Category Archives: Everything Else

The Force reawakens a New Hope

It was a passing comment by a friend a few weeks ago, shortly before the 13% beer hit home, that finally alerted me to what the rest of the world had known for a year: a new Star Wars film was imminent.

I know, right? 13% beer!

Frankly, it’s been a hell of a year with far more pressing, distracting and distressing concerns but even so, it was a surprise. Now, my 11 year-old self would claim that it was an oversight on a nigh on criminally negligent scale, not only due to the life-changing effect that the first Star Wars film had on me in 1977 – we’ll get to that – but due to the fact that I knew that this latest film was coming even before I saw the first film. Yes, that’s right too. I’ve known that this new film was on the way since 1977.

I don’t have George Lucas in my  address book nor am I on the board of Lucasfilm. Which, in hindsight, may not even have existed when the first film was released¹. No, what we have here, my friends, is a gen-u-ine first generation Star Wars geek. A little dormant since the Special Editions, I grant you, but a geek nevertheless. I was that irritating kid that would tell anyone “but this isn’t the first film – it’s the fourth!” only to be met by those “that’s nice, dear” and “oh, he’s missed his medication” pitying looks.

A little like when, as a kid, in response to a visiting pastor’s request for subjects for prayer in chapel one Sunday, my answer was “Guatemala”. I think that there’d been a massive earthquake there but the rest of the congregation was stuck in World War II and thought I’d said “Guadalcanal“. It wasn’t my first tumbleweed moment in life by a long shot.

Yes, that’s right too. I’ve known that this new film was on the way since 1977.

Back to ’77 … As I recall, mainstream film and cultural wisdom had it that Star Wars wasn’t going to be very good. In fact, our local single screen cinema owner, Mr. D.M. Davies – my population 9,000 hometown’s screen count had recently reduced from three to one, the rather elegantly named Commodore Cinema – had decided against showing the film as his usually reliable intel had informed him that this was a film which would disappear without a trace. Practically, this meant that the family had to make the seventy mile trip to Swansea in South Wales, to the nearest cinema screen that was showing it, a two-and-a-half hour trek in pre-dual carriageway and motorway days. By then, my incendiary enthusiasm about the film had persuaded my parents that the trip was worth it and they were kind enough to indulge my wide-eyed madness and several Christmases’ worth of excitement. We made a day of it, as the saying went back then. Not only did Swansea have the nearest cinema screen but it also had shops bigger than Peacocks. It was a Welsh Seventies thing.

What partially fuelled this insanity was that, despite any of Mr. Davies’s disparaging pre-release rumours, Star Wars took cinemas by storm in the US around May but the UK had to wait until after Christmas that year to see it. This gave British fans seven months to become a frothing anticipatory mass of whirling dervishes, eagerly mopping up everything and anything to do with the film. In pre-internet days, sci-fi fans such as me would scour newspaper and magazines for anything about the film, buy special edition fold-out ‘poster magazines’ and collectors’ edition publications, read the novelisation and the Marvel Comics serialisation² (which was based on an early edit of the film and gave us glimpses of scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor) and buy every toy, watch, paper plate and commemorative mug that 50 pence weekly pocket money would allow. It was this obsessiveness that turned up the information that this first wondrous film was in fact the fourth in a series of nine: three set in the imagined “present” of the story arc, followed by three prequels and three sequels.

That said, nothing, absolutely nothing prepared me for the opening fanfare of that unmistakeable soundtrack, the surround sound of that Imperial Cruiser slowly filling the screen and a couple of hours of watching what had previously been confined to the realms of mere imagination brought to glorious, technicolour life. My love for science fiction had, until then, been limited to books, by and large, eked out with some low-budget UK television series and what sci-fi films made it to our mono-screened West Wales town. One of my first cinema outings, to the pre-Commodore Coliseum Cinema, was to see a Planet of the Apes double bill and that had imprinted itself vividly enough on my impressionable, spacesuit and laser pistol-hungry mind. Blu-ray? DVD? Decades away. VHS was still a few years from being commonplace. Fuel for the imagination such as that we take for granted today was rare.

Fast forward to Empire, but this is why my Star Wars figures' backing cards had bits cut out of them.

Fast forward to Empire, but this is why my original 1977 Star Wars figures’ backing cards had all the names cut out of them.

In that environment, the first Star Wars film was – and you’ll pardon the pun – several Apollo’s worth of rocket fuel lit simultaneously. My wide-eyed madness became wide-eyed incredulous wonder at what I had seen. This was a film that heralded possibilities. And they were life-changing possibilities that led in later life to a brief writing career, four or five sci-fi and fantasy novels and a BBC radio sci-fi series that didn’t quite turn out as expected.

Which is a little like the Star Wars series, this blog post and life itself.  Star Wars IV: A New Hope, to give it its full title, gave way to 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, the darkest of the initial trilogy and my favourite, followed by 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Return was a schmaltzy merchandise-pushing fest that barely prepared us for the atrocities that were The Special Editions and the execrable Phantom Menace.  Decades later, spellbound by another trilogy that brought a childhood favourite to life, Star Wars didn’t stand up to the comparison with Middle Earth and I couldn’t but wonder what my life-changing original films would have been like in the hands of a director like Jackson who, until the Hobbit films in any case, had the better ability to bring an epic to vibrant celluloid life.

It didn’t quite turn out as expected. Which is a little like the Star Wars series, this blog post and life itself.

The new film has rekindled an old feeling, something I haven’t felt for a very long time. It’s not just the fact that the new film promises to return to production values closer to that of the originals – that’s Episodes Four to Six to us cognoscenti – where special effects were produced from real stuff, not a computer program’s cartoonlike CGI. That return to the old ways may yet resurrect that sense of excitement and amazement that over-analysis, too many geeks and slowed down YouTube videos have long conspired to quash in a tedious avalanche of smug self-congratulation on another flaw, error or inconsistency exposed. That said I will admit, out of earshot of that 11-year old, that a changing and more critical taste in films – not to mention the betrayal of the Special Editions – had  long since consigned the Star Wars films to the drawer marked “Films that I used to like but don’t really understand why now.”

No, seeing that life defining title in a form more akin to when it did actually define my life has reminded me of some of the things that have been lost to me since. It’s not just the fact that as a man I have been expected to put away childish things. It’s not just the equally expected cynicism of adulthood and the fact that big life changes and losses have made me question every decision that led to those. It’s a realisation that we lose our sense of wonder at our peril. At a time when I have been in survival mode for a significant length of time, a sense of wonder may help, not least because, as Laurence Gonzales outlines in his excellent book Deep Survival, it is a trait that many, many survivors retain in their darkest hours.

It strikes me that hope and wonder are closely aligned, being both open and expansive frames of mind. When we marvel and wonder, our imaginations are fired, and imagination is the fuel of hope. While I know that I could personally use a little more hope, I am fairly confident that I am not alone, as a cursory glance at the news headlines confirms.

It’s a realisation that we lose our sense of wonder at our peril.

A visit to my hometown a few days ago brought me once more to the doors of the Commodore Cinema and in my mind’s eye I saw the huge queue of people that stretched back hundreds of yards down the road to the long since demolished King’s Hall. Mr. Davies very quickly realised his mistake. I also considered the long and very winding road that had brought me to that point. It’s a truism that life is a fickle thing and no doubt my own life hasn’t turned out quite the way my 11 year-old self had hoped for or expected. I’m not foolish enough to believe that Star Wars Episode Seven: The Force Awakens will change my life in the way the first – sorry fourth episode did.

Watching the newest film may, however, may reawaken an 11-year old’s more hopeful, wide eyed and wondrous way of looking at life. Which, right now, may be no bad thing at all. Take it away, Jeff.

Endnotes

¹ Oh wait, Lucasfilm was formed in 1971.

² Though clearly memory is a fickle thing as it turns out that the UK Marvel comics didn’t come out until early 1978, a few months after the film appeared in this country. Perhaps I managed to get hold of an US issue in my weekly Marvel Comic run to the town’s railway station newsagent, the only place that got in Marvel and not DC comics.

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Bodyweight: some lightweight wisdom from heavy work

A couple of weeks ago, I finally got back to squatting my bodyweight for 4 reps. This was a big deal for me – I mean, have you seen my legs? For your hardened gym rat, aiming for that defining twice bodyweight squat, my modest effort may not seem quite that heroic. I share it publicly as in achieving it I was reminded of two small life lessons that are often shared as inspiring images on social media, but are less easily followed.

A few years ago, I tore my right hamstring in a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu lesson, the result of  my poorly executed north-south hold and my newbie’s inability to go anywhere with it. Combined with the classic beginner’s overuse of strength, my body went one way and my hamstring remained where it was, caught in the wrong place between weight and momentum. Some good physio repaired most of the damage, but the hamstring eventually healed at about two-thirds of its old length. This put pay to my running schedule, as most of the stress went straight to my hip joint and muscles, with a considerable impact on my glutes to boot – not the kind of kick up the arse I really wanted.

More insidiously though, I didn’t realise that I was beginning to accept this new Iimitation. I began to tell myself that I was now unable to do the same things that I once could, or, if I wasn’t repeating that poisonous mantra to myself, it was the unspoken refrain in my training and indeed my daily life. You’re allowed to give up earlier. You don’t have to train as hard as you used to. you can miss today’s routine – you need more rest than you used to. Notice I wasn’t telling myself that I couldn’t do it; I was just giving myself permission not to or, worse still, permission to fail.

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Fast forward a year or so and my Ving Tsun coach, the highly knowedgeable and inspiring Ged Kennerk of Applied Body Mechanics Ving Tsun Manchester, suggested that I begin a strength and conditioning programme (amongst other endeavours) to complement my VT training. All started well and I made some modest strength and endurance gains. However, as the weeks turned to months and the gains in the squat came harder, if at all during some cycles, that old litany of excuses made itself known once more.

When faced with having to publicly move iron, though, something else, something unexpected made itself known: ego. Rather than solve this problem with good training methods, I used the wrong kind of brute force, attempting to push up the load come what may, with precious little regard for good form and body mechanics. I was squatting above my bodyweight, or at least fooling myself that was. My thighs were never parallel to the floor. My upper back, already disgruntled from a period with a seized facet joint, became positively rebellious and my lower back was threatening to join the revolution.

In short, my lifting was less than sustainable and I was heading for an injury.

A few timely conversations with the good Mr.Kennerk and a few (well, quite a few) T-Nation articles brought me back to my senses. I stripped back the squat weights to ego-shrivelling amounts and began to work on my lifting form and cues. I paid more attention to my mobility, dusting off old Fighting Fit magazine articles and Joe DeFranco videos, working them into my daily routine. I took my first tentative steps into the world of yoga.

Strength

lt took about three months, but I’ve made it back to a bodyweight squat, but this time with thighs parallel to the floor, back safe and now little bonuses like my hip extensors firing and getting a better workout.

Not only that, but my other major lifts have benefitted from the same detailed attention to form and cues, with a few equally modest but sustainable gains gracing the training diary. This approach paid a few minor dividends in my Ving Tsun practice, with improved proprioception playing a part in my efforts to improve line, structure and shape.

So, the Clinton cards moment, those social media memes and exortations. Don’t accept your limitations or, more clearly, don’t accept your own limitations – those you put upon yourself. Life will always throw limitations and constraints your way but very few can’t be overcome or worked around. The problem, perhaps, is that we spend to long looking at the obstacle instead of what is beyond it or the path – quite often a well-worn one – around it. You’re unlikely to be the very first person in history to encounter that particular obstacle.

It will take work, hard work, to get around, over or through it but don’t just hurl yourself wildly into the task. Focus and work intelligently to solve the problem. There is much to be said about the power of gut instinct but if you haven’t spent even a brief time considering options then you’re likely to end up in the same place – or somewhere that you’d rather not be or is even harder to work from. Accept also that you may need to take a few steps back in order to get that run-up right, to correct your past mistakes.

In Ving Tsun, we teach ourselves that position comes first, acquire the target then hit it with no further hesitation; don’t just hit out blindly. The strongest punch is no better than the weakest if it hits nothing. If the way forward is blocked we don’t just try to push through by force alone; reset, reposition and restart.

Enough of my back-of-a-fag-packet wisdom. That thing you’ve been telling yourself you can’t do? Go do it.

Order out of Chaos

As you may have seen, Ron Goin’s Practical Urban Martial Arts and Critical Thinking is one of my absolute favourite blogs out there. You can therefore imagine that I was chuffed to little mintballs* to be interviewed by him for his series on introducing randomness and chaos into training. For your reading delight, here it is. Once more, and not because of my own appearance in it, I can’t recommend Ron’s blog enough. As Jamie Clubb once commented, he should be selling out seminars worldwide and it’s a complete mystery of life why he isn’t.

* Note for non-UK readers: “chuffed to little mintballs” = very pleased.