Nigella – a perspective from a woman with 30 years martial arts experience.

I don’t often blog about political issues and I can’t recall ever commenting on a ‘showbiz’ story before. This is different.

My responses to those appalling photos of ‘celebrity chef’ Nigella Lawson being attacked by her ‘millionaire philanthropist and art collector’ husband Charles Saatchi have been rather different to most. ( For those of you abroad, the story is here).

I haven’t been sitting here muttering (or tweeting) ‘she should have slapped his face/punched him in the nuts’. I haven’t even been muttering ‘I would have kneed him in the nuts’. Firstly, both those responses come uncomfortably close to victim blaming as far as I am concerned. Secondly, I know exactly how difficult doing either of those things would actually be, especially from a hold like that, with both participants seated at a table. That’s setting aside the risks that a violent response from the weaker participant in a physical quarrel will simply generate more and worse violence from the stronger assailant and that’s not going to end well.

Which is not to say there aren’t things you can do in that situation. I have studied the martial art Aikido for thirty years now, which specifically enables smaller, lighter, physically weaker individuals to get the better of any sort of opponent,. So I can say with a fair degree of confidence that anyone trying to grab my throat across a dinner table will end up face down in the crockery. For someone without any such experience? That’s a very different matter indeed.

As an instructor, one of the first things we must do with new students is get them accustomed to being attacked. The ‘fright-freeze’ response is deeply ingrained and it short-circuits conscious thinking pretty much entirely. Learning not to panic under attack takes time – and that’s in a friendly, relaxed dojo atmosphere, where senior coach/my husband Steve and I have already demonstrated that however hard and fast we might launch a blow, we have the experience to make sure we won’t actually make contact, if the new student fluffs the response. Most usually by standing still, wide-eyed and mentally gibbering ‘ohshitohshitohshitI’mgoingtodie’. Incidentally, gender or physical size has nothing to do with this. The biggest, strongest chaps will respond in the exact same way, especially when they are taken by surprise. Which is something I do every so often, just to make the point. That they’re being unexpectedly menaced by a grey-haired, middle-aged woman in glasses half a foot shorter than they are, makes absolutely no difference to their instinctive response.

So one of the most important things we teach from the outset, is how NOT to get grabbed. Once your opponent has a solid hold, your options are much more limited and depending on the nature of the hold, getting free will require a higher level of skill and experience. We very rarely practise neck holds – not least because they are so dangerous. I once saw a very experienced black belt try, and fail, to get out of a strangle and end up unconscious on the mat. So primarily we teach people how to NOT get caught by the throat, and only examine escapes from dangerous holds with senior students with considerable care.

The other thing about neck holds is they often involve nerve strikes to inflict pain. We do teach more advanced students to use attacks on nerves as part of other non-neck-gripping techniques which involve controlling the freedom of movement of an attacker’s head. A good many of these nerve points are underneath and along the inside edge of the jawbone. Looking at those vile photos, I think it’s perfectly possible that Charles Saatchi could have struck one by accident. You don’t have to have martial arts skills to get lucky. When we’re training students in pins and holds that involve nerve compression, we always caution them to go slowly at first. Just because they’ve never done it before doesn’t mean they can’t get it agonisingly right by complete fluke.

The point of nerve strikes is not to inflict pain for its own sake. It’s to inflict pain in order to completely short circuit the attacker’s thought processes. To turn the tables entirely, so they’re now the one under attack, and crucially derailing their aggressive intent with a good dose of ‘ohshitohshitohshit-she’s going to rip my arm/head/leg off and club me to death with it.’

Not that we do things like that in aikido, the clubbing to death bit, I mean. The central aim of aikido is not to break your attacker’s ability to attack (by breaking their arms, legs, faces and ending up in court charged with assault) but to break their will to attack, by various means such as not letting them even make contact in the first place and thereafter, taking the initiative in the combat away from them so they end up being thrown or pinned as the aikidoka prefers. But I digress.

Learning how to do that calmly and effectively, especially when you’re caught off guard, particularly if a nerve strike is involved, takes a good deal of time and application. Advanced cookery skills will be little or no help.

So much for that. Why are we even talking about what Nigella could or should have done? Let’s talk about what Charles Saatchi actually did, as proven in those photographs. He grabbed her throat, hard. Are there any circumstances when doing this is a legitimate part of a conversation between two people, irrespective of their ages, gender or relationship? No, there are not. He assaulted her, as anyone with even passing knowledge of the law knew yesterday, even before news of his police caution broke. He assaulted her. I have no interest in Charles Saatchi’s self-serving version of events thereafter. Playful tiff? Fuck off. He assaulted her.

According to the papers, Nigella has now left home. I hope she gets all the support she needs amid all this furore and I am very glad to think that she has the money to take whatever action she sees fit, legal or otherwise.

But let’s just take a moment to consider all the victims of domestic violence who don’t have the protection of money, fame and influential family and friends. The refuges and services that have offered them quite literally a lifeline, have suffered sustained and increasing cuts in funding. Tory party thinking has long been that charities will take up this work, funded by wealthy philanthropists, the great and the good whose interests they so assiduously protect. Patrons of the arts, like, oh, Charles Saatchi for instance. Do we think that he will be donating to unglamorous causes like domestic violence charities? Well, he might well do so now, for the PR value. He is an ad-man after all.

But should vulnerable women’s lives be dependent on the capricious generosity of supremely privileged individuals like him? No. They should be protected by the society of which we are all members and by the government which is supposed to act in all our interests.

Author: Juliet

Juliet E McKenna is a British fantasy author living in the Cotswolds, UK. Loving history, myth and other worlds since she first learned to read, she has written fifteen epic fantasy novels so far. Her debut, The Thief’s Gamble, began The Tales of Einarinn in 1999, followed by The Aldabreshin Compass sequence, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution, and The Hadrumal Crisis trilogy. The Green Man’s Heir was her first modern fantasy inspired by British folklore in 2018, and The Green Man’s Quarry in 2023 is the sixth title in this ongoing series. Her 2023 novel The Cleaving is a female-centred retelling of the story of King Arthur, while her shorter stories include forays into dark fantasy, steampunk and science fiction. She promotes SF&Fantasy by reviewing, by blogging on book trade issues, attending conventions and teaching creative writing. She has served as a judge for major genre awards. As J M Alvey, she has written historical murder mysteries set in ancient Greece.

15 thoughts on “Nigella – a perspective from a woman with 30 years martial arts experience.

  1. This incident has left me deeply shocked on many levels. You’re right that we shouldn’t get into victim blaming. It is a surprise that strong, confident, successful Nigella is a victim of this sort of abuse, but criticising or judging her for that doesn’t help anyone.

    I was most bothered by the diners and onlookers who didn’t intervene to stop it. They may have muttered into their glasses but they don’t seem to have raised their voices to condemn it. Most of us might like to think we would have done something, but in many ways the diners represent us, all of society, looking on and not doing very much while a woman gets brutalised. So I agree, the government should step up and fund more protection for victims of domestic violence.

    1. An excellent post. Regarding the ‘onlookers’, I would like to say that even (or maybe because of) having been on the receiving end of a violent attack, I was still frozen when I witnessed another woman being beaten in front of me. I was telling myself to move, come on, get up, say something, stop this, but I was absolutely petrified into inaction, to my unending shame. But it seems it’s what happens. The one person to blame here is Saatchi.

  2. The other thing is – it is possible she will chose to go back. While we may not agree with that choice, we shouldn’t blame her if she does.

    We don’t know what has been going on for years between them or what place she is in.

  3. Yours is an interesting, if hypothetical, ‘take’ on the Nigella story. On December 30th last at 8 pm there was a knock at my front door. When I answered it a man with a 5 inch kitchen knife threw himself at me, sprayed cellulose in my eyes and, in what can only be described as a frenzied attack, stabbed me several times before I could either see anything, register what was happening or respond physically. Fortunately the deepest knife wound, as I discovered later, missed my heart by just 2 millimetres and subsequent thrusts miraculously avoided other vital organs. I was very, very lucky. Even more fortunately, once I collected my thoughts I realised I was going to die if I didn’t start to react so, opening my eyes sufficiently to glimpse the flashing blade, I grabbed it and tried to twist it out of his hand. Despite the deep wound gushing blood from my left palm I somehow succeeded in wresting the knife from my assailant and, at the same time, pushed him backwards out of the door. As my eyesight cleared a little, I followed him and wrestled him to the ground on my driveway whereupon, after shouting for help, two neighbours appeared and held him down until the arrival of police. Another neighbour managed to staunch the worst of the bleeding and kept me stable and conscious until paramedics arrived. A&E surgeons at the local hospital were marvellously efficient and I somehow survived a very determined attempted murder by a combination of good fortune and my own ‘fight’ response. The point I am making here is that, because the attack was both premeditated and very fast, no amount of training or martial arts skill could have saved me from the initial shock of the first few seconds where I was caught totally offguard, blinded and stabbed repeatedly without being able, in any way, to respond. Even a split second’s anticipation of danger is helpful and so, in Nigella’s situation – where she obviously has experience of her husband’s potential for intimidatory violence – certain measures can be taken, in advance, to make her situation less vulnerable. It is, perhaps, both preparedness and the ‘deterrent’ aspect therefore which are most useful against bullies like Saatchi in ‘polite society’ situations as well as in the domestic context ? As to Ros Jackson’s comments ( see above ), it is not the Government who are ‘responsible’ for protecting victims of violence, ‘domestic’ or otherwise – it is the Police. In my case, my attacker was known to Police, had already been jailed for a similar offence and, as he had both stalked and threatened me and tried to strangle my partner previously, he should have been in custody or, at very least, having his behaviour and whereabouts monitored. This necessary level of protection didn’t happen because of police short-staffing, a non-existent probationary policy and because of more than one internal communications breakdown between different constabularies. Throwing more public money at the problem is not necessarily the answer. A fundamental change in culture is what’s needed. Society always tend to follow examples so a respected, and very wealthy man like Saatchi sets a precedent which allows the more Neanderthal of males to feel it’s ok to physically intimidate their ‘nearest and dearest’ as an expression of their need to demonstrate a controlling influence.

    1. Many thanks for your comment, I have a few points to make here –

      firstly, it’s extremely good to know that you survived such an awful attack, not least thanks to the help of so many people, your neighbours, the medics etc, and all sincerest sympathies on what must have been an appalling experience.

      Secondly, however, I beg to differ somewhat – martial arts training could possibly – not necessarily would – have enabled you to react faster and without perhaps suffering such significant injury when you were attacked. I wasn’t there, so I cannot say for certain, but knife attacks is something we specifically train to counter in aikido. This trains students into patterns of reaction quicker than conscious thought. But that is a hypothetical so of limited relevance here.

      thirdly, and rather more directly relevant, as far as I am concerned, the Police are an arm of Government, so surely the short-staffing etc which left you vulnerable is still ultimately the Government’s responsibility?

      Fourthly, I absolutely and entire agree that a change of culture is essential, to make behaviour like this unacceptable, and to nail the excuses and evasions that the likes of Charles Saatchi use to try to minimise their despicable behaviour.

  4. Thanks for this thoughtful analysis, both of the situation and the politics around it.

    I’d add – a lesser version of the panic reflexes that are so hard to overcome in martial arts also affect social situations. We spend our whole lives being socialised _not_ to jump into to other people’s arguments; it takes practice to learn to intervene. Combine that with the “somebody should do something” effect… and that’s why a restaurant full of people can watch and do nothing.

    You have to learn to turn that “somebody should do something” into a mental trigger for “I should do something”. You have to study that decision _in advance_, because only a vanishingly small percentage (the “natural heroes”) do it instinctively.

    Intervening in trouble is a social skill like any other, and it has to be taught like any other – and sadly it usually isn’t.

  5. This is a really interesting take on the story. I agree about the victim-blaming points. Blame should always be with the aggressor – but so often society quickly says its the fault of the victim for not stopping it. The thing that gets me is that, in this case, he just got a caution. There doesn’t seem to be any sign of actual punishment for the attack.

    1. I’d certainly be interested in reading an informed legal opinion on that outcome – what are the guidelines, what’s needed by way of witnesses, proof, a direct complaint by the injured party – which is thankfully no longer essential in UK domestic violence cases. I may go and trawl a few of the more serious newspapers legal pages…

  6. Great post Juliet, and great follow up comments. Tie this in with Serena Williams’ remarks about the Steubenville rape victim and what do you get? Red flashing light warning us that a lot less progress has been made than we like to think. I think.

    1. I just caught that this morning – and it seems to be a prime example of a woman who’s never had to seriously consider these things personally simply parroting the harmful cliches of prevailing culture. Makes you want to spit. Though there is a gleam of hope in how widely she’s been called out for talking ignorant BS. Not so long ago, that simply wouldn’t have happened – there’d have been far more old-school ‘well, yes, there are two sides to every story…’ Step by step, we make progress.

      And by ‘we’ I mean humanity not just womankind. As the mother of teenage sons, I am very well aware of the challenges of ‘lad culture’ while raising them to respect women as equals.

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