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Alpha Santa

Poor old Rudolph. Of all the anthropomorphic manifestations of ritual sun worship, he has to belong to the most fickle. That a reindeers’ fate in the social pecking order can be decided by something so trivial as who drives a sleigh once every 365 days is simply Santa propagating and encouraging mindless competition between the herd, encouraging them to fight between themselves purely so he can remain top dog.

I mean that’s all it took wasn’t it? One night Rudolf is the butt of every joke; kicked and taunted, bullied and jeered, shunned and cast out by reindeer society – an outsider, a freak. Then one foggy Christmas Eve Santa rocks up, and before you can say ‘freak muzzle mutation’ Rudolf’s up top, guiding Santas sleigh that night just because his nose is bright. Suddenly, all the reindeers love him don’t they? Whooping and jumping, shouting out with glee, spouting stuff and nonsense about history.

Alpha Santa – that’s who he is; scheming and manipulating to assert dominance and control over his pack. It’d be easy to assume that one of the other reindeer – you know, one of the ones that used to laugh and call him names – was dominant, because they were asserting some dominance over Rudolf. But that’s not actually how packs, or groups, work. Contrary to what you might think the Alpha of any group isn’t usually the loudest, or the most cruel; that role goes to the most Beta of the betas.

An established alpha male is generally confident in their authority; they have already proved their position and don’t have the need to constantly assert as much through constant threat displays and signs of dominance. To do so would, in fact, be counter-productive, as it would be interpreted as a sign of weakness, as sign that the alpha doesn’t actually have faith in their own authority. No, it’s the betas who have to show signs of dominance, since they’re the ones that are vying for position. The betas are constantly in-fighting and slipping up and down the greasy ranks of the reindeer social hierarchy. And the ones who are closest to the top are the worst, since they’re the ones with the most to lose and are doing their best to challenge the alpha.

This is, of course, why Santa doesn’t kick any of his reindeer in the shins in any of the songs, why you never seem to see his reindeers cower from him in fear in the movies. No, Santa’s method of control is far more manipulative and scheming – he just encourages his clan to fight between themselves, meaning none have the energy or focus to challenge his supreme, total authority.

This isn’t just true of reindeers though – you can see it in your own friend groups, your family, your office politics, your kids playing in the playground. The one who everyone defers to, who everyone listens to, isn’t normally the loudest or the most bullish; control doesn’t come from something so simple as intimidation. The loudest, the most aggressive, is usually a beta somewhere fairly far up the pecking order, who has the most to lose from any lack of authority and so will defend their position out of desperation and fear – which is often difficult to discern from aggression and confidence, funnily enough.

This is where the scuffles happen and in a pack, this is the one to fear the most as they will go the farthest to make a demonstration out of any victim. When challenged by a pack of people, this is the one who will be doing all the gesturing, become the most violent and the one you have the most to fear from in a violent scenario.

This means that the top beta is the most likely to become violent, probably the first to begin an approach, but will always be looking to the alpha for approval for their actions, or the approval of the pack.  If the top beta is attacking though, the rest are less likely to follow since, well. he ain’t top dog.  If the beta gets beat down, then he’s just learnt a lesson. If the alpha gets involved in an assault, then you can expect the rest of the pack to weigh in too.  It’s the difference between the beta in your friend group saying ‘right lets go’ and walking out of the door wiith nobody following him, because everybody is waiting to see what the real top dog, the quiet one, does.  I’ll bet you even do this yourself without realising it.  Unless you;re the one walking to the door on your own of course…

That’s why the reindeer used to laugh and call him names – fear, and dominance. Then, one foggy Christmas Eve one poor, picked on, mutant reindeer had enough, and fought back. A little known fact about the famous song is that Rudolf’s nose used to glow bright white – that red you can see? That’s reindeer blood.


How Not to Get Hit – US

How Not to Get Hit – UK


Where’s Wally

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…

How Not to Get Hit: America & the world

How Not to Get Hit: United Kingdom


Don’t Get in the Car

Before he was a respectable businessman & middle-class father of two, my old man was a bit of a hard one to tie down. He spent his twenties as a semi-professional rugby player, sailing instructor and general tough-guy; but before that, he spent his early years of adulthood navigating the local street urchins, Mods & Rockers of small-town Essex, a figure of fun & ridicule in his smart uniform as he walked past the local kids to his nearby Grammar School, a hard-fought position in a time and place when such things were not seen as aspirational, merely different – ‘not us’ – to the local kids.

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Unreasonable Force

So, the UK government has decided to de-criminalise members of the public who use excessive force on those who taken it upon themselves to pay an unannounced, unofficial and illegal visit to your house and family, sporting a crowbar and a balaclava.

A large proportion of you are probably sat there thinking ‘what a good idea’, ‘the law should be on our side’, ‘we should be able to defend our own homes without fear’ or something similar. Having our own homes, our castles, invaded is many people’s single greatest fear and the idea that we are in the wrong by trying to protect our castle by any means necessary has an inevitable, powerful, emotional response and we instinctively protest when we hear about people being punished for doing so.

Take Tony Martin, for example – British national hero of injustice, who shot at some burglars out of fear and self defense – who had broken in to his isolated farmhouse – with a legally owned shotgun. Except that he had an illegal shotgun, his firearms license had been revoked, he had already fired it at someone else for scrumping apples from his orchard, and was proven to have lay in wait for the burglars, ambushed them and fired two shots in to their backs as they were trying to escape.

Or how about Munir Hussain, who was tied up with his family, threatened with 12in knives and told they would all be murdered that night, who then escaped, raised the alarm and chased after the burglars, catching them in next door’s garden? He and three other men then proceeded to beat one of the burglars to within an inch of his life with a cricket bat and a hockey stick, were begged to stop by an onlooker but refused, and left the burglar with permanent brain damage.

These are the two most famous cases in the UK, and are common in the public outcry that resulted from their convictions. Were they reasonable? Proportionate? A fair and balanced response to the situation? No.

In both cases, the worst damage was done after the criminals were trying to escape – crucially, after the danger had passed, and this is what the cases hang on. This is what the judge, Judge Reddihough, said about the Munir Hussain case:

The prosecution rightly made it plain that there was no allegation against you, Munir Hussain, in respect of the force you used against Salem in defending your own home and family or of the force used by either of you in apprehending Salem.

However, the attack which then occurred was totally unnecessary and amounted to a very violent revenge attack on a defenceless man. It may be that some members of the public or media commentators will assert that Salem deserved what happened to him, and that you should not have been prosecuted and need not be punished. The courts must make it clear that such conduct is criminal and unacceptable .

Be that as it may, can it be so bad for the government to be on the side of the victim a little bit? To acknowledge in law the powerful emotional reaction we all have to home invaders, and to acknowledge that maybe we might lose control a bit, and that’s OK? Well, yeah, but that’s not really what they’re doing.

The truth is that, between 1990 and 2005, there were just 11 prosecutions for people tackling intruders in any premises, including seven involving homes. Less than one a year. The government is not responding to a social problem, it’s responding to a perceived fear – it’s playing on our emotional responses to romance the right-wing press and our base, primal urges.

The truth is that the law is already on your side. You are entitled to use reasonable force to defend yourself and your property, and this includes perceived risk. Once, whilst working as a manager at a bowling alley, a guy high on drugs threatened to slit my throat, and lunged for his pocket. I didnpt see a knife. It could have been a phone down there. He could even have been pleased to see me. But legally, I would have been within my rights there to use enough force to protect my life against a man holding a knife – i.e. quite a lot – because I had reasonable cause to assume it was there.

The problem comes along when your brain gets in the way, and chucks some fear in to the mix like a flash-bang grenade at your nan’s 80th birthday party. Fear changes our perceptions, it changes our view of the world, it changes our behaviour and our responses. Panic and adrenaline shut down your senses, so that you only notice what your lizard brain thinks is relevant to your survival. After all, these are predators invading your nest to eat your young.

What, you thought your fear was really because someone’s nicking your telly? No, not at all. Your primal lizard brain, the small bit at the back that really runs the show, is screaming at you that there’s a dinosaur munching on your babies, even if it’s really a scally in a track-suit trying to unplug the stereo.

Should we legislate against the lizard brain? I for one don’t think we should. I don’t want my legal system to be based around a set of instinctual fear responses that are a hangover from a distant ancestor, and play no part in the risks and consequences of living in a modern, civilised society. I want my laws to be aspirational, not reverting to the law of the jungle for their justice.

I needn’t worry. This is a publicity stunt, not a real change. This new legislation wouldn’t have gotten Tony Martin off the hook; Munir Hussain would still have gone to prison. It’s a cynical attempt t tug at your strings, to play you like a dumb animal scared for its nest and eggs. Don’t fall for it. Choose society. Turn your back on the jungle.


Not my work, not funny, not prose, but direct, vital, no nonsense  advice that it’s important to share:


…and a How Not to Get Hit blog is in the works.  I’ve been busy, OK?

The Rhythm of Life

And The Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat,
Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet,
Rhythm in your bedroom,
Rhythm in the street,
Yes, the Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat.

So sung Sammy Davis Junior in ‘Sweet Charity’ back in 1969, and what a clever sausage he was. That there is a song that still sends a shiver down my spine when I hear it, one of those bits of music that seems to actually vibrate right through you, as if the sound-waves themselves had some special resonance, making your whole body sing with them.

I’ve had that feeling before, when I was 16 and studying Aikido. One of the senior UK instructors visited our dojo for a class and he asked me up on to the mat to demonstrate a technique. Up I went, lobbed a clumsy strike his way and woosh! Before I knew it, before I’d even finished my attack, I was lifted in to the air and dumped on the floor, all the wind knocked out of me.

I’ve often thought about that moment in times of reflection. I’ve never quite felt that sense of powerlessness, the knowledge that all of my strength, my control, even my will, was taken away from me and I had nothing left to call my own to stop what was happening. When I describe it to people, I often tell them it was like being plucked up by a tornado. I assume.

Harmony was what did it – harmony and rhythm. Just like a song that touches your soul, the right response at the right time can resonate perfectly with the movements of your opponent and woosh! They get dumped by a tornado. When it happens to you – and I’ve only been lucky enough to be on the right side of it several times now in training, and never for real – it feels like magic. Like an ethereal force has picked entered your body and channelled itself through you, transcending your own strength.

It’s so strange to experience throwing around large, powerful men with no effort at all that I can well understand why the Chinese invented the concept of Qi; how to them, the only logical answer was that there really was an ethereal force channelling and crackling through their fingertips.

The only real magic here though is the magic of science. It’s the same magic that makes your skin come up in goose-bumps when you hear your favourite song; it’s the magic of rhythm, resonance and timing that makes best of us seem superhuman.

Old Sammy had it right. And his style of music, Jazz, came closer to real martial arts than any other genre. Jazz isn’t a fixed score of music, to be repeated again and again by musicians through the ages, fixed, on runners, dead. Jazz fizzes with life, is electric and unpredictable. It bounces off people, things, instruments; it has moods, it’s unpredictable, but under it all it still has structure – a structure born of scales, laws and timing that are built up in unpredictable ways; living only for that moment, never to be repeated, shaped by and shaping their environment.

A fight between two people who can’t, is like a one-man-band being dropped from a third story window (come on we’ve all been tempted, haven’t we?). A cacophony of noise with no pace, no timing, no harmony.

A rehearsed form practiced between two martial artists is like a timeless piece of classical music; on runners, never changing, reliant on everyone doing exactly as expected at exactly the right time in a highly structured way, to make something beautiful but in a way that breaks down the second someone does something unpredicted by the score.

A fight with a good martial artist is like Jazz. You bounce off what your opponent gives you, you break down the structure, build it back up again, fill the spaces, control the pace – but always, always, with solid underlying layers and structure.

That’s music.

That’s jazz, baby.

How Not to Do Well in a Job Interview

I’m back! Apologies for the absence from your screens dear readers, it turns out that moving countries, planning a stag party, beginning to plan your own wedding, starting back at your old job, interviewing for a mortgage and applying for a nice shiny new job leaves one with little time to write irreverent meanderings on all things martial.

Happily, though, that is all behind me now and I am back in the game again. Less happily, I didn’t get the job. Dumb job. Didn’t want it anyway. The gruelling, three-stage process with assessment centre to-boot wasn’t entirely without merit though, as it has inspired – or at least given me a decent in-road to – a very overdue blog post. As you are about to discover.

One of the questions I was asked, given that it was a management job I was applying for, asked me how I have dealt with conflict in the workplace in the past. Unfortunately given how much else was bubbling about in my cortex at the time I decided, inexplicably, that this was an invitation to wax lyrical about the cultural differences between Chinese and Western culture, and the potential conflict that can arise as a result. And for all my knowledge of non-verbal communication, my understanding of cues and tells, half smiles and awkward coughs, I spectacularly failed to notice the puzzled expressions lined up in front warning me I’d ventured further off-topic than Richard Dawkins at a Bible convention.

“China can be a difficult place to live” I enthusiastically began. “The culture is so far removed, the way people interact is so different, and the concepts surrounding person boundaries & space are so alien, that it can be easy to get offended or become angry when you first arrive.”

The furrows on the brows of my unwitting audience deepen. I, blissfully unaware, stride onwards into the dark, twisting forest of figurative folly:

“But the longer you spend their, the more you come to understand the logic and rationale behind the culture. It’s not our logic or rationale, but it’s logic and rationale nonetheless. What’s intrusive to us is respectful to them; what’s rude to them is polite to us. What you come to realize is that everybody sees the world through their own, unique prism. There is no right or wrong, polite or rude; just unique interpretations of these rules. Most people in a given culture have similar interpretations, but everyone’s differs slightly.”

At this point I’d begun to cotton on to what was happening: it’s hard to ignore it when your regional manager has shaking their head in despair whilst two others are looking at you like you’ve just painted your genitals blue and decided to answer their questions through the medium of interpretive dance.
But it was too late to save myself now, and well I knew it. I am in blood stepped in so far that should I wade no more, Returning were as tedious as go o’er. So Shakespeare writes in Macbeth; and so it was for me. “Screw it” I thought; “let’s see where this ends up”.

“This has taught me a lot about conflict management. Whenever you encounter conflict, it’s generally because there’s a clash between what two people deem to be reasonable, or correct. If neither party is able to accept the others’ perspective, the scale of the conflict can only increase as each party digs in and defends their own view more and more vigorously, until all reasonable avenues of argument have been ruled out or ignored. If we are able to pause, if just for a moment, and see understand that our opponent is actually operating from exactly the same perspective as we are, yet seen through their own prism of the world, it should become easier to resolve things.”

Yeah, I know. I may as well have stood on the chair and started singing John Lennon’s ‘Imagine’: “You, you may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one.”

I looked up, expectantly, John Lennon’s mancunian melodies trailing through my mind. If this were a film, there would be a painful silence that went on for an eternity, followed by an unexpectedly positive response. Maybe even a standing ovation. The underdog went for broke, and managed to hit a home run. Sadly, in real life, one cannot have his cake and eat it to and all that was on the menu here was blank stares, and a vacuous emptiness where the applause should have been.

So, I didn’t get the job. Hey ho. I did find myself thinking about what I’d said on the long drive home though.

People see the world through prisms. In self defense, we often talk about behaviour, about responses, about communication. But we rarely ask the victim to put themselves in the shoes of their assailant. Why not? For that assailant, at that time, there is a perfectly reasonable justification for their attack. We might not agree with it, but we don’t have to. It’s on their terms. We’re in their world. And if we try to respond using the rules of our own world, which if you’re anything like me don’t usually involve violent solutions, then you’re going to find yourself running out of runway fairly quickly.

If you’re facing the same way as your assailant, then you’re not going to crash in to each other. If you’re walking home alone on a dark night, think like a mugger: ‘where would I hide? Who would I target?’. If someone’s getting angry with you, put yourself in their shoes: ‘What does he think I’ve done? What have I done, and how has he interpreted it? What can I change? What else is going on with him to make him ok with attacking me?’ and if you’re being attacked, think: ‘what are his rules?’ because if his rules allow for picking up a lump of timber and swinging it at your head, you’d better get out of your game and in to his if you’re going to walk out of there intact.

Chew on this for a while. But for the love of God, don’t bring it up in your next interview.

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Real Life Stories – Adam Shadbolt

Well. I’m back. Twelve months on the other side of the planet has come to an inevitable end, and I have returned to the green and pleasant shores of England. I expected more culture shock, to find those quaint English people odd after so long doing things the Chinese way, but in fact I’ve been taken aback by, well, how normal it all is.

It’s like I never left; I actually have to concentrate to remember the last twelve months happened at all. My brain’s decided that the past year was so different, so out of sync with what it knows about life that it’s just switched it off, stored it away in a cupboard at the back and hung a ‘does not compute’ sign on the door.

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Interview – Chengdoo Life

Well, my time in China is nearly at an end – one book closes, another opens. I’ve been thinking about how to write a blog that in some way summarises my time in this confusing, confounding, amazing country but to no avail. As ever, though, fortune favours the fortunate, and the local ex-pat / loawai magazine approached me for an interview last week. The questions they asked provided a nice stricture to at least attempt to put my thoughts to paper. It;s published next month, but for you my lucky, lucky readers, here is an exclusive preview:

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I recently had an argument on Linked In with a man who was propagating carrying a knife at all times to protect yourself, even referring to being attacked with a knife as a ‘duel’. This is why that is foolish. If you are in the UK in September, check out this seminar


When he wrote‘On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society’ , Lt Col Dave Grossman provided us with a fascinating exploration of how ordinary people face killing other ordinary people. In a world where the media provides us with billions of deaths by every conceivable means, deaths that scare us, excite us and sometimes entice us, it becomes increasingly hard to separate fact from fiction. The advance nature of internet shoot ’em up gaming allows us to virtually kill whenever we feel like it. War is becoming like a computer game where an operative using a joystick can fly a drone thousands of miles away and kill with impunity unleashing their Hellfire missiles on the hated enemy. The more remote the enemy the easier it is for us to kill them.

Grossman discusses distance at some length if you pardon the pun. he uses…

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