Wednesday, February 22, 2006

My Martial Arts Disaster


Jane Fonda inspired our correspondent to get fit. Then Roger Cook ruined everything.

At a party recently I ran into a woman who used to come round to my house to teach me yoga. I’d had five or six sessions with her and then, growing bored, had found some excuse not to do any more. “Are you still doing the yoga?” she asked. “No, I’m afraid not,” I replied. “I just did it for a bit, then lost interest. I’m a bit of a dilettante I suppose.”

“Yes,” she said, “they all say that about you.”

As she said this I had a sudden vision of all the many people who have come round to my house over the years to teach me stuff; the woman from the library who gave me salsa lessons on my living-room floor, the t’ai chi teacher who for hours on end had me doing Master Hwang’s Five Loosening Exercises until I was loosened right out of the lessons, the meditation guy, the Pranayama breathing teacher, the tap-dancing woman and the personal trainer.

I imagined that all of them used to regularly meet up somewhere — possibly a tapas bar on the Holloway Road that had a broad range of vegetarian options — where the main topic of conversation would be my deficiencies as a student. One of my teachers who definitely would not be there, though, dipping into the patatas bravas and dissing me, would be my karate sensei.

The central character in my new novel is a woman whose life is transformed by becoming adept at a martial art called Li Kuan Yu (invented by me), and it was partly my experiences learning karate that inspired me to write the book. It was early on in my various exercise fads that I came to this man. I used to have this bit in my stand-up comedy act where I’d say “ ‘Alexei?’ People often ask me, ‘why are you drunk all the time?’ and I’d reply ‘ ’Cos I can afford to be!’ ” Now this wasn’t completely true — I was drunk only a fair amount of the time — but once the money started rolling in after I became a successful comedian, the glutton in me was unleashed and I did seem to be eating all the time. I remember my wife and I would have a proper three-course tea, including a pudding with custard, in our council flat, then go to the pub for six pints, then have a Chinese takeaway afterwards.

So it was no surprise that, at the age of 35, I became very fat. This fatness of mine coincided with the first fitness boom when Jane Fonda was continuing the work she’d begun in North Vietnam for the international communism conspiracy. She was helping women across the world to discover muscles they’d never known they had, and in Britain neighbourhood gyms were springing up on every street, like Tesco Metros are today.

To lose weight I began to attend such a place in my local shopping precinct. Soon I discovered that though I had satirised the fitness craze I loved to work out — and before long I was attending the gym three or four times a week. Apart from the improvement in my physical condition, it also gave me a new way of having relationships with other men.

Despite the hard-case image of my stage character, in real life I’ve always been a bit of a girl, with most of my friends being women. I had never before been able to form those brusque male friendships with mild homoerotic undertones that a proper man is supposed to have. Yet here at the gym I was at last able to be a bloke. As Flaubert said: “Inside every revolutionary is a policeman.” I deduced that inside every ex-revolutionary there is a frustrated fitness instructor, since it was mainly these authority figures towards whom I directed my new-found blokeish persona.

It was one particular instructor, a short, muscular dark haired man, to whom I became closest, partly, it must be said, because he was the only instructor that I ever saw twice. The entire staff of the gym, including the receptionists, the office personnel and the cleaners, seemed to change entirely between each of my visits. He’d had an incredibly exciting life, had served in the British Army and the French Foreign Legion, had worked in the Belgian film industry and, most excitingly of all, was an adept at a particular type of long-form Shotokan karate.

I didn’t like to ask. But one glorious day, seeming to read my mind, this man asked if I’d like to become his pupil and learn karate myself. My mind flooded with a vision of people doing the things I wanted them to do — not like in the past, because I was crying and they felt sorry for me, but because they were frightened of me, which would be much better. Sure, the lessons were expensive, but as I was learning from an accredited fourth Dan professional, I’d be getting the good stuff.

Over the following months in the basement practice room of the gym my teacher instructed me in the ways of the warrior. I progressed with astonishing rapidity; almost every week I would kneel at his feet and receive a new and better belt, indicating my swift rise towards the ranks of the Ninja. And, of course, my behaviour began to change outside the gym. With my new karate skills, I was no longer afraid of dark streets and rough neighbourhoods; indeed, I’d seek out dangerous-looking pubs, where I’d outstare the hard men at the bar, secure in the knowledge that, if push came to smack, I’d be able to take them out with no trouble at all. They seemed to know it, too: anybody who had ever been in a fight could see I wasn’t to be messed with. In media drinking holes the tough-guy actors recoiled from me while their expensively educated girlfriends threw themselves at my feet.

Then, one black day, I was practising my killer moves at home listening to Radio 4 when a trailer came on. Back in the 1980s there was a fat man called Roger Cook who had a programme, perhaps called Checkpoint (or perhaps not), where he regularly got beaten up by dodgy builders and sleazy conmen as he exposed their duping of what I always dismissed as the gullible, idiotic public. “Today at 12 on Checkpoint (or perhaps not),” Cook intoned, “we expose the conman who’s selling teaching certificates to his martial art where the teachers qualify in half an hour!”

Tuning in one unhappy hour later, I learnt with horror that my sensei had bought his qualifications, and that what I had thought were my deadly blows, kicks and strikes were in fact a random sequence of flappy hand gestures and Come Dancing leg movements that in no way would render an opponent helpless (except, perhaps, with laughter). I broke out in a cold sweat when I thought of all the genuine tough guys I’d challenged with my unwavering stare, then barged out of my path on the way to the bar.

Of course, when I went round to the gym my sensei had vanished. All he left behind were some nice, colourful, meaningless belts — and unpleasant rumours about just what it was that we’d been doing together in that subterranean room, grappling and making sissy hand motions at each other.

Weeping Women Hotel by Alexei Sayle, Sceptre, is published on February 27, £12.99. Available for £11.69 from Times Books First, 0870 1608080,

How to find a qualified teacher

To find a licensed instructor in your area, contact Karate England, the sport’s governing body (01628 487555; There are 6,500 registered clubs in England, with 130,000 members. Philip Don, the body’s development director, says: “Students should ensure that they are training with a registered instructor who holds a certificate recognised by Karate England. They can contact us and we will do our best to verify that their instructor is a recognised one.”


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