Giles Coren Learns To Fight

The amazing story of how a cowardly north London restaurant critic was transformed into an ass-kicking head-stamper

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I have always wished I could do martial arts. It comes from as far back as wishing I was Batman, but stayed with me long after I lost interest in the capes and badges and alter-egos. Well, mostly lost interest in them.

I wanted to have that secret violence. I wanted it to be the thing about me that you didn't know: that if you came near me, if you so much as looked at me, I was going to fuck you up.

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I didn't actually want to fuck anyone up. I am not a violent person. I just wanted to know that I could. I wanted, as a smallish boy at a private school with a pink uniform in the angry and impoverished London of the Seventies, to feel safe on the street. But I didn't. So I didn't go on the street. Ever. Except to get in my mum's car.

A martial art, I believed, would have set me free. But I only wanted to have the skills. I didn't want to learn them. Learning anything at all was such a monstrous pain in the arse. And I continued to feel that way into adulthood, and I still do. In that regard, my desire to "know karate" is like my desire to speak Spanish or play the piano or fish trout with a fly — they are all things that would improve my life in a generalised, abstract way but which I really can't be shagged to start learning now, right from the beginning, at a time in my life when I'll be dead before I'm any good.

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I have got close to picking it up in the past, been down to boxing gyms and shaolin temples, spoken to gurus and kung fu masters about quick ways to put fire in my fists. But they all give out the same shit about no fast way: "must rearn inner peace and self-dissiprin before embark on path of samurai."

Yeah, fuck off Mr Miyagi. If I wanted meditation, breathing lessons, special diets and a load of Eastern bullshit I'd have married Gwyneth Paltrow. I just feel weak and soft, and I want to feel hard. I have no idea what it is like to fight another man, or what I would do if I had to. I have dreams occasionally where I am trying to punch someone but my arms are so heavy I can hardly lift them and the punch is so slow it never gets to the guy's chin (is it even the chin you're meant to hit?).

Realistically, of course, I have reached a point in my life where the chances of my getting into a fight are virtually nil. I do not go to pubs, I do not go to nightclubs, I do not go to football. I do not even leave my house after dark except to put out the bins. The worst that could happen is I bump into a chef somewhere who didn't like my review of his restaurant.

But in general, chefs are far too timid to throw punches, they just piss in your soup.

And yet still the yearning is there to have a supernatural protection system coded into my brain. Just the one-inch punch would do, and maybe some sort of flying kick. Something so that in desperate circumstances, should they ever arise, I will have a choice other than death.

So then one day, I was walking through the foyer of this new Jewish community centre in north London where I had been reviewing the (excellent) restaurant for my day job, when my eye fell upon a flyer on the reception desk for something called Krav Maga.

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"Welcome to the UK's first Krav Maga School," it said. "Our instructors are trained and qualified to the highest standards in Israel, offering courses for adults, kids and women-only. When you train with London Krav Maga, you can have the confidence that you are training in the best self-defence system in the world with the most qualified instructors, all certified by Krav Maga Global in Israel."

"A Jewish martial art?" I said to the guy on reception. "What's that, a load of lethal shrugs?"

He did not laugh.

"No wait, don't tell me," I went on, certain there was great humour here. "Is it where you complain your opponent to death?"

I suddenly sensed he had heard these gags before; maybe seven or eight million times.

"It's not a martial art," he said patiently. "It is a system of self-defence."

"Oh, a Jewish system of self-defence," I said. "You mean running away? Ha ha ha."

"If you can, yes. Of course," said the guy. "But if you can't, then instant counter-attack, extreme violence with a view to ending the fight as quickly as possible, scanning for secondary attack, then escape."

"Oh, right," I said.

"It's what the Israel Defense Forces use, also the Mossad and Shin Bet. And it is what Haganah used."

And so I stopped making jokes. For the Israelis are the hardest motherfuckers in the world. Everyone knows that. Whether we are talking about the army, the secret service, the national service kids who hit the beach wearing Speedos and a machine gun or the famous terrorist organisation from which they all grew.

Now, it is possible that my view of Israel is going to be different from yours. To me, whatever its government does, whatever the injustices of its foreign policy, Israel constitutes a protected place which the Jews who survived being slaughtered to extinction in the Forties built with their bare hands because Europe was no longer safe for them. And as far as I am concerned they can do anything they like, to anyone, to keep it safe. So fuck you.

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And if Israel has a martial art, defence system, whatever, a way to fuck up people who try to attack it, then you can be sure it will be quick to learn, violent as hell and contain very little Eastern philosophical bollocks of the sort I have always found so off-putting.

"No philosophical bollocks at all," said the guy on reception. "No special kit, no elaborate protocols, no silly postures, no element of ritual. It's what Matt Damon does in the Jason Bourne movies. And I think Daniel Craig's Bond as well."
So I signed up on the spot (we Jews love a celebrity). Annoyingly, though, I had missed the most recent beginners' course and would have to wait a few weeks. So, I inquired about some one-on-one lessons to get a flavour before I started.

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They said no problem, and set me up with an instructor called Deborah Bekhor (I'll be using fake names here because I am bound to get stuff wrong and misrepresent some aspect of Krav Maga and I don't want anyone but me to take the blame) and my first thought was, naturally, "A bird? A fucking Doris? How am I going to get tough fighting a woman?"

But then I thought about those Amazon sex goddesses you see on the telly when the Israeli army wants to get the West onside: sun-tanned, half-naked Bar Refaeli-types in bikini tops and combat trousers with ammo belts and jungle knives (or did I dream that?). I saw myself being wrestled to the ground by one of these teenage nympho warriors and very possibly raped. And the vision pleased me.

My first reaction upon meeting Deborah and discovering her to be a softly spoken north London Jewish mum of about my age was, I confess, disappointment. But it didn't last. In fact, the moment she adopted a balanced position to demonstrate the most basic defence against a punch, her whole physical manifestation seemed to change. Just from the way she was standing, you would think twice about grabbing her handbag.

And one little demonstration air-punch (heel of the hand, not knuckles, to avoid finger breakages and allow for the possibility of a double eye-gouge if absolutely necessary) would turn you away from a life of crime forever.

For a while, though, we just talked. Was this the Jewish martial art itself? "In a way, yes," she said. "The main thing is to avoid a fight. So you hope to talk your way out of it, calm things down. And you look for exits and you hope to just move away. Or run if you have to. But then if a conflict is impossible to avoid, you strike fast, end it, and then run away." (This, of course, is how Israel has always operated: strike fast in anticipation of worse to come, possibly overdo the force a little, because after all you didn't ask for a fight, then back off and say, "I told you so".)

"It's good that it's a Jewish system," I said. "Because although I am not generally afraid of being mugged or beaten up, if there is a tiny part of me that is, then it's…"

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"I know," she said. "The Jewish part." I almost cried. She understands. They will all understand. It is part of being a Jew: however safe you feel in whatever country you have ended up in, no matter the extent of your deracination, regardless of what a daft-arse, public school, media tosspot party boy you have become, you still have that feeling that they will come for you in the end, that there is a fist or a stick or a rock out there with your name on it. And if you ever have that feeling, Jew or not, then Krav is for you.

"It's not actually Israeli though," she went on. "Krav Maga — which means 'contact combat' in Hebrew — was invented in Bratislava by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Slovak Jew who was a boxer and wrestler and wanted to organise his community to protect itself from anti-Semitic gangs in the Thirties and, ultimately, the Nazis. He saw that conventional fighting techniques were no use on the street, so developed his own, more applicable methods."

Bloody hell. A Slovak Jew from Bratislava. Just like me. Or, at least, just like my maternal grandparents, Michael and Isabel Kasriel. They, too, were intimidated by such gangs (my grandma recalled never going out of the house in Easter Week "because the Slovaks liked to celebrate by beating up any Jew they saw") and then fled to Britain as the Nazis moved in.

Perhaps they knew Imi Lichtenfeld. He would have been about their age. There were no more than 15,000 Jews in Bratislava at that time. Maybe they played bridge, ate cholent, talked about getting the fuck out of Dodge. Who knows, maybe they sparred?

From Slovakia, while my grandparents fled to Derby (someone sure sold them a pup there), Imi made for Palestine, where his methods were quickly adopted by the Jewish paramilitary organisation Haganah, which later became the IDF. From there it spread to the civilian population (which happens quickly in a state like Israel) and then out to the diaspora, especially the US, where it exists today in many forms, all claiming to be the real inheritors of Imi's system.

And then suddenly, Deborah is whacking me with a round arm punch and I'm blocking it with a forearm and being told to punch her immediately in the nose in the same instant as I defend because in good Krav Maga a bystander shouldn't be able to tell who is the attacker and who is the victim.

And then hit her again, kick her in the goolies, move out of her line of attack, away from my blindspot, turn, scan for more attackers (crazy bitch Jewish mums with bicycle chains, I guess) then run. And again, and again, and again.

And you haven't got it right until the running away is a reflex, because unless you practise the escape time after time after time, you might forget it on the street, and stand there gloating over your victim while her mate comes up and shanks you in the kidneys with a rusty blunt.

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After a couple of these lessons, I'm ready for a course. They make me buy some flappy, black tracksuit bottoms and a T-shirt, arm and shin pads and a nutguard. And now we meet Ben, who will take the class. Ben is a tough Jew. I like a tough Jew. They make me feel safe. Ben is roughly my height except there are two of him.

He isn't muscle-bound and he isn't fat, he just looks like two of me have climbed into my tracksuit. He smiles and he's funny and he talks a lot (he's a Jew, in case I didn't mention that) and the class loves him, but he moves, when he is in character, with the economy and menace of a shark. And when he throws a jab he stamps his back foot and the building shakes.

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The class, by the way, does not seem to have many Jews in it. There are maybe 30 students — 20 boys, 10 girls — a couple of young black men, half a dozen Asians, some beefy Wasps, the odd Jew, me.

We jog round the room and warm up, do some stretching, assume the position. But it's just a relaxed, balanced footing. It's not a combat position. We do not want a fight. If there is threatening movement our hands come up to cover our face more or less like a boxer (but not as close to it, we haven't got nice soft gloves on to protect our noses) and a foot goes back to give more solid balance.

But we don't want to make aggressive gestures that might be misinterpreted.

And then we pair off and fight. And then Ben stops us and shows us another defensive move. And we do that. And then he puts us in groups of four and it's three against one. Then four against one. We do the famous "zombie" game where five guys are going after one guy (slow, like zombies) trying to strangle him and he has to keep batting them away.

"Krav Maga assumes that there will be multiple assailants," Ben says. "We don't throw a fancy combination and then stand there. There are no points for Krav Maga. There is no competition version. The guy comes for you, you block, punch, kick, move, block, punch, kick, there might be 10 of them, they might have sticks, knives, guns…"

They might indeed. Krav Maga is a pessimistic system for a pessimistic people. So we learn about knives early on, and guns, too. We expect to be attacked from behind (probably at a cashpoint), from the side, in the dark. And we learn stamping.

"On heads?" I ask.

"Technically, no," says Ben. "Technically, we mean stamping on shins. We don't teach stamping on heads anymore."

"Anymore?"

"Not since CCTV," he says. "CCTV is not kind to head-stamping. It looks bad. It makes a mess of your 'reasonable force' defence in court."

This is not the last time CCTV is mentioned. There seem to be a number of moves they don't teach since CCTV came in. But they tell us what they are anyway. I begin to wonder if, when I'm moving off the line of attack, covering my blind spot and scanning for further assailants, I am perhaps also supposed to be scanning for cameras.

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For even this civilian form of it (Ben teaches military Krav Maga as well) is supremely aggressive. The Metropolitan police are not allowed to use it for example. Because it counter-attacks in the very instant of defending and has a notion of "reasonable" that is different from an English court's.

If we fear lethal intent from more than one attacker then we punch for the suprasternal (jugular) notch, we punch with split fingers to the eyes, we break a choke-hold with an explosive break, then hold his wrist, lean back, unbalance him, and punch him in the throat. If we are attacked on the ground (we are shown how to fall, turn, how to get up without exposing the head) then we trap an ankle with a foot and break their shin with the other.

And if we get our man down and we see two more coming at us, then we don't want the first guy getting up and joining in again. So we take our stamp, I guess, that is meant for shins, and we do it to his head — after first scanning for those pesky cameras.

We practise our stamping on the sprung wooden floor. Stamp! Stamp! Stamp! People driving down the Finchley Road 100 yards away turn to see what the commotion is. And they see me, stamping on Nazi heads, making sure those sons of bitches do not get up and point their Lugers at me.

Then Ben misses a week for some appointment or other. And Danny takes the class. Danny has silver hair and looks like four of me in a tracksuit. He looks like he ate three Bens for breakfast. He doesn't talk as much, but you wouldn't need many of him in your army to feel safe in the desert.

He is not sure where we've got to in the course, so just dives into the technique for breaking a headlock. "I don't know which comprehensives you went to," he says to us (I think of my time at Westminster School: the long-haired fops, Nick Clegg among the prefects, our own special pronunciation of Latin and the ancient Shrove Tuesday pancake-flipping rituals) "but the headlock was pretty standard, wasn't it?"

Danny looks for someone to put him in a headlock. Eventually, he picks the one guy with a long enough arm to get it round his neck and shows us not to strain at the arm but to go with it, turn in, bite the nipple, reach round with the outside arm and pull the guy's head back at the forehead (or better still, the eyes) until he rolls backwards, then emerge from the lock and break him with a single hammer punch to the exposed Adam's apple.

I nearly shit my pants just watching.

But I am hooked. Ben is back the following week and the classes gather pace. We now begin by prowling round the room together, attacking imaginary assailants (like the tragic judo squares at school), then squats and press-ups and press-up fights (top fun) then fighting each other. Learning leg-defences and rolling falls.

I try to avoid women and the soppier blokes because I want to be tested (in Israel, says Danny, they think the way Krav Maga is taught in Britain is a bit soft — they prefer to go for it with more physical intent because it provides more realistic adrenalin, and I am with them on that) and I have some good battles until I overstretch, choose a guy half my age and twice my fitness and get a bit of a pasting.

But I love it. And at the end, when we stretch and then stand and bow and say "Kida" (which is Hebrew for I'm not quite sure what but feels good coming out of my mouth), I feel very good indeed for taking the beating.
"What the fuck are those?" my wife asks later, when she sees the bruising on my arms and legs.

"Krav tattoos," I say. Because that is what they call them. And I am proud to have them and proud to be part of the thing they come from.

I am really not a joining-in kind of guy. I am not a team player. I don't like classes; I don't like learning. But I go back to Ben (or Danny or Deborah) every week because they are portals to something fine, noble and dangerous that is not silly or self-deluding and speaks directly to the Batman in me. Which is all I ever wanted.

I have no idea how I'd make out now in the street. I've only been at it a couple of months. Probably still get my ass kicked. But that's not the point. Krav Maga is about making yourself ready for the people who want to kill you. It is about being as prepared as you can be. Just like the Jewish centre I train in is prepared, by being set back from the road, having bomb-proof windows and a guy checking every bag that comes into the building.

I spent years trying to suppress the Jew in me, because he was a bit of a wuss. But now my inner Jew is my hardest part. He is Bat-Jew.

And if I ever do find myself in a bit of bother, it is he who is going to save me, or die trying.

Article taken from the July 2014 issue of Esquire.

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MORE GILES COREN: 

Giles Coren: Why There's More To Men Than Their Conquests
Giles Coren Recounts His Schooldays
Giles Coren Gives Up Booze
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