Interview: George Kerr, Scotland’s Mr Judo

George Kerr. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
George Kerr. Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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Mr Judo recalls a glamorous life throwing his weight around with stars

Often during my chat with George Kerr, Scotland’s Mr Judo, he talks of the times in his life when he has felt Japanese, thought as a Japanese person would, or come to a Japanese conclusion about things. I don’t pretend to understand everything he says, but then I was the lowliest of juniors at his famous club, a puny Grasshopper, who decided after struggling to the grade of 1st Mon – single red stripe on my white belt – that the sport wasn’t for me.

And those moments when he goes all eastern and mystical, I’m actually glad of them. They allow me to catch my breath after the latest celebrity anecdote. Mick Jagger, Sean Connery (Tam to him), Laurence Olivier, Honor Blackman and Stanley Baxter all figure in a remarkable story which also has room for a love triangle drooled over by the tabloids for involving a Russian defector. Once, our man was an extra for John Wayne. Today, Duke is a mere walk-on for Kerr.

“I was in quite a few movies in Japan in the late 1950s – about a dozen Japanese ones, all of them war films in which they always beat the Americans, and two Hollywood ones,” he explains. “The Last Voyage which starred Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone was a disaster flick about a liner which sank after an explosion in the boiler-room. My role was boilerman so needless to say I didn’t make it to the closing credits. And then there was The 
Barbarian and the Geisha.”

In this Wayne was an unlikely diplomat, the US’s first consul in Japan. Adds Kerr: “I was only marked down for crowd scenes until something went wrong with a fight. Donn Draeger was Wayne’s stuntman and a martial arts expert. ‘Do you do this judo, kid?’ he said. At that point I didn’t have any manners so I probably went: ‘Whit? Eh?’ I wimped out of throwing him and Donn said: ‘If you want this part, kid, you’ve gotta do it. I know you need the money.’ I chucked him onto the road, or a cushioned part of it, which spoiled the magic of movies forever for me. But I earned 800 dollars for six weeks’ work which would probably be worth about 5000 today.

“I was known as ‘Scottie’ on the set. Then one day I got summoned to The Duke’s trailer. I’m afraid to say that my first thought was: ‘He’s an actor – what if he’s homosexual?’ Bear in mind I was 18, totally unworldly. My concept of a summer holiday was visiting relatives in Bathgate when it was surrounded by fields.

“He said: ‘Have you eaten, Scottie?’

‘Yes, sir, I’ve had some soup, some rice and some fish.’

‘That’s not enough for what you’re having to do out there – I’ll get my chef to cook you a big steak.’

‘Thank you very much, sir.’

‘Call me Duke. And here’s some good advice, Scottie: get yourself a South American wife. I’ve had three and they’re great.’ ”

The films weren’t serious for Kerr; just a way of earning soup money while studying judo. He would go on to become a European champ. He would coach the Austrian, Peter Seisenbacher, to two consecutive Olympic golds. He would achieve the status of 10th Dan, one of only 19 able to call themselves a judoka since 1935, one of only seven still living and only the second-ever from Britain. He would become a great ambassador for his sport and this weekend in Glasgow he will take his seat at the European Open as president of the British Judo Association. But he rates those four years in Japan, living the Japanese way, as the greatest experience of his life. “It was the making of me,” he says.

Kerr is 76 yet retains the classic judo build – short, heavy, strong and impossible for a 1st Mon (lapsed) to shift an inch, never mind knock over. A fuzzy black-and-white clip on YouTube – Paris 1961 – shows what an immovable object he was.

He’s taught judo in Edinburgh for two years shy of half a century. Uptown swishness has given way to a compact Leith operation in a busy lane of workshops and yards. He is back close to where his tale began.

“My mother was a Leither, my father a Glaswegian…and I was a dumpling!” he laughs. “Don’t mock me, but I’m not an intelligent person. I left Leith Academy at 14 and a half. I was never going to be a writer, or a film star like Tam Connery. But I had some common sense and I realised that a scholarship to study judo in Japan was my way out of the gutter. It wasn’t complete poverty but we were on the breadline. My father got paid on Thursdays and by Wednesday there would be nothing to eat in the house. Strange food in the Far East didn’t bother me at all. Back 
then I could have eaten shit if there was salt on it.”

Even so, it’s still quite a leap from Leith to Tokyo. How did he do it? “My father wanted me to learn how to box. He was real working-class, a bus driver, fantastic guy, but I didn’t like boxing and was scared he would leather me.” So when Kerr switched to judo he took to it right away? “No, I still thought Dad might leather me so I thought I’d better keep doing it!”

Post-war Edinburgh offered just three clubs, including the splendidly-named Tora Scotia. The Dunedin didn’t do judo but it had a good array of weights, and that’s where the young Kerr met Sean Connery. “Tam was a keen body-builder, one of the lads. The next thing we knew he was on the London stage in South Pacific. I then didn’t see him for a long time, when I got invited to one of his premieres. He broke off from talking to Jack Lemmon to say: ‘Wee Kerr, how you doin?’ ”

The UK’s youngest black belt was soon getting his own London invites – training at the Budokwai. The oldest judo club outside Japan, William Hague and Guy Ritchie have tussled there (it’s not recorded who won).

To take up the Japan scholarship, Kerr was four weeks on a boat, sailing past Suez with the crisis ongoing, and in a Black Watch kilt as well (“How was I to know the regiment had been involved in the blockade?”). Initially he was fourth-class steerage in a hammock, but he so impressed some French soldiers with his on-deck physical jerks that when they disembarked in Bombay he got one of their beds.

The Kodokan, judo’s spiritual home, necessitated him shaving his head. “I just thought: ‘Now my life can begin.’ Along with my training I learned to speak Japanese and, I’d maintain, English too. I was all: ‘I dinnae ken aboot that’. I repeat: I was a nutter, an imbecile. It wasn’t my parents’ fault; they did their best for me.

“In the restaurant where I cleaned dishes before the bit-part acting the chefs would bring in their pals to snigger at the stupid foreigner and go: ‘How did guys like this beat us in the war?’ ” But Kerr stuck in. He airmailed the folks and they wrote back: “We saw your films!” Thanks to trickery, it really looked like he was throwing the mighty Duke over his shoulder. Kerr left Leith weighing 9st and returned at 16st. “My mother couldn’t believe it. She burst into tears.”

A changed man, with a changed outlook. “I learned to love judo’s code: honour, integrity, politeness, discipline.” And the re-acclimatisation was difficult. “I didn’t want to come back, everything here seemed so dirty. Bathing is a big thing in Japan but my father, bless him, would only have a bath once a week.” Dirty the old country may have been, but in London exciting change was coming. Kerr’s mentor was Charles Palmer, who would go on to become the UK’s first 10th Dan and chairman of the British 
Olympic Association. “I could have beaten him when I came back from Japan but I didn’t try; that would have been disrespectful. He was working at the Budokwai and wanted me to take his clients for personal tuition while he swanned off to the south of France. I didn’t fancy this. ‘I’m a contest player,’ I said. One of them was the young Mick Jagger.”

Kerr’s eyes light when we discuss the Swinging ’60s. “That was a fantastic time to be in London.” He quotes John Lennon. He recalls his digs in Russell Square. Eastern mysticism, of which judo had lots, fascinated the hippies but you wouldn’t have seen Kerr in kaftans and beads. “I loved suits, and had one for every day of the week. Tam Connery just looked so amazing in a suit in the first James Bond film, Dr No. I even got myself a bowler hat like Oddjob and wore it on a visit home. How my mother laughed.” And Jagger? “I remember his pimply chin. He was nice enough, not yet a star, but I don’t know why he wanted to do judo. And I had to let him throw me, of course.” He also taught Honor Blackman, although strangely these grapples don’t produce the same grumbles.

Kerr drove a Mini – pretty groovy – but the car he really wanted was an E-Type Jaguar. “They were £2500, a lot of money then, when my father was only earning £12 10s on the buses. “But,” he adds, “Charles Palmer had one.” It’s obvious the pair had a fair old rivalry, which would only intensify. In 1964 Kerr was reigning European middleweight champion but he was denied entry to that year’s Tokyo Olympics for being deemed a professional for earning money from training.

“Charles was a coward over that, and I could have killed him. Revenge is a big thing in Japan and I thought: One day I’ll get my own back.’ ” His chance came 15 years later when Palmer was seeking re-election as president on the International Judo Federation. “He’d been good for the sport, but I was one of the guys who made sure he lost.”

Kerr quit London. “I took what in Scotland we call the huff. ‘To hell with the English,’ I said and came back up the road.” He founded the Edinburgh Club and began teaching generations of kids respectful combat in their jammies. Kerr and his first wife Geraldine were a glamorous couple so the premises also attracted a showbizzy crowd, especially during the Edinburgh Festival. “Larry 
Olivier came in with a bad back, a result of being a tail-gunner in the war. Geraldine, an expert masseuse, sorted him out.”

Kerr was still on the mat competing but judo wasn’t a selected sport for the Mexico Olympics and by Munich he’d retired so he refereed at those Games and also Montreal. Meanwhile, his home life was turning upside-down.

“Geraldine left me for a Russian referee. Whenever I hear a Russian accent now I think: ‘Christ it’s him and he’s bringing her back!’ That’s a joke, but it wasn’t funny at the time. The guy defected after a competition in Paris and the story was splashed all over the papers. We had three kids at private school and I wanted to protect them so I was chasing reporters from the club. As a consolation prize I finally bought myself an E-Type. I had to push it around while the divorce was being finalised. Not long after I met Pauline, a real dish, and we’re about to celebrate our 30th wedding anniversary. Geraldine’s still with the Russian and, I hope, happy.”

Pauline is a fitness instructor at the Leith premises, known as The Club. Previously, Kerr ran The Edinburgh Club. His establishments have always sounded a bit like gentlemen’s clubs and for some that’s how they’ve functioned. On sauna benches instead of high-back leather armchairs the issues of the day would be debated. Back in the 1980s, thespians would mix with Thatcherite entrepreneurs, not all of them gentlemen.

It seemed to be the worst-kept secret that a leisure tycoon had set fire to his own premises. “Stanley Baxter said to him: ‘Just as well you don’t have wooden legs otherwise you’d have burnt to the ground as well!’ ” Another regular was Graeme Souness. “He invited me and my father to a Rangers game. The old man, being a Catholic, had an aversion to Ibrox – even though Maurice Johnston, who also came to my club, had just been signed. Graeme said: “Your dad was a bus driver, mine’s was a glazier. I’ll put them in my office and they can get drunk and talk rubbish.’ That was a good day.”

Kerr still gets a huge kick from tutoring the titches. His body is his temple. He talks of another ex-footballer encountered recently, out of condition, a mess. “I see that often,” he says, but then not everyone lives by judo’s code. He doesn’t think he’ll ever quit the dojo – “Retire and you die.” And he remains a big figure in his sport, on first-name terms with 6th Dan Vladimir Putin, who saw him fight in Moscow in 1963.

Two months ago he was in Rio being inducted into judo’s hall of fame. He has an Order of the Rising Sun from Japan, although plays down his work on behalf of Anglo-Japanese relations, saying his speeches tend to consist entirely of kampai, meaning “cheers”. In truth, his Japanese is excellent. “And,” he adds, “I’ve almost got the hang of English now too!”