Thursday, August 9, 2007

Summer Reading: Angry White Pyjamas

Perhaps you'd like to read a little more about the martial arts, but don't necessarily have the disposable free time to read All Men are Brothers or to invest time in studying the I Ching.

As it turns out, there are several small, contemporary books that provide an interesting look into martial arts training that don't get too preachy, and don't involve any zen koans to decipher.

Angry White Pyjamas
is such a book. An autobiographical book by Robert Twigger, it tells his tale of training in Japan. Not just any training, mind you, but a year long course geared towards teaching Yoshinkan Aikido to the Japanese Riot Police. Those of you imagining flowing black hakama and tiny little men using their ki to throw someone away in a graceful spiral can just stop. This is the nastier cousin with broken bones, dislocations, heads slamming off the floor, and more.

Twigger begins his book as a self-described "scrawny Oxford poet" with very little to show for his life thus far. Lamenting that he has never been either tough nor brave, he decides that budo is the way for him. In many ways, his choice of actions is akin to someone who makes a New Year's resolution to shed a few pounds, and does so by enlisting in the Marines: it is the most extreme route available.

As a memoir of his training, we are treated to stories of classes that are sometimes brutal, run by seemingly cold and indifferent instructors. Far from being stoic, Twigger is more than willing to describe his agony and hardships in humiliating detail. For this reason, many martial artists dislike this book. In their opinion, his "whiny" attitude does not reflect well upon him or his time spent training.

To me, his frankness and ability to share his humilation is what makes this book so truly unique. I mean, a largely sedentary grad student immerses himself in the world's toughest Aikido training course, consisting of getting tossed around and beaten everyday for a year; what else could possibly happen? Even if he walks out of the course hard as a rock, it still would take a great deal of training to reach that point. At one point, he freely admits to being pleased at the death of a sensei since it assures him a week off from training! It's pretty impressive to share so candidly what is obviously a horrible, selfish (and probably true) thought so honestly with the world.

Angry White Pyjamas is fascinating, because we've all been there to some degree. We've all reached a point where we've been physically and mentally depleted by our training, where we've wanted to throw in the towel. This book tells us that we're not completely crazy, and that it could also be just a little worse. The course, as explained in the linked video above, is about hardship, and not running away from it. That is the spirit which martial art training fosters, and this book tells that story.
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