“If your name’s not down, you’re not coming in”: Doorman Lit (Book Review)

Although you couldn’t really avoid rave/club culture in the 1990s if you were British and under 30 or so, my own interactions with it were pretty minimal. “I went to a few clubs, but didn’t like them that much”, more or less sums it up. The net result was that my personal acquaintance with nightclub doormen (or women) has been equally minimal, and the few that reach the end of this post may conclude that I should thank my lucky stars for that.

However, just as with crime, war and the Black Death, nowadays you don’t need to have experienced doormen first hand to acquire some knowledge of them. The Information Age is your friend, and has given us the peculiar literary sub-genre of memoirs by doormen, or Doorman Lit if you prefer, from which we can expand that knowledge base. I am the proud owner of three such works – Essex Boys by Bernard O’Mahoney, Doing the Doors by Robin Barratt and King of Clubs by Terry Turbo. This is partly because I can’t keep away from the remaindered shelves of bookshops, where these things inevitably end up, and partly because I am a complete idiot. However, no-one else seems to have bothered reviewing them, so I will, although they’re all 10-15 years old now. God knows where you can still buy them outside a second hand bookstore or Ebay.

Reviewers of Doorman Lit take on a risk that most reviewers don’t face. Authors in general are bespectacled and weedy nerds who got picked last for every sports team at school, and are unlikely to respond to a bad review with anything more than passive-aggressive whinging. Doormen, however, are big hulking blokes who kick people out of clubs for a living, and whilst all three of the subjects of these books must be in their fifties by now, I’m working on the assumption that they could still easily kick my arse if they felt so inclined. For that reason, as well as the usual risk of being sued, and the fact that I don’t know otherwise, I am writing on the assumption that what is said in these books is true.

Essex Boys is really about the doorman’s role in organised crime. The main reason you would ever want to read the book is because of its author’s criminal connections, up to and including being friendly with the Kray twins. Briefly, O’Mahoney, a man with a criminal record, washed up in Basildon, became a doorman and managed to get into partnership with a particularly ferocious local crook called Tony Tucker. Together, they “ran” the door at a couple of clubs, which basically meant a blind eye being turned to drug dealers selling Ecstacy to the bug-eyed ravers so long as they were paying Tucker and his crew for the privilege.

Sadly, whilst this helped Tucker and his gang become top dogs in their corner of Essex, it all went rather to their heads (as did very large amounts of cocaine), and they started to become ever more violent, ever more prone to ripping off clearly more powerful criminals than them in various ways and ever more prone to attract public attention, culminating in the death by overdose of an 18 year old girl called Leah Betts who had bought Ecstacy at the club. That event became one of the biggest news stories of the 90s in Britain, and afterwards it was only a matter of time before things came crashing down for the gang. As it happened, their rivals got to Tucker before the police could, and on a December evening in 1995 he was shot dead with two associates in a car on a remote Essex country lane (the murders, too, became a major news story).

So O’Mahoney has a reasonably compelling tale to tell, a sort of minor league English version of Henry Hill’s story from Goodfellas.  Indeed, a film, which I haven’t seen, was eventually made of it. The problem for the book is that Henry Hill was an informant in Witness Protection who had immunity from prosecution for his crimes (mostly). He could freely admit to them. O’Mahoney wasn’t an informant and didn’t have any kind of immunity, so he has to watch his words.

The result is that the book reads like a carefully prepared statement to the police made with an eye to closing off any further avenues of investigation, and that’s a weird style to read. I suspect a lot of lawyers were involved in the editing process. O’Mahoney spends his working days around a major drugs conspiracy of which he is fully aware, and his job is essentially to forcibly eject people who are making trouble at the club (plenty of vivid descriptions of the resulting fights), but in his version of events he manages not to do anything criminal in relation to either. Of course, he could just be brighter than his friends. After all, he’s the one who’s still alive (and never charged with or convicted of anything in relation to the goings-on).

The other major problem is that while O’Mahoney gets how the “firm’s” idiotic and crazy behaviour screwed everything up, and perhaps to some extent how pathetic a lot of the wannabes attracted to the criminal lifestyle are, he doesn’t quite get exactly how stupid it all looks to an outsider. There’s a lot of missed opportunity for comedy, albeit very black comedy. One early problem for O’Mahoney is a “firm” made up of some regulars from a local pub. Admittedly, this isn’t Looney Tunes cartoon violence – these guys wield CS gas and iron bars. However, the idea of a bunch of drinkers from an Essex pub deciding to go all Clockwork Orange on everyone’s ass is at least a bit surreal. Not in O’Mahoney’s world.

Robin Barratt comes across as more of a doorman pure and simple, so his book is more of a story of “heroic doorman battling against thuggish troublemakers and manipulative gangsters.” There’s also a distinct undertow of misery memoir to his book; Barratt has a pretty awful sounding childhood, is constantly losing jobs and struggling to make ends meet and, whilst enjoying a fair amount of success with women, never seems able to keep relationships going for long. As such, it doesn’t exactly make you want to rush out and join his profession (which is probably quite right).

The USP of Barratt is that he always wanted to be, not a gangster, but a bodyguard (“And I -yeeee -I, will always looovee youuu, ooo-woooh!!!”), or work in close protection, as he insistently calls it. He does in fact eventually undergo some unpleasant-sounding training with ex-military types and does do some work of this kind, although clearly not enough to make a living off on its own. He makes it sound pretty boring, but no doubt that’s what the job is when done successfully. I bet JFK’s bodyguards all had a very exciting time the day he got shot.

Barratt’s book is for those who prefer a somewhat more law-abiding protagonist, with an emphasis on the somewhat. After all, he does get busted for illegal dealing in steroids early on and, of course, he is always getting into fights with people as part of his job. Also, he does keep reminding you that top gang leaders in Manchester are known as “heads”, which has the virtue of reminding you simultaneously how laughable these guys are and exactly how frighteningly violent they must be not to get ridiculed out of their own city.

And then there’s Terry Turbo (real name: Terry Stone). He was actually a promoter of club nights under the brand of One Nation/Garage Nation, a big enough brand that even I had heard of it during my time on the far outer margins of club culture, and thus not a doorman as such. However, from his book, being a promoter seems largely to boil down to booking a club and a DJ, hiring door staff to keep an eye on the people coming in, advertising the event, ???? and profit, so there are still plenty of descriptions of Terry and his team beating the snot out of troublemakers for those that want them.

Of the three books, Turbo’s is the best-written. He, or his ghost writer, seem to have decided to go for doing his life as a Guy Ritchie gangster flick crossed with a bit of the Ravey Davey Gravy comic strip from Viz. This works; it means the book can cope with both the often comic excesses of club culture and with the tense bits when Turbo gets into a fight on the door or a confrontation with some fellow rave entrepreneur (or actual gangster). Incidentally, the whole 90s club scene comes across as the most morally grey area you could imagine, in which everyone tends to act like a mobster even if they aren’t one.

Turbo spends a lot of time assuring us that he isn’t and never was a gangster, but when “not being a gangster” extends to having collected debts with menaces, defrauding club owners over the number of tickets sold, conning a bank on a home improvement loan, surrounding yourself with big tough guys who sometimes have access to weapons and get into fights with various troublemakers, muggers and drug dealers and cultivating business and personal relationships with people who pretty much are gangsters or sound a lot like them, you can’t entirely blame the people who mistook him for one.

Nevertheless, his is the most entertaining book of the bunch, partly because he was running a business and not stuck in front of a door all the time. He therefore has more anecdotes to share. The main conclusion I draw from all these books is that being a doorman is not really a job for anyone who wants their work to provide them with vision or inspiration (beyond the vision of a bunch of stroppy drunks, who inspire dislike). If you like bashing people over the head, it seems to be fine though.

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