Therapy Session 1989 – Part 1
Therapist: I’ve noticed you haven’t spoken much about our time together coming to an end.
Simon: I suppose I’m a bit worried
Simon: I’m scared I won’t be able to cope
Therapist: If things were that bad I’m sure I could give you more sessions if needed.
Simon: That’s good to know
Therapist: I wouldn’t abandon you, but at the same time I’d hope you’d be prepared to struggle a little, after all a lot of the therapeutic work takes place after the sessions come to an end, and as with many things in life a certain amount of pain and suffering may be involved to feel their full benefit.
Simon: What do you mean?
* * *
Setting off for Halls – Part 1
The day to move into Ralph West Halls of Residence in Battersea, London, had come. We’d filled mum’s car with my belongings, so there was hardly any room for us to get in. Still, somehow, we managed to navigate ourselves around the boxes and plastic bags and wiggle ourselves into position. Of course, John, was not amused, so he huffed, and he puffed.
“You’re bringing way too much stuff Simon,” he laughed unhappily, “If the car struggles under the weight of it all we’ll have to take some out and you can come back to get the rest of it another day.”
Mum looked at me from her rear-view mirror as if to say, “Don’t react,” but I couldn’t stop myself and at the top of my voice shouted, “We’re taking it! You’ve always got to say something negative, of course, the car’s going to be ok, it’s not that much stuff.”
Given the doors and boot barely closed, it would have been very fitting for karma to have intervened and just like a clown’s car, have the doors, bonnet and roof fly off as soon as mum turned the ignition key, fortunately, though, the car didn’t even whimper. However, something else happened, and in its own way, it was just as surreal.
* * *
Karate and Me – Part 1 – 1983 – Brown Belt Grading
A few weeks before setting off for college I’d attended a national karate grading for my first brown belt (2nd kyu). This was the culmination of over 6 months intensive training for me, including 4 sessions per week at the Tweeddale and Wimbledon dojos as well as training at school and by myself in the park. In a way, this too felt like I was tying up one of the many loose ends before going off to college, I wasn’t planning on stopping training, but it felt like a good time to lay down a milestone.
On the day mum gave me a lift to what looked like a small aircraft hangar near Crawley and wished me luck as she dropped me off. It was a hot sunny afternoon which made the 6-hour-long session even more arduous. The grading consisted of us demonstrating techniques and routines from the syllabus, exercising, having our resolve tested through punishing ‘spirit training’ and finally fighting. When, halfway through, a wasp flew into the dojo and landed on the floor, one of the other students stamped on it barefoot, the examiner, Shihan Steve Arneil, laughed and said to the guy, “You’ve definitely passed,” and for a moment there was a brief respite from the suffering. However, it would only be at the end when he’d truly reveal who had passed and who hadn’t.
We’d all been told to get changed and relax while Shihan and a couple of other examiners deliberated over the candidates, and then, about half an hour later we were asked to stand in line. It was then Shihan approached us individually and let us know either way. For those who passed there was a pat on the back and a congratulatory handshake, while for those who hadn’t, he spoke of the setbacks he’d experienced and advised they try again soon.
When he got to me he bowed his head slightly, took a deep breath then smiled a big grin and told me I was now a brown belt and I beamed back in relief and happiness. But my joy was quickly curbed when, as I walked out to where mum was waiting, a bloke from my club, who I’ll refer to as Jay here, approached me and said, “I can’t see why you passed when I didn’t, they only gave it to you because you’re disabled,” and as I got into mum’s car, I wondered if he was right.
* * *
My grandmother must have feared the gaze of others forced upon her because of both my disability and illegitimacy. She instinctively knew the world would want to stare, not so much at me, at who I really was, but at my arms, at the version of me that was a freak to them, and within that process, lots of aspersions would be directed at her because, for many, having a disability was seen as some kind of divine punishment either as a result of a past life’s digressions or for those of a previous generation. To others, it was seen as a soul’s choice to take on a harder spiritually enriching life path, but for all of them, some kind of celestial intervention was involved and that meant I, and by association, she became the focus of a lot of unwanted attention.
* * *
Karate and Disability – Part 1
While researching this chapter I came across some videos on YouTube of a disabled karateka called Dave Kengen. He has tiny little arms and such short legs that he moves by shuffling around on his backside. When I first watched him demonstrate karate moves, I found it a challenging experience because I felt I was witnessing an episode of mass delusion. The people around him were doing complicated movements with their arms which he replicated with a quick flick of his hands, none of which would have been practical in any way and then in another video he performed a very unrealistic mock fight with multiple opponents. The whole situation left me reeling, but when I read the comments under the videos, some of which are paraphrased below, I thought I really ought to consider this matter in some depth.
Here are a few of the comments:
“There’s giving people equal opportunities, but this is just ludicrous. Had I been born with little arms and legs, I’m sure I wouldn’t be deluding myself by going after a black belt.”
“In reality, there’s no skill in what he’s doing and none of it would be of any practical use in self-defence terms. This is just glorifying what equates to a walrus flopping around. It’s not woke to state the obvious nowadays, and if you don’t bow down to him or tell him how brave he is, you’re a narrow-minded Nazi.”
“People might think we’re evil for saying shit like this. But to me, it’s him who’s being mean and evil. This is not what karate is and it’s him who’s offending thousands of years of generations with this shit. I laughed as I watched the video as it’s fucking funny the way he moves and shit. If this was me, I wouldn’t do this shit, it’s disrespectful”
“This is partial parts, not martial arts.”
OK, that last one was quite clever, but as you can see, they weren’t pulling their punches and seemed especially angry about him being awarded a black belt. Given there must be those who think similarly about me doing karate too, I wanted to address some of the points often made about disabled people doing martial arts and the first of these is the issue of them being awarded black belts.
* * *
The Tea Master
One day an old man accidentally bumped into a samurai in the street. Angered by such an act of disrespect the samurai challenged him to a duel. The old man was a Tea Ceremony Master and knew nothing of fighting. However, fearing more for his honour than his life he went to see Miyomoto Musashi, who many had gone to for sword fighting lessons. When they met, the old man simply asked, “how do I die with honour?” Given, most people came to Musashi wanting to learn how to kill, he asked, “who are you?” So, bowing his head, the old man said, “I am nobody, just a Tea Master.”
Musashi replied, “So, make me Tea.”
Even though he was only hours away from being killed the Tea Master performed the ceremony so unfalteringly that Musashi told him he could already die with honour.
When the time came for the duel the Samurai was already waiting, ad mocked the old man. “So, you’ve finally decided to come, lets fight!”
The Tea Master said nothing but bowed, placed his sword down, and then bowed again. After a few moments, he drew his sword and held it above his head, and stayed there, motionless. Faced with the old man’s serenity the samurai began to doubt himself, and thought, “Maybe I’ve chosen the wrong opponent.” Just then the sun’s reflection on the Tea Master’s Sword glinted a streak of red, at which point the samurai wondered, “Is that my blood? am I already dead?” Finally, in despair, the samurai dropped to the floor, crying, “I am so sorry Master, please forgive me”. The Tea Master said nothing, picked up his belongings and walked away. The samurai then pursued him, and begged, “please take me as your student.” After much perseverance, the Tea Master granted his wish and taught him how to control his mind. The samurai knew how to fight but that was all.
* * *
The Qualification of Qualifications – Black Belt
Most of us who’ve ever gained a qualification soon come to realise several things. Firstly, we’ll rarely ever be as competent in the subject as we were on the day we took the test, (although, of course, that’s not always true), and secondly, outside of anyone who’s passed the same qualification, no one else will ever know how hard or easy it was.
As the process of attaining a Black Belt differs so much between various martial arts, it’s almost impossible to give it a standard value. However, for the most part, it seldom denotes any great fighting ability, nor does it mean an endpoint has been reached, instead it generally only indicates the first level of being a serious student has been attained. However, that’s not to say it isn’t difficult to accomplish and for most people years of training will be involved even to get to that level. Secondly, whilst the ability to perform techniques is part of the test, there are lots of karatekas who, as they age, become unable to do many of those techniques well anymore, if at all, so as time passes there will likely be some leeway given as to what is expected from a black belt. In other words, it’s more about a journey the wearer once travelled, not what they’re capable of from then on.
In Kyokushinkai Karate, the first, second and third black belt levels, (1st,2nd and 3rd Dan), are awarded after passing gradings in which techniques and other skills including fighting ability, must be demonstrated, along with a few other supporting qualifications. From 4th Dan onwards promotions are presented as honorary ones, often only offered after years of service to the organisation. So, by the time martial arts masters get awarded their highest grades, most of them can’t do a lot of the techniques they were able to do when they were younger, nor are they likely to be able to fight as well either, however, their knowledge and experience is something that becomes of far more value as the justification for why further ranks are bestowed upon them.
With that in mind if we imagine Dave Kengen was the only person left on earth who had any understanding of karate wouldn’t this be of great value for those who wanted to learn more about fighting techniques? Therefore, if we value the understanding held by high grades who can no longer perform techniques properly can we not also value Dave Kengen’s knowledge too?
For those who are still not convinced, it might be worth bearing in mind that when martial artists are valued solely on their physical competence, then only a few, very elite practitioners will ever get to a very high standard, and even then, it will only be for a relatively small period of their lives. So, while in the West things are generally valued for their outward appearance, in the East there’s often a more holistic approach behind assessing worth, however, when we value both physical expertise, as well as mental and spiritual qualities, then an art form can be practised by almost anyone throughout their whole lifetime. The Japanese even go so far as deliberately breaking crockery and then reassembling it using gold as a glue (Kintsugi) as an illustration that beauty can be found in the imperfections of life.
Given all of the above, if we accept a black belt doesn’t always mean a lot when it comes to fighting ability and is mainly there to help tutors and other students know who’s already been taught certain parts of the syllabus, then what is the big deal about Dave Kengen being graded a black belt?
Maybe, at the heart of this is another contentious issue that’s presently a big part of Western culture, this being the notion of self-identification. Most of us accept it is the view of others which really defines who we are and whether we are recognised as being competent at doing something. So, when we see someone who is clearly not up to the standard they suggested they were, or even who they say they are, we can’t help but see both them and anyone else who accepts their proposed ability or identity, as deluded. Often, there’s a lot of sense in this criticism, but sometimes, there’s more to a situation than we can see from our current vantage point.
* * *
Ain’t It Not Funny – Ivor Cutler 1986
Sue, the girlfriend I mentioned in the last chapter, the one who got hassled by the white van driver, took me to see the humorous poet Ivor Cutler performing live at the Battersea Arts Centre. As we waited for it to start, she said, “You’re going to love him,” but, within minutes of the performance beginning the audience roared with laughter, while I didn’t find him funny at all. Eventually, I couldn’t help but think they were putting on an act, so I started to laugh in an affected manner every now and again until, finally, Sue gave me a “you’re fucking dead” look, so I shut up. When we came out, she and I had a bit of an argument because I couldn’t see what was so good about him, and she couldn’t understand that. Anyway, we agreed to disagree and after a bit of time, the incident faded away. However, a few months later I came across a couple of Ivor Cutler’s poetry books and records, so I read and listened to them, and I got it. In fact, I loved them.
* * *
Jay – Part 1
Jay, the guy who’d questioned the legitimacy of my brown belt after the grading didn’t leave the matter there and over the next few weeks continued to make a fuss about it to others at the club. Back then I didn’t have the wherewithal to argue with him, but as is so often the case things tend to be more about those pointing fingers than their intended target.
Over the previous 4 years, we had often sparred against each other in the club, and he would nearly always say, “Don’t kick me with your metal leg.” It wasn’t said as a joke, and given I was very careful about kicking people hard with it, it wasn’t as if he’d ever had any cause to complain.
* * *
John – Part 1
When I shouted at John in the car and he cowered slightly, I felt both triumphant and despondent simultaneously. Yes, I’d stopped him from sabotaging my plan to get all my belongings in my new place that afternoon, but I realised I had become a bully in the process. From that moment on the dynamics between us changed forever. For the first time, I felt his vulnerability and realised he had his story too. This didn’t stop us from crossing swords completely in the future, but it definitely shifted my perception of him within our dynamics so consequently this marked the beginning to the end of our warring relationship.
* * *
The story of Won Hyo.
Around 600AD there was a monk called Won Hyo, who decided to travel the long and arduous journey to China for enlightenment. One night he went to sleep but when he awoke he had an incredible thirst. As it was still dark, he fumbled around until he found a cup of water near him. He satiated his thirst then went back to sleep. However, when he woke in the morning he found the cup he’d drunk from was a human skull and the water in it was stagnant, upon realising his mistake, he immediately felt ill and vomited. It was then he had a revelation and wrote, “Last night I thought this was water and it quenched my thirst. This morning I saw it was something else, so I related to it differently and was sick to my stomach. Therefore, the mind makes everything, and without the mind everything is empty.”
Obviously one can argue that this isn’t the whole story, however, the power of our minds to change how we perceive things and others should never be underestimated.
* * *
John – Part 2
John, my stepfather, was the second born of three. Both his parents were confident and very sure of what they believed in. His older sister was kind and shared their parents’ confidence gene, but as much as John tried to project self-assurance, in reality, in many ways he was quite shy. Now, when I look at photos of him when he was a teenager, I see that us being put together was never going to work. Even though we’d become familiar with each other, after all those years, we were still worlds apart.
* * *
Therapy Session 1989 – Part 2
Therapist: There is a lot in life we have to struggle with, including developing ourselves. Much of what we’ve discussed will become more concrete within your own internal world because so much of it has already been internalised and you’ll be able to draw upon it when needed. Do you feel that’s a realistic proposition?
Simon: I’m not sure. I mean, I know I’ve taken a lot of what we’ve discussed on board intellectually, but I’m not sure how much has been absorbed emotionally.
* * *
Karate and Me – Part 2
I was too young to watch Bruce lee films in 1971, but the David Carradine TV series, Kung Fu hit our screens in 1972. There was Kane, AKA Grasshopper, on our little colour TV beating the stuffing out of multiple attackers twice his size, and all the training required was to walk on rice paper without ripping it, which looked quite easy, especially when I tried doing the same on toilet paper, picking up a big skin scarring pot of hot water with his lower arms which as I didn’t have any of, so that meant I was exempt and finally to snatch something from his blind master’s hands. The fact that his teacher was blind went over my head at the time, but now in light of what I’m writing about here it seems very fitting. Most people from my generation think of the 1970s as the time when martial arts came to the West, but the truth is very different.
The first English Samurai was William Adams in the 1600s, but he was an anomaly partly because Japan had closed its doors to Europeans mainly as a result of the perceived threat of Catholicism in the 1630s and didn’t open up to the world until the 1850s when America used gunboat diplomacy to force their hand with the treaty of Kanagawa. Once that happened some martial arts cross-fertilisation took place between Japan and the West. However, China and Korea had already been passing on various fighting techniques to the West for decades, especially through sailors and migrants returning from those countries to port towns such as Marseilles where local fighting styles started including kicks, holds, strikes, and throws which had been hitherto unseen in those regions and later formed the foundations of French Savate/Chusson. It’s also argued that Chusson came about due to a ban on sword fighting in France, so people replaced sword strikes with their arms and feet, however, it’s more likely a combination of both influences was true. Ironically, it’s alleged that high-spinning kicks were not part of the original Okinawan Karate repertoire until the French brought them to the attention of the Japanese in the early 1900s.
In 1892, a decade or so after the Japanese ports had been opened to the West, a Jujutsu demonstration was given in London, and in 1897 E J Harrison, a journalist, went to Yokohama where he studied Judo, and subsequently became the first ever westerner to gain a black belt. Then in 1899 an overseas worker, Edward William Barton-Wright, moved back to England having studied martial arts in Japan, bringing with him an 18-year-old Japanese man who’d trained extensively in Jujutsu. Wright toured the country with the 5-foot 6-inch Yukio Tani, offering prize money to anyone who could defeat him in a wrestling bout, and it was in many of these travelling fairs that side-shows where people with disabilities could also be viewed for a fee. Just as those who live in mundane worlds try to escape it in search of the fantastical whenever possible, the extraordinary at both ends of the physical spectrum comes to the humdrum to satiate those still trapped there, as long, of course, as they’re willing to pay.
* * *
Some years ago, I was at the Chelsea Arts Club when a fellow member asked me if I’d be willing for him to make a cast of my torso so he could make a ‘statue’ of me. One of his arguments was it’d relieve me of being stared at and alleviate the guilt of those who wanted to stare. I declined his kind offer because firstly I didn’t want to disengage my disability from me as a human to those who wanted to look and secondly, he wasn’t offering enough money. As you know I’m not one to sell my honour or body for money… Well not unless it’s over a million pounds (after tax).
* * *
Getting to Know You – Freak Show
“What the fuck are you looking at? Never seen a human being before?”
Edith Barlow – ‘World’s shortest woman’
One of the few positive things that came from freak shows was the conversations that would often take place between the performers and members of the audience. While in some ways this would often be stilted, there were also times when a great deal of humanity would come across in both directions. What started out as an episode fuelled by morbid curiosity, fear, and cruel humour, could be swung into a moment of connection. The trouble was, at least for the performers this didn’t tend to extend into their daily lives with the wider community. Likewise, the audience unknowingly lost out on all the things the performers had to offer as equal participants within society. The only way that was going to happen was if they could all be a part of each other’s daily lives, and given they weren’t, one has to ask why? Perhaps the previous chapter’s theme of resentment and our desire to avoid uncomfortable truths played a big part, but it might also have been a case of people just not knowing what was possible, not being motivated and on top of that there were practical, often quite expensive things that needed to be put in place to give greater access to each other before the barriers that divided them could be dealt with.
* * *
The Opera Singer’s Fingers
Recently I watched a video on YouTube of a male opera singer with short arms performing, as the camera slowly zoomed out, I could see he was wearing a black cloak. Every now and again his fingers protruded from the cloak’s sleeves. He was obviously a bit nervous because they twitched a little and as they did I couldn’t help but feel it looked creepy. Given I’ve seen more disabled people than most, including hundreds of deformed hands, I was surprised by my reaction and wondered why I felt that way. OK, the music was a bit foreboding so that didn’t help, but I think what really accentuated the situation was the image was so fragmented. His fingers felt disconnected from him and appeared as an entity in themselves, a bit like the hand, the Thing, in The Adams Family and just as archetypes such as clowns are scary because they lack humanity, so do body parts when they’re disconnected from the person they’re supposed to be attached to.
If resentment breeds feelings of anger and retribution then attaching a human face to the thing people find uncomfortable might be one way to alleviate these feelings.
* * *
“People don’t go to the circus anymore
Because they feel so sorry when the lions roar
But the freaks and the geeks who brought the house down
Have escaped from their cages
And are roaming the streets of your town
From my song Soci-At-Ease –
* * *
The Kids in the Café – 2022
The other day, I was in a café and some young children were sitting at another table. As I went to the counter to pay, I noticed they were in the queue ahead of me with their mother. As one of the kids started staring at me, I could see their mum was worried by what they might say next, so to reassure her, I smiled at the kids and said, “It’s ok, I’m interesting aren’t I?” One of them nodded but said nothing, but his older brother interjected, “There’s a presenter on TV with an arm like yours, so we’re kind of used to it, still it’s interesting to see someone with short arms in real life.”
* * *
Karate and Me – Part 3
You may remember from an earlier chapter that I, understandably, hated and feared mum’s psychopathic boyfriend Michael, so, when I watched David Carradine playing Kane from the TV series ‘Kung-Fu’, cutting bullies down to size, I made my way to the Roundshaw Community Centre Karate club as soon as I could with the simple, yet innocent, intention of learning how to kill Michael.
When I got there a line of people in what looked like white pyjamas were doing high kicks, punches and making a lot of noise. My friends and I stood in front of them trying to copy what they did while the instructor, Dicky Dowler, who was a barrister outside of the Dojo, spoke of groin kicks as “scrotum burgers”, and then admonished a white guy for not being able to do two things at once with his limbs, adding while nodding to a black-belt who was also a person of colour, “No wonder all these black guys, are stealing your girl-friends.” For all the racism, whether said in a post-modern ironic way or not, there was also a black belt karateka in the front line who used a wheelchair, and this signalled to me disabled people were welcome in the dojo.
As the lesson ended, one of the other black belts approached us and asked if we wanted to join the kids’ class, we all nodded yes, and that was our first contact with Kyokushinkai Karate and introduction to Albert Burton who’d be our main teacher from there. He and his then-wife Denise would take us for a session once a week but being young kids we were easily distracted so our attendance was very inconsistent and consequently we didn’t advance in any meaningful way. However, as you may also remember, that didn’t stop me from performing a series of spinning kicks whenever mum and I went to the Chinese takeaway, where the owner would always call out his family to come to watch and at the end of my performance, they’d all applaud and laugh, and he’d say something in Chinese that probably went something like, “Reminds me of the good old days when I used to prize fight at freak shows”, but as they’d pop in an extra bag of prawn crackers I wouldn’t have minded at all. Even today I’m tempted to perform every time I get a Chinese meal, but worse still my mouth waters when I do a series of kicks.
* * *
Karate and Disability – Part 2
“There are not more than five musical notes, yet the combinations of these five give rise to more melodies than can ever be heard.” – The Art of War – Sun Tzu
Most people who wear black belts in the West, but not all, of course, would be considered far below par when it comes to being seen as serious martial artists in Eastern cultures. The founder of Mitsubishi fought people to the death to gain his reputation as a martial artist. Imagine what he’d have thought of current black belt tests.
At one point Dave Kengen performed in front of thousands of Martial Artists in Japan and at the end of it, he was given a standing ovation. Obviously, this was partly due to people judging him with a different yardstick but there were also some who recognised he had value as a martial artist. He had trained for years, struggled, and learned a lot about techniques, and as I watched more of his videos, I too came to understand he wasn’t deluded, in fact, he was very aware of his limitations, but he loved training and studying, so, I couldn’t help but reserve some respect for him. Although I did think the multiple attacker demo was a bit naff.
* * *
Veronica – 1988
Around 1988, Veronica, the girl I mentioned in the last chapter, who I eventually became close friends with told me she’d just done a self-defence course for disabled women. I asked her what they’d taught her, so she got out of her wheelchair and sat on the floor in her hallway. “Go on,” she said, “try to kick me.” So, I did quite a soft kick but with a bit of a push to it which resulted in her doing a kind of backward summersault. As she sat up all red-faced and angry she said, “You weren’t supposed to do it that hard you fuckin’ cunt,” I laughed and said, “Well you told me to kick you.” then we smiled at each other and burst out laughing.
* * *
The Monk who can be cut into 10 Pieces
Yes, before you say it, I know there’s a joke to be had here…
The Chinese invaded Tibet in the 1950s and as a result, all the monks had to flee before the armies stormed the monasteries. However, when the army entered one of them, they discovered a monk still meditating in front of the Buddha there. Not sure what to do the soldiers went back to their general, who soon turned up to deal with the situation. When he got to where the monk was he shouted, “I can cut you up into ten pieces why do you sit there and do nothing?” The monk replied, “because I am the man you can cut up into ten pieces”. Realising he could not kill him spiritually he bowed to the monk with respect. I’m not sure what happened next but given the history of communism and religion, I wouldn’t be too optimistic.
* * *
Jay – Part 2
Jay not only passed his brown belt a few months after our grading but proceeded to go on to get his black belt (1st Dan) a couple of years later. Then one-day things fell into place when I watched him participate in a full-contact fighting competition at the Crystal Palace sports arena. Very early on in the initial round of his first bout he got hit lightly but made out he’d been injured. He hadn’t been at all, but when faced with the possibility of being hurt for real, he got out of the situation ‘honourably’ by taking a dive. At the time I thought there was something about this bloke that really didn’t seem right, and as I was to find out, I was right, but I could never have imagined just how awful he was.
* * *
Karate and Me – Part 4
“You’ve got to admit, you’ve got a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to reach.”
My Karate teacher 2019
Compared to Dave Kengen I have longer limbs and consequently am able to perform more techniques and spar to a greater degree, but even so, I realised even as far back as when I was 7 years old I compensated for this by pouring over books about karate and other martial arts in the library where I’d focus on technical knowledge, learning difficult terminology, the practical application of techniques (Oyo/Bunkai), and studying pressure points (Kyushu), many of which I’d then try out on other kids at school the next day. But for all my in-depth knowledge of karate, I soon came to realise that compared to many of my instructors I wasn’t anywhere close to knowing as much as they did. However, that didn’t stop me from trying my luck. When one of my karate instructors said to me a few years ago, “You have to admit; you’ve got a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to reach” I’d occasionally get a few kicks past his defences whenever we sparred, and although I never landed any at full pelt, a few winded him slightly when they made contact with his solar plexus and the sight of my foot brushing across his face surprised him on several other occasions too. In a real fight, he’d knock me unconscious way before I’d ever even gotten a kick in, but I couldn’t help but think it only polite to make a point whenever possible.
Anyway, back to the 70s and Roundshaw Karate dojo. After a few years, I stopped going to the club completely and it wouldn’t be until I was 14 that I’d approach Grant in Westcroft Sports Centre and ask him if I could train in his class. It’s strange now to look back to those times when martial arts were so tough, and in many ways extremely intolerant of weakness, to see how accepting the instructors were of disabled people participating. Both Grant and I still remember that moment with fondness, partly because I was so surprised that he said yes and maybe even he was a bit shocked by how taken a back I was at his welcome. Later after many years of being his student, including annoying him on many occasions, he always had some empathy for me as a complicated individual rather than just a disabled person.
I trained with Grant until I went off to college in 1983. However, during the preceding 2 years I’d also trained at Shihan Steve Arneil’s club as he was the karate style leader who’d be grading me, and that way he got to know me first… As you know, even that turned out to be a bit of a bumpy ride.
Just around the corner from the halls of residence, I moved to in Battersea, was Jeff Whybrow’s club. He was very well-known back then as he was such a good fighter and technician while still being relatively very young. During my time with him, I discussed taking my next belt and he asked me why I wanted to do so. Faced with that question, I couldn’t give him a good answer. As I thought about it I recognized I was using belts as a way of projecting a tough image, but deep down I knew that compared to a lot of people I really wasn’t tough at all. Jeff also told me of his time in Japan where he’d met lots of karatekas who’d been training for many decades who didn’t want to take a grading because they saw it as too connected to their ego, and for me, that was justification enough to step away from taking belts for a long time and to learn to train for the love of it. I continued training at Jeff’s club until he closed it in the early 1990s at which point I returned to Grant’s dojo.
By then it had been over 10 years since I’d gained my first brown belt, so I decided I’d get back to taking gradings especially as I’d come to the conclusion that firstly training for a belt is about going on a journey and secondly I got a bit sick and tired of people looking at me with an expression that said, “You must be really shit if you haven’t gone up a grade for so long,”, which I admit was not a good reason, but trust me, faced with that for the thousandth time it was good enough.
Qualifications and outward signs of success are a bit of an issue for me because so often I’ve wanted to use them to shore up my own feelings of inadequacy. The same goes for music and art, commercial success tends to be accepted as a bona fide sign of accomplishment but upon closer philosophical inspection it isn’t, and yet most of us struggle to believe an artist’s success is not measured in sums of money and awards. Even having a Facebook page for my music with over 100 thousand followers impresses people and sees off some of my inner doubts, but deep down, again, it means very little.
Japanese and Western cultures are oceans apart in many ways, but for all that, they both have countless things to offer one another. While the stress in the West is on individuality, which often breeds selfishness it’s also a big factor behind why so many ground-breaking developments tend to come, especially within the creative arts industries. Conversely, the onus on the collective in the East leads to such efficient working methods, cooperation, and pooled resources that things can be done that’d be almost impossible in the West. Likewise, while the West excels in the outer material world, Eastern cultures have historically focused on inner development. So, even though Michael Jackson sang convincingly about starting with the man in the mirror and healing ourselves to make the world a better place, our culture still predominantly concentrates on our outer looks and displays of material wealth rather than our inner development. So, maybe, part of my pull towards karate was the promise of something coming from all that training that was deeper than just learning to fight, and one way that turned out to be true was a better understanding of who I wasn’t as much as who I was.
I’m getting old nowadays, but I still train and practice what I can on a daily basis, as well as study the intricacies of techniques, but now, for all the fights I’ve written about here I’m ready to admit what’s been obvious to everyone else all along, the biggest fight has been with myself, both physically and psychologically, especially when it comes to accepting the truth. Yes, I do have a bit of a disadvantage when it comes to reach after all.
* * *
Jay – Part 3 – 1997 – The Coward’s Cruelty
In 1997 I read a headline “Jail for couple guilty of cruelty”. The article told of a couple who’d escaped a murder charge after the woman’s 18-month-old child was battered to death. Due to it being impossible to know which of them had inflicted the fatal injuries, neither was charged with murder or manslaughter. The man involved was described as a martial arts expert, and as I read his name I realised it was Jay, the guy who’d complained about me getting my brown belt.
<< Warning this next paragraph contains disturbing descriptions of severe child cruelty – Please skip this next paragraph if you would prefer not to read it >>
The article went on to list a litany of injuries to the child’s body including being covered in bruises, bites, and bumps. There were even audio recordings made by Jay of him torturing the baby. The Jurors cried as they heard him squeeze her arm into an arm lock while she screamed in agony and later he was heard calling her a “scraggy doll” while trying to tempt her to drink a mixture of bleach, emulsion paint and car wash soap. “It’s a nice drink, you will love it,” he said.
For torturing and killing a child he only received a seven-year term of imprisonment, the mother just five.
In 2022 I was talking about Jay to a fellow karateka, and he told me that only a few years previously he was at another club when he heard Jay’s voice, albeit it was now coming from someone who was much older and almost unrecognisable. Seeing he was involved in teaching children my associate had a quiet word with the club’s owner who quickly asked the killer to leave.
Even with compulsory safety checks, people still get through the net and no doubt there’s a bad chance he’s out there teaching children somewhere else. Just, as Leonard Cohen put it, the light gets in through the cracks, so too does the darkness.
* * *
The Gates of Paradise
In the 1600’s a soldier called Nobushige came to Hakuin who was one of the most influential figures in Zen Buddhism. The soldier asked, “Is there really a paradise and a hell?”
“Who are you?” Hakuin asked.
“I am a samurai,” came the reply.
“You, a soldier!” Hakuin laughed. “What kind of ruler would have you as his guard? Your face looks like that of a beggar.”
Nobushige couldn’t control his anger and began to draw his sword.
Hakuin calmly said, “So you have a sword! Your weapon is probably much too dull to cut off my head.”
As Nobushige drew his sword further Hakuin shouted, “Here open the gates of hell!”
At these words, the samurai, perceiving the master’s discipline, sheathed his sword and bowed.
At which point Hakuin calmly stated “And here open the gates of paradise,”
* * *
Arriving at The Halls of Residence
It probably wasn’t a coincidence that John and I had had an argument just before we set off. Often when people go their separate ways complicated feelings arise which are far easier to deal with by being angry and creating a fight. Maybe, for John, seeing mum being sad about me leaving was painful even though he was probably glad to see the back of me, or maybe he wanted to make my leaving a more permanent fixture, by creating a bigger fallout, who knows, but for all of us, our emotions were heightened. So, for most of the 10-mile journey, we all sat in silence. Then, as we pulled up in front of Ralph West Halls, which echoed the design of some of the blocks on Roundshaw, I couldn’t help but feel a little scared concerning what I was about to face.
* * *
Therapy Session 1989 – Part 3
Therapist: It’s true when we’re confronted with new situations and change, it’s often very discomforting, but if you think about it, it’s very similar to the process a child goes through when faced with new circumstances.
Simon: What do you mean?
Therapist: Well, we often don’t realise how great our internal resources are until we’re tested. So, for a child, they go through their early life experiencing their parents and the rest of the family’s support and later, often without thinking about it, they are able to call on those resources even though their family members aren’t by their side anymore.
Simon: I’m still a bit anxious about ending therapy.
Therapist: Yes, I can understand that, but even children who have had good parents will worry when faced with the slightest degree of separation, such as their first day at school. But once they realise they’re able to cope they recognise the parents are always inside of them too.
Therapist: I realise you’re anxious about the end, but I’ll be here if you need me, both in your internal and external world. Still, it’s important to tolerate some pain if we are to develop ourselves emotionally. Of course, there are different levels and types of pain, and not all of it is ever justified. But then sometimes we might spend a lot of time trying to avoid pain only to end up creating even more.
Simon: The thing is, it’s not always easy to tell which is which.
Therapist: You’re right, it isn’t.
* * *
Karate is full of physical as well as some emotional pain; Being alone is often challenging for many of us; Having to earn money to live and provide shelter means undergoing a certain degree of suffering; While falling in love, having children, loving friends, and dealing with others is often painful too.
My therapist once told me about the notion of Love, Hate and knowledge forming the basis of most relationships. That we must accept a certain amount of pain in all meaningful relationships.
All of the pain and suffering listed above can be justified in some way, but that experienced by the child Jay tortured and killed could never be.
* * *
March – 2023 – Halls of Residence
I drove past where the halls were the other day, they were knocked down a few years ago and replaced with an exclusive luxury development. As I went by I could see mum, John, and I sitting in mum’s car, just about to get out. On the radio the Beatles sang about the blue sky making them want to cry and for a moment we all felt the same, then mum turned the ignition key off and there was silence.
I looked up to the sky to see it was just as blue almost 40 years later, then turned back to where mum had parked as the car faded away.
I thought of mum, John and my therapist, and knew they were not here anymore because they went somewhere.
* * *
That somewhere is also inside me,
As it is inside of you,
And we are inside it too