Friday, 28 September 2012


As I've found out recently, learning through workshops and similar environments is very popular these days. In the context of my training to be a fencing coach, everything seems to be workshop based, and I'm sure the same is true in a lot of writing environments.

My worry is that it may not be the most effective way to teach people something. What do workshops do? They give people an opportunity to put across their ideas and try things while getting feedback. Now, there are undoubtedly many circumstances in which that is the most appropriate thing (sharing pre-written work, for example) but there are also occasions when it isn't ideal.

Because it isn't really a teaching tool. It's a sharing tool. It's a great way for people to pool their knowledge, but when dealing with a new thing, it becomes a way for them to pool their ignorance. It becomes a way for the loudest members of the group to talk while everyone else sits there bored. It becomes a way for there to be awkward silences before the workshop leader supplies an answer, in a way that could have saved us time and effort if they'd made the effort to teach us it in the first place.

Take individual lessons in my current coaching training. The last time I was there, we were asked to put some together on particular topics. We weren't told how to go about doing that, or the most appropriate way to fit together a fencing lesson. As a result, I, and several other people, spent half an hour messing about trying to work something out from first principles, when we could have been doing it properly.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Love and Other Near Death Experiences

This is a review of Love and Other Near Death Experiences, by Mil Millington, which I finished reading not that long ago. It's the comedic tale of a local radio jazz DJ who survives the total destruction of a pub by being late for an interview there, and his quest to find some kind of meaning in life in the wake of it, not to mention the ability to make the smallest of choices without spending hours working out which one is most likely to allow for his survival.

It's a clever concept, and one that potentially allows for a lot of thought about the nature and meaning of life. Indeed, we have several characters who have been through similar things, and who come in along a spectrum ranging from complete nihilism to cheery belief that their continued existence is ordained by God.

That's where the problems start a little. There's a sense here of the issues not being fully explored, which for something so high concept seems a little odd. Instead, there's a meandering kind of quest that doesn't really go anywhere. It's probably a brilliant metaphor for the meaning of life, but it's also a meandering quest that doesn't really go anywhere. The same is true of other parts that don't make a lot of sense, like the sudden addition of a would be serial killer, the speed of the 'romance' angle, and the way the ending ties things up. Oh, and the fairly blunt declaration of what the main character has learned.

That's would be fine if we could just sit back and revel in the elegance and brilliance of the prose. I mean, China Mieville doesn't always make sense. Here, it's kind of a mixed bag. There are some great moments and turns of language. There's also some real humour in places, mostly character based. The trouble for me is that in the quest for laughs Millington reduces everything to a lot of swearing and a lot of poor taste jokes about sex, mixed in with a few about bodily functions just to be on the safe side. I don't mind any of these things as far as they go, but there is more utterly gratuitous swearing in this book than in any other I have read, to the extent that it gets both dull and predictable.

So it's not really a light, fun read in that sense. And yet it's not really as deep as it could be either. It feels like something that's a decent enough read, but it could have been so much better.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012


It occurs to me that I haven't done any author interviews or reviews in a while. Now, while I'm probably going to review some of the things I'm currently reading, if anyone particularly feels like being interviewed, let me know.

Friday, 14 September 2012


Quite a few things going on at once at the moment, so I've decided to resort to bullet points for this one (also, I miss doing posts with bullet points):

  • I'm training as a fencing (sabre) coach as of Sunday. I'm a tiny bit worried that one of the booklets British Fencing sent over contains instructions on teaching the fleche to sabreurs. Especially since the book in question (Learning Fencing in Groups, Laszlo Szepesi) purports to be a 2009 publication. Perhaps someone will know better than me. Is this a reprint? A cut and paste job badly edited for banned moves?
  • I'm currently reading The Theory That Would Not Die, Sharon Bertsch Mcgrayne (Yale, 2011), all about the development of Bayesian statistics and methods. So far, it's an intriguing history, but it's a little light on the detail of applications and on the explanations of scientific approaches. Whenever it says 'such and such did x using bayes rule' I find myself asking 'yes, but how?'
  • I'm writing quite a lot of different things at once for other people, so separating my time has become important at the moment.
  • I've sent a novel out to the publishers, and I'm waiting to hear back. I'm quite hopeful about it, though inevitably for me, it's a slight shift in tone from Court of Dreams.
  • I briefly tried writing down the bits of medieval history I'm actually interested in at the moment, and I came to the slightly odd conclusion that I'm actually more interested in medieval combatives than in my main field of ecclesiastical institutional history. For some reason.

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

The Next Day

It's time for the monthly Insecure Writers' Support Group post, and I thought I'd chat about the Next Day. Because I write for a living, that's what writing is for me. It's what I'm going to be doing tomorrow, and the next day, and the next... That sounds like a complaint, so I'll preface this by saying that I enjoy writing a great deal, and I'd rather be doing it for a living than working in an office, or practically anything else.

Having said that, the moment you have to do something, that's when it gets tricky. The difference between writing professionally and as a sideline isn't the quality. The quality comes down to the writer. The difference is that the professional (certainly in ghostwriting) has to come back and do the same thing again tomorrow to the same standard, whether they're inspired or not.

So it's nice to be able to get some of my own stuff done for once, including some work on a novel idea I've been playing with. Now I just need to work out what I'm going to do with it.

Monday, 3 September 2012

Martial Arts Ranking Systems

After many years of not quite getting around to it, I've signed up to take my coaching qualifications in fencing (specifically in sabre). The way they're structured made me think for a moment about the differences between the way the oriental martial arts and those related to them handle concepts of ranking and ability, and the way western ones do. I'm going to suggest that perhaps there is a case to be made for avoiding the approach favoured by many martial arts.

The main difference comes down to what appears to be a conflation of coaching ability and personal technical ability in the eastern martial arts. The widespread adoption of the Japanese system of belt ranks has contributed to that, and makes sure that it survives as an attitude even in a world featuring blended together martial arts systems, thanks to the influence of Brazilian Jiu Jitsu.

What I mean by the conflation of coaching and personal ability is that in some martial arts at least, it is assumed that you are in a position to coach once you get your black belt (or a particular lower rank generally accepted in the art). Yet you don't get a black belt for being able to coach people. You get it for being good at kicking people in the head, or strangling them, or doing the forms of your syllabus dominated system perfectly. You get it for being a good martial artist, however your art chooses to define that. In many arts these days, you get it after a great many incremental steps towards it.

Contrast that with arts/sports such as fencing (or boxing, wrestling, some forms of historical martial arts, etc). In theory, there is a system of numbered grades for personal ability in fencing. The majority of fencers I have met regard it as a useful tool for initial teaching, but essentially something for beginners or children. If you want to know how good I am as a fencer, I will not quote the bronze award I picked up as a child, or the level two I acquired for being able to perform components of the AFA sabre syllabus. It's about my national ranking in relation to other fencers, or a general self assessment, which doesn't matter much, because it has nothing to do with whether I can potentially coach.

Instead, these arts focus on specifically coaching awards. These days, they have been brought into line with Sport England's overall approach to coaching in regard to the number of levels of coach they have and some of the requirements, but the focus on training for coaching as something separate has been there for many years.

It is one that I believe to be a good thing. The ability to do something and the ability to teach it are two separate things. A good friend of mine who will readily admit to being completely uncoordinated as a fencer is nevertheless a good foil coach. If fencing used a Japanese style system, he would never be a coach. On the other side of the divide, other people I know, who have tremendous levels of personal ability in martial arts, nevertheless struggle to explain them or replicate them in other people.

In this, I feel that the spread of the Japanese approach in particular has done a certain amount of damage. Prior to its spread to other areas of the martial arts, I know that Chinese systems favoured a system of almost letters of recommendation, saying 'you're an advanced student' and 'you're ready to teach' as seperate things. It might have seemed a little ad hoc, but it seems to avoid a major danger with the belt system. Even leaving aside the issues it raises regarding fixed syllabi and the pressure for regular grading among students, the emphasis it brings with it on a level of personal ability as an indicator of coaching effectiveness is simply not a valid one.