I learned some good news last week. An old friend of mine was being rehoused. The friend is a man called Billy Murray and for almost 30 years he has been coaching kickboxing in Belfast.
He’s a remarkable character. Murray’s gym is called Prokick and is currently in a leaky corrugated hut in east Belfast, clinging gamely on to the side of an amateur football club’s main building. There is little inside except a ring at one end, some mats, a few heavy bags, mice for company, a gas-fired heater and Murray’s indomitable belief in the positive life-enhancing power of his sport. And from this, lives have been changed utterly.
Murray is one of those people you hear about on Unsung Heroes lists in Sports Personality of The Year and you think, how can he do all that?! Or at least you should. So now, I’m going to flag-wave for Billy.
I’ve known him over 20 years. Amongst other things, I used to write fight reports for him and place them in local papers. It’s not uncommon for boxing and kickboxing clubs and coaches to host fight-nights. And Billy, a man who won countless world titles at different weights, likes a good promotion! Some years ago we worked to bring the then-Irish president Mary McAleese on an official visit to that little gym. That was a hell of thing at that time.
But most important of all is what happens day after day under the corrugated roof. Aside from training a lot of new champions, it’s the classes with kids that have the most impact. Billy was determined when he established it that the gym would have no sectarian trouble inside. Kids arrived from both sides of the community and all were treated the same. All inside were also expected to treat each other the same too.
Fostering that atmosphere of mutual respect was a brilliant and bold move. Those coming through the doors did, and still do, treat each other properly. The results are telling.
I’ve seen wisecracking street-smart rapscallions strut in full of piss and vinegar who within three weeks are greeting Murray at the front as ‘Sir’ and showing that sport, and the self-discipline it can bring, is a transformative thing.
There are many other fantastic, selfless people across Britain doing the things that Billy does
He’s worked with kids in special behavioural units to show that they too have vast potential – to prove it to themselves frequently first. He’s worked with men and women who have addiction issues and helped use sport so they could help themselves.
He did all this without financial assistance from the authorities. Kickboxing wasn’t a sport that was easily sold to them. But he kept going, he kept trying to find a way to get a better location so that he could serve more people. And last week, after years of trying, a new building was unveiled. With a real roof! And walls! And other things that are simple and necessary. They’ll spend the next nine months getting the gym fitted out. And so another couple of generations of youngsters, some from pretty deprived areas, will have a place to dream.
There are many other fantastic, selfless people across Britain doing the things that Billy does. Whether in sports clubs, or volunteering to help in schools or with reading groups, or with homeless organisations or with refugees, all sewn deeply and righteously into the social fabric. I blub like a leaky well when I watch DIY SOS and I see people giving of themselves to help make the lives of less fortunate families better.
And this is where the hope lies. The election is not bringing out the best in people. There are some senior politicians who look increasingly like hollowed-out moral husks, caring for nothing but a vote.
It’s Billy Murray, and the thousands around Britain like him, who are the really important ones. Come what may on December 12, this good will remain.
Paul McNamee is editor of The Big Issue