Memories of The Marble Factory and Sensei George Andrews, Chapter Four
Any whole can only ever be understood through the sum of its parts. So it was with the Marble Factory. One time, near to the end of my second year in London with Sensei and during a training session, Sensei paused the class and began to question us individually as to what it was we got from training. He asked us in turn how long we had been with him and then what the most important lesson we had learned was. Aside from my own answer, I cannot remember what each other person said save for one.
Sensei Simon Beaumont is from New Zealand and like every other Kiwi, had come to the UK as part of the seemingly ritualistic and ubiquitous Kiwi walkabout. He had arrived 8 years previously with the intention of staying for one year but had found himself seduced by Sensei's teaching and so now, 8 years later in Marble Factory, he was answering Sensei's question as to what his greatest lesson in Karate was. I remember that he was the last person Sensei asked and that his answer was indeed the one that Sensei had been hoping some one would give. Not that the other answers were wrong, they were all deeply personal to those that gave them. But Simon's answer is the one I remember, which says something about its insight and simplicity. He explained that for him, Karate was about the people he trained with, the people he met through training and the relationships he had been fortunate to develop as a result. The more you think about this, the more it makes sense, not least for its simplicity. When you strip everything else away, all the punching and kicking and kata and ask what is it all for, what purpose does it serve, it is impossible to come up with an answer without recourse to the people you train with. It is not remotely about the notion of Karate as a combative art, this is an ignorant and bellicose perspective. It has to be about the people most simply because how else can we learn? Some people argue that martial arts, Goju Ryu in particular are very introspective. All the answers we need are inside ourselves and there is no one we can meet that can ever give us truth. Indeed, Sensei teaches us to beware of some one professing to have all the answers. But at the same time, I do not believe that we can ever find answers inside ourselves without recourse to other people. It is if you like as though the people around us are catalysts, sparking off our own internal realisations. I cannot say if this is what Simon meant when he gave his answer and I certainly didn't reach this conclusion myself until several years after the event. But regardless of this, it was and always will be, the people that make the dojo and the Marble Factory was not short of inspirational characters.
When I arrived I was struck by how close knit the dojo was. The severity of their training had had the effect of welding them together. As in all Karate clubs there was a hierarchy though this hardly seemed to matter as each member was equally important to Sensei. Sensei Felix is Sensei's oldest student in terms of years training with him at the Marble Factory. It may well be that he is also Sensei's oldest student in terms of age (though I cannot confirm this of course!), but you would never guess this by looking at him even now. Such doubt is magnified ten fold when you hold a pad against his Mae Geri. He has simply the fastest and most powerful kick I have ever experienced, even now. To put this into some sort of vague context, you must remember that his eldest son is only a few years younger than me. Felix has been in the Royal Marines before joining Sensei George when he was still only in his early 20's and so probably wasn't lacking in fitness or strength. I didn't know him then of course, but his strength is certainly not lacking now and neither is his warm and friendly nature.
If there is one person from whom I have drawn the most inspiration, other than from Sensei, it is Sensei Linda Marchant. There can be no doubt that she is Sensei's Uchi Deshi and she is the marques to which we must all aspire. Her most outstanding quality, apart from the obvious skill of her Karate, is her consistency. Where most of us often experience periods of difficulty with training, perhaps finding the motivation to train really hard for the few months prior to a grading, other times finding it hard to make it more than once a week, Sensei Linda is just always there, always training, as regular and consistent as the rising and setting of the sun. If it seems that I am being economical with the time I devote to Sensei Linda here, it is only because I want to give over a complete section to her, so great is her inspiration for me.
Hot on her heels is Sensei Neville Kinghorn. Standing tall at well over six feet with a strong wiry frame and legs like steel springs, his techniques, when demonstrated, would always strike an element of fear into me. I was in awe of his speed and power and wondered how anyone would ever be able to overcome them either in competition or real life. His build is light, especially for his height and there is not an ounce of spare fat on him, but it would be your only mistake to ever doubt his strength and resolve. His training was also inspirational as was his eagerness to help anyone who approached him. His outstanding quality is his willingness to spend time with you to explain a technique, to give you more than you were expecting and to stay with you in order to ensure you have understood. This he will do with anyone of any grade as long as they have demonstrated their willingness to learn and to try.
I have already talked about Sensei Simon Beaumont, but I feel more should be added. Aside from Sensei Andy Barker, I've never seen anyone who can do push-ups as well as he can and like Sensei Linda, he is so very consistent. His manner and personality are also so warm and welcoming. I remember that at the time when I was struggling so much in my first year in London, he was a real help to me, being willing to talk to and befriend me at a time when I was probably a very difficult person to engage. Sensei and I have often talked about what I was like when I first came to him. Those of you who know Sensei well will have an idea of the adjective he uses to describe me at this point and of course, though he says this with love for me now, I have no doubt that I was entirely as he says back then. But where this might have put off other people, Simon gave me a lot of his own time. I have noticed that it is a characteristic of most Kiwis' to be so accepting and un-judgemental of people and Simon himself is the very epitome of this. Sometime we can draw the greatest motivation from those that we can empathise with the best. When you see someone with whom you share similar experiences or characteristics, often this fact that you may be following in their footsteps can spur you on. For me, this person would be Jason Smallwood since he had also begun his training with Sensei Andy while at university in Sheffield and had subsequently moved down to London after graduation, using the opportunity of training with Sensei as the sweetener for a move he perhaps might not have made. Because I could see such a commonality in experience I was certainly motivated to try and follow in his footsteps at the Marble Factory but I soon found this to be a much harder prospect than I first imagined since at the time Jason was training exceptionally hard. I had first met him at a course in Chesterfield, not long after he had been graded to Shodan a feat that made him the first of Andy's students to achieve this level. He was impressive to watch then, even more so when two years later I came to London and watched him training. For a period of about five years he never skipped a beat in his training. He was always there, always at every course, on every trip to Carlisle or Sheffield, every event or demonstration. The level of intensity and passion he demonstrated during this time was awesome, as was his level of fitness. At his height, I cannot think of anyone save perhaps John Healy who could match him for sheer fitness, something he was able to demonstrate in star jumps, which he made very much his own. There is a story that has become something of a fable concerning his completion of 300 star jumps at the black belt grading weekend in Bournemouth. I remember the year, 1998, because it was the year I graded to Shodan. In the evening of the Saturday, after training, we had all gone out for dinner together. At that dinner, Jason had indulged himself in a brandy. Such a wanton act naturally attracted Sensei's attention and he said that he would make him do 100 star jumps the next day for every brandy he had. I don't think any of us, save perhaps Jason, though Sensei would seriously make him do them.
Sensei, Jason and I returned to our hotel a little later but still early in the evening. Because I was grading the next day I didn't intend to go back out, but Sensei and Jason were planning to meet up with the others. Jason and I were in one room and Sensei in an adjacent room. As the hotel proprietor, in our room at the time, asked Jason and I if we were staying in or going out, Jason replied, and I quote: 'Well Greg is staying in, but Sen…… George and I are going back out again.' It was entirely natural. Of course, we always refer to Sensei as 'Sensei' out of respect and deference to his rank and experience. But even as Jason started to say 'Sensei' he realised that the hotel owner would have no clue as to whom he was referring. His correction and subsequent use of Sensei's first name is perhaps understandable but was nevertheless naive and misguided. As Sensei's booming voice sounded back a clear and resounding 'I heard that', Jason and I looked at each other in horror, both realising the terrible error of judgement that he had just made. Later that evening, Sensei joked with Jason that he wouldn't make him do the star jumps for the brandy, but he would make him do 50 for having referred to him by his first name. Of course, 50 seemed like a trifle and Jason said as much, to which Sensei added the correction that the penalty was 50 for every letter of his name. It didn't take Jason long to work out that this still meant 300 star jumps.
And he did them as well. On the Sunday morning, during the first training session as we were split into groups, Sensei informed the black belts were told that they were going to do star jumps but that they didn't have to do them if they didn't want, that they were free to leave at any time. As an example to them all, he brought Jason out to the front of the group and told them of his faux pas after which Jason set to work and indeed completed his 300 star jumps. I remember glancing over to the group and seeing all the other black belts engaged in their own pursuit. Many of them didn't look like they managed more than a few dozen in the time Jason managed 300.
One of the most formidable (in terms of size) characters from the old Marble Factory has to be Mark Searle. Though one of the nicest and most thoroughly decent people you could hope to meet, he is also one of largest. When Sensei makes his joking references to 'dinosaurs', he is talking about those typically outsize people, the ones so large as to cast shadows over you when you partner with them. Mark is the very definition of a dinosaur in this sense. It's not just that he is tall, indeed, he is not actually the tallest member of the club (I believe that honour is held by Sensei Neville), but there is just so much of him. He's not remotely overweight either, just very broad and very thick set. Mark was training for his Shodan when I arrived at the Marble Factory and he was indeed training like a demon, never missing a lesson, weekend or any chance for extra training. He managed to keep this level of activity up for 4 years before his undertaking of a bachelors degree meant he had to reduce this frenetic level of activity. Even now he remains both fit and strong but during the peak of his training he was terrifying. Most of the time, when you meet some one with such an obvious size, weight and reach advantage, you can at least hope to have the edge in terms of speed, manoeuvrability and usually fitness. To compete on equal terms when sparing with them, all you need do is keep moving, just out of their range and tire them out. But with Mark, you just couldn't do this. Not only was he usually faster than his opponents, but he was more often fitter also. Along with Sensei Dan Russell (more of whom later) it is from Mark Searle that I have learnt most of what I know about sparring, usually the hard way!
Finally, what account of the people of the Marble Factory could be complete without mention of Mark Reid. Mark Became famous at the Marble Factory for saying that his name was Mark but that all his friends called him Cobra. I believe that I was probably a lot like Mark was when I first met him, characterised by always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. But if Mark teaches us anything, it is the importance of perseverance and dogged, redoubtable determination. He is always there during the week training. He does the star jumps, the sit ups and the running and though his size makes it difficult for him to be as flexible as Sensei Linda or as fast Jason was, he plugs away, always trying, never giving up. These were the people I was fortunate enough to be adopted by at the Marble Factory. And for as long as they and Sensei George are remembered, the Marble Factory can never be forgotten.