Tuesday, 17 March 2015

Handcarts and Alternatives.

            The last couple of posts have been on martial arts so today’s will be more survival orientated.

            Recently I saw a comedian who commented:-

 “We put men on the moon decades before we thought of putting wheels on suitcases.”

            I have been researching a few other topics that are out of the scope of this blog but a common thread that keeps turning up is that of handcarts.

            There was a time when every scout troop had at least one handcart to move their tents and supplies. Many of these would have been made by the troop themselves. Below is a rather nice illustration of a stretcher case suspended below a handcart. Perhaps the Scoutmaster was having a nap.

            When 3,000 Mormons chose to migrate to Utah in the 19th century they travelled in companies of handcarts. Some of these families came from as far away as the British Isles and Scandinavia.

            I have come across many photographs of handcarts in use during the Second World War. This is a nice webpage on the US military handcart. A couple of these could ride on the flatbed of a truck and still leave room for a squad or two of troops seated on the side benches. Handcarts are shown towed behind jeeps or riding in the cargo area of the jeep.
           The picture below depicts a 1944 USMC machine gun section, and you can clearly see they had a handcart as standard equipment for each squad. As an aside, I note the 1944 MG squad had seven men and a handcart to service one M1919 MG. With one leader, a gunner and an assistant gunner that leaves four men to carry ammo and for local defence. An equivalent unit these days has two MGs, seven men and no cart, which implies only one ammo bearer per gun. Modern troops are probably vehicle mounted but that is no comfort if you have to move the MG and ammo more than a few metres.


            The German army also made use of handcarts. These were designed so they could be towed by men, horses, mules, dogs or vehicles and even had their own tow hooks so a train of them could be constructed.

            One thing that you notice about the military handcarts is that they are quite narrow. This is logical since the main place you would want them is where you cannot take a vehicle. The handcart must be narrow enough to navigate a jungle trail or mountain path. A “T” shaped shaft seems standard for military handcarts, probably since it can be more easily disengaged from than the “rickshaw” style of two shafts and a crossbar.

            For some reason, modern outdoorsmen and Soldiers overlook the utility of a simple handcart. Some of you reading this blog will have created bug-out bags and perhaps even supply caches. How much better would your chances be if you also had a nearby handcart of additional supplies, water and equipment?

            If you are building or buying a handcart there are obviously a number of features to look for. We have mentioned the T-shaft and that narrowness is a desirable characteristic. Ideally a loaded military handcart should not be so heavy that a couple of men cannot lift it over an obstacle. If you are on your own you may want something lighter. Being able to float the cart across a river is a desirable design feature. Some carts I have seen are narrow but about five feet long, making them suitable for transporting an injured companion in an emergency. It may be useful if you can convert your handcart into a sled or pulk when weather requires. In fact a sled or pulk may be a good starting point for a handcart construction project.

            I’ll end this discourse by looking at a few interesting alternatives to the handcart. Wheelbarrows can be used as emergency handcarts. They have the merit that in some neighbourhoods they are fairly common. An extension of this idea is the Chinese big wheel wheelbarrow. You may need some skill distributing the load in a balanced fashion but it is evident these can handle heavy loads and quite rough terrain.

            Another alternative is the Christiania Bike. (I know it is a trike, but they are usually called bikes!). If you have visited Copenhagen you will know these are a common sight in that city. Young Danish mothers use them to transport their children to school and then pick up a heavy load of shopping. After dark you sometimes see drunk couples returning home in a Christiania bike. This culture of cycling everywhere may explain why nearly every second woman in Copenhagen is worth a second look! The Christiania bikes are very nicely designed. In most of them the large box at the front contains a smaller box that serves as both a seat for passengers and a locked storage compartment. The Christiania “as is” is not really designed for rough terrain but the basic idea could be adapted to use mountain bike tires and gearing. Add a few lifting handles. One might even design it so that it can be towed like a handcart when possible.

The Books


Thursday, 12 March 2015

Moshé Feldenkrais's “Practical Unarmed Combat”

            I have, over the past few years, acquired a sizable collection of martial arts books. Most of these are fortunately in e-format since empty shelves are somewhat rare in my household. A significant portion of these books were first published in the Second World War. A few of these titles were obviously written to make a quick buck. Many of the others, however, are genuine in their wish to teach the reader how to survive on the battlefield or during the anticipated invasion of the British Isles.

            In the late 30s and the 40s there was much less awareness of martial arts than there is today. Judo and Jiu-jitsu were relatively well known with some clubs in Europe dating back to Victorian times. To this we can add various domestic variations of boxing and wrestling. Savate was also know although more popular in French influenced areas. Karate was not particularly well known, having only become popular in mainland Japan a few decades before. Other arts, such as the majority of Chinese styles, were not taught to westerners and foreigners.

            Not surprisingly, the majority of these wartime close combat handbooks were chiefly based on judo and jiu-jsitsu techniques.

            When looking at these wartime instruction books Moshé Feldenkrais's  “Practical Unarmed Combat” does stand out as something a little different. Feldenkrais was asked to devise an effective combat course for units such as the local Home Guard who did not have the time extensive training in unarmed combat. Feldenkrais devised a ten lesson program, each lesson taking about an hour including ample time to practice and repeat the techniques used.

            The foundation of this course was a single technique, taken from judo. The technique used is a variant of Hadaka-jime. Hadaka-jime means “naked strangle”. Usually these terms are used for a hold where one arm wraps around the neck and the other arm forces the head forwards. This variant is often called a “Japanese strangle” or “Figure Four choke”. If you google “hadaka-jime” this will usually be the technique you see. The Hadaka-jime that Feldenkrais uses is somewhat different, using one hand to pull on the other and forcing the head forward with the right shoulder. My own name for this variation is a “Neck Roller”. I don’t think Feldenkrais ever uses the term “Hadaka-jime” in the original book. The original text was republished with some additional material as “Hadaka-jime: Practical Unarmed Combat” in 2009.

            It is deceptive to think of the technique Feldenkrais advocates as a simple stranglehold. Applied with vigour it is also break an enemy’s balance, crush a larynx or break the neck. Practically, Feldenkrais notes : “You can also just bring the opponent on to his back, then kick in the region of his ear and you are again ready to fight other enemies” The early lessons of the book detail how to apply the basic technique under a variety of conditions and situations.

            A later pair of lessons deals with knife attacks and deflecting them with an inward parry. The important concept of the timing of parries is introduced here, as discussed in yesterday’s blog. The parry can be followed by the Neck Roller attack to the neck learnt in earlier lessons.

            The next lessons concern how to fight an enemy armed with a bayonet mounted on a rifle. As one might expect, avoidance of the bayonet is followed by a neck attack. For situations where this is not the most practical attack the Soldier is introduced to a couple of kicks that can be applied to the groin, a knife-hand attack to the throat and a stomping kick to the back of the knee.

            If you are on the inside gate and deflect an enemy’s bayonet attack an enemy may follow through with a butt strike. Feldenkrais’s solution to this is interesting.

            The bayonet thrust is avoided by a twist of the torso and an inward parry with the left arm. The right hand makes contact with the rifle barrel to control it. The enemy then attempts to strike with the rifle butt so the left forearm is moved to intercept it with an outward action. With both hands occupied neutralising the rifle the Soldier kicks the enemy in the groin.
            Regular readers of this blog or readers of my book will recognize aspects of Long Har Chuan in this sequence. An inward parry is taken over by an outward action, the grabbing of the rifle barrel. The outward action of one side allows the other side to be used –the interception of the rifle butt. Each arm making an outward defensive action while one leg kicks? Yes, that is the same as Tai Chi’s White Crane Spreads Wings!

The Books


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Timing and the Moment.


            Many decades ago I used to play Capoeira. It must be admitted that I was not the most athletic or acrobatic of players but what techniques I did use in the Roda I was very sure of. That used to catch some of the younger players off balance. One in particular used to get quite worked up that he could make some fancy move and walk right onto a relatively simple attack  from me.

            My signature move was the benson, which is the Capoeira name for a front thrust kick. Everyone knew I was likely to use this move, yet still it would seem to come out of nowhere and all of a sudden the sole of my foot would materialize inches from an opponent’s face. Some would just laugh at getting caught again, others would get worked up, actually making them easy meat for a repeat.

            Front thrust kick was a technique I had barely practiced in my earlier Karate days so it was perhaps surprising this became my signature. My success with this move was not that I could execute it fluidly and rapidly (which I could). The secret was in the timing. I could identify the exact moment in an opponent’s movements where they were committed to an action and I could insert my kick perfectly to interrupt it.

            I’m recalling this today since I mentioned Moshé Feldenkrais in my post the other day. This inspired me to reread “Practical Unarmed Combat” and I even found a copy of the expanded later version “Hadaka-jime : Practical Unarmed Combat”. There will be some blog posts on Feldenkrais’ books but for the moment I will concentrate on a small section. In the book Feldenkrais illustrates a point by means of a little story, which I will paraphrase.
            A samurai gathers his students together and gives them the following scenario:-
“You are lying awake in your bed when you hear soft footsteps approaching. The door quietly opens and you see it is your sworn enemy, come to murder you in your sleep. He closes the door so that the light spilling in does not awake you. Thinking you still asleep, he approaches to murder you. Students, when was the best time to attack the intruder?”

What was your answer? The answer the samurai sought was when the intruder was closing the door. When he approached the room he would have been very wary. When he approached the bed, he would have been wary and there was very little time for the intended victim to untangle himself from his bedclothes and get up. As he was closing the door, he is in transition. Not only is he partially distracted by the task of shutting the door but he has also just completed one risky phase of his operation and is probably thinking about how to do the next.

Feldenkrais uses this story to illustrate parrying a knife or bayonet, although what he is saying holds true for other forms of attack. If you move too early against a trust the attacker can change his action and do something such as stick the knife in your hand. Too late with the parry and you may deflect it insufficiently to avoid it. Parry at the right moment and you avoid the attack and have a window of opportunity to counter attack. “Hadaka-jime : Practical Unarmed Combat” adds an appropriate quotation it attributes to Musashi “A skilful person may appear slow but he is never off the beat”. You may begin to see why a wartime manual about a judo technique reminded me of my time in the Roda.


In “The Tao of Jeet Kune Do” Bruce Lee talks about timing a lot, and it can seem somewhat daunting to a novice. I get the impression that Lee was wrestling with putting into text something that he had an inherent understanding of but was very difficult to put down on a page. If he had lived longer I suspect the Tao of JKD would have undergone a number of rewrites. “I cannot teach you, only help you to explore yourself” Jeet Kune Do means “way of the intercepting fist”. If you watch some videos of interviews and demonstrations by Lee you will appreciate that what he meant by this is what this today’s blog is about. As the enemy commits to an attack it is intercepted with a jab or side kick at the optimum moment. Fencing also likes to talk about timing and rhythm. The stop-hit is the equivalent of JKD’s intercepting fist. In fencing one can get the impression that you need to spar with someone long enough to learn their rhythm and that being able to break rhythm is the mark of a master.
Personally, I am not sure that this is the best way to understand what is going on or what is needed. Perhaps it is better understood as recognising and acting in moments that occur within a sequence. You attack or parry not when you want to, but in the moments that your foe creates that you can act in. Timing is a very difficult thing to teach in a written format and rather than attempt to do so here I will be content that I may have given you something to think about and to be more aware of during your practice.   

The Books


Monday, 9 March 2015

The Avengers.


            One of my recent pleasures is that a certain channel has been re-running early episodes of “The Avengers”. The British ones, that is, not the Marvel characters.

           The Avengers was quite a significant show in the history of British television, being one of the first shows to be sold to the US for prime time showing. It is not hard to see why it was successful. The show was “Spy-fi” at a time when “James Bond” films and “Men from UNCLE” were all the rage. The show was witty, often subtly surreal and had a good dollop of British eccentricity. Steed was suave and dashing, Emma was brilliant and beautiful.

            The Avengers was never short of action either. “Martial Arts” was another trend of the time and like many series The Avengers included “kung fu” and “judo” techniques. Every now and then I notice a technique that is more likely to have come from wartime commando training.

            Most television series are not a good place to learn realistic fighting techniques, and we can include  The Avengers in this. Every now and then, however, I notice a move or two that gets me thinking.


            In episode 5-13 “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Station” Emma immobilizes a man using an interesting hold. Her forearms form an inverted “L” shape and her hands are in what Erle would have called “a wrestler’s grip”:- one thumb slipped between the fingers of the other hand. The horizontal forearm is across the man’s throat while the other comes up under his armpit in a sort of half full nelson. Interesting, and reminds me somewhat of the stranglehold used extensively by Moshé Feldenkrais in “Practical Unarmed Combat”.

            The technique that inspired me to write something about The Avengers in this blog appears in episode 4-20 “The Danger Makers”. Blink and you may very well have missed it.

            Emma parries a punch with a rather conventional forearm parry. Immediately the other hand swings up and slaps the attacker, sending him flying. There are several things I like about this apparently simple movement.

            The first is that she makes the strike with an open hand. The slap is a much underrated defensive technique. With a relaxed arm it can be made with considerable speed and correspondingly hit with surprising force. A slap and a palm heel strike are not as different as some people think. In my book and on this blog I have often recommended the palm as a weapon since its use reduces the chance of hand damage to the user.

            Another thing I like about Mrs. Peel’s technique is the economy of movement. As one hand does the parrying the other uses the same motion to counter attack. If you have brought my book, read this blog or read the Tai Chi book I wrote with Erle you will recognize this as one of the fundamentals of Long Har Chuan. As one side of the body makes an outward parry the other moves in to make a second parry or an attack.

            You will see this principle in a lot of effective combat moves. The one that The Avengers’ sequence most reminded me of was one of the applications of  “White Crane/Stork Spreads Wings” in “How To Use Tai Chi as a Fighting Art”. The most commonly seen application of this move is a pair of outward parries with the lead foot set up for a kick. Erle showed another variation. One hand makes an outward parry, preferably taking you to the foe’s outside gate. The other hand whips up in a fast, powerful centrifugal punch straight to the foe’s temple. Erle described this move using a punch, with the fist becoming fully inverted and striking with the first two knuckles. Since your target may be hard and bony there is considerable merit in practicing this as a palm strike instead. 

Wednesday, 4 March 2015

Beds and Bugs and Cots and Carpets.

            This is probably one of my more off-the-wall blog posts, but hopefully it will inspires some ideas.
            Recently I have been enjoying the company of a rather charming young Greek lady. Unlike many of her ilk, she is smart enough to know how little she knows. She has been avidly absorbing the more practical advice that myself and others have been providing to her.
            This lady’s particular field of interest is dust mite allergens. Recently she was informing me that in Greece, fitted carpets are quite unusual. Greeks prefer bare floors and put down rugs in the winter. As well as being vacuumed rugs are taken outside for cleaning, often twice a week. You can also send them away to be cleaned. There are businesses that will store you rugs in summer if you do not have room. She is rather baffled by the preference for fitted carpets in northern Europe and the Americas. She has told me about scientific studies in homes that have experienced incidents of leukaemia that found connected carcinogens still present in the carpets four years later. Fitted carpets never get properly clean, she avers. She describes fitted carpets as being like Macdonalds in that “people know they are bad, but still have them”. Personally I think most people in Northern Europe or America are actually quite unaware of this. We have just never thought about the pros and cons of carpets against other options.
            Another item you have probably never thought about is your mattress. A mattress is just a great sponge for absorbing dust, sweat and any other bodily fluids. None of that ever comes out and your mattress is probably a thriving ecosystem. I began to reflect on this a few years back when the mattress my landlady had supplied had become so worn that parts were sagging and metal springs poking through the surface. I began to look into replacements and half seriously gave some thought to a Brazilian hammock. I was single back then and looked like I was going to remain that way for the rest of my life. The fates had a surprise for me and rather than a Brazilian hammock I acquired a Brazilian girlfriend.
            The advantage of a hammock is that the bit you actually sleep on is relatively thin. Dust can drop through it and the parts that might become dirty are relatively easy to machine wash. Hammocks are a bit of an acquired taste, however, particularly if you do not sleep alone. Back in my childhood the family would often holiday in a caravan. The upper bunk was effectively a sort of stretcher with the ends of the poles fitting into brackets on the walls. A similar idea are the camp beds or “cots” you have probably seen on programs such as “M.A.S.H”. A sheet of stout cloth, a frame to support it and some legs to raise it off the ground. It has some of the easy cleanable features of a hammock without needing a sturdy frame or walls to attach it too. Again, the main objection to these is if you do not sleep alone. Double camp beds are offered, but I have never used one personally. Many designs have a pole down the centre, which can cramp your style. What is probably needed is a camp bed with some form of mesh or net beneath the cloth part. Possibly the net needs to be in three sections. The outer nets would support the sleepers when they were apart, and the middle section provide more support when they are together. I am sure someone with a better grasp of engineering could come up with better solutions. I have seen it recommended to use a 1-2" thick memory foam mattress ("mattress topper") with a double cot. That may work sufficiently well while still being more easily cleaned than a traditional mattress.
            This is an idea worth exploring. Not only would a camp bed be more hygienic but it would probably be much cheaper to produce. A colleague of mine recently had to replace his mattress and was quite stunned at the price!.

 The Books