Some thoughts on Grading (Part 2)


 Wow. To  use the Spider-man approved epithet, that was an absolute Mother Hubbard of an afternoon. In comparison to previous gradings where I’ve had to just turn up, maybe do a little bit of fitness stuff, show off the techniques/forms/kata required for relevant grade and once at a high enough level, maybe spar a little bit, all done and dusted in 45 minutes, an hour tops, this was a three hour plus beasting along with the actual karate elements. Then sparring. For my first belt. Somehow this is much more in line with what I’ve always felt a grading should be – a test of character as much as technique and knowledge. This perhaps speaks to a further reason for my lack of satisfaction with the gradings I’ve done in the past even if I didn’t know what it was at the time – I hadn’t been fully tested. There was no real challenge. Goju does things much, much differently.

One of the things I love about Goju is that everything has a purpose. It’s an incredibly mindful system. Whereas in previous systems I’ve studied, students were separated by sash/belt, in Goju, as sensei says ‘we grade as a club’. We grade together. We see what is coming our way. We. There is a an emphasis on the first person plural rather than the first person singular. There are, for me at least, multiple effects of this – gradings act as social glue. They give profound respect for the higher grades. The beasting given the folk going for green belt (a step only midway up the kyu ladder) was ferocious. Seeing what will come to me in time is terrifying and inspiring. The foreknowledge is important. Fear is a strong motivator, knowing what you have to overcome. Most importantly, though I think the whole experience was as much about the people, not the grading. The man or woman to our left and right.

I think this demonstrates the inclusive ethos that permeates the club, the great atmosphere, the supportiveness and the high proportion of black belts (generally more than a third in the classes I go to) to lower grades. Despite all that, this seems to be a style that people either love and really stick with, or run a mile from pretty rapidly. In retrospect there’s a lot of things I feel I didn’t do well enough (for my own satisfaction if nothing else), but Sensei, the belt and certificate say otherwise. My fitness wasn’t helped by the fact I probably should have eaten considerably more before starting.

The notion of perfectibility is a large part of martial arts, even if absolute perfection is ultimately unattainable, it’s good to have goals, targets, another step up a ladder whose top extends the second you get another rung up. I’m learning again how to learn this stuff, and I feel apprehensive, excited and full, currently of a metric fuck-ton (technical term, honest) of endorphins which is why this might be slightly more overblown than normal.

Astonishingly I didn’t go straight to sleep seconds after my head hitting the pillow, and managed about five hours before waking (surprisingly enough a full half hour before the customary time MiniMog comes in and jumps on my head to get my attention), one calf is extremely stiff, there are sundry aches and pains, yet all I can think about is whether or not it’s sensible to train tonight, eager to learn more.

Post-script – Massive, massive thanks to the Sensei and his Sempai for organising the grading and his confidence in us, and to my fellow gradees (is that a word?) for being there. We did it.


Some thoughts on Grading (Part 1)



Ah. I’d forgotten about this.

A couple of Mondays back, Sensei had us lined up and dropped in, all casual like, ‘John, are you grading?’.  I guessed there was a correct answer.

Tomorrow is my first Goju grading. It’s been a very long time since I last graded. Now I remember how much I hate it. More than any other sort of examination I’ve ever done up to and including my finals at Uni, a result which theoretically is far more important for my life.

Big deal, I hear you say, first grading, you aren’t expected to be perfect. No, not by the examiners I’m not, but to the unrealistic, tyrannical internal judge that expects rather more than I’m capable of at any given moment, any performance I’m likely to give will be unworthy of the belt. Never mind that people far, far better qualified to make the award will be doing so, the pressure is almost entirely of my own making. I suspect this is true of most people. I remember getting through a grading and feeling a distressingly small sense of satisfaction given how nervous the process had made me, mostly just relief than anything else..

This contributes to my conflicted relationship to grading. I appreciate how motivating it can be, but having seen, at a couple of clubs, people rocket through the belts/sashes at a rate disproportionate to their actual skill soured me on it a bit. People seemed to be getting awarded pretty much for attendance and/or being matey with the instructors. There was also an element of inverse snobbery – I liked being better than people two or three grades above me. That and being nervous, which I hate. No matter how much you try and intellectualise it*, there’s no way round the body releasing cortisol and adrenalin. Stupid body. Of course, I’d reckon this is part of the function of gradings – not just to assess one’s knowledge of the syllabus and technical ability at a given point, but to assess how the individual deals with the stress of the ‘exam’ condition, and also give one an exposure to stress in a relatively controlled manner. What is clever is most of the pressure is internal.

How confident am I? Well, I have my kata (Gekisai-Dai-Ichi) down in the purely ‘I know what move follows what’ sense. I have a tactic for most of the technique (or more accurately ‘knowing the Japanese’) stuff – follow the big kids in front. Still a little unsure of the front-foot turn (thanks to years of turning on the back foot, which makes considerably less sense, thanks Chinese martial arts!). I’m fit enough, and my sparring and pad-work should be up to the job. With a bit of luck, I’ll get some sleep tonight.

Next Day: G-4hrs. Surprisingly unstressed. Which is nice.

G-1 Nerves setting in now. Bugger.

Will have my post grading thoughts up soon…


*What’s the worst that can happen? Actually, maybe a freak spinal injury leaving me quadriplegic or maybe a hideous compound fracture. Spectacularly unlikely but in the realms of possibility That’d be pretty bad. Brain stop helping.


Karate Ramblings

This is the first of what will be a semi-regular series (and some of those posts may be along the lines of omigodowthathurts) charting my travails/travels with Karate. I’ve done a fair amount of martial arts over the years – Judo as a kid, some Karate and Kickboxing in my teens and three flavours of Kung Fu in my twenties, along with a term of Muay Thai at Uni taken by students who seemed barely more skilled than me.

I’ve been training about a month now in Goju-ryu  an Okinawan style formalised by this gentleman. It’s a style I feel has an awful lot going for it (grapples, throws and groundwork as well as the usual arsenal of kicks, punches and strikes. It also has a kata* system that actually makes sense to me).

OK, first question is why go back to martial arts now? Glad you asked. There’s a variety of reasons – I’ve not trained seriously in too many years and swimming, my other main healthy activity is seriously fucking boring**, leading me to miss the hitting. A lot. My brother and several friends have acquired black belts and that’s an itch that I feel the need to scratch (which, I know is ego talking rather than a good reason per se). Most importantly it’s really, really good fun, I enjoy it and it’s good for my fitness both physical and mental.

Why Goju? Because the local Krav Maga school never got back to me about a free taster session, and a good friend (one of aforementioned black belts) offered to pick me up on the way through to training. Since then the class has proven to be a) fascinating – I feel like I’ve learned more in these four weeks than I did in my last full year and a half of training b) extremely supportive and generous in nature c) led by a sensei who is both astonishingly good and engagingly demented d) bloody hard work*** e) bloody good fun. Full of win therefore.

What am I hoping to achieve? That, unfortunately is an excellent question  to which I  don’t have an excellent answer. I’d like to reach at least shodan (first degree Black belt), but getting through the grading system is less important to me than being good at it, and if reaching shodan is analogous to having acquired the basic vocabulary and grammar of a language, I’d like to be able to construct some short sentences, maybe even a haiku. The problem is I don’t yet have a firm conceptualisation of what ‘good’ means in this context, and suspect I won’t ever get to the point I’m happy or comfortable with what I achieve anyway. Hopefully writing about this will help crystallise this for me. I suppose I’m looking to get fitter, improve my technique, conditioning, actually give at least as good as I get in sparring, develop a load of skills****

*First time I’ve ever had why I’m learning this set of moves explained coherently rather than just as formal things to be learnt to get a belt/sash. The kata also link to bunkai, (applications) so there is a real sense of how the system can be used outside the dojo.

**Herein lies a lesson in the non-transferability of fitness – last year I swam 5k every day over 5 days. Seems to count for very little in Karateworld.

***Although I’m already feeling a difference in my fitness going from struggling with four rounds of pad-work to doing seven and keeping my work rate up for all of them. I also have the residual aches from hard work and pains from getting lamped that I remember so well. Perversely I rather like them, not in the way Leopold von Sacher-Masoch would, but as evidence of having done something.

**** Including things that I haven’t really touched on in over thirty years – groundwork, seriously, wtf? I mean yeah you sort of lie there, but you’ve got to think about the position of your backside, shoulders, hips, legs, arms, the curvature of your body and OHMYGOD THERE’S AN ENORMOUS MAN PUNCHING THE CRAP OUT OF ME AND NOW HE’S CRANKED MY ARM ACROSS HIS BODY AND IS IT SUPPOSED TO BE AT THAT ANGLE?..

The Raid/Dredd


Watched these two back to back as I’d heard about their similarity. Yeah OK, they’re both about law enforcement officers being trapped in large buildings with an overwhelmingly large enemy force run by ruthless gangsters, but I actually thought that the differences were both greater and more interesting than the similarities.

First up: The Raid – (or The Raid: Redemption to give it its full, pointless UK title) is a stripped down, turbo charged monster of an action flick. Pencak Silat  genius Iko Uwais  plays Rama, new boy on the Jakarta SWAT team sent in to clean up a drug-overlord’s tenement block – a block populated almost entirely by sociopathic machete-wielding martial arts experts. Mayhem ensues. From there it’s a battle of attrition and ever decreasing ranges as the grunts on both sides die, guns run out of bullets, machetes/blades get broken or lost until it’s all fists, feet and elbows. The action choreography, courtesy of Uwais is absolutely spectacular – fast, flowing and brutal, whilst director Gareth Evans gives the battles the space they need, framing each shot carefully for maximum clarity to the carnage. No shaky-cam here. What there is, though is the sort of inventive camera work that reminds me of early Sam Raimi, where budget constraints forced the film-maker to be really creative in getting the shots they want.

In a lot of ways, The Raid is as much horror movie as action/martial arts epic. The relentlessness of the action, grimy setting and the tension generating sequences are far more horror tropes than action ones, and herein lies one of the failings of the film. Whilst there are brief pauses for exposition, it’s frenetic, breathless stuff and nearly a case of too much of a good thing. Also, the foley on UK and US releases doesn’t perfectly match the action. The consequent disconnect is a real shame. That said, Uwais is the most impressive cinematic martial artist I’ve seen since Tony Jaa, and the sheer level of inventiveness and commitment to purpose make this an extremely good borderline great action movie.

Dredd is almost subtle in comparison.

Karl Urban plays everybody’s favourite fascist lawman with the exactly right level of laconic, lending him a terse, black humoured edge. Dredd isn’t so much a character as a Platonic ideal ‘inflexible lawman’. Urban gives him an implacability and self belief that is as much force of nature as anything else – it doesn’t occur to Dredd that he might lose. Consequently the bulk of character development and audience identification falls on nervous rookie Judge Cassandra Anderson (Olivia Thirlby). Anderson is a powerful psychic with a borderline failing score in her final Judge assessment. The Chief Judge takes the pragmatic approach that her psionic ability is worth at least the 3% Anderson is failing by, asks Dredd to see what he can do. The Judges head out onto the streets of Mega City One, and long story short end up in the Peach Trees Megablock, run by vicious crime boss MaMa (Lena Heady in full on ‘terrifying psychopath’ mode). Mayhem, predictably enough, ensues. Much of this mayhem is incredibly beautiful, too thanks to the macguffin ‘Slo-Mo’ drug. Slo-Mo, which doubtless acts on Shatner’s Bassoon alters the user’s perception of time, rendering it a lovely, glassy slow-motion effect. Someone having their face shot off has never seemed so beautiful.

The dramatic meat of the story is Anderson’s transition from uncertain, lacking-in-confidence rookie to a woman who will, essentially, tell Dredd to stick it up his ass. She might initially seem too delicate for the environment and job she’s trained for, but this is a woman who mind-fucks a vicious multiple killer so much he pisses his pants in fear and mind-probes then executes a turncoat Judge without batting an eyelid, while remaining sympathetic and likeable. Anderson deserves her own movie.

There are also numerous Easter-egg references to the comic – from the obvious ‘Chopper’ graffiti to the relatively subtle – a poster for ‘Krysler’s Mark’ and the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it ‘Fergee Memorial Day Riots’ in a newsfeed. I haven’t read 2000AD since… before 2000AD, but Alex Garland has captured the spirit of the comic, added in even more grit and swearing and given us a corker of a sci-fi action movie.

Unfortunately only one of these movies is getting a sequel, both deserve one. Dredd is, I think, the better film, but as a jolt of pure, exhilarating martial arts violence The Raid is well worth your time.

The Red Knight

KT Davies

***Very Minor Spoilers***

Disclosure: My wife met the author at a gathering before Christmas and was gifted a signed copy of the book.

I’m not the hugest fan of fantasy. I’ve played table-top RPG’s for over 30 years, a hobby which led to me reading numerous genre faves. I came to the conclusion that fantasy is as laden with crap as most other genres, if not more so. This is rather disappointing. Part of the problem is that it’s often formulaic. Another Campbellian hero’s journey. Another farm-boy* becomes king/demigod/whatever of a world populated by the mythical beasts/creations of other people. Yawn. That’s not to say there isn’t some seriously good stuff out there, but the signal-to-noise ratio was so poor I gave up reading fantasy a while back. For every ‘Game of Thrones’ there’re twenty ‘Wheel of Time’s, or so at least it seems to me. My view is therefore, admittedly, not up-to-date. With that out the way, let me just say if other  modern fantasy is as good as this, I may well be giving it another shot.

‘The Red Knight’ kicks ass as hard as a bucking war-horse applying steel-shod hoof to carelessly exposed buttock.  The world is stock-seeming (note the ‘seeming’ there) low-to-mid fantasy – the supernatural forces that once ran rampant in the world are massively in decline with humanity in various flavours mediaeval as the dominant race. There are still traces of the Old World, ancient magics woven into the stones of castles, shape-shifters prowl the night, Fey artefacts in the hands of mortals. What Davies does extremely well is hint at the secrets of the world – the magic, politics and indeed characters** are oft half-glimpsed and tantalisingly unexplored.

It’s against this backdrop that we are introduced to protagonist Alyda Stenna, Captain of the elite First Company of the Royal Guards, the ‘Hammer of Antia’. Already in her prime, Stenna is a badass of epic proportions – tough, resourceful and ruthless, she cuts a swath across battlefields, whilst upholding her rigid code of honour. We also meet Garian Tain, a young spy, nimble of foot and mind, a killer with a conscience. It didn’t take long to realise the story truly is in the realms of fantasy – characters are given equal respect, depth and dimensionality regardless of gender or sexuality. For that reason alone the book is worthwhile, showing that even in the Boys Club of fantasy, it isn’t that difficult to have interesting women – just treat them like, y’know, people.***

Rather than go into detail about the story itself, all you need to know is there’s politics, betrayal, battles, sex, magic, elemental dragon beasties, ancient Fey sorcerers, gruelling torture, alcohol and drug abuse, romance. All the good stuff. I seriously hope there’s going to be a sequel soon not least because of a) where it ended being an obvious set-up and b) a couple of characters escape a savage beating with the Mallet of Righteous Über-violence.

The writing is assured so pages seemingly turn themselves whilst dialogue often has a really sly, cool wit to it.

Minor nit-picks: the first thirty pages are ever so slightly over-written before relaxing into a much less self-aware, more fluid style and there’s a little much ‘I’ve done my research’ about armour showing. But you know what, this is me reaching to criticise because the rest of it is so damned good.

Hugely recommended for those that like complex interesting characters, subverted tropes/clichés and more depth than usual to the ‘big people hitting one another with heavy implements’. Not that there isn’t plenty of that too…

*When my dictatorship takes over, farms are going to get hit hard. Farm-boys seem to be the biggest source of trouble for evil empires.

**I seriously want a story about the Black Duchess. KT, make it so…

***Before anyone gives me the ‘women in combat isn’t realistic’ bullshit allow me to introduce some ideas to your tiny brain. 1)  Population distribution curves – the average man may be bigger than the average woman but there are large areas of overlap. There are a number of women I know who could in all likelihood kick your head off or out lift you. 2) You’re quibbling about realism in a fantasy novel? Srsly? Back to your cave with you.

Where’s My Shoggoth?

(Ian Thomas, Words and Adam Bolton, Art)

 DISCLOSURE: I was in a popular beat combo with Ian, he’s a top bloke and a damn fine musician. This copy isn’t a review one, but bought for the MiniMog for the festival of Sol Invictus/Solstice/Christmas

Just received my the little man’s copy of this…

Where’s My Shoggoth?’ sits happily alongside ‘Baby’s First Mythos’ in the blindingly obvious yet tragically under-populated Venn diagram area of ‘Brain-Melting Cosmic Horror’ and ‘Books for Very Young Children’.

It is the charming tale of a small boy who has lost his titular amorphous beastie, and the subsequent quest to find Him. Her. It. Whatever. Along the way, the boy meets a variety of creatures from the dank pits of HP Lovecraft’s feverish imagination, including amongst others, a Nightgaunt, Yog-Sothoth, Mi-Go, Nyarlathotep and Cthulhu. The text is simple and rhythmic enough for little ones to enjoy, yet atmospheric and with enough sinister, ominous overtones to amuse/squick out parents (Deep Ones!.. inter-racial species dating…).

Good as the text is, though the real joy of the book is the art. Adam Bolton’s illustrations are rich in macabre detail, wit and the non-Euclidian geometries of terror from beyond space and sanity, which artfully obscure the parts that would rip all sense of meaning and reality from the tiny minds observing the imagery before casting them into an abyss of shrieking terror. Won’t do much for the children either. Ahem.

I commend it to the house unreservedly.

Jesting aside, ‘Where’s My Shoggoth?’ is wittily written, beautifully illustrated, and a perfect gift for little ones that won’t become boring after being read for about the eight-hundred thousandth time (that really is soul-crushing horror).

Rock of Ages

Shaftesbury Theatre


Generally speaking I consider musicals to be pretty ridonkulous. If I want to listen to music, I’ll put on some music. If I want narrative I’ll read a book or watch TV/a movie. I don’t really want the two mixing. Oh the emotion, oh the drama, oh the angst, the pathos. I know, let’s share the deepest workings of our souls by bursting into song… Nope, you lost me there. Not for me, thanks. And no, I didn’t think ‘Once More with Feeling’ was all that either.

Continue reading

Stone Sour: House of Gold and Bones Part 1


When I was a kid I often submerged myself in music, or more specifically whole albums. Operation: Mindcrime (later LIVECrime). Master of Puppets. Images and Words. High Tension Wires. Focus. Albums that are not necessarily immediate, but requiring attention, patience to get the best from.  Life was the thing that happened between slipping on a set of headphones and disappearing into the music, delving into the songs, learning the parts, melodies, rhythm patterns, lyrics. The above often had me finding new things after weeks of constant listening.

These are all albums that work best as total entities, consumed whole rather than dipped into or put on in the background as aural wallpaper. The sorts of albums to put on when you can listen to them start to finish without interruption. Gestalt albums where the whole thing is greater than the sum of the parts, no matter how great those individual parts may be. Which of course should set you up nicely for what I’m going to say about this one.

I’ve been looping House of Gold and Bones Part 1. It gets stronger with each play, and reveals a greatness that the band have more than hinted at before but never quite attained. HoGB1 (as it shall be henceforth referred) is a concept album about the inner struggles of the protagonist after a catastrophic relationship failure. Rather than talk about individual tracks (many of which hit or clear the heights of  the band’s previous best), I’d simply say that the album is by turns brutal and beautiful, savage, delicate and raging. Instrumentation is varied – armour piercing guitar tones give way to strings and delicate synth parts. Corey Taylor once again proves himself one of the best vocalists in rock today. Whilst he may not have the range of, say a Dickinson or Tate, he has a great melodic sensibility, projects powerfully, and has great versatility going from a contemptuous snarl to a whisper to a scream in the space of the same song. He also has great character – whether it’s wounded and vulnerable or raging and pissed off, the vocals are as much a part of the instrumentation as the actual instruments. Lyrically it’s clever and blackly funny (‘I don’t mind my self-loathing, and I don’t need help from you’). The rest of the band acquit themselves in equal fashion – rhythm section drummer Roy Mayorga and on-loan-from-Skid-Row bassist Rachel Bolan bring the assault and battery, whilst guitarists Josh Rand and James Root lay down taut, precise, inventive rhythms and scything fleet-fingered solos. Basically HoGB1 takes everything that was good about Stone Sour on past albums and cranks it to eleven. In line with the concept album idea, the song arrangement and ordering has a very definite ‘narrative flow’ to it

Absolutely magnificent. Do your ears and brain a favour and get a copy. Here’s hoping Part 2 can match up, and also that they perform both albums in their entirety live…

SkyWorld – Two Steps from Hell

‘OK’, I hear you ask, ‘who are Two Steps from Hell and why are you reviewing them?’  Well, if you’ve played video games, watched TV or been to the cinema in the past five or six years, chances are you’ve heard one of their awesome orchestral/choral tunes as backdrop to a trailer for a genre property. And also UEFA 2012. And the Olympics.

My introduction to them was the release day trailer of Mass Effect 3, and the unspeakably, monstrously epic track ‘Protectors of the Earth’. I watched the ad god knows how many times on repeat then found out who wrote it. Seriously, go look for it on YouTube now and if you don’t rate it as one of the most awesome pieces of music ever written you’re dead to me. Dead.

Since then, the duo of Nick Phoenix and Thomas J Bergerson have been a first port of call when using music to create mood when I’m writing. There’s almost always something appropriate on their albums, and it seems like they write both to archetypes – ‘Master of Shadows’ from ‘Invincible’ for example could be a theme for Batman, Dracula or a master ninja, and to specific films – ‘Am I Not Human?’ (also ‘Invincible’) seems a perfect fit for a replicant, or indeed Deckard.

Opener ‘All is Hell that Ends Well’ starts quietly, before engaging ‘Epic Mode’. A playfully baroque interlude more epic then… Dubstep. Not what I expected, but it is a perfect moment, thunderous and surprisingly apropos. Two Steps manage to integrate disparate styles and instrumentation into succesful, organic pieces of music. There’s an increased playfulness in the arrangements this time, with that wider sonic palette and in that respect, it reminds me of John William’s ‘Attack of the Clones’ soundtrack.  Dark Ages (Nemesis) makes a remixed re-appearance, this time with added metal guitar. Standouts for me include the previously mentioned tracks, also ‘For the Win’, Star Fleet’ and the lovely ‘Breathe’. And ‘Icarus’ has a really lovely sonic pun in it’s composition.

SkyWorld is another array of sweeping tunes that are the perfect soundtrack to the movies in your head, a tabletop RPG session (a good choice for an ‘Exalted’ campaign, you munchkins…) or just lying back and listening to on a set of good headphones. Love it.