MBE James Cook
Pedro Boxing Club

Text Martina Randles
Photography Jørn Tomter / tomter.net

Published in I Love Chatsworth Road magazine issue 2 - 2012

It’s difficult to imagine the landscape of Pedro’s Youth Club back in 1929 when it first opened its doors to Clapton. The area would have been entirely devoid of ‘60s high-rise and ‘90s low-rise concrete blocks. The daily living of the modern day underprivileged would have looked and felt different without the goldfish bowl claustrophobia caused by the many accommodation units packed into the estate designed to maximize and contain. Those oppressive windows, small and rectangular that feature so proudly on the social housing checklist: quality of light, a contributing factor in mental health and wel being, diminished.

For James Cook MBE, Pedro’s chieftain and British Super Middleweight Boxing champion, the changes in the past few decades alone have been apparent: “We grew up in a group on North Peckham Estate, I remember at certain times there was the skin head dem used the one football pitch, National Front would use it and we’d come along use it at 3 O’clock because we had to go church. But everyone was quite happy sharing the space because that’s all we had”.

Today’s tribulations faced by ‘yout dem’ exist in gang culture, postcode violence, rioting, police targeted stop and searches, expensive trainers and overpriced coffee. Cook expands; “the people are still living sort of rough. There is nothing happening in their lives - it used to a couple of murders a week. Things have moved on since 10-15 years ago, yet there is still big unemployment”. “Down here it’s a little village, people come and go, they put people down here and forget about them - no ball games, no this, no that and then they wonder why there are kids in a gang”. Cook joined the club back in the ‘90s: “I work in the area through boxing, I was already working with kids to get them off the street. The council were downstairs in the club setting up office, and I told the council they couldn’t have it because it’s not theirs - so they give me a little fight and then gave me £3k to get the accounts up to date and from there basically we’ve been trying to keep it open”.

Despite the Olympics legacy and the potential for money to find its way to the Clapton Park Estate, it didn’t quite make the journey down the River Lea. “Last time we got funding was about four years ago. Everything is cut. I’m lucky that there are local people willing to help.” Cook expands on the lack of logical benefit London 2012 provided: “the Olympics employed barely any people from this neighborhood - we have loads of trades people that didn’t get a look-in”.

Interestingly, when Pedro’s closed for two years the area witnessed a marked increase in crime. Cook glowingly reports, “Boxing turns people’s lives around through discipline. I was in the gym with these guys who had nothing, a young man who was in the riots, he became the first champion of the youth club. The discipline factor is unreal, I’m talking mental discipline, supporting each other”. The club provides a place to integrate with peers. Children learn how to play in a different way, share and excel in a non-academic field, with boxing, art and music on offer. Hearteningly the work is carried out by volunteers that means little or no payment for time - it’s a new realm of service, one which James was rightly awarded a MBE for. “As a young man off the streets growing up you thought you had to be rich to achieve something in life, well The Queen would never shake no one’s hand, and yet at 50 I met The Queen, I spoke with The Queen and she made me very nervous. That’s how life is [for me with a] MBE for youth service”.

Pedro’s aims to nurture a sense of pride in the community through strong role models in the dedicated team that work for love not money. It’s the energy, good nature and blind passion of the volunteers at Pedro’s that ensures its survival. The club attracts the traveller community: “We’ve got the travellers, they come in today asking about the club, “yes please thank you” nobody laughs at anyone as they are trying to do the same thing. They do well here.” Women’s boxing was launched this year and has now expanded to two days a week; there is a mirrored dance space and recording studio available. “We don’t care what you look like or what your shape - you’re welcome here. For the adults its £30 for the year, and you get all the facilities. Plus if you get me training you it’s an extra bonus, we have qualified coaches, everyone is happy” Cook explains. “We get all sorts in Pedro Youth Club. We are human beings everyone has to learn about everyone, we look back at Hitler and we have Jesse Owens. Things change in life, people change everyone must mix and work and help each other”. Pedro Youth Club was founded in 1929, and has since risen from the ashes more than once. Founded by Baroness Harwood between the wars, and saved from closure in th
‘60s by the fundraising and brick laying efforts of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, the ‘00s saw embezzlement followed by bankruptcy. The inaugural episode of the Secret Millionaire was set here and provided a much-needed cash injection for music and arts and a new lease of life for the club. During this time Cook and his team of tireless volunteers have managed to keep the place afloat.