How the Dinosaurs Lost the Earth and Other Lessons in Conflict

It’s a little known fact that the mammals were responsible for the extinction of the dinosaurs.

If you believe your teachers, scientists or those dusty plaques next to the fossils at the natural history museum, you will hear that it was, in fact, a fatal combination of climate change and comet strike which the large creatures were unable to adapt to.

Not so.  I am here to tell you that the culprit was a tiny, furry critter that bore a resemblance to the modern shrew, and was little larger than your thumb. If you grant me your attention for a short while I shall tell you the tale which starts, oddly enough, with a tail.

Apatosaurus was not a morning dinosaur.  He never liked to start the day at the start of the day preferring, if at all possible, to start it when it had well and truly begun and sometimes, when it was on the way out again.  Partly this was because he was the length of two double-decker busses and it was never the easiest manoeuvre to climb out of bed, and partly it was because he was a lazy old sod.

This morning, however, he was awoken just before the sun peaked over the horizon by a flash in the sky.  He looked up, eyes glazed over with sleep dust, but could not make out the cause.  Was that a new, particularly bright star on the horizon?  Truth be told, it was hard to say since Apatosaurus rarely saw the sun rise, let alone observe the twinkling starts that preceded it.  Well, he was awake now.  Grumpily, and slowly, he rose to his feet and swung his neck in low arcs from left to right, looking for a nice breakfast bush to tuck into.

Instead, he swung his head straight into the tail of a passing Stegosaurus, getting a tail-spike square in the nostril.  Already grumpy at his early start, the Apatosaurus roared with anger.

“What the blazes do you think you’re doing?” He bellowed at the Stegosaurus (and I can tell you, when an Apatosaurus bellows, you jolly well know about it).

Unlike the Apatosaurus, The Stegosaurus was a morning dinosaur.  On this particular morning, he was making his way to the river for his morning drink, enjoying the fresh air and morning mists that covered the land just before the break of dawn.  Cheerfully, he smiled at Apatosaurus.

“Didn’t you see me walking here?” he said, “This is a clearly marked footpath, and I believe that as I am already on it, I have the right of way.”

“Right of way?” Bellowed the Apatosaurus (he was a bellowing kind of guy) “poppycock!  You were travelling way too fast!  You may have been on the path, but everyone knows that you have to give way to the dinosaur on the right-hand-side, especially if that dinosaur is already annoyed, and several times your size!”

“Now hang on a minute, sir, the right-of-way rule only applies if you’re giving way at a rock on a two-lane path and four paths cross, not three. Besides, size has nothing to do with it – I do hope you’re not trying to bully me?”

Well, now, that was it for the Apatosaurus.  Not normally quick to violence, as with any dinosaur no matter how nice most of the time, the wrong situation in the wrong mood with the right kind of escalation can make monsters of them all.  He lost his temper and, quick as a flash, swung his head round again to deliver an almighty head-butt to the smaller Stegosaurus.

The Stegosaurus saw this coming.  He ducked under the mighty blow, and lifted his tail high in the air which, as I’m sure you will remember from history class, has four vicious, meter-long spikes at the end.  One of these spikes impaled itself in the Apatosaurus’ eye as it passed, and continued deep into its brain.  The huge creature shivered briefly, then dropped down stone-dead – leaving his eye embedded on one of the Stegosaurus’s spikes, and making the ground tremble with the impact.

The Stegosaurus looked down with pity at the enormous corpse in front of him.

“Sorry old chap” he said, “that got out of control rather quickly, nothing personal you understand.”

He flexed the dustbin lid sized plates running down his back, angling them towards the sun to warm his blood and continued the journey to the nearby bank. He gave his tail a quick shake to try and dislodge the eyeball, but it was stuck fast.  Shrugging to himself, he set off again – pausing briefly to glance at a particularly bright star just above the horizon.

“Strange” he thought to himself “I don’t remember that one, but then my brain is the size of a walnut so perhaps it is just me”.

The going was slow – the Stegosaurus was as big as a van, and was not built for haste.  He waddled from side to side as he walked,  pausing from time to time to take mouthfuls of grass as he saw them whilst his enormous tail, and its hitchhiking eyeball, swished around behind him.

He had not travelled far in this manner before he noticed the Triceratops, standing on a small little hill beside the path, watching him carefully.

“Good morning!” cried the Stegosaurus, with a cheery sweep of its tail “And how are you on this fine, sunny day!”

“Get off my land.” Said the Triceratops.

The Stegosaurus gave him a friendly smile, and replied: “I’m terribly sorry Triceratops, I don’t wish to argue but I believe that I am on a public footpath leading down to that river, where I intend to take my morning drink.  Were I to be on your land I would happily remove myself, but I do not believe this to be the case.”

The Triceratops, standing atop a small hillock beside the path, pointedly stubbed his front hoof into the earth beneath his feet – once, twice, three times.

“This here” he snarled “is my property, and your path cuts through it.  Be warned, Stegosaurus, you are trespassing on my land I am within my legal rights to defend myself, and run you through.” With that, he lowered his head and exposed the three horns that sat there, each as long as a man, and the hard shield behind protecting his back.

The Stegosaurus had no wish to enter into a tussle with the Triceratops – the brute was bigger, stronger and grumpier. He could easily take a detour around the small hillock by the path, and access a riverbank a few hundred yards downstream instead.  But this path led to his favourite bank, where the water was shallow and clear and besides (Stegosaurs are notoriously stubborn dinosaurs), why should he back down?

“Run me through?  For wandering across the edge of your land?” he said, “don’t you think that’s a little extreme?” (which was, of course, an ironic thing to say, given he had just speared an Apatosaurus in the brain who crossed the road without looking not twenty minutes earlier.)

“Extreme?” replied the Triceratops with a snort.  I don’t know who you are or what you’re capable of – and after all, I’d rather be judged by twelve dinosaurs than carried by SIX!”

The Stegosaurus paused to consider what this could mean for a few minutes, before deciding it was something made for brains larger than his to comprehend.

“I’m very sorry, Triceratops, I mean you no harm, but I shall take this path to my favourite riverbank and whilst I could take a small detour for my morning drink, I believe I am in my rights to do be here and shall not be hindrance by you.”

The Triceratops, standing on his little hillock, glared at the Stegosaurus. Indicating Stegosaurus’s tail with a nod of his head, he said:

“What’s that, Stegosaurus?  Are you carrying a concealed weapon back there?”


“Huh?” replied the Stegosaurus, glancing back “oh those?  They come everywhere with me, I don’t really have a choice about it you know.  Or the eyeball as it happens, which now seems to go where the tail goes.  Besides, they’re hardly what I’d call concealed, Triceratops” and with that he gave them a gentle swish, making the eyeball wobble.

“A threat!”  Cried the Triceratops. “I have informed you that this is my property, which you are trespassing and which I have a right to defend.  I now have reason to fear for my life, since you have brought deadly weapons on to my property without a reasonable justification.  I have issued a clear warning, which you have not responded to.  I am left with little choice but to defend myself.”

And with that, Triceratops charged down the little hillock and before Stegosaurus had the chance to respond, plunged his horns deep into his chest.  After a few minutes of goring and head-shaking, Triceratops lifted his head stood over Stegosaurus’s ravaged corpse, blood running down his beak and dripping from his horns.

He snorted, shook the blood from his eyes, and almost as an afterthought used the spine frills round his neck to saw off the Stegosaur’s tail, the Apatosaurus eyeball still attached, and wrapped it around his neck as a warning to others.  Admiring himself in a nearby puddle, he trotted back up to the top of his hillock to admire the view.  Was that a new star on the horizon?  It seemed to have a small tail poking from one side.  Curious.  But no mind.

He stood a while, gazing over his property, keenly searching for intruders and threats, but his recent exertion had caused him to work up something of a thirst. Didn’t Stegosaurus mention something about a river nearby? He trotted down the hillock, gingerly stepping over the still-twitching corpse of the former Stegosaurus, and made his way towards the riverbank.

Before long the barren ground of small hillocks and rocks, tufted with grass which he called home gave way to patches of trees and scrubby bushland.  The river was not far, he could hear the waters babble on their way to the sea.  As the sun rose higher in the sky the air became warmer, and the breeze died away to a stifling stillness.

It was this stillness which caused Triceratops to pause when he spied a nearby copse of trees shiver and shake as if hit by a blast of wind.  There was no wind.

“What-ho!” he called out into the treeline: “Who’s there?  I know you’re in there, I’m no fool so you may as well come out and introduce yourself!”

The trees rustled some more and, slowly, a leathery snout rose above the leafy tops cautiously sniffing the air.  Then, following the snout, a head appeared lined with rows of sharp, serrated teeth.  Two piercing eyes focussed down on the Triceratops beneath them.

“Well hello there, Triceratops, well met on this fine sunny day.  And where, might I ask, are you headed to?”

The Triceratops gulped, and craned his neck to meet the eye of the Tyrannosaur staring down at him.

“Well met indeed, Tyrannosaur!” He said. “I am sorry to have disturbed you, I am simply taking a walk down to the riverbed to fetch myself a drink of water.”

“Indeed,” said the Tyrannosaur, “a fine way to spend what is proving to become a very warm and pleasant day.  Might I trouble you to also tell me from where you have come?  Forgive my curiosity.”

“Why, nowhere in particular, good sir! I have simply been enjoying the view from my hillock this morning, looking out across the plains, when a terrible thirst took hold of me, which could only be sated by a nice soothing drink down by the river.  Why do you ask?”

“Oh, it almost seems silly to say, and it’s probably nothing” replied the Tyrannosaur, idly scratching an itch on his chest with one of his tiny arms “but I couldn’t help noticing that you are covered from nose to shoulder in dried blood, and that you are wearing the tail of a Stegosaurus around your neck – a tail which, if I am not mistaken, has the eyeball of an Apatosaurus impaled upon it.”

“Oh, that?  It’s nothing my good sir, nothing at all.  As you know, I am a vegetarian and a pacifist, and was merely defending my property from an intruder using reasonable force, as is my legal right, since my intruder entered my property bearing dangerous weaponry clearly intended for no good.”

The Triceratops said all this whilst squinting up at the Tyrannosaur, and slowly backing away from the inquisitive head poking out of the treetops, drool glinting in the sun as it seeped between those long, sharp teeth.  The angle caused his trophy to slip and the bloody tail, eyeball and all, hit the floor with a wet slap.  There was no other sound. “Now that that has been cleared up, I shan’t disturb you any further, and will be on my way.  Good day, sir.”

But the Triceratops had not the time move far before, with a shake of tree trunks and with two great strides, the Tyrannosaur moved to block the path.  He turned his head slowly to look down upon the blood-stained Triceratops, suddenly looking very small in the larger dinosaur’s shadow.

“I’m afraid I cannot let you pass, my dear boy” he sneered. “I can see you are knowledgeable in the laws of our land, so you will understand my own concern in seeing you walk towards me, on public ground, soaked in the blood and gore of another dinosaur?”

The Triceratops backed up a bit, so he could look up to see the eyes of the Tyrannosaur.

“It is true that I could use a shower, Tyrannosaur, but I have explained to you the reason of my fearsome appearance and surely a creature as majestic and powerful as yourself cannot fear one as slow and cumbersome as I?”

The Tyrannosaur cocked his head to one side, narrowed his big, yellow eyes, and licked his lips.

“I wish I could be that confident of my own safety, I really do” he said quietly “but such is my fear that I have no choice but to protect myself by eating you.”

“Wait, wait!” cried the Triceratops “If you really fear me such, why not use those long, long legs of yours to run away?  Look how heavy I am, look at my squat, little legs I could never catch you – surely I pose you no threat?”

“Ah yes, but I must again remind you of the laws of our land, my dear Triceratops, those that allowed you to eviscerate Stegosaurus with such impunity? As you know, they protect each dinosaur in his home but they also ensure that each has the right to not retreat in the face of adversity, but defend themselves where they stand.  I wish there was some other way, but it is my legal right to confront you when in fear of my life, rather than to try and escape.  I wish there was something I could do but, well, the law is the law.”

And with that, Tyrannosaur lunged at Triceratops, caught his head and bony shield in his jaws, snapped his neck with a single twist and proceeded to feast on his insides.  Before long all that remained of Triceratops was a large, bony cavity where there was once a proud ribcage and satisfied, Tyrannosaur curled up for a nap.

And so it was that, as he was sleeping, a tiny shrew-like creature, out for a walk to gather berries and seeds, stumbled across the path and saw the tail of the Stegosaurus with an Apatosaurus eyeball dangling from it, the Triceratops with its chest cavity eaten bare and the snoring, contented Tyrannosaur with chunks of Triceratops flesh still hanging from its exposed teeth.

The shrew knew the law.  He stood there for a while, observing the scene, and tried to consider what a reasonable use of force could mean when applied to a shrew the length of a human thumb defending himself against a Tyrannosaurus Rex the length of six humans end to end, who had just eaten a Triceratops who had murdered a Stegosaurus who had mutilated an Apatosaurus.

Eventually, it appeared to reach a decision.

It is a little-known fact that mammals had evolved to the pinnacles of technology we see around us today, even back then at their dawn – they just didn’t make a big deal out of it.  The shrew whipped out a tiny, tiny mobile phone and jabbed in a few numbers. He pointed it at a passing, equally tiny, satellite.  The satellite received its command.  Slowly, it turned until it was pointed at a passing comet.  The laser changed the course of the comet, ever so slightly, pulling it into earth’s orbit.

The shrew put on a tiny helmet, burrowed a few feet into the ground, and stuck its fingers in its ears.  Within a few hours, the Earth’s gravity had done its work and the comets trajectory was such that it crashed into the atmosphere, becoming a savage fireball vaporising everything in its path.

And so, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, the Triceratops, Stegosaurus and Apatosaurus, along with his dinosaur kin, lost the arms race.  The mammals technology was wiped out by the blast, of course, but it only took them a couple of hundred million years to get back in business again and now, all this time later, it’s hardly as if anything happened at all.

A Flock of Starlings

A Flock of Starlings

One Easter holiday in 2012, I visited one of the five Buddhist holy mountains in China, Emei-Shan.

As you might expect from secular China, the spring equinox is not seen-in there as it is here.  Chocolate effigies of Pagan egg-laying rabbits are gone.  The crucified and resurrecting Christ, donkeys and palm leaves are ne’er to be seen.  The Chinese version, it turns out, is the ‘sweeping of the tombs’ festival, where people are meant to clean out the tombs of their ancestors in ritual manner.

What they actually do, however, is exactly what most people in the West do at Easter – ignore the symbolic rituals marking the start of spring, and go on a nice weekend break.  This, in China, brings a set of problems not encountered in the west which arise from the logistic considerations of 1.2 billion people deciding to go on holiday on the same day.  And on this particular day most of those 1.2 billion people, as it would seem, had also decided to visit the Buddhist Holy Mountain Emei Shan.

I would urge all of you to stay you criticism of the public transport in whichever part of the world you are reading this, until you have endeavored to take a coach to a Buddhist Holy Mountain in China when several thousand people in a room not much bigger than small church also intend on catching the same coach as you.

The entire building, from wall to wall, was a solid mass of flesh.  My arms were pressed so tight to my side that I couldn’t put my hand in my pocket.  The pressure was such that, to stop the fire exits bursting open, the station staff chained and padlocked them shut (Health & Safety not being a concept yet to filter down to the farther reaches of the land of the orient).

Being six foot two inches tall, a good measure higher than the indigenous population, I had a unique view of the chaos.  There was a life to it; waves rushing across the room, crashing against the barriers and walls like ocean swells against the rocks.  I’d heard the term crowd-surge before, of course, but I’d never experienced it – the feeling of complete and utter helplessness, the knowledge that one trip, one fall, and I would be immediately trampled by fifty people who had no more power to stop it than I did.  I realized that it wasn’t an ocean swell that I was reminded of.  It was a Tsunami.

And then the mood changed.  I don’t know when it happened.  I don’t know why.  But it spread from person to person in an instant, sparking between the bodies like a thought dancing between the neurons of a mind.  One moment the surge was good tempered, and the next it was sinister.  One moment there were smiles and good-natured cheers – the next there was silence, apart from the rustle of thousands of bodies in close friction, creating a dense white noise that filled the tiny gaps between the flesh.

A small handful of people at the edge of the mass took the initiative, pulled themselves clear and snuck around the barriers to get onto the nearest coach.  The Chinese in Sichuan being of a particularly laissez-faire disposition, the security gazed on indifferently.

Several of the crowd, though, did not.  Shouts erupted; bottles were thrown.  A few angry bodies at the front rushed the coach, and like the tip of a wave brought those behind with him.  They crashed over the coach, pulling the driver and passengers out, who then vanished under the surf and were pulled away by the current of hundreds of sweaty, grasping hands.  We did not see them again.  We didn’t see anything more, in fact, we had seen enough.  Thankfully we were near the back of the crowd, and with some well-placed elbows managed to fight our way to the calmer waters away from the station.

Here, word of what had now become a riot was carried as a whisper from person to person.  But with each murmer it lost its’ force, until the violent crash of waves against the rocks had diminished to the gentle lap of waves upon a beach.

In the English countryside in Autumn, if you’re lucky, you are treated to an ethereal sight.  As the sun sets, black clouds begin to rise up above against the rusty sky.  They swell like smoke from a forest fire, slow and fast, bulging against the pattern of the wind.  And then they dance.  They rise and fall, expand and contract, swooping and changing direction in seeming defiance of natural law.  Shifting shapes in the sunset, they seem like one enormous living, breathing behemoth.  But they’re not one, they’re legion.  A legion of starlings, returning to roost; coordinating as one with no central nervous system, no leader, no purpose.  They create this complexity and beauty with nothing but three simple rules:

  1. Stay within a fixed range of the starlings nearest to you
  2. Avoid collisions
  3. Respond to external threats

And with that, a flock is born.  When you see a lone starling flying through the dusk it is processing any number of individual bits of information as it swoops and rolls in the half light.  Navigating its way home, hunting for a meal, flirting with lady starlings, searching for nest material, navigating obstacles, planning routes, looking out for predator.  In a flock, there are three bits of information to process and they over-ride the individuals more natural urges, to keep the flock together.  This behavior is hard-wired, and has been carved into the starling mind over millennia to ensure that the flock, and thus the individual, is safe from predators.

It’s the touch-paper that lights race-riots in America, demonstrations against banks and war across the West, that sparked the Arab Spring which changed the world when one desperate Tunisian market trader set himself on fire.

Back at my coach station in China, we are not so different.  At what point did my flock become a riot?  As soon as one single person, in the right position, at the right time, responded to a perceived threat.  One point of external stimulus, one trigger, seen by one person is enough for them to change their behavior and that behavior to spread as fast as a thought across thousands of people.  Without any warning, without any conscious decision by any individual, a cheerful crowd going on their holidays has become a rioting mob and not one person inside it knows how it happened, when or even why.

We are not so different.  In large groups of people, powerful instinctual urges kick in that force us to conform to the behaviour of others, for very good reasons – to be different, to be isolated, is to be eaten. To not respond to a threat in the same way as those next to you is death.

When confronted by an angry mob, pack or gang you are not dealing with the behavior and judgment of an individual.  You are dealing with a de-centralised nervous system with no decision making ability, just response to stimulus.  If you are the victim in this dynamic, the stimulus is to hunt.

This is the danger of large groups. They, and the individuals within them, don’t sing the same song as the victim and their behavior cannot be predicted in the same way as an individual’s.  The only way to get a member of a group to make rational decisions about their actions is to separate them, physically or psychologically, from the group.  Riot police call this kettling, but it works as well with a small gang as it does with a baying crowd.  Don’t wait for an attack, instigate against the individual who glues the group together, the pack leader, the one whose gravity keeps the rest clustered around him.  Influence him – with ferocity or fear, bargaining or bludgeoning, whatever works for you or the situation – but focus on that one in your conflict de-escalation and you’re not trying to subdue many, but one.

An Ode to the Bully

imageBeware the bully, his shoulders held high,

See how his chest puffs, his gaze holds your eye

Note now the lopsided lope of his stride,

Observe affectations that betray his pride.

He paces his habitat, the Friday night pub,

As he searches for victims amongst the hubbub

The shy the fearful, the innocent or weak

The wealthy the happy, the loner the freak

His gaze flits to and his gaze flits fro,

Scanning the crowds for that tell-tale show

He watches for clues, for evidence to stack

Until he finds the pup that strays from the pack

Predators, you see, never like their prey

To be tricky to taste, or to have to pay

With their own blood for their evening meal

Preferring instead to trick, trap or to steal

“For what good is a feast,” they seem to say,

“If it’s so hard earned as to spoil my day.

Or end my days or cause on me

The pain and suffering I intended to thee.”

And so they wait, and pick and choose,

Until they find a victim whose

Attention is spent on a phone or a book,

Too busy with text to take time to look

Above and beyond their own personal space,

Into the crowd for an unfriendly face

Or who’s defences are downed by a whisky too many,

As they stumbles alone off to ‘spend a penny’.

Or those who through their signals alone,

Declare their fear of the dark, the wide unknown

Or perhaps those whose bodily cues seem to say

That they don’t present a risky buffet.

The fidget, the hunch, the averted eye,

The mumbled words, the timid reply.

For the lost and the lonely, they serve such a rich

Juicy and succulent victim sandwich


But all this grand strategy, this plan of attack

Do little more than to point to the crack

In his armour, the chink, the fatal flaw,

The Achilles heel, the open back door.

The bully you see doesn’t like it when

The fox’s tail gets pecked by the hen

So more often than not the medicine, the cure,

Is little more than a good punch in the jaw.



Is it just me, or does anybody else out there associate colours with different days of the week?  Here’s how it goes for me: Monday is blue, Tuesday is kind of light grey, Wednesday is a decent orange – but not as bright as an actual orange, Thursday is dark brown, Friday is black, Saturday is white, and Sunday is kind of a ruddy red.

I don’t know why, but it’s been that way since school. Probably it was imprinted on me when I learnt them on colour-coded flash-cards, and everyone else in my class has the same associations whilst those down the corridor, with a different teacher, have different colours, or stripes, or cartoon animals.

So much of our world isn’t actually what’s really there, but a dangerous cocktail of our expectations and interpretation of reality.  We take input from our sensory organs, send it to the brain, and the brain decides what the most sensible interpretation should be.  We all carry our own little versions of the Matrix in our heads, telling us what’s happening and what’s probably going to happen next.

Take pain, for example.  I mean all it is, really, is your brain telling you something’s happening.  It takes an electrical signal, makes a decision that that thing is unadvisable or unwanted, and provides you with a cheery little warning.   Really, it’s the same signal that tells you you’re being stroked, or tickled, or gives you that random itch on the one occasion when you can’t reach your nose – just a little louder.

In fact if you want to find out which bits of you hurt and which bits of you don’t without going through the trauma of stabbing yourself all over with a compass*, tickling can be a useful (and if you bring a friend perhaps fun) alternative.  If it tickles, there’s a cluster of nerve endings.  If there’s a cluster of nerve endings, it’ll hurt more than a bit that doesn’t tickle.

There is, of course, a reason for this – nerve endings are clustered around areas of the body that need to be protected, to give the best possible early warning that they’re threatened.  Which is why you must escape a tickle.  And why palms, feet, belly neck and armpits are classic areas of child torture and cruelty for fathers everywhere.

But it’s not real, you know.  It’s the matrix.  And like Keano, you can break it if you know how.  You can manipulate that mix of expectation and interpretation and turn it into your best weapon.  I’m not talking about how to hit the bits that hurt, though.  That rarely works, particularly in the middle of an adrenaline fuelled, alcohol filled fight.  After all most fights include one of those things, probably both, and both are pretty effective pain-killers.

No, I’m talking about manipulating the pain response, the interpretation of pain signals, and using it as a disruption to turn things in your favour.  Playing your opponent on a string like a puppet master, if you will.  And so, without further ado, I bring you How Not to Get Hit’s patented three rules of pain.

imageOne – the brain can only process (give or take) seven things at any one time.  If you provide more than seven signals, or stimuli, when defending yourself (a series of relatively hard & committed strikes, slaps, or pushes will do) to as many targets as you can get to, it will become increasingly hard for your opponent to respond.  Anyone out there who grew up on eighties Manga, think the seven finger exploding heart technique from Fist of the North Star.  But manage your expectations – no hearts will explode in the execution of this technique.  What will happen though, if each strike is hard enough to send a disruption signal to the brain or is aimed at an area where this disruption signal is hard-wired (like the eyes, groin or throat), is that the attacker will find all the distractions a confusing fog of movement and will likely become less responsive to a) one big mother sucker punch to get them the hell off you and / or b) a hardy shove on the chest, away and slightly downward to break posture, create distance, and get out of there.

Two – the anticipation of pain is worse than the pain itself.  If you can get your attacker to fear pain, then it is likely their will to fight will be reduced in proportion with their belief in their ability to win without injury.  Your ability to fight will, in turn, increase with your belief in your ability to win.  To continue my eighties film analogy, this is the bit where they found the glowing green blood on a leaf in Predator: “If it bleeds, we can kill it”.

Now this can be tricky, since as we mentioned earlier the first thing to go when the adrenaline (or vodka) kicks in is pain sensation.  So instead of going for pain, go for the areas of the body which pain was designed to protect, the vital areas.  Attack the eyes, the throat, the plexus, kneecaps, groin, feet and hands.  Areas of high sensitivity, and areas that the body is hard-wired to protect.  Get a good shot in one of these areas and watch the pain cut through, as the bring tries to protect something it actually needs to survive this fight in the first place.

Also, threaten pain.  Now if he’s attacking you, waving your fist ain’t gonna cut it – we’ve already established that in his assessment of you he’s seen nothing he finds particularly scary.  However if you introduce something that will trigger that response, then the stakes are changed.  Normally I wouldn’t be the one to encourage a weapon since pulling a knife is actually a pretty good predictor that you, yourself, are going to get stabbed.  However if your life is in danger, then picking up something that your attacker fears will do them damage, and waving it about, can be a pretty effective means of halting an attack as self-preservation kicks in.  What’s around you – any ash-trays, chairs or bits of wood?  Get creative; I once saw a kid pick up a bicycle and wave it at his attacker – who stopped, perhaps out of confusion more than anything else.

Three – pain is worse than the anticipation of pain, if it’s unpredictable.  Fear of the unknown is our most powerful, and debilitating fear.  Apart from giant hairy spiders and, for some reason, the witch from the Moomins.  Or is that just me (last obscure 80’s TV reference, I promise).

Now, for the record, we’re getting more into control & restraint territory here than self-defence so if you’re just reading for personal safety purposes, you can skip this bit as it really isn’t relevant.  Still with me?  OK.

Now, what bugs me a lot in martial arts, is when somebody gets a good lock then uses it as an opportunity to test out their newest pressure points.  It’s normally junior grades who do this, as soon enough one finds out the hard way that the quickest way to get a badger to furiously break out of a cage is to poke it with a stick.

However in the process of manipulation, control and restraint giving someone a reason to expect a certain pain from a certain direction is very effective at reducing their resistance to pain from another.  Think of it as an attack on a castle.  You move all your forces to repel an attack on the East wing, which leaves you wide open when the sneaky force advancing behind uprooted trees to breach the West wing (Shakespeare reference that one – pat yourself on the back if you got it).  Get half a lock on, make a big show of a kick or a punch being brewed up in eyeshot, then get a sneaky one in out of their line of site from the other side in a wizardly example of misdirection.  You’ll find it a very effective way of breaking resistance, creating confusion and controlling direction.

So there you have it.  How Not to Get Hit’s introduction to pain.  I’ve barely touched the surface here really, you could fill a whole book with this stuff but at least here, with a bit of though, play and practice, you’ll find something that comes in handy one day.  Whatever colour, or pattern, or cartoon animal, you personally feel that day to be.

*You know, like you did at school to your friends in maths class.  A friend of mine, John, once was asked by another friend, Andre, if he could stab him in the hand with a compass.  Expecting a playful poke, he unwisely agreed.  What he was not expecting was for Andre to suddenly grab his write, pin his hand to the table, raise his compass high above his head like a talisman, and bring it down with all his might**.  It got noisy.  To the best of my knowledge he still can’t wiggle his little finger.

**He should have – this is a guy who once threw a wheely-bin through a classroom window, and took a box of Rice Crispies onto the school bus only to, in turn, throw them at people and shove them up his nose screaming “set the crispy bits free!” at the top of his voice.  Unpredictable, is what I’m saying.

Seven Simple Things

Let’s start this essay, and it is an essay, with a little test.  No wait come back, don’t worry, this will be a fun one I promise.  Give yourself thirty seconds to read through the following list of words.  It’ll help to say them out loud as you read, and visualise items as you go.  Ready, set, go:

Train; cutlery; coffee; rucksack; curtain; ocean; jungle; airplane; shirt; crockery; coffee; trousers.

Finished?  Right no cheating, cover up the words and write down as many as you can remember.

How did you get on?  If you got 10, 11 or 12, stop reading this and go join Mensa right now, you’re a genius.  If you got 1, 2 or 3, maybe try again later when you’re not driving, or fall-down drunk.  Really I’m not being funny, there’s probably something wrong with you if you got 1-3.  Get help.

If you got anything between 4 and 9, congratulations – you’re average.  You’re in the normal range of people who take this test.  If you got 6, 7 or 8 then you’re right at the top of the bell curve, in the good company of the vast majority of the population.  The most average of the average, if you will.  If you were a colour, it would be beige.

Well that was a jolly nice bit of fun.  Now that we’ve broken the ice you and I, keeping your score in mind, let me tell you a little tale…

There’s a city in Latin America which bears the lofty accolade, quite literally, of being the highest metropolis in the world – rubbing shoulders with the mountains and the sky at a dizzying 2,800 meters above sea level.  It’s so high that if you fly there from a lower locale, you run a very real risk of altitude sickness as soon as you get out of the airplane – not, perhaps, the best way to start a relaxing holiday.

This is why many people choose instead to fly to a nearby city near the coast, where the mountains dip their toes into the cool surf of the Pacific Ocean.  There you can catch a train up the mountain, gradually acclimatising to the altitude as you ascend.  Well, I say gradually, but the path from coast to crest is nothing of the sort scaling, as it does, the sheer face of the mountain.

To do this, the train has carved tracks out of the very stuff of the mountainside and to make its’ ascent it zig-zags its’ way across the slope, reversing on itself at the end of each section to make the next climb.

This takes time.  The flight from city to city takes 50 minutes, the drive five hours, and the train a stately four days to reach its destination.  But to dismiss such a journey based on time alone would be to miss out on some astonishing views as the lush, equatorial rainforest that bursts from the coast gradually dissolves into green rolling hills, which in turn give way to purple, jagged mountain tops.

And what a train!  We are not talking about some creaking metal worm in whose innards you perch uncomfortably on plastic seats, sipping bad coffee from a polystyrene cup and nibbling a dried, curled egg sandwich.  No in this train the stately Victorian carriages are made of the finest carved wood, dripping with luxury and excess.  The sound is deadened by the rich, deep carpets and the thick bound curtains whilst tea is served from the finest silverware and china.

All this, and the gentle incline allows the traveller by train to reach the top energised and ready to explore the city, whilst his counterpart alighting an airplane clutches his throat and collapses, vainly clawing the sky as he gasps for oxygen from the thin, mountain air….

I wonder, if we asked these two men as one draws a satisfied breath and takes in the view, and the other takes panicked gasps for oxygen as he drops to his knees, how many words from the list at the start of this story they might recall.  One no doubt will breeze through as he gently takes satisfied sips of air whilst the other will stare at you confused, pre-occupied perhaps with the one single dominating thought of his continued survival.  I won’t spoil the surprise by telling you which is which.

A man I know, let’s call him Ted, recently made such a trip, which as you can probably guess is why I’m able to wax so lyrically about this little-known attraction.  True to form, the gentle ascent meant he positively leaped from the train, ready to explore the beautiful city it took him to backpack on his back, camera at the ready.  Eagerly Ted strode forward, and out of the station.  Here he paused, taking in the extended views of rooftops vanishing into the distance; the crystal clear air making the distant buildings look like a quilt of Lego, or an over-zealous domino track made by a particularly enthusiastic nine year old.

And then, with but a cursory glance to those asphyxiating at the airport, Ted set off.  And immediately into a local man coming the other way, who spilled hot coffee all over our hero’s shirt, trousers and rucksack.  Luckily the local was not annoyed, more troubled in fact by the mess he’d made of Ted.  He began to help, padding with a hankie as Ted tried to deal with the hot coffee on his shirt and trousers, the fear his camera could be ruined, and this man industriously patting at his clothing.  It was at this point that another man arrived on the scene, equally concerned, and began helping Ted off with his rucksack as the coffee was seeping into the pockets, and running down Ted’s back.  Off came the rucksack, which the man then appeared to drop on the ground by mistake.  Another man appeared, picked up the rucksack, and in the blink of an eye all three dissolved into the crowd.

And Ted was left alone, dazed, and with the growing realisation that he had just been mugged.

Speaking about it afterwards, he told me his strongest memory was just how good the four people who did it were. There was no noise, no violence, no force – just a well rehearsed set of actions that left him on the ground without his rucksack.

“By the time I was off my knees, they had gone. I still have no idea where they went. The hotel doorman saw nothing. There were people in the street but nobody reacted. Everything was normal and quiet, apart from the fact that I was standing on the pavement, without my rucksack and with no idea where it was and these people had gone.”

I should mention here that Ted’s not your average holiday-maker.  He’s a seasoned traveller who has seen half the globe over the years; he’s a martial artist of 20 years experience, and he’s an ex-professional rugby player.  And all that was for nought because of seven little things.

Seven little things.  Spilled coffee.  Wet clothes.  Wet rucksack. Apologising, fussing man.  Second, fussing man. Dropped rucksack.  Third man.

The human brain, constantly exposed to thousands of points of stimulus every second of every day, is actually only able to process and retain at any one time, seven simple things.  That’s why you could only remember about that many from the list of objects at the beginning; it’s also why it takes three men twenty seconds to relieve a world-wise, very experienced traveller of a rucksack that was securely attached to his back, and vanish.

Buckle Your Belt

I had the fortune, the other day, to be walking along the road behind one of those ‘teenagers’ they have these days.  It was of what I believe is called the ‘Hip-Hop’ variety; you know, the ones that wear lopsided baseball caps precariously balanced on their lopsided heads; the kind who somehow manage to appear to be constantly walking round in circles, even when they’re going in a straight line, as they saunter from one street corner to the next with their adorable lopsided strides.

I know I’m not the first to draw attention to the peculiar pack-conforming behaviours and fashion choices of the youth of today, and to be fair who am I to judge these attempts to belong – those who have read How Not to Get Hit will be all too aware of my own personal fashion choices from those lost years (it’s too painful to go back over here, buy the book – but if I were to tell you a doorman once exited me from a nightclub using the item he could get the best grip on, which happened to be my pony tail, you’ll begin to get the idea).

Still, even though I’m probably the last person who should be casting linguistic missiles from my cosy glass-pained abode, I can’t help thinking that of all the peculiar attire with which these ‘teenagers’ tend to adorn themselves, their method of wearing trousers is, frankly, witchcraft.

I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to walk down a street with a pair of jeans sitting below your butt cheeks but frankly, it’s impossible.  I can only assume that those precariously balanced baseball caps grant these ‘teenagers’ the magical ability to defy the laws of physics.  Or perhaps it explains the lopsided walk, as they’re actually clenching their butt-cheeks tighter than a doorman clutching a ponytail in a desperate attempt to keep their hippety-hoppety jeans above their hippety-hoppety knees.

For god’s sake chaps, if you’re reading this, buy a belt.  Not only will this free up your butt-cheeks for party tricks such as cracking walnuts, such must be your toning after years of clenching; not only will you discover walking in a straight line isn’t just something other people can do; not only will you be able to wear your comfy old worn-out underwear out of the house since two-thirds won’t constantly be on display; you’ll also learn a valuable lesson in self defence.  Honestly.

You see belts aren’t just good for holding up trousers; they’re also a fantastic way of finding out where your centre of gravity is and this, my friends, is the road to the nirvana of combat.

Accessing your maximum power is all about identifying and using your centre of gravity. Taking away someone’s strength is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Throwing someone is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Tripping someone over is all about destabilising their centre of gravity.  Neutralising an attack is all about destabilising the centre of gravity.  Winning fights is all about destabilising the centre of gravity.

Power comes not from your muscles, it comes from your balance.  This one’s easy to prove – try hitting a punch-bag as hard as you can whilst standing on one leg.  Very little will happen save for an embarrassed cough from the bag and, perhaps, the floor hitting you.  This is down to the fact that to realise the force in your skeletal stricture you need to anchor that structure against something.  To anchor it, you need to be stable yourself or some of that force will be lost in your own, unplanned movement rather than transferring all the energy into your target.  Ideally you would create this using three points of contact with the ground.  Sadly most of us only have two, so we use our centre of balance as the third anchor point – moving it in relation to our feet to maintain balance and transfer energy into a target, rather than our own wasted movement.  Think about those cool little desk toys from the 80’s, with four suspended metal balls knocking into each other.  It’ll help.

Once this is understood in your own body (give it a few years), then it becomes a simple task to understand how an opponent is creating force (give it a few more years) and, through manipulation of their centre of gravity, nullify this force as the energy they would have put into a strike must be redirected into adjusting their balance, or falling over.

Throwing  is a simple matter of finding your opponents centre of gravity and using your own as leverage to move it.  If you’re big, and they’re small, you can move someone without leverage. The other way round, though, and you’ve got a problem.  Have you ever tried to pick up a sack of potatoes?  Actually no, you probably haven’t, this isn’t the 19th century after all.  Um, modern analogy… ah – got it.

Have you ever been to IKEA and had to pick up a really heavy bag full of home furnishings? Think about how you use your bum as leverage to get the thing over your shoulder – you lift it halfway, and then kind of move your bum under it, yes?  Well, that’s it – you’re moving your balance to a point where you can move the weight around through leverage against your core body, rather than trying to use your muscles to shift all those lampshades, picture frames and washing-up brushes (isn’t it odd how you always seem to leave with one of those washing-up brushes from the escalator).

To throw someone, you have to find their centre of gravity, move yours to a position where you can create leverage, and allow your opponent to ‘fall’ around your own, stable centre.

Tripping is similar to throwing, except instead of creating leverage against your opponents centre of gravity, you’re using their imaginary third leg to make them fall.  No sniggering at the back – your third leg is actually the shifting point of balance created by your centre of gravity to stop you falling over, and ladies have it too.  We all stand on two feet; when we move, we basically start falling over towards our ‘third leg’, or at least where it would be if we had one, and then stick a foot in the way.  By placing a foot where our third leg should have been, we get it under our centre of gravity again to stop falling over and repeat (except those hippety-hoppety teenagers – God only knows how they do it).

So, to throw someone, we need to make sure that our own centre of gravity is rooted and stable, find the point where someone’s third leg is / should be, move their body toward this point (you’ll be surprised at how little resistance you encounter in doing this) and stop their leg from moving under their centre of gravity again.  Hey presto – they are now falling.

Confused?  Yeah me too; nobody said this was going to be easy.  But trust me, you can’t go wrong if you start by buying yourself a good sturdy belt.


You Don’t Know How to Breathe

You know, sometimes it’s easy to write a blog.   Sometimes you’ll be walking along the street and you’ll see something, or something will happen, and you’ll think “that’s it!” and suddenly you’ll have a topic, or good entry into a point, or both and some deep insightful point about personal safety would be just around the corner.

A couple of years ago that kind of thing used to happen to me all the time, travelling around China for a year it’d be a strange day if I didn’t find something I could write about.  These days, sadly, my experiences are not such blog fodder – my horizons have shrunk to England, a regular 9-5 job, a mortgage, a dog.

Well, no dog.

But I like the image.

And I want a dog.

Such a sedentary lifestyle also comes with its own problems – you don’t realise how much you moved in a day until it’s gone, and your commute consists of stumbling downstairs into the spare room (I work from home).  If you’re over 30, this takes its toll – stiffness, low energy, short breath.  If you’re under 30, you bastard, don’t worry you may not understand yet – but you will…

So, to try and defend against my creeping atrophy, I dedicated my early mornings to stretching, and breathing.  Self defence against sloth, if you will.  For me it was Qi Gong, a series of Chinese stretches and diaphragmatic breathing techniques using dynamic tension.

If that sounds a bit confusing, don’t worry it sounds harder than it is but you’re not alone – almost nobody I know knows how to breathe.  Oh sure they think they do, and they manage to do it well enough to not collapse in a dying heap on the floor every 20 seconds, but trust me they don’t.  No offence but there’s a pretty good chance that you, reading this, don’t know how to either.

And you know what, I’m not sure why.  Babies know how to breathe – you watch the wee nappy wearing tykes as they trot along; you can see their belly thrusting in and out as their lungs remain pretty still.  That’s because they’re breathing with their diaphragm.  In fact you watch a running horse or dog, even an angry gorilla – diaphragm, diaphragm, diaphragm.  (although if you are watching an angry Gorilla to be fair the fact that there is an angry Gorilla at close proximity is probably the main thought that’ll be running through your head. Rather than ‘ooh, look at how he uses his diaphragm to do such a fancy roar’).

Somehow, along the way, we forget on our path to adulthood and replace the correct muscle memory for breathing with a shallow, chest-led breathing that only accesses about 60% of our total lung capacity.

Now this is fine for our modern aged sedentary lifestyle of sitting at home, sitting in a car, sitting on the train then sitting at a desk.  You don’t need much oxygen for that, and you’re not getting much.  Job done.

The problem is, when you’re suddenly put into a high-stress situation like, say, being attacked, you’re not going to be able to cope.  As soon as the adrenal response kicks in, your blood vessels dilate so that more blood can be pumped around the body, giving more oxygen to your limbs and organs to function at a much higher rate for short periods of time – to fight back, run swiftly in the opposite direction, or both.  Any which way, you’re going to need oxygen, and lots of it.

The problem is that with all that shallow breathing you’ve spend all that time training your body to do that’s what you’re going to do in a pickle, and your body is making much higher demands of your oxygen supply, you’re just not going to get enough fuel to get the job done.  It’d be like trying to drive a race car with half the sparkplugs, or running a steam train with half the coal.  Or an angry Gorilla with half the bananas.  Or something.

My advice, for what it’s worth, is to learn to breathe properly and then do it – all the time. This is easier than you might think.  Qi Gong does it for me, but you can also get it from most traditional martial arts (with a good instructor), Tai Chi, Yoga, Pilates, a good fitness instructor or even an actor or speech coach

Through QiGong and martial arts I learnt how to access breathing and use it to add power to movement, but I actually learned most about how to actively engage the diaphragm through a speech coach.

Whatever the source they key is to do it.  As much as you can.  When sitting, walking, exercising, everywhere.  Because you need to turn it into a muscle memory, make it normal, replace that horrible shallow lung-breathing I see everywhere with some lovely, deep, diaphragmatic breathing.

Then, and only then, in a high-stress situation, will you will the correct muscle memory response kick in and get your enough of the 02 good stuff to do what you need to do.  Your body will be primed to squeeze every last drop of goodness from the air and turning it to energy to fight back, escape, survive.

It’ll also help you sleep, and concentrate, and reduce stress, and increase energy and if you’re really luck, tenuously link a dull life of lethargy to a fundamental lesson on self defence for a blog promoting an awesome book.