|Watch My Back by Geoff Thompson||
Review by Digby
Watch My Back, by Geoff Thompson
When one thinks of as great MA pioneers of this century the most obvious choices are likely to include Bruce Lee, the Gracies and Dan Inosanto. And when I say obvious, I mean it with no detriment to their achievements. What they had in common was an experimental and investigative approach, to explore as many facets of MA as possible. To test and refine what works, and then, in their own different ways, give it back to the world.
Well add one more name to that list. Working without glory, on a rainy little island. So far from the arena Hollywood gave Bruce Lee to catapault his consciousness onto the world. So far from the fanfare of the UFC, which gave the Gracies their platform to shockingly illustrate a vital gap in everybody's game plan, for the delight and scrutiny of thousands of practitioners around the world. So far from all of that.
In a grimy, unremarkable (except for it's rate of violent encounters) town, Geoff was redefining the martial arts. He was applying a scientific rigour to the study of all aspects of violence which had probably never been done with such depth since Sun Tzu. Geoff's influence in this country is huge, and it seems that recognition of his pioneering spirit and achievements is now an international phenomenon. And quite rightly so.
And at last I'm going to read the book that, in my presumption, is going to give the background, and events that inspired and informed him to do this work. Fantastic.
The general bones of Geoff's story must be fairly common knowledge by now: the man is driven by fear; to combat fear he studies martial arts as a youngster; this only meets with a very partial, and seemingly unsatisfactory, success; as a younger adult his is again impelled to confront his fears, which by now have manifested themselves as a fear of violent confrontation; his chosen method is to place himself in the only situation he knows of to face this violence; doing the door; realising his martial training doesn't translate too well from the dojo to the 'pavement arena' ; cross training to fill in gaps; pioneering training methods and philosophies that are capable of surviving the closest scrutiny; animal day; laying down the ground rules that lead to some kind of empirical presentation of those intangible elements of violence; fear and adrenalin.....................and into the future.
The man is a legend in the making.
Oh yes. Going to find out what was happening to the man that made all this possible.
The book begins with a few keynotes regarding formative experiences and influences - the city of his birth and life, early martial arts training (and dark moments it would bring), and getting introduced to a nagging fear.
It's fear really that Geoff seemed to do his training for, just so happens that he chose martial activities to do his pioneering work. And all the way through he acknowledges the influence and previous work of others, for even a pioneer cannot exist in a vacuum. Most frequent throughout the book are references to Cus Damoco, the famous, and sadly departed, trainer of a young Mike Tyson. Many stories abound of how Cus used to face and confront his fears, and one of his maxims occurs in the book frequently:
Fear is the friend of exceptional men.
So asking himself how he can make a friend of fear. How he can be an exceptional man. Geoff heads for his personal showdown by getting a job at the door.
As we step through the early days of bouncing there are humorous stories telling how Geoff would discover the ineffective nature of much of his training. While being humorous it still has a grave undertone - it may be funny to us reading it, but for the man out there facing of a gang, well it's a bad time to find out you've been sold a dud. Geoff is quickly taken under the wing of the head doorman, John Anderson. A man of vast raw talent and even vaster experience, Jim helps Geoff identify the holes in his physical armoury. And introduces him to the whole mental game as well.
Luckily John became a close friend of Geoff's, and as such features throughout the book - being a great source of battle tales and black comedy.
And essentially that is what the book evolves into, a series of battle tales. Only there is little gratuitous about them. Each chapter covers a different facet to Geoff's philosophy, or his style, or whatever it is that can sum the man up in a single word. Each chapter explores that facet by giving examples. And most often those examples are, of course battle tales.
I particularly enjoyed the chapters relating to adrenalin, recognising it, dealing with it, mapping it, how intrinsically it is linked with fear.
In fact virtually all of Geoff's work is discussed through these vignettes, illustrating how a problem or deficit in training was recognised and explored. This is perhaps one of the best parts of the book. We all know the work upon which Geoff's reputation lies, and it is extremely illuminating to gain an insight as to how this all came about.
However all is not perfect, for this is no paradise we live in, and as the book progressed I began to develop a nagging doubt. I t seemed to me that the battle tales were telling less and less about the nature of Geoff's work. They seemed to be lacking an underlying moral perhaps. This degenerated further and I had the distinct impression that Geoff was beginning to bathe a little in the glory and kudos that his new persona had afforded him.
Whilst at the beginning of the book Geoff spoke at length of the importance of reputation within the arena he was operating, now he seemed to be becoming something of a prisoner to his reputation, unable to stand back from it.
He seemed to be deriving some enjoyment from beating people, and felt compelled to do so because of what was beginning to resemble the sort of mindless machismo suffered by the very same people Geoff was confronting.
I almost found myself thinking that this guy had now become little more than a w*****.
And to tell the truth it was deeply saddening. However all was not lost. For just about this point the book took, what was for me at least, at drastic turn in a new direction.
Geoff seemed to be going through all kinds of difficult personal situations, and realised that certain things in his life were going to change. Included in this list was the recognition of the 'darker' side that had developed in him. There was to be a move away from the life of violence. However when you leave something which has occupied so much of your life, you are often left with a vacuum that needs filling.
Geoff plumped for the idea of writing a book about his experiences. There are a few hilarious tales about skiving off work in the toilets to find the time to write; of sending mismatched, hand-written pieces of paper to publishers.
There is a more serious side to these tales though, dealing with the doubt and rejection and harsh criticism that is barely more than plain malicious insults.
Of forcing yourself to believe in yourself, and finding ways to achieve it, And of course the book does get written, and eventually a publisher has the nous to go ahead with it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
This last part of the book is, I suspect, illustrative of the new directions in Geoff's life. Taking his pioneering work beyond the scope of martial arts.
If he had found a way of conquering his fears of violent confrontations by operating within violence, why couldn't that template be applied else where.
We are often afraid to be as great as we really have the potential.
Why?? Who knows. Perhaps it's the awesome prospect at the levels of personal commitment that would likely be involved. Perhaps it's that we are secretly scared of that person we really want to be. I don't know for sure.
That's ultimately what this book is all about. Fear. It's okay to be scared. It's just how you deal with being scared.
Geoff sums it all up, at the end of the book, with two simple questions:
This book is funny, warm, scary, white-knuckle, unputdownable. But ultimately it is life affirming.