Saturday, 23 September 2017

Some people have asked to read the story which has just won me first prize in the Scottish Association of Writers short story competition. As well as a cheque, I get a trophy!
     But what pleases me most is that I first wrote it over 40 years ago. Since then it has been re-written, expanded, edited and re-edited, entered for two competitions and finally revised on the feedback from the competition organiser.   Just shows what persistence can achieve.

You Do Not Fight Today

And what about afterwards?’ The Major's question was almost conversational.
      ‘How do you mean, sir?' I said.
      ‘I mean,’ said the Major, leaning forward, his tone sharper, ‘what happened after you went wandering off by yourself and finished up at this cosy little party in a terrorist village?’
      I answered slowly and deliberately, looking at him across the empty desk.
      ‘It was not a party, sir, and I had no reason to think the old man I met was a terrorist.’
      'No reason, Corporal? Every bloody village in that area is a hotbed of terrorists. The hills are full of them. There's probably an arms stash in every village.'
      'I didn't realise that, sir. I file all the reports and none of them have mentioned arms caches being found in that area.'
      ‘Don't be bloody impertinent, Corporal. Stand up! Stand to attention!’
      I stood up, brought my left boot smartly against my right, heels together, and stared straight ahead. I knew what was coming – it was a standard interrogation technique.
      ‘Start again! Tell me again, from the beginning.’
      For the second time I told the same story. I said our platoon had decided on a day out, a beach party in a great little cove we’d seen while out on patrol. There had been no terrorist activity for months, regulations were relaxed and we didn’t need to carry weapons.
      I said I’d got bored with snorkelling and drinking and sunbathing so I decided to go walking in the hills above the coast road. I said I realized now that it had been unwise, even in the current situation.
      I had no map on this spur-of-the-moment trek and I soon got lost as even the goat tracks dwindled and disappeared. I was relieved eventually to come across a small cultivated field. At the far side a donkey stood motionless among olive trees and an old man sat on a low stone wall. As I came into the shade he looked up and raised his hand in greeting. He showed no surprise at my khaki shorts and Army boots. No sense of hostility or alarm, either.
      ‘Kalispera,’ I said (‘Good afternoon’). It seemed more appropriate here than the more familiar ‘Yassou’ we heard in town.
      Though he was smoking a pipe, I thought it polite to offer him a cigarette. Equally polite, he put aside his pipe and took it. I watched as he flicked the wheel of an old-fashioned lighter. His hands were brown and bone-hard as the land they worked, the hands of generations past. They were like my grandfather’s hands, like my father’s hands, like mine would have been if I'd stayed on the farm.
      He had no English and I had only a few words of Greek, but we managed to exchange names and simple pleasantries. He scratched his name on a stone for me - Petros. I could read most of the Cyrillic alphabet. Only later did I think it might have been the only word he could write.
      He was seventy two years old and this was his family field. He had lived in the nearby village all his life. He had three children and eight grandchildren. Somehow I got him to understand that my family also worked on the land. When I mimed heat and sweating, he indicated he had finished work for the day and would take me home and we could have a drink together.
      That was what I told the Major.

The one street was almost deserted in the early afternoon heat. Two little boys stood open-mouthed then ran into their house. I followed Petros out of the bright sunshine and stepped down into the cool darkness of a doorway – and stopped. I stood absolutely still, my heart thumping.
      It was that unmistakeable sound, the solid clunk, the big breech-block of a Sten pulled back ready to fire.
      ‘Stavro!’ The old man’s voice was like a whiplash.
      I could see the young man now, and the sub machine gun aimed at me.
      He was protesting, shouting, gesturing toward me. The old man stood firm, spoke quietly. He turned his back on the young man and pulled out a chair. I sat down. Stavros stood for a full minute, but finally sat on the chair opposite me. His eyes never left my face; the Sten gun was still in his hands
      Petros called out and soon an old woman came through from the other room with a tray of food and coffee. The cups rattled as the tray shook in her hands. She said nothing.
There were three cups. Stavros was ready to refuse but a look from the old man stopped him. He put the gun on the table before he sat down. The muzzle was pointing at me. The old man leaned across and turned it towards a blank wall.
      We ate and drank almost in silence. My vocabulary was running out fast. ‘Efharisto’, I said more than once (‘Thank you’). Then Petros spoke to the young man who turned to me and spoke in English.
      ‘You are my enemy. You are in my country. We want you out, gone, finish. But my Uncle Petros say I cannot kill you because you are in his house and we eat and drink together. I say you will bring soldiers here to find me. He say you will not. What do you say? Will you bring soldiers here?’
      I turned to the old man and used my last word of Greek – ‘Oxi’ (‘No’) and on an impulse held out my hand. He grasped it and nodded. It was enough. We had made a bargain.
      Petros spoke to the young man again and this brought another torrent of protest. But the old man’s quiet certainty wore him down. At last he spoke, resigned to the task.
      ‘My uncle is tired. He is finish work today. He say I must take you to the road.’
His voice was strained. He cleared his throat. For a second I thought he was going to spit in my face.
      ‘For my uncle, I will take you to the road,’ he said, ‘but I see you again, I kill you!’
      That wasn’t good enough for Uncle Petros. He sensed what was being said. When Stavros spoke again, he was like a child, having to repeat word for word what the old man had said.
      ‘My uncle say this. You are a young man. Stavros is a young man. I am old. I am finish with fighting. I say you do not fight today. Another day, is for God to say.’
      Petros made the sign of the cross and waited till Stavros did the same.

The old man watched us set off, back towards the field where I first met him. As soon as we were away from the village, Stavros motioned for me to walk ahead. He still had the loaded Sten under his arm, his finger on the trigger guard.
      My senses sharpened the further we went from the village. I trusted Petros; could I trust this hothead? He was no more than ten yards behind me. My ears were alive to the sound of his footsteps, and listening for that chilling metallic clunk I’d heard in the darkness of his uncle’s house. My eyes ranged ahead, seeking out every fold in the ground, every boulder, any possible cover. I noted every stick, every stone, any weapon.
      I missed a step and stumbled. Stavros shouted, 'I watching you. Stay on this path.' Sweat was running down my spine. My shoulders ached with the tension, aware of a gun was ten yards behind me, ready to pump bullets into my back
      Apart from that one shout, he said nothing.
      My stomach muscles cramped briefly when he finally spoke again.
      I stood and waited, looking straight ahead. He came closer. He moved sideways off the path, standing where I could see him, about six feet away. The Sten's muzzle was pointing at my chest.
      ‘You take this path, you find Varosha road.’
      His face was blank. I don’t know what I expected to find in his eyes. We had no point of contact except one – our respect for the old man.

So I told the Major, for the third time, about getting lost, about meeting the old man, going to his house, accepting his hospitality. I made no mention of Stavros, the gun, the arguments in the house, or my pact with Petros. I knew it was my duty to report all that, but I didn’t. I had given my word.
      I was on the brink of promotion to sergeant. Depending on the Major’s report at the year end, that promotion might have to wait.
      If I identified the village, if I named Stavros, he would be hunted. It was very unlikely he could be found - so many similar names, so many bewildering family connections. What was certain was that 72-year-old Petros, as the only identifiable family member, would be taken in and questioned. Other members of his family would in turn be found, questioned, held – for how long? What would it be like for them? I'd rounded up suspects in the past but never been involved in the interrogation. You heard
things sometimes, things done by soldiers who had lost mates, friends who were like brothers, killed or maimed by roadside bombs or ambushes. The treatment of suspects was not always strictly by the book.

Our company surrounded the village two days later. The Major had decided to carry out a “shut down and search” operation; they were often done on the flimsiest of evidence or none at all. The young rookies got the idea they were doing something useful, instead of sitting around in a dusty camp, polishing their boots. The old sweats knew it was almost certainly pointless.
      It was like a dozen similar operations. You got whispers, rumours, possible sightings of wanted men. When you moved in, no one had seen them, nobody knew them. If they were ever there, they had melted away. They would have known more tracks out of that village than the ways we knew to come in.
      The search took an hour. There were not many places to search. Nothing was found. All the village males were rounded up and held in the little square by the church. I saw Petros among them. The Major ordered the older men separated from the rest.
      ‘Corporal! Stand here beside me. Point out the man called Petros.’
      'I don’t think I can, sir. Maybe he’s not here.'
      'You bloody idiot!' He was losing it. 'Are you sure we’re even in the right place?'
      He didn’t notice my stifled sigh of relief. This was my way out.
      All these villages look pretty much the same, sir. Remember I was totally lost at the time. I think the church I saw might have been a little smaller.'
      The Major had one last try. He got the police interpreter to call out 'Petros, step forward!'
       Three old men and four of the younger ones stepped out of their groups, followed by a little boy, who saluted, left-handed. It wasn’t quite the “I am Spartacus!” scene, but I caught a sly twitch on the lips of one or two squaddies.
      'Get those young ones back in line!' shouted the Major. 'Have a good look at these three, Corporal. Is he here?'
      I moved in closer, then turned to the Major. 'There’s no one here I can identify, sir.'
      'Another bloody wild goose chase! Sergeant Major, get the men together and let's get out of here.'

Every Petros had smiled at me as I walked up to each one in turn. “My” Petros had a smile no different from the others. Only I could see, close up, the calm acceptance in his eyes. There was no fear. He trusted me. I had kept my bargain.

(2,030 words)

Monday, 24 April 2017

This blog is now defunct, not going anywhere, has breathed its last, dropped off the twig and gone to join the choir invisible. 

After its leap up to around 300 in the daily pageview charts in mid-November and through till March, it has slumped into single figures, so is clearly not worth continuing. 

I now leave it undisturbed to concentrate on finishing my novel, initially inspired by the Bonfiglioli himself and now into its 29th chapter with the final five or six already planned.

Saturday, 15 April 2017

Let's get back to humorous verse. I could do with a good laugh. Perhaps my readers in USA could do with one too. Where have you all disappeared to, guys?

The Magnificent Attenboroughs

That chap David Attenborough   
Is inordinately thorough                                                                     
When searching out new species.                                                                  
He studies everything                                                                             
From the colour of their skin                                                              
To the individual texture of their faeces.                                              
Now Dickie, on the other hand, he                                                      
Made the film entitled “Gandhi”,                                                        
That architect of India’s freedom.                                                      
Although a man of fame and note, he’s                                               
Remembered most for skinny legs                                                      
And freshly-laundered dhotis.                                                            

That’s Gandhi, by the way, not Dickie;                           
Wearing loincloths would be tricky                                 
In “Rillington” or Kringle’s fable,                          
Okay in “Great Escape”, perhaps,                                   
But not for pukka English chaps         
Who’d find it most un-pal-a-table.

In science fact and filmic fiction,
These brothers shone with rare conviction.   
On movies and on TV screen,
So hard, you say, to choose between.
You’d vote for Dick or Dave, alright. 
But which one is your favou-rite?

Friday, 7 April 2017

Here's my third place winner (if that's not a contradiction in terms) for Flash Fiction at the Scottish Association of Writers annual conference. 

I was about to give up on this blog when the pageviews slumped from about 300 a day to single figures and tens. But there was a welcome spike of 64 at 10 am on Wednesday (thank you, Japan), so I am encouraged to to carry on.

Now if I can just find a tasteful illustration of a skull on Pinterest - or a bonfire with dark overtones of impending doom . . .

In Sure and Certain Hope

He came in from the back garden sweating, though the night was cold.  Walking on the newspapers, he peeled off his overalls and gloves and all his clothes and placed them neatly in the middle of the 
papers, muddy shoes on top.  She’d had a thing about keeping the kitchen clean.
     The dog cowered down in its basket, trembling.
     After a thorough shower, he came back and knelt to bundle up the papers and the clothes.  There 
would be a load of rubbish to burn tomorrow.  The huge pile of fallen leaves and old cuttings at the bottom of the garden was covered with a tarpaulin to keep it dry.  She’d had plenty to say about that. 
     Funny, she didn’t say much about the text from Denise, the one confirming the flight time and the hotel booking.  Just shoved the phone in front of him and walked away with her face shut tight.
     A shoe had fallen off the pile.  But he’d placed them so carefully.  No mistakes now.  He checked the clothing.
     One blood-stained glove was missing.
     Cold air came in from the garden.  That bloody door!  Never did close properly.  He looked around . Jack wasn’t in his basket. 
     ‘Oh, Christ, he’s got the glove!  He’s going to bury it.  I’ll kill the yapping little bastard.’

     He was still in the garden, naked, digging frantically along the borders, shouting ‘Jack!  Come here, Jack!’ when frightened neighbours dialled 999.

Friday, 31 March 2017

Another piece of flash fiction from my files

Pin preview         

Leave 'er!

Mick was getting impatient.  Why was Robbo standing there like a plank, looking at the bundle on the ground?
     Shes 'alf dead, cant yuh see?  Fuckin leave er, mate.
     Robbo made no move.  The globes on the park gates lit the scar on the side of his face.
    ‘She’s nothin’ to you,’ said Mick.  ‘Just some old tart.’
     Robbo said nothing.
     Look, if were still ere an someone comes. theyll think we fuckin done it.
     Robbo turned his head.  Mick had seen that look many times, in gang fights, in police cells, in the underpass where the two of them, empty handed, had faced the Mullen brothers and their baseball bats.
     You dont fuckin tell me what to do. You can piss off. Im stayin, alright?
     The bundle of clothes moved slightly.  A whimper escaped from her tortured throat.  Mick spat and moved away.
     Im out of ere.
     Go, then! Go on, get aht of it!  Robbo knelt beside the woman and took hold of her bloodied hand. 
     She was middle-aged and chubby, wearing heels and a skirt that was too short, for her and for this weather.  Shed been badly beaten.  In the dim light, her frightened eyes looked for his.
     Im here, okay?  I’ll stay with you.  No ones gonna hurt you any more.  He felt a movement in the hand he was holding.  ‘Can you hear me?  No ones gonna hurt you any more.
     He felt for his phone.  Hed never called 999 before.

Robert was 12 years old again, holding his sisters hand.
     I wont leave you.  He heard his fathers step on the stairs, heard the belt buckle being loosened.  I wont run away this time. I won’t.

Robbo was still sitting there, cradling the womans head, talking to her, when the ambulance lights turned in at the park gates and came bouncing over the grass towards them.  A police car followed.
     He didnt move.  Didnt struggle when they cuffed his hands behind his back and shoved him into the car.
     The sergeant sitting in the front seat turned and glared at him.
     ‘What did you say, scum-bag?’
     Robbo said it again, almost to himself, ‘I didnt run away this time.

Monday, 27 March 2017

Here's a double helping of fantasy, a 1600 word story, from the guy who didn't think he could write fantasy. I suppose mine is too rooted in reality to be out and out fantasy - no swords, sandals or mythical beasts. Still, I hope you enjoy it.

Looking Back

I first noticed the difference in Tuesdays English lesson with 4B. I suppose most teachers can manage the usual trick.
     You know the one. Facing the blackboard, you might say, Dont go to sleep yet, Hutchings. Wait till the lessons finished. or (utterly reckless of your professional career) If you dont stay in your seat, young Potts, Ill glue your disgusting trousers to it. 
     Its a combination of your knowledge of the usual class suspects and an ear attuned to every sound in the room, from creaking floorboards to the rustle of paper aeroplanes. Snoring of course is a dead giveaway.
     That Tuesday afternoon I surprised myself. Terry Turnbull was dumbfounded.
     That wont fly, Turnbull. A Muller corner lid lacks the structural integrity for unpowered flight.
     I turned to face the class and an open-mouthed Turnbull - and immediately noticed a minor mistake Id just written on the blackboard.
     ‘After you’ve shut your mouth, you can come out here and cross the final T in tarts. And I shall be watching you. Dont even think about adding anything to the first one. A couple of seconds went by till they made the connection, then the whole class erupted with laughter.
     The bell sounded soon after. The class filed out, still talking about my supernatural powers.
     Driving home, it was very disconcerting at first not to have to check the mirror to see the traffic behind me. But already I was beginning to fantasize about how I might be able to use this new power.
     At home, I asked, Darling, can you see anything different about the back of my head? . . . Look closer, then. Anything at all?
     Sylvie carefully ran her fingers through my hair.
     Whats that? she shrieked. Oh, my God, what is it?
     She slapped my arm, quite hard. Youve been to that joke shop again, havent you?
     No, love. It just happened this morning. I dont know what it is. What does it look like?
     Its an eye - a bloody eye! It was looking at me.
     Yes, I saw you. You did look surprised.
     Of course I was surprised! She sat down suddenly on the nearest chair and started to sob. Youll have to see the doctor. I’ll phone Jim
     Oh, no, I said. ‘Ive seen those flying saucer abduction movies. No, weve got to keep this quiet.’ I patted her shoulder while I looked around for a pen and paper.  ‘Let’s think about it, Sylvie. This could open up possibilities we’ve never dreamed of.  Now if I were a football referee, or a store detective . . hm . . wonder if MI5 could use me? Is it something I could teach others to develop? Start an Academy of the Super Senses?
      Sylvia’s sobbing got louder.
     ‘Could you be quiet a minute, love? I’m thinking.’
     She rushed off into the kitchen. A bit early, I thought, to start the dinner. Has she got something special to prepare? It’s not an anniversary or something, is it? I’m not very good at remembering them.
     A thought suddenly occurred to me. Why hadn’t I thought of it before? How did I manage to see through my hair. It’s not short at the back. Sylvia hadn’t noticed anything odd till she parted it. No, not odd. Unusual, yes, Special, even. Special.  It’s special.  I’m special.
     The point is, how could I manage to see so clearly - even that uncrossed “t” on the blackboard - if my special vision was obscured by hair?
     The thoughts were coming thick and fast now. Next thing I found myself in the hallway, calling out excitedly to Sylvia, ‘Just had an idea, love. Nothing for you to worry about!’ I resisted the temptation to use the phrase “pretty little head”; I learned that lesson a long time ago.
     I grabbed one of my trilbies off the hatstand. Sylvia was always at me to get rid of them. ‘Nobody your age wears a hat like that now. It makes you look ten years older.’ She worries about things like that.
     First, I closed my front eyes - as I had already come to think of them.  Immediately the world went dark.  So, my special vision was somehow connected to them.  Just as well, otherwise sleep would be a real problem.  Carefully I put the hat on and lowered it over where I judged the special one to be, took a deep breath and opened my eyes.
     I could see clearly everything behind me. Wow! How far coulod this go?
     Pots and pans were clattering in the kitchen, as if Sylvia was searching for something.
     I wondered, could I?  Is it possible? If I can see through a hat, could I see through a wall?
     I turned so that my back was toward the kitchen.  Nothing at first.  I concentrated, willing myself to see, trying to become aware of the focus of the eye, extending that focus further and further, till suddenly . . .
     I could see Sylvia in the kitchen.  I could actually see her, through the wall, clear as anything.
     She was standing at the open door of the ‘odds and ends’ cupboard, where she kept the utensils that she hardly ever used. I could see that she was holding the cast iron frying pan my mother had given her some years ago. It was part of a gift set for her birthday. Can’t think why she’d looked that out. She had always resented it; called it a reflection on her cooking skills. Personally, I thought it was nice of Mother to try to help, always coming round with recipes for the dishes I used to like when I was at home.
     I was getting really excited now about this new-found skill, attribute, whatever you like to call it. What could I do with it? What could I not do with it? I needed to experiment.
     ‘Just going out, love. Don’t bother about cooking anything special; I’m too excited to eat much, anyway.  I’ve got to test this new skill, find out all the things I can do with it.’
     I was on one knee in the hallway, putting a shoe on, when I saw Sylvia coming out of the kitchen behind me.
     ‘No need to come with me, dear. You won’t be able to help. Just stay at home and get on with your wifey things.’
     I saw the heavy pan coming towards the back of my head, felt the wind of its swing, but I couldn’t do a thing about it, kneeling there.
     A blinding pain in my head, flashes of light.
     When I came round, much later, I was in a bed at the Royal  Infirmary, head bandaged and tongue babbling. They told me later that I’d been singing, ‘Remember you’re a Womble’ over and over. People do funny things under anaesthetic.
     Our GP was there, Jim Harrison. We’ve known him since schooldays. Sylvia was there, crying again. It’s an annoying habit. I’ve told her many times. The consultant was there. And the policeman. Forgot about him, sitting there taking notes. I wonder how many pages he had of ‘Remember you’re a Womble’. He was very young.
     Jim was on his feet and quickly came across to me.
     ‘Hallo, David, good to see you awake. How much do you remember?’
     Of course, I remembered everything. I pride myself on my good memory - well, except for birthdays, anniversaries, stuff like that. But I hesitated. I could see the warning in his eyes. I could see my little Sylvie, still shaking.
     ‘No, not much,” I said. ‘Did I . . . have a fall?’
     ‘We’re not sure, David. Sylvia was a bit confused when she rang 999. Then she rang me afterwards.’ Jim gave me a look that said, plain as anything, just as well she did.
     The young policeman got to his feet. ‘Excuse me, doctor.  I have to check.’ Then to me, ‘Are you sure, sir, there’s nothing more you can remember?’
     ‘Yes, there is.’ The room waited.
     ‘For some reason,’ I said, ’I think I was carrying a frying pan at the time.’
     He seemed to be satisfied. Sylvia gave me a trembling smile from across the room.
     Then it was the consultant’s turn. She told me I’d been taken straight to A&E and operated on. There was now a metal plate in the back of my head. She said they’d had a real mess to clear up, including what appeared to be a growth. Had I noticed anything there? 
     ‘No,’ I said, ‘What sort of growth?’
     ‘Nothing to worry about,’ she said, ‘We did a biopsy. It wasn’t malignant.  Anyway, it’s all gone now. You don’t need to worry about it.’
     ‘But could you identify it? I mean what sort of…?’
     ‘Just a growth. Just tissue. Nothing to worry about. Really.’
     All that was some weeks ago. Sylvia and I are picking up the pieces, as they say. She’s out of hospital, too. The other hospital, if you know what I mean. I’m on beta blockers for my blood pressure and on extended leave from school, and she’s on vallium again. The psychologist said we should take a break, get away from it all for a while. Bournemouth is still quite warm in September.
     There was one thing I didn’t tell him. Perhaps because I’ve now lost that special extra sense, as it were, another sense has become more acute. I feel it now, as I put my hands behind my head and settle back on the deck-chair, and the murmur of the waves a few yards away grows louder.

     Perhaps I ought to check up on this strange little growth in my left armpit, like a ring of cartilage. I’ll see Jim when we get home. I won’t mention it to Sylvia, though.  It might be a bit much for her.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

An episode from my ultra-pure youth.

The One that Got Away

She was sitting on one of those uncomfortable iron slatted benches that used to be anchored on concrete bases in our parks. This one faced a deserted playing field beside the County Education Centre.
     I was strolling round the edge of the field. It was a warm summer evening in my last term at the Grammar School. She and I were part of a gathering of some fifty pupils from a number of schools in the South Bucks area. From Friday to Sunday we were expected to converse, sing, read, make jokes and declaim poetry entirely in French. In its way it was the definitive "le weekend". The Academie Francaise may have hated that adulterative phrase and its recent intrusion into the purity of their beloved language but they would surely have approved of the idea: English boys and girls spending a whole weekend being as near French as possible.
     I was usually shy around girls, even at seventeen. I'd been at an all-boys school since I was eleven; my pastimes were either solitary reading or the obligatory "healthy outdoor pursuits"; and my female cousins lived too far away to allow social forgathering or covert exploration.  But Frenchness it seems works on other levels than language.
     Judy was small and slight with short, very blond hair. She would not be called pretty but she had an air of calm self-possession that immediately attracted me.She had two books on the bench beside her and one open on her lap. She looked up as I approached. She didn't smile a welcome but neither did she look away.
     I forget what I said to open the conversation but it was almost certainly a question about what she was reading.  It was not in French. Mock horror from me; a half smile from her. Perhaps, I suggested, this was why she was sitting alone, out of sight of inquisitive teachers. 
     Within seconds we discovered a shared passion for the Romantic poets. We chatted, we smiled, we finished each other's quotes from Shelley, Keats, Byron, Browning and his Elizabeth. We even dipped into Rimbaud and Baudelaire. We delighted in our shared enthusiasm.
     The light was fading. I don't remember if any others strolled by; we might not have noticed if they had.
     Someone had to break up our joyous tete-a-tete. Two seventeen-year-olds of opposite sexes sitting together in the gathering dusk of a summer evening could not be allowed. In 1952 the parameters of moral turpitude were clearly defined.
     'Come on now, you two. Inside with you. The dance will be starting soon.'  
     Our joint protests, even in untidy French, fell on deaf ears.'Oh, Mamselle. Nous n'aimons pas la danse. Est-ce que possible que nous restons ici? Nous lisons les poemes Francaises. It's French poetry we're reading.' (hastily shoving aside the Shelley and bringing out the Baudelaire.)
     Weekends like this always finished with a dance. It was a good excuse to keep all the hormones - raging, simmering or apparently dormant - herded together in one place under the vigilant eyes of chaperoning schoolmasters and mistresses. No matter that Mr H.C. (Harry) Todd, our Francophile English teacher, had whisked Miss Elizabeth Thompson (History) off to France last summer in the sidecar of his motorbike - a cause of much lurid speculation in the upper forms . 
     We went into the hall. Judy disappeared either into the crowd or to her dormitory. I can't remember if I enjoyed the dance or even if I danced at all. I never saw her again.
     Our brief meeting is sweet in my memory.

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.