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Rowan Coleman

Anna talks about Boxer Handsome, her new book available throughout Heathrow, and shares some of her favourite holiday reads

Boxer Handsome began as a love story. It was always about the girl. However, my bad boy, troubled and stirring up trouble, became bigger than all my other characters. He became Bobby from Boxer Handsome and the novel, still at its heart a love story, changed its focus to this very bruised and damaged and beautiful hero.

That’s what I was interested in – the boys on the outside. The lost boys of the modern city. London has its hostile spaces where so many boys and girls are trapped and threatened and voiceless, and go unnoticed and ignored. In these dark urban corners there are tribal conflicts, where tight communities inherit old myths, codes and unresolved wars. I was interested in what happened when you gave a life like that literary worth and explored all the machismo and violence and anger that can surround it; the drama and the cost of possible redemption.

My real-life inspiration came from my granddad, John Poppy. A tough, handsome and wonderful Islington boy, who joined an East End boys club, took up boxing, and ended up becoming a teacher and a hero to all of his family. As I wrote the novel, my granddad moved into a care home; in his late nineties he was just starting to get weaker. I spent regular weekends talking to him and visiting the home, and learned about his life as a younger man. He boxed, we knew that, but I didn’t know how far the club had changed his life and redeemed him.

One of four, Granddad was born near Balls Pond Road in the 1920s. He kept getting into fights at school – and kept losing them – until his dad walked him to Crown and Manor Boys Club, paid the dues, and changed Granddad’s life. His little diphtheria body needed some muscle to fight his corner of the world. Into his eighties Granddad subscribed to the Crown and Manor newsletter, forming close bonds with its boys and returning for football matches into his sixties. When he passed away, at ninety-eight, the absence was colossal. He is a hero, from a perhaps more simple time. Because of him, I became fascinated with London, old and new, and how young men from poor East End backgrounds managed to steer their fate against so many odds, and what happened when they did. Granddad left poverty behind, but he also lost his community, a key conflict in my novel. He was of a generation of men, post-war, who had clear-cut codes of masculinity and how to perform. It is a lost masculinity, for good or for bad, and it has been replaced by something more desperate and less heroic. Bobby’s sensitivity and vulnerability will doom or redeem him. His redemption is always in doubt.

Amateur boxing seemed to fit the world of the book perfectly: a world of order and discipline and calm and care. I spent much time researching in London boxing clubs; they are places of protection and education. The boys don’t just survive in this home away from home, they often thrive. It is a treasured fraternity and my granddad’s club offers homework clubs, study help, as well as its range of sports. These clubs save lives, feel absolutely necessary and vital, and are magical to the boys that belong to them. Boxing is necessary to Bobby; he needs a world of definition and structure, without ambiguity. You win or you lose and this idea was a theme throughout the book. Violence, outside of the ring, is a waste; fighting for the sake of violence is chaos. It leads to nothing and to nowhere. The frustrations of the characters are predicated on this: if you keep fighting, you will only keep fighting, and you can only lose and keep losing forever.

Bobby is my angry young man, stuck in tribal warfare. But he is also the hero in a love story that belongs to any city, anywhere in the world. At the heart of the book is the heartbreak between the 1950s throwback beauty of Bobby, and the characters he hurts. From the sweet, strange Chloe to the tough and exotic Theresa. It’s about fathers, sons and the mothers who live lives that are dysfunctional and chaotic. It’s about an unforgiving modern city that ignores the pain of people that have nowhere to turn, but it is a hopeful book too: the women are strong and the men seek and sometimes find redemption. London has a savage beauty and is knee-deep in its history; the canal provides the setting for conflict, but also affords an arena for contemplation and old, unquiet ghosts.

My next novel will explore the female experience of this world. Theresa, an important female character in Boxer Handsome, will carry over into the world of my second novel. I felt Boxer Handsome could have told her story just as much as it did Bobby’s. It will follow a new set of characters too; a different girl escapes her fate and frees herself. The novel will be about the survival of women in a world of faded machismo. I gave birth to a baby girl in September and am aware at all times how precious and fragile flesh, skin and bone are, and also how strong and remarkable it is. It can do so much, especially the female body. It is a proud and vital creation and my second novel bears that in mind. It shares the world of Boxer Handsome, but the female characters nourish, they don’t destroy.

Anna Whitwham

"My last holiday reading highlights included Elena Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment. I found it simply thrilling, alive, beautiful and confessional. I also enjoyed Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Colin Barrett’s Young Skins for his wonderful short stories that make small lives matter, and Jeanette Winterson’s very moving, Why be Happy when you can be Normal. You can’t put them down and the stories stay with you for a long time. "

Anna Whitwham was born in 1981 in London, where she still lives. She has studied Drama and English at University of California, Los Angeles and Queens University, Belfast. She is currently completing her Creative Writing PhD with the Poet Laureate Andrew Motion at Royal Holloway, where she also lectures. Boxer Handsome is her first novel.

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