In your journey to self-discovery: ‘don’t impersonate others.’ And be polite and kind — and know that even a compliment about how they look could boost someone’s morale.
Sarah Udoh-Grossfurthner interviews Mark Iles (British) — ‘I am a father, grandfather, war veteran, a survivor, a writer, and a martial-arts (9th Degree Black-Belt)’
Sarah: Thank you for joining me today, Mark.
Mark: Thank you for having me.
Sarah: Before we start, let me give you an overview of the origin of my interviews, and what inspired them. I do that with every guest because an understanding of the full and in-depth context is necessary: both for you and those who will read your interview.
Mark: Looking forward to it.
Sarah: The idea for sug targeted interviews (this is the Instagram handle of the project) began when I was working on my upcoming book, From Fearful to Fierce — a memoir about how I fought to overcome years of debilitating fears brought about by a living condition that began when I was eight years old and ended when I was about fifteen. One thing I have learned, Mark, is that most of us want to become the best versions of ourselves. The reality is many of us live an entire lifetime without really KNOWING who that self really is. And so the question arises — how can we become the “best “version of someone we don’t even know?
Mark: I totally agree. I had a harsh and bullying father, so I totally understand how our past affects us later in life.
Sarah: So sorry to hear that, Mark. I commend you for rising above your hurt and pain to where you are today. It’s funny, but a quote I came across recently by an unknown author stated, “Never think that what you have to offer is insignificant. There will always be someone out there that needs what you have to give.”
“There will always be someone out there that needs what you have to give.” In a nutshell, that is the reason behind my interviews: the hope that the life lessons and tips from them will change lives, and fill someone out with the indisputable knowledge that their existence has purpose and meaning, and that they can discover that purpose and meaning if they take time to know themselves.
Mark: Yes, even from childhood I’ve always been polite and kind, as and when I could. I always strive as much as I can to really make someone’s day. Even a compliment about how they look could boost their morale.
Sarah: I agree completely. Again, funny you should say that about compliments, many are the times I have stopped someone on the street to compliment them about their outfit, appearance, or a new hairstyle. I have a friend, Leeza, who is constantly amazed by that and is ever asking, do you know her, do you know him when we take a walk together. And when I say no, she would go, how do you do that so easily? Making someone’s day really can make a big difference, can’t it, Mark?
Mark: It certainly can. The weird thing is that people out walking dogs often stop to chat to others doing the same, and yet we generally ignore others when out on our own. Makes you wonder why that is, and whether we should all get a dog… I have a lot of veteran friends suffering from PTSD, just a phone call now and then to check that they are all right can really help them.
Sarah: We should all get a dog. A great idea to engage and become more human (chuckle). Anyway, with the preamble about the purpose behind my interviews out of the way, let’s start with my ever-present first question. Who are you? Who is Mark Iles?
Mark: I am a proud father of four, and also a grandfather of four. I’m a martial artist and a medical retiree. This allows me to pursue my lifelong ambition, writing. So I am also a writer, with over a hundred short stories and features published in a wide variety of magazines and online media.; as well as novels. Actually, I’ve also just had my 4th novel published, by Elsewhen — a UK publication specializing in science fiction writing. Novels 5 and 6 are also in the works, in addition to several editing projects.
Sarah: Wow! That’s a lot of writing. The word, proliferous, comes to mind. Well done, Mark!
Mark: It gives life purpose when you get up, but I have to be careful in the case as it’s easy to burn yourself out. I need to get back to specific hours, like 10 am until 2 pm, daily.
Sarah: Well, they do say when you love doing something the hours you put in doesn’t seem like a burden. But, tell us a bit about your upbringing. Where were you born?
Mark: I was bought up in a tough environment in Slough.
Sarah: Slough? Where is that, please?
Mark: Slough is a large town in Berkshire — about 32 kilometres from London. As I was saying, it was not an easy environment to grow up in. And so it was in order to survive the roughness of that environment that I started martial arts — to get myself away from the nastiness I found myself unwillingly drawn into, and also to protect myself.
Sarah: You have mentioned that you are medically retired, which implies you were once in some kind of force. Tell us about that too.
Mark: I was in the Royal Navy. I joined when I was 17-years-old and served in several war zones, including The Falklands.
Sarah: The Falklands– didn’t that happen somewhere in Latin America — Argentina or so?
Mark: It did. Argentina invaded the self-governing oversea British Territory in 1982. As a result, we fought an undeclared war for 74 days, in which 649 Argentinian and 255 British forces died — plus of course, there were countless injured.
Sarah: A soldier at age 17, and at the front-line of several war zones. That must have been rough.
Mark: It was. And it changes you beyond belief; it also makes you appreciate life more, your friends and relatives — and, of course, your outlook on life.
Sarah: How did you overcome the challenges of war life?
Mark: Martial arts. This was my saving grace. I’d continued with the arts after I signed up for the Navy and after The Falklands War, I was sent to Hong Kong, where I continued studying Taekwondo under a Grand Master named, Kim, Bok Man — a legend in the arts and an absolutely lovely man. I’ve now reached the 9th Degree Black Belt, graded by GM Kim, which was one of the proudest moments in my life.
Sarah: What exactly does a 9th Degree Black Belt mean in the world of martial arts?
Mark: In the orient, the number 9 is a special number, as it is the last before double figures. There were 9 coloured belts and 9 black belts — you get 10th when you die, so I’m hoping to wait for a while for that one. That said, there are some living 10th Degrees out there.
Sarah: We’ll be rooting for you, Mark. The impression one gets when meeting you is one of open-mindedness. Considering your upbringing that is quite a feat. Tell us how you were able to move from a hateful, discriminatory trait often synonymous with bad and unsavoury neighbourhoods, to the man you are today.
Mark: Again, I attribute my open-mindedness, as you put it, to martial arts. The good thing about these arts and practising them is that it brings all nationalities, religions, and ethnicities together in friendly training and competition.
Sarah: The same is often said about soccer, isn’t it? So, it’s not difficult for me to imagine the picture of oneness in diversity you have just painted.
Mark: Soccer, exactly, Sarah! It’s also important to pass on the knowledge of martial arts and the unity and tolerance it can create to the next generation. It is also important to pass on the knowledge and maintain the traditional high standards of the arts because, unfortunately, that’s being eroded these days.
Sarah: What took you into the field of martial arts. What inspired you to become a martial arts student?
Mark: Although I loved my father, and constantly tried to improve our relationship, he was a bully and so I stayed out of the house as much as I could. That led to my mixing with some undesirables and the criminal element. I didn’t want that life, it wasn’t me. A childhood friend took me to my first martial arts class, and it was like entering a new world. It was wonderful, relaxing, and so very rewarding.
Sarah: Now, let’s move from martial arts to your other passion, writing. Critique, though rarely comfortable, is an essential growth tool in the tool toolbox of any writer, I always say: I should know, being a writer myself. But notice that I use the word critique, not criticism? That is because I believe that criticism focuses on finding faults while critiquing aims to improve. This is, of course, my opinion. But what do you consider the important most essential tool in the toolbox of a writer?
Mark: Critiquing is good. But one of my experiences is that writers often give very harsh feedback on others’ work. I’ve both seen and suffered this, should I call it, set back? What people don’t appreciate is that while you may be a born-writer, it’s an art that still has to be learned. Being aggressive in feedback is cruel, you aren’t proving anything except what you are inside. My focus on criticism, or critiquing, is to provide positive feedback. If, for instance, you don’t like something why not say, ‘have you thought of doing this?’ Along, of course with character, plot, repetition, consistent comments. That person you slagged off might have been the next great writer in their genre, but due to that negative feedback, they may never write again. My most important tool is audible. Writers need to read, a lot, but when I do it grates because I could be writing myself. Consequently, I download my reading list in audiobooks and listen to them in the car, while doing housework, gardening, or out walking. The second most important tool to me is to listen to the feedback of all kinds, seeing something from a different perspective really helps.
Sarah: I completely agree, Mark; those who chose to critics other people’s work should focus on building up not tearing down those writings. How many books have you written/published?
Mark: In addition to the four published novels mentioned, I have a non-fiction book out there, a short-story collection, and four novellas. I have also written a self-defence app that was filmed by a TV company. Unfortunately, due to the sponsor, it all went horribly wrong and — despite being published on Android and the Apple store, it’s no longer available. Hey ho, life’s full of ups and downs, isn’t it?
Sarah: It sure is, Mark. There are all kinds of genres and sub-genres of writing; which do you specialize in?
Mark: SFF: science fiction, fantasy, and horror. But I’ve written a wide range of genres overall — including copy for advertising companies.
Sarah: How did you become a writer in the first place? What led to that?
Mark: My experiences in The Falklands War. I had several premonitions about awful things that were to happen, and they did. I wrote one of these into a short story.
Sarah: What is the title of the short story and is it available for reading to the wider public?
Mark: Sadly, I lost it some time ago. I have gone through all my uni files and still can’t find the story. It was centred around a friend, who was shot while onboard a ship. The sad news is that I’d been trying to find him, but by the time I did he’d passed away.
Sarah: Really sorry to hear that.
Still on writing, what is the most vital lesson you have ever gained from having your work critiqued?
Mark: As mentioned before, to listen to feedback. I’m very lucky, in that I made a great friend in the writing community, Geoff Nelder. His feedback and friendship have been instrumental in my development, and I can never thank him enough. On top of that, I love his books!
Sarah: Citing them individually, what important life lessons have your three roles — writing, martial art, soldier taught you? When you are done citing their lessons individually, tell us the combined lesson you have learned from them all.
Mark: Writing: To write every chance you can get, even if you can’t think of anything. Just look at a blank page and write the first thing that comes into your head. It may be rubbish, but it could also be something wonderful. That’s how I discovered I could write poetry.
Martial arts: No one art is better than another, it’s who the martial artist is that counts, what and how they learn — and more importantly, how you are as a person. I’m a firm believer that what you put out into the world comes back to you. Be kind, considerate, and friendly; you’ll be surprised (or not) as to how it is repaid.
Military: That your enemy is someone’s son, brother, sister, father, etc. Treat them honourably. They may even be forced into the awful position where they have to fight you. Many veterans suffer afterwards and, believe it or not, buttoning it up doesn’t help but talking about it with others really does.
Sarah: That was enlightening — thank you, Mark. As a war veteran, what would you say was the most iconic moment in your life as a sailor?
Mark: To me, the most iconic moments were witnessing the Sheffield on fire after she’d been hit by a missile, and (in another conflict) watching Missouri firing her big guns over our heads.
Sarah: Can you cite the same as a writer? What was that ‘ah’ moment in your life as a writer?
Mark: I have two. The first having my first novel published, and the second passing my MA in Professional Writing.
Sarah: If you could do your life all over again, what would you do differently with regard to these three most iconic phases of your life? Would you do choose to do away with any of the phases? If yes, why?
Mark: To be honest, I wouldn’t change anything. Life is full of lessons, each affecting you as a person. To me, your life is laid out for you, and your choices and the path you tread determine the kind of person you become.
Sarah: Is there anything exciting happening in your writing career currently that you would like to share with my readers and me?
Mark: My latest novel, ‘Gardens of Earth’, has made the ‘long list’ for British Science Fiction. I’m keeping my fingers crossed, all votes are appreciated!
Sarah: Mark, your time with us today has come to a close. Thank you very much for sharing your life lessons with us today. My readers and I wish you the very best in all you do, especially with Gardens of Earth.
Mark: Thank you, I really appreciate it.
Sarah: One final thing, please. It is sometimes said that many war veterans are not given their full due and appreciation by the governments or nations that most of them lose their limbs, mind, and in some cases their lives, serving. If you were sure of your word getting into the right ears (or right government chamber or cabinet) what would you say to nations with badly treated and barely honoured and recognised war veterans?
Mark: Firstly, that the nation owes its freedom to the people who have fought for it. Sadly, the government do not really look after veterans when they leave. In the military, for instance, you are taught to attack — the ‘flight’ part of ‘fight and flight’ being drummed out of you. Unfortunately, when you leave they don’t ‘unprogram’ you, and they should. It’s akin to driving and seeing a lorry coming straight at you, and you accelerating towards it rather than trying to avoid it. There’s also a lack of housing and medical care for them, but there are good charities out there that help, namely ‘Help for Heroes’ and ‘Combat Stress’. It’s just a shame that these are the people that look after you, not the government. In addition, all veterans are justly proud of any awards and yet many none-serving people impersonate them, which is called ‘stolen valour’. We call them ‘walts’, as in ‘Walter Mitty’ — someone who impersonates others. It’s a real bone of contention with both the serving and veterans and of course their families. We feel that it should be made illegal, as it is in America.
Sarah: What would you say to the veterans themselves?
Mark: Thank you for your service, brothers and sisters.
Sarah: Thank you, Mark. And thank you, for sharing your thoughts with my readers and me.
For more on Mark Iles, click here: http://www.markiles.co.uk