One issue any autobiography faces is that it is about the messy subject that is real life. Narrative threads are not always neatly tied up and characters don’t always follow classic dramatic arcs. So it is with the story of ‘Gentleman Les’ Clayden, told in this often very entertaining autobiography.
Les was born in Mile End Hospital in 1951. He lived with his mum’s extended family in a rented house in Stepney. His mum was a machinist in the rag trade, his granddad was a ‘tally’ man on the docks, a one-time bare knuckle fighter whose wife and children were scared of him. Apparently he was always loving to his only grandson.
Les’ dad ran a fruit and veg stall in Whitechapel that had been in their family for three generations and Les remembers Ronnie Kray visiting it when he was a teenager as it was the only time he ever saw his father, an ex-soldier, looking frightened. His mum was ambitious for their little boy and wanted more for him.
He describes growing up as a child in a blighted post-war urban landscape which was nevertheless part of a close and protective community, playing on bomb sites and in derelict buildings (one of which another child set on fire) and going to the pictures once a week as a treat. He was bright but mischievous, with undiagnosed dyslexia, a loner who didn’t run around in a gang but deflected bullies with jokes and impressions.
Les chose to live with his grandparents when his parents were offered a new home in South London, studying at a secondary modern school in Stepney. He contracted rheumatic fever as a child and was told to avoid sports: however, he tried out a local Judo class and was hooked immediately. He got three O Levels, delighting his teachers.
He wanted to join the Army or police force but was let down by his poor eyesight. He got a job as a doorman for the Lyceum with his friends Dick and Barry and soon found himself working in some of the most exciting nightclubs of the time, dealing with local villains, celebrities and rock stars like David Bowie (as well as the occasional ghost).
The book gives some great glimpses of what it would have been like at some of these gigs – drugs, groupies and all. There’s also a hilarious account of him chaperoning various Miss Worlds. He moved from the Lyceum to the Café de Paris and the Hammersmith Palais among others, usually as Box Office Manager.
Les didn’t drink on the job and never took drugs: he had a second job working as a Special Constable for the Bow Police station after finding out that Special Constables could wear glasses. Being good at Judo helped him in dealing with criminals and earned him another nickname, ‘Buster’.
You get a sense that Les was unshockable although he did meet some very unsavoury characters such as the sinister Jimmy Saville. One gangster whom he threw out of a club threatened to shoot him but with typical East End charm Les managed to win him over. He married Danka, a Yugoslavian, in 1976 and moved on from nightclubs – it was now the punk era – to run the family fruit and vegetable stall after his dad died in 1977.
His life took an unexpected turn in mid-life when he found himself becoming a champion arm-wrestler. Teaming up with a promoter, he did a lot to raise the profile of the sport. He also set up a successful group of theatre schools, the British National Theatre Schools, while working as a salesman. An instinct for show-biz was clearly part of his DNA.
The story takes a sadder and more personal turn towards the end. Les fell in love with a young Polish woman, Olga, divorced his wife and married her, only to discover that she was an incurable alcoholic.
It’s a story about a lot of hard work and hard knocks as well as the fun and glamour of London nightlife. The title refers to his visit to the Cayman Island on a sales trip where he got a chance to swim with stingrays and the calmness and focus that they gave him helped him swing a deal. You will finish reading this entertaining book about a true East End character hoping that he will enjoy many more moments like this.
You can buy a copy of Swimming with Stingrays here
If you enjoyed this review you may like reading about Chris Kimberley, the Cheeky Cockney of Roman Road
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