Fighting Words

Island kick shotFirst published in Island Magazine, Issue 136.

There are two things I am driven to do: write and fight.

My mother taught me to read. One of my first memories is watching her reading in bed without having to sound the words aloud. I remember wondering, ‘How does she do that?’ My mother had left school at sixteen, but she was a great reader. And she read everything.

The greatest compliment I could give her is to quote her on the subject of A Clockwork Orange. I asked if she liked it and she replied, ‘It’s not necessarily a book you like.” And that was my mother. She hardly slept; staying awake all night reading. She read in order to open other worlds to her, whether it was Wilbur Smith or Henry Handel Richarson.

To say she was escaping is condescending. She was going to the smartest people she could find, looking for answers. And she displayed great strength of character in her relationship to A Clockwork Orange; she might not have liked what she heard, but she was disciplined enough to listen.

My father taught me everything with his hands. I got hit for all kinds of reasons, most of which were strange and secret. I developed the belief, however, that everything was my fault. He was no brawling, boozing working-class man, however; he was a tall, suave professional. But he was a lunatic when he was at home with us. I was determined to learn to fight in my late-teens in order to defend myself from him.

Even though the law recognized me as a man who could drink, drive a car and vote, my father still hit me when he was angry. Possibly the most humiliating experience of my life was when I tried to discuss his aggression with him when I was eighteen.

I felt that the responsible thing to do was talk to him about it. I tried to calmly ask him why one night in the kitchen. He became angry and aggressive, and I dissolved into tears. I felt as if I was drenched in shame.

I stopped crying abruptly when I realized he didn’t understand my pain. In fact, I had tried to understand him in the wrong way. I thought because I was the issue of his body, because I bore his marks in my face and my voice, he would be able to empathize with my feelings. But in that moment of clarity I realized that he would never stop unless I made him. The only inhibition he would recognize was a pain of his own.

I started training at a karate school, and began full-contact fighting shortly after. There were a lot of remarkable things that happened, but the first was the camaraderie that emerged between my opponents and myself. The reason for this is because there are a lot more than two people in a boxing ring.

Your opponent becomes the literal incarnation of your shadow; he gives form to all of the ghosts that follow you day and night. He keeps you sharp, he makes you run and if you become lazy, arrogant or complacent, he will punish you utterly.

I won my second-last fight by knockout. A knockout is profoundly satisfying; it is indisputable and asserts you utterly over your opponent. Afterwards in the rooms, my opponent and I got talking. We talked about something, I don’t remember what, and then he reached out to pull me to him. He held me in his arms as if I was his older brother.

My favorite biblical story is the story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. It appears to him as a faceless shadow, and all my opponents embody him. Regardless of win or lose, I always emerge a new man with a new name. Bigger and better than before. Having shed a skin and moving away, as Mark Kerr says, with one extra rattle on the tail.

I can live with bumps and bruises. Broken bones heal in a matter of weeks. What I can’t live with is shame and doubt. I know that they will suck my blood like a tick for years afterwards, the shame of having not had the courage to push things to a definitive, unassailable conclusion.

‘Great’ books change you in exactly the same way. The philosophical aspect of War and Peace is one thing, but the way it takes you into the interior lives of its characters and shows how all of them are moving like moons in orbit around the events of the Napoleonic war in Russia changes you forever.

Walking down the street after reading that book makes you wonder about every face that passes you; behind each one is a world entire, as sophisticated and essential as every character that appears throughout the course of that novel.

‘Great’ books penetrate us to a depth with an understanding that reaches us in a way that another living person will almost never be able to do. They give us comfort. They engender faith. After reading a book like that and experiencing that gestalt, it makes you take stock of life.

There is little else that compares in terms of a rush, and little else that seems worthwhile doing. To be made to resonate like a bell, and to then make that experience real for someone else.

‘Real’ reading is a lot like training. It’s often difficult and uncomfortable, and the inability to fully participate can point out shortcomings that make you feel ashamed and embarrassed. It’s not the same as fighting; a difficult book like Ulysses or War and Peace won’t actually fracture your ribs or knock you unconscious. But they can make you feel grossly inadequate.

Those feelings are even worse once you start to write and embark on efforts of your own. Watching your own attempts seem awkward and uncoordinated, to say the least. The one thing writing has over fighting is that you can actually conceal your failures. You can continue to practice in secret for years.

In a few respects, fighting and writing are the same. You sweat and bleed in private and then get into a rarified space, almost naked, carrying nothing other than your fitness and technique to protect you. You have to assert yourself utterly, beyond a shadow of a doubt.

And if you fuck it up, it is often disastrous and your entire audience sees it. And that spectacle sums you up in their mind entirely; they accept or dismiss you on the basis of that performance. But if it’s good, they see something miraculous which changes them; something that they remember forever.

Fighting and writing are vocational; they are the gifts my mother and father gave me. I haven’t been in a fight since I last fought in a ring, and sure as hell don’t need the hassle of being charged with things like assault and affray.

But when it all comes down, I always want to fight. And writing is the same. It’s forcing the gestalt; it’s pushing everything to crisis so that it’s either repaired and unassailable, or torn down completely so something else can be built anew.

Dedicated to my mate, Frank Van Der Korput.

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