Wednesday, 6 August 2014

IWSG August

This is for the IWSG for August. I've been reading some stuff on different ways of working with stories, and I feel like there's one thing that consistently shows up as a problem for me with mine: my beginnings. With both of my last two novels, I've had reviews that have said "I was a bit worried at the start, but I kept reading and it turned out well". There are some obvious reasons for this:

  • I often try too hard at the start, trying to hit a particular style that fades as I go along.
  • I often have quite slow starts, designed to show a character problem.
  • Occasionally, my starts are written a long time before the rest, and no longer fit.
Mostly though, it feels like the big question is one of where I choose to start. There are so many possible starting points for any story. The ones we pick can make such a difference to the way the thing unfolds. Now I just have to find the one that works best for my current work in progress.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

A Rant About Tai Chi

In which I probably dive in feet first into an on going argument, because I found an article the other day saying many of the things I'm about to say. But I think they're important things. I've practiced tai chi for years, as well as bagua and xing yi (not to mention plenty of other things, BJJ being the most prominent at the moment), and every so often I go through a phase of looking up tai chi on Youtube. Specifically, I tend to look up things like "tai chi fighting" "tai chi sparring" or even "tai chi MMA". Why? Because I'm of the opinion that tai chi is a martial art, that it should be taught that way, and that people should train it in a way that allows it to function as such.

Yet ninety percent of what I find has nothing to do with combative skill. Most people just don't train that way. Tai chi has become just the practice of the form. Just very elderly people moving very slowly as a kind of exercise. And I've had enough. I have no problem with the idea that tai chi brings health benefits, but classically that has never been its primary aim. The translation of the full name (grand ultimate boxing, or great pole boxing) makes it clear what its practitioners were aiming for. I firmly believe that if you aren't doing a martial art, then you aren't doing real tai chi. You're doing some sort of gentle, arm waving yoga (and you should do yoga, because it's more specifically designed for the health benefits you're looking for).

There are plenty of tai chi classes around me. Of those, perhaps one or two do anything with the applications of the form or with push hands, and most of those see them as advanced things to be gotten to after the completion of the form. Genuine interactive practice is right out of the window, while I suspect that if I had to give you a pound for every time they talked about hitting someone and you had to give me one for every time they made an exaggerated claim about chi or medical benefits, I would end up quite well off. Even at the one "good" club, I felt like we were doing only drilling, with no live practise. Not even push hands.

So I'm going to say what I'm sure a number of people have said over the years. If you're doing tai chi, look at the way you're doing it. I firmly believe that it can be a useful art, if you train it that way. So if you practice tai chi, ask yourself the following things:

Am I just going through the form every session? No one learns to protect themselves by doing forms. No one. Forms are a good way to get repetitions of movements in correctly, but they teach nothing about distance or timing. Nothing about yielding or following. Worse, doing it this way turns tai chi into an external art. It becomes solely about the way things look, rather than about what things really are.

Am I doing my form blindly, or do I understand at least a basic application for every movement? There are plenty of potential applications for every move. Knowing at least one will change the way you do the form, and probably increase its benefits to you. One of my old karate instructors suggested that it should be possible to take at least five different applications from every kata move in that art, including taking the whole thing to the ground, throwing, joint locking, striking and defending. Tai chi is at least that sophisticated.

Are you relying on chi to solve all your problems? There is no good evidence for the existence of chi that I have seen. There is certainly no evidence that it will make you a better fighter. It is not a short cut to easy success. It's a medical model that belongs to the past, and is also far too general to help us understand different nuances. I know, I know, without chi, how can we be an internal art? Yet it is possible to be "internal" without focusing on chi, by thinking about things like the moment of interaction, understanding an opponent, understanding yourself and your structure, the feelings and reactions you bring to an engagement and more. I think that being internal is about letting things flow out from principles of good movement and understanding rather than focussing on the form of the movements. But these things only really develop working with someone else, so it's easier to just talk about chi.

Are you doing some sort of genuinely interactive practice in every session? Push hands is a starting point. I don't think it's the end. I don't think it's an adequate analogue for fighting. But it's a good in between ground, and the bare minimum that you should be doing.

Are you working from principles? There's a tendency for people to look at those who actually fight with soft/internal arts and say "That's not tai chi/aikido/whatever". Actually, it's just not what you're doing. Whatever that is. The movements adapt to whatever the other person is doing, ideally. So long as the core principles of the art are in place, that's fine.

So if you practice tai chi, take a moment to think about what you're doing. If you don't like what you see, change it. Talk to your teacher. Find another teacher. Find a friend who is willing to do some work with you outside of your usual classes. I firmly believe that if enough people work at it, we should be able to put the chuan back into tai chi chuan. I think that it's important that we do.

Anyway, that's my martial arts related rant over for now.

Monday, 7 July 2014

Medieval Monday: Equipment

It's another Medieval Monday, and today, I'm looking at the most important activity for any heroic figure in a medieval setting- shopping. It's a weird thing, but in medieval stories, epic poems and so on, often we hear more about the hero's equipment than about their personal characteristics. Indeed, in many cases, we get the impression that the biggest difference between them and anyone else is the stuff they're carrying about. In many ways, the RPG thing of spending hours poring over equipment lists and digging out that plus one sword of general light entertainment is a more accurate representation than people think.

Swords are an obvious one. Arthur had Excalibur, but his wasn't the only sword of note in stories from the middle ages. El Cid had Tizona. Roland had Durendal. Even the swords that didn't have names of their own were typically described in terms of their quality and makers. Raoul de Cambrai's sword is described as being the next best sword in existence to Durendal, pointing to a kind of shared awareness of this process of talking about the quality of the weapons. There was also a tendency to talk about the swords being forged by particularly famous or even mythical smiths, from the "Galant" who forged de Cambrai's blade to Wayland Smith, who gets cited in all sorts of places.

It wasn't just swords though. That focus is a modern one. The stanza after we hear about Raoul's special sword, we hear about a golden shield. The stanza before, we hear about a helmet proof against every blow. Armour was a big deal for writers in the middle ages, and indeed, the way fight scenes are written in the literature, it is often the big thing. Modern movie fight scenes are about grace and skill and movement. Written medieval ones are mostly about personal strength set against the strength of the opponent's armour. Often, we find detailed descriptions of armour giving out beneath the strength of particular blows. I'm not saying that's an accurate description of how fighting happened, but it is how it was portrayed in fiction.

Perhaps a part of that is because there was an element of reality to it. The simple fact was that the people who could afford thick armour and good weapons had an advantage over those who couldn't. It wasn't an unfair advantage in their eyes so much as a symbol of their greater nobility and higher birth, which of course made it right that they should be able to beat up all those poorly armoured peasants. Indeed, a big part of the whole issue of becoming a knight was not nobility per se (barons, earls etc would have been insulted if you'd called them a knight in the early part of the period) but simply the ability to afford the armour.

Tuesday, 1 July 2014


I'm worrying this month about the notion of not writing well enough. Two things have sparked this. One is reading through the 2014 Best SFF as part of some reviewing I'm doing. Another is working through some re-writes on a piece. The one is about the idea of all this incredible writing right in front of me, while the other is about being told outright that something needs work. Which is an occasional occupational hazard.

But there's the other half of that, which is about other people's standards. At what point does wanting to write to the standard of something else spill over into not wanting to write like yourself? Not wanting to be yourself. I know I have a particular voice, so at what point does that become a problem? How much is it worth changing things, and at what point should you push back and say that doing so isn't going to work.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Belief in the Middle Ages

Another Medieval Monday, and this time its disbelief, or complexity of belief, or some combination of the two. Because it's often hard to tell. The Middle Ages are often portrayed as the great Christian era in Europe, more religious than any time before or since. The Early Middle Ages included the spread of Christianity through much of Europe, the Central phase a defined Christendom able and willing to start to conduct Crusades while locally new monastic orders sprang up. And then there was a lot of business with putting down Heresy, the rise of the Inquisition in the Later Middle Ages and so on.

So it sounds like it wasn't the best of times to believe anything that wasn't orthodox, wasn't Christian, or just wasn't... well, believing. And yet, like anything when you're talking about more than a thousand years of history across a whole continent, it's a bit more complex than that.

For a start, the expansion of Christianity took time. Time, and its slow acceptance by more and more kings, who made it a criminal offence not to be. But that wasn't the same thing as making sure everyone believed. Bede notes plenty of "pagans" in his histories, although it's hard to pinpoint exactly what any of them believed. Later Chansons de Geste also seem to include them pretty regularly, suggesting that they were something people might have been familiar with. Certainly, there was the survival of non-Christian beliefs around the edges of places like Scandinavia and the north of Scotland. Then there was what we could think of as the Irish option, which was actually the everywhere option: the incorporation of pagan elements into local level Christianity. St Brigid (who used to be a Celtic goddess of that name) is an obvious one.

Then there's the point that Christianity was not some big, fixed thing through the period. It was a time, not of religious orthodoxy, but of experimentation and argument. The very fact that there were so many "heresies" suggests that. But so does the amount of tinkering that went on within the main church. It was only within the Middle Ages that the notion of purgatory really got settled in the Catholic Church, and the notion of the Pope as being in charge. A glance into the religious history of the times reveals a kind of constant argument, over everything from the right date for Easter (St Wilfred of Ripon got quite angry about that one) to Simony, Nicholaitism, the interaction of church and state...

And it wasn't like the results of these arguments filtered down to a local level quickly. This was not an era of mass communications. Many remoter areas had never seen a bible, and their priests certainly weren't up to complex questions on the finer details of faith, with the result that even nominally Christian areas could deviate considerably from the supposed norms.

So the Middle Ages weren't this big, fixed, ultra-religious monolith. They were something more complex, sometimes more dangerous, but where there were people who believed all kinds of things, or none.

Thursday, 26 June 2014

The ICC funding deal

I was going to write a nice little review of the second Test match between England and Sri-Lanka today, talking about whether Moeen Ali's hundred complicated the question of the spinner's job, the agony of a second to last ball defeat, and so on.

But actually, there's a much bigger issue in cricket today, one that has implications, not just for the sport as a whole, but also when it comes to the way we see sporting bodies in general. Today, the International Cricket Council has ratified an agreement it has been working towards, which changes the way funds generated from cricket are distributed. They also accepted a new head of the ICC in N. Srinivasan.

These sound like small things, don't they? Except for two points. First, the new agreement gives 62% of all funds generated to the national boards of England, Australia and India. The seven other test playing nations get 5% each. It is astonishing to think that they agreed to this, but essentially at this point, India has so much power that the threat of them refusing to tour a country with their many millions of supporters is enough. And if it isn't, as it wasn't for the West Indies, the ICC can always advance a loan to develop cricket there. $4 million in this case.

Secondly, N. Srinivasan is currently under investigation thanks to allegations of corruption. Now, I have no knowledge of the details of these allegations, and so I can't comment on them. But I do think that it sends out entirely the wrong message about the ICC and how it feels about such matters that they would appoint him anyway.

It's a combination that points to, at the very least, the ICC being a money-grubbing organisation more interested in its bottom line than in the well being of the game. Suggest to it tomorrow that you could have everyone in the world playing cricket, but the price of that is that they would all be doing it on a purely amateur basis with no TV revenue, and it seems fairly obvious what their response would be.

By saying yes to this frankly wrong deal, the ICC has institutionalised a culture of haves and have nots in a game I enjoy. It has made it essentially impossible for the sport to gain new nations at the highest levels, and thus destroyed all the efforts that have been made in the last few decades to spread the game. It has surrendered control of the game to a clique of chief executives who need the game to run as a big business, when that has nothing to do with the spirit that cricket is supposed to foster.

Which probably sounds like it isn't relevant to anyone else, but I actually want to make a broader point about the way large sporting organisations are run. These days, the larger ones are effectively multi-national corporations, out for their own profit. That is true of the supposedly non-profit FIFA, which has no profits but massive reserves. It seems to be true for motor racing and athletics. In all of these spheres, we have had allegations of corruption. At the very least, their processes and decisions seem to have nothing to do with the ordinary people in the sport.

There must be something that can be done about organisations with such reprehensible practices. At the very least, I would expect greater accountability to governments. The mantra that sport has nothing to do with politics has merely served to produce organisations behaving in ways that we would not allow if they were not involved in sport. England, in particular, should have learned better than to just go chasing after the money by now. Unfortunately though, the lesson in cricket of things like the Packer revolution and the IPL is that the people who throw the most money at the sport tend to come out on top in the end.

Tuesday, 17 June 2014

First Test Review

So, I thought I'd do the obvious thing in the middle of the Football World Cup, and talk about the cricket. England have drawn with Sri-Lanka in the first test at Lords. It looked like the most likely outcome from about day three on, when Sri-Lanka batted well in response to England's massive first innings score. But this was anything other than a boring draw, as England almost, almost managed to press the victory. In fact, they thought they'd won with a ball to spare, Broad pinning the last batsman LBW only to find out on review that he'd hit it. Even the last ball of the match fell just short of slip.

So, it was an exciting match at times, but what have we learned, and where should England go from here? My opinion is that we've learned a bit about England on flat pitches, about their tactics, and about ways the balance of the side still isn't quite there.

England are good on flat pitches without any particular demons in them. There's no doubt about that. Some of the younger players like Joe Root and Gary Ballance have really shown that they have the application to bat for long periods. I'm not quite so sure about opener Sam Robson, who seemed to scratch around too long for too little reward. Do we really need yet another blocker in the top three?

Of the new seamers, Chris Jordan was a revelation for me, while Liam Plunkett probably wasn't quite as good. Jordan has the makings of a good all rounder, bowling in the mid-high eighties and hitting the ball hard. Plunkett does those things too, but I feel like it didn't go as well for him. I think the problem here is one of billing. Chris Jordan was billed as that kind of fast but not quite express all rounder. Plunkett, we were told, was the first or second quickest bowler in the country, but I didn't see a significant difference between his speeds and those of, for example, James Anderson (who was bowling towards the quicker end of his range, admittedly). I feel like Plunkett as a 90mph + fast bowler is more than worth it, but as a mid-high 80s bowler, we might as well pick Ben Stokes, since Stokes has already done well with the bat previously.

The question of the spinner is a tricky one. I think England picked Moeen Ali in the knowledge that Lords can be a little unhelpful to the spinner, in the expectation that the Sri Lankans would play spin well, and with the thought that no out and out spinner had done so well in the domestic season as to demand inclusion. Essentially, he was picked with the expectation that he wouldn't bowl much, and he didn't. He was another batting option. Oh, and he "has the doosra" as it's now obligatory to mention whenever talking about him. England can get very over excited about bowlers with mystery balls. Just look at that phase where they picked every wrist spinner they could find in the 90s, or when they picked Alex Loudon on the basis of a carom ball that didn't land well.

Moeen Ali did exactly what he was meant to do. He got a few runs, he bowled a small number of overs, and he got one wicket. I have no problems with his performance. I just feel that if we want someone to do that, we already have Joe Root. Root's presence as a useful part timer and nailed on batsman should, in theory, free England up to pick a riskier prospect as the spinner. Maybe Borthwick, whose leg spinners look threatening but not particularly accurate.

Of course, there's the Cook factor to consider with that. Alistair Cook strikes me as still being quite defensive in his instincts. Yes, his field settings were more interesting, but the rest of it still suggests a primary ambition of trying not to lose rather than trying to win. England batted too long in both innings. There can be no argument with that when the Sri Lankans fell well short of our score, while we simply didn't have enough time to get them out. His new plans were interesting, but he seemed to stick to only one at a time, rather than allowing the bowlers to hit the batters with combinations of deliveries. And he has long under utilised his spinners, preferring to go back to Broad and Anderson again and again even when Monty Panesar and Graham Swann were available.

For the next test, I have little doubt that England will stick with much the same team. Yet I feel that going forward, they need a full time spinner, a slightly more attacking opener, and they probably need Stokes back in the side.