Wednesday 30 December 2009

Ip Man and martial arts mythology

I saw the Ip Man movie the other night. Strangely I've never been a great fan of the kung fun movies genre but I found it fairly entertaining and true to the underlying myth if not the historical reality of the grandmaster of my branch of Wing Chun.

But in fact as history goes it is very much of the 'Braveheart school'. Both in the liberties taken with the narrative and in the portrayal of Ip Man as a kind of Chinese William Wallace.

It did get me thinking though about the whole question of mythology in martial arts. So much of this comes from the idea of an inspired individual 'inventing' a system or a style. Common sense, and my own experience as a historian, would suggest that this has to be nonsense.

It's a classic case of parallel development: We see all over the world, in all sorts of different societies, in different periods, the evolution of martial arts. Despite an incredible variety of traditions, nuances and idiosyncrasies they are in fact remarkably similar. This is  maybe not so surprising given the limited nature of the human armoury. Most of us are equipped with the same number of limbs, hands and feet  and there's a finite number of permutations of striking and grappling.This is born out when you look at any martial art in a practical fighting situation -  they all start to look increasing similar despite having possibly very different stylised training methods. And interestingly the more experienced the practitioner the less rigidly stylised he is and the greater the apparent convergence with other styles. Based on my own experience - in Wing Chun - in  the 'last' form Bil Jee, the principles of the previous two forms are largely discarded - it's been described as  learning how to break the 'rules'.

I have to think that martial arts are the product of a sophisticated process of collective evolution over a very long period.  They are not delivered complete by a single inspired individual - whether that individual is an itinerant holy man in the fifth century, a sixteenth century Buddhist nun  or an exceptional teacher at the time of the Sino-Japanese war.

On top of this general observation, when it comes to Wing Chun history it is doubly  difficult to sort the facts from the legend because of its underground nature . Underground because of its association  with the nationalist resistance movements  opposed to the Quing dynasty. Other styles - Japanese and Korean -  carry there own nationalist and political baggage which creates a mythology that obscures their true development.

But we can be sure that in a highly stratified and static environment such as Imperial China the propagators of the system would have to be  individuals on the margins of peasant / village society who had the freedom to travel the country. People who could  spread influence - and be influenced - wherever they went. This would seem to provide the historic basis for the legends of monks, nuns and the Red Junk Opera .

I'm sorry if any of this is heresy to any of my Wing Chun brothers but our martial arts ancestors   were clever and dedicated practitioners - seekers after the elusive perfection of technique - and truth. Enjoy the myths and traditions by all means but we  do  our respected ancestors  an injustice if we elevate these myths to a quasi-religious cult.

Tuesday 22 December 2009

Tom Wintringham

A sad aspect of the fragmentation of the Left, apart from blatant sectarianism, is an ignorance of the historical contributions made by people from different political traditions. So until reading the Last English Revolutionary, I knew next to nothing about Tom Wintringham. I found something very appealing about him – a Marxist theoretician (and practitioner) of guerrilla warfare with the appearance of an absent-minded academic. That he was also a keen motorcyclist and admirer of the English radical tradition dating from the Levellers also helped.

Not so long ago I would probably have dismissed him as just another Stalinist. In fact having been expelled from the Communist Party in 1938 he was also airbrushed out of their historical pantheon. However he remained a Marxist all his life and so was never accepted into the Labour mainstream. As a result he falls between a number of Left traditions and remains a relatively obscure figure.

A brief biography should show that he deserves to be better known: Born into privilege, he served in the ranks in the Great War as a dispatch rider. This radicalised him and he was imprisoned for mutiny. After the war as a student he visited Bolshevik Russia and was one of the founding members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Along with a number of leading Communists he was imprisoned for sedition in the run up to the General Strike of 1926. He went to Spain and became involved in the raising of the International Brigades, and later went on to command the British Battalion. Twice wounded in action he was invalided back to Britain, but clashed with the Communist leadership and was expelled from the party. At the outbreak of war he threw himself into the war effort under the slogan of ‘a people’s war for a people’s peace’. He was a pioneer of the Home Guard and with other Spanish Republican veterans set up a school of guerrilla warfare. He opposed the wartime electoral truce and set up the Common Wealth Party. After the 1945 election he joined the Labour Party and was involved in the peace movement until he died in 1949.

At one time various organisations used to talk about ‘unconscious Trotskyists’ – it was a way of laying claim to individuals and other organisations who probably wouldn’t be seen dead with them – a bit like Mormons retrospectively converting their ancestors. Despite the grounds given on his expulsion from the CPGB – that he had consorted with a ‘Trotskyist agent’ - Tom Wintringham certainly wasn’t a Trotskyist unconscious or otherwise.

He was however a serial womaniser, and the paranoid CP leadership distrusted his affair with Kitty Bowler, a wealthy American woman with general left sympathies. Wintringham was given an ultimatum to choose between her and the party and he chose her. But nonetheless there was also a political basis for the expulsion - unlike much of the CP, Wintringham genuinely believed in the Popular Front.

He had recoiled from the insane sectarianism of the CP’s ‘class against class’ strategy which saw other left parties as the main threat rather than the Right - a strategy that was undoubtedly instrumental in allowing the Fascists to come to power. In Spain he developed his idea of a people’s war, and a broad alliance that would take in all working class organisations along with ‘genuine democrats’ from the middle class. How much he knew of  the CP’s  suppression of other Lefts – the POUM and anarchists in Catalonia – is debatable, but he was appalled at the cynical sectarianism of the CP in Spain.

Most of all he was outraged at the CP’s endorsement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, which he regarded as a betrayal of the anti-fascist cause. It was this that drove his vision of ‘people’s war’, with the Home Guard not as the comic version of Dads’ Army and Captain Mainwaring but as a highly politicised militia based on factory workers such as the union militias of Spain or the partisan bands on the Eastern Front.

The Common Wealth Party was at the same time both a bizarre postscript to his political development and also its culmination. It was an odd alliance of Lefts discontented at Labour’s acquiescence to the wartime coalition and assorted oddballs such as the Christian socialists seeking a ‘moral revolution’. It also expressed Wintringham’s vision of a Popular Front that had a peculiarly English slant - even the choice of name revealed his vision of radical continuity going back to the seventeenth century.

Wintringham died in 1949 not long outliving the 1945 Labour landslide, after which he advocated the folding of Common Wealth into the Labour Party. Until his death he remained an eccentric and marginalised figure on the Left seeking inspiration from the regimes in China and Yugoslavia as alternatives to what he saw as an increasingly discredited Soviet Union, although he could still never quite bring himself to condemn Stalinism.

With the benefit of historical hindsight it’s very easy to condemn Wintringham’s failure to break with Stalinism. But it’s also easy to underestimate the magnetic pull that the first worker’s government had to those on the Left in the 1920’s and its ability to command continuing loyalty in the face of the rise of Fascism in the 1930’s. For people who supposedly believe that 'conditions determine consciousness' we Marxists are too often hyper-critical of people from the past who didn't arrive at a 'correct' position. I find this particularly distasteful when applied to individuals who have risked and endured far more than their critics.

It’s not necessary to have a party list of approved historical characters or to try and retrospectively appropriate   them to our own cause.  It's should be enough that we recognise them honestly.

Monday 21 December 2009

Who brings a gun to a snowball fight ?

Humourless pricks with the authority of a badge and some sort of inadequacy complex are always depressing. Give them a gun too and they are  downright dangerous. Check this footage from a snowball fight in Washington DC.

And when you can be arrested and detained for taking a photograph of a public building or  trying to film the numbers on a copper's uniform  - there are no grounds to feel smug that it couldn't happen here ...

Friday 18 December 2009

Some eye candy

I'm a bit bored and uninspired to write at the moment: So I just dug out some classic black and white photos - they all represent something (to me) so maybe they qualify as 'iconic'. They don't really need explanations but here they are anyway:

• Lee Marvin defined  biker culture in 1953 - it's not really changed.

• Trotsky reading the Militant. He looks  like my dad in this picture.

 • Michael Parks as Bronson. Two wheedled knight errant on a quest.

• Girl On A Motorcycle. French art-house. A girl on a bike. Nuff said.

• My Sigung: Wong Shun Leung. The bad boy of 1950's Hong Kong.

• Miners' strike 1984-5. A defining moment of my  youth.

• Easyrider. I always identify more with Billy than Wyatt.

• Steve McQueen. Simply the coolest movie star. Ever.

• Teamsters' strike 1934. For once the cops are on the receiving end.

• And finally, because I just couldn't not include this.

Thursday 17 December 2009

We want the airwaves ...

Fight back against the forces of darkness and sign up here to get Rage Against The Machine to a Christmas Number One instead of Simon Cowell's latest product - And stop the onslaught  of cynical-plastic-manufactured-commercial-sentimental-manipulative  shite. At least for a week or two...

Monday 14 December 2009

Tiger Woods

I grew up in the suburbs surrounded by golf courses. As a teenager I did a bit of caddying and I played  a bit of golf. Surprisingly I wasn't too bad but it was not really the game for me - I prefer my exercise a bit more vigorous.

But it wasn't this that really put me off, it was the arseholes who are magnetically drawn to golf clubs. The kind of aspirational twats who enjoy being part of an organisation that tells them they musn't wear shorts on the course or that they have to wear a collar in the bar  - and that after twenty years of kissing arse they can become the club captain. And then I found in work that golf was a social forum for 'business' - which really meant a vehicle for brown-nosing with clients or superiors. So I avoided golf much as I also avoided the freemasons and the rotary club - and haven't found my career disadvantaged.

So I'm not big on golf or golfers and I haven't followed closely, or particularly cared much, about the Tiger Woods scandal. But I can offer a couple of observations without straying into the morality of his infidelities:

Firstly I suspect that they are more about power than they are about sex. Celebrities are the new royalty - of the worst 'divine right' kind. Such is the cult that surrounds them that they feel, and most of the time the media and public go along with this, that they are above the constraints of the great unwashed. The feeling that they can shag every gold-digger that makes herself (or maybe himself ?) available becomes not only a privilege but a defining quality; and consequently almost a necessity of celebrity. It's the same sense of 'droit de seigneur' that drives pissed up footballers to pick fights in Cheshire night clubs - or worse.

And secondly, and specifically with the Tiger Woods case, there is more than a hint of racism. The underlying  feeling that black celebrities have by their very definition 'got above themselves'. Particularly so if they have conquered a WASP  bastion such as the golfing world. Particularly so if they have a glamorous  and conspicuously aryan wife. There will always be the 'OJ Simpson' factor' - the facts of the case secondary to the white establishment's delight at seeing an 'uppity' black man fail.

That's it - I promise I will never mention golf here again.

Friday 11 December 2009

Then Came Bronson

I'm just a bit too young to have seen this first time around in 1969 - but I'm trying to catch up on 'Then Came Bronson'. They don't make shows ... or bikes ... likes this any more.

Love it:
Taking at trip ?
Where to ?
Wherever I end I up I guess ..
Boy I wish I was you
Well hang in there ...

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Afghanistan and the reason why*

News that the 100th British soldier has been killed in Afghanistan this year. Defence Secretary Bob Ainsworth has cautioned us not to become distracted by the casualty rate and to concentrate on the progress 'we' have made in Afghanistan: Personally I find this far more callous than any gripes about Gordon Brown's handwriting but we will let that pass for a moment and have a look at the balance sheet:

• After two dodgy elections the people have the corrupt Karazai government

• Probably linked to this, 40% of the promised Western aid has not reached the people it was intended for.

• 77% of the population do not have access to clean water.

• In rural areas 80% of the population do not have electricity.

It is tempting to conclude that the US and British governments simply don't have a fucking clue as to what the objectives are. But that actually lets them off the hook too lightly - the strategy is both knowing and cynical.( And forget the blustering humanitarian fig leaf, by that logic British troops would be dying in Darfur).

The allies  may have gone into Afghanistan to fight Al Quaida but couldn't find them so ended up fighting the Taliban instead - but there was some grand strategic vision too. A grandiose idea of retaining influence in a zone that, judging from instability in Pakistan, was rapidly slipping away from their control. A zone of immense productive importance to them - the oilfields of the Middle East - at which the otherwise desolate region of Afghanistan stands at the gates. And of course the country also sits on top of a strategic pipeline. This is nothing more than good old fashioned imperialism.

Anyone with a passing knowledge of colonial history, or even of the Flashman novels, will know that this is nothing new. In the Nineteenth Century the competing superpowers were Britain and Russian, and it wasn't about about protecting oil fields but trade routes - again Afghanistan had the misfortune to be in exactly the wrong place. The struggle then was played with rather more sophistication, as a war of espionage, diplomacy and outright bribery of local factions. When direct military intervention was required the Western forces invariably got their arses royally kicked by local forces.

From a military point of view the current strategy is that of every imperialist power since the Romans - control key towns and strong-points and police the surrounding countryside by patrols. And from the Teutoburg Forest to Dien Bien Phu or most appropriately the 'North West Frontier' it hasn't worked. In the long run, time, logistics and geography are not on the side of empires. And neither usually is justice.

* 'Theirs not to reason why, Theirs but to do & die' -
Alfred Lord Tennyson - 'The Charge Of The Light Brigade'

Monday 7 December 2009

Other days remembered 'in infamy'

In the US, today marks the start of the Second World War in 1941 with the anniversary of Pearl Harbour.  For us Brits it’s the 3rd of September when, in 1939 Britain declared war following the Nazi invasion of Poland. In Russia the same anniversary would be marked on 22nd June 1941 when Hitler launched Operation Barbarossa on the Soviet Union. 

By convention and convenience the Second War is dated 1939-45. But this is a selective chronology on the worldwide struggle against Fascism – it is also a view through a specifically European lens: In 1935 Mussolini’s Italy invaded Ethiopia. In 1936’s Franco led a revolt of Spanish colonial troops in Morocco that would escalate into civil war. And in 1931 Imperial Japan invaded Chinese Manchuria.

This week in 1937 marks the fall of the Chinese city of Nanking and the start of a six week period of atrocities against surrendered troops and the civilian  population that resulted in  over 250,000 deaths and untold instances of rape and other war crimes.

 Outside of Asian communities, this ‘other genocide’ is still largely unknown in the West. Partly because the telling of the story is clouded with the propaganda of Communist China: Partly because the Japanese authorities were not as bureaucratic as their Nazi counterparts in documenting their crimes; partly because certain Japanese nationalists have, like Western Neo-Nazis, attempted to use historical revisionism to diminish and ultimately deny these crimes. But mostly I suspect that these crimes are unknown – and those in Nanking were representative of those of Imperial Japanese Forces throughout Asia – because the evidence was not right under Western noses, and because they did not affect ‘people like us’.

Ten years ago a Chinese-American, Iris Chang, wrote ‘The Rape Of Nanking’ and did in some part redress this. The book is frankly not good history. Revisionist historians have found it rather too easy to pick holes in her reliance on some questionable secondary sources. In its analysis it strays into a Chinese nationalism that sees the Japanese atrocities of the period as the inevitable by-product of a national character exemplified by the bushido code. It is uncomfortable and shocking reading told from an undeniably partisan point of view- to the extent that after writing it the author suffered depression and finally took her own life in 2004. Even so the book still justifies compulsory reading for any Westerner trying to understand the period. And much of the revisionist criticism amount to  nothing less than a nationalist-fueled blanket denial of the crimes - on a scale that no Western historian would dare suggest in relation to the Holocaust.

If nothing else it explains why in all those cheesy kung-fu movies, the karate guys are always depicted as the villains …

Wednesday 2 December 2009

Real world interlude.

A momentary change from the general smart-arsery and occasional bile that is the usual tone of this blog:

Back in the Spring I had a health scare that sent me a warning shot of mortality  - this weekend I had a similar experience with dad. He's in his 80's, increasing frail and until now the sole carer for my mum who is effectively house-bound. I got a phone call on Friday from the ambulance service to say that they were taking him into hospital as he had become confused and lost his memory. So I had a manic ride across London through the rush hour down to Kent to check that my mum was with a neighbour, and then on to the hospital.

There I found my dad, who until very recently was a local councillor, school governor and leading light in the local Labour Party, utterly disorientated and just about able to recognise me.

He had lost all recollection of where he was and what he was doing and could only just about recall his own date of birth and what he had done for a living before retiring. A stroke was suspected but then dismissed. In the course of four or five agonising hours in the A&E department, whilst he waited admission to a ward, he was given medication to lower his blood pressure. As this happened his memory and awareness gradually returned. I went back to my parents' house to check on my mum and just after midnight we had a ominous phone call. Answering with trepidation  - it was my dad's more or less normal voice speaking - more or less lucidly. I returned to the hospital the next morning to find him sat up in bed reading the Independent and talking about the news.

Having got him home, it was apparent that things cannot continue as before. So from having no support at all in looking after my mum, he now has a package from social services. I stayed with them until this support kicked-in. It's not really much more than a safety net but it will hopefully give him the all-important psychological reassurance that the burden is not solely on his shoulders.

Again, as with my own very similar experience, I am struck by the fragility of life and 'self'. Those things that define us as a person hang by such a thin thread. I'm also struck by the underlying sadness of old age - the knowledge that our world and its horizons will slowly close in around us so that planning a journey upstairs or cooking lunch becomes a major pre-occupation. I am disgusted with my  selfish panic of 'how the fuck am I going to cope with this from now on?' And I'm also struck, despite all the frustrations and delays, by the fundamental kindness of everyone in the caring professions from doctors to home-helps - and  I find it humbling and sobering in comparison with the fundamentally vacuous nature of  my own working life.

That's about it I'm afraid. Nothing original, insightful or witty to say. But at the same time not to record my feelings here on my blog would somehow seem dis-honest. I promise normal service will soon be resumed.