Ever wanted to spend a weekend at a martial arts seminar? Pack the arnica, you’ll need it.
Day 1. 12 p.m.. Injuries: none.
Actually, technically there’s still a healing scar across my forehead from when I hit myself in the face with my own palm stick two weeks ago. For the sake of my ego, I should point out that I only hit myself to avoid hitting a man 5 grades lower than me after he charged forward in a way that would have ended badly. Just saying. Heroic, sacrificial face-gash….
We begin with a warm-up. The drill is simple: you throw three punches at me, I throw three back. We move, try to stay vaguely upright, keep going until we’re basically a bit dribbly. It’s a good way to get into the mood, and a nice way to meet the maybe 40 other people in the room who aren’t from my club.
We all have our own way of fighting. Even though we all do the same martial art, it’s gratifying to see the differences. One North London club brings pure power and aggression; Cambridge has beautiful movement and control. South London packs a really nice range of all-round skills. Our lot are a very mixed bag. I am weak as a kitten, but a big fan of sneaky. One of my colleagues is the strongest man I’ve ever met, six foot of mass – but assume that makes him slow and you’ll have a shock. Another hits and moves like he’s made of iron, but struggles with soft, easy knife movements; a third always scrunches his face before throwing a hard strike. Each student is finding their own path.
We mingle with every grade from every part of the country – and some from abroad – and get warming up.
Day 1. 12.30 p.m. Injuries: None.
Blimey this is a long warm-up. Too soon for the inhaler? I am grateful when, after changing partners several times, I wind up with a couple of students at a lower grade. I drop my speed and energy to give them a chance to move, framing this as a generous and sensible act while being grovellingly relieved at the chance to get my breath back. A lot of them are good. Annoyingly good. Was I that good at grade 3? I don’t think so. At least one, very new to the system, refuses to hit properly when paired with me.
“A little closer…” I coax. “You’re still about a foot and a half away from making contact. Seriously, it’ll help me to train better if I learn to move from an actual, committed punch.”
“If you’re sure….” he mutters, and moves to hit me again.
“Nearly there! You’re only half a foot from me now. A little closer….”
“I don’t want to hit you in the face.”
“Honest, if you do, it’s my fault.”
“Yeah, but I’m going to hit you.”
He tries. I am grateful for the effort. As we change partners again, I can’t help but notice that he has no qualms about trying to actually hit men. Which is sweet. Sorta.
Day 1. 1 p.m.. Injuries: the beginning of a few bruises on my arms from blocking over-keen students who haven’t yet considered that two days of training mean you probably want to reserve power for after the warm-up.
A quick count-up of women in the room: 5. Well, no, 6, but the 6th, who is also the most senior of us all, is out with an injury, which is a shame, as she’s dead good. We are divided up according to our grades. I find myself in a core group of about 8 – 6 men and 2 women – all going for Grade 9. 5 of us are from the same club.
“You guys are gonna get hit, like, properly hit,” whispers our teacher in a quiet moment. “You just gotta stay calm, whatever comes at you, just stay calm and focus on killing any attack.”
“Like some sort of zen psychopath?”
“Yeah! Like that!”
And so our new band name is born.
The drill is simple. 1 person stands on a spot. 3 people take up annoying angles around this person, and attack. They attack fast, and with power. That 1 person defends the spot. What’s challenging about the drill, apart from the experience of having three weapons coming at you with not really enough time to do anything about it, is that for the vast majority of your learning, you’ve felt that movement was bliss. Using your feet to get you out of trouble has been a safe, comforting truth. One which is now taken away from you by cruel circumstance. Oh sure, you’ve still got a range of micro-movements that allow you to constantly change the direction of your eenergy and the way your body behaves, but ultimately showing your back to any one of these three attackers is death, and so your movements become… different. Good different. But hard different.
Day 1. 2 p.m.. Injuries: not sure? Arms are definitely getting bruised from unarmed blocking, but honestly, the adrenaline’s a bit too high right now for me to be clear….
Time for power. All the power ever. Suddenly, one of my colleagues, who I’ve always suspected of being able to hit even harder than he usually does, hits really very hard indeed. This has been coming for a while. Exams always bring out something new in him. I manage to block, but the sheer force of his attack causes my stick to rebound, whacking me in the face. I’m totally fine, but have a feeling this is going to come back to haunt me….
Day 1. 3 p.m.. Injuries: definite bruised arms, possibly the beginnings of a black eye, and one of my knuckles has gone purple though damned if I know when that happened.
Lunch break! The teacher leading the seminar calls for the junior grades to stop, but tells us to carry on. There are groans of despair. He makes us work an extra three/four minutes, enjoying the pain he has inflicted, before mercifully calling a halt. Most of us collapse on a bench and go straight for (in my case) chocolate and (in everyone else’s case) vegan snacks. Because that’s the way this club rolls. A couple don’t sit, but pace up and down. “Can’t let my energy drop!” exclaims one. “If it drops, it’ll never go back up!” Five minutes before the end of the break, he sits down. When the break end is called, he shakes his head. “That’s it,” he sighs. “I sat down. There goes my 9th grade.”
Day 1. 3.15 p.m.. Injuries: bruised arms, swollen finger, definite incoming black eye.
We try to warm-up as best we can, but we’re still working at high power and pressure. Full-power hits are sluggish. Blocks make your arms ache. As I start to rely a little more on movement to wake myself up and feel a little bit safer while my body remembers what it’s doing, a student I don’t recognise loses his balance behind me, and falls over. He’s fine; my ankle and right leg, where he stood on them on the way back down, will probably be less so. Ah well.
Day 1. 4 p.m.. Injuries: arms, fingers, face, ankle. Dunno. Hard to think. There’s weapons everywhere. Whooooo!
A twist in the tale: after years of learning fiendishly cunning ways to manipulate bodies and control the flow of momentum, our teacher wants us to try something new.
“Sometimes,” he explains, “You just gotta not give a shit. Yeah, you can do these clever, fancy things – I’ve seen you do ’em. But sometimes the other guy blocks you, or tries to hit you back, and I just want you to think ‘nah, screw you’ and barrel straight on through. It’s not pretty, it’s not clever, but you gotta know what it feels like and that you can do it. So. Pair up. And just power through.”
Powering through is not my superpower. Clever is basically all I got. But the key point of meeting resistance and just not giving a monkeys about is still a really important one, which may yet save the day when your brain freezes under pressure, so I give it go, and find it vaguely satisfying after a while. It’s almost as if everything I’ve learned isn’t a lie; that a moving human body can generate enough energy and momentum, if wisely deployed, to overcome something that at first glance appears bigger and tougher than you. My partner hates the drill. “Why’d I do this, when I can do this clever thing?” he demands. I can’t convince him of the value of what I’m trying, and we have a very polite argument about what it is we even want to achieve. In the end, we conclude that basically we’re both too stick-blind to think, and carry on doing our own things as best we can. This happens sometimes: those days where you and your partner have understood something entirely different from what you think the purpose of the drill is. It can be frustrating; it can also be informative. I’m wrong about as often as I’m right, but the more time I spend doing this, the more I am forced to admit that I learn more from my mistakes, than my successes.
Day 1. 5 p.m.. Injuries: what are injuries? Are these my hands? Who are you? Why do we have toes? Seriously, my little toe is so tiny…
End of the day. We stagger out into the East London dusk. The cold is blissful, until my body starts to grow stiff. Reading a book on the train would require opening my bag and turning to a page. This seems like madness. At home, my partner has made industrial quantities of baked pasta. The 20 minutes waiting for it to achieve perfection is the hungriest I think I’ve ever been. In the evening, we carefully daub arnica into the emerging bruises across my arms and hands. I’ve seen this scene in numerous Chinese wuxia movies – that clip where the Brave Warrior has his injuries tended by a Doting Wife, who, as she applies her potent salves to his soon-to-be-miraculously-overcome wounds, murmurs that war is cruel and love is kind, and if she were pregnant she would call her child Peace, and if she were pregnant they could go and live together humbly in Hunan, if she were pregnant, brave yet slumbering warrior who nobly serves the state who she doesn’t want to burden with personal women’s worries. My partner, oddly, does not do this speech. The arnica is actually for horses. It is an anti-inflammatory, promotes rapid healing and a glossy coat.
Day 2. 12 p.m.. Injuries: face, arms, calves, ankles, fingers all bruised and swelling gently.
Today’s warm-up is simple. I throw two punches, then the defender counters and destroys me. Should be fine.
Day 2. 12.20 p.m.. Injuries: face, arms, calves, ankles, fingers BUT MOSTLY MY ARMS who puts in this much power at a warm-up?
It’s not fine. There’s slices of burnt toast which have better movement than me. Also, when did I become someone who mutters “oh my back?” every ten minutes?
Day 2. 12.30 p.m.. Injuries: all of it, basically. But that’s ok. It’s… totally fine….
Fighting up and down stairs. The premise is simple: you start at the top of a flight of stairs, everyone who’s going for your grade lines up at the bottom, then they charge up at you and attack, while you try to fight your way down. At some point a couple of them might pull out a sneaky knife, but hey, the key thing here is not falling over. Once you’re at the bottom, you can turn round… and fight your way to the top again. I adopt the attitude of the more aggressive of my teachers: the only way to get through this experience intact is to kill everything that moves. If people don’t attack me, I will attack them. By the end, I’m almost enjoying it. The whole environmental-thing makes me feel a bit like I’m in a scene from Daredevil. Except that this fight is taking about 20s in each direction, and at the end of it I’m flipping shattered. I contemplate shouting “cut!” to see what’ll happen, but someone might get the wrong idea.
Day 2. 1.30 p.m.. Injuries: what injuries I’M THE QUEEN OF THE UNIVERSE yeah bring it you yeah you come on!!
Fighting through a doorway. Much like fighting down stairs, the principle is simple. I want to get through this door. 7 of my peers with to stop me. A variety of weapons may or may not be deployed. My cunning plan of sneaking out behind the missus of one of the scariest instructors in the room who happens to be passing by, while effective, is not considered kosher.
Day 2. 2 p.m.. Injuries: everything hurts.
Lunch break! Whereas on day one we were fairly chatty as we huddled on the benches at the side of the room, by day two a general silence has settled. Someone asks if everyone is taking the next day off work. Nearly everyone is, except one of our teachers (“I thought I’d just be teaching but they’ve got my doing machete… tomorrow’s gonna be grim…”) and me, ‘cos I’m daft. What I do not yet know is that the day after is going to involve an Avant Garde Art Collective dressed in bovine spandex. How strange the unknown future can be….
Day 2. 2.30 p.m.. Injuries: please don’t make me stand up. Can’t you see we’re broken?
A ressurection of the three-people-attack-one scenario. Only this time, as our teacher puts it, we need to be less shit. Are we less shit? I’m not at all sure we are. We’re differently shit, which is perhaps the positive outcome we’re looking for here.
Day 2. 3 p.m.. Injuries: everything is transient. This pain you feel will pass. It is now become memory. Memory is experienced only now. Now has passed. The cycle will be broken.
After hours of sticks and unarmed, now everyone has a knife. Key lesson: kids, don’t play with knives. We’ve been training with (blunt) knives for years and under pressure, and at the end of the day our skills are becoming distinctly minimal. Choose love, people. (And please don’t believe those posters that say they can teach you magic knife defenses. They lie.)
Day 2. 3.30 p.m.. Injuries: let go of your senses. See reality as it truly is. Is there not beauty in the wings of the butterfly? What would happen if you could see in ultraviolet? Would not the universe be changed, and you changed by the universe? These things are one.
A heap big instructor of heap big famous heap bigness comes round to hit us. We’ve been warned this will happen. We’ve been warned for 7 years. In fact, I would argue we’ve been over-warned, because we’re now all so shit-scared of being hit by him that everyone’s ability to defend themselves basically dissolves. Hey, you guys: turns out psychological warfare and soft power is WAY COOLER THAN VIOLENCE. When he comes to hit me, I resort to my standard defensive mode, which is to destroy him asap. I don’t have the confidence to just let him get a bunch of shots off. Whatever he does, he has to be taken out because I’m definitely not good enough to survive a prolonged encounter with this man. A few blurred seconds later, it occurs to me that a) I’m not dead and b) I might sorta have repeatedly hit him in the face. “Everything with control,” muses the master of it all. “You gotta have control….” On the plus side, surviving said encounter in one piece is not unlike a religious revelation.
Day 2. 3.50 p.m.. Injuries: behold, I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.
Still alive! Still here! Still alive! Awkwardly, in fact, all the would-be Grade 9s are now stood by a little embarrassed as the lower grades are assembled in a circle having a minor massed brawl, and they’re all looking really quite good and doing quite well. Someone wonders if we should participate and is silenced with a myriad of glowers. It all ends. We line up. Certificates are given out. I am so surprised when I hear my name called to collect my Grade 9 that for a moment I don’t move. Some of my fellows handle themselves with more aplomb, high-fiving down the line of instructors as they gather their reward. I should have brought something to carry my certificate home in. A plastic folder of some sort. It’s gonna get damaged on the underground. But if I’d bought a plastic folder, I would have jinxed it. What would a ninja do?
Day 2. 6 p.m.. Injuries: Left hand – one swollen knuckle and a bruised thumb joint. Huge swelling on my left wrist, then a serious of minor bruises down to my left elbow, which has gone black and a little saggy. Right hand – two purple knuckles that currently don’t close all the way, extensive bruising across the top of my hand, a creaky, shaking wrist from absorbing a lot of power, bruising down the outside of my arm to my elbow. Misc. – extensive bruising and swelling down my right calf and ankle. One spectacular black eye.
Best bath of my life. I know it should have been in ice and stuff, like a badass, while sorta staring philosophically into the distance contemplating man’s inherent darkness. It’s not. It’s hot and full of bubbles and I have a rubber duck called Medina Sidonia, which in 1588 would have been hilarious, depending which side of the North Sea you’re on. There is left-over pasta, ritual application of arnica, and we watch an episode of Killjoys. Because Killjoys is great. But like every other film and TV series I’ve ever watched, they always seem to cut the scene after the battle where you hobble round the flat making little groaning noises, or someone tries to kiss you and accidentally nose-butts your swollen eye.