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Sunday 9 January 2011

Belated 2010 review & my best books of the year

Condesa Elizabeth Bathory, CarmillaImage via Wikipedia
First off, I appreciate how late this, but I have been busier than ever with my various projects, which bodes well for 2011. I did consider not writing anything, as I thought moment had past, but in the end it was just too indulgent of a tradition let pass me by.

2010: The first year of a new decade, which again hasn’t received a title the majority are comfortable with. I really didn’t like the naughties as a term. It was just a non-word and totally unnecessary. For me, the 2000s, pronounced two thousands, worked in the same way as the 1900s. However, I have no issue with using the term twenty-ten. After all we were comfortable using the term nineteen as a prefix for the majority of the 20th century. Saying two thousand and ten, which unfortunately seems to be the most popular way to say it, just seems a bit “In the year of our lord...” to me. Anyway, enough trivial debate, on with my annual review...

Humble Beginnings

Well, I started 2010 the same way as I saw it out: in a stationary caravan awaiting the construction of our house and battling snowy elements I haven’t seen since I was a child. However, this doesn’t mean we stood still throughout the year; far from it. Not only has 2010 been a year where we have sought out the best builders for the job and got the finer details right with the planners, but all systems are set now for work to begin. As I write this, it is January 2011 and the first stage of building preparation has started in earnest!

Knocking the Balls in

I looked at my career in 2010 as one big pool table. I have invested years in covering the various pockets with scant rewards. 2010 was the year I started knocking those balls in. I didn’t do too badly. The CCMA brand has attracted the attention of a wide range of clients both and outside the martial arts/self defence world. And bookings seem to be piling up for 2011. This year sees the start of my "Vagabond Warriors" cross training in the martial arts project and also my professional employment as part of Mo Teague's Hard Target System.

Changing Views, Challenging Views

I have never really thought of myself as a radical, but I see now that the mainstream world of martial arts is not a place I want to reside. It’s sad, but that place which I once looked towards in awe does little to inspire me these days. Ideas have become institutions and despite so many exciting new things happening outside the martial arts world, few instructors are grabbing this knowledge and running with it. Instead I see the superstitious world of the past now turning into the world of the New Mystics. Postmodernism has finally arrived in the martial arts world and suddenly everything is equally good, and totally contradictory ideas co-exist with one another without question, which allows for all the nonsense to creep in. And still the same egos drive this nonsense, whilst their followers feel erudite. However, the rest of the world is really beginning to wake up to the rubbish going on, and more non-martial arts documentaries and podcasts begin to look at the pyjama party with derision.

However, there is hope. This has also been the year when I have met some wonderful forward thinking, free-thinking, critical-minded and enthusiastic martial arts veterans join me on several of my open workshops in Kenilworth. Since then I have been contacted regarding a think tank for the advancement of self defence and practical martial arts training, and I have witnessed some brave individuals challenging their supposedly progressive associations and taking the bold step to go out on their own. For me, I see the whole martial arts/self defence world moving in one of two directions - those going towards science and reason and the others. 

The Legend of Salt and Sauce

My niche historical book about two famous elephants that lived in the UK from 1902 until 1960 continued to sell into its second year. I received a few nice bookings, where Dad I gave a PowerPoint display and I read excerpts from the work. It is always nice to speak to people who have connections with the real story and I still get emails now from different places. Apparently there is a play being made in Chicago that is drawing some its inspiration from my book. If you enjoyed my book a few nice lines on Amazon from you would be really appreciated. Also, if you click on the words "I'd like to read this book in Kindle" under "Tell the publisher!" it apparently helps the book climb the ranks, plus we might get a Kindle edition out of it!


Despite the economic situation work was busy this year with my parents’ business. Just about any commercial you see on British TV featuring a live wild or exotic animal will come from the family business. The third annual open weekend was an even bigger success than before with capacity visitors and even an extra day privately booked for the Girl Guides/Brownies centenary. There was such a good vibe on three days with our wonderful volunteers.

Below is a list of brief reviews of the best books I read in 2010. Last year I read an unprecedented number of really good books, but the majority of the films I saw for the first time were mediocre.

Books of 2010

Countess Dracula – The Life Times of Elizabeth Bathory the Blood CountessTony Thorne

I started my snowy year finishing off a book I began reading in 1998! My enduring memories of reading this brilliantly researched and thorough examination of the facts around a case that has descended into very dark mythology was sitting in a Honda garage on several occasions whilst the mechanics kept failing to find out what was wrong with our CRV. Those who know me and have read a lot of my non-martial arts work will know I am very sceptical about anything that has a slight whiff of conspiracy theory, especially historical events. However, Thorne’s rational examination and debunking of certain absurdities that have arisen around the woman that has become known as “Countess Dracula” are hard for any serious historian to dispute. However, Thorne does not zealously invest in a controversial theory. He merely puts matters into context and filters out the obvious mythology leaving the case genuinely open.

This was an audio book I got free through my Amazon Vine membership. I have always enjoyed seeing how major changing points in a respected and beloved franchise are handled. It is interesting to see that this novelization came out three decades after the storyline had been aired on TV. “Logopolis” tells the story of the Fourth Doctor’s final adventure, which ends with his transformation into the Fifth Doctor. In reality this is a clever plot device used to explain the changing over of actors. Few franchises bother to explain this and just rely on audience’s willing suspension of belief – think James Bond, Professor Dumbledore, Superman or any number of long running TV drama characters. However, perhaps it is this inherent respect for their fans that goes back to the 1960s when the first regeneration occurred that has helped “Doctor Who” remain a firm favourite amongst the most unforgiving, critical and enthusiastic of fan bases – the sci-fi and comic-book fans. A further benefit of making the transition from one actor to another such an integral part of the story is that character they portrayed takes on its own protected identity[i]. To have the same author who penned the original screenplay handle both the novelization and the narration further added to amount of respect being paid to the franchise.

This book joined my endless supply of podcasts and several other freebie audio books from Amazon Vine when I made my regular lengthy journeys to teach mixed martial arts and self defence.

Ten Days in a Mad House

This is a classic 19th century pioneering example of investigative journalism by Nelly Bly and the most famous expose of mental health treatment in an institution. “Ten Days in a Mad House” was a book that influenced many of our fears about the way people were treated in such places and prompted dramatic changes in health care. In retrospect it also highlights the huge amount of ignorance that underlined the running of mental institutions and those who decided who should be committed to them. The book is a report, a virtual diary, of a journalist who was able to easily fool the relevant authorities in a very short space of time that she was mentally unstable and therefore fit to be committed. She then goes undercover and endures the humiliation, lack of adequate hygiene, bad nutrition and physical abuse the asylum has to offer its inmates. When seen against the type of sensationalist, staid and downright abstract journalism that was common at the time; this is a revolutionary piece establishing the ascent of the journalist “in the field”. I began reading a lot of reputable science-based psychology studies this year and I still have a lot to wade through. A lot of the works debunk commonly held misconceptions about cognitive and behavioural psychology. Therefore, I found “Ten Days in a Mad House” to be interesting as it was written in a time when a good deal of psychological myths – hugely influenced by the likes of Sigmund Freud – were in the mainstream. Although this book does not bring into question any ideas regarding the analysis and practice of psychology or psychotherapy it does show the disturbing results of ignorance in the field.

This free book came via the Librivox volunteer public domain audio books. It was something of a dubious bedtime companion and I frequently found myself nodding off only to be awakened to an account of some awful ordeal that the reporter had to endure. My nodding off is no reflection on the story or even the volunteer’s delivery (although on the latter point it can be very hit-and-miss with Librivox), but just my final victory over insomnia. Since I can remember I have used audio books to get myself to sleep.

Understanding Reasonable Force – Mark Dawes

Taking on more bookings than ever before to teach self defence and having been selected by Mo Teague for his Hard Target System has made me push my education in self protection further than before. In recent years I have made a concerted effort to get the best information and to be able to recommend the best resources for anyone who trains under me.

There are many factors connected to the correct teaching of self defence or self protection. As more much-needed attention is thrown onto the soft skills side of things, I am witnessing many instructors who essentially started their self defence training wearing 19th century Japanese underwear and throwing abstract aggressive movement to thin air now becoming bewildered in a quagmire of pseudoscientific information and military-sounding terminology. I watch as they itch to teach an impressive looking flow drill, hit some pads or generally engage in an exercise that involves a lot of shouting without really addressing the major and important factors related to self defence. Take the law for instance. Fair enough, during the on-set of a violent encounter your primary concerns are securing your safety by any means possible. You don’t want to be preoccupied with fears regarding the use of reasonable force. However, that is a lot easier said than done. We are regularly hit by the headlines of a sensationalist media that puts across the message that innocent people are routinely being prosecuted for defending themselves. We rarely hear about the majority of cases where people are commended for their bravery when enacting citizen’s arrests or the even more common cases that don’t even go to court because the person using self defence were well within their rights.

Dawes is a rare example of an expert on reasonable force. Understanding this area is not only important from a law-abiding citizen’s point of view, but I think it is a pretty vital responsibility for anyone who is teaching the use of force in a modern civilian situation (in other words not in sporting or historical enactment context). This book was massively overdue as are his further publications on the subject, including “Understanding Unreasonable Force”. It remains a mainstay on my highly recommended reading list for any seminar, workshop or course I give that deals with self defence.

Recollections: An Autobiography – Viktor Frankl

Having thoroughly enjoyed logotherapist creator Viktor Frankl’s tiny yet hugely powerful memoir on his experiences in a Nazi concentration camp I was intrigued to see what this extraordinarily inspirational individual had to say about his life. Psychoanalysis is now a controversial area of psychological study. Freud was its pioneer and his uncompromised attitude towards the scientific community has helped consign much of his discipline to the quackery bin. However, Frankl somehow transcends a lot of the nonsense by appealing more to philosophy than psychology. He connects the two in his autobiography and my feeling is that although I might not buy into logotherapy there is something to be said for the man’s hypothesis that when there is a strong enough “why”, a “what” and a “how” is easier to find. Like his most famous work, “Man’s Search for Meaning”, Frankl’s autobiography is a slim and humble affair. The man is not strong in the joke department despite his belief that he has used humour very effectively in his therapy, but his modest observations and self-depreciation are refreshing changes to the usual boasting that permeates your average autobiography.

In Defence of History – Richard J Evans

Despite my cheerleading for science and eventual wholehearted concession that the scientific method is the only real way for humanity to make productive movement forward, my inclinations are strongly dominated by a love of history, the arts and literature. Therefore, through the lens of empirical scepticism (it’s not my only viewpoint I hasten to add) I found my main interests for setting records straight and combating irrational thinking was in the study of good history. History seemed like the right brain equivalent to science as far as its purpose was to establish facts and discover new and exciting things about our existence. However, history, as the old “This Sceptered Isle” cliché goes, is also primarily about telling stories. Bring up as much dry research and empirical data as you like, but essentially what draws the historian is the love of recreating something that no longer exists and will never exist again. In science you can establish certain “truths” and, for argument’s sake, certain laws that stand up to rigorous objective testing. History has valiantly tried to do this and succeeded to a certain degree, but ultimately we are still dealing with other people’s perceptions of reality. The postmodern movement observed this key factor and exploited it to ridiculous lengths, essentially dismissing the whole concept of history and raising all its methods and opinions to equal status. Of course, this attitude matured as history no longer became a compulsory subject in British schools.

In this brilliant work, Evans carefully examines and scrutinizes the history of history, focusing primarily on the major changes in the way we study history. As the title implies, it is a defence against those who have argued the invalidity of the subject, but it isn’t the critique I expected. I came to “In Defence of History” after Damian Thompson’s light and entertaining book “Counterknowledge” further raised my concerns not only about the effect of the conspiracy theory on history, but also harm caused by other issues like hyperdiffusionism[ii]. Evans didn’t offer a more in-depth account of these problems, but he did provide an insight into the many methods that are used to study history and how they are progressing against the assault of postmodernism. 

Becoming the Natural: My Life in and out of the Cage – Randy Couture

I was fortunate to be given an advance copy of this book by my friend, the publisher Fiaz Rafiq. How much of Couture’s book is ghost-written is debatable, but nevertheless the result is a very candid and entertaining autobiography of the life a successful amateur wrestler who fell into the game of mixed martial arts. What I especially liked about the style of this autobiography was the way Couture did not try to make excuses for any of the fights he lost. He mentions certain factors that would have influenced his performance, but he does this with his successes too. The book is light reading, but still very engaging and you get carried away in the lead-up to all his matches, often forgetting the outcome until he reveals it.  

1415: Henry V’s Year of Glory – Ian Mortimer

I intended to finish this book as I flew over to Turkey, but this was my first holiday with my toddler daughter in tow, so I ended taking the whole 10 days of the holiday to finish the final quarter of this book. Nevertheless, when I wasn’t rushing around a non-toddler friendly environment it was worth it. 

Ian Mortimer brought me back to history with this revolutionary approach to its study. “1415” continues Mortimer’s series on England’s rulers dating back from the 1300s. Henry V is an English icon and symbol of courageous leadership and spiritual piety. However, Mortimer’s extensive research – and I do mean extensive given the privileged access he has to primary source archives – reveals a religious fanatic who uncompromisingly engaged in a pointless war to justify his father’s usurpation of the throne. What makes the author’s approach so different and revealing is that he tells the story of Henry V’s campaign in France and the momentous Battle of Agincourt as a virtual day-by-day account of the year 1415. Far more than a biography – although a lot of the evidence provides some interesting insights into Henry’s complex character – the book reveals and reports critical events that would influence history for centuries to come – from the eventual rise of the Reformation to the English Civil War. The book also provides us with the reasons why men like Henry who were merciless in his treatment of anyone outside his closest circle of trust became so defensively protected by a mythology that became so intrinsically linked to national identity.

Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science – Martin Gardner

I began this at the end of my Turkish holiday and count it as one of my summer books.

Carl Sagen’s “Demon Haunted World” is often referenced as the bible of modern scepticism. However, another pioneer in the field was the great Martin Gardner and the great modern sceptical writer (and founder of Sceptical magazine) Michael Shermer cites this as the first comprehensive study on the subject. Gardner, like Harry Houdini, who is often considered to be something of a godfather of debunking, and James “The Amazing” Randi, the current king, was a magician. The thinking goes that this gave him an advantage in his critical thinking capacity. In other words when one knows how to create an illusion it is easier to see through the illusions (and delusions) of others. However, Gardner doesn’t touch upon this area of his career in his systemic explanation of the origins of disparate weird beliefs from those who believe in a flat or hollow Earth to phrenologists to ESP. It was written in the 1950s and stands the test of time as a relevant book on debunking weird claims. To date none of the strange beliefs he has listed have stood up to scientific scrutiny, none of his fallacies have been successfully reverted back to facts[iii] and it is still as relevant now as it was then. This isn’t to take away Gardner’s then contemporary reflections of the time. His discussions of his highly intelligent contemporaries and their strange beliefs foreshadows Michael Shermer’s essay “Why Smart People Believe Weird Things”[iv], Ben Goldacre’s chapter on the same subject in his “Bad Science” and Dan Gardner’s book on highly intelligent people who get predictions wrong, “Future Babble”. However, the one thing that is alarmingly inaccurate about Gardner’s book is his optimism for the decline and fall of such psychology-based pseudoscientific cults like Dianetics. This was a “fad” that Gardner predicted would probably run out of steam after its founder, the science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard, hit legal and financial problems. Today we call it Scientology! 

59 Seconds: Think a Little, Change a Lot – Richard Wiseman

It is refreshing to find a genuine science-based study on psychology doing so well in the book charts. Therefore, I was recently amused upon reading some of the negative feedback this book received. The criticism aimed at the book was its lack of “new material”. Judging by the reader’s whole review, he was used to books produced by the self-help movement. Such books tend to thrive on producing new approaches to handling life and involve some form of psychology – often of the homespun variety. What the reader failed to understand was that this book is decidedly different from the overwhelming majority of “lifestyle” books out there, simply based on the fact that every single mental exercise or piece of advice stems from extensive peer-review research. Wiseman isn’t just telling you what works for him or relying on anecdotal evidence – again a common mainstay of the Oprah Winfrey approved pop psychology books out there – he is providing you with the best information available based on lengthy and extensive studies, where positive results have been repeated the world over by independent behavioural psychologists. Despite all this dry research the book lives up to its promise in providing easy mental exercises that can be done every day in under a minute.

Extra Chilli Sauce: A Dark Tale of Violence, Retribution and Success – John Skillen

The tough guy autobiography market is now saturated. They have their own sub-section under “True Crime” and in most instances the writing – generally done by ghost-writers – is as trite as the morals of the individuals are reprehensible. John Skillen is one of life’s real rough diamonds. I know this because I have met the man on several occasions and have always been impressed with his professionalism and fairness. He was one of the first people to book me to teach a children’s self defence seminar, at a time when my concepts were not exactly mainstream and many warned me that it wouldn’t work. John was already a name with an awesome reputation. He had little to gain and possibly quite a bit to lose for putting me on, but he had the courage and the belief to do so. I see this characteristic carried over into his much anticipated and very enjoyable autobiography. He is humble and not boastful of the mistakes he made in life, mistakes that got him in trouble with the authorities and time inside, and he is a golden example of someone who turned his life around for the better. Unlike many a contrepreneur, as described in Steve Salerno’s “SHAM”, John didn’t profit from his life of crime by hypocritically going around telling youngsters to not do what he did and then pocketing money from such talks. He learnt an honest trade, built himself a business teaching fitness and martial arts, and became a success. Before then, of course, he built up a professional reputation working some of the most dangerous doors in the country. John’s book doesn’t descend into piety, self-justification, psycho-babble or come across as preachy. It is just an honest tale with a positive message about change.

Being Wrong: Adventures in the Margin of Error – Kathryn Schulz

This was my summer book. This is one of the best books I have read in recent years. I was thoroughly impressed with the rational and yet very enthusiastic approach Kathryn Schulz took with her subject matter. It brings an amazing amount of optimism to a subject that we intuitively have real psychological problems with. The book looks at the whole concept of wrongness, including all the ways we can be wrong, the feeling of being wrong and how error helps us to progress. I learnt a lot from “Being Wrong” and it has helped further influence my own approaches to my work and life in general.

The Perfect Nazi – Martin Davidson

Being interested in the Nazi regime is not uncommon. A disproportionate amount of history is dedicated to the study of the rise and fall of the Third Reich and their leaders. There is something about the way it gripped the developed world and almost ruled it that frightens and fascinates us. Among the many issues arising from the Nazis, I am intrigued by the way it captured the minds of the masses. It’s something that is explored in such books as “The Reader”, which puts a compassionate human face on a person responsible for carrying out a very evil job, and films like “Good”, which explore the apathy of the career Nazis. Martin Davidson has a very prominent and respected position in the BBC’s history department, so therefore he saw it as something of a duty to uncover his grandfather’s part in the Nazi story. What he found was a high ranking SS officer who had been with the party since its extremist fringe days. There was no confirmation of his grandfather’s director involvement in crimes, as a lot of evidence was destroyed before the Allied Forces took Germany, but his career path makes it very likely he was involved with the violence of the SA and at least knew what nefarious activities the SS were endorsing.

Mistakes were Made (but not by me) - Carol Tavris and Elliot Aaronson

This served as the perfect companion book to Schulz’s more philosophical “Being Wrong”. Tavris and Aaronson use their knowledge and experience as trained psychologists to tackle the issue of self-justification and its driving force, cognitive dissonance, head on. This is the best book on the subject I have read and it provided a fascinating insight to the intrinsic problems I see facing the martial arts world of today. Again, this was a real education to me and I wholeheartedly recommend it. 

A Killing Art – Alex Gillis

“Warts and All” martial arts books are few and far between. Finally the world’s most popular martial art gets its history investigated – and not before time. Most “traditional” martial arts have a murky history due to urban legends, suppressive governments, lack of literacy among instructors and jealousy among respective schools. However, Korea seems to have suffered extraordinarily. This book uses primary source material and impartial investigative methods to uncover the real not-so-ancient origins of tae kwon do and how its history got rewritten and embroiled in deadly Korean politics. Unfortunately, much like the tae kwon do satire, “The Foot Fist Way”, I feel there is still too much affection for the art itself and Gillis, a 25 year veteran of the system, still holds back some critical thinking when it comes to discussing the combative side. Nevertheless, I consider it a modern martial arts non-fiction classic, ranking alongside and in the spirit of “Angry White Pyjamas”, “Watch My Back”, “The Last Wrestlers” and “The Pyjama Game” in its frankness.

SHAM: How the Self-Help Movement Made America Helpless – Steve Salerno

I have a good deal friends in the self-help movement and admit to following certain reasonable principles put forward by popular figures in the field. Geoff Thompson is a good friend of mine and I enjoyed the early work of Stephen Covey. I don’t do this blindly, anymore than I follow any approach wholesale and without critical thinking, but I like a lot of what a very small handful of these individuals have to say. However, a good deal of what is written out there is bunk. At best it simply repackages the obvious and at worst it bases itself on pseudoscientific principles and outright charlatanism. Salerno’s book is a complete attack on the movement. He takes no prisoners as he goes after the biggest hitters in the field – most of who seem to be protégés of Oprah Winfrey. It is not a balanced critique, but a much needed book to challenge a lot of nonsense that is permeating our media, education system and culture.

Debunked!: Conspiracy Theories, Urban Legends and Evil Plots of the 21st Century – Richard Roeper

Richard Roeper’s very light read is a wonderful straight-up dismantling of the most conspiracy theories of our time. Roeper’s style is simple and sometimes brash. It is full of humour and not preachy in the slightest.

[i] Of course the character isn’t 100% protected. Because William Hartnell had died by the time the “Five Doctors” special was filmed a look-alike stand-in actor was required for his very small role. Still the huge difficulty and amount of explanation needed to do this is just further evidence of how much the respective actors are a part of the character.
[ii] This is the hypothesis or belief that one dominant culture is the single source for other cultures and technologies around the world. It is a view I have seen very common among many martial artists who buy into the appeal to antiquity logical fallacy and wish to establish their art as the true source for others. 
[iii] The same cannot be said for the similarly named “Hamlyn Book of Facts and Fallacies”, a sceptical children’s book that I got when I was 10 years old and sowed the seed of my own critical thinking. It is interesting to see how much has changed since that book came out.  
[iv] Contained in one of the best books on modern empirical scepticism “Why People Believe Weird Things”.
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