He was punching the head repeatedly; from the sides, from the front: a vicious onslaught of blows. He was kicking too. Turning and spinning, landing kick after well-aimed kick to his victim’s unprotected midriff. None of the many spectators of this midday scene lifted a finger to stop him or raised their voice in any word of protest. And he can’t have been more than twelve years old.
Now before you sink into dudgeon or despair I ought to tell you that all this was happening in a church hall last Sunday as children assembled to take part in their kickboxing ‘grading’, the occasion on which their progress is assessed so that they can pass from one level to the next, each denoted by a coloured belt, taking them from white, yellow, orange — and onwards to black.
And the victim of the boy’s blows was mercifully not human but a ‘BOB’ or freestanding Body Opponent punch-Bag, a heavy rubber statue shorn of arms and legs, with impressive stomach muscles, an unrufflably neat haircut and completely vacant expression. These BOBs stand like pillars round the edge of the hall, silent sentinels whose lot in life is modest and unenviable to say the least.
I may have been the only one of the proud parents waiting to see their children perform who even noticed this particular child’s display. But I found it terrifying, uncomfortably reminiscent of so much of our town and nation’s mindless violence, such as last month’s sickeningly brutal assault in Croydon of a Kurdish Iranian refugee, and all for standing at the wrong bus-stop at the wrong time.
There is a fearful capacity for destruction in the human heart that comes straight from the swamp, from the days when it wasn’t possible to sit in comfort around the fire until beasts had been hunted and enemies slaughtered. A young man could not hope to win the loyal compliance of a fertile mate until he had shown himself adept at providing food and securing the home turf. And although time and civilisation may have commuted these skills to the less flashy arts of sorting out the online Tesco order and switching on the burglar alarm, the instincts behind these acts are ancient, bloody and dreadful.
This is why I was delighted when our tiny eight-year-old performed his jabs and hooks, his upper cuts and side-kicks to a standard that took him from green belt to blue. It was, of course, an achievement for him, a reminder of how crucial it is to find something at which every child can excel and experience the affirming thrill of success. But it was not only his success, but a miniscule step for all humanity on the lifelong, arduous road towards disciplining and channelling the urge to violence which the twelve year-old boy unselfconsciously demonstrated in beating up the BOB. It is a path commended to the children I saw by their master instructor who celebrates with pride and an evangelical zeal the successes and achievements of his older students (these include a string of world and European champions), encouraging the younger children to follow in the same path from primitive instinct to dedicated sportsmanship. The sport he represents leads the children away from a culture of hideously commonplace lagered-up, head-bleeding-onto-concrete violence that mars so much of our public life, setting them on a journey towards something infinitely more noble, productive and praiseworthy.
I never feel comfortable or at home in any sporting context, but I came to recognise that this essentially oriental discipline was responding to human weakness just as, in Christian tradition, men and women have taken themselves off to deserts and monastic cells for ceaseless combat with their lesser selves, to discipline and cleanse their heart’s desires and to consecrate their lives to the ineffable eternal One.
The boys and girls who graded last Sunday are learning to honour and discipline their bodies and minds, to respect their fellow-participants who stand with them on the tatami mat, bowing their heads and silently saluting with a closed fist in an open palm, bringing a little of Japan to Croydon. They make progress in a demanding skill and enrich their communities by promising to use these martial techniques only in defence of themselves or the lives and well-being of others.
Perhaps the politicians who prescribe the content of our primary curriculum should add martial arts to literacy and numeracy. They would arguably make a more positive difference to our nation’s future than much of what our children are currently required to do.