28 years ago today the 10 year old me set off on a journey with a friend, which would see me return a different person.
On that cold November morning in 1984’s Britain, I started out on a journey at around 5.30am in the morning, not with my parents, they would not be making this journey, this would be the first of my karate gradings that my Dad had not been present at. I would start the journey with a parent of one
my club mates, firstly a lift from my home to Lincoln, to meet a friend from our Lincoln club, his sister would be driving us today all the way up to Gateshead near Newcastle. Lincoln isn’t that far from my home, half an hour or so to the centre of Lincoln, where we meet Simon, having met up with Simon we then proceed to walk to his sister’s house, not that far away, then we start the drive up to Newcastle and our destination of Gateshead.
For a ten year old travelling with two adults, one I barely know the other I don’t, it was a long journey, 150 odd miles around 3 hours, the only thing I seem to remember of the journey was that Simon’s sister must have loved the band Queen, that was all we listened to, but I guess it could have been worst, I kind of like Queen.
We arrive early, which is always good after a long journey in a small car and it was a very small car, even for someone my size. The training beforehand is taken by the Chief Instructor of the Japan Karate Association Europe, the world renowned Enoeda Sensei, I had only trained with him once before, that was when I was about 8 years old and a lowly yellow belt, he was a very imposing character, especially for a 10 year old alone, Simon obviously lined up with the adults, I was on my own with the other kids, who unlike me all seemed to have friends to train alongside of.
The first of two stand out moments of the day happened during the training session, we practiced a set of moves that saw us all turn in different directions, basically defences against a couple of attackers, then we were to find two other people to practice these moves with. Well as I said, I was alone, I didn’t have my club mates with me and all the other kids partnered up together I was alone, the lone kid in a class of hundreds of others, the only kid or adult without partners, I was bricking it.
The instructions and demonstrations were given, we went back to our partners to practice, except me, I just carried on doing the routine on my own, then I caught sight of Enoeda Sensei approaching, he stopped and stood watching me, alone. I was waiting for the telling off, why didn’t I have a partner, I wanted the floor to swallow me, on a day when I am supposed to impress, I couldn’t get past my natural shyness and find at least one partner. I finished my routine and looked directly at Enoeda Sensei, I got the surprise of my life, on his face was a smile, a big one, then he lifted one hand and gave me a thumbs up! This is the feared Enoeda, the man they call Tora (Japanese for Tiger), a man feared for his ferocity, he was smiling at me giving me a thumbs up, I wasn’t in trouble, I was doing well, I must have been to get this kind of response from a legend in Karate circles. The rest of the class I cannot remember, but I remember feeling lifted by such a response from a man I feared, the very man that would decide if I passed or failed had given me the thumbs up, I was now on fire.
When we brown belts had finished our session, the black belts moved into the hall and we had a few welcome hours rest before the grading, time to fill out our grading forms and register. I had failed twice before under a different instructor, so I had copies of my previous forms with me, but as a 10 years olds writing is spidery at best, even without the added pressure of this day, Simon filled out my form based on my old ones and we registered.
As all black belts grading do in the UK, the juniors were up first, in order of height, smallest first, in groups of six, so I was in the first couple of groups, my name was called, I jumped up to the line and took my place. Then the second stand out moment happened, I was called from the line to the table, this never happens unless there is a problem, I am back to bricking it now!
I approached Enoeda Sensei, he asks me two simple questions in his heavy Japanese accent, firstly;
Enoeda: When was your last grading?
Me: November last year Sensei, one year ago.
Enoeda: When were you born?
Me: 6th December 1973, Sensei.
He then points to my grading form, I glance down, oh no I really am in for it now, but then with the biggest, booming laugh I have ever heard, he loudly pronounces across the large sports hall:
“It says here you are one year old!!!”
Well it turns out that although Simon had copied my forms, he had mixed up the date of my last grading with my date of birth, so I last graded in 1973 and was born in 1983, I was one year old! The mistake was quickly rectified and with a laugh I was sent back to the line to take my grading.
We are the heirs to every throne
We wander far from what we’ve known
We wait for love to call us home
We are the heirs
We wander far
We wait for love
We wait for more
(The Fight by The Rocket Summer)
For the second time that day I faced the worst, the wrath of one of the most revered karate instructors in the world, but for the second time I was greeted with a smile and a response I never expected, as I walked back to the line I was once again relaxed, I was ready to perform for the man that had removed my nerves twice already that day, I couldn’t fail now, it felt like that for that day I was Enoeda’s favourite student.
My grading went well, I was glad I was up early, as the adults began to take their grading, Simon included, the other half of the hall came to life with the sounds of 1980’s keep fit music as an aerobics class started, not the best thing to take a grading to, or maybe it was, I guess their rhythm could have improved!
I passed my grading that day, after all that how could I fail, twice I had reason to be berated, twice I was lifted, I was over the moon and at ten years old, at that time one of the youngest black belts in the country.
I rang home, trying to explain to my Dad that I had passed, it was hard to talk over the tears of joy, after experiencing the tears of pain twice before, now I was crying in joy, I had done it! Unfortunately Simon hadn’t passed, but he never let his disappointment show, in the true spirit of karate he was so over the moon that I had passed, he hid his own disappointment and celebrated with me, a true gent. I’ve not seen Simon for over twenty years now, I often wonder what happened to him over the years, I hope someday I will get the chance to thank him for all he did for me that special day.
Most karate clubs still wouldn’t take kids in the early 80’s, our club started taking kids at 7 years old and as it took around 3½ to 4 years to obtain a black belt, 10 was pretty much the youngest around. Now days most clubs take 4/5 year old beginners, so it is common to see 8 year old black belts, but not then.
So just the day before I had made the local paper, although anonymously, due to my firework accident, this next week I became a bit of a minor celebrity locally, a handful of local papers reported my grading and photo shoots were happening all over, one in our living room and another memorably saw me performing various moves, bare footed in a puddle laden school yard, as some of my friends looked on, as the press usually do they picked the worst of the pictures to publish, one paper even nicknamed me the “mighty atom”!
At that point in my life, that was my greatest day, it still ranks up there as one of my best days, but the birth of my kids and some of the fantastic days I have had in last few months have eclipsed it, but it remains a day etched in my memory, even 28 years later I recall those two moments so clearly, memories of a great man, that although he passed away nearly 10 years ago, I will treasure and never let die!