Punch Me Like You Mean It (Sir)

Last Weds –  I attend a Victorian boxing event at the Bethnal Green Working Men’s Club. I’m there as the guest of Heather M, aka Crimson Skye. She and her fellow burlesque performer Diva Hollywood are there  to strut around the ring in naughty ensembles, holding up cards to announce the next round. This means they have to sit right at the side of the boxing ring for quick access, and as H’s guest I get to sit with them. So I have an actual ringside seat.

The audience, hosts and live acts are all decked out in Victorian costume: lots of refugees from Dickens adaptations in bowlers, top hats, braces, ladies in big music hall frilly dresses with those miniature hats on the side of their heads. Men in impressively groomed moustaches both real (specially grown?) and stuck on. There’s an escapologist in chains who also does a spot of bullet catching, and Whitechapel sing-a-longs with song sheets (‘Roll Out The Barrel’, ‘Down By The Old Bull & Bush’ and so on). A pianist plays versions of the ‘Rocky’ theme in a tinkly, vamping music hall style.

I don’t know anyone in the audience, but by the looks and sounds of things it’s a curious mix. Some are middle or even upper class, out for a dressed up jolly wheeze (it’s a charity event – there’s £100 tickets in a VIP area). The lady at the table next to me has a cut glass Celia Johnson accent. She tells me she’d never have managed to get into her vintage corset if if weren’t for her ‘assistant’. Others are East End locals with a sense of heritage, always ready with historical facts about this Spitalfields building or that Bethnal Green pub. There’s even a few pensioners, who know all the words to the music hall singalongs, of course, and who join in sincerely rather through any prism of kitsch.

I’m reminded of Louis Armstrong’s version of ‘Cabaret’: a singer from the 1930s, recording a 1960s pastiche of a 1930s style. Likewise Sinatra’s ‘New York New York’ – a late 70s pastiche of a Sinatra-type 40s style. How levels of pastiche can be cancelled out when reflected through their own subject.

Another aspect of this Victorian dress-up evening where levels of knowingness can have no place is the actual boxing. Although the combatants are volunteers, many of whom have no boxing experience whatsoever, they’ve been given a small amount of professional training. Each man has to wear those very non-Victorian modern helmets to protect his head, and arrives with two proper boxing coaches at his side, wearing very 2008 gym tracksuits. Meanwhile the referee – who slightly resembles Ralph Fiennes, much to Ms H’s delight – meets the occasion halfway in a plain white dinner shirt and black suit trousers. As the evening goes on, his shirt becomes flecked with blood.

There’s five bouts during the evening, all of which are incredibly exciting on a very visceral and non-ironic level, particularly from my close-up view. I make myself useful by judging the best moment for my burlesque lady friends to enter the ring and hold up their ‘Round 2’ placards. ‘Not yet – wait for them to sit down… I’ll hand you your placard when you’re in… Take your time – the guy with the bell isn’t going to start the next round till you’re off…At least, I think so…’

And I always love the things people in the audience shout on these occasions, often thinking of a phrase which sounds good, then just repeating it:

‘Go for a body shot! Go for a body shot! Oh…. great body shot! He really knows his body shots.’

Or better still:

‘Hit him!’

At half time, plates of pie and mash are served by hostesses in Moulin Rouge grab. So the night has something of a unique aroma: blood, sweat and pies.

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