the story of all-in wrestling from its beginnings in Edwardian London, through its heyday in the Sixties and Seventies, to its current pathetic state, where desperate gimmicks such as "The Power 'Restlin' Rangers" are gradually hunted down and eliminated by the forces of corporate copyright enforcement. The latter not being a tag team, unfortunately.

The Wrestling perfectly captures a fantastical world where erotica and mundanity body-check one another. Former wrestler, Brian Glover, recalls how he began his career as Erik Tanberg, the blond bomber despite the apparent handicap of being born in Barnsley. We learn that Billy Torontos wanted to imitate the bullock-carrying feats of Ancient Greek wrestler Milo of Croton, but, not being able to lay hands on a bullock, used a sheep instead. There is a whole chapter devoted to the mysterious masked grappler, Kendo Nagasaki.

I saw the cunningly named Nagasaki (Karate Hiroshima doesn't have the same air of menace to it, Judo Bikini-Atoll is way too poncey-sounding) wrestle at the Town Hall early in his career. I was deeply impressed with his entrance in black cape and helmet, brandishing a samurai sword. "He's a Japanese warrior," I told my grandad excitedly when I got back. My grandad had been an amateur boxer and regarded the wrestling in much the same way an aficionado of Wagnerian opera might the music of James Last. "Japanese warrior!" he snorted, "I bet he runs a pie-stall on Stockton Market". The Wrestling provides proof that my grandad was right. In substance if not in fact. When artist, Peter Blake observes that Kendo had a finger missing, "In Japan it's the sign of a cult, the equivalent of the Mafia". Promoter Max Crabtree responds: "The Mafia? Kendo used to be an apprentice at Jennings, the horse box makers in Crewe. That's where he got his finger severed".

I could go on and on (and believe me I already have to friends and relations) but I wouldn't want to spoil your fun. Read The Wrestling. If you don't enjoy it I'll pull Giant Haystack's beard and call Les Kellet a girlie.