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Archive for July, 2012

I’ve always had a very poor sense of smell. In the past it’s disappeared completely for months on end, only to return suddenly, and delightfully, bathing me in an aspect of the world I’d all but forgotten. Then it’ll drift away, immersing me once more in a world considerably less vibrant.

Without a sense of smell, one’s sense of taste is also impaired. I can discern the main themes in food – salty, sweet, sour and spicy, but the infinite subtleties of flavour are lost. Restaurant menus become pointless – shall I have the Pork, the Salmon or the Chicken? It makes no difference because they all taste roughly the same. I usually go for the curry, the hotter the better because at least then I know I’m eating something.

But smell means so much more than just enjoying your food. It also plays a role in triggering and storing memories. The scent of something quite innocent can suddenly release a flood of poignant recollection from decades ago. It’s also useful to be able to tell when something’s burning, or if there’s a gas leak, because it can save your life.

What I miss most is the scent of a freshly mown lawn, coffee beans, a wild meadow after rain, sun-baked bracken on a Lake District hillside, the sea, wild garlic, lavender, rosemary, river water, honeysuckle, freshly baked bread, the fragrance-counter in Boots, and a smoky, peaty single malt whiskey. Sure, you miss a lot of the world when you can no longer smell it.

It’s called Anosmia.

So far this year I’ve been entirely anosmic, except for the occasional period of phantosmia – smelling things that aren’t really there. Sounds weird? Believe me there have been times when the world has smelled vaguely of iodine. My computer, my laptop, my Kindle and my iPad all stink of it at the moment, as if it’s leaching out of my fingertips – but no one else can smell it.

It’s not all bad news though. I had to go rummaging through the bin one evening for something my son was sure had been thrown away, and which he desperately needed. I could tell the job stank by the look on his face, but I couldn’t smell anything, and was glad for it. Yuk! I still made sure I put all my kit in the wash afterwards, then had a good shower, because that’s another thing about anosmia, you become paranoid about your personal hygiene, always making sure you’re well scrubbed and that you have a fresh shirt to hand. When you can’t rely on your nose to tell you you’re over-ripe, you need a regular plan of preventative maintenance.

I used to get hay fever as a youngster, and maybe that’s shrivelled the nerves in my nose over the years -otherwise I don’t know. And while on that subject, another upside is I no longer suffer from common allergies. I remember how I used to seal myself indoors of a summer in order to avoid pollen, but now I can roll about in the hay as much as I want to.

And the doctor’s advice?

Well, I went to see the sawbones about it recently, but he shrugged at me in that rather discouraging way he has, then suggested I tried a nasal spray. Failing this it was a trip to the ear nose and throat specialist at the hospital, but he felt that would probably be a waste of time as well. All told, I came away not exactly brim-full of hope. Anyway, I picked up my nasal spray from the chemist – noted with some concern that it contained steroids – then commenced snorting it twice a day, as per the sawbones’ instructions.

He suggested I kept it up for a month, then go back to see him if it hadn’t worked and he’d make me that appointment at the hospital. But I only managed it for three weeks before developing regular stomach ache, chest pains and shortness of breath. Then I began to feel rather odd in myself – dissociated, wanting nothing to do with the world or anyone in it – all right I feel like this most of the time, but not usually to such a heightened degree. I also spent an entire weekend hiding from my family, unable to cope with anything they wanted of me – and growling at anyone who asked me what the matter was.
Clearly something was wrong.

In the absence of any other clues, I stopped using the steroid spray and my sense of self resurfaced within a few days, all be it still without his sense of smell. But he could breathe okay and no longer felt like he was about to have a heart attack. His family also agreed he was becoming human again, and more importantly, capable of being nagged and needled without going ballistic – which is always a good sign.

I’m not sure where to go from here. Whether to just be accepting of it, or to explore things further – after all I’ve lived with it for decades, so why get upset about it now? What I’ll not be doing is returning to the sawbones. He’s a likeable chap, but apart from an alarming reaction I once had to a bottle of Chianti he’s not managed to cure a single thing I’ve presented him with. When I come away from his surgery, I’m always left thinking a thing will either get better on its own, you’ll have to live with it, or it’ll kill you, so why bother the sawbones about it anyway? Next time I’m in town, I may duck into the acupuncture and herb shop, see what traditional Chinese medicine has to offer.

You never know.

Graeme out.

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Back in 2009, I wrote a piece about the Print on Demand (POD) outfit known as Lulu.com. Judging by my web-searches back then, a lot of people were thinking Lulu was a scam, but I couldn’t agree because that hadn’t been my experience. Instead I felt many aspiring writers had misunderstood what Lulu was about and consequently had unrealistic expectations of the service. I probably came across as a bit of a Lulu salesperson, which was not my intention, but I think my enthusiasm was justified at the time.

We need to remember that prior to Lulu, and other POD outfits, there was no such thing as an Independent author. The only way for a writer to acquire even the most modest readership was through the conventional press, an ambition realised by the few, rather than the many. Indeed, to put it bluntly, for the majority of aspiring authors, chasing the favours of a publisher was a pain the arse. It was also undignified, and I was glad to abandon it when the online world began offering some viable alternatives. But it really wasn’t until the advent of Lulu that the landscape of writing changed completely for me, because people suddenly started mailing me to say they’d read my stuff. It wasn’t Lulu’s print services that won me a small readership, though. It was the e-book downloads, something I’d not considered relevant at the time, a time when ebook readers were still rare, expensive and butt ugly.

Another important thing to remember here is that Lulu and its ilk eliminated the so called vanity press, who for too long had preyed on vulnerable authors. But the critics seemed to be implying those vanity press shysters had now morphed into POD outfits and were tempting those same vulnerable authors with paid distribution packages and guarantees of bestsellerdom, things which did not materialise.

Hence the bad press.

Speaking for myself, I was under no illusions. I resisted the paid promotional packages and, from the outset, did not expect to make anything from my work at all. I was happy instead to simply discover a readership through this new, experimental and at times delightfully anarchic medium.

To make real money from writing, you will always need a staggeringly vast and opaquely professional distribution network, also a manic publicity machine pronouncing you the best writer in the world. In other words you will always need to court the man. But the man cannot bestow his blessings upon everyone with talent. It’s always going to be a lottery – the odds of winning are probably about the same, the only difference being that with the lottery, you don’t spend several years filling out your ticket – i.e. your manuscript.

For an unknown writer, without a publisher’s publicity machine behind you, you’re either going to have to resign yourself to obscurity, or you’re going to have to pay for someone to publicise you, and that’s always going to be risky unless you know them personally and would trust them with your mother’s life.

So here’s where Indy writers split into two camps: those who’ll pay to publish/promote their work, and those who won’t. Me? I won’t, under any circumstances. I’m a sworn follower of the muse’s golden rules for writing, number one of which states that you should never ever pay anyone anything to have your work published*. The muse’s second golden rule of writing is that if no one will pay for your stuff, then it’s okay to give it away. The former is exploitation, and not to be encouraged, the latter is artistic self preservation, which is sometimes necessary.

Perhaps it’s on account of this rather more circumspect approach I have no reason to complain about the free aspects of Lulu’s service, and I stand by everything I wrote in that earlier piece. However, it’s important we recognise that things are moving on now. 2012 is not 2009, and four years is a very long time. My later novels have not appeared on Lulu. They were written purely as ebooks, because it’s just so much easier if you can eliminate the obsession with producing a paper book.

For the few Lulu paper editions I managed to shift, it really wasn’t worth the effort of all that pernickerty formatting when compared with the sheer distributive power of the Feedbooks website – which takes text in a much simpler form and formats it automatically for a wide range of reading devices. As for Lulu’s ebooks, my only complaint with them is that if you’re not charging for your work, Lulu deems it unnecessary to supply you with any stats, so I’ve no idea how well my stories are doing. I think they’re missing a trick there and they could learn a lot from Feedbooks and Smashwords in that respect.

If you’re writing for nothing, you’re motivated by something else, obviously, by the love of writing perhaps, or by the desire of all story tellers to communicate the worlds inside your head to as many other people as possible. There’s no sense therefore putting your stories where no one will find them, whether that be a bottom drawer at home, or a website where no one clicks on your thumbnail. You have to go where the audience is.

Which would you prefer? One person to buy a copy of your book, or a thousand people to read it for free? Me? I’ll take the thousand readers every time, thanks. You don’t need “sales” to call yourself a writer. You need words, that’s all. Readers are a bonus of course. I understand that “sales” can sometimes equate to self-confidence, that you have what it takes, that you’re a good writer, hip, wikkid, cosmic, and all those other stock phrases, but in chasing such reassurances for too long, be aware that you also run the risk of shredding any self confidence you already possess.

I remember the feeling of seeing my first novel “The Singing Loch” fresh back from Lulu’s printers. It looked great. Just like a proper novel. I slid it proudly between all the other proper novels on my bookshelf, and then I thought, what now? Well,… skip forward several years and now it gathers dust, languishing several editions out of date, and resembles more a curiosity from a bygone age, while the current ebook edition on Feedbooks has recently topped 2000 downloads. If I want to skim “The Singing Loch”, with a view to possibly updating it and sweeping up yet more typos, I turn to my ereader, not to the paper copy on my bookshelf.

There’s nothing magical or godlike about publishing. It’s just distribution. It’s a means of putting your words into other people’s hands. And it’s changing. So is writing. I’ve not used a typewriter in twenty years, nor do I possess the stereotypical private study, lined with leather-bound books, and neither do I use a desk-hogging, steam driven PC with a printer attached. I have a laptop, and an ereader, and I work peripatetic fashion, wherever others are not. So long as I’m in range of that ubiquitous WiFi connection, I’m in touch with my “publisher”, who lives in the clouds and no longer deals with paper. I can “publish” anything in seconds, and people all over the world will be reading it. Instantly.

There’s a moral debate about the rise of the ebook, and many of us older folks are looking on with tears in our eyes as the bookshops close, and publishers tighten their grip on the printed word, attacking the second hand book market with their built-in digital rights management software. But it’s coming, and we just have to prepare for it. Ebook readers are everywhere now. The rate of uptake of ebooks has outstripped all industry forecasts. Publishers have realised there are no material costs whatsoever, no printing presses to maintain, and they can still get away with charging as much as they would for a paper book – sometimes more! No wonder they’re pushing ebooks! Indeed, have they any choice in the current economic climate?

Of course the debate rages between Romantics, still hoarding and sniffing paper books, and Progressives, drooling over the spec of the latest e-reader. As a reader I mostly straddle the fence between these two extremes, but as a writer, it’s the words that count, and the means of delivering them must always come down to whatever is the most efficient technology of the day. Right now, that’s digital. It’s also where a great many readers are now turning.

To date, there are around 45 people in the world who have read a paper book by Michael Graeme. But my Feedbooks stats tell me there are around 150,000 people who have had one of my stories on their reader – and most of those readers are Android smartphones, sitting in pockets, and handbags, which is a very good place for any author to be.

I’m not blowing my own trumpet here. Anyone can do this. If you’re a writer, lying prone and demoralised under a mountain of publishers’ rejection slips, you could be doing it too. You could be published now, for free, and readers will write to you and tell you what they think of your story. Instead of spending time tidying up your manuscript yet again and redrafting your pitch, you could be doing what you actually love, doing what you really need to be doing, which is writing stories.

So to come back to my opening question, is Lulu still relevant? Well, it depends. For an independent author, paper seems very dated now and I think you should be looking more at the ebook services Lulu offers, as well as outfits like Feedbooks, Smashwords, Wattpad and the Kindle Marketplace.

Paper’s for the big boys and girls who sit at the exclusive high table of best-selling authorship. Unknown, independent authors who insist on paper are missing out on a potentially wide distribution of their work in favour of a glossy cover and the smell of printing ink.The only circumstances under which POD services make sense are if you have a small guranteed audience for your work, say members of your family, or your club who’d really like a professionally printed copy of something you’ve written, and they’re just not into ebooks.

But I reiterate the message contained in all my other writings on the subject of self-publishing online, whatever route you take, (E L James’ bondage bonkbusters excepted), it’s unlikely to win you a place at that high table of best-selling authorship. You’re an Indy. You do it because you can’t stop yourself. There’s no glory in it for you my friend. For that you’re still going to have to tackle the conventional printed press at some point, which means convincing a publisher, and an agent how wonderful you are. You’ll spend as much time on your pitch as on your story, and still longer hawking it round from one outfit to the next, with no guarantee anyone will even read your work.

Bah!

No thanks. I don’t do that any more.

Got something to say? Go free. Go e. For your muse’s sake, just get it out there.

But whatever you do, don’t pay to publish!

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This is becoming something of a habit.  I’ve just found my interpretation of the Hexagrams of the Book of Changes for sale as a Kindle Edition on Amazon for £6.57. Needless to say, it wasn’t me who put it there. Please don’t  buy this book. It’s available for free, from my Website here. I’ll be making sure Amazon take it down as soon as possible. If you have already bought it, please don’t worry. It will eventually disappear from your Kindle of its own accord and your account will be refunded by Amazon.

As with all Kindle titles from unknown authors do please check the preview content before paying. You can usually tell if it’s pirated by the standard of the formatting. Pirates take no interest in formatting. They simply cut and paste from the source text and the result is always sloppy. A bona fide author  will always take more care with presentation.

I do not publish my work on the Kindle Marketplace. If you find it there, it’s been cut and paste pirated and the alarm bells are most likely already ringing because I do keep an eye on things, having fallen foul of those pesky Kindle-pirates before.

If you are the pirate – desist. You’re self-evidently and very seriously out of Tao, and anyone who knows their Book of Changes will tell you that’s not a thing to be taken lightly – they’re also likely to give you a wide berth in order to avoid the risk of getting caught up in collateral damage. So, don’t be a clown, take it down.

For those of you who don’t know me, all my work is free and (mostly) available from Feedbooks.

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I keep my garden tidy as best I can, and I try to brighten bits of it up by growing flowers. The latter is very much a hit and miss affair, because, alas, I’m not much of a gardener, still making the same mistakes I made thirty years ago. Having said all that, I do love my garden.

From a purely practical perspective, gardening is futile – you pull the weeds, you run a hoe through the borders, and within a week, fresh weeds are settling in once more. You can work all you like, the whole year through, but turn your back on it for a moment – say while you go away on holiday – and sure enough, on your return, the weeds are knee high, obliterating any tidiness you’ve created. You’d be better covering it in concrete – except there’s nothing like a bit of green for losing yourself in, nothing quite like running your fingers through the tangles of nature’s locks and seeing her shine.

I spent the whole of Sunday weeding, knowing full well that what I was doing would be overwhelmed in no time by nature’s relentless passion for a more uniformly shaggy look, and I wondered what trace would be left of where I’d been, say in a month? And what of another ten years? Another twenty? Maybe by then I would have sold the house to someone else, who might indeed cover the garden in concrete or excavate it for a swimming pool. Try as you might, suburban gardening is no way to make a lasting mark upon the earth. They say there’s nothing like a garden for teaching you about the cycle of the seasons, and that’s true, but there’s also nothing like a garden for bringing home to you the impermanence of things.

My weeds were knee-high in places, and those that weren’t were thickly knotted in a clay-soil, still black and heavy after rains. I worked methodically, forking out the weeds and tossing them into the trug. Then I lugged the trug to the green waste bin, and returned to where I’d left off. I kept this up all day – nurturing a sense of satisfaction at the progress I was making. Yes, it’s a pointless exercise, but I know of nothing else that can leave you feeling quite so mellow at the end of the day.

It’s an idealisation of nature, this gardening business, this “tidying up” – the weeding, the manicured lawn, the nicely painted fence and shed, the floral displays; it’s an attempt to harmonise our dwelling within its little patch of mother earth. There’s no vanity in this, provided our point is not to outshine our neighbours of course, but more simply to submit ourselves to the experience and spend time with our fingers in the earth. If we can do this we will eventually arrive at a state where we do not mind the ephemeral nature of the impact we think we’re having.

We do not mind the futility of it.

We do not mind that we are nobody in the face of nature, and that when we finally hang up our trowel and shuffle off to that great garden in the sky, there’ll be no lasting trace of us left on mother earth at all.

And that’s the way it should be.

I don’t know if I’m there yet, at this sublime level of acceptance, but it’s where I seem to be heading.

The weeds will return, just like the moss will re-infest my lawn until it’s like walking over a sphagnum bog, and the slugs will eat my hostas and my strawberries, as soon as they work out where I’ve put them. There really is no labourless solution to these things and we should not chase them. Like life itself, gardening is a process of continual application; we turn up, we get stuck in where we can, and we try to make a difference,… but also like life, when we’re weary of it, it can leave us wondering about the point of things.

One of the biggest psychological challenges we face, whether we’re on some kind of mystical path or not, is reconciling our apparently infinitesimal smallness with the feeling we are each of us of infinite worth, that what we do somehow matters, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. I believe we do matter, as individuals, but I also believe that in order to attain our greatest potential, we have to undergo the trial of making ourselves very small indeed, of sacrificing our ego, our imaginary sense of self worth. It’s not easy, for in losing our ego, there’s a fear we are also losing the most vital part of our selves. But it seems this is not the case.

Being nobody, going nowhere. It’s a phrase I’ve borrowed from Buddhism because it encapsulates much of the angst we’re haunted by: that we’re nobody, going nowhere. It’s unthinkable. I mean,… if that’s really what life is like, then what’s the point? We instinctively resist it, because whether we’re rich or poor, there is always the urge to be more than we are, to feel ourselves going places, getting promotion, moving on, moving up the ladder – for how else are we to demonstrate our worth in the world, both to others, and to our own selves?

I’m fortunate in this sense, having recognised early on I simply didn’t have the nerve for it – this “getting on” business. I’ve not done too badly, as an engineering drone, embedded in the collective of a big company – and 35 years of continuous employment is a blessing in these uncertain times – but I’m careful to mind my craft and leave the managing of it to others. I’ve only to spend a few days in the company of the managerial classes to find myself in desperate need of solitude and Tai Chi. How you cope with the soul denying stresses at an executive level, or the Punch and Judy of politics, I just don’t know. It seems an unnatural way to live, at least for me, and I can only surmise they’re a more resilient breed – and thank God for it because the world would be a materially poorer place if everyone was such a timid little field-mouse as I am.

But in our pursuit of material success, it’s easy to forget the real challenge of our lives is to discover the secret of a true and lasting happiness, also to feel the suffering of our fellow beings and to adopt an attitude of compassion, regardless of the social sphere we find ourselves inhabiting, regardless too of our personal nature, and our abilities. It’s a road with many a twist and turn, and one of the earliest insights is that material goods, wealth, and material success don’t make us happy for very long.

We will always want more.

We all know this.

If we think back to the moments when we were happiest, we realise our happiness had its roots in other things – things like the love of others, or the awe we’ve felt at glimpsing an underlying, mystical quality to the natural world. Such things loosen us up, they have us smiling to ourselves and feeling good, even though these days the  material world seems to be in freefall, because true happiness is always non-material by nature. Do you think two devoted lovers coming together right now, for the first time, care much about the parlous state of the Eurozone? Economists can wring their hands all they like, parade their funereal expressions on the TV news, and, grave though things appear to be, these pundits will always look ridiculous if you can only see the world from a transcendent perspective. And what is more transcendent than love for someone else, or to feel oneself loved, or to feel a genuine compassion for someone else’s pain?

One of the most significant mileposts along life’s mystical path is this acceptance of our anonymity in the great scheme of the material world, an acceptance that really, in life at least, we are nobody and we are going nowhere, that we will leave no lasting trace of our presence, other than perhaps a vague smattering in the gene-pool. It sounds like a miserable recognition of the bare facts of one’s nameless, fleeting life, but it needn’t be so if, in accepting our anonymity, we also seek a personal relationship with whomever, or whatever we think might be in charge of the non-material underpinnings of the universe. It’s like one of those infuriating little paradoxes quoted at you by Zen Masters: to truly realise your self-importance, you must first let go of it.

My garden’s been overwhelmed in recent years by a particularly invasive crocosoma. I planted it for its beautiful flame like flowers. It blooms gloriously for a few weeks in July, but the rest of the time great bunches of drab leaves droop all over the lawn, killing off the grass. It also multiplies with impressive vigour, so I’ve been thinning it out, digging up the bulbs – and discovering other bulbs among them: forgotten daffodils, and the tiny white pickled onion-like bulbs of the bluebells.

Curious thing, a bulb. Slice one open and it looks pretty much like any other. I remember in biology classes, how we drew the cross section of a bulb and carefully labelled all its bits and pieces. And I thought to myself, that’s all well and good, but where’s the part that determines the coming into being of say a crocosoma? And how does it differ from a bluebell, or a daffodil, or an onion for that matter, when, materially at least, they look like pretty much the same thing?

It’s still a mystery. Even biology professors cannot spark life from a handful of materials, no matter how cunningly they’re arranged. We cannot manufacture DNA, we must always borrow it from nature. There is more to the universe than matter. To get anywhere near an understanding of it we have to abandon our materialist orthodoxy. We have to dare to speculate that somewhere underlying the material world, there might be an invisible matrix wherein resides the information for the unfolding of the whole of creation. The changes, the development and the evolution of species takes place first in this so-called morphogenetic field. So the difference between a crocosoma and a daffodil lies at a deeper level, more subtle than the one we can easily see.

And like the crocosoma, so the human being unfolds to a pattern written at the same subtle level. But it’s not a static pattern, no more than nature is a static phenomenon. It can be changed, influenced by feedback from the material world, by what works, what doesn’t, but also by our thoughts and feelings.

As I turned out to work this morning, the lawn sparkled under a veneer of dewdrops, like fairy dust, and seemed all greener and more beautiful for being highlighted by the worked soil of the weed-free borders. It pleased me to see it. I caught a glimpse of something in it.

I’m sure we each make a difference, and we each mean something, if only by virtue of our unique perspective, our unique way of looking at the world, so the world can see itself through our eyes in a myriad different ways. Where we do not make a difference is by shouting the odds, nor by standing on the necks of others to get what we want. Proper stewardship of the material world is very important of course. There are so many of us alive now, and dependent on mother earth, we need managers and executives and politicians with extraordinary qualities of insight, leadership and selflessness, or the world’s suffering in the years to come will be immense, and the staggering gulf between those who have and those who have not, will widen even further. Some might say that judging by past and current performance we’ve not much to look forward to. But I remain optimistic.

What are we to do then? We who are too timid, or feeling ourselves too small and helpless in the face of the overwhelming power others seem to have over us – the shouters, the stampers, the “look-at-me’s”, and those who look with cockeyed grins and raised eyebrows at our non-materialist, transcendentalist aspirations? Well, accepting we are nobody, and going nowhere isn’t about reconciling ourselves to a lowly position in the foodchain, while others enjoy lifestyles of outrageous excess – though that may often be the way things work out for us anyway. It’s more about grasping the crucial insight of the shallowness of those materialistic values. It’s about the sense of knowing, that if you can look at the world and see beauty in it, anywhere, and if through that beauty you can manifest a profound happiness, or an uncanny sense of the otherness of things, no matter how fleeting or seemingly trivial, then becoming nobody, going nowhere, you also become one with God, and in that moment you too acquire the power to change the world.

Use it wisely, we must.

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I watched “Fight Club” recently, at the recommendation of number two son. It’s a film I’ve avoided for years because, as a strictly non-macho kind of guy, I didn’t think I’d be able to make any connection with it. I was wrong though, and I enjoyed it very much. The premise of the film is that we’re sleepwalking, being fed a junk diet of consumerist crap, that we’re slaves of a deliberately engineered paradigm of debt, and victims of a society that systematically humiliates each and every one of us. For the male of the species this is like being castrated. It damages us, psychologically, turns us into neutered Toms, into lazy, purposeless zombies, our only respite being dangerous opiates like drink, drugs or mindless sedatives like TV soaps.

Fight Club however, restores a man to his essential being by providing a forum where men can simply go and beat the stuffings out of each other. Paradoxically in doing so, according to the story, you regain your self respect, and also respect (where respect is due) for your fellow men. It also opens your eyes to those places, situations and characters where respect is not due, and where your outspoken contempt is morally, if not always legally, justified. The message of the film is thus highly subversive. It was made in 1999, but if anything its message is even more relevant today.

I can’t boast much in the way of testosterone, perhaps even less now than I had in 1999, but I wondered if the film really did have something significant to say about the emasculation of men in the modern age, and what the suppression of our natural energies can do to us in the longer term. I also wondered if we weren’t all a little more grown up than the film suggested, that we men had moved on, embraced our feminine sides and rejected our Martian cave-man roots. It’s a question that was partly answered for me today, by virtue of the fact that last night, incredibly, I managed to get myself into a fight of my own and, though I can hardly say I came off the best, this morning I was feeling rather good about it.

Let me explain.

I’ve been learning Kung Fu for a little over a year. Now, an hour a week’s not going to turn me into the next Bruce Lee, especially at my age, but I’m okay with that. It’s not everyone’s idea of fun, but I enjoy it, and it gets me out of the house. At the club I attend, we do a bit of soft sparring – all pretty tame, slow motion stuff to demonstrate the basic principles. We have a laugh and a joke, also a damned good sweat, and rule number one of our little fight club is nobody ever gets hurt.

Enter Jack. (not his real name)

Jack is an eastern European émigré and recent recruit. He’s short, powerfully built and I’m sure he’s a wonderful guy, but we’re all scared poopless of him because he doesn’t seem able to follow basic instructions, and he doesn’t know how to spar gently. Nor does he understand key language concepts like “go easy Jack”, “Okay, you win” or just plain old: “Stop!”

He only knows how to fight.

By contrast I suspect he thinks by now we English fight like a bunch of cissy-girls, that is if our little Kung Fu club is anything to go by. Hopefully he’ll move on soon to find some bigger, rougher boys to play with, perhaps down on Liverpool docks, or teasing the bouncers in Manchester on a Saturday night.

We’re not supposed to be fighting, Jack. We’re only playing, all right?

Pairing up for sparring these days is like watching a game of musical chairs – everyone trying to avoid Jack. Okay, I suspect you already know where this is going.

After an unexpected mid-sparring reshuffle last night, I found myself making the covered fist gesture to Jack. We were about to play a game called tee-shirt tag. You try to “tag” your partner on his upper body with the flat of your hand. He tries to block you and vice versa. Bear in mind we’re not youngsters here – we’re mostly middle aged guys with saggy bellies and creaky bones, and we take our mature conditions into account, never taking things too seriously, or too far. There are no egos here. This is Kung Fu. Not Karate.

However, there are no half measures with Jack.

I knew this was going to end badly when I spied the guy he’d partnered previously. He’d ducked out and was  by now looking on from the sidelines, seemingly a little worse for wear. I swallowed hard but otherwise didn’t have much time to consider my fate because Jack was already coming at me like Rocky Balboa. He obviously doesn’t understand the word “tee-shirt” either, otherwise how come I was suddenly having fists landed on my face?

What the!….

“For @&*$ sake Jack, go easy, mate.”

Jack grins back – something evil in that grin, I’m thinking. I can see him in a grungy bar with a broken bottle in one hand and a chair leg in the other. Anyway, I land a palm on his shoulder, you know – tag his tee-shirt with a quick, playful slap, and he looks at me with an expression as if to say: “Yea, like that hurt.”

“But this is what we’re supposed to be doing Jack. Come on, play the game, man!”

But then he’s coming at me like Rocky again, or like Popeye on steroids, and I’ve just ravished his Olive Oil. I manage to keep his fists off me this time, which I’m quite proud of, but he’s such a bulldozer, I run out space and he has me pinned up against the wall.

He blinks and I manage to land a cheeky tag on on his side. I’m fast, and quite pleased by this, but even though I suspect the dear man believes he’s pulling his punches, I’m thinking by now he’s got a screw loose, and I’m in danger of a black eye, or busted specs, and that the good lady Graeme won’t let me out to play again if I come home with blood on my shirt from a broken nose or a fat lip. I’m also, let’s face it, a breathless beginner trying to defend myself against a powerful opponent who really knows how to fight. I decide the guy needs to be shown this isn’t how we do things. So, when he’s coming at me again, I hold my hand out and lower myself like a cissy on one knee, eyes down in total disengagement, but bugger me if he doesn’t take the opportunity to land several more “playful” punches around my ears.

So much for unilateral disarmament!

“Tee shirt, Jack. Remember? TEE SHIRT! Play the game,  old man.”

The instructor calls time. Everyone peels away, gasping for breath and looking for a swig of water. I’m unable to hold my hands steady enough to drink just yet and end up dribbling it all down my front where it disappears into the pool of sweat on my chest. (Bruce Lee, forgive me). When I’ve gathered my wits, I seek Jack out, press him lightly on the shoulder to get his attention. I’m still in bit of a daze . “You meant that, Jack,” I tell him, finger raised in polite warning, trying to convey the impression that he wasn’t supposed to pretend to mean it quite so realistically. I sense the subtlety is lost on him. He replies with a goofy grin and he mutters something back in his mother tongue. He could be calling me a big girl’s blouse for all I know, but I’m sure he’s not. He’s laughing – good naturedly – at least I think he is.

And me? I don’t know.

I’ve meditated for years, thinking the discipline of it would sharpen my mind, but as those years have passed, my mind feels more and more like mush. For a moment last night though, I was as focussed as I’ve ever been in my life, because there’s nothing like avoiding a fist in the face for sharpening you up, and dispelling all useless distractions. There’s just you and him and nothing but skill and focus in deciding whose blood will be on the floor – and all right this time it was mine, though not literally, thank God.

I’ve had more energy today, more than I’ve had all year, in fact, and I’ve found myself dealing with people I normally avoid, dealing with them confidently, even assertively – which isn’t like me at all. Thinking back, Jack didn’t actually hurt me last night, but he definitely took my breath away, and I need to be more careful in avoiding  him next week – but I’m tempted to say,…. I’m not sure I want to.

I think that movie really has something.

Graeme out

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