I wasn’t going to do this, but with over 58000 words still to go, why not offer another teaser?
From my house the walk to Mansfield to the karate club was slightly under two miles, and so, initially, twice a week, I did this four-mile round trip on foot, either side of two hours sweaty training.
Thinking back on it, it always surprises me that I never considered taking the bus, even in the foulest of weather. But buses meant money and the karate class fee was fifty pence! It doesn’t sound like much but bear in mind that the average price for a pint of beer in 1974 (always a good fiscal measure) was 14 pence!
This fifty pence fee became a standing joke with my dad. He never understood what I was up to, I think he found it funny. He was of a generation who had no reference to what karate was; he just let me get on with it and watched with casual amusement when I practiced my ‘moves’ on the back yard. The only time he commented was when I came home from training once with a black eye – “How much did you pay for that?”, “Fifty pence” I replied, “Give me fifty pence and I’ll black your eye”, he said. He wasn’t a violent man; he just had a mischievous sense of humour. He then walked away chuckling to himself. Parenting in my house was very laissez faire.
Mansfield karate club was one of the earliest established full-time Dojos in the UK (founded in 1969). It had originally been an old paint warehouse. An unassuming brick-built structure, it stood on West Hill Drive about fifty yards downhill from Mansfield General Hospital. The accident and emergency department was part of the hospital and I remember a few trips there to get myself patched up, or in one case where one of my kicks had split the eyebrow of one of my sparring partners and as such, it was my responsibility to sit with him in the A&E department until he was sewn up by the doctor.
The resident instructor was one of the early pioneers of British karate, David Allsop. By the early 70’s he had established a small team of willing ‘instructors’, at that time brown belts, and had timetabled regular classes that ran six days a week. This was a well-organised set-up.
The building was two storey, with its own changing rooms and toilets; male and female, which was really unusual as it is often thought that there were very few women training in karate at that time. While it’s true that men outnumbered women, the Mansfield Dojo bucked the trend; there were some very able women who trained there, who seemed unfazed by training and fighting with the men.
The upper floor was an open space, uncluttered with a wooden floor, which was well-worn, polished by footwork, stained by sweat.
It had windows on three sides, but one aspect just overlooked a brick wall, this was the building opposite an alleyway. Another side looked over the rooftop of the Labour Club next door, and on the other wall the windows were set in a doorway that was never used; the remnants of the warehouse; apparently, an upper floor loading access that was meant to slide open, but never did. The windows in the door were too high to give a panoramic view, but I have distinct memories of being alone in the building, hammering through repetitions of kata while observing snow flurries swirling before the orange glow of sodium street lights outside.
This all sounds very romantic and atmospheric, but the reality was that it was damp and, in winter, cold – oh so cold.
The only available heating was electric fan heaters at ceiling level, they really had zero effect; any heat they produced travelled upwards – this barely removed the chill.
The changing rooms, which for the men was tucked under the stairs, were inclined to be decidedly dank and smelled like the inside of an old fridge, a combination of the fug of sweaty shoes and festering, slightly wet, gis. I remember struggling to wrestle myself into a damp gi top, still pungent from the previous night’s training.
In the winter the floor upstairs was cold enough to split the skin on the soles of your feet. My grandfather had put me on to a salve called Snowfire, a ‘healing balm’, it was a green tablet of greasy overpowering potency. My grandfather was a farmer and out in all weathers, it worked for him and it certainly worked for me. I believe you can still get it, but only from those small independent pharmacies.
‘The Club’ as we called it was really close to the town centre. Later on, it became a good jumping off point for the pubs of Mansfield.
As I mentioned, next door was the Labour Club, if you wanted a drink in there, on most nights you needed to sign in, or be signed in by a member, but it wasn’t always the case. The Labour Club was big enough to host concerts for minor celebrities. One night I stood outside and heard Millie Small belt out her only hit single ‘My Boy Lollipop’. Such was the club circuit at that time. Although Millie was technically a reggae singer, she sang some soul classics. The Labour Club even managed to put minor American soul singers on the bill, like Edwin Starr, whose hit ‘War’ made a big splash in 1970. (Edwin Starr settled in nearby Nottingham and died there in 2003).
At this point I think I need to describe the 16 year old ‘me’.
I had stopped growing at five foot eleven inches, I was always disappointed that I never made six foot. I was very thin, I always worried that when standing sideways I would just disappear. My chest was broad and matched my shoulders but it was oh so very shallow, I would try deep breathing exercises, but they had no effect. Physically I felt a little awkward and self-conscious. I never wore shorts, which was fortunate because in those days nobody did. In summertime I tried to tan, believing at that time it would make me look healthier; it didn’t work; I just accumulated more freckles.
Schools sports held no interest for me; it was all about cliques and teamwork. I wasn’t very good at teamwork and I despised cliques. My favoured sports at school were mostly individual activities; field sports in the summer; particularly throwing events (at which I excelled, having a fast arm), and tennis, which didn’t go down well with the rugby crowd, who joyfully told me that tennis was a ‘game for homosexuals’, a view supported by the PE teacher, Welshman and rugby goon Mr Owen; I didn’t let that put me off.
Karate gave me a physical outlet. I didn’t struggle with the exercise, and I enjoyed the learning of new skills. I found fighting initially intimidating. I caught a low kick early on, which slowed me down somewhat and made my eyes water and brought on the type of pain that is generally… indescribable. It was a first, but certainly not the last.
There was no shortage of sparring partners. Make no mistake, this was a busy Dojo, even with a high drop-out rate classes were packed; lots of young guys all wanting to fight. A class of over twenty upstairs and another equally large downstairs was not unusual.
I realised that most of the men there were significantly bulkier and stronger than me; I think that this was because they were either in heavy industry or mining, at that time I struggled to make 57 Kg. This fact came home the one year that we were forced to enter a weight category competition. Out of a big club entry I was the only lightweight on the card. This was the year that the UKKW decided to decamp its National Championships from the regular London venue of Crystal Palace to Burnley in Lancashire. The then general secretary of the UKKW was a Burnley man, and it must have seemed more economical to run the event there, but it was not without its problems.
This weight difference influenced the way I fought; in a very Darwinian way I had to adapt or suffer. I needed to create distance between myself and my opponent and worked on pressurising him so that he would move back into my kicking range.
Attempting body kicks brought me pain, with toes bent back or collisions with elbows, so I worked on my head kicks and tried all kinds of sneaky ways of slotting them in. I was very poor at foot sweeping in those days, and envied people who could do it well. In retrospect the ability to sweep would have been a useful threat to discourage an opponent who was eager to get close.
David Allsop, my instructor, was an outstanding counter-puncher; his timing was superb, but it was the courage to forestall the opponent at the moment he launched his attack that I really admired. I remember watching him battle his way through multiple opponents at Crystal Palace using this kind of ‘stop ‘em dead’ gyakuzuki, only to lose in the final to the then unstoppable Vic Charles (this was 1975).
But this was the thing; there was no structured fight training, no squad sessions, we were just expected to make it up as we went along, learn from each other. In part I am sure it came out of the idea that the basics, pair work and kata training would give you everything you needed to know, and in some magic way you would pick it up. Whoever designed the system made a big assumption about how we would make the transition, because the majority of people just couldn’t do it. I suspect that if there was any surviving film footage of those days it would show a lot of clunky blokes with serious expressions muscling through like badly constructed robots, all convinced that they were really ‘doing it’. This was why the Japanese instructors who came over were treated like gods; they were just so very well trained and many were the cream of the Japanese university system, they were the best of the best.
I do remember an effort at squad training, conducted at a Lincoln sports centre. This was organised/hosted by the then Lincoln instructor, who clearly had his take on how things should happen. Although it didn’t work out too well for him when, at the event we were preparing for, he clashed with Neiman Prince who completely outclassed him despite him trying to execute Judo techniques out of sheer desperation!
But the Japanese learning mentality is not the same as the western model. It is more suited to compliancy, which tended to be a more direct way of learning – cut the verbalisation, bypass over-intellectualisation and just get on with the job. Westerners were more inclined to ask ‘why’, which I think came as a shock to the incoming Japanese Sensei, and they didn’t have an explanation model to fall back on and were significantly hobbled by the language barrier. Nobody spoke about the mismatch between the cultures; the Japanese were too polite to, and the westerners were too much in awe to formulate their questioning in a coherent way.