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Sunday 1 January 2012

Reflecting on 2011

Image by Groume via Flickr

2011 was a year of beginnings for me with many long sought after ideas coming into physical fruition and the bones being laid for 2012’s major projects.

The Gate House

I could hardly say anything about achievements in 2011 without mentioning the completion of our house. January 2011 saw my immediate family and I huddled in a stationary caravan (wagon to us show folk). Outside the snow had been relentless. We were stranded on my parents’ exposed hilltop due to our local lanes
being very difficult to pass (we don’t get gritted). We struggled with frozen water and diminishing gas bottles as we trudged through snow that came up to our waists. That’s where you last left me when I self-indulged in my annual reflection of the previous year’s events. Outside our window and cardboard thin walls a cleared site was the only thing that resembled the promise of our new home, the one we had invested hard work and all our saving in. A reconstructed but totally out of use well was the only feature that greeted us on the approved site. I was late the last time I wrote my review, by over a week. I type this on my brand new ThinkPad laptop in my newly built house on the final day of 2011. I now live in a different world.

The main praise for the house has to go to my wonderful mother who gave us the land in the first place. My appreciation for the area that I was largely brought up in after my family parked the circus for the final time has continued to increase. The English Cotswolds are a wonderland of beauty and inspiration. No clichés intended. You can see how this type of environment breeds writers, poets and artists. Even a lengthy trip to our nearest recycling centre is a joy thanks to the dry stone walls and preserved rural villages. The woodlands and open fields are teeming with wildlife, and the skies are clear. It’s escapism at its most romantic.

The house would not have existed if it weren’t for many individuals in my life and I will never forget them.  Once all available funds had been spent on the foundations we were delayed before my parents kindly provided us with a loan from the business in order to get the house finished by December and we could get onto an affordable mortgage. I won’t bore you with the details or ask you to break out violins for the hardships we endured. We aren’t exactly wealthy, but we are very aware of how lucky we have been. Not only did we amaze just about everyone by getting outline planning permission first time around, but our willingness to collaborate rather than fight the local council meant a relatively painless transition to full planning permission for a building I am quite happy to live in for the rest of my life. Our house went through four designers and I am hugely grateful for the main input by my wife’s sister-in-law, who came up with the shape we wanted during a crucial year in university studying architecture.  I also have the extra good fortune of not only having some wonderfully supportive family members, but also the best wife a man could ask for. She took the burden of the project on her own shoulders and without her it simply wouldn’t have happened. She sought out the wonderful stone that really makes the house, dealt with all the building headaches, researched everything relevant about homebuilding she could find and when it came to picking up a brush it was me minding the toddler whilst her far superior painting skills ensured everything looked wonderful. This is not to say we didn’t have a first class builder who did the project managing from start to finish with an eye for detail and a desire for perfection that means he is still visiting here to finish minor jobs. I just think he likes our coffee!

The house is now habitable and I write this from the study I have always dreamed about, surrounded by my large book collection – all together in one place at last! However, the story is far from over. There is much that needs completing and maintaining and that is why 2012 is the year I push myself to greater heights than ever before. You will have to excuse my corny romancing again, but there is yet another reason the house’s title is appropriate (we have at least three official interpretations):  It is the physical representation of a gate house to our future.

Mo Teague’s Hard Target System

2011 saw Mo Teague’s Hard Target System shift up a gear. Saudi Aramco, the world’s most valuable company, booked the services of my coach Mo Teague and senior Hard Target instructor Al Cain to teach their security units in Saudi Arabia “Mo Teague’s Hard Target System”. I was scheduled to teach later in the year, but unfortunately our later contracts haven’t materialized yet. I ended up covering five months of Hard Target weekend seminars at Response Security Systems’ offices in London for the first half of the year. The majority of these sessions were attended by students training for their Close Protection (body-guarding) qualifications and were often ex-military, ex-law enforcement and regular door supervisors. I am happy to say that I received 100 per cent positive feedback from all attendees and the experiences really helped me improve my teaching standards.
Later in the year I met up with those who attended Mo’s instructor programme – an intensive five week programme of training at the World Combat Arts main gym. Aside from putting me through my paces it is always a joy to see Mo train advanced students. As I said in my interview with Michael Rosenbaum  this year, Mo is a criminally under-rated coach. I am very proud to teach for him and to train under him. The man is miles ahead of the vast majority of coaches. His 2011 joint seminar with his US counterpart, W. Hock Hocheim was probably the greatest event for self-defence purists of the year. I sadly missed it due to house-moving commitments. 

Regular Classes

My regular junior classes in 2011 saw several changes. We not only got our first brown sash in CCMA history, but also had more regular workshops. Training has included more emphasis on grappling, weapons defence and agility training. 

BTEC Advanced Award in Self-Defence Instruction

This year saw the launch of a brand new qualification. If there was one qualification I was going to achieve in 2011 it was this one; at last accredited certificates for teaching self-defence. This is the future. I saw it a long time ago. We live in an age where black belts are two to a penny and instructorships in combative-based systems are being milled out faster all the time. The value of being a martial arts instructor or even a martial arts instructor with an advanced grade is diminishing all the time. By having a BTEC approved qualification you have something that makes you and the standards of your qualification stand outside the world of martial arts, aligning yourself with other respected professions. The experience also brought me into contact with Keith Buchard who I look forward to assisting more in 2012 with this qualification. 


Steve TImperley is another individual who has greatly impressed me. He invited me to join his Martial Arts Alliance, an apolitical martial arts groups dedicated in providing support and setting standards in the martial arts community. I was granted the status of national tutor due to my accredited qualifications. Steve’s Knife and Edged Weapon Programme is a very professional service and I was very impressed both with Steve’s overall approach and his delivery of the course. The soft skills content and presentation is excellent, as is the support offered. I didn’t take much convincing to go first for his regular instructor qualification and then his senior one, both of which I passed. I also got to meet some remarkable fellow instructors during these experiences and sadly was also exposed to a lot of the fear and bad teaching practices I have seen infect the world of reality-based self-defence. 

Perhaps my most exciting experiences outside my house is the continued development of my Vagabond Warriors courses. 2012 is the year that they should really take off at Telford’s Kyushinkai Martial Arts Centre. The seminars are designed to take martial arts cross-training into a new area.  Rather teaching people new techniques or systems, Vagabond Warriors aims to develop the individual promoting clarification, scepticism and individuality.

Children’s Basic Self-Defence Course

I provided a six-part self-defence course for juniors at Kyushinkai Martial Arts Centre in Telford. The course was met with enthusiasm and the venue is brilliant. I am also grateful for the friendship I have developed with the club’s owner, Sam Stewart. We have some great plans for 2012.
Other memorable martial moments for 2011 included more workshops for Witney Boys’ Brigade, which is always an interesting challenge. I also did a very lengthy interview for the new martial arts podcast, The Den Show, which was divided up into instalments over four shows. As I have said before, I am big podcast fan and it was great fun being part of such a professionally produced show. I give full respect to Chris Denwood who does an excellent job presenting and creating the episodes. 

Personal Training

Matters seemed to improve with my personal training when I joined a local club for the first time in 18 months. For a few months I got back into the formal training routine and caught up with my Brazilian jiu jitsu, boxing and muay Thai. I even tried my hand at the fearsome art of freestyle wrestling. Unfortunately commitments with the house cut all of this short and I hope to re-join in the New Year once matters have settled down. Back home I experimented with a lot of high intensity training – sets of five minute rounds, the Tabata method, 300 reps and specific weight training routines. 

As we had our own personal and rather minor struggles out in rural Oxfordshire, our friends in the nation’s capital as well as other cities were experiencing a far more immediate threat to their lives. I was not directly affected by the riots, but I knew people serving in the police that had to deal with them. My views and opinions on the whole sad episode are detailed in an essay I started writing a week or so afterwards and recently completed.  Like all national tragedies – and I include the terrible mass killings in July 2011 in Norway – we often reinforce our personal prejudices, ideals and fears by such dramatic instances as we seek meanings. I am not interesting in meanings and I see less in the way of a societal cause. This has more to do with the actions of a minority of individuals and their own personal disorders.  Understanding that is more in our society’s interests than in pandering to the simplistic political ideas that come out as knee-jerk reactions to such tragedies. 


“The Science of Fear” (AKA “Risk: The Science and Politics of Fear”) by Dan Gardner

Gardner is a sceptic without knowing it. Recommended by combatives expert W. Hock Hocheim, this excellent study into society’s growing sensitivity to fear, especially irrational fear is an excellent counterweight to that long-serving bible of self-defence soft skills, Gavin de Becker’s “The Gift of Fear”. Gardner is a journalist by trade, but is a thorough researcher and backs his work up with hard scientific evidence. He reveals the dangers of intuition and the reality behind some of societies greatest fears. An essential read. (full review)

“The Survivor’s Club” by Ben Sherwood

Sherwood’s book also came from Hock’s excellent book club and is recommended for the same reasons as Gardner’s work. In many ways it is more relevant, as it deals with life or death survival situations and dissects the science behind why certain individuals defied the odds. The book is cites some excellent research and, again, is an essential read for today’s self-defence defence coach and student. It is marred a little by the importance it places on faith in a supernatural being. (full review)

"The Tao of Muhammad Ali" by Davis Miller
Miller's highly original and incredibly frank biography on Ali, written as part of his own autobiography, is a thoroughly entertaining read. Some might find Miller's own story a little distracting from the usual straightforward biography, but there are few authors who really explore the true identity of this most beloved of sports and fighting icons. (full review)

"The Tao of Bruce Lee" by Davis Miller

The same can be said about his companion book on Bruce Lee. Although, unlike Ali, Miller never knew Lee, the author arguably penetrates deeper and strips away even more of this particular icon's mythology. Lain bare showing all his flaws Lee is no less than impressive as a human being as he was as a legend. (full review)

“The Godless Boys” by Naomi Woods

Woods’ debut novel is the first modern novel I have read in a while. I received it as an Amazon Vine customer, so it was a pre-edited release that I got for free on the condition I review it. I found the concept of an alternative UK in the 1980s, where unbelievers were banished to an island to be an interesting diversion. (full review) 

“The Caged Virgin” by Ayaan Hirsi Ali

Ali’s remarkably brave critique of the religion she was brought up in is a powerful read. The Somalia-born and now resident of Holland, has had to endure a life of hardship relatively unknown outside of the developed world. Her argument for reason against even the more moderate end of her former faith is compelling and very interesting. (full review)

“The Invisible Man” by H.G. Wells

Low on characterization and international adventure when one compares it “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”, Wells’s story of a man driven to insanity through his invisible power is still an exciting read.  What I found particularly refreshing was the author’s straightforward style, which is pretty rare in the Victorian novel.  (full review)

“Bad Science” by Ben Goldacre

It has been brought to my attention that pretty much all that is contained in Ben Goldacre’s book can be downloaded for free off his website, but nonetheless I enjoyed reading the book on the train as I attended another Hard Target seminar in London. Goldacre’s book should be a part of anyone’s book collection. It provides fantastically accessible information on the nonsense being peddled by quack doctors, nutritionists, pharmaceutical companies and the alternative medicine crowd. (full review)

“Tiger, Tiger: A Memoir” by Margaux Fragaso

This is perhaps the most candid, personal and honest account of a victim of paedophilia that has ever been written. It distances itself from the almost pornographic tragic bios that take up whole sections of airport newsagents and book shops by its style and realism. Fragaso has shocked many a reader by trying hard to relay the genuine complexities of these types of relationships, shaping her abuser as a real human being rather than as a shadowy demon. She reveals the way families, often with their own problems, and local communities are often complicit through their denial of this type of abuse.

Despite there being a fair bit of artistic licence – Fragaso tries to tell us word-for-word conversations we have no proof of ever occurring – there is an overall feeling of honesty. Fragaso is a talented writer and it will be interesting to read her future work. (full review)

“The Art of Possibility” by Benjamin Zander

After reading Steve Salerno’s scathing and unforgiving dismantling of the self-help movement in 2010, I was a little ponderous about reading another book in this particular genre. The person recommended me this particular book insisted it wasn’t self-help and it certainly doesn’t seem to go down the route of most in the genre. Counsellor and concern conductor married couple the Zanders provide us with the lessons they learned about creating new possibilities with their clients and students. It provides some sound professional advice, often born out of the virtue of hard work and practice, as well as prompts for creativity.(full review)

“God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens

We lost an intellectual giant in December 2011. Christopher Hitchens was an expert and feared debater. This particular book shows us just how persuasive he could be in dismantling the philosophy of religion. (my article on Hitchens and full review of this book) 

"50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology" by Scott O. Lilienfeld, Steven Jay Lynn, John Ruscio and Barry L. Beyerstein
Quite simply the most important book published on psychology in recent times. Not only is it wonderfully accessible and easy to reference, but it's meticulously documented with very thorough academic notes. If you are involved in anything that touches upon psychology - from counseling to criminology to self-help to self-protection this is a must-read. (full review)

“Freakonomics” by Steven D. Levitt

Some have argued that this isn’t really a book on economics. However, it provides some fascinating insights into the way people function and has the backing of some hard-to-argue-against numbers. There is the odd exaggerated story that Levitt has admitted to being too credulous on in a later edition, but on the whole the theories are pretty sound and very interesting.  I read it to get the dirt on sumo wrestling, which seems to be inherently fixed to some degree. However, I quickly became fascinated at the insight into the low returns on drug-dealing, the cheating practices of teachers in response to the “No Child Left Behind” initiative and the way baby names slide up and down the classes.(full review)

“Bad History: How We Got the Past Wrong” by Emma Marriott

This is a wonderful little reference book on a much-needed subject. Just as science has been working hard to debunk nonsense, history has been left to hang out to dry in postmodern eras. The book gives you short chapters on a wide range of popular myths about history and helps explain why these misunderstandings about the past occur. (full review)

“Columbine” by Dave Cullen

There is quite simply no other book that comes close to Dave Cullen’s thorough analysis of all the available material on the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. Cullen has been interviewed by such a wide range of people that our hope is that the false narratives attached to this tragedy are being purged from our collective consciousness. (full review)

“The Masters of Sit-Com: From Hancock to Steptoe” by Christopher Stevens (with Alan Simpson and Ray Galton)

I just began reading this book at the end of 2011, so it will probably go on my 2012 list too. So far, I find it as comforting and witty as my usual experiences with Galton and Simpson’s work. The book is part biographical and part compilation of excerpts of the comedy duos best and rarest scripts.


2011 was a very full year for me and it is small wonder why it seems to have passed in a blink of an eye. I have learnt a lot from a lot of people online and face-to-face. I have watched how the field outside my caravan window has changed to foundations and then eventually a fully operational house. I have a profound love for my surroundings now. I can also see a tremendous scope for change and progress in the martial arts world.  

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