Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Grief and loss

Today, I visited the grave of my grandfather.  Yes, I know that today is Halloween but, honestly, that means little to me.  I was near the cemetery, so I would have felt guilty if I'd not visited his grave, at least for a short time.

I had to use another entrance and walk a longer distance than usual from the car, and it was raining hard.  On my way, I noticed there's a little garden within the grounds of the cemetery - a very calm, very beautiful place.

When I reached my grandfather's grave, I thought about how we lost him so close to Christmas, and everything I felt at the time came flooding back.  It's twenty years since my grandfather died.  Although he's gone, and all that's visible in the cemetery is a carved stone that bears his name, I felt a great deal of guilt about leaving.  I didn't visit him when he was sick, and it's something about which I've had mixed feelings ever since.  I'd always known him as a man of tremendous strength: maybe not so much physical strength as he aged, but certainly strength of character.  Seeing him weak and helpless, knowing that we would soon lose him, was not something with which I could have coped at the time.  I didn't want the memory of him suffering.

On the drive home from the cemetery, I questioned whether he would be proud of his grandson, of the way I live my life, of the man I have become.  If there is one thing I learned from him, and try to emulate myself, it is his way of making everyone feel important.  He wanted to listen to you and be in your company.  It was genuine.

When we meet with someone who's recently suffered the loss of someone they love, we find ourselves at a loss for words.  We're aware that this is something which can never be put right.  We have no answers and we can't bring back the person who's been lost.  Adding to our sense of powerlessness is the fact that grief is an experience where our differences are particularly apparent - we all grieve in our own way.  Really, nothing needs to be said, because the best thing we can do is listen.  They might want to share their memories of the departed, or they may just want to sit silently, but not alone.  Often, the mere presence of another human being is enough to bring us comfort when we are facing our darkest moments, and words are not necessary.

If you're reading this, having recently lost someone you love, there's no set way of coping with that loss.  There's also no set time for grieving.  If anyone ever tells you that you should be over the death of a loved one, when a certain amount of time has passed, they're setting a time on something that has no set time.  If people don't know what to say to you, maybe you could let them know that they don't have to say anything.  If you need to do so, however, talk about how you feel.  I can bring you no comfort, and I can't tell you that it will get better with time.  You must deal with the loss in your own way, and not how others think you should deal with your loss.

Monday, 22 October 2012

Third form doesn't go out the door

I've often heard, and seen online, that Ip Man had a habit of saying the third empty hand form of Wing Chun "doesn't go out the door".  There seem to be many interpretations of this, and a lot of people have wondered what it was that he meant, exactly.

The class involved me coming face to face with my weakness, which is never easy to do.  I had spent too much time in a right stance, with my balance over my left leg; the resulting pain was a rather unwelcome reminder of my illness, and it was hard to remain standing.  Thankfully, there was an uneven number of students in the class, so I got to take a break as the other members in the trio of which I formed a part took turns alternating between holding the pads and hitting them.

The illness affects one side of the body, but it affects both the arm and leg on that side.  My left punch, if not practised diligently, feels pathetic, and so it proved during the lesson.  My leg was about to give way under me, and my left punch was weak and inaccurate (I almost clipped my training partner's face a few times, instead of hitting the pad).  So, at least part of tonight's lesson was that I need to work on strengthening my left side further: I have made steady progress since the disorder was diagnosed by MRI scan, but I must continue to work on the affected side and not allow the deterioration to escalate.

In the latter part of the class, some of the secrets of third form were revealed, particularly the purpose of the double lap sau within the form.  When I asked about how the technique was applicable to knife defence, it prompted the instructor to show variations of follow ups to the initial double lap sau.  It was at this point that he repeated Ip Man's famous quote.

As we are soon to be officially recognised as an organisation within the Ving Tsun Athletic Association, Hong Kong, under the leadership of Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man), I would trust my instructor's interpretation over any I have seen online: it is likely to have been passed from Ip Man to Ip Ching, who was certainly within the top tier of Ip Man's students.

Third form doesn't go out the door, because it should not be used outside of the classroom.  It is the most misunderstood form, to the point that it is where you can spot the authenticity of a particular branch of Wing Chun through their understanding of third form - this is because Ip Man took teaching it as a serious responsibility.  The techniques within third form, especially when combined with the power development obtained through practice at that level, can kill.  The techniques in first and second form can also kill, but more likely in the "keep hitting until they don't get up again" kind of way.  What we are talking about in third form are strikes that can kill in a second.

Ip Man was aware that many of his students were hot headed kids, and that a lot of them liked to go out onto the streets of Hong Kong to test their Wing Chun against other styles of Kung Fu, like Choy Li Fut, for example.  There is a story that some of his most promising students threatened to leave his class if he did not teach third form and, Ip Man having the character he did, told them that they knew where the door was, or words to that effect.

Unfortunately, Master Ip never appointed a successor.  There is some debate over whether he actually accepted the title of Grandmaster himself, so maybe he thought the title of Grandmaster was not his to pass on.  Unfortunately, we now have many individuals claiming they are the rightful Grandmaster of Ip family Wing Chun, so they will necessarily claim that they have learned the full system from Master Ip.  I'm not going to question the validity of specific lineages, but we should question the level of maturity which Ip Man judged those students to have.

Another rumour going around is that Ip Man taught Bruce Lee (by far the most famous of his students) the third form in the last months of his life.  When Bruce left Hong Kong for America, Master Ip regarded him as a trouble causer, an impudent and quick tempered young man who was too eager to prove himself through fighting.  Would he have given Bruce, who he had not seen for some time, a greater ability to use lethal force against an opponent?  I will leave the reader to ponder that one.

It's not satisfying, maybe, but the explanation is simply that third form represents a step up in the possible consequences of using the attacks.  Ip Man had to tell those few students who had knowledge of the form that it was not to be used outside of the class, however much it had been trained within the class.  In reality, faced with an armed opponent, a student of Wing Chun must use whatever allows him or her to survive the encounter, and the use of techniques introduced in the third empty hand form may well be justified.  Ip Man's point may have been that these techniques should be reserved for situations where a student's life is endangered, and not used in challenge matches or scuffles.

You may learn the techniques, but hopefully you will never need to use them.  Third form doesn't go out the door.

Saturday, 20 October 2012

I worry for this country

In the few short steps between my car and where I live, I happened to see a man urinating against a wall - in view of CCTV cameras, and anyone driving past him.  He happened to stop urinating before I passed him and walked - sorry, swayed and staggered - in front of me.  A youth decided to shout obscenities at him from the passenger window of the car he was travelling in.

So, in a few short steps, I was reminded of things about modern Britain that I thoroughly despise.  At the moment, the only night on which I will consume alcohol is New Year's Eve; recent experiences have made me question whether I should also make that an alcohol-free evening.  There is no way to argue against it any more: Britain has a problem with alcohol.

Every time I go to the supermarket, I will see at least one person who buys nothing but alcoholic drinks, in large quantities.  Seriously, I am not trying to spoil anyone's fun, but we have to examine our relationship with alcohol.

As I write, a car is idling outside, with an exhaust which is unlikely to have been supplied as standard.  Certainly, I would expect it to fall foul of noise limits (though it wouldn't surprise me if they have it switched for a standard exhaust at testing time).  In the car are people who visit the young man next door, but they wouldn't want to park outside his place with such a noisy exhaust, even though the space is free, would they?  Actually, they have to sit there with the engine idling, because outside these flats is a bus stop.

What we have is a country where alcohol is a problem, and a lack of consideration for others (sometimes a worryingly gleeful deliberate irritation of others) is also a problem.

Sometimes I think to myself that a violent attack is something which is very rare, so why do I spend my time learning a combat art like Wing Chun?  On nights like tonight, I remember my reasons.  This country troubles me now.

October 20th, 2012 - a demonstration which will achieve nothing

I write this, as someone who barely ever watches the TV news or reads the newspapers, having just learned of the anti-austerity protest in the capital.  Do I think it will achieve anything positive?  No.

Let's be clear on one thing: the government of the UK is a right-wing, Conservative government, slightly tempered by the centrist principles of the Liberal Democrats, and they did not vote themselves into power.  Protesting against the government and their policies is frankly laughable in this context, because I seriously doubt whether a large number of those protesting actually turned out to vote at election time, and probably never will.  In fact, voter apathy is the problem here, and no amount of protest will change that.

For some years now, UK governments have been highly aware of falling attendance at polling stations, and therefore able to act in the knowledge that it is not the will of the people that gave them their power; no, it was the will of the few who did vote - largely those whose interests are served by allegiance to a particular political ideology.  The majority of those eligible to vote stay away, complaining that "my vote does not make a difference".  Well, it does.  If you, the ordinary people, do not vote, the interests of the few will be put ahead of the interests of the many.

Yes, the government implements policies that affect us all, but they implement policies which give them a chance of winning the next election, being aware only of the needs of the few who will vote.  The best thing we can all do is to actually turn out and vote, sending the clear message that they must represent a whole country, not just the privileged few.  Maybe then, the government we elect will start acting in our interests.

The protest?  It will be far too easy for the government to dismiss it as a minority of trouble causers.  The likelihood is that it could, as many similar protests have done in recent years, descend into chaos at the hands of a few with no other motive than a propensity for violence, vandalism and disorder.  Ultimately, it will achieve little or nothing and will probably work against the cause it claims to support.  For the record, I hope I am wrong.

Sunday, 7 October 2012

My week (and a political rant)

To be honest, I should really be studying.  The Cisco IT Essentials course that I am taking has an exam for every chapter, so I will be taking another exam on Wednesday.  It would certainly be nice to repeat the 97.6 percent score I achieved on the last one (I dropped just one question: damn you, Firewire!)

After the Cisco IT Essentials is complete, I will be studying Microsoft Networking Fundamentals, which will enable me to call myself a Microsoft Technology Associate.  Obviously, as an advocate for open source and free software, Linux in particular, taking a Microsoft qualification doesn't sit well with me.  However, I must be realistic about the current state of the computer industry and accept that we live in a Microsoft world.  Somewhere within all of this, I will be taking the vendor-neutral CompTIA A+ exams, which are an essential, internationally-recognised, entry-level IT qualification.

I'm also learning to speak Welsh right now.  The likelihood is that I will have to relocate to England at some point, though I have not given up hope on remaining in North Wales.  If I take an admin or receptionist job to fund my studies, the ability to communicate in Welsh is a major advantage, if not a basic requirement.  Certainly, I have noticed that the more well paid positions demand the ability to communicate in Welsh.  Money has never been the motivating factor in the work that I do, but the recent changes to UK immigration policy have made it necessary for me to seek jobs with high salaries.  In order to bring my fiancĂ©e to the UK from the Philippines, I must earn at least £18,600 before tax: this is largely because we have a Conservative government, but I will come back to that.

So, if we add in the fact that I will continue to study Wing Chun (a southern Chinese style of kung fu, for those who don't know), because I value my ability to defend myself from attack, factor in my voluntary work at Samaritans and with Victim Support, my week is very quickly becoming full.  It would be nice to have time to visit friends, but it is not easy.  On the plus side, where my social life is suffering, I am building a growing body of evidence regarding my work-based skills: the trick is in conveying my many assets to a potential employer in a way that makes him or her want to employ me.

What has got me writing about politics is a piece by BBC News (  I try not to give my own political opinions here, but I feel myself becoming more politically active internally.  I think it's ever since I studied social sciences, which gave me a deeper understanding of politics than I would have otherwise.  Through my voluntary work, I have also come face to face with many of society's ills, maybe not personally, though certainly I have an awareness of the problems facing many people.

If you don't want to read a political rant, you might want to skip the rest of this article.  If you are going to read further, I must lay my cards on the table and tell you that, politically, I am a centrist.  Actually, I may stray a little to the left of centre with my opposition to the death penalty and other core beliefs, but I am, broadly speaking, in the political centre.

I will give a brief explanation of the difference between left-wing, right-wing and centrist policy, while trying to remain neutral.  Certainly, I believe that, if the majority of the UK's population understood these differences, things would be different.

Left-wing politics and political parties aim for a much more egalitarian, or equal, society; those on the right will often accuse the left of being communists, and they are correct in that communism is an extreme version of a left-wing political system, but it is unfair to label the more moderate left-wing parties in such a way.  Policies of the left will usually include measures to improve the living standards of those on lower incomes, and this can involve making life harder for the more affluent members of society.  In the UK, the major left-wing party is Labour, who have a lot of support from trade unions.  Traditionally, Labour could count on support from parts of the UK where household income was relatively poor.

Right-wing politics and political parties are largely focused on maintaining a hierarchical society, with the super rich at the top, the very poor at the bottom, and many layers in between; they will usually explain this as protecting the traditional values of their country, and will often take a tough stance against immigration.  Under a right-wing government, assistance for the poorer members of the population may be cut, while those at the top of the income scale could be subject to low rates of tax, supposedly to encourage entrepreneurs and industry.  In the UK, the major right-wing party is the Conservative party, who have a lot of support from big business, and traditionally could count on support from parts of the country where household income is proportionately high.

Centrist policy, as the name would suggest, comes somewhere between left-wing and right-wing.  There is a belief that societal hierarchy is necessary to a degree, that hard work should be rewarded, but also that a large degree of inequality is undesirable.  Under a centrist government, there is likely to be assistance for poorer members of the population, though there will be less of a tendency to penalise those who have higher incomes.  The emphasis will usually be on creating an environment where everyone, regardless of social class, is able to improve their lot in life.  In the UK, the centre is represented by the Liberal Democrats, whose support comes from a mixture of different sources, though they do not have the same level of support as either of the main left-wing or right-wing parties.

The situation we have in the UK, right now, is a coalition government in power.  The nature of a coalition government is compromise, because two political parties in government, with different aims, will naturally want to pull the country in different directions.  The UK is being governed by a right-wing (Conservative) and a centre (Liberal Democrat) government: the parties running the country differ in their core beliefs.  The story I saw this morning is the latest example of one party in government blocking the policies of the other.

It all started with Lords reform.  It has been a long-standing aim of the Liberal Democrats, and the Liberal Party before them, to reform the House of Lords.  If you are unaware of the function of the Lords, they are there to either approve, modify or block (in reality, delay) bills proposed by the government and passed in the House of Commons.  The Liberal Democrats argue that the current system is open to abuse and influence from those with vested interests, so a large proportion of the Lords should be elected by the public, just as members of parliament are elected by the public.  The Conservatives, being a right-wing party (and therefore in favour of social hierarchy, of which the House of Lords is a prime example) voted against the policy.

In turn, the Liberal Democrats blocked a Conservative policy which would have seen changes to the boundaries of electoral constituencies - changes which would have benefited Conservative Party candidates standing for election.  The link I posted within this piece shows the Conservative Party blocking the Liberal Democrat "mansion tax".  We seem to have reached a point where each party is now blocking the policies of the other, where before they would have compromised.  It is a condition of stalemate, where no contentious policy will come into law, and I think it's a good thing.

I have no doubt that a large number of those who voted Conservative in the last election were guided by the media's campaign against illegal immigrants and asylum seekers.  To be fair, the outgoing Prime Minister did seem incompetent and, through an incident which was damaging to our status as a democracy, we had a Prime Minister no one had actually elected, but we can not escape the fact that people voted for a right-wing government.  Now that I think about it, though, is that what people actually voted for?

If you look at the recent history of Great Britain, you will see a swing from left-wing Labour governments to right-wing Conservative governments.  Unfortunately, it means successive administrations which are fundamentally opposed in their policies and seems to show a population which is increasingly polarised to each extreme in its political beliefs.  Actually, the problem is voter apathy: less people are taking the time to vote, because there is a widespread view that politicians are generally untrustworthy (true) and that the system is somehow broken (again, I can't argue).

In the last election, even with an incompetent Prime Minister, neither of the two largest parties secured enough seats in parliament to form an effective government, so both parties made attempts to form a government with the third largest party - the Liberal Democrats.  The media expected that the Liberal Democrats, being further away from right-wing Conservative policy than the now centre-left position of Labour, would form a government with Gordon Brown; to their credit, the Liberal Democrats reasoned that the Conservatives had secured a greater proportion of the public vote, so they bowed to the will of the people.  In hindsight, it is questionable whether this was in the best interests of the country, though it shows an understanding of, and a commitment to, the principles of democracy.  It would have been strange for a party called the Liberal Democrats to act any other way, right?

Many supporters of the party are now saying that they should leave government, because they are losing support through their association with the Conservatives.  While it is true that the nature of coalition government has seen the party having to compromise, and seemingly break promises made during the election campaign, my belief is that they should not abandon this country by stepping down.  From a personal point of view, my heart sank when the immigration criteria were changed, as did the hearts of many with loved ones who are not currently British citizens.  The only comforting thing is that the Liberal Democrats forced a compromise on immigration policy, which the Conservatives were planning to make even tougher.  How many times has something like this happened?  I guess we'll never know, but I am certain of one thing: I am glad that they are there.

If you take nothing else from this, realise that I am not trying to shape your political allegiance.  You must, however, decide whether you are left-wing, right-wing or centrist.  I apologise if any of my descriptions are biased, but I did tell you that I am a centrist, and therefore Liberal Democrat in a UK context.  What I don't want is for the UK to continue swinging from one extreme to the other: that is known as political instability, and is bad for a country.  Maybe the close result of the last election reflects a generally centrist population who believe there are only two ways to vote?  I know which way I will be voting from this moment forward, and I would like to think that, whatever your beliefs, you have the courage to stand for what you believe in and form a lifelong allegiance to your chosen party.  Let's stop voting for electoral promises, which are usually broken, and vote instead for a long-term vision of how we would like things to be.  While we are at it, could we stop this idiotic trend towards Prime Ministers getting younger?