Brendan O’Neill

The gym where they teach you how to beat up chavs

Brendan O’Neill is not impressed by a class of paranoid white-collar workers learning how to head-butt imaginary assailants and defend themselves with their laptops

Text settings

Brendan O’Neill is not impressed by a class of paranoid white-collar workers learning how to head-butt imaginary assailants and defend themselves with their laptops

Have you ever wanted to learn how to beat up a chav, those baseball-cap-wearing, bling-sporting youngsters who inhabit inner cities, drink copious amounts of cider, and say unintelligible things in ‘Blackney’ (a mixture of ‘blackspeak’ and Cockney)? Well, now’s your chance. Gymbox, a chain of in-your-face gyms in London, is offering lessons in ‘Chav Fighting’. ‘Don’t give moody, grunting chavs an ASBO, give them a kicking!’ invites the Gymbox website: ‘Welcome to Chav Fighting, a place where the punchbags gather dust and the world is put to rights.’

And lest there be any doubt about what Chav Fighting involves, the Gymbox site comes complete with a promo video showing a respectable young man and woman being set upon by trackie-wearing scum, only for the respectable man to fight back, kick said scum to the ground, and beat them to a pulp. Gymbox promises to teach you how to ‘take away a [chav’s] Bacardi’ and ‘turn his grunts into whines’. ‘Why hone your skills on punchbags and planks of wood when you can deck some chavs?’ asks its promo leaflet.

I decided to pop along to Chav Fighting to see what kind of person signs up for a class that teaches you how to use everyday objects — keys, umbrellas, laptops — to beat up what Gymbox describes as the ‘scourge of modern-day Britain’. Well, I tried.

‘We don’t do that class anymore,’ says the receptionist at the Holborn branch. ‘It proved a little controversial.’ That’s one way of putting it. The Advertising Standards Authority is now investigating Gymbox after receiving complaints from people in Holborn who had Gymbox leaflets thrust into their hands inviting them to learn how to floor scummy yoof. ‘However,’ says the receptionist. Yes? ‘There is a similar class. It’s called Krav Maga. It’s on Friday evenings.’

Krav Maga is an urban street-fighting martial art. It was first developed by Imi Lichtenfeld, a Jewish boxer and wrestler who in 1930s Bratislava developed a form of hand-to-hand combat to help Jews defend themselves against anti-Semitic mobs. It later became part of the training course for the Israel Defense Forces. It teaches you how to use ‘any available objects’ — such as keys and umbrellas, for example — to ‘neutralise’ your attacker. And guess what? Gymbox has previously referred to some of its Krav Maga classes as Chav Maga, promising urban street-fighting techniques that will help you ‘defend yourself from gangs of hoodies’. Indeed, the still lingering advert for Chav Fighting on the Gymbox website says: ‘Using a mixture of self-defence techniques — Krav Maga and other martial arts — our very own Chav Maga will keep you confident, switched on and ready for action!’ This Krav Maga class sounds like just the place to learn how to neutralise chavs. I go along.

Gymbox in Holborn is a throbbing, cavernous place. In a huge subterranean room surrounded by thick stone walls, men and women run on treadmills to the noise of ribcage-rattling dance music (whether it’s house, jungle or techno, I have no idea). In a boxing ring in the corner, men in shorts kick punchbags with their bare feet. It looks painful.

Leaflets advertise various Gymbox classes: there’s the WAG Workout for women who want to get just the right body to attract a wealthy footballer; Boob Aerobics for women who want nicer boobs; White Collar Boxing, where bankers and other rich boys get to spar with a professional boxer; and also Bitch Boxing, Pole Dancing and Psycho Circuits. A stream of sweaty young women pours out of Studio 1, where the Krav Maga class is about to take place, and tell me they have just been to ‘Fight Klub’. ‘It’s like aerobics, but you box and kick instead of wave and jump around,’ says one young woman, in between gasps for air. So, more Sonny Liston than Mad Lizzie.

Inside Studio 1, the 15 attendees of Krav Maga start to limber up. I don’t know what is the most powerful odour in the room: sweat or paranoia. A thirtysomething executive recruiter tells me he comes to this class to learn how to defend himself ‘in our era of knife crime’. Era? For all the shrill newspaper headlines, knife crime in London has actually been falling: figures released by the Met last year showed that it dropped by 15.7 per cent over the previous two years, from 12,122 to 10,220 incidents.

The executive recruiter tells me he has learned how to use a newspaper as a weapon (you throw it in someone’s face, apparently) and a laptop bag as a shield. He’s also learned to be on full alert for danger. ‘Whenever I go into a pub now,’ he says, ‘I scout around for signs of danger before sitting down.’ Which can’t make for a very relaxed social life.

Mat, the instructor, denies that Krav Maga has anything to do with decking chavs. Krav Maga is all about neutralising threats, he says, not beating them up. But it seems a pretty violent form of neutralisation. In one warm-up exercise, Mat has the 15 men move around the studio, punching and kicking at imaginary threats as they go. ‘More elbows! I want to see more elbows!’ he demands. And head-butts too: he gets the attendees to hit punchbags with anything they can, including their heads.

Every exercise seems tinged with fear: the men are taught always to be on the lookout for danger, to be able to punch and elbow backwards in order to hit someone sneaking up on them. ‘I always know what is going on 360 degrees around me,’ one City worker proudly tells me (everyone here is white collar), ‘and I can react in an instant.’ That is important, he says, at a time ‘of so much violence and crime’. I’d be far more worried bumping into one of these primed, paranoid, musclebound men than a skinny chav in a tracksuit.

But is this all just a glorified form of keep-fit? For a moment, the class turns a bit gay. Mat has us on the floor doing leg-and-butt exercises, promising that we will get ‘the same kind of butt you see in Calvin Klein adverts’. We all giggle approvingly. But there is a sinister side too. In this Krav Maga class, in the much-promised but elusive Chav Fighting class, and in other increasingly popular street-fighting classes in gyms across London, well-to-do white-collar workers seem to be visiting their fear and frustration on imaginary threats.

The executive recruiter tells me London is likely to become more violent as the recession gets worse. A combination of media exaggeration about the threat of chavvy knife crime, the strangely intense paranoia fostered by spending all night in a dark, dingy gym and white-collar workers’ feelings of recession-related insecurity has generated a new culture of quite hateful keep-fit. These sweating men look (and smell) like the physical manifestation of today’s culture of fear.

I say: leave the so-called chavs alone. They might feature regularly in the media as the binge-drinking cause of Britain’s every social ill, but in the real world they are mostly pleasant or shy young men and women. In my neck of the woods, Lambeth (the rough part), a group of what many people would label as chavs, complete with one of those ugly, snarling mutts, inhabits a local bus-stop, talking loudly, drinking Sunny D, displaying their underwear. Yet if you so much as smile at them, far less say ‘Good evening’, they look away or sink further into their hooded tops like especially shy tortoises. Bless ’em. I can’t imagine ever using these kids as punchbags or even throwing my Evening Standard in their faces.p>

Written byBrendan O’Neill

Brendan O’Neill is the editor of Spiked and a columnist for The Australian and The Big Issue.

Topics in this articleSociety