( Sweet Fighting Man - Volume II, by Melanie Lloyd)

Another voluntary organisation that is close to my heart is the Pedro Youth Club in Hackney. James Cook MBE (who has kindly featured in both of my books) is a driving force behind the Pedro, a place where strenuous efforts are being made on a daily basis to encourage the youngsters off the streets. This is an excerpt from Sweet Fighting Man - Volume II, which tells it how it is:

There is a part of the London Borough of Hackney which goes by the chilling name of ‘the murder mile.’ This is a place where drugs, gangland warfare and muggings are not considered the exception to the rule, and it is a sad fact of life that guns and knives are often considered rudimentary tools of the trade.

The crime statistics that we see reflected by the media are merely the result of the ones which are actually reported. Several go unreported for fear of retribution. This place, which is virtually a stone’s throw from the affluence and opulence of the City, was once described by the Daily Telegraph as being “more dangerous than Soweto.”

Nestled between three colossal housing estates there is an oasis of hope. It is called the Pedro Club and it is situated in Rushmore Road in the Lower Clapton area. The club was founded in 1929 by Katharine Elliot, who went on to become Baroness Elliot of Harwood DBE. The Baroness was a childhood friend of Elizabeth Taylor’s. Passing on the baton, so to speak, that famous diva of the silver screen went on to become the Pedro Club’s Vice-President in the 1960s.

To this day, there is photograph on display at the entrance to the Pedro that was taken of Taylor laying a brick on a new wall, something that she did to symbolise her support and commitment to the Pedro Club. But time moves on and a few years ago it looked like the Pedro was about to close its doors for good, which would have been a tragedy. Thankfully, this was not to be.

James Cook was British and European Super-Middleweight Champion in the 1990s. James came to live in England from his native country of Jamaica when he was nine years old. Jamaica’s loss was England’s gain. As James said in my first book, “Jamaica is still every part of my roots. I won’t forget that. But now I am British, because obviously, I was British Champion.” These days James has a very different type of battle on his hands. He puts his heart and soul into fighting the forces of crime, deprivation and delinquency in Hackney, the place where he has made his home.

Just as the doors of the Pedro Club were about to be closed for the last time, James walked in and decided that that was simply not going to happen. James’ official title at the Pedro Club is Treasurer, but more appropriate job descriptions would include Role Model, Peace Keeper and Father Figure. James has made it his life’s mission to guide the young people who populate the streets where he lives towards a positive and constructive path in life.

Thanks to James and people like him, the young people of Hackney continue to have somewhere to go, somewhere to be, somewhere they can call their own. James is not a man who feels comfortable behind a desk, so he makes it his business to patrol the streets on a daily basis, seeking to help those that he can reach in an endless endeavour to catch the ones who are in danger of falling, before serious trouble catches up with them.

Weighing in at a mere few pounds over his fighting weight, strolling down the road, sleek and muscular in his street garb (including shades and string vest) he poses a formidable sight, and then his face breaks out into the sunniest smile and he puts one in mind of an urban warrior on the side of everything that is right. To the young people who James looks out for, he is a 6’2” guardian angel. In their lives, which in many cases are destined to be uncertain and ever-changing, they know that James Cook is always there for them, always dependable, always the same.

James does not see anything out of the ordinary in the work that he does and the sacrifices that he makes. To him, it is simply a job that needs doing, and he’s the man to do it. As he earnestly explained, “My main thing is to be out on the street, trying to get the young people into some form of education, to learn a trade or something. I want to teach them that they’ve got to earn their money. They’ve got to go out and work for it.”

I am delighted to report that James was awarded the MBE in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours List for Services to Youth Justice in Hackney. As it started to dawn on this unsung hero that he was about to have letters after his name, he greeted the feeling in his typically laid-back fashion. “There was a letter come through the post, which I didn’t take any notice of. I just chuck it down. Then, the second letter come through the post asking for some detail, and it had ‘Downing Street’ or just something like that. I thought, somebody is writing me and saying ‘My servant.’ I thought, ‘I never had a servant in my life!’ Anyway, I didn’t take no notice until the official letter came with ‘MBE’ on it, and then I started taking it a bit seriously.

“I happen to live round the corner from the club and a few years ago the council turned up. They was gonna close it and I thought ‘This ain’t right,’ so I went in there and the council was in there. I started searching the club and found the documents, and I tell the council they can’t have it because it belongs to the young people. I just got Frank Maloney, Bruce Baker, Bernard Hart and a few others, and said, ‘Listen, will you come and help me with this club and sort out a management committee?’ I got Derek Williams, Geraldine Davies, Marvin Stone, I just got these people to come and help.”

Hackney has the largest number of under 16s in any London borough and the Pedro is the only youth club in the area. James’ confirmation of that fact was emphatic. “Absolutely. One youth club. One free state.” Working in such a potentially hostile environment, I was interested to learn if there has ever been a time when this gentle giant has felt in danger. He smiled and shook his head. “I think the kids will be in danger when they see me coming because, I must admit, the kids, no matter who they are and what they are, there’s so much respect. Even if they’re smoking out the front and they see me coming down the road, you know, between eight and 25, they start to put it away. The thing about it is, no matter how much the crowd is, no matter how much trouble they’re making, once I go over there and say ‘What’s happening’, it will start to get squashed.”

At the time we made this tape, James was unaware of when he was actually going to collect his MBE, but he had his own ideas on dress code. “Yeah, I don’t know yet, but all I’m getting from people is that I have to be wearing these fancy clothes. I just keep telling people, I like to make a change. I like to wear one of my string vests and go give one to the Queen, and say to her ‘This is how we do it in Hackney!’” James has this disarming way of suddenly becoming endearingly shy, and this element of his personality surfaced when I pressed him to tell me what he thought he really will say to the Queen when he meets her.

“You know me, Mel. When the day come, I’ll be bloody shy as anything. I don’t like all this fancy dressing up gear. I just want to wear a suit and do what I need to do. I don’t know but, when it comes to it, I think I might be shy and probably will just shut my mouth. I don’t think I’ll say anything. I’ll probably be too frightened.”

The facilities at the Pedro Club include a pool table, a keep fit studio, a fully equipped computer room, a motor mechanic workshop, an art room, go-carts, a dance floor and they have a five-aside football and basketball pitch. Also, the organisers are in the process of completing a recording studio, which will hopefully be up and running by the time this book goes to print, earning much needed revenue to keep the whole thing going.

Despite the absolute necessity of the Pedro Club and everything it provides, this special and most vital organisation faces a daily struggle to survive. James sadly explained, “We get a quarterly grant from the council of between 3,000 and 5,000. The thing is, it costs about 72,000 a year just to run the building. We’re open every night of the week and, when it’s all up and running with all staff in place, we get about 100 young people in and out of the door every night of the week. We’re looking at opening at the weekends and organising dance nights to get the young and old people together, get some more communication going on.”

To my mind, one of the things that makes this world a wonderful place to be is the fact that, no matter how bad things get, there are always people who are willing to give of themselves to help others, people who spread light where there is darkness, compassion where there is destitution, warmth where there is need. God bless you, James Cook MBE!

Anybody wishing to make a donation (no matter how large or small) in order to assist James and the team at The Pedro to continue their tremendous work can send cheques and postal orders (made payable to The Pedro Club) and send to Sweet Touch Publishing Company, Studio 221, 61 Victoria Road, Surbiton, Surrey, KT6 4JX.



Sweet Touch Publishing Company