Thursday, 26 February 2015

The Salvation of Josie

This is a chapter from my book THE SUNDER OF THE OCTAGON, the sequel to THE CATASTROPHE OF THE EMERALD QUEEN.

Both are magical fantasy novels aimed primarily at young adults, with anti-bullying themes. 

The sequence below was inspired by the murder of Sophie Lancaster. The character of Josie is an alternate version of Sophie...but in this case there were otherwordly saviours on hand to save her.

The fighting that ensues was inspired by Krav Maga, especially the way the heroes don't announce themselves until they have to, with the first "baddy" getting ambushed rather than faced in the open.

It's set in Jephson Gardens, a beautiful park in the centre of Royal Leamington Spa, where I live. It's actually locked at night, but please forgive my artistic licence.

The artwork is by the ever tremendous Paul Rose.



Excerpt from the The Sunder of the Octagon.
Out now.

Josie’s feet thudded across the wet grass as the rain poured down. Her breath was raw in her throat. The yells followed behind her. The gang had stopped her at the Jephson Gardens park entrance. She’d seen them before but stayed away. Tonight they were drunk and they had wanted to chat. She’d tried to be nice, her heat hammering in her chest and at first they’d been polite. She’d even given them a couple of cigarettes. Then as she walked away she heard one of them say, “Let’s get the freak!” Josie had run then, knowing that this would happen and praying she could make it to the main road through the park in time.
It was around 3am and no one was around to help her. There were seven or eight of them. She didn’t stand a chance. As she ran past the closed cafĂ© she saw the lights in the distance, outside the old pump rooms. The rain was heavy but she ran faster, her old leather boots limiting movement and her long braided hair soaking wet.
Suddenly she skidded and tumbled forward on the wet tarmac. Josie fell hard, the wind rushing from her lungs and then they were around her, snarling.
“Well, well! Looks like we caught the freak!”
“Shouldn’t go out looking like that, you’re a disgrace.”
Josie looked up, tears burning her eyes as they stood around her. “Please, just leave me alone,” she said weakly, holding out one hand, the black nail varnish chipped on the first two fingers where she’d fallen. They laughed at her.
She looked up to their ugly, hateful faces. The circle around her got smaller. She could smell the beer on their breath.
“Shouldn’t be here,” one said raising his fist.
“Not in our park,” said another.
She put her hands over her face and tried to curl up away from their hate and their beer and their violence, wishing she was anywhere but here. “Please!” she said again in a whisper.
As they moved in laughing and one drew back his foot to kick her he was suddenly yanked backwards, vanishing into the darkness of the bushes. The others looked around in shock. “What the hell…?” The circle broke, the teenage thugs looked around wildly. The lad emerged again, trying to get free from something that was holding him.
“Help me!” he screamed as he was yanked back briefly and then he seemed to fly from the bushes and sail over their heads, screaming in fear before landing with a splash in the ornamental lake in the middle of the park.
As the lads looked around, Josie took her hands from her face and looked to where a huge figure emerged dripping wet, his face hidden in the shadows of a hooded robe. Next to him was a smaller person, also hooded.
The leaves on the trees rustled in the wind but then there was silence except for the steady rain.
The taller figure then spoke slowly. A deep voice that was edged with menace. “You would attack a woman? What manner of animals are you?”
The boys simply stared, dumbstruck at this change in fortune. They glanced to their friend in the lake, splashing and yelling for help, then back to the newcomers.
The nearest lad overcame his fear and sneered back at them. “Think you’re hard do you? No one messes with the Bury Boys!” He clicked a knife open, the blade shining wetly in the artificial lights.
His friends regained their bravado for a moment and sniggered. One said, “Go on Steve, show them!”
Steve moved in smiling and the hooded figures separated. The other lads came at them, fists flying in wild, erratic curves. As Steve swung his flick knife the tall man blurred into motion, trapping his arm and throwing Steve over his shoulder and onto the ground with a crunch. Steve yelled and dropped the blade. He staggered to his feet but with a shove he was thrown sprawling onto the tarmac again. Two others tried to jump the man from behind but his hand darted out, faster than a snake and caught one by the throat. The lad’s eyes bulged as he was pulled off the ground, his legs spinning. As the other attempted to punch the hooded attacker, he kicked out without even looking over his shoulder. His foot caught the lad in the chest, who flew back gasping, hitting the metal fence. He span backwards over it and landed with a sopping thud in the wet earth.
Josie sat up, watching spellbound at the fight before her. Even though there were so many of the thugs, they were posing no threat to her saviours. She saw it as if in slow motion, time blurring as the two strangers punched, blocked and kicked out at the gang, effortlessly beating them back.
The smaller figure was facing three at once. He darted about on the balls of his feet, never letting himself get between them but keeping them to one side all the time. He struck out at the nearest, catching him in the head, then kicking him hard in the guts and the lad fell. The other two came to their senses and turned and ran, their trainers splashing on the wet ground. The hooded figure extended his right arm and with a click, a block of what appeared to be smooth wood and bright metal suddenly appeared from his sleeve into his open palm. As Josie watched mesmerised, the block changed shape. Warping, twisting and clicking into alignment. A tiny crossbow, merged with his gloved hand. He reached to his belt and slid a bolt into the firing groove of the weapon. Dropping to one knee he whispered a strange few words and the bolt glowed.
“No way,” he said quietly as he glared at the retreating figures. The arrow’s wicked point dripped as he paused to aim.
His partner whirled. “BUE! NO!!!”
The arm wavered; the figure cursed then lowered his aim a fraction. He triggered the weapon and the bolt sang out. As it flew it separated, with a flash of golden light, into two arrows and with an almost simultaneous thud, landed in the backsides of the two runners. They sprawled forward, screaming in pain as they rolled around.
Steve had managed to crawl towards his knife but as he turned holding it and tried to stand, the tall man simply kicked him in the hand. The knife span into the dark shadows and Steve shrieked, clutching his ruined fingers.
Josie looked around, the rain was heavy and it blurred her vision as the huge figure turned. He stood over her, green eyes glowing like fires in the depths of his hood. Gently he reached down and after a pause she took his hand. Helping her to her feet he asked, “Are you hurt Miss?”
She looked at him, then at Steve and then to the screaming lads on the ground 30 metres away, still trying to pull the arrows out. She looked further across to the lake and the lad who had been thrown there was splashing to the shore, yelling in fright and clearly having trouble.
For the first time she saw the huge sword, sheathed on the figure’s back, the hilt shaped like a kneeling woman with her hands clasped in prayer. His friend returned to them, his crossbow hidden once more.
She looked from one to the other and then slowly said, “No, I’m fine. Thank you."
The taller figure spoke again. “Come. Let us escort you to the gates.”
As they walked either side of her in silence, the rain dripping off their clothes she felt she was dreaming. She wanted to ask them who they were but couldn’t. Her voice was stuck in her throat. They were slowly scanning the area ahead and around as they walked. They passed the ornamental flower beds and she saw the fountain to her right. When they reached the gates the shorter figure spoke. “There you are young Miss, you’ll be safe now. Don’t worry about them; they won’t bother you or anyone else like that again.”
She looked at them, silhouetted in the light from the main road opposite the library and finally asked, “Who are you?”
The same one chuckled and said, “Friends. Now, please go Miss. You’ll catch a fever in this rain.”
She walked over the road to the libray. As she turned they were gone, just the entrance to Jephson Gardens standing open in the pouring rain.
As she walked away up the road the taller figure turned to the other and said, “We need to find Our Lady.”
The other chuckled and replied. “Couldn’t she have put the portal nearer to where she lives?”

Sunday, 22 February 2015

Unique Practitioners Part V: Goz Gozwellings- P1

Goz Gozwellings is a Krav Maga practioner with KMM, practicing at the Solihull and King's Heath branches of the club. She also works in an all male prison.

"So how long have you been a member of Krav Maga Midlands?"

"Since a year last November."

"What do you do for a living?"

"I work in the prison service. I'm custodial manager rank, which is the equivalent of an Inspector in the English police. I line manage 25 prison guards directly and I work in the security and intelligence department so I also run the gaol on a rota basis. The prison has over 1000 category B and C prisoners, so I have to run a prison with that many people."

"Do you ever have to go hands on with the prisoners? To be in actual physical contact with them?"

"Yes, you do. We're trained in control and restraint which are techniques we have to refresh every year. The aim now is also on de-escalation techniques rather than going hands on but even putting a "hand on" as in putting a hand on someone to make them move is classed as physical contact and we have to fill out paperwork to justify it. At my rank I normally turn up at the end and oversee the incident and assess what's going on."

"Just to set the scene for those reading this, how tall are you?"

"I like to kid myself I'm 5 feet 4, but I'm really five two if I'm lucky."

"What category prisoners do you deal with?"

"We take all sorts. Some times we get uncategorised prisoners and they get cat A. That's the highest security prisoner you can get. Highest risk to the public. As a rule we're category B which is one down from maximum security. We have remand, sentenced, lifers. We have cat D who return because they fail their open conditions. We can have every type of prisoner. It's a very mixed population."

"With over 1000 prisoners, how many guards work in the prison on a shift?"

"Well, the unit I used to run holds 200 prisoners and and you'd normally work an SO, Senior Officer, and five. Quite often when I was a prison officer you'd get me on a spur which is half of a landing and there'd be me to about 60 which is quite average."

"Have you had any physical attacks or altercations with prisoners?"

"Yeah, I mean I've been lucky I've been in the job 12 years but I've been involved in control and restraint of prisoners. I've had prisoners square up to me. In my job, unlike in Krav, I try to use a lot of de-escalation. Sometimes you're on your own when the altercation occurs. So, over the years I've been involved in all sorts."

"Do you carry batons?"

"Yes we do. We carry the big extendable batons which are similar to the police. We don't have any CS or gas, or any stab vests or anything like that. Now the population has changed there's a lot of hand made weapons on the units, a lot of drug use so we're dealing with the same people that the police are outside but without the equipment. That's why we do have to rely on de-escalation. Also we work in closed spaces so if you're in a cell you wouldn't be able to use gas anyway. Pepper spray is used very rarely if the National Tactical Group are called in, if we have a situation that we can't deal with locally. I've been involved in hostage situation where three prisoners are in a cell or behind a barricade and we have had to use pava."

"Why did you take up Krav?"

"I always wanted to do a martial art but I didn't know what. For about 10 years I've been talking about it. It was originally nothing to do with the job. I'm a bit of a rough and tumble person, although contrary to belief I'm not actually a very aggressive person. I don't like fighting. So it's for my own personal fitness, my own personal protection but also it has changed the way I look at things at work now. So if I was on my own I wouldn't think twice to use Krav now rather than control and restraint because you can't do it with a group of people so it's more practical which is why I like it. In a cell no situation is the same. You've got bunk beds, you've got furniture, maybe weapons all sorts. It's all risk assessed but spontaneous stuff isn't, you just react."

"So has Krav helped you at work?"

"I'm more conscious now of people behind me when I'm on walkways for example. I move and scan more. When we did our last control and restraint refresher, which we do yearly, I realised just how much more practical Krav is. I work with a lot of female officers in a male prison. So the obvious thing is to disable a threat quickly. If I was on my own and I felt threatened I would use Krav now."

"The motto is 'So that one may walk in peace' after all"

"Yes, it's down to perception. My colleagues and even the prisoners now think I can take care of myself. It's part of it, how you carry yourself. It's about perception and someone backing off and leaving you alone."

"You have all male prisoners. How many of the staff are female?"

"There's a lot more now but it's still very male orientated. It used to be a job that people went into from the army. That's changed now, it's more about people skills. I also find that in a male prison, women tend to keep the peace better. As a rule prisoners are more respectful of females. When you're like me you can be an authority or mother figure. Some of them have never had the word 'no' said to them before and they've got no boundaries so you're having to almost parent some of the prisoners."

"That's interesting because I would have imagined it would be a lot of wolf whistling."

"You do get that as well. You get a lot of inappropriate behaviour and you have to obviously stamp that out and challenge it because if you don't you know that there'll play on that. They know that I'm not somebody who's easily intimidated."

"Do you think that Krav Maga should be taught to new people coming into the prison service?"

"Yes, I do. It's a lot more practical. Apart from control and restraint we also do breakaway and personal protection. For the staff and civilians it would be so much more practical. Even if it was just to shout "GET BACK!" with a knee or a kick. It's very practical and that's what I like about Krav."

"Why do you think this country has such a 'softly, softly' approach to use of force, both in the police and the prison service?"

"In this job there will always be staff who take it too far and they can almost be barbaric. They use excessive force when they don't need to and because of things that have happened in the past such as prisoners who've gone on to commit suicide or control and restraint that's gone wrong. I think that's why it changed. People can asphyxiate if they're in the wrong position. Every year our syllabus gets changed. There's techniques they take out because they're considered indecent. It's a fine line. Also there's a lot of paperwork now."

"Finally, what would your motto for life be?"

"Feel the fear, do it anyway. Push past it. I'm six feet tall in my head."

** Photos by Lance Manley and Krav Maga Midlands.

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The Other Sort of Brave

On a Monday night I help out at a Kiddy Krav Maga club called Junior Safe Krav Maga.

As some of you will know that isn't a pint sized version of Big Krav, it is in fact a specially tailored set of activities for young children.

We focus on anti-abduction techniques, team work, anti-bullying and overall me and the instructor Russell doing our best to get the kids to go into full attack mode, if we pick them up or grab them.

At the end of the class (which lasts about 50 minutes) we line them up kneeling on the mat facing us and we choose two children who have shown the most enthusiasm, team spirit, courage and determination. Russ chooses one and I choose the other, and we have a quick chat to make sure we're not picking the same kid and to go over the reasons for the selection. They get the coveted places next to us, (one by him, one by me) and we tell them and the other kids what they did to deserve that "honour". We then bow and shout "Kida!" and hit the mat with our fists and everyone claps before we go home.

Last week we had a handful of new kids starting. One lad was about 6 years old and very small. He was clearly having the time of his life, running around and grinning from ear to ear. During a game where me and Russ try to pick the kids up they have to lay into us as hard as they can or we won't put them down again. This lad had no fear of two tall men in sparring helmets and MMA mitts trying to repeatedly grab him and was laughing and smiling the whole way through.

He got a position at the end of class. I chose him and specifically stated that it was because he was so brave and gung ho and that, on his first lesson, he was super confident and I admired his courage.

Russell's selection was someone I had been going to choose myself. She was the other sort of brave. A very small 5 year old girl who had, for a few weeks, sat on the sides with her mum and watched the other children running around, dodging me and Russell. She was clearly scared and overawed by it all and her eyes were like saucers as she saw us hurling foam pads around, putting kids over our shoulders and making a lot of noise. Attempts to coax her into joining in were met with a mute shake of her head and when she did eventually join in an activity she quickly left again in tears. It was too much for her. All these big people making a lot of racket and knocking each other around. She was smaller than the smallest kid in the class (who also happened to be her friend) and it was very clear just how frightened she was.

This week she joined in and stayed for nearly all of the class. At the end we played a game where the kids were in two teams and had to run past me and Russell, and if stopped had to lash out with kicks and punches to make us let go. Both of us were padded up with the helmets on and this little girl was on the team I was facing. I could see the terror in her face that meant she probably wouldn't do it so suggested that her friend ran with her. This proved to be the key to it all, as she then felt safe enough to join in with both of them booting me in the groin and punching me as I tried to hold her.

She got the 2nd place next to Russell at the end before the final Kida, because as Russell said to everyone, she was scared yet carried on. The other sort of brave.

After the class I spoke to her in the corridor and she still looked a bit overawed. I crouched down in front of her and said, "I'm very proud of you. It's very difficult to be brave when you're frightened and you did that. Give me a high five."

She did, and smiled and then her mother asked me how she could stop a bigger girl at school who was pulling her hair in the playground. Me and Russ demonstrated the technique and when I got her to do it she punched me as hard as she could. We all laughed and noted that the next time that older girl bullies her, will probably be the last one.

It's things like this that make doing this completely worthwhile.

Sunday, 8 February 2015

Just One

Yesterday I went to the gym and rejoined it. Cost me over £50 for a month's usage (cheaper if you sign up for 6 months in one go, but I like to Not Be Tied Down) but I thought it an investment wisely laid, mainly as I have my P5 grading in a few weeks.


A grade that once seemed as distant as my 30th birthday; the end of my school days; or my grandmother not being around. A grade that I believed was only held by badass beefcakes or people gearing up to be instructors at the next G camp.


Something I know I need to be fit for so I can take the 30+ minutes of full on sparring at the end of the technique based stuff. Something I know I have to devote the next 6 weeks to getting right by practicing in front of the TV (the joys of a HDMI cable and a laptop) and attending class about twice a week.


I also need to boost my cardio and that was an issue I sorted out yesterday. The gym I use has a very friendly guy in there who appears to regard working out and training with the same passion that I reserve for breathing. He recommended the "300 Workout" which I initially thought was based upon pre-historic Spartans in codpieces but turned out was 300 reps, on 5 or 6 machines in as fast a time as you can do.

The workout took about 20 minutes but felt like over an hour. However it was exactly what I needed and while I didn't do it today (as my body felt like someone had been at it with a steak tenderiser) I'm going to do my damnedest to avoid the trap of missing "just one" session, of either training in the run up.

My desired regime is yoga at least 3 times a week. Cardio 3 times and Krav twice. Plus doing dry runs from the P5 DVD my instructor gave me, about 3 or 4 times a week. The sparring on P4 was no harder than the sessions we do at the club, but with the adrenalin and nerves and all the other stress it felt like hell on earth. It was only when I saw the G4s and 5s going at it last December under the eyes of Zeev Cohen that I realised what I'd done was mere prep.

But I digress...

Missing a session through my desire to sup a couple of pints of Guinness; play "Call of Duty: World At War- Nazi Zombies"...again; read a book; watch episode 6 of TV show Banshee...or any of a list of excuses is something that could not only bugger up my chances of passing but actually cause me to get injured AGAIN like I have in the past when I let things slide through laziness or not adhering to some semblance of discipline over my training.

There is something rock 'n' roll about feeling fit enough to just keep going when those around you are grasping their knees and dry heaving. Feeling that you know the moves and can give it your all without wondering if you are just fluking it. Knowing that you are fitter than guys half your age.

Just one time out can become two, then three. And then I'm stuck on 4.

Tuesday, 3 February 2015

Step 5

Yesterday something finally came into view that has been hovering on the horizon like a shy teenage boy on his crush's doorstep, with a bunch of flowers on Valentine's Day.

Of all the things that I thought would help me see where I was being held back in my life, I never once imagined it would be a reunited 1980s boyband.

I was bored and flicking through channels on Youtube and for some reason one of the links in the right hand menu was "Jon Knight sings step 5". This referred to the reunited New Kids on the Block at a live gig about 5 years ago and the bit of the song "Step By Step" where each member of the band sings a "step". Danny is 1, Donnie 2, Jordan 3, Joey 4 and Jon 5.

I was mildly curious as to why this was so noteworthy as to warrant a video of its own. After all, Jon's line is simply "don't you know that the time has arrived?" I asked myself if NKOTB fans were so sad as to post a video that highlighted one bit of one song sung by one member of a quintet. Then I watched it and it became more puzzling. Once Jon sings the line the other guys jump on him like he's a striker in a World Cup soccer final who's just scored a goal. They hug him and are clearly over the moon and Jon is grinning and very happy. Checking out the comments section it turned out that this was the first time ever that Jon had sung that line at a live concert. Every other gig (and remember, that song came out in 1990 when the band were at their peak) the line was sung by Joey.

So, what is this to do with Krav? Well, I looked a little deeper into this and it turned out that Jon Knight was the reason that the New Kids split up in 1994. He left the group so they decided to call it a day. I remember them splitting up because back in the day they were the biggest band around. Bigger than One Direction or N 'Sync and rivalled only by The Backstreet Boys in later years (who they went on tour with recently).

But I digress....

In the late 80s and early 90s Jon Knight had the world at his feet. A multi millionaire by the age of about 21 he was loved by millions of screaming, adolescent girls and had his picture everywhere. From 1990 to 1991 the New Kids on the Block made ONE BILLION dollars on worldwide merchandise and netted about 25 million US dollars EACH in that same tax year. What more could a young man possibly want?

Once he quit the group he went into real estate and was out of the public eye almost completely, living on a farm and being reclusive.

It turned out that he was plagued by panic attacks and anxiety and hated being in public. The pressure and stress he felt was something he covered up as best he could. He was the "shy" one of the group and was quiet in interviews. He went on Oprah in 2001 to talk about how he felt and looked like a guy waiting for a reprieve on death row. Shaking, sweaty and almost in tears he told Oprah that he felt relaxed to which she replied "This is you relaxed?" He was clearly in immense discomfort but dealing with it as best he could. He said that once he left the band in 1994 he spent about the next 3 years sleeping and trying not to think too much. Emotionally he was a wreck. Not due to the pressures of stardom, but because something within him was hard wired to hate the sight of crowds. He said that he felt he was going to die and that the adrenalin you would usually associate with a sudden scare, was with him all the time, every day.

The face he put on for the public back when the New Kids were actually kids, was a facade. I've no doubt he had pressure put on him by the people funding the cash cow that was NKOTB, who probably couldn't give a shit about his issues. However he masked it as best he could and it ate away at him until something snapped and a guy of 23 years of age, with millions in the bank, simply rolled over and went to bed for 3 years.

That video of him singing step 5 at the age of 42 was for him a personal milestone and the other guys in the group knew that.

I have been a walking anxiety attack for much of my adult life. My tenure in the UK police was cut short by bullying but the people who did that to me had identified what they perceived as weaknesses and flaws in someone entitled to arrest other people. I lacked mental stamina and was prone to empathy. Problem was that they used underhanded and unpleasant methods to get rid of me and I have both Enhanced Emotional Memory AND a very vindictive streak if I'm mistreated.

When things go wrong my fear builds and builds until I'm creating monsters in my head. I find sleeping to be a warm and safe retreat from the horrors of life.

My father lives in the gorgeous holiday village of Plakias in Crete, Greece. He retired out there in about 1997 and the place is beyond wonderful. Blue seas, fresh fish restaurants, scuba diving, cliff jumping, cold beers, the list goes on. The first summer I spent there in 2008, I had just left the police and spent most of my time drinking myself into oblivion. I would sleep for ridiculous amounts of time, the record being 36 hours in bed with a hangover that became self pity that became a desire to simply give up. Being that pathetic felt normal and safe and the most sensible thing to do with how bad I felt.

I've never been able to simply kick back and enjoy things for the anxiety that eats away at me.

I do Krav Maga and I'm now a P4. Tonight my E1 instructor complimented me personally on my performance in class with a smile and the words "you did a good job today." I'm still floating on that but with Krav I don't enjoy myself as much as I pretend to.

I don't like sparring, a subject I've covered on here before. I get nervous just going to class and although this has dissipated over time, that prolonged Jon Knight-esque panic attack is still there. My biggest worry is that my instructor will call me out to demonstrate a move or succession of moves or a technique. I fear not understanding his instructions; that I'll get knocked on my arse; that I'll look like a dick; but most of all that everyone else will be looking at me. Like Jon said in his Oprah interview. I'd just rather go home. The stress is phenomenal. 

It's not rational or proportionate but it's there. Anxiety about being in public and being the focus of attention. I saw Jon Knight on Oprah from that 14 year old recording and it struck a chord. A guy who had wealth beyond imagining and was famous beyond belief was unhappy with his lot because of a psychological condition that he couldn't override without help.

Quite often people will say things like "Snap out of it" or "Don't be so ungrateful" or "How can you NOT enjoy this?" Thing is, if you don't then you don't and that's just how you are. Singing to millions of teenage girls and having your face on hundreds of different items of merchandise will not please you no matter how much you tell yourself that it should.

My P4 grading was far from a pleasant experience. My imagination was running riot and my stress levels were through the roof. I didn't enjoy the grading  and the closest I came to actually having a good time was when I was so tired that my anxiety faded into the nether of my exhaustion and I just had to focus on the job at hand. As it was I got a conditional pass and did better than the 20 or so guys who failed the test.

Similarly, I feel I should pretend to enjoy fighting. That I should be comfortable in the 4 bar patch and show an aura of calm and power proportionate to my level (right now I'm the highest level student regularly attending the venues I go to). I don't feel comfortable in a lot of things and I've pretended for a very long time that I am.

The equivalent for me of singing step 5 would be to choose to fight a guy bigger than me who I know is a more skilled fighter and do it because I WANTED TO and not just to prove I'm not a pansy who fluked all his gradings.

Anxiety can be a killer of progress. Honesty can thwart it.