Memories of The Marble Factory and Sensei George Andrews, Chapter Two
I had left university full of the heady enthusiasm for work in the big city. I had always abhorred the idea of having to live in London, but I confess to having felt a sense of hidden excitement at the prospect of actually moving to the capital. I had intended to move back to Sheffield to continue my training with Sensei Andy Barker and to enrol on an outdoor pursuit course with a university friend. We had discovered that if you were registered unemployed, it was possible to get the course funded by the local council. It seems that the old left leanings of the labour government in Sheffield were still very much intact, despite, or perhaps because of, almost two decades of staunch conservative government. Sheffield had suffered terribly under this administration. The privatisation of national industry and the literal destruction of the coal industry, on which Sheffield had been built, left a brutal scar on both the city and the communities of which it was composed. I loved Sheffield. I had been a highly enthusiastic rock climber at the time and had spent much of my first two years engaged in this pursuit, almost to the exclusion of my studies. But the problem with climbing, aside from its addictive nature, is that it takes up so much time. Even with the rock an easily accessible 20 minutes away from where I was living, just going out for a few hours would take up half a day. But for a first year student, missing lectures was an occupational hazard and so I thought nothing of it. There is an aspect of climbing that is however ultimately addictive and it was into this that I fell, albeit at my own relatively novice level. Most climbing is relatively safe. Ropes and mechanical protection mean that you may fall but usually you stop within a few seconds, your inexorable ground rush being brought to a gentle and spongy arrest by the rope and a wide-eyed 'belayer'. Climbers like to flirt with the idea of danger, exploring its compulsive rewards and through a process of amelioration, they are gradually seduced. Loosing the encumbrance of ropes and climbing free, 'soloing' as it is called, is a hugely liberating experience, but at the end of my second year, I felt that I was perhaps pushing my luck a little too far, both in the risks I was taking and the lectures I was missing. It was time to knuckle down to some work and Karate provided a perfect opportunity to continue training without sacrificing my studies.
I enjoyed my final year so much that I wanted to stay, but after returning from the US, I felt that compulsion to make something of my life and the big city beckoned. I must confess, that the prospect of becoming a full time student of Sensei's had a large influence on my willingness to relocate to London. I remember sitting in Sensei Andy's backyard with his wife Margaret talking about the move and reflecting on the fact that a previous student, Jason, had also moved down, partly because of work, partly to train with Sensei George. I know that while they were never going to try and talk me out of my decision, they were circumspect about it. Though they never said it, I sense now that they anticipated exactly what would happen, that I would grow unhappy about living in London but that training with Sensei George would keep me there far longer than I planned. How right they were! There is a compulsion about it and within two years of being there I was already resolved that I would leave within a year, at least until I gained my black belt. Then when I'd gained my black belt, it was Nidan that became the next goal and so on until eventually, I'd been in London for eight years.
I got a job selling advertising space in a magazine. Not a particularly glamorous job but I figured that having a job was half the battle. I was based in Farringdon, just around the corner from the offices of The Guardian newspaper and a stones throw from Smithfield Meat Market. I mention this only because this is where Sensei himself first started work. I think our experiences couldn't have been further apart. At the tender age of 16 he entered the market where he laboured, each day carrying some 200 pig carcasses, borne across his shoulders. I do not know whether Sensei's shoulders were as broad back then as they are now, but I have no doubt that his remarkable structure, owes at least something to his work at the meat market. There is also no doubt that he drew much inspiration from the boxers that worked and trained there, using the pig carcasses as punch bags, testing their punching power against the thick fat covered slabs of meat. Sensei always says that the boxers would test their strength by their ability to break the ribs of the pig carcass through two inches of fat. If they could do it here, they knew that any unfortunate opponent, so meanly covered by comparison, was going to suffer equally. I remember thinking the first time I heard this, that the rather stylised scene in the film Rocky, where Sylvester Stalone enthusiastically pounds a side of beef, was perhaps not quite so far fetched.
I can't remember how I got to the Elephant and Castle though I think it was by tube. I would have taken the circle line from Farringdon to Bank and then changed to the Northern Line, which is the oldest tube line in London and at the time, was certainly living up to this fact. The Elephant and Castle is a major intersection for south London. It is ostensibly one huge roundabout, burrowed with a maze of subways that are inhabited by the destitute, the homeless and always the lonely. If it is the heart, then the Old Kent Road, Walworth Road and Kennington Park Road are its main arteries, pumping a continuous stream of traffic, the life blood of London.
It is fed from the north by St George's Road, London Road and Newington causeway, leading from London Bridge and Waterloo. Approaching the Elephant and Castle from these roads leads you directly to the roundabout itself, entry to which requires a strong heart, steady nerve and the courage of your own convictions. On a bike it is the ground onto which a fool will rush where angels fear to tread. Swinging past the entrance to the Old Kent Road, resisting the temptation to wonder at the deconstructionist/cubist inspired monstrosity of a building that is now flats but was once the head quarters of the DHSS (designed by Erno Goldfinger, an architect of enough reputation and acclaim for it to be a listed building!), you must navigate the maniacal traffic to exit next left. Now you are outside the Elephant and Castle itself, immediately opposite the Tabernacle, a rather ostentatious Greco-Roman style building with huge fluted pillars of stone holding aloft a canopied roof with large double fronted doors that do not look designed to be opened save for those of the most high office. It is entirely at odds with its surroundings. The shopping centre that constitutes the main part of the Elephant and Castle, is home to an assortment of market traders, hawking anything from a imitation Levis to home made candles and bootleg CD's. You can buy deep fried plantins and jambalaya here from a rickety shack that sits next to the entrance. It looks like it would never pass a health inspection in its wildest dreams but after training, this is the farthest thing from your mind.
To get to the Marble Factory you needed to take a bus from the Elephant and Castle. You could walk, it was probably only 20 minutes but since half of the hundred a minute busses went that way it was as easy to jump on one of them and ride down. I had been given a list of the bus numbers that I could get on and so after exiting the tube, I shuffled into line. I didn't have to wait long and discovered that the bus I would need to get me back to my new home in South Norwood (very close to Crystal Palace), would also take me past the dojo.
This was to be my first time training and so I wasn't at all tired. I was certainly nervous to the point of fear, but the lack lustre feeling of tiredness that would cause me to freeze and stay on the bus as it rolled by the dojo stop so many times in the future, was not there. Sensei always says that the hardest part of training is getting through the front door and I certainly learned this first hand during my first two years with him. I remember feeling my stomach tighten into a knot as I made my way down the dark alley and up the stairs. The children's class was still going and since the changing rooms were at the back of the dojo, I removed my shoes and stepped through the translucent strips of plastic that hung across the entrance. Bowing and announcing 'Onegai Shimasu' I then stepped carefully down the back of the dojo to get changed. Sensei merely glanced at me and nodded faint approval.
In the Marble Factory, the dojo was laid out lengthways to the entrance. Thus it was longer than it was wide at its entrance and the front was effectively on the wall to the right of the entrance. Down the centre of the room a row of old iron pillars, painted white, provided natural obstacles to be negotiated. The right hand wall faced vaguely east and so was the wall towards which we faced for the line up and bow. Its brick work was rough and exposed and the windows opaque with age. I understand that at the time Sensei moved into the premises, these windows did not exist and putting them in was one of the many jobs that needed doing before training at the dojo could start.
The west wall was of white plaster and was always cold to the touch, even in summer. It too had a row of recessed, opaque windows, with an old lead lattice structure. The top part opened on a cantilever with a rusty ring that one pulled down to release the catch, allowing the window to rotate inwards. It was heavy because of its lead structure and would easily fall open too quickly. On the left hand side of this wall a large mirror was mounted, stretching from floor to ceiling and approximately three metres long. To the right of this, two Makiwara stood, one of firm stiffness, the other more supple. On the right side of the wall, immediately next to the ladies changing room, was a large pile of mats and to the left of this two steel radial tires were bolted at right angles so that one could kick mawashi geri with the shin striking into their radius.
Changing rooms for men and women were accessed through the north wall. These were small but functional though they would get crowded when weekend courses were held. Finding enough floor space on which to balance and get changed was always part of the fun at these courses. On the east wall hung images of Chojun Miyagi and Jinan Shinzato and on it was painted an image of the deity Busaganashi. Leaning against the wall at its very centre was the Kenkon and it was in front of this that Sensei would stand for the bow. Behind him formed two lines of students, black and brown belts in the front line with the remaining kyu grades behind. I remember thinking how long the line of black belts was.
My first time was certainly an initiation. You can train hard at one club and reach a given standard, but it always feels so much harder when you move and train somewhere else. Its as though all your strength and fitness leave you, you forget everything you learnt and even the most basic of techniques becomes a challenge. At least this is how I felt at the time. There is a routine at Sensei's dojo that has not changed since the demise of the Marble Factory. We had heard about this from his students on courses and he had talked of it as well. Though these exercises performed at the start of the class were routine, actually doing them was anything but. Sensei Andy had adopted star jumps about 7 months before I finished training with him and we had begun incorporating them into the class, perhaps doing 20-30 as part of a wider set of exercises. We performed them enthusiastically but found them hard. But on this evening, my first night training, I found that doing 100 was a completely different proposition. I knew they were coming but I didn't know how many we would do. The lesson began with the same routine, 10 minutes running before forming two lines down the outside of the dojo and facing each other, Yudansha one side, kyu grades the other. Sensei began the count and the black belts jumped, squatted and stretched in font of us. Sensei counted 20 and then invited us to do the same. Of course I was eager to try and impress. My karate was shit but I at least knew my fitness was OK, or at least I thought it was. I raced along eager to keep up and perhaps even slightly outpace Sensei's count. It was hard but I managed it and began to feel that perhaps these star jumps weren't so bad after all. At the second set of 20, I began to feel my lungs burn and my whole body grew heavier. Making the jump back onto my feet from the ground was getting much harder and I wasn't quite able to keep up with the count towards the end. I still didn't really know how many we had to do until one of the other students had a quiet word in my ear and told me that I didn't need to be superman, that we were going to do 100, that it wasn't easy but that it didn't matter if we didn't do every single one. If they had said this to me at the end of the first set I would have paid not the least bit of attention. As it was, by the end of the second set, I was glad to hear these words. The next set of 20 felt like I was doing them with lead boots on. Between 60 and 80 I felt as though the world was going to end and perhaps managed to do 12 of the 20 counted. I don't even remember the final set. Looking back now it feels as though I am making rather a mountain out of a mole hill, but they are hard and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or not trying hard enough. But their biggest challenge is that they are really only part of the warm up, you still have to train for an hour after you've finished them.
My progress at the Marble Factory felt immeasurably slow over the following 12 months. Where I had felt relatively fit and strong before, I was now relegated to the ranks of the gasping and wheezing. Although 100 star jumps is not a huge leap on from doing 30, especially when doing 30 felt comfortable, star jumps are like climbing a hill that gets steeper and steeper the closer you get to the top. I may well have found doing 30 comfortable, but the next 30 got so much harder and the 30 after that was agony. For an average person, it probably takes upwards of one year of consistent training in this way to get to the point where they can comfortably manage 100. I found that my progress was measured by how many I star jumps I could do before I could no longer keep to the pace and every time I managed to extend this slightly, it became even harder to move forward. Finally, when I was able to keep to the count the whole way through, the next challenge was to get fit enough to do this without being still completely spent at the end. As I said, you still have to train once you've finished.
Now the routine has evolved slightly. Running, 100 star jumps, 100 sit ups (these were always in the syllabus), and then 100 push ups. Sensei has always been critical of people who cheat on push-ups and it is easy to do. To prevent this, Sensei allows us to do them on our knees. This has the effect to make the overall push-up slightly easier since you eliminate the need to keep the whole body quite so rigid. But it also isolates the triceps far more effectively and encourages you to do the exercise more as it should be. But on my first night, the push-ups were not required, not that I would have been remotely capable of doing them if they had been.
To be honest, I really don't remember much more about my first time after the star jumps. Most of my first year is the same. I found it very hard adjusting to working full time and training in the evenings. Often I would feign sleep on the bus as it rolled by the dojo before making its way back to South Norwood. Although I thought my time at Sheffield had prepared me well, I realise now that I hadn't really been training. Of course, this is no reflection on Sensei Andy whatsoever. Indeed, within 3 months of joining Sensei in London he invited me to grade, indicating the excellence of Sensei Andy's teaching. At the time I left him I was 5th kyu. My first grading with Sensei George was on a Wednesday evening and it is one of the few events from my first year that I remember vividly. Yes it was hard but I was still hugely motivated and eager to impress. In addition, the exuberance of my training and achievements in Sheffield spurred me on. When it came to Kata, I concluded that for 4th Kyu I would only need to perform up to Saifa. But when Sensei asked me to perform Seiyunchin, I became flushed with the prospect of perhaps grading to brown belt. I think this excitement carried me through so that the mawashi geri's to a pad followed by 60 star jumps felt OK. Indeed I was rewarded with brown belt. With the grading finished, we lined up and Sensei called out the results. I remember very distinctly that I was last person to have their result announced and Sensei paused for more than a minute before asking me how old I was (I was 22) and then how long I had been training. He commented that I was very strong and that I had a great future ahead of me if I kept my training up. It is awful really to think that only now can I fully appreciate the magnitude of what he was saying to me and even worse that in my ignorance of the time, I probably squandered that compliment over the next 2 years. He thought for an even longer time before finally announcing that he was awarding me brown belt. Mentally and spiritually, I do not believe that I deserved this. It is a testimony to the quality of Sensei Andy's teaching that physically I was at all deserving of this grade. And yet I left the dojo that night flush with pride before spending the next 2 years struggling to even find the motivation to turn up to training let alone train hard.