The other day I was at a service station near Bristol, making the obligatory coffee-stop the addict in me convinces me I need to live, should I ever make a journey in the car further than 60 miles. Which I do often, as I’ a mobile worker and my nearest office is actually a two hour drive from my house. Good for Monday mornings, which are often approached at a more gentle pace for me than much of the rest of the world; bad for team meetings, coupled as they are with a four hour round trip, which begins at 6am.
This particular sojourn was a good 76 miles, and at 8am, so clearly an extra large fresh coffee was required, and not one of those monstrosities from the machine you get in the magazine shop. You know the ones; clunking, steaming, whirring, so huge I sometimes wonder if they’ve actually got a full sized Starbucks Barista making the stuff inside it, a theory that only falls apart when you realize there’s almost no coffee inside and the milk is made out of powdered chemicals.
This early morning at a service station was not like any other I have experienced, though, (and I have experienced many – 2hrs to the office, remember?) since this time I was joined by what I can only describe as the entire UK Green Beret marine forces. Seriously, there were hundreds of them – and because of the early start, there were almost no other customers, which led to a surreal site.
Row upon row of identically dressed, tall, proud looking marines everywhere I looked. A good twenty milling about outside smoking cigarettes, fifty ore in the sweet shop, another fifteen playing on the arcades, forty in the queue for a breakfast bap. All wearing that famous Green Beret, all dressed in identical light-green fatigues.
Which led to a surreal site when I joined the queue for my coffee. Twenty 6-foot marines clutching brightly coloured sweets and crisps in their arms, then one 6-foot charcoal suit-wearing businessman, long black overcoat with the collar up & large coffee in hand, then another twenty-odd identical marines behind him, and not another customer in the shop. All standing in silence, staring at nothing. It must have looked like an army issue ‘Where’s Wally’ book; I would have loved nothing more than to ask the sergeant in front f me to take a picture, but frankly I didn’t have the balls.
It was quite an odd feeling being surrounded by so many trained killers, particularly as most of them seemed preoccupied with buying sweets and playing computer games. I’ve seen the movies; they should have had two men out front covering the entrance with snipers, two more at each door inside and been either chewing tobacco, doing pull-ups, singing “I don’t know what I’ve been tol, at 8am it’s mighty cold” or – at the very least – stabbing scorpions with a hunting knife (just for fun – name the film).
But I guess even trained professional warriors are, at the end of the day, just normal guys who wear slippers and like ketchup when they’re not in war-torn countries being shot at by bad guys, abseiling out of helicopters and aiming laser guided missiles at giant robots. Or something. I haven’t watched the news that recently.
Anyway, I was reflecting on the irony as I stood there – here was me, a weekend martial artist who spent his time pretending to be a warrior and simulating fighting, surrounded by professionals who do it for real.
It was a little bit existential, to be honest with you. It makes you question stuff. These guys are taught hand to hand combat, no doubt; in fact what they learn is probably martial arts in its purest form – it’s tested, stripped down to only what works, and specialised to the type of combat required. These guys don’t learn how to use swords, but you can but they’re pretty good with a knife attached to the end of a rifle.
All arts have the same limiting factor, after all – the human body. No matter how you approach it, it still moves in the same way. An arm bends this way, a muscle does that if you hit it like this, balance goes there but not over there, etc. All the variation of arts across the world are not based on efficacy, but context and culture. You learn how to use what you have to do a job required at the time.
In Taijutsu, one of the arts I study, there are several different schools (styles). One of them is from the battlefield, created for warfare. The techniques are all based around throwing someone to the ground in a manner that breaks something, stomping on them, and moving on to the next knowing that if they are not dead yet, they soon will be. Another has no killing moves, but is focussed purely on control and restraint, like doormen, since it was used by bodyguards in imperial courts. Different tool for a different job. You didn’t want to kill a man who tried to kill the Emperor, you wanted to find out where he came from. And then kill him. But slooooowly…..
What we learn, as martial artists, is a tool for a job. Depending on the job, they each have varying degrees of use for matters of personal safety. Some will turn self defense in to a fight – bad idea, now you’re as guilty as your attacker; some will be so stylised from their historical context they will be next to useless for defending yourself (Kudo – Zen archery, or Iado – the art of drawing the sword spring to mind). And some will be just the right combination of control, evasion and combat to tread the fine line that keeps you safe from harm, whilst also keeping you safe from the legal fallout and consequences of going that little bit too far.
This ain’t Afghanistan, after all. You can’t go around bayoneting everybody who jumps the queue in front of you in Starbucks. At least, for my sake, I hope not…