Memories of The Marble Factory and Sensei George Andrews, Chapter One
When I was not even born, Sensei George was already teaching Karate. When you put your own experiences into this kind of context, no mater how great their consequence to you, the magnitude of his experience and the seeming insignificance of your own is almost too much to bear. It is hard to think of yourself as one of his students simply because you cannot believe your own tenure has lasted long enough for you to qualify as such. Perhaps you have just scraped through your apprenticeship and are ready to knuckle down to some serious training. Either way, the hardest part of writing some form of account of experience with Sensei George, is that you cannot help but feel hopelessly qualified for the task. You cannot possible know all the history that went before and for all of your experiences, personal as they are, you are sure there must be three or maybe even four other generations of students that have passed under his tutelage and trained twice as hard as you.
But then, if there is one quality that stands out above all others within Sensei, it is that special quality that allows you to believe that there is a piece of him devoted to you. How funny to think that there are people who have passed through his classes that have believed he has not noticed them, has not taken account of how well they trained, their strengths and weaknesses, their fears and needs. It is the quality that makes him so perfectly qualified as a foster parent. Never, under any circumstances, make the mistake of thinking that he does not notice, will not find out nor hear or will not be able to guess as plainly as if you had told him so yourself.
I knew none of this of course when I first made my way to the old Marble Factory. I’d trained with Sensei before of course, passed under his intent gaze as a not so anonymous white belt once in Rotherham, then again as a very eager orange belt in Sheffield. Sensei Andy Barker had told us much about him before either of these events and was so very enthusiastic that it was impossible not to be infected with this energy. But my memories of these events were still firmly etched in my muscle memory for me to be suitable apprehensive about becoming a student of the Marble Factory. As anyone who has been a student of either the Marble Factory or the Institute will testify, it’s impossible to forget your first time there. I moved down to London as green as my belt at the time in the autumn of 1995. I’d spent the summer in California, not training with Sensei Higaonna because unfortunately for the entire three months I was there, he was in Japan with the exception of one day. I cursed my luck but still enjoyed training at his dojo. Now here I was, standing lost on the Walworth Road at 7pm in the rain and October dark. As much as I am sure it is full of south London charm and character, the Walworth Road is not exactly the most welcoming of places to a green gilled 21 year old from the ‘posh’ part of Cheshire (I will argue vehemently with anyone except Sensei that I do not come from the ‘posh’ part of Cheshire.) I am standing there lost and lonely with no idea which way to walk. I have a 50/50 chance of getting that right (how prophetic those odds), but unfortunately I have no idea what it is I am looking for and the Walworth Road is several miles long. I walk south for a good 20 minutes after getting off the bus before I realise that I am heading in the wrong direction so I turn around and begin to walk into the streaming headlights of the oncoming traffic, not literally, though the entire experience felt equally unnerving. My sense of trepidation grows acute when I finally find what can only be accurately described as a ‘dark alley’ with the words ‘Marble Factory Karate’ daubed in white paint on the side of the wall. It is the kind of alley that you usually only see in cheap B flick cop movies from the US, the ones typically littered with empty boxes, loose paper blowing in the wind, wrought iron fire escape ladders and a terrified individual cowering against the cold brick of a dead end only moments before being brought to an untimely end by a homicidal maniac or runaway car. The alley is not more than 10 meters long and though devoid of litter, is nevertheless as daunting as any seen in a the above mentioned films. At the far end, as the double yellow lines curve round the sides of the street to meet in a dead end, stands a very lonely red door, slightly ajar as though it is only just hanging onto its hinges and with a pales yellow light illuminating the small stairwell that lurks inside.
I very clearly remember thinking at the time ‘this cannot be it’, ashamed as I am now to admit it. Never was there a more improbable looking entrance so at odds with the images of grandeur and majesty that I had so far come to associate with Sensei George. And yet, it is precisely this unassuming character, the tough, intimidating aspect of its setting and the humble nature of the premises that made the Marble Factory what it was. I only had the honour of being a student there for 3 years, but in that time I came to realise just why it was called the Marble Factory. Imagine a large lump of rough stone arriving at a stonemason. This was me and every other student that ever walked through the door. Of course the Marble Factory also had a reputation for turning out very hard people, they were literally as hard as marble but they also had to be made this way, carved if you like by the stonemason. It was indeed a factory.
So there I am, standing outside this infamous place wondering whether I should venture inside. I can hear now the clear and resounding voice of Sensei, easily penetrating the wooden floorboards. Inside the doorway, a set of steep, narrow steps lead precariously up towards the training hall. I couldn’t work out why my legs suddenly seemed so heavy, whether it was the steepness of the steps or the apprehension of the moment, but I found it hard to bend them to my own will. At the top was a short corridor were toilets for men and women off to the left and another set of steps leading up the floor above. The construction is of cold white plaster and wood (that always felt slightly more rickety and less sturdy than it really was) and the space is devoid of decoration, adding to the air of my impending doom. As if to make matters worse, the rhythmic shouts from Sensei were now very clearly audible and seemingly directed at me. The door to the training hall proper actually opened into a small hallway, with photographs on the wall to the right, a small office on the left and there in front of me, the hallowed wooden floor of the Marble Factory, polished to a high sheen by the shuffling of many feet and the sweat of exhausted students. The class is already in full swing and I am almost thankful as it means I am to be spared joining in for at least one more day. One of the students comes out to greet me, having expected my arrival and knowing something of my own lineage, since he shared this with me. It is immediately clear that his three years at the dojo have already taken their effect and his manner and countenance was both hard but polished, seemingly as though he is able to perceive my own ambition and fear simultaneously and he puts it into check straight away. I try to gather my enthusiasm and ask when training takes place. Enquiring as to my grade, he replies on Tuesdays and Thursdays and in a moment of rash enthusiasm I ask when it is possible for me to train more than this (I confess, that being a student had afforded easily enough time to train more than twice a week, both in time available and reserves of energy. I had not counted on the latter being much affected by full time work and the stress of living in London!) The student replies in a brusque manner, designed to illustrate the impertinence and naivety of my question that I can train more when I am a brown belt. I stop short of compounding my error by asking how long it would be before I would get my brown belt. As I said, I was green at the time, both in the colour of my belt, and my understanding of life and training.
I made my way home, which at the time was the floor of a friend in Finsbury Park, resolved not to be put off by my experience and to return in two days for training. I did return and so began my training.