Monthly Archives: January 2012

Love the hit


So, just back from my second systema class, and in a thoughtful mood. Rather a frustrating experience, this one; through neglecting my zhan zhuang over the last few months, I’ve stiffened up a heck of a lot. We did a fair bit of light sparring tonight, and I was totally out of my depth. It’s OK, in a way. For one thing, as I’ve said frequently before, the training I’ve done in martial arts has never really been about the fighting. For another, I’ve learned a few things even so, but when you’re starting classes in a new style, you want to approach it de novo, with an open mind, rather than just breezing around with what you’ve learned elsewhere. So, there was an element to the sparring where I was holding myself back, trying not to apply yiquan or taiji techniques, and try to think about what a systema response would be. Nevertheless… just not at ease in the systema way of doing things yet. Hey ho, there’s only one way to get better, and that’s to practice.

Likewise with the hits… Boy, am I not used to taking punches, especially the deep, organ-level ones – the ones that you see Mikhail Ryabko demonstrating on YouTube… Ouch… Definitely, as I trained with the others – a bigger group this week – I found myself anticipating the shock, and tensing up. Something to work on…. The title comes from something Mark said during one of the exercises – to focus on the energy of exchanging punches with your partner, and to not worry about getting hit – indeed to love the hit, because when you get hit, you know you’re alive, you’ve learned something… Wise words, but not always easy to live up to!

One of the others in the group tonight is an instructor in his own right; he’ll be running Thursday night sessions, which I might try to get to from time to time.

Oh, and the chap who runs the gym knows Chris Crudelli, and thinks he might be able to get him to Cardiff for a seminar…

Arts and crafts


Recently, I’ve been putting my tui na skills to use, treating a relative for sciatica and chronic lumbago. Of course, after only a couple of sessions it’s too soon to see lasting results. Even so, when someone who enters the room bent double in pain, holding on to chairs and tables for support, walks away upright with only a bit of a limp… well, then I really feel I’ve achieved something.

And boy, do I also feel that I’ve been working… It’s physical work, this tui na, and I soon find the perspiration running freely. I’m too stiff as I work; I do need to get into the practice of taiji and qigong again, as I’m using the muscles of my arm too much. Sometimes I get it right, though, and I transfer pressure to the patient without effort, using body weight and core energy.

This comes on top of reading Matthew Crawford’s book, The Case for Working With Your Hands, which I bought a couple of weeks ago. I find it hard to disagree with his thesis that there’s a satisfaction to be gained from using craft skills that is increasingly hard to obtain from the white-collar conceptual mind-work that I was always encouraged to pursue. Certainly, a lot of my work in the higher education sector no longer has the status it once had. Increasingly, the basic teaching of core concepts can frankly be done just as well, or even better, online; the offshoring and/or virtualisation of education provision over the internet can achieve results just as well as a lecture to 350 students. There is another side to education; the widening of horizons, the cultivation of human potential, the development of self-confidence. That’s the aspect that attracted me into the field, not being or wishing to be, a research academic. It’s getting harder and harder to do that though; the changing nature of the industry is bringing bigger and bigger classes, where it’s hard to make individual connections, while fewer and fewer students seem to want anything more than an easy path to a qualification that will help their career. I’m seeing complaints now that it’s unfair to expect the whole curriculum to be revised before exams, or to give them case studies without accompanying answers. Certainly, there isn’t the satisfaction to be had equivalent to taking someone’s pain away because you gave them treatment based on skills you’ve learned the hard way.

I was given a copy of 9000 Needles for Christmas, and I’ve watched it a couple of times now. In brief, it’s a documentary about an American body builder who is paralysed after a stroke. When his insurance runs out, he’s packed off home; his family decide to take him to China, after learning about an acupuncture treatment specifically designed for stroke victims. The documentary was made by the patient’s brother, who naturally enough doesn’t know anything about acupuncture; as a result, it’s a little frustrating that we never learn anything about the principles of the treatment itself. It’s fascinating, though, to see the huge improvements in his condition over a short period of time; it’s also very interesting to see the inner workings of a Chinese TCM hospital (the same one, as I’ve mentioned before, that runs a one-year, English-medium, acupuncture diploma course).

I have a few aches and pains of my own at the moment: a big black bruise on my thigh, and a sore hip. Yes, I went to my first systema class for almost a year last week, and had a great time. This was at Celtic Systema, the school run by Mark Winkler, who’s not long back from six months of training with Vladimir Vasiliev. We worked on breathing, ‘old man walking’, some falling and ground work (hence the sore hip: no mats), and breaking tension chains (hence the bruise on my thigh). All good fun: I’m looking forward to the next class. It was a small group, only four students plus Mark. What was interesting was that Mark and one of the other students speak Welsh, so the three of us spent a lot of the class yn siarad Cymraeg – truly, Celtic Systema!

On the old New Year’s Eve (ie, following the Julian calendar), I went out with the local Mari Lwyd, and not for the first time by any means. It was filmed, so here’s what I mean:

I arrived shortly after this, so I don’t appear in the clip. It’s important to keep traditions alive – and truly alive. It’s a danger that they lose their vitality, become relics that are paraded around reverently, no longer inhabiting their true role in our psyche. The thing is, the Mari Lwyd, traditionally, is a force of chaos, an element of Saturnalia when all roles are turned upside down. Read the folklore, and the Mari runs around, chasing women and making children scream in delighted terror, respecting nobody. Know this, and that mare’s skull is full of a potent personality, waiting for the right bearer through whom it can come alive. Keith Johnstone, in his book Impro, has a lot to say about masks and trance, and the ability of a mask to ‘possess’ its wearer (I’ve put my copy somewhere I can’t find it, else I would quote). Anyway, what I’ve getting to is that I wore the Mari to the next pub we visited and, as someone said to me with a raised eyebrow the next day, I was “in character”. Someone else told me that they laughed until they cried, and the manager gave me a free pint, that’s all I can say…

Right now, I’m working through Bella Merlin’s Stanislavsky Toolkit; there’s an awful lot in there about breathing and movement that can very easily be related to systema, a link I’ve made before…

As they say: never a dull moment…

Sports in China, 1937

While I was working as a lecturer in a Chinese university, basketball was incredibly popular amongst the students. Many of us foreigners assumed that this was due to the success of Yao Ming in the US. However, I’ve just found a piece of archive film that shows basketball was popular even in 1937… and at the end, are they skating on Houhai?

More interesting to readers here will be the first couple of minutes, in which we are earnestly told that “traditional sports still hold some interest“. All I’m going to say is… what on earth is that guy using??? Watch, and you’ll see what I mean.



Phew: I made it to the meditation group at work today. This is actually the first time I’ve been since… blimey… June? I always meant to go during the summer and autumn, but I was always just too damn tired. It was great: even after such a long break, I got back into it. I could feel myself getting warmer, and a bit sticky as my body started to detox – always a sign that the meditation is working. For a brief time, I got really deep in to it; the world vanished, thoughts were absent, and there was just the breath… Man, did I feel better afterwards!

Also back into the zhan zhuang these last few days. There’s always something new. One of my fellow-students on the tui na course had commented on part of my right foot being really stiff – and it was too, I just hadn’t noticed, and was unconsciously compensating with my posture. So, I’m working on that and, slowly, painfully, it’s stretching and opening up. The standing is generally going well, though the creaking of ligaments and popping of tendons (or is the other way round?) remind me of the ground I’ve lost. Not to worry, I’ll soon be back to where I was, and then onwards…

Might be an opportunity coming up to get back into acting; that’ll be good, I was really missing the creative flow of those improv workshops in Beijing. Couple of other things in the pipeline, too, but I won’t mention them in case I jinx them. Systema classes starting soon; that’ll be cool.

Wow, it’s like a logjam, isn’t it, sometimes? You need dynamite to clear the blockages but then discover there’s a lot of cool stuff waiting to flow down to you….


Over the last few months, I haven’t been posting much but I have still been administering the site. It’s got to the point where 250 spam comments have been left every hour. As a result, I’ve had to implement a captcha system. If you want to leave a comment, you’ll have to solve a very simple maths problem. Sorry for the added inconvenience, but I’m afraid there’s no alternative.

Category: Blogging



This post is just playing around with some ideas; you’ll probably want to skip it if you’re interested in the martial arts etc that I normally write about.


My hometown developed around a river bridge. Originally, the bridge was part of the main Roman military highway stretching westwards to the Irish Sea. It lay between some important forts, and we know from the archaeological evidence that some elements of Legio II Augusta were present in the first and second centuries AD. The town’s location would have led it to prosper, and we know that there were several major villa estates in the area. The archaeological remains also suggest that the town became a centre for industrial-scale metalworking. Over the centuries of the Roman presence, life became settled, and the legionaries were withdrawn, back to the major camps. Changes in Imperial technology and military requirements eventually led to the classic legions becoming redundant; the focus shifted to mobile, cavalry-based forces.

The river runs through the town, and makes its way in a large curve to the sea a couple of miles away. The river valley is deep and steep, so from the town the sea seems a long way away. It’s not, though, and it actually doesn’t take all that long to reach the estuary by foot. There’s always been a reasonable little harbor at that estuary – at least, until the whole area was reconfigured for major industrial developments in the 20th century.

I very often walk up the remnants of that old Roman highway. It’s been bypassed now by a modern road, and is an overgrown country lane, with an uneven rock surface that’s the remains of the old road core. It rises up to the top of one of the highest local hills, and then continues, arrow-straight. The odd thing is that another little lane leaves it at the hilltop, going at a right angle in the direction of the sea. It arrives at a small village, leading directly to the old manor house, and then straight onwards to the old vicarage – a house sited on the edge of the escarpment, and from where there is a view down along the length of the river valley. From there, you can’t see either the sea or the town, but you can see most of what’s in-between. It’s interesting to note that on old maps this area is named ‘The Cross’. The local church, right next to the manor, is dedicated to Hilarion – rather an uncommon saint.

That side road is very definitely ancient, and has the same kind of surface as the main Roman road. Its straightness is unusual in a country lane. Taken together, that makes me think that it must also be Roman. Why would it be there? Well, we know that by the third century, the Western coast of Britain was suffering from increasingly aggressive raiding from Ireland. Indeed, the Irish began to colonize south-west and north-west Wales. A tower built where the manor house later was would have an excellent view of the sea and that little harbor. It’s the perfect place to have a lookout; if anything was sited, riders could have been sent to warn the town long before raiders made their way up the valley. Would the town have been a target? Of course! It was wealthy and, to the Irish, a source of worked iron and steel would surely have been irresistible. The site of the old vicarage would have been the perfect place to have observe the progress of any raiders, and to launch a mounted attack at the moment of choice. But why the uncommon saint’s name? Why was the site named ‘The Cross’ before it became a vicarage?

A story takes shape in my mind, of my town in the dying days of Roman Britain. We know that there’s no evidence of occupation after the fourth century; the site wasn’t settled again until the Normans arrived. We know that the Irish took the whole area by storm during ‘The Great Conspiracy’: in the latter part of the fourth century, Roman Britain was assaulted from three directions simultaneously as the Irish, the Picts, and the Saxons united to attack this island prize. The Romans were driven back to what is now the south-east of England. With reinforcements from the continent, they eventually reasserted their control over the whole of the province – but what would they have found as they fought their way back into the occupied areas?

I can imagine a dawn when the citizens of my town woke to an ordinary morning. Their town was still prosperous. Life had been undisturbed under Roman rule for centuries. Grandfathers complained that things weren’t as good as during the days of their youth – the currency was increasingly debased, there were more and more new taxes, free men were being forced into serfdom, the Irish raiders seem bolder each year further down the coast while the soldiers were fewer and fewer (especially as more and more generals declared themselves to be the Emperor and marched their armies away to inglorious defeat). But old men always grumble.

Perhaps the first warning they had were the war cries of the raiders who had slipped up the valley from the estuary during the night. Perhaps a rider came galloping down from the lookout tower, who knows? There may have been a small cavalry unit there, who fought until they were overwhelmed or, more likely, most of them had already been called away to deal with trouble elsewhere. Whatever happened, the town couldn’t be saved.

By the end of the day, the town was in flames. Many of the men were dead. Women and children had been carted away to the boats to become slaves, along with valuables, stocks of metal, and livestock.

Some of the survivors banded together in an old Iron Age hillfort, which remained occupied and fortified through the Dark Ages. Others would have fled to the lookout tower and cavalry post in search of safety, and settled within and around its walls. Devastated, ruined, they may have chosen to build a church dedicated to Hilarion, the ascetic saint who was attacked by thieves – thieves who left him alone and even repented of their evil ways for attacking a man so much poorer than themselves, a man who had nothing left for them to take. Surely a fitting patron for the remnants of a prosperous community, who have lost everything, while raiders from the sea remain a constant threat. Such a traumatized group may have raised a stone cross in the old observation post above the valley, praying that this holy symbol might deter the Irish where horses, swords and spears had failed….


Those who have been reading for a while will see where I’m going with this. All around us, the signs increase to show that our society and economy are under increasing stress – stress that is becoming unsustainable. Peak resources, environmental degradation, climate change, sovereign debt, corruption, and the elevation of special interests… Like the ancient burghers of my hometown, so many of their modern equivalents become gradually inured to the changes, forgetting that, once, it really was better. One day, though, it might all fall apart. That day could be soon. Based on the information available I would put 2014-15 as the key period, as that is when oil production will really start to drop off – which means that the price of EVERYTHING will rocket. That’s when things will get really ugly.

Plan. Be prepared. Be ready.

Welcome, 2012


If anyone is still following this blog, season’s greetings to you, and best wishes for 2012!

However, as Alf – who studied Welsh with me so long ago – said this morning on Facebook:

Just a reminder, before anyone gets overly excited about that arrival of 2012, that we’re in the middle of year 5772 on the Jewish calendar, and year 7520 on the Byzantine calendar, and won’t get to the end of year 4709, 4708, or 4648 on the Chinese calendar (depending on which school of calculation you follow) until later in January. And on the good ol’ Julian calendar we’re not even up to Christmas (Dec. 25) yet. So for those celebrating, have a happy new year, but remember that in a sense the year is new every morning :).

Hopefully I’ll be a little more active in the new year.

Technical note: one reason for the long drought in posts was that a lot of comments mysteriously got deleted. I had hoped to find a way to restore them from a backup, and didn’t want to add more before that got done. I don’t think it’s going to happen, though, so I may as well start posting again!

Category: Miscellaneous