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  • Writer's pictureJulian Molteno

Muscular Adventures : Perception and Redemption

Over the course of my bodybuilding life I have had a few scrapes and mini-adventures — some of which I have already written about here on the glorious pages of This post is a story about two incidents — the first one: small, private, and almost non existant, the second; noisy, messy, and very public. I like this story because after that first minor incident, nothing really happens for more than a decade. It then takes the second incident to allow the original incident to be acknowledged, and to be resolved, but in a completely unexpected way.

Growing up in South Africa, I had a South African upbringing, but with a British twist as my mum was Welsh. So while the Highveld, boerewors, and Jock of the Bushveld were an integral part of my early life, so too were the Welsh Valleys, Sunday Roasts with Yorkshires, and Mary Poppins.

Jock of the Bushveld, boerewors and the Highveld VS Mary Poppins, Sunday roasts and the Welsh Valleys.

Despite my South African feeling of Britishness, when I actually arrived in the UK in the July of 1989, it seemed very peculiar and foreign place to me. A stranger in a strange land. It took me ages to work out that the famous pub I read about in the papers, the Queen Vic, was not a real pub, but a fictional place on a TV program, that a 5 pence piece was larger than a 20 pence piece, and that sometimes the sun set at 4pm and sometimes at 10pm! In SA the sun set at about 6pm. Easy! I was also mightily amused when a man serving me in my local shop called me “Guv’nor”, I thought I was in an episode of The Sweeney! Who knew people actually spoke like that?

I have a vivid memory of walking up Judd Street in Kings Cross, looking for Physique Gym (where I was to spend many happy years) and seeing some roadworks taking place. I stopped in my tracks and stared with astonishment at the never-before-seen sight of white men performing manual labour! I was aghast! I genuinely thought there must a strike and the army had been drafted in to do essential works!

Actually, my “British Education” started on the very day I landed at Heathrow. My Welsh aunt, Frances, picked me up at the airport before driving us back to Bridgend, in South Wales. Firstly, I had zero appreciation of what a big deal this was, in SA we always picked guests up from the airport, a trip up to Jan Smuts International was a huge treat! I did not give it a second thought that it was a 6 hour round-trip for Frances — someone who very rarely travelled, not even up to Cardiff. My second lesson that day was when we stopped at a petrol station to fill up. To my amazement, this little old lady (she was actually only 50 at the time, but ancient to me) jumped out of the car and proceeded to fill it up with petrol! What?! In SA you drive into the garage, hand the attendant your car keys and he fills up with petrol, checks the oil and cleans your windscreen — and takes payment while you remain sitting in your car. This England was a strange place!

Over the years, I slowly assimilated into British society, learning all the minutia of the customs and expressions that make up the nature of this great nation. One of the new terms that amused me was that of a “Plastic Paddy.”

Plastic Paddy is a derogatory term for members of the Irish diaspora who appropriate Irish customs and identity. A plastic Paddy may know little of actual Irish culture, but nevertheless assert an Irish identity. The term is negatively used to refer to people on the basis of their perceived lack of authenticity as Irish.

In my world, the world of bodybuilding and health and fitness, you come across people who live and love the fitness life, because that is who they are! It is deep within them — the love of hard training, the satisfaction of eating tight, of feeling alive, of having unstoppable energy. What a pleasure it is to feel this way! Then you come across the Plastic Paddy variety of fitness enthusiasts, and I’m thinking especially those who actually work in the industry. They work in fitness because it’s a good way of making a living, a temporary stopgap while making up their minds about a more permanent career. One of the reasons I respect the main protagonists in this story is because they are an example of the former, they are in the industry for all the right reasons — they believe that they can make a positive difference to people’s lives. I love that sort of person, and I love the fact that so many people genuinely interested in health and fitness often stay involved in it for all of their lives.

The vast majority of people we see in the gym and meet in the bodybuilding world etc., are on the peripheries of our lives, only a few become proper friends, but nonetheless these people still form an important part of our “fitness family”. One such person was a lovely Iranian lady called Parry. I have known her in a vague sort of way for around 30 yrs. She used to do a yoga class with my (now) wife, Suzy, and Suzy’s sister, Claire. Now Claire is one of those life-long health and fitness enthusiasts that I so admire! She loved sports from an early age at school and has run and swum and lifted weights all her life, and at 60+, still does! In fact, it was Claire who introduced Suzy and I all those many years ago.

Suzy’s sister, Claire. Look at her smile! She has had a life-long love of exercise!

Anyhow, I would see Parry in the streets around Kings Cross because she had a small sandwich bar nearby on Marchmont Street. She was such an enthusiastic and friendly person and on the occasional times that we did bump into one another she always asked after Suzy and (much later) my two girls.

After a few years Parry and her brother Mehr sold the sandwich shop and bought a health food place, on the same road, called Alara. The health store was founded in 1979 but seemed to me to be rather dilapidated and tired, in need of some loving care. I was amazed to see how, over the course of the next few years, Parry and Mehr transformed this moribund business into a store full of life, innovation and energy! They achieved this through a genuine desire to provide a superior product for their customers, one that reflected their love and passion for the health food business.

Alara, the health food shop on Marchmont Street.

I was not a regular Alara customer, but on the rare occasion that I did pop in, I always received a warm welcome from Parry and Mehr. One evening, after just finishing my shift at Physique, I passed by the store and went in to look for something, I can’t remember what exactly. I was drinking a Fit Protein as I was walking about, and as I went to leave Mehr came to the counter. We said “Hi!” and I walked out, he saw the Fit Protein in my hand and I could tell from the look on his face, that he thought I had stolen it! He was too nice to say anything, and I was too young to know what to do, so I kept on walking. It was a terrible moment! I felt awful. His expression said so much in that short moment. He looked so hurt that someone he trusted, someone with whom he shared a bond of togetherness in the world of health and fitness, had betrayed him!

For many years afterwards, whenever we passed by one another there was always an awkwardness, and our relationship was never the same again.

Fast forward 10-ish plus years or so. I had since worked in Physique’s sister gym, Maximum Fitness in Tufnell Park, then worked full-time at the Backpacker and Church, and now here I was back at Physique, back at my old stomping ground.

One fine day, I was walking along Marchmont Street with my friend and client, Sam Frears, as he and I were on our way to have a cup of coffee together. (I am going to write a post about Sam soon as he is a remarkable man. I have trained him for nearly 20 years, and he has become a friend, and a part of my life.) As we strolled along, I heard and saw a commotion. Sam has a rare autoimmune disease called Familial Dysautonomia. A disease that has many difficult symptoms and side affects. For the purposes of this story however, all we need to know about Sam is that he is blind. Sam heard and sensed that something was amiss and (we walk arm-in-arm as Sam has issues with his gait) I felt him tighten his grip on me and say, “Don’t get involved!” We were passing by some iron railings so I took his hands, placed then firmly on the railings, and told him to stay put!

My friend Sam. Always smiling, always positive.

I saw that the disturbance was coming from Alara, and that Parry was literally wrestling with another woman in the door of the shop, and it immediately occurred to me that she must be a shoplifter. It was a wild scene! The two, it must be said, pretty evenly matched woman, burst out of the doorway, careering into the tables and chairs where, only moments before, Alara customers had been sat eating their vegan cakes and sipping their Camomile teas. Carnage ensued! Tables and chairs were upturned, customers scattered, tea was sploshed and cake was squished. In a flurry of fists and feet and fury, Parry and her quarry came crashing down on to the pavement and into the the road. Marchmont Street had never seen the like! The tea leaf sprung up and bolted, running headlong towards me. I was not captain of the Under 15 A rugby team at St John’s College for nothing you know, and the old rugby instincts (and some adrenaline) quickly kicked in. I readied myself for the rapidly approaching moment of truth! I have faced much bigger and much uglier opponents on the rugby field, all hell-bent on getting past me, but never before had I come across a player as dead-set as this one to get over the metaphorical try-line! Even though I must have out-weighed her by a good 20 kgs, she represented an awesome prospect as she hurtled toward me. I countered her momentum by crouching low and, at the last second, thrusting forward into her, bringing her bid for freedom to a bone-crunching halt! I wrapped my arms around her, hoisted her up off the ground, and with her little legs swinging furiously, walked her back to the scene of the crime.

Standing there was my gentle and loving and kind friend, Parry. She was in a state of great agitation and, completely out of character, slapped the woman hard in her whole face! She then dug about in her opponent’s pockets and fished out two very expensive jars of Manuka Honey. All-the-while, the lady was yelling and shouting about how she was being abused and man-handled. By this time Marchmont Street has come to a stand-still and a sizeable crowd had gathered. The lady continued to shout her protests, wriggling quite forcefully, trying to escape my embrace! Of course, no one bothered to come over to help, they were all too busy videoing the whole scene on their phones, hoping to capture some sort of dramatic event, to amuse all their pals with later on.

An artists impression of the “Alara Incident.”

I have been a doorman for many years and know from experience that on-lookers (especially those who have not seen the beginning of the drama) soon start to feel sorry for the weaker person, and begin to nurture feelings of hostility toward the bigger and stronger “bully”, so I was keen to off-load this little spitfire struggling in my arms. At that moment Mehr felt compelled to intervene and he came over to me to take her off my hands.

We then had a very interesting moment!

He looked into my eyes, and with this single look, conveyed firstly his thanks to me for helping his sister out of a very difficult situation, and without doubt, he also forgave me my long-ago crime of stealing the Fit Pro!! I looked back at him and I’m sure he saw in my eyes that I understood his unspoken message of thanks and forgiveness. It was a very emotional and thought-provoking exchange.

I went back to Sam,apologised, and we went in to Costa. I made sure we took a table near the window to keep an eye on the still unfolding events. The lady displayed remarkable tenacity and vigour by keeping up a very loud and insistent desire/demand to be allowed to continue on her lawful way. And after 10 minutes or so when it became clear that the police were not going to attend, that is exactly what happened.

Parry saw Sam and I and came over to talk. She was still very agitated about the theft and extremely upset about how the locals and her fellow shop owners just stood there gawping and not helping out. As she pointed out, she had known many of them for nearly 2 decades. Needless to say she showered me with praise and thanks which I did my best to accept in a gracious manner. Of course if I were still 100% South African I would have revelled in her praise, but because I am now (almost) an Englishman, I blushed and stammered and shushed her up, insisting I had done nothing.

That is the end of my story. A story that only had a beginning, once it had found its ending. And I like that.

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