"Have you ever used martial arts in a fight?"
I looked at him with suspicion. I didn't like the question, or the tone in which it had been asked. He hadn't been coming to the class for long, and his attendance was erratic, at best. I'd also heard him asking similar questions of the instructor, who had the sense not to be drawn into the conversation, and some of the other students.
"Yeah," I replied, reluctantly but truthfully.
"No. Not wing chun."
"Judo, karate, some other Japanese stuff. It was a long time ago."
"Did you win?"
"What makes you think anyone ever wins?"
The look on his face suggested that he didn't like this answer. He tried appealing to my ego.
"I'll bet you won," he continued, "Come on, how many fights have you had?"
"I'm not answering that one."
"Because one fight is too many."
I wasn't surprised when he left the class, although he stayed with it for much longer than I'd anticipated. He might come back some day, but I doubt it.
I've often written about martial arts, and my experience of them, on this page. You might think I don't know what I'm talking about, and that's your right. You might think I'm not a fighter, and I'd be happy for you to think that. Maybe you think there have been few, if any, times when I've had to defend myself against malicious intent. I'm happy for you to think that too. In short, if believing that I'm weak, defenceless and no threat allows me to live in peace, I'm happy for you to think it.
The truth is that I spent more years than I should in a town in Northern Ireland - a town which was on the border with the republic - and I have an English accent. There were people who really didn't like that combination of factors. All I'll tell you about those years is that, after many years away from martial arts practice, I started to learn everything I could about jeet kune do, absorbed martial arts philosophy, principles and techniques from as many sources as possible, and eventually joined a jujitsu class.
In that class were many students who had so little faith in the Japanese roots of their art that they added movements from the modern Brazilian interpretation of jujitsu, via nights spent watching MMA contests on satellite TV. To counter this, I went in the opposite direction, towards being hyper-traditional, to the point where I traced the roots of the art back to Chinese wrestling (shuai jiao) and started adding those movements, and others from simultaneous study of tai chi, into my game. Pretty soon, I had to face the humiliation of being left alone at the edge of the mat, with no other student wanting to train with me.
Was I forced to fight, outside of the training hall? Why did no one want to train with me? I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself. Before going to Northern Ireland, I lived the kind of life that led to me being seen as a geek, a nerd, or whatever the latest term is. In those days, it wasn't cool: it meant I was alone, and it made me a target. Again, I was pretty much obsessed with martial arts at the time, and I'll leave you to work out my reasons for being so obsessed.
I have to question that past, and also my current involvement in the martial arts. What is the purpose of my current practice? Why, when some of the other students focus on hitting each other, is my focus more on avoiding being hit?
If I were to tell you that I've had to fight, that these were the kind of fights which might have ended in me going for a ride in an ambulance, or even a hearse, what would be your thoughts? Would you expect that I know a thing or two about self protection? Would you expect that I had gained some wisdom from the experience? For the record, I'm not telling you any of that. I'll leave you to fill in the blanks for yourself. If those things had happened, it would not be something of which I'd be proud. Quite the opposite. I would regard it as a failure, either of my own ability to reason with others, or of their ability to behave with basic human decency. Either way, it would be something that brought shame, rather than pride.
A few months ago, I went for a night out with a friend. She told me of an encounter she had with another female, and demonstrated the ferocity of the slap with which she had hit the aforementioned female, barely missing my face in her eagerness to show the power with which she had struck. I made no attempt to block it, even though the momentum of the strike would have caused no small amount of pain. Her proud smile faded when she noticed me looking down, saddened that she had taken so much pride in hurting another human being. Nothing more was said about the incident, and the subject was quickly changed.
I would much rather bring a fight to an end before a single hand is raised, before a single blow is struck. I wish others felt the same.