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MOST OF his working life, my old man ran a fruit and veg stall in Walthamstow market. And for many years, the pitch next to his was occupied by a leather goods stall owned and run by the late, great Wally Jeavons.

Wally was as wide as he was tall, and one of the last of the old-style fighting men. His idea of a "straightener" would be to take his jacket off and trade head punches with his opponent while standing toe to toe on a handkerchief. In his younger days, Wally used to punch people for a living either in the old fairground boxing booths or on the illegal bare-knuckle fight circuit. The pinnacle of his fighting career was beating the celebrated gypsy champion Jimmy Frankham after a gory 36-round bout in an underground car-park in Slough, in front of a titled, celebrity- studded crowd.

By the time I was old enough to help on Dad's fruit and veg stall, and so get to meet Wally, he had retired from the ring and was a little punch- drunk. But he could still throw a housebrick in the air and punch it to pieces on the way down, which he would do sometimes to attract customers when business was slow. He had the biggest hands I ever saw. When I heard that he kept them hard by urinating on them, it struck me that adults were even more of an unfathomable mystery than I had previously supposed.

In spite of his proven fighting skill, Wally was far too nice to make a successful businessman. Generally, people used to see him as a soft touch and borrow money from him, with little intention of paying it back. His generosity towards children was legendary. I must have been about seven years old when he astonished me by stuffing the first ten pound note I'd ever owned down the front of my jumper. And the next day he astonished me even more by sheepishly asking if he could borrow it back, as he'd "done his bollocks" at cards the previous evening.

It was perhaps inevitable that Wally eventually took to armed robbery in order to pay off his debts. In a liberal democracy such as ours, it is the only real job left for the self-respecting man of action down on his luck. Unfortunately, Wal went about it all the wrong way. At first, instead of playing to his strengths and simply punching his way in and out of banks and building societies, he would wait patiently in line with everyone else then quietly pass the assistant a note.

His first place he tried to rob was a NatWest in Holborn. The note he passed under the counter said: "Sorry luv. This is a robery. Keep quit. God luv you. I ned cash. And it over." When the woman finally deciphered his terrible scrawl and the poor spelling, she told him he was standing at the information desk, and that she had no immediate access to cash. Wally was so embarrassed by his mistake that he went home with his tail between his legs.

Next time out, he set his sights lower. He went into three shops in Ilford High Street. He'd taken the precaution of having his note proof-read by my old man, who had left school when he was 11. This new, improved note said: "I've got a gun in me bin. And over the cash or I'll shoot it off." At the first shop, a chemist's, the girl behind the counter refused to accept the note because she thought Wally was making an obscene suggestion. At the second, a camping shop, the man shook his head and said sorry, he couldn't read English. And at the third, a office equipment centre, an elderly assistant said she couldn't read the note without her glasses. At this, Wally lost his temper and whipped out his gun. Brandishing it wildly at a typewriter which he thought was a till - he screamed at her to "Open it up"!

Another time, the story goes that he stood in the middle of a bank, pulled a sawn-off shotgun out of his waistband, fired it in the air, and his trousers fell down. He was given the cash - they were probably laughing too much to do otherwise - but as he fled from the bank, his hold-all burst at the seams, scattering money everywhere, his mask fell off, and he was run over by a delivery van.

They buried Wally last week. Sid went. He told me afterwards he hadn't laughed so much in ages.