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Training Through The Years

In the Beginning...

There are many different reasons why people choose to start karate – some do it for fitness, some to learn to defend themselves, some because they admire the Japanese and their traditions. My own reasons came to me as a teenager, as I lay battered and bruised by the side of the road after being set on by three thugs following a rugby club disco! I decided there and then, even before I got back up, that this was never ever going to happen to me again. I was going to become the next Bruce Lee and give the next thug that started on me some of his own medicine.

So over the next few weeks I searched for a karate club and found one in my local town of Stevenage . The club trained in the style of Wado-Ryu which was traditional Japanese karate with Japanese instructors who for the most part spoke no English. So it was a case of watching the higher grades, listening to the instructor to try and pick up the words and phrases and hoping not to get his attention by putting a foot out of line. The Japanese had a sure fire method of making you remember – a swift kick or punch to the offending area imprinted it on your memory very quickly.

Training involved individual punches and kicks, moving up and down the hall and combinations of kicks and punches. This usually followed the same pattern every session with some kata and one-on-one blocks and counters.

Months of this training followed, the combinations started to make sense, the Japanese words for the punches and kicks became easier to pick up and remember and of course, the training just got harder!

My initial need for revenge had now dwindled into insignificance behind the need to get ahead in the sport and get better and better. However, it was always down to the instructor to decide if we were suitable to go for a grading to achieve the next belt. Trying to impress a Japanese black belt instructor was not always an easy task, but when we got the go ahead and were allowed to grade, the excitement started to build.

Takedown combination during grading


To attend a grading meant a trek into London to Kings Cross where the main club was based. This was always a tense and somewhat scary affair as all gradings were presided over by the head of Wado-Ryu in the UK, Meiji Suzuki, 6th Dan black belt.

My green belt grading was memorable for a few events that happened on the day. During the warm up, given by one of Meiji's Japanese black belts, a couple of local teenagers came into the hall and began to make loud comments to each other about how rubbish it all looked. One guy turned to his friend to speak again and as he turned his head back, his eyes came in direct line with Meiji's foot as he executed a mawashi-geri and held it perfectly still, head height, barely an inch from his nose. Needless to say, they made a hasty exit and Meiji returned his foot to the floor and continued to prowl around the hall.

The grading commenced with Meiji seated at a table in front of everyone, marking his sheet as row after row of grading hopefuls marched up and down in front of him. Occasionally he would put his foot on the table and pick at his toes, gazing out of the window and tut-tutting when someone made a mistake or turned the wrong way. He was extremely strict and if there were too many mistakes, that person failed their grading.

Meiji had decided that free fighting, with no pads, should be part of the grading but as we very rarely did any free fighting (sparring) in our training sessions, that part became a very adrenaline-rush affair. As my turn came and I stepped up to the table to spar, I requested that I might be allowed to keep my glasses on (as my eyesight was bad in those days). Meiji flatly refused, told me to take them off and then picked another victim, who also wore glasses, for me to spar with. He was in his element, both feet on the table, laughing and chortling as we clashed again and again. I must admit it was like fighting shadows in fog. We just kept on kicking and punching when we got close enough to see each other. Finally he stopped us and we re-joined the group, me with two broken toes and the other guy with a broken wrist! Needless to say, he awarded me my green belt and I limped off into the sunset.

I remember arguing with the doctor at casualty who wrote down that the injury was caused by 'Playing karate'. I said one doesn't play karate, there's no playing involved, it is more serious than playing! He argued that you 'play' football, you 'play' rugby, so you must 'play' karate. The word 'play' just seemed to demean the sport I was enjoying so much!

Meiji Suzuki's other claim to fame was that he starred (?) in a film called Barry McKenzie Holds His Own, a comedy film about an Australian guy in the American west. Meiji played the part of the Chinese cook with the wagon train who beats up the bad guys when they insult his cooking and ends up battering the star as well. During one of Meiji's more friendly moments, he had told us all how he went around the film set asking the other actors, including Donald Pleasance, how much money they were getting for the film. He thought it was hilarious that they got so upset talking about money.

Fairfield Hospital

Midweek training was held in the main hall of Fairfield Psychiatric hospital in Letchworth, and the 'residents' usually gathered around to watch us leaping around. One of the residents, a six feet five inch white haired gent, whom we termed 'The Colonel', used to walk around and around the hall, talking mostly to himself about how he was in the war, saluting occasionally and throwing knife hands into thin air.

During the summer the hospital held an Open Day and the club was asked to do a demonstration in the grounds for the residents and families. So one hot Saturday afternoon we lined up in our karate suits and did the punching, kicking and blocking demonstration in good form. One of our best set pieces involved two members of the club wearing normal clothes in the audience, carrying empty beer cans and heckling the students. They would menacingly approach the karate group, only for the smallest of the students to stop them both in their tracks and send them crashing to the floor! It went down a storm every time.

One of our English black belts was into breaking techniques, so he stacked up a dozen roof tiles, cunningly placed so there was a gap between each tile and then, to great applause, smash his way through them. Without warning or prior notice, Meiji Suzuki then stepped up and stacked twenty roof tiles with NO gaps and smashed the lot with one downward strike. He was impressive, to say the least.

Two other high spots of that Open Day was one of the 'residents' in the car park directing traffic and sending them all over the place, up dead ends, out the exit and round the hospital grounds. The other was that the Colonel wandered up to Meiji Suzuki and began to tell him how during the war he had fought the Japanese, that he did karate and was also a black belt. Meiji thought that the Colonel was a visitor and took it all in – he blew a fuse when at the end of the day one of the braver higher grades told him the Colonel was a 'resident”; we all learned some new Japanese swear words that day.'

Kenbukai Arrives

The years passed and the training basically stayed the same. The combinations got a bit longer, the kata's were more adventurous but mostly not much had changed. We continued to attend gradings in London. Then, for no adequate reason, the Japanese instructors departed and we were left basically leaderless and got no more assistance from Meiji Suzuki in London.

After a short leaderless period, one of our black belts, Bob Breen, decided to take over the club and adapt the training to make it more realistic. He took a new name for the club, Kenbukai, and our new training began.

First major change was to remove the karate suit top and replace it with a Kenbukai t-shirt along with the karate belt and trainers. Bob's view was this gave a more realistic feel to training and sparring, as in the street you wouldn't have bare feet. The sports bag increased in size, as it had to hold skip ropes, hook/jab pads, bag gloves, sparring gloves and other forms of bodily protection.

Contact training

Training also changed dramatically as the traditional low stances moved higher into a more boxing type stance. We split into groups, working in circuits on a full size kick bag, hook and jab pads, skipping, takedowns, grappling and basic fitness work. Bob was keen to enhance our training by using all elements and styles of combat, so we adopted techniques from contact karate, aikido, boxing, judo and weapons to make it more effective.

We attended London based courses run by USA Full Contact Karate Champions Carl Beamon and Bill 'Superfoot' Wallace. The latter earned his nickname by having the fastest ground-head-ground mawashi-geri in contact karate. Carl Beamon was six foot six inches of lean mean fighting machine and although his techniques were not as stylish as Bill's, he was just as fast and as effective. We each had a session sparring with them and it was as eye opening as it was a rude awakening to what full contact karate was all about.

Fighting upright was fine, but we wondered what to do if and when we ended up on the ground, so we asked ex-England squad Judo coach Dave Starbrook to come to the club and help us out. We demonstrated our takedown techniques and he enhanced them by showing us locks and holds and useful groundwork.

Bob Breen's finest hour came when he organised a weapons training course for the club with Dan Innosanto, one of Bruce Lee's closest friends and pupils. Dan Innosanto was a Philippino master with the Escrima, a short bamboo stick. The course included attack and defence techniques including sparring with and without weapons. Dan also demonstrated some of Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do techniques, including the famous one-inch punch, knocking out his partner (and reviving him!) on several occasions. Dan featured in the Bruce Lee film, The Game of Death and fought Bruce in the final scenes set in the Pagoda. I still to this day remember that Escrima course in so much detail – not least being taught by a protégé of Bruce Lee!

Dan Innosanto (center), Bob Breen (to his left) at the Escrima course

Midweek training in London took on a musical bias by the fact that we had two drummers in the club, notably black belt Jeff Britton (ex-Paul McCartney's Wings) and Carl Palmer (of Emerson, Lake & Palmer). Jeff was into contact karate big time and extremely fit – whereas Carl's workload (and insurance) meant he couldn't afford to get damaged in any way that could endanger his musical career, so he just trained for the fitness side and we were banned from sparring with him. We didn't want the next ELP tour or album delayed because we damaged him in the wrong place!

My training continued and along with five others, gained my Shodan. We continued the training sessions and the club went from strength to strength gaining numbers every week. However, when things were going so well, I applied for a job in the Middle East and was accepted, so it meant leaving the club and moving to hotter climates.

Training Abroad

Working and living in Saudi Arabia gives people a different set of values and it became impossible for me to finish a day of work without some form of physical exercise. It was either running, five-a-side football, swimming or circuit training, the latter being a club that I set up. There were only two other Dan grades that were willing to train, one being the Head of Security, a tall Glaswegian that was not out to take any prisoners when he sparred. We set up a punch bag in the gym and worked out on a regular basis.

Returning to the UK after four years abroad, I found that the Kenbukai club had closed down as Bob Breen had become too ill to train, so the Dan grades got together and hired a hall to train once again. My job also made me move around the South of England so I trained at any club I could find and went back to traditional karate, even trying Kung Fu. Finally settling in a job in Milton Keynes, I found I was working with a female Dan grade who recommended her partners' club, The Golden Tigers so I joined them. This was a return to the Kenbukai days with semi-contact karate being the norm. They trained hard but with little control, so there were many bruises and dead-legs to contend with.

It was during this time that I damaged my back in an accident at home and was convinced that my martial arts days were over. It was weeks before I could walk properly and months before I was able to exercise.

After a time, good friend of many years and also the guitarist in the band I played in suggested that we started training again at his workshop. He was a Wing Chun Kung Fu Sifu and it was a great re-introduction to training as I could train at my own pace until I was confident that my back could take the exercise.

My son, Liam, reached an age where I thought it would be good for him to learn karate so I enrolled him at Sensei Kidby's Shotokan class in Bletchley. I was keen for him to start with traditional karate to get a good foundation in the sport and was pleasantly surprised to see how much more was on offer. Standing and watching him train, I thought to myself, why watch when I could join in… and the rest is history.

And the rest is history!

In the same words that this article began, there are many different reasons why people choose to start karate. My reason started out as the need for revenge but changed to the desire to advance in the sport. I have had to use karate in defence of self and family on very few occasions over the years but have had the confidence that karate brings to defuse many other possibly dangerous situations.

The Japanese attribute many philosophical and spiritual ideals to martial arts and have devoted their lives to their art. Although this lifetime devotion is not always possible in the Western world, martial arts does give you the physical exercise and the ideology that you are carrying on a tradition that is steeped in history. Like the Japanese, it is a wide-ranging sport that you can continue for many, many years and still enjoy to the full, as I have and as I intend to continue to do so.

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As you may or may not be aware, Sensei Andy Gillies, one among us who has truly found karate-do, spends much time researching our chosen martial art and has given us all many insights into its meaning


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