Karate has been a very important part of my life. My last two years of school were not great, and starting karate brought back some of my self-confidence. Also at school, I was terrible at sport, but karate was something I did away from school and I allowed myself a fresh start. I took to it really well. The only person I was in competition with was myself, and that can be a huge incentive to try and excel, week by week.
My first sensei was Brian Whitehouse at his Shotokan Karate Club of East Grinstead, but when I went to live in the US for a year I took six lessons a week at the headquarters of the International Karate Association under the famous Takayuki Kubota. I returned to the UK and became the first black belt at Brian's club. A few years ago I wrote up my karate experience, just to help me remember it all - you can read it here if you wish (it's not a particularly exciting or outstanding story, I admit!).
Karate seems to be slightly unfashionable these days, largely, I think, due to the glamour of the new kid on the block, MMA (Mixed Martial Arts). But that discipline doesn't do it for me - it's too much about winning, about competition, and about who is strongest and best. It misses the budo aspects, the humility, the finesse. It misses the Art.
One aspect of Japanese martial arts that comes in for more criticism these days is the idea that practicing a fighting art can improve your character. For me, it really has. Karate has been my model for bettering myself in all walks of life and for not giving up on something I want to do. When I lose my way, I think of karate. The lessons I've learned while attempting to perfect a technique, or to keep going when my legs want to give out, find other applications. My comic strip, The Rainbow Orchid, would not exist without my karate training (not to mention the fact that it helps when I'm drawing fight scenes!). It's not a spiritual thing for me, it's a practical, real thing.
I love kata - the pre-arranged forms or patterns of karate, an imaginary fight in multiple directions, an encyclopaedia of self-preservation techniques. I feel I'm just beginning to understand how they work - a glimpse of a bigger picture. I'm constantly trying to perfect them, and am always very far away from doing so. But each time is a new challenge. I also love the fact that practicing kata connects me to the art's history, and with forms that masters have handed down through centuries, changing and evolving with each interpretation and generation. The history of karate generally is a big part of the attraction, too.
I'm still doing karate (my current club's website is here) and I still love it. I can't kick quite as high as I used to, the jumps aren't quite as athletic, and the legs tire a bit more quickly than they once did, but it's still an enormous challenge. And I think I'm starting to get the hang of it a little - at last.
Here's a short video from the days when my limbs were a bit more elastic, even if my technique was a lot less formed - in the summer of 1985, as a 7th kyu orange belt in Brian's class at the Small Parish Hall (sadly just recently demolished).