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Book review: <i>Angry White Pyjamas</i> by Robert Twigger

If this was an apartment block, it would be a boxily majestic, curiously liveable design of indeterminate age, which deserves to be cleaned more often.


A really strong design, combining a simple rising-sun-against-black-and-white background with eye-catching (but not enormous) author photos. I picked it up in a second-hand bookshop because of the cover (as one does with unfamiliar authors, let’s face it) and I’m very glad I did. It’s such an unusual book that a more vocal cover would have probably misrepresented the contents.

The plot

Robert Twigger, Oxford graduate and winner of the university’s prestigious Newdigate poetry prize (previously won by John Ruskin and Oscar Wilde, among others), finds his life in a lull after moving to Tokyo. The satisfaction he gets teaching high-school English largely amounts to the amusement of a few teenagers when he translates obscene rap lyrics for them. He lives in a 6-by-10-foot room with two other gaijin, has no girlfriend, no money, and no idea where he’s headed. The flatmates finally decide they need some discipline in their lives, in the form of a martial art. After a bit of research, they join the famous Yoshinkan Aikido dojo, where foreigners and Japanese study this demanding, once-secret art alongside one another. Of course, like a lot of demanding, once-secret arts, the course requires years of study and training to make progress in, and Twigger has the Westerner’s hunger for a sense of achievement. (Also, in case you’re unfamiliar, Aikido is one of the more esoteric and reactive martial arts—demonstrations often look effortless and artificial because a) the goal is to achieve maximum effect through minimum effort via perfection of technique, and b) the “attackers” must be skilled enough to correctly flip or fold themselves out of the techniques otherwise they will receive the full effect, typically an immobilizing fracture.) Anyway, when Twigger hears about a hardcore, fast-track version of the course, which takes place over one year and is mandatory for the Tokyo riot police, he switches immediately. To the amusement of his flatmates. For reasons which become quickly apparent.

As part of the course, the students keep diaries to demonstrate what they’ve learned and how the course is affecting their mental and physical states. Similarly, this book graphs the efforts of Twigger and his classmates to maintain their physical and mental states during the course.

The good

Good for the book, bad for the reviewer: It’s really tough to explain what makes this so great. I know it SOUNDS like one of those awful macho things teenage boys read during the un-ironic phase of ninjitsu appreciation, but Twigger is not that guy. Nor is he a jokey culture-vulture—this is not Bill Bryson’s Japanese Adventure. What Twigger does is to relay what he sees and feels as concisely as possible. He uses short sentences. He has an enviable talent for paring back adjectives. As with the ethos of most Japanese arts, he understands that absence is vital to essence.

Which is not to say that this is sober and sterile or Asiatically inscrutable, because it isn’t. It’s actually very humane and grounded—a journal of the everyday, on a journey of great challenge, stress and vehemence. It is telling that the Japanese preach philosophies of earthly detachment yet they also worship their apparent opposites, i.e. practice, minutiae and perfection. The myriad of nationalities represented in the Yoshinkan course must adapt to the often brutal physical realities of these ethos, and in doing so they inadvertently divide the truths from the traditions, and, subtextually, the unique Japanese character from that of general human nature.

Somehow, this enables Twigger to simultaneously demystify (or at least humanise) the nature of martial arts (which is, as he notes, perennially prone to self-mythologising) and yet render it as something still more fascinating.

Alongside Number9Dream, this is half my favourite literature about Japan, and both books are by British guys. Perhaps the cultures recognise something in each other—depth of tradition, stoicism, an understanding of sacrifice, a devotion to the unsaid, or an understanding of the value of devotion. Twigger presents theories like these, but briefly, literally, phrases them better than I did, and moves on.

What this does have in common with good travel writing (at least to my mind) is that it says as much about the author as the place and the situations. Twigger is quite aware of this and gives generously of himself, without getting gushy. It’s tough to summarise, again, but he possesses one of the great qualities I associate with the British male—he is innately attuned to the balance between thought and action, just like the samurai poet Tesshu, whom he regularly quotes. To put it simply: muck in first, write poems second.

The bad

My attempt to summarise this book. Dang it. Sorry. If you find martial arts or Japanese modes of thought interesting at all, then you should check this out, but please don’t be put off if you think anyone who is into martial arts is some kind of macho dickhead—this is as close to the actual essence of the thing as I’ve ever seen put to paper and shorn of all the associated crap that decades of American Ninja movies have helped instill in us. What’s the point of martial arts in the real world? Read this and see.

Twigger is humble, real and unprepossessing (he states that in his entire year of training he performs correct Aikido twice, for instance), yet, at least outside the training room, he is immune to the misplaced worship of martial traditions for their own sake—and a good thing too, or he would be little use as a poet.

The BAD, right, sorry. Occasionally the brevity and concision of the prose leads to a feeling of disjointedness bordering on non sequitur. I WANT to know how the author sees Japanese culture or I’d hardly be reading the book, would I. Twigger proves himself a keen observer, yet without elaboration or more lengthy examples (he does use the short kind) one can sometimes feel cheated; either he knows more than he’s letting on, or he’s got a weak hand and is changing the subject. Which, I guess, IS a bit inscrutable, now that I think about it.

As I said, it’s as much about the author as the subject, so if you can’t keep company with the guy or are only in it for the training montages then this might put you off. I never wondered why he was telling me about his students or girlfriend (which is another credit to the author), but I’d understand if another reader did.

Another quality I associate with the English: this is what it is, and neither apologises for, nor aggrandises this fact. Twigger’s writing is self-aware but not self-referential or self-reverential. He knows about irony but does not need to wear it as a bulletproof vest nor mark it with neon when he observes it. It is as long as it needs to be and no longer. It is good. It is also, in its understated way, like nothing else I’ve read.

What I learnt

Foreign martial arts students get more respect in Japan than movies with mullets in them have led me to believe (from their teachers, that is—to a Japanese hipster, Aikido is about as cool as Morris dancing, according to Twigger.)

If you want to make realistic progress in any sort of combative discipline, you will have to learn to manage pain. Which sounds, once again, like Van Damme flavoured macho tripe, until you think about how practically valuable that skill is on its own.

In short

Title: Angry White Pyjamas
Author: Robert Twigger
Publisher: Harper Paperbacks
ISBN: 0688175376
Year published: 2000
Pages: 320
Genre(s): Travel literature

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here

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