Teenage Mutant Ninja Hurdles – How Martial Arts Have Taught Me Persistence Pays And Good Things Come To Those Who Wait
Back in 1983, when I was 14, I started practising martial arts. Like many people who become martial artists, I started off with karate. Shotokan karate, to be precise. And like many people who start fight training, I became absolutely obsessed with it. Here is a photo of me taken at Christmas that year:
In this photo, I am wearing one of my Christmas presents- a new karate suit- and holding another one (a pair of nunchucks). I’m 47 now and I still have the nunchucks.
Here is another photo of me taken on the same day. I was trying to look scary. Though I feel that I may have been upstaged in that respect by the terrifying nature of the curtains behind me. Don’t look at those curtains for too long. It’ll start to feel like the pattern on them is sucking your soul out through your eyeballs.
My other Christmas presents that year were: a book about how to use nunchucks, a set of Ninja throwing stars, a carrying pouch for the throwing stars with the word “Ninja” printed on it and, surprise surprise, a book about Ninjas. As you may have guessed, I was really into Ninjas.
These were Christmas presents from my dad. Well, I say they were from my dad. He didn’t actually buy me them. And he certainly wouldn’t have done if he’s known what a mess my throwing star practise would make of the back of the coal shed door. (Yes, I said “coal shed door”. This was back in the early Eighties and this all happened in Newcastle, okay?)
No, what happened was that my dad had no idea what to get me for Christmas, so he gave me a fistful of Tenners and said “Get whatever you want.” I knew exactly what I wanted, and took the bus to Newcastle City Centre the following day.
In Newcastle City Centre, there was a place called The Handyside Arcade. At one of the entrances to this shopping arcade was a shop called Paul Andrews Sports. And Paul Andrews Sports had a martial arts section on its top floor.
This martial arts section sold all the usual training equipment. Pads, gloves, heavy bags etc. But it also sold nunchucks, throwing stars, butterfly knives and swords. And back in 1983, it was perfectly legal for a 14 year old boy to walk in and purchase any of these items provided he had a martial arts licence. Which I did. So I bought the nunchucks and throwing stars and suchlike. The only reason I didn’t buy a butterfly knife and a sword was because my dad hadn’t given me enough money.
I also bought a slightly more mundane item: the karate suit. You’ll notice in those Christmas photos that the belt holding the jacket of the karate suit shut is a white belt. This means I hadn’t done a grading yet. I had really wanted the belt in those photos to be orange, but I had to wait until January to take my first grading.
The Shotokan karate gradings took place every three months. I had started my training at the tail end of summer. By the time the next grading came up, I had only been training for two months. I had asked the head instructor at my karate club about the possibility of doing the grading, and he had said this :
“You’re not quite ready yet Michael. It’s a shame, because you’re literally a few lessons away. But at the moment, you might pass and you might not. I wouldn’t want to ruin your confidence by letting you take your first grading and having you fail it. You’ll have to wait until the next one. Sorry.”
I was pretty disappointed by this. When you’re 14 years old, the prospect of a three month wait seems like a lifetime. I considered quitting karate altogether. Fortunately, I had signed up karate as the “Physical Activity” part of my Bronze Duke Of Edinburgh’s Award. If I quit karate, I faced a major arse kicking from the man who ran that scheme at my school. An enormous, gruff Yorkshireman called Mr Wade. I definitely didn’t want to piss off “Wadey”, so I carried on. I turned up at Eldon Square Recreation Centre every Tuesday and Thursday and trained for an hour-and-a-half until it was time for my first grading.
The morning of that first grading, I was standing with my kit bag on a freezing cold platform at Newcastle Central Station. The grading was taking place in Sunderland, of all places. So, not only was I as nervous as hell about the grading, I was going to have to do that grading on enemy territory.
Still, some other people who were also grading turned up to catch the same train on that icy Sunday morning. We chatted on the platform and chatted on the train, and by the time the grading started, I was feeling a little less nervous. Not much, but a little.
That day’s proceedings were officiated over by a man called Andy Sherry. Eighth Dan and the first man in Great Britain ever to gain a black belt in karate. This fact did not help my nerves any.
The white belts were the first to grade, so I didn’t have to wait long to be put out of my misery. Soon it was my turn and, amongst other things, I had to perform a kata called Kihon Kata. If you’ve never done any martial arts, a kata is rigidly defined set of moves performed in a very precise pattern. The final part of my grading was the kata. I’d practised the shit out of it, but when I was done I still wasn’t sure if it was good enough.
Andy Sherry – who had turned out to be a very friendly and jovial Scouser- summoned the white belts one by one to the long bench table at which he and his fellow judges were sitting to give them their results.
“Michael Grimes!” shouted Andy Sherry. It was my turn. I took the long walk to that bench table, stood directly in front of Mr Sherry and awaited my fate. He didn’t look jovial. He looked really serious. “Oh fuck,” I thought. “That’s not a good sign.”
“Michael,” said Andy Sherry, “you’re not going to get your orange belt today I’m afraid.”
My heart sank. “I knew it! I fucking knew it! I knew I should have trained more” I thought.
Then Andy Sherry broke out into an enormous grin and said: “No son, today you’re getting your red belt.” And he winked at me.
I was fucking gobsmacked. Red belt was the belt above orange belt. I’d heard a rumour that it was theoretically possible to skip a grade if you were impressive enough, but I’d assumed it was just a myth. A wind up.
“You ever done any other martial arts before, son?” asked Andy Sherry.
“No, Sensei,” I replied, after the short pause which involved me lifting my jaw back up off the floor.
“Really?” he said. “Well, let me tell you this. Your kata was amazing. I’ve got black belts who can’t perform Kihon Kata the way you just did. You must have practiced a hell of a lot. Well done.” And he shook my hand and that was it. I was a red belt.
One of the red belt ladies from my club who had just passed her next grading was so happy and excited for me that she said “Here, have my red belt!” She tied it around my waist and gave me a big hug. I think she was more thrilled than I was.
So, I went back to Newcastle with “red belt” written in my grading booklet and an actual physical red belt in my bag. I was on cloud nine for a week. I was definitely hooked on martial arts.
The reason I got into martial arts in the first place was because of television. The BBC did a series called “The Way Of The Warrior”. It was a documentary programme where they covered a different martial art every week. It was narrated by Dennis Waterman. He played Terry McCann ITVs “Minder” at the time. If it was telly and it involved fighting, they got Dennis Waterman in. He was sort of the Jason Statham of his day. Only older. And fatter. And not actually a double hard bastard. There was a recession on in 1983 though, so he was all the BBC could afford. Besides, Jason Statham was only 16 at the time.
I ended up doing a few of the martial arts featured in “The Way Of The Warrior”. Karate, Aikido, Wing Chun, Shorinji Kempo. But the one I actually really wanted to do was a Filipino martial art called Eskrima. Here’s a clip from the episode on Eskrima that I saw way back in 1983:
I thought this was the coolest thing I had ever seen. Sadly, the possibility of getting Eskrima lessons in Newcastle in the early Eighties was precisely nil. So, cool as I thought Eskrima was, I had to put that dream on the back burner and settle for karate and various other arts.
Then one day, about three years ago, I was talking to a couple of my workmates, Andy and Caroline. Husband and wife. I mentioned martial arts, and to my surprise the conversation became quite animated all of a sudden. I’d known them both for a long time, but had no idea that they practiced fighting. They didn’t just practice, as it turned out. They taught as well.
“What do you teach?” I asked one of them. Andy I think.
“Oh, a few things, but mainly Eskrima,” he said.
Eskrima! Fucking hell. So I started training with them. Okay, I had to wait 30 years to find my instructors, but I finally started doing Eskrima. I’ve done quite a lot of Eskrima gradings under their tutelage. The next one is going to be my black belt, in fact. It’s been a highly enjoyable and unexpected three years.
As I’ve said, I started doing martial arts when I was 14. Since then, I’ve tried many different styles and had some lengthy gaps in my training. What have I learned from all this? Three things mainly.
Firstly, not getting what you want as soon as you want it isn’t always a bad thing. Without that seemingly interminable wait before my first karate grading, I wouldn’t have got that massive compliment from the legendary Andy Sherry. Sometimes you have to wait and the result is all the better for it.
Secondly, often what you want comes when you least expect it. Without a chance conversation with my friends Andy and Caroline, I might not be training now. My life would be considerably less rich if I wasn’t.
And, oh yeah. Last but not least. Nunchucks are for life, not just for Christmas.
Copyright Michael Grimes 2017