In KeN Lukowiak's book A Soldier's Song: True Stories From The Falklands, the author recalls travelling home from the South Atlantic and listening to a drunken corporal in the next train opine at length that Hitler had been right to gas the Jews. 'As he went on and on, I began to feel angry,' Lukowiak writes. 'Very angry. I wanted to get off my bed, go next door and wrap an iron bar straight across his face. But I didn't and I also knew that I never would, because if I did he would kick the shit out of me. It was my fear of this that was the true reason behind my anger.'

This perception will resonate in many male psyches, and we all recognise the pattern - the proximity to monstrous behaviour, the failure to confront, the subsequent anger - that Lukowiak describes. Racists, thugs and sexist creeps, arrogant middle-class bullies, aggressive, foul-mouthed louts . . . I run across them most days of the week, and none of them gets any trouble from me. I may spend much of my time imagining myself as some kind of liberal vigilante, but I'm a puny middle-class wimp, and I experience that humiliating descent down the diving-board steps more regularly than is probably good for me. Lukowiak, however, is a former paratrooper, a man who has served in Belfast and the Falklands. If not him, then who?

It is the frequency with which we have to swallow this anger of impotence that convinces us we are cowards. Some of us are found wanting so often, in fact, that we worry whether we will ever be able to do anything for anybody, or whether terror will always paralyse us. It was impossibly comforting, then, to learn of the recent dramatic experience of a friend - another puny, middle-class wimp, as it happens (there are thousands of us, and when we get it together . . .), a man just as committed as I am to keeping London's casualty departments congestion-free. He had a go. What's more, he had a go at somebody dangerous who needed having a go at.

He was in Sainsbury's when a lunatic burst into the store, started ranting and raving, and then set about the women working at the checkout tills: he ran down the line of them, punching them in the head. My friend, to his surprise, found himself leaping over barriers, pushing through panicky shoppers and apprehending the man, who promptly head-butted a policewoman and knocked her out cold. At this point my friend punched the nutter in the stomach, although as a policeman arrived at precisely the same time and took the man's legs from under him, it is difficult to ascertain precisely what effect the punch had.

The point is, however, that he did it. He did not spend time staring at the water miles beneath him and calculating his chances of survival, before edging back towards the ground; he jumped. Later, he realised that he was shivering with shock, but no matter. He had had a go. Conviction and righteousness had edged out timidity and self-doubt. And if he could find it in himself to tackle a psychopath, then maybe I . . .

Very few people, of course, ever do something they don't have to do that may get them thumped (although the thugs and the bullies, ironically, are making some kind of decision of that order, and nobody would describe them as being brave); the sense of choice is usually entirely absent. Even the man who stood in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square was, presumably, compelled to act in the way he did. Those timeworn expressions - 'I was only doing what anyone would do', 'I'm nobody special' and so on (Lukowiak's dismissal of his time in the Falklands - 'Any young men stuck in that situation would have reacted in exactly the same way,' he says now - is entirely typical) really do seem to summarise the way people feel. When we shy away from confronting vandals, or Fascist thugs, or getting involved in other people's domestic disputes, or challenging burglars and bank robbers, this says nothing about bravery and cowardice, and everything about what we value most.

These conventional definitions of bravery do not exclude women, needless to say - we are always reading about battling grannies, and nerveless policewomen, and lion-hearted mothers protecting their kids. But can a woman be a coward? Nobody expects women to throw knife-wielding nutcases to the ground; that testosterone expectation to perform is entirely absent. Yet of course women can be as yellow as men. Real cowardice, one suspects, is to be found not on our mean streets but behind our lace curtains, and as likely to be located in women as in men. Who has not fought shy of breaking off a relationship, for example? Now that is real high-diving board stuff; you've been living with someone for years, this person loves and trusts you, and you know that sooner or later you must tell them you've been seeing somebody else, that you're going to move out. But you won't tell them tonight, not when you're just about to go out to dinner with his mum and dad, her best friend from school.

Meanwhile the breast-beating goes on. Last week I walked out of an Underground station and was sent flying by a youth on a bike, cycling at speed on the pavement. I glowered at him. He glowered at me. 'Why don't you fucking look where you're going,' he snarled. Did I want a fight with some tough teenager? Or was I going to walk away, and feel the anger that Ken Lukowiak talks about rise up and choke me for the next few hours? I gave him a volley of abuse back, something cruel and cutting and unpleasant, got a few interested looks from passers-

by, and walked on. There was no blow to the back of the head. No gangs of young Uzi-toting hoodlums came after me. I had humiliated somebody 15 or 20 years younger than me, and it felt good. There's brave for you.

Sometimes it seems as though the whole world is brave, apart from me. Who, after all, hasn't confronted wild-eyed muggers or leaped into a raging sea or 'had a go' after a bank robbery? I haven't. And if I run through my life in an attempt to locate that terrible will I / won't I, teetering-on-

the-brink, gut-sinking feeling that comes with making a possibly life-

threatening decision, I have to rewind almost to the beginning of side one: I was eight or nine, standing on the top diving board at the local swimming pool, and the water looked not only a very long way away, but absolutely solid. Does that count? Does that qualify me for anything? (I made the jump, by the way. No, really, it was nothing.) Does this mean that I am morally and spiritually equipped to respond to the challenge when it comes, as it seems, it must? Probably not, but I have no other way of knowing.

Since then, I have done things that other people have told me they could not have done. I have stood in front of a class of rampaging teenagers, and in the away end at Millwall; I have written a book of a confessional nature which proves incontrovertibly that I am an idiot, and made speeches in front of crowds of drunken people at weddings. These experiences were all, to a greater or lesser degree, nerve-wracking, but I never felt that there was a choice to be made, not really. And in any case, what was likely to happen to me? At Millwall I was protected by hordes of policemen, and by my fellow supporters, and my fifth-form CSE class preferred humiliating members of staff to killing or maiming them. The worst thing that can happen to you when you are a best man is that nobody laughs at your jokes; the worst thing that can happen to you when you write a book is that you get some bad reviews. The George Cross is not awarded for bravery in the face of hostile literary critics.

Similarly, there are things done routinely by most of the population that I regard as unfeasibly valiant. As a non- driver, I am constantly amazed by the courage of those who essay the Hammersmith roundabout in their cars; as a reluctant smoker, I am full of admiration for those who have packed the habit in. These heroes, however, would all baulk at being described as such, particularly, I would suspect, if they are male.

Many men seem to define an act of bravery as doing something they don't have to do that may result in them getting thumped, or worse. One could, if one was of an especially curmudgeonly disposition, quibble with all sorts of other exemplars of courage: 'brave' cancer patients have no other option, 'brave' bomb disposal experts are only doing their job, and so on. But that guy who stood in front of the tanks in Peking . . . there's no way round that one. He was the type of man that gives the rest of us - those of us that know for a fact that we would have been cowering under somebody's bed somewhere - nightmares.