From 1991 to date, 4th Dan
Like many I got interested in martial arts when I was at school. Bruce Lee and Kung Fu was all the rage and I remember trying to find a Kung Fu club near to where I lived. Sadly the nearest (Wu Shu) schools were in London which my parents considered too far for me to train. As luck would happen my school decided to trial Judo sessions as an alternative ‘sport’ on Wednesday afternoons, so I joined. That was in 1977. After my degree I moved clubs and joined a ‘Budo’ group, following the teachings of Kenshiro Abbe Sensei and primarily focused on Judo but where we were taught other Japanese martial arts, including Kendo, Iaido and Aikido. The Aikido really appealed to me; the graceful movements, applied techniques, left and right forms taught as standard – I felt it exercised my mind as well as my body. But the Aikido was sketchy at best, second hand and quite ‘soft’ (obviously not Abbe Sensei’s Aikido!), so I decided to find a purist Aikido Club. One day, on the way to work (near Watford) I was overtaken by a car with an Aikido sticker in the back window. As the traffic slowed our cars pulled up beside each other, so I wound down my window and shouted at the driver, asking about the Aikido. God knows what he thought! Anyway, telephone numbers were exchanged quickly and I was later told to write to an instructor who might be able to give me information of Aikido clubs near to where I lived.
Eventually I received a note from (the late) Peter Megann of the Oxford Aikikai (BAF) suggesting I contact Anthony Sargeant who ran a club in Cambridge, some 20 miles from my home. He was highly complimentary. I remember writing to Sensei Sargeant and asking if I could join his club and gave him a bit of my background. I received a reply inviting me to his home where he had converted his garage into a private dojo, and where he asked me to perform some Iaido (ZNKR Seitei Kata I think) and then quizzed me about my martial arts – I was a Shodan in Judo – and why I wanted to train in Aikido. It was like a formal interview and a little scary to be honest. At the end of it he thanked me and said I should complete an application form and start training. He also said that having two martial arts (the Judo and Aikido) would be very difficult to manage and that I should reconsider my Judo future (sorry Sensei ;0). When I received my passbook it contained a note saying that I had been graded to Sankyu which was both flattering and also troublesome as I then spent the next few years playing catch-up! My only saving grace was that I knew how to take ukemi and have been gifted many, over the years.
What are some of your main memories in Aikido?
I have so many memories from Aikido it’s difficult to highlight the main ones. Obviously being able to attend Saito Sensei seminars have been amongst the most memorable, in Denmark, Germany and the UK. I also was lucky enough to train (for one night) at the Iwama dojo when in Japan in 2002. Saito Sensei was, by this time, very ill and Hitohiro Sensei was Dojocho and taught the class. I never expected to be invited to actually ‘see’ Saito Sensei due to his poor health but was allowed to see him very briefly. He was in bed and very frail but extended his hand to shake mine (big hand!) and through an interpreter welcomed me and asked to pass Sensei Sargeant his best wishes. It was a special moment and made more so as Saito Sensei was to pass away just 4 days later. My host that evening was Sensei Justin Christou, a really good guy.
There are lots of other memories of course, on and off the mat; like taking my Shodan test in Scotland pretty much one armed due to torn ligaments in my right arm (thanks Judo ;0); helping Sensei with the admin for the Saito Sensei Birmingham Arena Seminar in ’94; All the Takemusu Iwama Dojo (Orwell) Uchideshi programmes and all the great students I got to meet. Then of course there was the (in)famous BBQ at Orwell when Viktor was a long term deshi and we had a few drinks…
But mostly my memories are of the people I have met, the strong Aikido we have practiced and the stronger friendships I have made. Priceless.
What are your personal goals in Aikido?
That’s quite a deep question. I think superficially it’s to continue to learn, improve and be open-minded, but with Sensei Sargeant as your teacher then the goal has to be get as close a you can to his level of ability and spirituality, which are inextricably linked. I don’t think it will ever happen but sometimes to just to get a glimpse is enough (if you’re into to Zen Koans). It’s also great to pass on your knowledge but I do need to learn to talk less ;0)
Why do you think Iwama Aikido is so unique?
As we know, there are many different styles of Aikido but we are all fundamentally training the same techniques, just in a different way perhaps. I have experience of a number of different styles but, for me, the only Aikido is the Iwama style of Saito Morihiro Sensei, as taught to him by the founder, O-Sensei. The Iwama Aikido pedagogy is clear, structured and cast in stone. If you go on a mixed mat of Aikido styles you will immediately spot the Iwama students for their clear, strong and applied forms, their accurate weapons presentations and their honesty (if it doesn’t work, start again – don’t change the technique). We may not be the most flowing practitioners but ‘my word’ our Aikido works.
What can Aikido offer people, in your opinion?
Aikido is a martial art and so the obvious ‘take home’ is self defence, but there is so much more. Additional and obvious benefits can be health/fitness improvements, confidence and a general awareness of and in situations. We talk about Zanshin and there have been times when I’ve walked into a pub (with friends) only to turn round and walk out. When quizzed I’ve said “It just didn’t feel right” and I put that down to Aikido ‘awareness’.
There is also a fellowship that happens when you train. I think long time students forget that we give our bodies as training tools to others but this is quite unusual in everyday life, and Aikido can be very ‘close quaters’, even for a martial art. I think we forget that this removal of ‘personal space’ is not normal for Joe Public and we need to be mindful for beginners. The upside is that when someone ‘get’s’ in your personal space you’re not phased.
There is an entire spiritual aspect associated with the art which is not for everyone or can be a very personal and private thing. Mine is the latter.
How long have you been training?
I started training Aikido at the Howard Mallet Centre, under Sensei Jenny Ousey in November 1991 – 29 years to date. I had a 6 month layoff around 2002 due do a knee arthroscopy (Yoga!).
Where have you travelled?
I’ve travelled to seminars and clubs up and down the country as well as travelling to Denmark, Holland, Kefalonia, Germany, Canada, the US and of course Japan. It’s always an interesting experience training on ‘other’ mats with Aikidoka you’ve never met before. A smile goes a long way :0)