Remarkable life and times of ‘the lion man of Hayling Island’

Ray Hek with Julie the lion cub
Ray Hek with Julie the lion cub

IT was, by any stretch of the imagination, a life less ordinary.

Back in the mid-1970s, he was given the grand nickname of ‘the lion man of Hayling Island’, he liked to describe himself as ‘Mr self-confessed Kamikaze’, while his stage name was the ‘Great Azala’.

Ray's wife and daughter - also called Julie - feeding Julie the lion cub

Ray's wife and daughter - also called Julie - feeding Julie the lion cub

He pulled 32-tonne steam locomotives WITH HIS TEETH, and he once dragged a double decker bus in similar fashion along Southsea seafront. While on holiday in Devon, he also pulled a transit van with eight people inside up Paignton high street. Again with his teeth – obviously!

He designed clothes for rock legends such as Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd – as well as The Beatles – and was once a bodyguard for entertainers Tommy Steele and Frankie Laine and singer Chubby Checker.

While living in London, he rented a house owned by the Kray twins and briefly worked as a rent collector for the most infamous slum landlord of all-time, Peter Rachmann.

He designed the first magic box ever owned by Paul Daniels, and during his Army career boxed with ex-British, Commonwealth and European champion Henry Cooper. ‘Our Enery’ once knocked him out cold, but he later took on all-comers at a funfair boxing booth in London.

A Portsmouth News cutting of Julie the lion cub's visit to a Hayling school in 1975

A Portsmouth News cutting of Julie the lion cub's visit to a Hayling school in 1975

He was also a thespian, appearing in programmes such as Minder and the Mayor of Casterbridge, and he also appeared in the Who’s legendary rock musical Tommy.

He painted murals at a home for elderly people in Fontwell, Sussex, and was once involved in a business selling concrete statues with a metal coating. He regularly made hundreds of pounds a day selling them at Bursledon Market, near Southampton.

Oh yes, and he also finished third on ITV talent show New Faces in 1976, a forerunner to the likes of today’s hugely-popular Britain’s Got Talent, where comedian Roy Walker took first place. One major part of his act involved pressing a very long sword against his neck. If you think that sounds painful, he was also known to ask members of the public to push a sword against the side of his eye socket. That’s certainly up there with the best ‘don’t try that at home, kids’ safety warnings of all time.

He was also a fire eater, and once claimed to hold the world record for lying on a bed of nails for the longest time – for 46 hours, almost two whole days. Another one, by the sound of it, not to try in your own house.

Ray Hek pulls a van with his teeth along Paignton high street in the mid 1970s

Ray Hek pulls a van with his teeth along Paignton high street in the mid 1970s

He was also a bouncer at a Hayling nightclub, The Beach, a venue which was later known as Blazes and now – unsurprisingly – is a block of flats.

The opening sentence to this story wasn’t hyperbole, therefore; Raymond Frank Hek, aka Ray Azala, aka ‘the lion man of Hayling Island’, was truly a unique character.

Born in Enfield, north London, Ray moved with his family to Hayling in 1963. He lived on the Island for the rest of his eventful life, which ended last November when he passed away aged 82.

I was recently contacted by Stephen Kirby, known to many on Hayling as the chairman of the Eastoke Community Association. Married to one of Ray’s daughters, Julie, Stephen was keen that his former father-in-law received a warm tribute in the pages of his local newspaper, the Hayling Islander. I was happy to agree, though Ray’s perennially colourful story deserves a far wider audience than the  Islander could ever give it.

Don't try this at home, kids? In fact, don't try it anywhere - Ray Hek pictured performing his regular 'sword in the eye' trick in Southsea in the early 1990s.

Don't try this at home, kids? In fact, don't try it anywhere - Ray Hek pictured performing his regular 'sword in the eye' trick in Southsea in the early 1990s.

Aged 14, Ray – the eldest of seven sons – ran away from home to join a travelling funfair. Three days later his mum found him and dragged the runaway home. Undaunted, a year and a half later he joined a circus as elephant boy and clown. All was well, until his mum caught up with him again!

Aged 18, he joined the army to help channel his aggression and served in Malaya as a driver. It was during his forces career, as a member of the Royal Army Ordnance Corps, that he got in the ring with Cooper, one of the most famous English boxers of all time.

At 21, Ray was back in the circus – this time as Lolly the Clown. He remained a registered clown until the day he died. Funny faces are serious business. So serious, that in England there is an official registry to document a clown’s unique makeup. Just as no two people have the same look, no two clowns wear the exact same makeup. There is even a person responsible for painting every registered clown’s face onto a tiny ceramic egg.  

Speaking back in the 1970s, Ray believed his trick of several men trying to push a bended sword into his throat or eye socket was a world first. He told the Portsmouth News: ‘There is a very famous fakir (‘an ascetic who has taken vows of poverty and worship, renouncing all relations and possessions’ – Wikipedia) in India who performs the same trick, but with a spear. Otherwise I have never heard anyone attempting it.’

In the same article, Ray revealed that he practised Yoga and a Chinese form of exercise to perfect his self-control. He meditated regularly, but the report said ‘he is quick to point out that his abilities are not attributable to any one philosophy or teaching.’

Ray said: ‘I’ve listened to many theories about my abilities. Some people say I practice self-hypnosis. But I follow my own philosophies. Before a performance I put myself in a relaxed state which I like to call “my thing”.

Ray Hek

Ray Hek

‘I don’t really know how I do some of the things I do. I just practice until I can manage them. Some of them are just a case of properly distributed body weight, such as lying on glass. Anyone can lie on glass so long as the bottles are laid out over a wide space and there aren’t any splinters.’

It was back in 1975 when Julie arrived on Hayling. On the face of it, nothing startling about that. But this Julie was a young lion cub, and she soon became something of an Island celebrity.

‘Ray brought it home from the circus,’ said Stephen. ‘He just turned up at home one day with it under his arm.

‘It was really tame, like a pussycat. It used to love lying in front of the fire.

‘Ray took it to the local schools and it was in the Hayling Carnival once. I’d imagine a lot of people will still remember him as the ‘lion man of Hayling’.

‘He used to regularly take it for walks on a lead down to Eastoke Corner. Ray was dressed as a clown, and he’d sit on the corner and do pastel portraits for the holiday-makers.

‘After a few months the council said he had to get rid of the lion, so he sold it to the showjumper Harvey Smith.’

Often, ahead of his stage show, audience members would be warned that Ray’s sword antics were not for those of a nervous disposition. At times, some people fainted watching what were obviously death-defying stunts.

Stephen recalled once moment when it almost went tragically wrong.

‘At the (Portsmouth) Guildhall Square in the late 70s, while doing the sword act, the man holding the other end of the sword fainted when he saw the sword draw blood,’ he recalled. ‘And the blade actually went quite a way into Ray’s neck.

‘ It took me and Anton Derby (a DJ with one-time Portsmouth station Radio Victory) a while to get it out and staunch the flow the blood.

‘That afternoon this fearless man came back to my flat in Granada Road, Southsea, and whilst he slept for a while the cut in his neck actually shrank back to almost nothing.

‘Then, after tea, we went to the Stage Door Club at the Strand where he did his act over again - placing the sword just half an inch from the previous wound and successfully completed the act!

‘From that time onward, I was pretty much the person on the other end of the sword to ensure that nothing like the accident ever happened again ...’

Once his daredevil days were over, Ray became an accomplished artist. Back in the 1990s, he was selected to create lavish murals at the 18th century Watergate House in Fontwell. He busied himself at the once grand Regency-style building painting popular West Sussex scenes such as Chichester Cathedral, Dell Quay and Arundel Castle.

Ray was certainly artistic in more ways than one. For a while, and as mentioned earlier, in the late 1960s he designed clothes for Pink Floyd while the legendary guitarist Jimi Hendrex wore a leather waistcoat made out of an old Egyptian pouffe. Ray also designed clothes that The Beatles wore on their trip to India in 1968 and for their Magical Mystery Tour period. Marc Bolan was also interested in commissioning his clothes. For his entire life, it seems he was nothing if not creative - and very busy.

Frank left his wife Patricia, children Sharon, Julie, Sally, Amanda, Gemma and Ray junior, nine grandchildren and 11 great grandchildren. His five daughters all live on Hayling, while Ray junior also lives on an Island - but in his case one off Belizes in Central American.

‘He had a pretty varied life, you might say,’ said Stephen, a classic under-statement if ever there was one.

‘He was just a great man. In recent years he would travel on the bus to Portsmouth to play Father Christmas. He would hand out sweets and toys to the kids that he’d bought out of his own pocket. If you look on social media, there’s comments along the lines that Ray was ‘the best Father Christmas ever’ and somebody wrote ‘he IS Father Christmas’!

‘Ray was very generous. At his funeral he said he didn’t want any flowers, but if anyone wanted they could make a donation to the Hi 5 Schools group on Hayling. When I checked recently £560 had been raised.’

Julie added: ‘We are all so proud of dad and what he achieved.’

Sharon has inherited some of her father’s entertainment genes, and regularly performs around the south coast as one half of (impressively-named) acoustic musical act Magenta Bling.

It is always easy to say, when someone passes away, that ‘we will never see their like again.’

In the case of Ray Hek, though, it is unarguably true.

Heath and safety is somewhat different in 2019 to what it was in Ray’s entertainment heydays.

Performers don’t, as a rule, stick huge swords in their throats or eye sockets anymore, wild animals are rarely found in travelling circuses, and - I stand to be corrected on this - no-one keeps young Lion cubs on Hayling anymore, regularly taking them on walks to Eastoke Corner while dressed in a clown’s outfit.

Possibly for the best, it has to be said.

RIP Raymond Frank Hek.