Monday, 21 April 2014

Thought for the day: Easter Monday

Life has often been a disappointing or, worse, downright frustrating experience for me.  A possible reaction to such an experience would have been to travel the path of darkness, to strike back at a society which has metaphorically struck me down many times.  Were it not for the moral framework provided by my faith in God, I believe this would have happened many times over.

Our beliefs, whatever they may be, guide us and shape the person we are, have been and are yet to become.  When others question these beliefs, they are effectively saying a part of who we are is wrong.

We are all different and, in our own ways, believe different things: these are pieces of the puzzle that makes us unique.  Never give in to the pressure to conform.  Be yourself, always.

Strontium Dog

I recently bought a collection of Strontium Dog stories.
As a child, I would rush to the newsagent every week to buy 2000AD: my favourite comic, or comic book, as the Americans would have it.  The main character in that publication, and the most popular, has always been Judge Dredd.  It wasn't that I didn't like Judge Dredd, but I found the stories of Nemesis the Warlock, and especially Strontium Dog, more compelling.  Looking back, I can see that the stories of Johnny Alpha had quite an effect on my young and impressionable mind.

In the 1980's, the area in which I lived had become a hotbed of racial tension.  I'm going to remain silent on the reasons for this, but the divisions were there, and those divisions were strong.  From some quarters, there was pressure to conform, and displaying anything other than hatred for those from another cultural, and often religious, background made you a traitor against your own people.  This attitude was by no means universal, but it was more widespread than I had imagined.

It is questionable whether I would have eventually been pulled into the aforementioned school of thought.  In many ways, I was the typical nerd, isolated by the time I spent learning to program a computer or obsessing about Star Wars.  A good point to make about science fiction fans is that we spend a lot of our time reading about alien civilizations, so our fellow humans seem somewhat less threatening to us.  However, like a lot of science fiction geeks, there was a feeling of exclusion, of being on the fringes of society: that, I believe, is where the interest in the tales of Johnny Alpha, the Strontium Dog, originally came from.

If you have never read Strontium Dog, it is set in a future where a radioactive shower has caused mutations in a section of the population.  Rather than sympathy, the mutants face hatred from the humans who were not affected by the radiation.  A recurring theme is that of exclusion, most importantly from employment, leaving the job of bounty hunter as the only viable option for a mutant.  Johnny Alpha is one such mutant.  For anyone who feels like they don't fit in, it's powerful stuff.

My young mind made the obvious connection between the intolerance shown to Johnny Alpha and the intolerance shown to ethnic and religious minorities.  Clearly, they are not mutants, but the hatred displayed towards them was just as incomprehensible to me.  I couldn't help but notice that the behaviour displayed by the bigoted humans in the comic was mirrored by the bigots I encountered on a daily basis.  In one story, a little girl says she does not understand why her mother doesn't like Johnny, only for her mother to scold her and hurriedly remove her from his presence.

It's arguable that Marvel did much the same thing with X-Men, but that was somewhat less appealing to me.  Reading the stories again, what strikes me is that they were incredibly violent, but the message about intolerance is incredibly clear.  People talk about books changing their lives.  Well, every week I would go and buy 2000AD, and it made a lasting impression on my young mind.

Saturday, 12 April 2014


For what I think was my 10th birthday, my mother bought me a model of an F-104 Starfighter.  It was one of the self-assembly types popular at the time.  The effect this had on me is ably demonstrated by the fact that I remember the name of the plane.  I've probably got the year wrong, but I remember the circumstances.

The thing I remember, and it's an important point, is that my father had recently left home.  Something about life in Britain, during Margaret Thatcher's term as Prime Minister, caused the divorce rate to sky-rocket.  We were always at the lower end of the income scale as a family, so Conservative policies affected us more than most.  It was a time of great hardship for us and, looking back, I realise how hard my parents tried to shield us from the reality of our situation. In no way does that excuse my father's behaviour: even with two young sons at home, he decided that the questionable charms of another woman were too much to resist.

I had told my mother that a birthday present would not be necessary, because I saw how much harder things had become for her, and I was as aware as a child could be that she was suffering from episodes of depression.  Such things were not talked about in those days, but I was dimly aware that she was not the same.

I didn't understand why I had a model aeroplane as a birthday present.  I had always been bookish and aloof: quite the opposite of the other members of the family.  My father had once made some money, and bought a second-hand motorbike for my brother.  Mine came the following year and, much to my father's bemusement, was rarely used.  My mother worried that, with my studious nature and small frame, I would be a target for bullies.  As things turned out, I was a target, as my mother feared but, thanks to the Judo lessons her and my father had insisted my brother and I attend, rarely a victim.

Though I didn't understand the reasons behind the gift, I spent what probably seems longer than it actually was gluing the tiny pieces of grey and clear plastic together.  The picture on the front of the box was a painting of an F-104 in action, which made me eager to complete the model.  Most importantly, my mother saw that I was happy with the gift.  I don't know when I realised that I would never have the optional pots of paint to make my Starfighter look like the one on the box, because I didn't dare to mention it to my mother, but it didn't matter.  This was something I would never have asked for, and that made it a more thoughtful gift.

I can't remember what happened to that model aeroplane.  The difficult teenage years have been and gone since then, including the time my voice broke, and the small-framed son she had worried would become a victim of bullying came home from school one day with the voice of a man.  I know this amused her, because she often laughed about me being so small and having a voice "in my boots", as she put it.  At the same time, I could see a sadness in her, because the little boy who relied on her was slowly disappearing before her eyes.

Ultimately, the model plane doesn't matter.  It sat on a second-hand school desk in the room I shared with my brother, waiting for the coat of paint it would never receive, but that doesn't matter either.  The memories attached to it are what matter: my mother seeing me patiently glue the pieces together, the thought behind the gift and, perhaps most importantly, the gratitude I showed for the gift and the thought behind it.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

Concentrating on what is wrong

I don't often meditate.  When I do, I remember why it is such a useful activity.  Focusing on the present, strange as it may sound, puts the past and the future into context.  In that state, being fully present in the present, as it were, it is possible to have moments of great insight.  One such moment of insight was the realisation that we spend so much time focusing on what is wrong with our lives, or how to improve our situation, that we miss all the things that are right.

Maybe the self help industry has taught us to never be satisfied, to always strive for better, and to correct every perceivable problem we judge ourselves to have.  It's certainly a good way to sell books.

When I was a child, my brother and I attended a judo class at the community centre down the road from where we lived.  Actually, we attended TWO judo classes at the community centre down the road from where we lived.

Staying on the mat for the period between the children's class and the adults' class, we somehow managed to stay and get two classes for the price of one.  That time between classes gave us an empty mat, on which to practise breaking our fall, groundwork and generally rolling around.  All that space to run around indoors, to two kids who had spent most of their lives living in the Victorian terraced houses of Chadderton, was heaven.

For many reasons, it was a time of great change for our family, and most of it was not good.  I won't go into the reasons here, but we had to adapt quickly to everything changing around us.  Looking back, I sometimes wonder how we got through those challenging times.  It's fashionable to call it "mindfulness" nowadays, but it is ably demonstrated by my brother and I rolling around that mat as children.

If you are always carrying your worries around with you, you may be depriving yourself of peak experiences, as Abraham Maslow would call them.  There will always be something to worry about.  Always.  It may be a tiny worry or one so big that it overwhelms you.  Having that worry cast its shadow over you twenty four hours a day is tiring and, if you let it, will affect other areas of your life.

Sometimes, you just have to roll around the mat.  You have to be fully absorbed in actively enjoying yourself.  Whatever challenges you face in your life, the ability to put them on hold and just enjoy those peak experiences, or appreciate that there is so much good in your life as well, is likely to determine how well you are able to cope.  If you feel that your life is all work and no play, yet you do nothing about it, maybe it is time you did.

Monday, 6 January 2014

Fighting: not good

I couldn't tell you how many fights I've had.  It probably sounds like I'm going to boast that I've had a lot of fights, but I don't know if that is true.  Maybe I've had only a few fights?  Sorry, but I can't be entirely sure of that either.  As far as I'm concerned, however, I've had too many.

I spent a number of years in a border town in Northern Ireland.  It is significant that I am English by birth and also a Catholic, because it meant that practically everyone in the town hated me.  Sure, there were decent people, but mostly the Catholics hated me for being English, whereas the protestants thought me a traitor for being a Catholic.

There are some indisputable facts about my time there.  I am not a politician.  Nor am I a high profile military target.  I would, quite frankly, be a waste of a bullet or an explosive device.  The potential trouble (police, political fallout) caused by such an action would be too much for someone so unimportant.  However, beating me to a pulp was perfectly acceptable.  All they had to do was beat me.

During my years in Northern Ireland, I attended a jujitsu class.  From books, I learned the principles of Chen family Taijiquan, Choy Li Fut, Jeet Kune Do and Kickboxing.  I got to practise, correct and perfect these in jujitsu class.  Did I get to practise, correct and perfect them in a "live" situation?  I'll not answer that, but bear in mind that the threat of violence was ever-present, my physical health was worsening, and the atmosphere was causing me to feel increasingly paranoid.  The stress I was under came to a head when, during a jujitsu grading, my training partner screamed that he couldn't tap out a submission and I was about to tear his arms out of their sockets.

On many occasions, I had lifted training partners above my head and slammed them to the mat, earning myself a warning that a continuation of my behaviour would see me banned from the class.  In my defence, my state of mind at that time made everyone my mortal enemy.  The mat was, in my mind, a battlefield.  I was on my own, against insurmountable odds, and losing was not an option.

As a child, I had learned judo.  When the school bullies noticed I was unusually small for my age, I found every source I possibly could on Boxing and Karate.  I was obsessed with learning to punch and kick effectively.  In the end, however, what I learned from books was modified by the reality of fighting.  Again, I am not claiming many fights, merely that they happened.

So, I got into a few fights, at least.  I hear others bragging about getting into fights and beating people up, and I could join in, I guess.  To me, it's nothing to be proud of.  Being in a fight, to me, is a failure of reason and logic.  Take, for example, the times I was targeted simply for being English.  It saddens me that there are people who feel that way.  I don't feel any pride from being in that fight.  I feel sad that a fight had to happen and, no matter what I had done to calm the situation, what happened was unavoidable.  To escape being hurt, injured or worse, I had to hurt someone.

The only source of hope is that, when people see I believe fighting is wrong, it seems to make them think.  When someone asked me why I practise martial arts, when I don't like to fight, I simply said that they wear a seatbelt when they drive, but it doesn't mean they like crashing.

I've been in too many fights.  Is it a large number?  Is it a small number?  I honestly don't know but, to me, one fight is too many.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Mister Nasty

Disturbing as it may be, each one of us has the capacity for nastiness.  During a recent conversation, my Wing Chun instructor said that this side of us is essential for our survival.  From a martial arts perspective, we learn skills which are to be used when there is no other option than to hurt someone.  If we fail to use those skills when they are needed most, we ourselves will be injured, or worse.  In order to do this, our personality must change temporarily from the everyday niceness that wins us friends and influences people, to that of a dangerous psychopath.
It shouldn't be news to me.  I've often pondered my lack of skill and coordination in training, and weighed it against my relative proficiency in sparring.  The instructor continued his theory by saying that the act of visualising damage to our adversary, given correct training, will lead to our body automatically selecting the correct tools to accomplish our visualised goal.  It's interesting, because that also rings true.

To aid my memory of concepts, I like to give them a name.  I call this one "the Mister Nasty", though I'm sure it is equally applicable to female martial artists, who may have their own term for it.  Under this model of combat, we don't think of, say, striking someone in the face with our palm.  No, we simply visualise that person being struck hard and falling to the floor, and our muscle memory selects the appropriate weapon.  Obviously, imagining the damage we will do to someone involves a large portion of nastiness.

So, practise your punches, kicks, deflections, parrying, grappling or whatever you train diligently.  Reach the point where these things are impulses, driven by the Mister Nasty when they are needed.  Don't get hung up on particular techniques, but develop the ability to shed your niceness at the drop of a hat and do what is necessary.

Monday, 21 October 2013

The need for approval

I'm older now.  I've reached the age where I look at the younger generation and realise that I don't fully understand them.  Yes, it is true that I was once that age myself, though it was in another time.  As much as I resist the thought, the world around us has not really changed very much; I am the one who has changed.

I've seen many commentators label the current generation of teenagers and twenty-somethings as "the me generation", because they are apparently self-absorbed and use new technologies to take "selfies" (narcissistic photos of self) and post them on the internet for all to see.  What we must question, however, is whether this is a change from how previous generations would have acted.

Yes, I find the focus on image as distasteful as anyone, and I blame the broadcast and print media for the current obsession with image.  In its most damaging form, it has invaded the music industry: a business which thrives on capturing the youth market.  At the same time, I know that I, and friends of my generation, would have been just as keen to post "selfies" at a similar age, if the technology had been so developed.  What has changed is that we no longer feel the need.

I remember the transition from childhood to being an adult clearly.  There was an almost constant need for approval, to be told that I was doing things right on the way to becoming a young adult.  Conversely, there was the need to rebel against the previous generation and do things my own way, but that's a whole other story.

Now, I see the damage that was wrought by that need for approval, and I feel a great deal of sympathy for those who still seek that approval.  If there is one piece of wisdom I have gained from being older (and I hoped there would be at least one), it is simply that winning the approval of everyone you come into contact with is impossible, and it is not in anyone's interests to seek universal approval.  Our self-esteem takes a battering in the process, and we hide who we truly are in order to mould ourselves to some idealised "acceptable" persona which we wear as a disguise.  This, in turn, leads to unhappiness, and the feeling that the person we are inside must never be shown, unless we wish to be ridiculed or rejected.

We are seeing another generation who are doing all they can to "fit in" with their peers, in their attempts to establish an identity that is deemed acceptable.  The familiar pattern of liking the same music, films, TV programmes and celebrities as their friends, regardless of their actual thoughts and feelings on these subjects, plays out once again.  Later in life, they may look back and realise they actually had little in common with the friends of their youth, and should have sought friends who accepted them for who they were, no matter how "different" they were.

Sadly, I was always the nerdy kid: the one who never quite "fitted in".  As a result, I had few friends.  No matter how much I tried to integrate, I found myself on the fringes.  To me, this says I remained individual enough to be unacceptable to those who chose conformity.

So, if there is one piece of wisdom I would pass on to the young, it would be to stop seeking approval.  Look at those who have gained widespread respect throughout history, and you will see that they were non-conformists, who challenged the accepted views of their time.  Be yourself, and force the world to accept you for who you are.  It is impossible to please everyone.