Old Articles

These are some old articles and things I’ve written over the past few years. There’s no real pattern or unifying topics I’m afraid.

On pre-emptive strikes for self defence

There is only one principle of war and that’s this. Hit the other fellow, as quickly as you can, as hard as you can, where it hurts him most, when he ain’t lookin’.
Viscount Slim

It seems a simple thing – to launch the initial attack in an altercation. It is the advice of almost every writer on violent conflict, from Geoff Thompson to Carl von Clausewitz. As soon as you are faced with an attacker you unleash your fearsome right cross, chin jab or gyaku-zuki. Ths will, the theory goes, annihilate your foolish opponant before he has a time to react.

It really does work. From personal experience and from the accounts of pretty much everyone who writes on the subject, this is the absolute best way to deal with a confrontation that has become violent. When the talking fails and an attack upon your person is imminent1The Crown Prosecution Service website is pretty clear on this: There is no rule in law to say that a person must wait to be struck first before they may defend themselves, (see R v Deana, 2 Cr App R 75). then swift, unflinching attack is the best option2Within the bounds of the reasonableness required by law.. The technique itself is unimportant, so long as it is going to put the other guy down. I favour a chin jab, but anything you deliver hard, accurately and well will do the job. Especially if you follow-up with repeated strikes3Please don’t make the mistake of training to just hit once. I did this, and almost came a cropper because of it. A guy I had thrown out of a bar had waitied for me with his friend, to explain how unfair this was. I lined him up, hit him as hard as I could manage and then waitied for the inevitable KO. To be followed by a fulsome apology from his friends, the cheering of my friends and the adoration of pretty ladies. Instead he walked straight through it, pulled my jumper up over my head and hit me in the face. A lot. Whilst I couldn’t see. Unsporting.. The important thing is to get your retaliation in first. To strike suddenly and without warning. With artifice and vehemence as Fairbairn put it.

In almost every field of human endeavour being the one who gets there first is the winner4I did say almost, just in case my girlfriend ever reads this.. In business we call it the First Mover Advantage or Disruptive Innovation, in sport fencing it gives you what is known as right of way. The medieval German Fechtbücher5Fightbooks. Manuals describing armed and unarmed combat from medieval Europe. call this Vor and in Japanese it is called sen no sen. It is a universal concept. It should then be universally applied, right? Those of us in the know should be able to apply this simple yet devastating tactic every time we need to.

If only it were. We have, most of us, an ingrained resisitance to attacking people. We’ve been socialised from childhood not to hit people, to resolve situations with words. In our martial training we are taught to show restraint, to show the proper spirit. To bow or touch gloves before we go.

These rules and the structure of the martial arts class serve to mask one of the hardest parts of violence – crossing the gulf between being a peaceful and reasonable human being to initating violence on another person. That gulf is hard to cross, especially if one is not used to doing it. Psycologically, emotionally, there is a huge difference between being in a talking, managing state such as when dealing with an aggressive group of lads in the pub, and being in a fighting state when you realise those same lads are not going to leave wthout violence.

This then is, in my opinon at least, a vital but underlooked part of our training. How do we get decent, civilised people ready to make this pre-empetive step into initiating violence? A mugger will have time to build himself up. An angry man in a bar will have had a few seconds to nurture his imagined slight. We won’t. We will be caught unawares and unready. With a full bladder 6Believe me, this matters. It’s the reason almost ever dorman I’ve worked with has gone for a leak before throwing someone out., shopping bags in our hands, tired and pre-occupied with work. We won’t have the time to psych ourselves up, or to work through a game plan. We’ll need to go from 0-100 mph faster than a Ferrari.

It’s a tough question, and not one I’d presume to have the answers to. Instead I’d like to offer how I train for this, and how I feel one can prepare for this worst case.

Firstly, I try to avoid task fixation (Condition White, to borrow from Cooper7Jeff Cooper was one of the foremost authorities on fighting with firearms, and developed 4 colour codes to describe mental state in combat. These range from Condition White—switched off and unalert—through Yellow and Orange to Red. The condition of actively bringing force to bear on another. The US Marine Corps added to this with Condition Black—the state of being mentally or physically overloaded and unable to make effective decisions.). I keep my eyes open and my head up. I keep my mind as free of irrelvance as possible.

I listen to my instincts. If I feel uncomfortable then there is a reason for that. I will begin to look around me to see what has my attention. This is a very similar mental state to the mindfullness aimed for in meditation. Essentially I’m looking to pay attention to what has grabbed my attention. I will narrate my surrounds, telling myself in my mind what I see. This technique, used by police pursuit drivers is a great way of forcing your brain not to skip over the essential.

Of course the critical thinkers among you will have realised that this is about reducing the chance of being surprised, and not preparing for when that happens so I’ll save going in to detail about this for another day.

Just as the traditional martial arts focus on martial spirit, I look at mindset as the most important part of this puzzle. I endeavour to have the mindset that I am ready to fight, when needed. I practice going from rest to very active. On the mat, and at home I practice getting ready to go in a split second.

I visualise having to do this. Imagining myself doing it, what I will need to do. What it will feel like when adrenalin floods my body, I’m frightened, tired and my legs are shaking. I have a mantra I borrowed from Dennis Martin8Probably the foremost instructor in Fairbairn/Sykes derived combatives in the world. If you have the opportunity to train with his Liverpool Gutterfighter group or one of his instructor cadre I’d grab it with both hands..

I will win. I may get hit. I may get hurt. I may go down. But I will win. I will turn fear into fury, and pain into power. And I will win.

I practice launching from a calm state to fighting state, with the minimum of warning— artifice and vehemence again. I have a trigger phrase that helps me be ready to go. Intonated as a question, it designed to engage my opponant mentally and to tell my body to be ready to go. With enough practice my adrenal system has become as slavish as one of Pavlov’s dogs. When I say this phrase my body and my subconcous get ready to go.

Cheesy, sure. But effective. Ask any NLP practicioner or Cognitive Behavioural Therapist about the power of such mantras. Ask any pro athlete about the power of visualisation. These are not the training approaches we’re used to, but they work.

I train simple techniques that I know I can bring to bear under pressure. No complex locks, precision strikes or elaborate body movement. As effective as these are I know from pressure testing them that they don’t work for me when I’m under pressure. What works for me are hammer fists, palm strikes, stamps, headbuts and elbows9What works for you will almost certainly be different. All I suggest is that you honestly test it. I know guys whose training allows them to slap on wrist locks without thinking and whilst being punched in the head by a big lad full of cocaine and steroids. I also know I’m not able to do that.. I still train the other stuff, but I work a core of simple and devestating techniques for when it really is time to go.

This then, is what I suggest to your training. Pick a simple, effective technique that you can deploy from conversation range. Practice drilling it from a natural body position. Don’t worry about how hard you’re hitting until you have the artifice down. Any competent martial artist should be able to hit hard from a fighting stance, but for this you need to hit hard from a relaxed, apparently unready position.

Once you’re sure you aren’t telegraphing the strike then ramp up the power and accuracy training. Incorporate scenario training and pressure drills. Use verbal queues and verbal aggression in your training.

Pick a technique, get good at it and make it sneaky. Viscount Slim would approve.

Care About Style, Not Fashion

Hadley Freeman in The Guardian’s fashion section

But this isn’t just about the limitations of the industry, it is also about the limitations of the customers. We can’t blame menswear for being boring because boring, to be honest, is what most men want. Some menswear designers attempt to do more fun-but-not-weird clothes, such as Jonathan Saunders and Marc Jacobs. But the fact is, men don’t buy those clothes in the same way women do. Too many men, in my experience, have a grave fear of breaking out of their navy-T-shirt-with-jeans or button-down-shirt-with-dark-trousers rut, fear that they will look stupid. Laughable. Attention-seeking. Camp. Far better to stick with the uniform that renders one invisible than to risk something that makes you visible and might – might – result in you being mocked. Sometimes I marvel at what it must be like to be a man, so riddled with terror that swerving from the tested and oh-so-tired path will result in instant disaster. It is, really, the sartorial equivalent of obsessive dieting, when a person assumes that even a crumb of bread will lead to spontaneous fatness and therefore subsists purely on carrot sticks.

There is a point here – many men do take the safe, boring option with their clothes, and this is a shame. The beastly vagaries of fashion are not the answer however.

Men should, I think, aim to look good. To wear clothes that fit, that are of good quality and that they enjoy. In the venn diagram of clothing fashion overlaps only slightly with these. So much of fashion is change for it’s own sake, a drive towards an idealised form which leaves most people outside of it’s lethally slim boundaries. It is buying poor quality clothes for the label or the colour, regardless of actual value, quality or if it looks good. I have no qualms about rejecting fashion.

Look at this shot from the recent fashion show at Freemason’s Hall. The guy on thr right is how these fashionistas would like men to dress. 

Not a damn chance. 

Clothing should be fun. You should enjoy wearing your clothes and they don’t need to be formal or tailored. They should not make you look like you’re playing dress-up with something filched from Quasimodo’s wardrobe.

On Monty’s Trousers

The Duchess, my better half, has rather forthright ideas about clothing, especially for men. She loathes sloppiness and bagginess. Most especially that studied slovenliness that unifies middle-aged, middle class bohemians and the boys who hang around outside my local co-op. Her particular bête noire is Monty Don. 

She, and I, enjoy watching him talk about gardens and crafts, but she cannot bear his trousers, nor his hats. She is not all shy about declaring them feiosa. It is with some trepidation that I must express admiration for his dress.

It must be said that his trousers do not fit. Well made, and designed as they are, and the chaps at Old Town know their stuff, his advice to wear them too large is not something I would take seriously. Of course one does not want drainpipes when working in the garden, but neither does one want to look like a fool. I love brace back trousers, and those with a sufficiently high rise are always best. Monty Don’s however, do not look good.

No, what works so well is the comfort and relaxation his clothes show. They utterly match his personality and his job. His clothes are obviously carefully selected, the colours always suit and they appear to bring him joy. What better way of dressing can there be?

(Not) Losing My Trousers

Being a somewhat well-fed chap, I’ve always been aware of the risk of shirt coming away from trouser, giving an unsightly flash of tummy or love handle. The current fashion for very low-rise trousers10This being one of the odder effects of WW2 rationing. Making lower-rise trousers was cheaper and used less fabric becoming the norm for especially ready-to-wear clothes. The current prediliction for very low and very tight clothes has only increased the trend. has made this even worse. Few off the rack trousers are high enough, or shirts long enough to remove this risk, and so most chaps spend time tucking and adjusting, or even worse, giving up entirely and wearing dress shirts untucked. 

There are solutions. The very old-fashioned Italian pettegola shirt, which tucks around between the legs. I’ve not worn one of these but it looks neither comfortable nor, as my shirtmaker remarked, condusive to good hygiene. They would also need to be custom made, which is expensive, and if you’re going that route you may as well get shirts with a long tail and remove the problem. 

Another option is the shirt stay. Four lengths of elastic that fasten to the tail of the shirt and the top of one’s socks to keep the former down and latter up. These have been around for years, but are most commonly worn by members of the US military. Most sets you can buy are not of great quality, but in recent years Johann and John, the team behind Sharp & Dapper, have been selling very nicely-made versions. It was these that Nic from A Perfect Gentleman asked me to try. 

I must admit to being somewhat sceptical at first. The nicely presented package held four lengths of adjustable elastic, finished with the same clips you’ll find on good quality ladies suspender belts. This added to a slight frisson of kink the first time I put them on, which may be a plus or a minus depending on your personality11I quite enjoyed it.. However this soon wore off and the practicality shone through. 

I gave them a tough job to do the first day, with a pair of very low rise Brooks Brothers Madison trousers and a shirt I bought in Madrid that has a particularly short tail. They coped admirably, even with getting in and out of my low-slung car and waving my arms about facilitating a workshop. Usually on such a day I’d be retucking my shirt every hour or so, whereas with the shirt-stays I didn’t need to once. Over the rest of the week they coped with varying shirts, trousers and suits. 

They also did an excellent job of keeping my socks up. I prefer to wear longer, calf-length socks to remove the risk of exposing a line of hairy leg between shoe and trouser. However these are more expensive, harder to find and slightly less comfortable if you have well-developed calves. With a pair of standard length M&S socks, I never once felt that tell-tale breeze around the shins that bodes ill. All very good. 

I did have a couple of concerns. Would they show through my trousers? Would they damage my shirts or socks? 

I don’t wear especially tight trousers, certainly not hipster skinny tight. I spent a good while checking my silhouette and asking my other half to do the same. They didn’t show. So long as you are not spraying on your trousers, or wriggling into skin-tight PVC, then I doubt a VSSL12A Visible Shirt Stay Line, of course. will be a problem. The rubber and wire clip was also kind to my socks. I tried them with a pair of Corgi’s best in cashmere and they were fine. These are clearly very well thought out. 

I did run into a few problems however. The first morning I wore them much too tight and nearly strangled myself when I sat down to fasten my shoes. A slight adjustment of length allowed the elastic to do its job, and I was able to move about in perfect comfort. 

It also has to be said that these do not look good exposed to public view. My girlfriend found them hilarious and a straw poll of my female friends suggests that whilst a lady in suspenders may be delightful, a chap in something similar is comical. I’d suggest a strategic trip to the gents to remove them should you expect to doff your trousers in company. 

It’s fair to say that shirt stays have won me over. I’m wearing a pair as I write this, and I intend to make them a regular part of my dress. For £15 they are a very practical and inexpensive way to improve your dress. Gentlemen, these are something you should definitely consider.