Last night I finished a novel by Alexei  Sayle called ‘The Weeping Women Hotel’ and this blog kind of falls out of the story alongside some related thoughts that keep moving around in my unsound mind.  I read a variety of novels and non-fiction as some of you already know and like a guy who drinks steadily in modest amounts then goes on a binge, well that is how I read. Obviously I do not overdose on reading but I binge on a particular author, when I experienced this for the first time, or the first time I can recall, I was in my early twenties and started reading 1984 by George Orwell, I hardly slept for the next week as I read a collection of his works, a box set I borrowed off a friend, I hardly slept, I sat up until dawn then slept for a few hours then started reading again, I was obsessed. My parents genuinely worried for my health.

I remember the titles without having to look them up, ‘Animal Farm’, ‘The Road to Wigan Pier’, ‘Down and Out in Paris and London’ and my favourite of these all time classics ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. I have re-read some of these since, a couple several times. I will not bore you with a list of names a mile long who’s work have attracted my binge reading, that is not the point of this blog. However, to return to my starting point, ‘The Weeping Women Hotel’, it is a quirky novel, no two Alexei Sayle novels are the same, some are zany, all are humorous, this one is a little profound. The central character is a morbidly obese woman called Harriet whose life is transformed by martial arts or to be particular a martial art called Li Kuan Yu, it was not a planned transformation but accidental, an offshoot of another activity, time and place. Harriet becomes the pupil of Sifu Patrick who trained under the originator of Li Kuan Yu, the mysterious and absent Master Martin Po.

One thing is for sure, you have to read this book, it is a clinical observation of much of what occurs in martial arts the world over, I will reveal nothing more about the plot directly although I may give clues with some of my other observations, but I will not lay out any deliberate spoilers. I finished the book on the same night I made my choice of novels to give away as part of World Book Day 2013, had ‘The Weeping Women Hotel’ been on the list it would have been my only choice, on the application form you have to say who you would give the book to and why, my answers would have been:

I would offer this book to everybody who reads my blog and/or is my friend on Facebook and/or participates in any of the many martial arts orientated groups I am a member of on Facebook as well as everybody I have ever trained with.

I would offer them the opportunity to read this book as a kind of literary mirror in which they will see a reflection of their lives, their art and their motivations, for some the world around them will be laid bare whilst others will reject it as nonsense. Some will see a clear image of themselves whist others a distorted image as seen in those trick mirrors in the fairground funhouse, partly accurate, fairly distorted, but still discernibly them.

We have all read those discussions that pop up again and again on how we got started in martial arts, if you are not a martial artist insert your hobby/obsession, cycling, painting, stamp collecting, running, train spotting, whatever. “STOP!!!!” I hear you cry (loudly), “did Garry just mention martial arts in the same sentence as train spotting.” Well yes you just did. Can we really be lumped together with those anorak wearing, note book clutching, thermos in pocket bespectacled lonely obsessive’s lingering at the end of railway station platforms?  Well, with apologies to anorak wearing, note book clutching, thermos in pocket bespectacled lonely obsessive’s lingering at the end of railway station platforms but yes we can. Obviously I point out an extreme example of train-spotter, a stereotype we can all relate to, an ideal type akin to the model developed by the sociologist Weber that allows us a reference point to measure deviations from the norm. Sifu Patrick is an ideal type moulded from the mysterious and absent founder of Li Kuan Yu, Martin Po.

So please, please, please read the book and let me know what you think, not just about the book but about what it helped you see, how close to the truth was all or some of the content, did you recognise others, people you train with or some of the ‘names’ in this great little world of ours and remember the best comedians poke fun at themselves, although not ‘The Comedians’ in Graham Greene’s classic of that name. So whilst we do not mess with the Ton Ton Macouts it is ok to laugh at some of the things we do, not everything we believe turns out to be accurate and based on undeniable truths, there are a lot of myths out there being accepted as truths because they are old and often repeated, they are accepted as given so it is not done to challenge them. A good example is this next technique will make you invincible against up to ten men or 14 dwarves:

Notice the little caveate that crept in there, “if executed correctly”, yes there is always a get out if the perfect technique delivered by the master does not work for you, you did it wrong, simples.

I love Master Ken, not actually but metaphorically, he is an example of one of the greatest source of myths is the source or founder of an art, often some mysterious philosophical warrior prince whose endless profound quotes are repeated by martial artists and trendy business types as though simply saying them will vastly improve the most mundane individual or business, maybe that is what the anorak wearing, note book clutching, thermos in pocket bespectacled lonely obsessive’s lingering at the end of railway station platforms are muttering to themselves as they increase their list of locomotive serial numbers, dates, times and whatever it is they write in those notepads. Maybe they are quoting the legend that was Dennis Albert McFarlane Smith, the first and greatest of all anorak wearing, note book clutching, thermos in pocket bespectacled lonely obsessive, whose lingering at the end of railway station platforms due to his obsessive compulsive disorder, formed a hobby, nay lifestyle, for thousands of other obsessive compulsives the world over. These people often had a single idea that started them off, the fictional character that is Dennis Albert McFarlane Smith, I just made up the name and it refers to no known individual living or dead of the same name for legal reasons, maybe for Dennis it was the idea that the steam engine was a creation of the utmost beauty, something so profound he could not take his eyes off of them as they trundled through his station, well not without washing his hand whilst turning round three times in an anti clockwise direction whilst whistling God Save the Queen backwards. It could be a single idea

Some ‘masters’ have many ideas that they are very happy to share with us: like this

From that single idea the founders and/or their disciples begin to build, and this is often when the rot sets in as interpretation and assumption start to interfere. I came across a saying yesterday that goes; “The mind of one freethinker can possess a million ideas, a million fanatics can have their minds possessed by a single idea”. Nothing, or virtually nothing, that develops over time remains true to its founding principles, do not start me off on religion, things evolve and adapt; they are evolved and adapted by forces of nature and by the changing nature of human thoughts and actions. They are changed by agency and culture, martial arts are not immune to this trend, it is universal and transcends cultures. We can see this so clearly when we look at somebody else’s martial art, we can see the strange set of assumptions in the art of Li Kuan Yi for instance that give forth the techniques of Anaconda Tree Strikes preparation form or the terrifying Golden Cock Stands on One Leg and we can see through it too. We can find plenty to laugh at in other martial arts but what about what OUR martial art, the one we practise and believe, be honest there is nobody out there that believes everything they learn has meaning or practical application outside the closed world in which they train. Surely we all have an element of disbelief even if we do the technique anyway, possibly just to show we can do it, there does not always have to be a reason.

Take this video, thanks Bill, as a great example, I like most of it but dislike most of the knife stuff due to the predictable feed:

There is some good stuff in that video, maybe this is Li Kuan Yi, I do not know, maybe the cop is Martin Po re-emerging in China and metamorphosing into another role. The archetypal character we saw earlier, Master Ken, who is now a cult status and the t shirts and hoodies are available, rules his class with an iron rod but there is a dissident who keeps on training but is clearly sceptical, watch a few episode, in fact watch them all. Is that you? It is me and that is not an insult to my club, instructors or training partners, we have a very healthy attitude to our art, we have good discussions on the practicality of different techniques, we look outside not just in. Those who only look inward can only repeat what existed before whilst those who look outward can see the whole world before them.  So do you look around you, do you see with clear eyes with the lids fully open, we can see Master Ken clearly enough when we do. It is not a sin to not believe everything you are told or see, it is good to adopt the position of anthropological strangeness (Google it) from time to time, it provides a new perspective. I will leave you with a quote from Friedrich Nietzschte;

“The individual has always had to struggle to keep from being overwhelmed by the tribe. If you try it you will be lonely often, and sometimes frightened. But no price is too high to pay for the privilege of owning yourself”.

Where are you in this picture?