Sunday, 26 February 2017

Last week I promised I would post an article about tai chi chuan, which as you will discover, is one of my passions. The promise was to the daughter of an old friend. She was one of my earliest tai chi students and her daughter remembers as a child trying to copy her mother's  movements when she practised at home. That indicates how long I have been teaching.
     It also shows that the circle keeps turning, that all our actions have consequences, that the yin and yang, the symbol of tai chi, is more than a symbol. It is a part of life. 
     Tai chi is a big part of my life.

Finding Stillness in Movement

A posture from the sabre form.
That's "posture", not "poser".
At a sports hall on the outskirts of Aberdeen           
every Wednesday evening, you will see 
people gathering for what might be an 
exercise class, or possibly an indoor games 
evening. Some carry six-foot poles; some 
have long bags designed for hockey sticks; 
others only a water bottle and soft flat shoes. 
But somehow you know that not one has a 
sweatband or a lycra leotard.
   These people practise the Chinese art of 
tai chi chuan, sometimes rendered in our 
alphabet as taijiquan (but pronounced 
exactly like neither). Its slow, graceful, 
spiralling movements help them to achieve 
flexibility, co-ordination and a composure 
that stills the mind and balances the body.    
It loosens their joints and stretches their 
muscles rather than tightening them; it puts 
health before fitness.
     Tai chi chuan is usually translated as “supreme ultimate fist” and, for all its slowness in practice, is an authentic and effective martial art. You may be relieved, or possibly disappointed to learn that this class we speak of doesn’t include any fighting. Very few do. But the hockey bags open to reveal practice swords and the long poles are swung and aimed in pre-set patterns of spear-thrust and parry.
     Many will have heard of tai chi but few know its depth and potential. The clue is in the name. “Tai chi” is not the whole story. That term describes the Taoist  principle or philosophy on which the art of tai chi chuan is based. Among other things, Taoist thought embraces the concept of “yin and yang” – the opposing yet complementary forces that have shaped and continue to shape the world. These forces are constantly changing, growing and diminishing in turn, since each contains within itself the seed of its opposite – the black dot in the white half of the circle, the white in the black.
     Tai chi chuan expresses that concept in movement. Thus there is constant change from back to forward, left to right, from yielding to countering. The movements have a gentle elastic quality; within every backward movement there is an opportunity to go forward.
     Too many people see only the graceful and apparently effortless movement of this art. So they think it is no more than waving your arms about in some mystical way in order to become “at one with the cosmos”. Unfortunately some teachers pander to this notion and foster an atmosphere of mystery and magic. Self-delusion is a powerful thing.
     True to the Oriental delight in paradox, it is often said that the practice is simple but not easy. Like anything else that’s worthwhile, tai chi chuan demands your full attention and commitment before it will yield up its enormous benefits. It is not a quick fix or a flavour-of-the-month.
     As you practise this art, you experience examples of paradox. Imagine for instance a system of fighting that can be used to heal; visualize slow, relaxed exercises that can develop tremendous whole-body power. You are discovering the stillness in movement.
     Some who practise this art are in denial over its martial lineage; a few teachers have renamed the movements. Kick with the Heel becomes Release; Parry and Punch is rendered as Open and Drive. This may be understandable on the basis that sensible, civilised people do not seek to get involved in physical confrontations. On the other hand it is unforgiveable because they deny their students the chance to appreciate the whole picture. If you aren’t told how the movements originated or how they were designed to be used, even those with such poetic names as Parting the Wild Horse’s Mane or White Crane Spreads its Wings, then the movements lose their focus and intent. This does not mean you have to fight. You don’t need to throw someone to the ground to feel within your body the beauty of a slow, turning, sinking Step Back to Beat the Tiger.
     The proper study of any martial art teaches us to avoid violence. I venture to suggest that any youngsters studying martial arts under responsible teachers are not the among the thugs infesting our streets and invading our lives.
     Movement without purpose, however graceful, is just beautiful empty movement. When movement has focus and purpose, it comes alive. Consider ballet, consider athletics – any sport. Torvill and Dean’s “Bolero” tells a story; Sebastian Coe’s home-straight sprint, a surge of power from such a slight frame, wins the race. Purpose, focus.

     The standard image from TV and magazines of old Chinese folk moving slowly in the morning mist in a Beijing park is only part of the story. In my class there are indeed many pensioners. (I started in 1987 at 53 – work it out.) But there are also a couple of students and two university lecturers, a builder, a young woman expecting her first child, a chimney-sweep and a physiotherapist. What they have in common is the maturity to mix serious study with a light-hearted approach to the life-changing influence of tai chi chuan.

Saturday, 25 February 2017

Rediscovering Bonfig

An apology (I seem to have been apologising a lot on this blog): I was busy on the early postings (2013, would you believe?) uploading photographs that had mysteriously disappeared (see below). I surprised myself by succeeding. 

On this post, unfortunately, not only did I bring the photo to life once again, but the post itself time-travelled four years into the future and reappeared as today's post.

I hope it hasn't confused too many people.

I also managed, after all these years, to change my Location in the panel on the right from USA to UK. I have not been able to change from Pacific Standard Time to Greenwich Mean Time. Will this mean I'll lose my American readers/viewers/visitors? I hope not; they have boosted my pageview numbers recently to what for me were gigantic proportions. It was not a deliberate ploy to increase readership - honest!

Another thing, while I'm on about numbers. My pageview numbers took a huge drop on Monday 20th of this month (February). After being consistently around the 300 a day mark, they dropped to under 100 but recovered the next day. Was there a Rip van Winkle effect? Did America go to sleep for most of the day? Did Donald Trump's executive order on immigration apply to alien blogs as well?
 Anyway, because I haven't yet found a way to beam the post back to where it belongs in the past, I'll leave this time-warped piece of history to keep you occupied till tomorrow, when I'll post an article on tai chi chuan which has been my passion for the last almost thirty years.


to my first ever blog - both of you.  Let's hope we have more company soon.

     I shall guess that at least one of you has read and been delighted by the novels of the man of the title, my late friend and former colleague, Kyril Emmanuel Georg Karl Bonfiglioli - novelist, wit and knife-thrower.  The other of you, whether curious or just lost in the labyrinth of the internet, can prepare to be enlightened.   I hope you'll both be amused and entertained.

     Because my memories of Bonfig (for whom the phrase "colourful character" might have been invented) are too worthy of a good telling to be condensed into one post, too rich a banquet to be savoured at a sitting, I shall serve them up as weekly dishes.  Your comments can provide the seasoning of your choice.

     If you've read his books, I dare to hope that you may find a faint echo of his writing style in mine.  There, I've admitted my presumptuous ambition.  I shall now be at the mercy of every Bonfiglioli aficionado, literary troll and online heckler.

     When I first googled his extraordinary name upon a whim and a startled keyboard, I expected to find no more than half a dozen entries, maybe a few Amazon special offers on his novels (he'd written three and most of a fourth) and possibly something about his remarkable knowledge of heraldry.

     I did not expect page after page of biography, bibliography and plauditry that approached cult status, with praise from literary lights and entertainment greats (Stephen Fry, Susan Hill, Craig Brown and Miles Kington, to name those I care to remember).  There were pieces glowing with praise from the New Yorker and the Independent, not to mention the TLS.  The various articles and mini-biographies seemed to cover most of his life till he died in 1985.

     Most but not all.  This personal memoir is written to fill that gap.

     Though his Army service in West Africa was listed, there was no mention of his time as an Education Sergeant at the Gordon Highlanders Depot in Aberdeen.  That is where he and I first met in the summer of '54.

     I had the same three stripes, though I was junior to him in every respect.  He taught me knife-throwing, fencing and how to fry peas in Worcester sauce.  In the few months that I knew him, the man had an influence on me which has lasted to this day - to say nothing of bringing my university career to a full stop before it even began.

     Rediscovering Bonfig after he had died only made me want to know more.  I tracked down his second wife Margaret, author of The Mortdecai ABC, an invaluable and insightful volume of Bonfigliana that takes its name from his supposed alter ego and the anti-hero of his novels, the Hon Charlie Mortdecai.  I was delighted to receive an encouraging reply, urging me to go ahead with this bundle of reminiscences.  Her support has even extended to forgiveness for the parody of her title and the flagrant theft of her format.

    Accordingly I call it

The Bonfiglioli ABC  (to be continued)

Kyril Bonfiglioli, Summer 1954

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Sarina was not her name; she used it when she was in a trance or "channelling".

Past Portrait

The portrait she planned was the face of a queen;
the painting emerged as a bearded young man,
someone imagined, whom she’d never seen,            
a face from the past, from a far foreign land.     

Painted in earth colours, russet and gold,
the most striking feature the mound of dark hair,
bushy and full with a queue as of old,
it looked like a head-dress, exotic and rare.

Sarina once told me she painted this picture
almost in trance, as if being led.
Hardly aware of the brush in her hand,
she brought to existence a being long dead.

She called it “Bartholomew”, felt that the name
was right for the man who appeared on the page. 
Never knew an apostle was called by the same.

Was this a link with that Biblical age?

Monday, 13 February 2017

A dark poem for dark February days:


I sit alone with the dark gods in the dark cave and wait.
My chanting joins with others, the unseen ones.
Flames dance on the flat cave wall.  I need to see
the pictures in my mind before I touch the paint.

Tonight I will paint the great bull, the one who sweeps
the sky with his horns and shakes the earth
with his feet, the one who carries my arrowhead
in the muscle of his hind leg.  I will place
my red-earthed hand over him and tomorrow
his blood will be mine and the clan will feast.

Alone I paint mind-pictures on the wall
but at night all the men will come, every one
who has left his boy years and bears the man-mark,
the hunters and fighters, protectors of the family.
We will sip bitter juice and see the flames dance,
then up and stamp, jump and whirl, chant and
watch my pictures come alive and move, hear
the song of the gods and see tomorrow’s hunt.

We will feel the bull’s great bulk, see his chest heave,
hear his hooves like thunder in the ground.
But tomorrow he will be slowed, his flesh gnawed
by the grinding flint, and we will run him down.

Then we will shout and sing and weep in praise
for this great beast who ran and shook the earth,
who swung his horns and died standing, who now
will feed our children for days and our stories for years. 

In the dark cave with its dark gods and painted wall

the unseen ones will wait for me to come again.

Sunday, 5 February 2017

Free-writing exercise

At the Writers Circle last week, after we'd read out our prepared pieces and heard other members' comments, we tried an exercise that frightens many people. Not just people; it frightens writers, though it shouldn't. 
     It starts with a prompt of some kind, something to spark the imagination. It could be just a word, a phrase or a quotation. You might get to choose a picture, or be given a character and a situation.
     It demands that you write quickly because time is limited. 
     It demands that you write freely, uninhibited by thoughts of whether it's good or bad, explains itself perfectly or merely suggests possibilities, is fit for publication or only fit for the rubbish bin. (No, make that the recycle bin, because a writer should never throw anything away.)
     Why does it send shivers through the spines of so many writers? Because in a very real way it takes away their control over their material, allows the subconscious to take over. You see appear on the paper under your pen or the screen in front of your eyes, words and phrases you didn't think about using. You didn't think; that's what's important.
     That's what makes free-writing such a fantastic exercise. Often those phrases and words and sentences are more appropriate than you first thought - or with a little editing can be made so. The point is they don't have to be perfect right there and then; nobody's going to criticise it. It's only an exercise. You're practising. You're flexing your writing muscles in a different way.

I do believe my enthusiasms are showing. I'll roll them up and put them away and show you what I wrote last week.
The prompts I was given were a quotation from Oscar Wilde: "An idea that is not dangerous is unworthy of being called an idea at all." and the cover of  "Lady Chatterley's Lover" with an illustration showing a phoenix in the flames.

I wrote this:

Like a phoenix aflame, the lust for life
Flares, bares itself, scorns a danger
That dares discovery, flaunting itself,
Living to fullness again.

In the dull mind, dull thoughts drift,
Muddied, sluggish and satisfied.
No danger here, no shiver 
Of sudden fear, only the torpor
Of nothingness, of mind death.

I may make something of it one day.