Knocking Out My Demons

By Paul Huggins
Published by Verite CM, 2021, paperback, £7.95 rrp.
Available at Bookbuster, 39 Queens Road.

Review by Tim Barton

Paul is Hastings born and bred, and pretty close to me in age. His stories of misspent youth, getting up to all sorts in Coghurst Woods, Ore Valley and environs are ones many will be able to relate to. My childhood was spent less daringly, in Pound Lane woods and thereabouts in Benfleet, Essex but is similar enough to be relatable for me too. This childhood ‘idyll’ soon enough has its wheels come off and Paul begins to accrue a large police file, including stints at ‘Borstal’ (though not the original one in Rochester).

Thus begins a life of crime. In Bookbuster ‘true crime’ is one of the best-selling genres and enthusiasts will find much to ‘enjoy’ in Paul’s capers. He certainly gets heavily involved in drug trafficking here in Hastings and abroad. One of the most popular sub-genres of ‘true crime’ is Thai drug arrests and incarceration. Paul’s trip to Thailand certainly has its moments but thankfully is not so full on an experience as the ‘best’ of these memoirs, at least not in his telling.

We have, throughout, to assume a few lacunas and discretions but all in all Knocking Out My Demons comes across as pretty honest and straightforward, as is his conversational and vernacular prose style. If he had lodged the book with a mainstream publisher, numerous common turns of phrase would have been ‘repaired’, but if so, to the book’s detriment, because Paul’s ‘voice’ comes through best with minimal filters on it. The self-published nature of the book may limit sales but allows Paul to control the profits made, which is useful, as proceeds will go to supporting the Missionary S.E.E.D., of which more later.

I found it an enjoyable read and one that ticks a number of ‘popular autobiography’ boxes. Not only as it a ‘true crime’ element, and ‘local colour’, it also fits into another especially popular genre at Bookbuster, books on boxing. From Ali’s The Greatest (ghost-written by Alex Haley) and Mailer’s The Fight through autobiographies of Sugar Ray Robinson, McGuigan and Eubanks, to books on London’s bare-knuckle fighters and so-called ‘journeymen’, there is a vast literature on boxing legends. And there is Budd Schulberg’s Waterfront, filmed by Elia Kazan as On the Waterfront with Brando: and it’s most famous line, ‘I coulda been a contender’.

For Brando’s character, Terry Mallory, his failure comes from throwing a fight for a corrupt union boss. Paul’s failure is due to his own demons. He presents himself as ‘Jekyll & Hyde’, and sees this dual personality as his curse. ‘Mr Destroyer’ maliciously steps in and undermines his better angels over and over again. As a real contender for British Champion Boxer, he met, and in some cases fought, many of the great celebrities of 1970s & 80s Britain, from Henry Cooper to McGuigan to the Eubanks’s. His success in this area of his tumultuous life saw him live with some fame, with his fights regularly covered in The Observer and on BBC’s Grandstand. But ‘Mr Destroyer’ steps in and trips him up here, as in so many other areas of his life.

Paul has taken as a life-lesson the biblical verse ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’, and sees the failure of adults around him in his youth, from his step-father to the local police to Lewes magistrates, to punish him appropriately for his crimes and misdemeanours as a root cause of his later failures. This is not merely passing the buck, as he expresses shame at his activities in what is now his ‘former life’ throughout the book. He is also quite honest about the ease with which he may still slip up now and again. His wife, he tells us, often ticks him off for being boastful and sometimes, even whilst seeing he was wrong, he relates some of his escapades with obvious relish. The book is a frank and honest account written with a degree of self-awareness.

The later chapters relate a series of revelatory experiences, most powerfully in a prison cell, and before that, in court, when a judge gives him a very light sentence for possession of an illegal firearm: ironically, as on previous occasions Paul would cast this leniency as a mistake that could only backfire but this time it is a positive. Why? Because he is convinced that he has the protection of a higher power, a conviction (excuse the pun) based on his interpretation of a number of previous ‘near misses’ and brushes with death. This has led Paul to see ‘Mr Destroyer’ as not only a part of himself but as the work of, literally, the Devil.

I am, as many will know, so hard an agnostic I am in effect an atheist: for the record, this is true of the much demonised Richard Dawkins too. But I do not doubt that Paul is not being disingenuous here. He has experienced what he interprets as a divine revelation and, as with others incarcerated for their sins, such as Eldridge Cleaver, has emerged as a believer. And this has not been a comfortable way to feel better about himself, rather it has been a goad to genuine positive action in the world, first via Kings Church on The Ridge and today via Emmanuel’s Evangelical Church. His commitment has involved missions in India and the Philippines, and he has founded The Missionary S.E.E.D., aimed at helping alleviate poverty in Manila, and evangelising his faith.

There are those who may be put off by these last chapters in Paul’s life, but if so, you’ll miss a cracking read, and one that will ultimately make you think about the meaning, if any, of events in one’s own life. Whatever you make of it, it has certainly rendered Paul’s life meaningful, and allowed him to take a step or three toward his better angels, to be more Dr Jekyll than Mr Hyde, and to thus begin to conquer his dark side.

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