Big John’s Blog

17th to 24th August 2020

Week commencing 17th, 24th, 31st August

One thing that doesn't mix well with camping however, is being on crutches. So when our Son Max broke his ankle on the coastal path with a week left on site, our camping holiday became a slightly different kind of recreation. Getting in and out of a tent on crutches during the rain, or at night and during rain is an unremittingly bleak experience. Coping with covid is one thing, breaking your ankle is another, but then howling gale force winds and biblical rainfall with a broken tent finally forced us to end our holiday prematurely and so we slunk back up the A30 to enjoy some home comforts before the return to work in September.

However, despite the sad ending to the holiday there were many highlights to make it all worthwhile. The campsite being open was wonderful news after months of wondering what was going to happen. There were of course limitations around showers and the reception/shop area, but for the puritans amongst us (ie Me) that only added to the retreat - like nature of the whole camping experience. If it was easy, you wouldn't appreciate it, you would just take it for granted. Plenty of days were spent on the beach, which, being secluded and difficult to get to, is one of the best in the country. And until the accident, there were miles and miles of coastal path to walk along, populated by wildlife either rare or unique to the area. Alpine Choughs had bred in the cliffs above the beach for the first time ever, the shoals of grey mullet were present in the surf around us and I had an exciting encounter with a rather beautiful Adder. I look forward to next year. 

10th August 2020

Week commencing 10.08.20 

Camping under canvas. We’ve all done it. But have we? Many people, it seems, have not been camping and do not understand why anyone would want to. As one commentator drly put it, why would you have a holiday in a crappier place than the one you live in? Its all relative I guess and I can kind of see that point. If you live somewhere rubbish, why would you go somewhere with even less facilities, or perhaps more basic? And therein lies the whole purpose of it, in a nutshell. Campsites, traditionally, are in vaguely rural or coastal settings, they don't tend to occur in built up areas, although Bristol does have a motorhome or camper van site at Spike Island in the City Centre, I know because Ive been there.

So if, for example, you want to make a hot drink; at home you tend to put the kettle on, select a mug, and look for tea or coffee all at the same time as checking texts and emails or packing a bag, whilst thinking about your lunch or whatever you need to pick up later for tea. Then you move to the fridge and check which one of your various milk options (dairy, non dairy, etc etc) smells ok, check the kettle again, send a text. The tedious roundabout goes on and on, all the while you are checking the time counting down the minutes before you have to do something else.

However, when you make a hot drink on a campsite, yes you do the same sort of things, but somehow time stretches. You don't really have to ‘be’ anywhere, and that kettle, well, you might have to find a water source, maybe even walk to a tap, even to refill the water you already have in a supply somewhere in your tent or van. 

Nothing is in a particularly convenient place and all the while you will be partially outside, or trying to do this without waking somebody else up. Then suddenly, you notice a row of birds on a telegraph line, are they crows, or starlings? why don't they get electrocuted? and whats that other bird that seems to be dive bombing them? they all jump up then land again, and the sky becomes a bruised backdrop to it all, tossing a load of white seabirds around as well in a crazy blend of nature. Blimey, the kettles boiling already and you don't have the mug or the tea bag. But that tent over the way looks like its going to take off, its flapping like a matador running for his life from a bull.

None of it matters, but all of it does somehow. You aren't going to be late because you are on holiday. If you cant find the coffee, have tea. No milk? try it black. The thing is, by investing purpose in the most simple tasks and letting them take as long as they take, we are entering into the realm of ‘Mindfulness’, and this, for me, is why people go camping. Whether its lying under a sheet of canvas on an inflatable rubber mat, or lying under a sheet of metal on a foam mattress that doubles as a seat, its just good to remember that the things we take for granted, like water on tap, are not just ‘there’ for everyone. Some people have to walk miles to collect and carry back dirty water to their family, before setting off on foot again to go to school. Going back to basics, which is what camping is,  somehow helps us remember that

July and Early August

Week commencing July & August  03.20 

Having had 4 months of well nigh part time work, your author felt it was about time for a holiday. Bearing in mind how awful the pandemic has been for many people, my ethical compass was spinning wildly as I considered the idea of going on a holiday. Lets not forget that living in Devon during lockdown is quite a different proposition to say living in Birmingham. Then again, living in a tower block of flats in Plymouth is very different to living in a cottage in Shaldon with gardens front and rear, although both are in Devon.

My point is that the lock down has been awful for some people, coping with fatalities and lingering, serious illnesses; but it has also been awful for people with no access to the outdoors in the form of  a garden, dwindling finances, interrupted educational provision and thats not just schools, I’m thinking about higher education and those students paying nine thousand pounds a year in tuition fees. 

Those of us with gardens and access to public footpaths through green field landscapes almost have a duty to make the most of such fantastic resources. Personally, I can step out of my house and garden, cross the road I live in, stroll up an alley between two rows of houses, over a few more roads through the Kingsway estate until I meet the public footpath that runs alongside the Broadmeadow industrial and retail estate. At that point the dog is off the lead and I am making my way past allotments, fruit laden hedgerows, two hundred year old Oak trees and astonishingly tall poplars until I hit open country with herds of dairy cattle (a rare sight these days with the big five hegemony of supermarkets), sheep that resemble lice, and buzzards overhead making their peculiar mixture of whistle and squeak. Further on up the valley on some of the steepest slopes in the vicinity, almost incredibly, we have a vineyard, with row upon row of grapevines just about clinging on to the hillside; watching tractors crawling up the adjacent hills is a phenomenon I personally don't need a closer examination of, but each to their own.

Another incline, up a green lane, brings me to the top of one side of the Teign valley offering glorious views to the south and west. Passing a farm once owned by Matt Bellamy of the local popular music combo known I believe as ‘The Muse’ brings me to fields overlooking the estuary, back beach, town beach, pier and ness. The walk then tails off as I arrive back at the other side of Broadmeadow estate and head back to my house, and thats three miles, great for fitness both physically and mentally.

So, there we have it, all on our doorstep. To not go and interact with that, providing you have time is just a missed opportunity.

However, despite all that environment going on around me, I still feel the need to go on holiday, but thats probably because the type of holiday we tend to go on is more like a retreat than a fun packed extravaganza

13th July 2020

Week commencing 29th/06th/13th/07.20

So as we all begin to adapt to picking up our face mask on the way out, in the same way as we do gloves or scarves in winter, I wonder how much ground the virus is gaining in the new battle of Britain. 

Whether or not opening pubs up on Independence day (in America) was a good idea, who knows? Many of the pubs I traipse past on my daily walks seem not to have bothered, but then I don't happen to either visit, or walk past, the great mecca of mini me Trump that is Wetherspoons. 

I’m not even sure if he furloughed his staff or not, I wouldn't be surprised if he deemed the virus to be ‘fake news’ or ‘just another common cold thing’ in that pancake haired idiotic way that his buddy from over there did. Who’s laughing now eh? Well, no one actually, because dying is no laughing matter. Perhaps now Trump has had to relent and put a mask on, someone could develop a mask that prevents any vocalisation emanating from within it? But he would need gloves as well after all, to censor his twitter rants.

The new normal ‘aint what it used to be, but certainly the weather has held out enough for us to manage a few weeks of training outside. One of the interesting decisions to make has been footwear, or more precisely, to wear or not. 

I have been causing a stir in my crocs and whilst I can see the humorous side of seeing someone knocking out a side thrust kick in a clumpy old foam sandal, it has to be said that unlike on wet concrete paving, where they are absolutely fatal to dare wearing, on grass they hardly seem to slip at all. 

The main reason I turn up in the silly old things is because for many years now I have taken exercise either barefoot in a dojo, or fully booted with chunky socks and a stick, as I tramp the moors and paths of Devon and Cornwall. I simply don't have any training shoes and I don't think I have had any since some time around the mid 1980s. In one of those strange consequences that you occasionally notice, 

I realised that I have not run anywhere other than a rugby pitch for as long as I can remember. In rugby, its all boots and studs and gum shields, so trainers were never absolutely necessary. Unless, of course, you trained by running in the streets or around purpose built tracks, something I never seemed to have done, despite the fact that I did play the game at quite an intense and serious level. 

For the subsequent years of inactivity, until I rediscovered my true love (Karate), I watched training shoes change in design and was constantly fascinated. From the tennis shoes, gym ‘pumps’ or plimsolls (named after the plimsoll line on a ship……) and basketball ankle high things of the 1960s and 1970s, we suddenly had an epidemic of footwear that seemed to echo the design lines of modern cars. 

The chunky soles and wrap around fenders certainly resemble some of the SUVs that are busily fetching and carrying our little children to and from school. I remember once inheriting a pair of used ‘Air Jordan’ Nike ‘sneakers’ while working on summer camp in the states, and wondering what all the fuss was about. I recently noticed that a pair of these exact trainers that were actually worn by Michael Jordan, probably only a few times, went in to auction for hundreds of thousands of dollars. 

It wont be long before we start seeing triple stripes or swoosh ticks on our face masks I guess.

22nd June 2020

Week commencing 8th, 15th & 22nd/06/20

So, we are three weeks into our outdoor training programme. No one has complained about us and we have observed social distancing protocol most of the time. Anyone who reads this but has not yet joined in the sessions, please feel free to come along, it offers a real boost to well being and mental health. You can really sense the purpose and feeling of achievement surging through the group, as if we are collectively saying ‘oh yeah this is what its like training with other people’ after being locked away on our own for three months.

Fingers crossed the weather holds, because its going to be interesting if rainfall breaks out part way through a session. There is an element of endurance and determination that I would love to explore with the group, something like a cross between ‘celebrity SAS who dares wins’ and a rugby match. I’m not allowed to talk about my past in the SAS, its all classified, but, I did once play rugby, usually in winter and often in the freezing cold. My position was wing three quarter, which basically meant hanging around in the freezing cold, waiting for the ball to pop up in front of me so that I could run a few steps and fall flat on my face in a pool of icy mud. So, if I could manage doing that for years and years, I’m sure I can cope with a sprinkling of rain during Basai Dai.

Somebody asked me recently what I will take from the lock down in terms of personal gains. As it was a social occasion I didn't really want to say ‘its allowed me to run through my katas every day un interrupted’ for some reason, and so instead I talked about another aspect of lock down that actually has become a priority which I hope to accommodate in everyday life from now on, and that is walking.

From our own doorstep, we are able to access not only rolling hills, but also moor, heathland and beaches. It really is incredible and I honestly think it has changed our lives. I mean, we always did walk and were aware of how lucky we are, but now we actually factor in our day around our walk, it has become the centrepiece of our day. My wife has an app on her phone which tells us how many miles we walk each day and the last time we looked, cumulatively, it had reached well over 200 miles. We haven't taken phones every time we have walked either, my son and I walked the Templer Way twice, which is 18 miles each time, during which time we didn't have the app. We really are lucky to live where we live, because rather than an inward looking lock down experience, we have been able to look to the horizons and safely stretch our legs. For this I am extremely grateful and aware of the sacrifices others have had to make.

1st June 2020

Week commencing 01.06.20

Finally, the day many of us had been waiting for arrived, a handful of senior members gathered together in a field and trained together! 

Observing the conditions of social distancing and practising common sense, a group of us met outside Sensei Biff’s club on a grassy knoll and got down to business. Darren warmed us up and Sensei Dave kicked it all off with some gentle drills of kicking and punching, followed by some ons step partner routines at arm’s length and rounding off with kata Jihon, one of the three katas that begin with the left hand covering the right, the others being Jitte and Ji in. This characteristic apparently has its roots in ancient forms of Chinese boxing. 

Although how this is recognised I am really not sure because people from every country on earth have been punching and kicking each other since time began so surely China cant have a monopoly on how you hold your fists in between striking.

Although categorised as an advanced kata, certainly black belt at any rate, it is made up of basic movements and therefore is one of those katas that is easy to underperform and lose points on in competition. Upon turning, prior to the three middle steps in horse stance, if you do not execute your gidan bari correctly it will become a glaring error. In fact, the sequences which have distinct directional changes all begin with simple moves like the three age uke leading up to the first Kiai, and if these do not have the correct kimae they really ruin the whole kata. Its further proof I guess that every single move has to be executed fully, there is no room to fudge it, you have to ‘make every move real’.

As we were training, we did notice a passer by who appeared to be filming us, it would be a shame if someone were to report us for a gathering of less than ten in a wide open field when only today there were crowds shoving to get into shops for the much heralded kickstart to the economy. Have we learned nothing from all of this? Surely our economy should hinge on something more sustainable than buying unnecessary items of clothing? Time will tell, but in the meantime lets enjoy a temporary reprieve from training solo!

25th May 2020

Week commencing 25.05.20 

Kata, kata, kata. Combinations, pads, weights……alone, with a partner. On it goes, day after day, week after week. Alongside this some work as a sprinkling of children return to school. Thankfully it appears that people are making their own choices about how much interaction we can safely engage in. After the deceit, double standards and arrogance of those in charge of us, it appears that some people at least are voting with their feet and staying at home. 

Moreover its been interesting to discover what they have all been doing there. Personally, its not all been combat training and walking for me, I’ve not been prepping for the apocalypse particularly, I’ve also been paying attention to lots of other things that have not had the attention they deserve. 

Dozens of jobs in the house and garden have been attempted, and up until recently it was very interesting to be limited by the tools and resources that are already on site. There were no shops open and so if you required any particular tool or material, you had to hope there would be something lurking in the garage or tool shed that would fit the bill. Consequently, in the spirit of this I made a raised bed for the garden out of an outdoor dining table, using the already existing structure but re purposing it. 

Like wise we repaired some windowsills with old fragments of sandpaper, a few tools and some left over sealant. Now the shops are open again it almost feels like cheating by going to purchase particular items for jobs. That said, hopefully the spirit of make do and mend will continue to thrive in the post semi lock down era.

When it comes to relaxing, theres always the telly, but I grew up reading books because we didn't have a telly until I was seven. Consequently I have always read to relax and momentarily escape. However, of late, I have worried that all my reading has been purely escapist with little or no challenge and as a result I finally picked up Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and suddenly I’m in the year 1528, with no electricity, NHS or local authority support. There's a plague, Its bloody and grim, and there are no fairy tale endings……………. 

18th May 2020

Week commencing 18.05.20

As well as practising kata on a daily basis, I set myself a task of really practising those kata that have slipped through the net because we don't often do them in class and therefore don't often practise them in our own time. Brushing up on the finer points of a kata you are not particularly acquainted with requires some research, and for most people this means you tube. However, before you tube, if you wanted to check on something at home, all that you had were the little pictograms with arrows and foot prints, or little camera stills of a sensei performing a kata, one frame per step, a little like Edward Muybridge, (1830-1904) a photographer famous for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion, and early work in motion-picture projection. 

He is also known for murdering the man his wife had an affair with, and being acquitted in court with a verdict of justifiable homicide.

He took thousands of photos of humans and animals in motion, especially horses, developing a miraculous process for capturing movement on film and laying the foundations for the imminent motion picture industry. He presented his photographs in touring exhibitions using a device called a zoopraxiscope 

It was while I was looking at those tiny photographs of the teachers performing their Kata (some of which are illustrations, some of which are photographs), that I thought about Muybridge and how he had successfully managed to capture the essence of movement in horses, and whether he had ever had any involvement in combat sports. When I discovered the image included above, I became more interested and decided to do further research, more of which later.

The point I was trying to make, in such long winded fashion, was how difficult it is to correct something you are unsure of, or learn something new, without actually practising and having dialogue with another person. This is an example of the term experiential learning,which in other words means learning by doing, as opposed to reading, then attempting to perform a task. Karate is certainly an example of this kind of learning, which we will hopefully not be deprived of for much longer.  

11th May 2020

Week commencing 11.05.20

One of the features of lockdown that may be considered a double edged sword, or a coin with two sides, or a game of two halves or any other example of a duality or idea where two things are grouped together to compare, is television. Part of all television is utter dross and part of it is quite adequate entertainment. I would not describe it as a Janus figure (ancient Roman myth of two sided face) but rather an example of cognitive dissonance taking place. Cognitive dissonance is where conflicting ideas, beliefs or behaviours are held causing mental discomfort, leading to an alteration in one of the ideas in order to restore a comfortable balance.

It is possible that we might consciously apply this process to how we watch television, in order to stimulate the reward sections in our brain, assuming we are not simply turning the television on when we wake up in the morning and letting it exist as background noise all day and night. I understand that some people do this perhaps for company, but that is not what I want to look at today, instead, what I am considering is how we control our consumption of television according to our relationship with the things around us and our activities during lockdown.

Being creatures of habit who strive to create routine in order to establish some control over our lives, the beginning of lockdown was disorientating. No job, no travel, no training, no contact - all of our routines dissolved. Quite quickly, I suspect, we began to impose discipline, to achieve purpose in our new realities, whether this was home schooling our children, exercising, gardening, home repairs, hobbies or Karate. 

For many people (certainly of my generation), television, the digital offspring of the cathode ray, which once occupied a corner, but has now achieved prominence on walls, felt like a slightly dangerous confection, in need of restriction or limitation. Indeed, the fear of ‘laying around all day watching telly’, (which was not actually an option in our childhood as there were only three channels and they ceased broadcasting during the school day hours) has stayed with us and in our house it’s employment is reduced to evening duty.

Moreover, returning to the cognitive dissonance, not only can we control whether the television is switched on or not, when it is in action we can control the content in order to achieve a harmonious balance that we find satisfying. We can do this through choosing between information and entertainment (infotainment?) and between the sub categories of those also. So there is news and documentaries, fact and fiction, sport, comedy etc etc. 

However, in my humble opinion, the one overriding, shining beauty of the digital revolution is the truly wonderful ability to exterminate the tyranny of advertising. This is partly due to digital technology, we can just zapp the filth out, and partly because we have saved the BBC, which continues to create excellent content through the license fee rather than advertising.

Just as every Thursday we clap the NHS, (which is bitterly ironic as the Government are continuing their stealth privatisation of it) and frontline workers: maybe we should clap the BBC? After all, it is also constantly under threat from successive Conservative Government ministers, many of whom would gladly be rid of it for ever.

4th May 2020

Week commencing 04.05.20 

May The 4th Be With You………………..there we are, Ive said it.


In 1977 I didn't have anyone to go and see Star Wars with and cant actually remember wanting to go, so it all kind of passed me by along with a lot of other ‘Sci Fi’. Ive found the real world weird enough, whether or not thats any kind of excuse, I’m not sure, but its certainly not a case of me damning the whole genre, I’m a fan of writers like James Ballard and Raymond Bradbury. 

For me, the best Sci Fi is not a face full of CGI but rather something that is ever so slightly just one step from reality, enough to think you are in the real realm and then wham! you most certainly are not. 

Through parenting I have tried to be interested but maybe due to our indifference, who knows, our children don't seem to have absorbed the global obsession for the franchise either. They like it sure, but they also like the Lord of the Rings films or all the Pixar productions too.

The two other notable events were the death of a pop singer called Elvis Presley, and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the latter prompting bunting and street parties, of which I have no recollection at all. The year before however, I do remember for two reasons, the Long Hot Summer and Punk Rock, not that I was allowed to immerse myself in Punk, having a Policeman Father, I had to enjoy it from a distance.

So having just completed our single daily walking exercise, my wife informs me that we walked seven miles, which I find hard to believe but the smartphone never lies. One of the joys of these walks is that the season of spring is here and everything is waking up. Birds, butterflies, plants flowers and trees, all are enjoying something of a renaissance due to the global lockdown. Indeed, recent walks have allowed us to see a wonderfully vibrant natural world of flora and fauna that seems to be rewarding our lack of emissions with a sensational display of sight and sound. For those of us able to get out and about, please make the most of it and enjoy it on behalf of those less fortunate, who are either at work or have other responsibilities. 

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