There is one question I always wish that I’d asked my dad before he passed away, it’s a question about something that has been a monumental part of my life and has entwined itself around me flowing through every vein of my body!
“Why dad, did you take me to see if I would be interested in joining a karate club”
All these years on, I remember a dark November Friday evening in 1974 sitting in his car heading towards the local swimming pool in Bournemouth where Dad had discovered that a karate club were training. “Karate, is that like Kung fu?” I’d asked, I knew all about Kung fu, there was a programme on TV with David Caradine playing the part of ‘Caine’ a Shaolin monk wandering the old wild west of America defending those in need and defeating their aggressors with a mix of philosophy, feet and fists! What’s not to admire – the reality however was not quite the same.
I was nervous, waiting outside for a class to end I could hear shouting, screaming and what sounded like some ritual murder, I really didn’t want to go in and what made it worse, condensation had misted the windows I couldn’t see a thing………. what was going on in that room and what was my Dad going to subject me to? I had just turned 14, I didn’t really do much apart from go to school and hang out over the local park, I played a bit of Rugby, liked a kick about and at that age I probably pushed the boundaries at home. I loved a good daydream and was pretty proud of my own laziness and ability to avoid any work or structure, I no doubt pushed back at parental advice and all in all was a pretty typical teenager I guess.
The dog-eared poster on the wall was perhaps what had attracted Dad, despite his sometimes conservative mannerisms (he was a dentist, mum was a teacher) I knew he had some unusual life views, he was fascinated by the unknown, for example his thoughts on using hypnosis and the power of the mind as an anesthetic when having teeth removed! and the ability to use Acupuncture and Acupressure joint and bone manipulation to heal were not the sort of topics discussed widely in the 1970s, none of these things were common practice and neither were martial arts such as karate. Perhaps he had seen the boastful advert sellotaped up which extolled the virtues of Shotokan Karate for ‘self defence, self enlightenment, self discipline, along with a grainy photo of a man flying through the air with an outstretched leg!’ and he had thought just the thing for a gobby little teenager!
Back to the story…. The door opened and the overpowering stench of sweat hit me like a well delivered front punch. The room was full of about 25 people all wearing what looked like white pyjamas, everyone of them was pink in the face, dripping with perspiration, some limping, none smiling……… ‘I’m not going in, this isn’t for me!’ however I had little choice, propelled by the tsunami of the waiting class behind me dad and I burst through the door. Within a second I had taken part in my first lesson when I found myself gripped by the collar, dragged back to the door bent in half into what loosely resembled a bowing position by two large students and then pushed unceremoniously towards some waiting chairs…. And have I mentioned the smell!!
I didn’t dare move, I didn’t dare speak I hardly dared breathe, I had arrived on the set of that kung fu series and the room was filling with Bournemouths very own ninja warriors, I was trapped and would have to endure the next hour. What surprised me somewhat was that these ‘warriors’ in their pyjamas actually looked pretty normal, in fact as I started to relax and they lined up, I was already picking the ones I reckon I could have ‘had’ in a scrap. My thoughts were short lived, someone shouted something in a foreign language and as if by some magical trick 4 of 5 ‘Black Belts’ suddenly appeared from nowhere. This was amazing, they do exist, and they exist right here in a hall above a swimming pool in Bournemouth and it was clear these people were treated with some serious respect by others.
After a fair old bit of lining up in some sort of ‘colour of the rainbow’ belt order along with a lesson in foreign languages (how on earth did they understand this constant shouting) some kneeling and standing up and even more bowing and shouting the lesson started. I was mesmerized. There was a man with a dirty worn out Black belt at the front issuing commands in what I guessed was Japanese and students yelling and shouting and kicking and punching……….thin air! …………Despite the imaginary and invisible opponents it was impressive, it was hard, loud, strong and pretty ‘bad ass’ perhaps I could give it a try sometime? Dad and I watched the whole class (other spectators packed up and left, it clearly wasn’t for them) ……. They should have waited……. Sparring was the final event of the evening. How many times have I loved hearing the words “pair up” and whenever I do I’m transported back to that November evening in that room above the swimming pool with my dad, the evening when the world of martial arts exploded into light, it was the most awesome thing I’d ever witnessed as a 14 year old, there were people moving all over the place putting in head kicks, punches, sweeps and throws from impossible angles. This was real! No one wore gloves or mitts, there were no foot protectors of shin guards, there were no gum shields it was organized and unorganized all at the same time and these people were relishing in it, as was I. More Japanese was shouted by the old guy whom seemed to be in charge and immediately the majority of those training moved to the side and sat quietly cross legged on the floor, apart from the Black Belts who had faced up to each other. I could feel my heart racing, this was about to be an apocalyptic moment, like the gladiators of old ……….. you could feel the tension amongst the silence, followed by a simple command ‘hajime’ and then carnage. I had never seen anything like it, the most amazing kicks and punches delivered with speed, power and control, finesse and quality, graceful movement, it was stylish and polished it was an art of the highest level it had respect, style and honour and I loved it.
Over 45 years on and I am still loving it, every aspect and every person ive ever trained with has given me something, my wife and children have shared my passion, relatives and great friends have shared my joy and I have met and trained with the most unassuming and brilliant people I could ever have met. What an adventure so far and heres to the continuing journey of continuous learning over the next 45 years. Whatever the reason Dad….. thank you for that one night in November.