Monday 29 June 2009

Music. Martial Arts. Being renaissance men (and women)

As a parent, it’s very easy to fall into being overly protective in defense of your offspring in all the small battles that life brings. In our house one such battle has been with my eldest’s piano teacher – who feels that she isn’t showing enough commitment and has vented his frustration by telling her to find another teacher. (For fuck’s sake !) But in this case the battle points to something bigger that is a particular pet-subject for me.

She’s not one of those kids who are dragged by the ear to music lessons. She’s very into her music – of all kinds – and is constantly messing around and jamming on her own and with friends. But she is also a normal teenager with a life - and all the conflicting distractions that brings. The sort of distractions that get in the way when it comes to developing into some sort of nauseating child–prodigy. Thank fuck for that. But apparently such is the preciousness surrounding the whole piano-lessons thing that unless you are just such a one-dimensional prodigy, the view seems to be that it is not worth bothering at all.

I’ve often found exactly the same attitude in martial arts. If you are not interested in transforming yourself into the ultimate fighter or something like a secular Shaolin monk then you’re wasting your time*.

Personally I think this attitude stinks: It’s our hobbies and our interests that should define us – not our work. And having a well-rounded and broad spectrum of these interests tends to make for well-rounded individuals. There’s a myth that happiness lies in doing one thing well - that might play in a Zen fairy tale but I believe that in real life doing lots of things to varying degrees of attainment is more likely to keep you sane.

Part of the problem is that in many fields the teacher isn’t exactly a well-rounded individual themselves. If they weren’t ever a normal teenager themselves how are they now going to relate to pupils who are? Or if they don’t have to juggle work and family with their training how are they going to understand students who do?

More fundamentally, it’s a feature of our times that we are rapidly becoming spectators rather than do-ers. Once it was the norm rather than the exception to find musical instruments in the home – the rot probably started when people began to listen to the wireless. Once a man would no more leave the house without bearing some sort of weapon than he would walk around naked – that declined when we became ‘civilized’ with police forces. If you wanted to put an academic label on it you could say that it is a process of alienation.

So I'm making a plea to reverse this trend and try and get back to the idea of being renaissance men (and women). Maybe not superstars in any given field but having a go - and having fun trying. And in the meantime we’re trying to find another piano teacher.

*(As an aside the whole temple based warrior-monks thing is only one aspect of how martial arts developed. Equally important were the village schools, where a teacher, who practiced a trade to make his living, taught students in their spare time. The equivalent in the West was the yeomen longbowmen who would practice archery and other English martial arts like quarterstaff and wrestling after a day’s work. And incidentally they eventually triumphed over the full-time warriors of the knightly class).

Friday 26 June 2009

The real 'king'

He's wasn't the messiah. He wasn't even the 'king'.

Michael Jackson was a
consummate entertainer with a great commercial sense for the MTV generation. And that's it.

Despite the whole 'king' thing, and the Graceland/Neverland echoes: comparisons with Elvis are entirely false. Elvis really did create a fusion of black and white musical genres that changed a generation and everything that came after. Jackson had some catchy tunes, some slick dance moves and took advantage of being in the right time and place when the music video revolution took off.

Despite the hideous Vegas years, the faux-karate and the deep-fried peanut butter sandwiches Elvis was never as damaged or as damaging as Jacko. He just had the predictable problems of a boy who went from abject poverty to superstardom. Nothing like the elephants in Jacko's corner that nobody is mentioning today - the dysmorphia that led him to re-create himself as a badly drawn manga-caricature ... or the paedophilia (allegedly of course).

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Stress relief in the garage

Things are not going well at work. From a distance you would think that climbing the greasy management pole would give you more freedom. Maybe it does if you are prepared to act like a cunt. But in my experience, if you try to approach it with a modicum of decency it just buys you entry into a world of responsibilities, worries and guilt. And then more guilt that you’re feeling that way when so many others are worse off than you.

In such circumstances, and especially with one eye on my blood pressure these days, I try to find ways of managing the stress.

Over the years my number one option for this has always been my martial arts. Not so much in the sense that it is an outlet for aggression. Because it isn’t really – anyone with the slightest knowledge will tell you that to fight angry is a fatal. My teacher used to always say when we were playing chi-sau ‘the one who gets pissed off first loses’. Martial arts works for me much the same way as sitting by a lake with a fishing rod works for some guys or building model train sets does for others – you lose yourself in something for a few hours.

Much as I love all things bike-related, previously doing any sort of work on them was more often a cause of stress than stress-relief.

I’m no more or less mechanical than the next guy but my undoing was always impatience. Made far worse by frustration that every mechanical set back was keeping me without a bike and off the road – which for me is like a junkie being denied his drug of choice. At one time I had a collection of punched-in petrol tanks, and an exhaust muffler flattened to a pancake in a Basil Fawlty moment of rage, to testify to this frustration.

Now I have two bikes all this pressure has gone.

All of which is a preamble to saying that after another shitty day at work I found myself in the garage last night actually enjoying working on the bike. I swapped the 70’s style buck-horns for a set of low bars. I re-routed the wiring and cables, and I fitted a braided brake line. All done in about an hour. I then spent another hour last night and yet another half hour this morning trying to bleed the fucking system. But that's two and a half hours absolutely business-bullshit free. And I’ve still got to pop out from work at some point to get another bottle of DOT5. Perversely for once I am actually relishing the hassle.

Thursday 18 June 2009

Race mobs in N.Ireland

The election of two BNP MEP’s created shock waves and much analysing and hand-wringing. More shocking, and may be of more significance, are the incredible scenes from Northern Ireland where 100 Romanians have been driven out of their homes by racist mobs in a series of attacks over the past week.

The two events are intrinsically linked. Not because the racist mobs included BNP members. Or loyalist paramilitaries or C18 ‘race-soldiers’. Of course they may have, but they equally may well have not. The link is a common climate of a growing nasty and vicious nationalism – a culture feeding on economic deprivation and a silence from the Left.

A return of the Far Right in this country doesn’t have to look like the 1930’s with black-shirt parades in the streets. If you want to picture a dis-utopian precedent I would suggest Vichy France and Petain’s ‘National Revolution’. Obviously set aside military defeat and the armistice of 1940, but keep the phenomenon of petty minded bigots, racists and reactionaries finding an excuse to crawl out of the woodwork. There were some Nazi sympathisers in the Vichy regime, but it didn’t need them to hand over Jews, gypsies and political undesirables for transportation to the camps at a rate that often outdid that of the Wehrmacht in the occupied zone of France. There were enough petty minded officials and individuals with grudge built up for years who were willing to denounce their neighbours .

Recorded hate crimes in Northern Ireland have more than doubled in the past four years. And the latest attacks on Romanians follow a series of others on Poles and Slovakians in recent months. There’s been some suggestions that Northern Ireland is uniquely pre-disposed to xenophobia and has a ‘tradition’ of hate violence. I don’t believe this – I suspect we may well see the same thing going on in cities on the mainland this summer.

And then we may wake up to the fact that the electoral success of the BNP and even more so the gains of a populist nationalist and anti-immigration party in the shape of UKIP, are not just a protest at mainstream MP’s sleaze. There is a very real danger from a festering reactionary nationalism which will only gain momentum if alternatives are not posed.

Monday 15 June 2009

Roadtrip revisited.

Almost exactly to the year – I decided to take a few days off for a road trip again.

A couple of days with some friends who have abandoned life in the city for a smallholding-come-Harley-workshop in the fens. On the face of it a 250+ mile round trip is a long way to go for a bike service. But they are some of the nicest people you could wish to meet and there’s nobody else I would rather have working on my bikes.

Their lifestyle would not be for everyone – it’s not quite self-sufficiency but it’s not too far off, with a bit of barter with the neighbours thrown in, and some localized wage labour here and there too. There’s a lack of security and routine, and they’re never away from their work but - as I thought when I rode in this morning on the same route that I’ve taken for almost 20 years - there’s also no commuting and no corporate bullshit.

It’s actually a very old fashioned way of living and would be recognizable – if you substituted maybe a blacksmith’s forge for a Harley workshop – to our ancestors for many centuries.

So it was appropriate that on my very roundabout journey home I took a detour to visit
Grimes Graves. The only visit-able Neolithic flint mines in Europe. Flint was as important to the stone age economy as oil is to our own. And for these early miners to sink shafts into the hillside must have been a terrifying step into the unknown – the equivalent to astronauts in modern times.

The hillside is a rabbit warren of shafts and galleries – only one of which can be visited after a 35-foot descent on a vertical ladder. From the bottom of the shaft you can peer into the radiating galleries – each about three feet high. Even with modern tungsten lighting it’s still claustrophobic and oppressive – and easy to see how our ancestors thought that caves were the gateway to another world.

Wednesday 10 June 2009

Support the tube workers

By the reporting of the tube strike you would get the impression that London is a city under siege by the RMT union. Guardian journalists are twittering on their journeys to work , with minute-by-minute accounts as if they were war correspondents on the frontline. This hysteria has certainly had an effect judging by the comments at work today.

But where we work in central London is no more than thirty minutes walk from any of the main London over-ground terminus stations. This, and the over-crowding at the bus-stops means that most people will have had to start their journey to work a bit earlier. In other words, it's an inconvenience not a disaster.

And if anyone thinks it’s all too easy for me who commutes on a motorcycle each day to say this, I was inconvenienced too this morning – I had to get up at the crack of dawn to go down to the local RMT picket line at 7am to offer my support.

The media demonizing of the tube workers has undoubtedly taken an effect. Many Londoners seem to see the strike as a personal affront. Quite part from the negative press campaigns, there is an economic basis to this. There’s a huge gulf now between unionized workers in the public sector – and places like my own – with largely un-unionized workers in the private sector. Particularly in small to medium manufacturing businesses. Annual negotiated agreements are unheard of – most of the time we are just pleased to keep going for another month.

Sadly this breeds a very peculiar kind of jealousy. A jealousy that resents a station supervisor earning £38k pa and a driver £40k pa, with decent conditions and overtime – the kind of packages that were once fairly universal for skilled and responsible workers. But strangely this jealousy doesn’t extend to the senior underground management who make in excess of £100k pa along with hefty (and often dubious) ‘performance bonuses’. And this jealousy completely ignores the situation of many more low paid workers on the tube – like the cleaners who only now get £7.45 an hour after winning a dispute for a living wage last year.

It’s a twisted take on the ‘race to the bottom’ with a bizarre sense of pride in leading a race where there are no prizes for the winners.

Significantly in the present recession the seminal socialist classic ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthrophists' has re-entered the best selling lists. With the massive knocks that the labour movement has taken we are almost back to a similar era in which the novel is set, when the basic ideas of class solidarity have to be patiently explained. To get to a point where, when one group - be it tube workers, oil refinery workers or car workers - does manage to secure a better deal than most they are not resented but actually applauded and aspired to.

Monday 8 June 2009

Fascism In Europe Again

Personally I wasn’t offended when the queen wasn’t invited to the D-Day anniversary functions in Normandy. Why a hereditary tax-dodger should carry any more gravitas than a elected representative escapes me. Even if the elected representative is Gordon-fucking-Brown. And I wasn’t overly offended by Sarkosy’s silly comment that the anniversary was ‘largely a Franco-American’ affair. Politicians are notoriously ignorant and/or manipulative of history. Like Obama’s comment that his uncle was one of the liberators of Auschwitz – highly unlikely unless his uncle was serving in the Red Army at the time.

But I am offended that the anniversary of the start of the liberation of Europe from Fascism should be marked by a 6.6% vote for the BNP and the election for the first time of two MEP’s. Including Andrew Bronn who started his career with the National Socialist Movement (maybe a clue in the name there). And more significantly a 17.5% for UKIP – a Little Englander party with a clear anti-immigration platform.

I know that not all those votes represents a move towards fascism. I know that they are symptomatic of a political and economic crisis, and of a
vacuum on the Left. But all that sober reflection and analysis is for another time. Right now I’m just angry with that 6.6%.

Friday 5 June 2009


Next to Bruce Lee, he was responsible for bringing Eastern martial arts to a Western audience: And as a kid in the 70’s, watching David Carradine as Kwai Chang Caine in “Kung Fu”, may well have subliminally started off my own journey in the martial arts.

Kids in those days kids were used to their TV action heroes being blue-eyed cowboys and cops, so creating the character of a Buddhist monk who played the flute and tried to avoid violence (but always spectacularly kicked ass) was a breakthrough.

Ironically Bruce Lee was considered and rejected for the part, and a Westerner with no background in the martial arts was cast. Only after the series was made did David Carradine develop a genuine interest in kung fu, although as the owner of one of his laughable instructional tapes I am not sure that he attained any great standard. After Death Race 2000, I then lost track of his career for many years, but he was fantastic when he reappeared in Tarantino's Kill Bill films.

It’s a sad footnote that he should have been found dead in bizarre circumstances ‘a la Michael Hutchence’. Each to their own of course, but I never could understand that particular taste for ‘auto-erotic asphyxiation'. Apart from anything else does it not occur that if it goes wrong you’re going to be stuck with a pretty embarrassing obituary for your grandchildren to read?

And whatever would Master Po have said ?

Thursday 4 June 2009

Election Day

I love elections. I realize that a sober Marxist analysis shows that they are not the be all and end all of democracy. Not even close. But I can’t help myself pouring over polls, looking at little coloured maps, and staying up late for the results with Jon Snow and the swing-ometer.

As a kid I remember being taken by my parents to the polling station at the community centre and waiting whilst they did something incredibly important and grown up. And the thrill of voting for the first time in the disastrous 1983 ‘Falklands’ election. When there was still a proper Labour Party I was an assistant agent for some local council elections and got involved with the archaic business of tellers taking polling numbers, crossing off names on ‘Mikado pads’, knocking up voters and going to the count. And of course canvassing – strangely I enjoyed canvassing. Particularly campaigns when the candidate actually stood for something. Johnny Bryan in Bermondsey – Lesley Mahmood in Liverpool Walton. Dave Nellist in Coventry South East. I got around a bit.

In the (New) Labour stronghold where I now live there is precious little evidence of an election. at the moment. Despite the recession and the current political crisis there has been no canvassing or even leafleting – except for my own rather pathetic contribution to the No2EU campaign. In fact depressingly the most visible evidence of the election is the number of prominent posters for the “Christian Party’.

I voted early today; and at 7.15am the polling station was pretty busy – hopefully that’s a sign of something.

There are no prizes for predicting that there will be a significant protest vote today. Scanning the ridiculously long scroll of a ballot paper I couldn’t help reflecting, again, that No2EU is not a good name. Given that research shows that a disturbing number of protest voters will make their decision on the spot in the voting booth, I worry that a lot of genuine people will end up wasting their votes on the Socialist Labour Party (Scargill egoist-fan club) or the Socialist Party of Great Britain (simply bonkers). So if anyone is reading this and is still in any doubt, go and have a look at No2EU now …