Aikido : 4th Dan – Practicing 26 Years
Other Arts : Kempo Karate 3rd Dan – 11 years
Martial Arts started for me at the age of 13, back in 1977, quite soon after I’d “had a kicking” from a group of lads my age. Nothing too serious, just enough to make me realise I didn’t want to be on the receiving end of that too many times.
Sitting in the waiting room of the local Dentist (just a check-up, not because of the kicking), I flicked through a Readers Digest magazine and was immediately drawn to the picture of a woman Karate-ka, punching one chap in the face whilst performing a reverse kick on some other poor bloke. That’s exactly what I needed to be able to do!
I asked my dad on returning home and didn’t really expect too much to come of it if I’m honest. But, a few weeks later, he’d been asking around at the local Working Mens Club and was told there was a chap there who may be able to help as he was a Black Belt 2nd Dan in Kempo Karate. I was duly taken down to meet the man, Mick Bird was his name and he was watching over the distribution of the Club “Divvy”. He looked me over and said he’d let me have a go, but I’d be the only kid in the class.
So the next Sunday morning, up I went to the Adventure Centre in Kingsheath, Northampton to start Kempo Jutsu Karate. The first job was to sweep the room floor, messy from the Disco the night before, making sure to pick up the chewing gum and spat out sweets. I was immediately hooked !
I made some great friends Mark Sessions, Mick “Straus”, “SK” (who are all still training I believe?) to name a few and some who are sadly no longer with us, like Les Fisher and “Old” John Wiley. The training was hard and unrelenting. Press ups on the knuckles, a hundred or more situps, partner assisted leg stretching, I say assisted – more like inflicted !, no protective pads for sparring which was pretty full on and performed on hard floor with no mats, roll up your gi top into a makiwari (puching or kicking pad) on your stomach, Tameshiwari on roof tiles, house bricks and wooden boards etc….. All the sorts of things that would be frowned on these days – but I absolutely loved it.
There were many memorable nights practice, a brief foray into the world of competition sparring and many people given nicknames by Les (like a mouthy bloke who became “Verbal Vic”). I obtained my 1st Dan in Jan 1983, 2ndDan in Nov 1985 and 3rd Dan in Sept 1987.
In 1985, at the age of 19 or 20, I damaged my back during a training session and was eventually diagnosed with a slipped disc which was operated on. I was told by virtually all the medical profession that my days of Karate were over, apart from one local GP, who played rugby, who told me I would soon be back. He was right, after 6 months I was back training. There was no way I was stopping Karate.
As is usual in dojos, some of the Dan Grades had decided they needed to start their own training Dojo. Myself and Les stayed with Mick Bird in Northampton and trained at the British Timken Sports & Social Club in Duston, Northampton (amongst other venues along the way).
Around the summer of 1988, I had cause to perform a citizen’s arrest on 3 young prats who has firstly stolen and then promptly crashed a car outside my place of work. I commandeered a car and it’s unsuspecting driver, to head them off. To cut a long story short (time went slowly during those 10 minutes), I did manage to get all 3 of them back to the arms of the Police, without having to use any Karate, but only because I insisted that 2 other local factory workers acted as shepherds (they were only standing around having a fag break, poor chaps). These lads were around 15 years old and there was no way I could just go wading into them. I realised at that point that I’d been practicing a Martial Art for over 10 years and I couldn’t use it ! I’d never been taught how to kick people without causing serious damage or punch someone softly. I needed to look around.
So I did, I looked at loads of other karate schools, JKD, Kung Fu, Judo – but nothing seemed “more right” than what I already knew.
Then, one night at the club, Mick suggested that I try lifting up a lad called Aaron. His dad (another Mick) trained with us and duly stood by, as proud as punch, as I first picked the little lad up, then the next time couldn’t budge the little bugger ! Apparently he had seen an Aikido demonstration at his Judo club, by an instructor called Aubrey Smith, then gone home and performed the “lifting exercise” perfectly on his dad.
This had to be investigated. Mick Bird, to his great credit, asked one of his old Kempo students Pete Blaney, who had converted to Aikido, to arrange an Aikido demonstration at our club.
On the night in question, I’d told my old Karate mates what was happening and they all turned up to watch. We’d got the Judo Mat out (thank god) and did our own demo first, just to show these Aikido Dan Grades what we were about. Aubrey then stepped onto the mat and asked, in his usual way, for “anyone” to attack him. I stepped up. There was no way I was going to be shown up in front of my old mates, so went in, full speed, full Kiai with Oi Tsuki Jodan (front punch to the face).
That’s when it happened. That’s when my head felt like it was leaving my body and a train hit me in the back. It was my first ever feeling of (and felling by) Irimi-nage. It wasn’t a train that had struck me, it was the mat. I’d gone from vertical to horizontal with no feeling of it happening. All the power I’d put into the attack was absorbed, redirected and given back to me with compound interest! It was the time I immediately knew I had to learn this art.
The rest of the evening was spent with me trying to understand how the hell Karate could work – which I knew it did, but that Aikido could also work – which I now definitely knew it could, but they seemed to be going in completely opposite directions? Karate was speed, focused power, kicking and striking with powerful blocks and stances – aiming to perfect each technique. Aikido was none of these. It was relaxed power, always moving, every technique being different, with more emphasis on principles such as absorption and harmony than technique.
I carried on a while with Kempo, trying to practice Aikido at the same time. It didn’t work, they were too different for me to be able to run them in parallel. I had finally found what I had been looking for.
At the time I started Aikido with Aubrey, he had just graded a number of his students to 1st Dan. I leapt at the chance to practice with this group of enthusiastic Dan Grades and in return, they had a new young aggressive attacker to play with.
For a number of years I was practicing with Aubrey, Roy Biggs, Bob Sherrington and the other Dan Grades in Northampton one or two nights per week and then on a Thursday night in Irchester with Bob. Bob & Aubrey’s Aikido were quite different, but that was good for me initially, as I had to be constantly thinking about not only doing Aikido, but more importantly, Not doing Karate. Soon after I obtained my 1st Dan in Nov 1993, Bob gave me the present of the Irchester Club as he was opening another in nearby Kettering. I ran the Irchester Club from that point on.
I look back on those days in the Unitarian Church with great fondness. My “surprise” 30th Birthday party being one memory that I will never forget, with most of my new Aikido friends there to see me suddenly drop down on one knee during my thank you speech, to propose to my girlfriend (now wife of 17 years) Caroline, with an engagement ring made by the late Roy Biggs. He was a lovely man who had a passion for Aikido and a wonderful eye for detail both in his jewellery and his practice.
A couple of events took place around the mid 90’s which meant that we all split from the Unitarian church to find other venues, with the Obelisk Centre in Kingsthorpe, Northampton becoming home to Aubrey, myself, Joe Langford and a just couple of others on a Tuesday evening.
We practiced there for at least 6 or 7 years with no advertising, not really wanting to be distracted by others, analysing and polishing our Aikido. Changing elements that didn’t really work under scrutiny and streamlining other areas to make even more effective against awkward Uke’s.
I had the opportunity to practice and learn from Aubrey on a Tuesday and then run my own class at Irchester on the Thursday. It really helped me “bed in” the teachings, as I had the chance to play with it and then take it back the next week if I’d broken it, so to speak and get it mended.
I am proud to say that Aubrey has officiated on the grading panel for all my Dan Gradings, with 2nd Dan in Dublin in May 1996, 3rd Dan in Nov 2000 and 4th Dan in May 2009.
My job has taken me to Guernsey quite regularly from 1996 to 2010. Over that period I came across a small, but very dedicated Aikido Club. I was honoured to be asked by the club’s instructor Dave Pledge, to take the class whenever I could, which I gladly did at every opportunity. For 2 or 3 years from 2007 I took the class nearly every week and formed a great friendship with Andy Garnham (who I graded to 1st Dan) and Dan Robilliard (who I worked with and eventually made sign a contract to come to his first practice ! – he’s never looked back)
As the Obelisk Centre in Northampton was quite small, it was difficult running mixed grade classes. As a group we had run a number of Aikido Courses at my old Karate Dojo, the British Timken Sports and Social Club. British Timken sold up in the early 2000’s and over the course of 10 years or more, we sat on a user group with the local Parish Council, to get a Sports Centre built in Duston. This was finally opened in late 2012 and we merged both clubs into the one venue.
Cathy Knight became free to come back to Aikido to practice and instruct, after years of running children here, there and everywhere. She is excellent at demonstrating how physical strength is not required in order to perform effective technique, something which is not lost on the beginners who come along.
Over the more recent years we also had another night at a local hospital, with access to a gym with mats. This hospital was actually knocked down and a brand new one built. This being the Berrywood Hospital in Duston.
The Duston Sports Centre was great, but in February 2014 we were given the opportunity to use a permanently matted room at the new Berrywood Hospital, which has been purpose built for the safe practice of Control and Restraint techniques (not called that these days – for some politically correct reason?). This is where we currently practice every Tuesday and Thursday.
We’ve been on many enjoyable courses over the years all over England and in Ireland too and I have formed long lasting friendships with many Aikidoka. I have had the pleasure of teaching many different people of all ages and from all walks of life. I still enjoy the look of bewilderment on newcomer’s faces, when they are placed gently on the floor in a manner that they can’t understand. I have so much to thank all my instructors for, but namely :
- Mick Bird for giving me a great Martial Arts introduction (always nice to have a bit of Kempo in my back pocket)
- Bob Sherrington for his patience, the gift of the Irchester Dojo and for fixing my back a number of times
- Aubrey for his dedication to Aikido, and willingness to pass on all of his extensive knowledge and ability on the Art of Aikido. Oh and also for making me 2 inches taller from that first Irimi !