Memories of The Marble Factory and Sensei George Andrews, Chapter Three
I have a theory about living in London. It's probably a little clichéd, but the inspiration comes from Sensei's explanation of Kongo Ken practice. Where most Kongo Ken probably weigh around 30 kilos, Sensei's weighs in around 65 kilos. Most examples are hollow but Sensei's is either filled with concrete or is made from a solid billet of steel. Either way, it is far heavier than usual though you would never conclude this from watching Sensei demonstrate the various exercises designed to improve balance, strength, grip, technique and mental fortitude. There is a very amusing story that illustrates just how deceptively heavy this Kongo Ken is and at the same time rather quaintly ratifies just how powerful Sensei is. Crystal Palace in South London (which coincidentally is only 10 minutes walk from South Norwood), has always been a gathering point for the martial arts. Competitions and demonstrations have regularly been held there since the 60's when Karate first became popular in the UK and it was at one particular demonstration that this story takes place. Sensei had been giving a demonstration of Goju Ryu as part of a symposium on the martial arts. When it came to Kongo Ken, Sensei performed all the usual exercises including balancing the huge iron loop over his shoulders and thrusting it above his head while sinking into Shiko Dachi. According to Sensei, this representation of Ten Ski or heaven strike, requires a greater degree of technique than it does strength, but having tried it for myself, I can testify that without the requisite level of strength, all the technique in the world is not going to get you very far. Watching Sensei perform this exercise, you could easily be forgiven for thinking that the 'giant paperclip' weighed very little.
It is precisely this mistake that a group of ill informed spectators made at the Crystal Palace demonstration. Having already joked about the 'giant paperclip' to Sensei, they sought to confirm their scorn by testing the weight of the Kongo Ken. Having watched Sensei play with this thing like a rag doll and believing it to weigh very little, one of the group surreptitiously walked over to where the Kongo Ken was lying on the floor. Casually, hands in pockets and with an innocent glance around to make sure he was not being watched, he tried to kick the Kongo Ken, expecting it to give. Watching out of the corner of his eye, Sensei laughed as the poor fool almost fell flat on his face, the Kongo Ken refusing to budge. Suspecting foul play, he then bent down and tried to lift one end. Failing again, he looked back to the group and indicated that the giant paperclip must be stuck to the floor, no other explanation could he give for his failure to even move the item.
I've always wondered at how many lessons there are in all of the exercises that we do. Even when simply watching some one else, far more accomplished than we could ever hope to be, there are things we can learn, not just about Karate, but more often about life. Our friends at Crystal Palace probably learnt that things are not always what they seem, perhaps a valuable lesson for them. From Kongo Ken I have learnt about the importance of balance, not just in Karate, but also in life. Living in London, especially when you are not native to the city, is not easy. The pace and attitude of the sprawling metropolis is unforgiving and just like Kongo Ken, will find and show up any weakness in your stance, causing you to loose your balance. Living in London, I found that the route to happiness was to have everything in your life balanced. Even if there was just one little thing that was not right, if your are unhappy about something then life there will find that weakness and in magnifying it, upset the delicate equilibrium. During my first two years in London I struggled to even stay on my feet. I make no secret of the fact that it was training with Sensei that kept me going but at the same time, I did not find training easy. Indeed, it was perhaps the most challenging aspect of being in London and the one that caused me the most anxiety. As I've said, being a student and training was relatively easy with the amount of free time that my course afforded me. But it was also easy to train because at the time, Sensei Andy's dojo did not enjoy the same level of success as it currently does. As a consequence, it was not hard to become relatively senior in a short space of time and so returning at the start of my third and final year of university, my second with Sensei Andy, I found myself much further along the line of students at the start of class. I was motivated by this and used the energy derived from the experience to train harder, fuelling my ego further and compounding the problem. I think that this motivation derived from progression and seniority, is experienced by most people early on in their training and is itself, an indication of their lack of maturity and understanding of true Karate, at least it was so for me.
I never really questioned why I trained while at university. For me it was a simple case of wanting to learn a fighting art and I was attracted by that prospect. Because when you know nothing, even learning a little seems like a quantum leap forward, this motivation again compounds the problem. Coming to London was like a wake up call to my training. Here I was suddenly among people against whom I could not even begin to compare myself. Their level of skill, understanding and dedication to training was so far in advance of mine, that to make such a comparison would have been an utterly fatuous an exercise, insulting to them and disrespectful to Sensei. I was not even present on his register and this lack of even perceived recognition forced me to ask some very difficult and soul searching questions of my training.
I don't think that I ever really reached a conclusion on my own. Perhaps it was stubbornness, determination or more likely simply a fear of failure coupled with a desperate need for recognition that kept me going. I remember constantly thinking that I couldn't let Sensei Andy down and that if I gave up, I would never again be able to count on him as a friend. But whatever my motivation was at the time, I believe the lessons I learnt from this period changed completely my perspective and motivation to continue once I had managed to pull through it.