Andy O'Brien's Blog
“There is a garden in every childhood, an enchanted place where colours are brighter, the air softer, and the morning more fragrant than ever again.” - Elizabeth Lawrence.
They dubbed it the long hot summer; the longest, hottest and driest since records began. Tarmac melted in the roads; a hosepipe ban was implemented and duly ignored as sales of paddling pools and garden sprinklers went through the roof. Just in case the rare nature of the weather had somehow gone unnoticed, news reporters fried eggs on car bonnets and pavements to clarify.
The Outlaw Josey Wales was the movie to see, unless like me you were a nine year old, then Bugsy Malone or Alice in Wonderland were the flicks of parental choice. The ice man, Bjorn Borg had won his second Wimbledon title with Chris Evert taking the ladies crown; and in good old British fashion, a novelty band called The Wurzels held the number one spot in the UK pop charts with a song title of a uniqueness yet to be surpassed; ‘I’ve Got A Brand New Combine Harvester’.
The summer holiday of ‘76’ began for me, as I’d imagine it did for most pre-pubescent boys, with the promise of fun, adventure, lie-ins and ice-cream. I could look forward to lazy days, building sand castles and burning to a crisp on Barry Island beach with my Mum and sisters. In this time of innocent ignorance, before high factor sun-cream and today’s heightened pervert awareness; the beach front would be crammed with a glimmering, coconut oiled, writhing mass of bodies and naked toddlers would be allowed to wander freely in the murky shallows. Barely an inch of sand would be visible beneath the towels, deckchairs, discarded crisp packets and fish and chip wrappers.
On the weekends, if Dad wasn’t too busy with his business, he might take us boating on Roath Park Lake followed by an ice-cream and an hour in the adventure park. These were the fun days before the constraints of Health and Safety regulations; before the advent of our compensation nation, pouncing injury lawyer infested, ‘Nanny State; before conkers and British Bulldogs were banned from our school yards; and Roath Park had a huge slide with a bump half way down that would send you gloriously air born. With a fearlessness that only a child possesses, I’d slide down head first on my tummy, so that for just a moment, I was Superman. Launching myself from the top I would shout, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?” and with precision timing as I hit the bump, “NO! It’s SUPERMAN!” Arms outstretched and fists clenched, I would save the world again!
If we nagged him enough, perhaps Dad would walk us around the park’s gardens to the arboretum; a miniature rain-forest in the middle of Cardiff. There I could play at being a great white hunter in a quest to find the legendary giant gorilla King Kong, whilst imaginary cannibals, skulking behind huge carnivorous plants, looked hungrily upon us, aiming their poison-darted blowpipes in our direction.
Then Dad and I could spend a precious half an hour passing a rugby ball around and play-argue over which of us were Gareth Edwards. Dad would succumb to my protests and agree to be Jean Pierre Rives, which took a fair stretch of the imagination as he was as bald as the day he was born and the legendary French flanker’s trademark was his long blonde hair! Full time would inevitably be called on our game when my baby sister, Samantha, who was only three in 1976, grew weary and would be in desperate need of a hug from her Mum.
But what I longed for most of all from this holiday was one of Dad’s infamous Brecon Beacons expeditions. Infamous and usually met with moans and protestations as Dad always insisted that we men climbed Pen Y Fan, the highest peak in South Wales. Not by the easy, direct route up from Storey Arms either; Oh no, ex-army man that Dad was, he’d haul us around the twelve mile route from Neuadd reservoir, taking in the three peaks of Crybin, Pen-y-Fan and Corn Du; which, when you’re eight, or seven, or six years old as I had obviously been in previous years, is a bloody long way!
Truth be told though, Dad would inevitably hoist me onto his broad shoulders and carry me much of the way around; but this year was going to be different. I was looking forward to it like never before, determined to complete the hike unaided. Why this sudden enthusiasm?
Sir Chris Bonington and his team had conquered the South West face of Mount Everest in the autumn of 1975 and he was now my absolute hero. I had faithfully followed the expedition, captivated by his weekly reports on the BBC’s children show, Blue Peter. For so long I had dreamed of being Steve Austin, the world’s first bionic man, but now that had changed; my new childhood dream was to be a great mountaineer and conquer the mighty Everest.
Yes. I had it all planned out, the summer of 1976 was going to be a memorable one.
They say ‘Be careful what you wish for’ don’t they.
God: Someone I was made to sing about in school – kills indiscriminately.
Allah: The same as God but terrorists seem to really like him.
Jesus Christ: Someone I was made to sing about in school too – in December his songs heralded the coming of Santa Claus.
Buddha: Happy little fat dude – his followers are kick-ass martial artists!
If I have offended with any of the above statements – GET OVER IT! I can assure you that I am not really that ignorant about the various religions. I am just making the point that I don’t believe I have a religious fibre in my body. I understand that religion brings comfort and meaning to life and death for millions of people throughout the world. They burn incense and chant, ring bells and hold extravagant festivals, circumcise their children and wage wars in their various gods names; so yes, it must be very important to them indeed but it’s just not for me, never has been.
I do however have a fascination with the world’s religions and while away many an hour scouring the Discovery Channel for documentaries on the End of Days, The Rapture and the Romans. There is no doubt in my mind that The Holy Bible is the best story book ever written; with tales of incredible violence and sex, death and sex, insanity and incest (isn’t that sex?), the Beast and the wrath of a quite merciless God, unless of course you happen to be one of the chosen few.
Being a karateka I have a passing interest in the Asian and Japanese religions of Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism, as many of their peaceful, pagan- like beliefs, are entwined in the philosophies of Karate. Buddhism is probably the most appealing of all the religions to me with its five promises of; not to harm a living thing; not to steal; not to be greedy; not to drink alcohol or use drugs being at least achievable compared to the demands of some other religions. I’m afraid though, one of those promises is just too much to ask of me. I do enjoy a cold bohemian style beer!
So there we have it, I have firmly established that I am not a God or god (s) fearing man.
Peculiar then, that when tragedy came barging through my family’s door, I’d very often catch myself saying a prayer or hoping for a miracle; having whole conversations with, I don’t know who, perhaps one or all of the guys mentioned above. It mattered not to me what deity might respond; Muslim, Hebrew, Christian or Voodoo; I decided to keep my options open knowing that desperate times require desperate measures; I was just exercising my right to a little hopeful hypocrisy.
As expected, my prayers, wishes and sacrificial rituals were all in vain.
By the time a correct diagnosis had been made it was already too late for Lee. She knew it and tried to keep it hidden behind a mask of unbelievable bravery and courage; but I could see it in her eyes from the beginning; she knew it was just a matter of time.
Whilst those closest to her frantically rallied about treading on egg shells, doing their best to keep a positive attitude for her and avoid any talk of death or dying if she was within earshot; I swear that, quite incredibly, she was doing exactly the same for us. Determined to be with her children for as long as possible and with an often strained but always stunning smile, she fought to keep the family pecker up. Going through months of chemotherapy and painful trial treatments she stalled the growing blackness within her for as long as she could.
I have dwelled upon this for many, many, hours and I am absolutely convinced that Lee eked out as many moments as possible from what little remained of her cruelly shortened existence, so that we; her family and her children, could properly prepare for the fact that she would soon be gone. Christmas at Samantha and John’s 2009 was to be her last and the greatest in living memory. Her last birthday spent at Velindre Cancer Hospital, though bitter-sweet brought together a family gathering rarely seen and created an eternally precious memory for those of us there
“Only the good die young.” Is that from a film, a book or a poem? I don’t know and I care even less. As far as I’m concerned, whoever coined that phrase was absolutely spot-on. Today, June 27th 2010 is my sister’s forty-ninth birthday and, in around a month’s time, it will be the first anniversary of her death at the hands of cancer; an undiscerning, indiscriminate and evil fucking bastard of a disease that has nothing short of ravaged our and countless other families.
I won’t spew the usual post-mortem rhetoric of what a fine, upstanding, wonderful and beautiful person my older sister was because unless you knew her it will mean nothing to you; and hey, let’s be honest here, we’ve all been to funerals of people we’ve known to be of questionable character where the eulogy is so shining that you wonder if you’ve turned up on the wrong day.
So instead, think about this; Lee was no more ordinary or extraordinary, no more happy or sad, no more good or bad and no more special or precious than your sister, brother, father, mother, daughter or son, is to you. Lee was a human being and like all of our species she had a multitude of faults, had made many mistakes and wasn’t perfect by a long chalk.
To the wider world then, there was nothing special about her at all; but to her children, she was a mother and therefore irreplaceable; to my parents she was their daughter and first-born, therefore precious beyond belief; to me and Samantha, she was our big sister and we took it for granted that she’d always be there; and to the rest of the family she was our Lee. Now she is gone forever. .. Hasn’t she?
In the year that has passed since her death, Lee has become a grandmother to Ruby-Lee and an aunt to our little sister’s second child, Mathilde. If I were a religious person, I would perhaps believe that a part of Lee is reincarnated within these two new additions to our family; that divinity has granted her soul a right of transmigration into them. If I had some kind of faith I’d have the comfort of believing that she’s up there somewhere; in Heaven, Nirvana or even Valhalla and that she has the back of our family’s newest members; a guardian angels protective hand upon their tiny shoulders. Hmm, I like that idea so I’ll keep the option open and exercise a little more of that hopeful hypocrisy.
But of course a part of Lee is in them and I don’t need religion to believe it. They are of the same fine stock, the same family, the same blood and there are inevitably going to be moments when; a certain look or mannerism; a smile or sound of laughter; a frown or gesture; will remind us all of their Grandma or Auntie Lee and we will knowingly share a glad-sad smile or glance.
Lee wasn’t a religious person either but she was spiritual, educated, well read and I think she would have liked this:
The music she chose to be played at her funeral was Starlight by Muse which, combined with my contemplating her death, triggered a line of thought regarding the possibility of reincarnation or the afterlife.
A scientific fact is that all of the matter in the universe, including human life is born of stars. Violently igniting and dying stars create the matter required to build everything, including planets and on extremely rare occasions, life; it’s how we all got here. Sometime in the distant future our local star, the Sun, will expand, engulf the planets, including our precious Earth and eventually explode creating heavy elements like silver, gold, and uranium, obliterating its solar system and blasting the remnants into the cosmos.
Amongst that debris will be the remains of the entire human race. Millennia of human matter that the planet has absorbed through wars, disease and nature’s cycle, will be cast out into the endless depths of space. I respect wholly, the religious beliefs of others, but for me I need only look to nature for my miracles.
Through nature we will all one day be reincarnated in some form or another; though, perhaps recycled is a more accurate description. Millions or billions of years into the future, which is but seconds in the life of the universe, we could be; a particle of gas, a molecule of water, a bug, a leaf, a little green man, even a brief moment of intense energy in the life of a new star. Who knows, we could even be human again; we could even be us again; life caught in an infinite cycle of creation, destruction and recreation.
So don’t sweat the small stuff because if you can’t get everything done today; you can do it in a billion years or so!
It was just a thought for those of us without the comfort of faith; but as an extra death insurance policy and just in case there is an omnipresent, benevolent One controlling our destinies; I’d recommend that in desperate times when all other options appear redundant; exercise your right to little hopeful hypocrisy and make a little wish, say a little prayer, or drone out a Buddhist chant. But please, whatever else you do, do not make any sacrificial offerings!
“Far away, this ship has taken me far away, far away from the memories of the people who care if I live or die” Muse, Starlight.
Great song, shit lyric; because you’re never far away in our memories sis.
Dragons and daffodils, castles, collieries and choirs; men in cloth caps, women in strange cone-shaped hats. The land of song, a nation of Anglophobes harmoniously singing Cwm Rhondda on the way to work and Mae Hen Wlad Fy Nhadau on their return. Golden ages of rugby with illusive half-backs; rugged snow-capped mountains plunging into lush green, river valleys sporadically stained black by mining and heavy industry.
To the world, thanks to films like How Green Was My Valley and Very Annie Mary, this is Wales. A land of myth, legend and quaint tradition; where the simple natives speak in an ancient, incomprehensible tongue and everybody goes to chapel on Sunday. We Welsh have been more than happy to perpetuate, nay, milk this romantic notion of our proud land - It gives us a sense of heRRRitage you see! It also attracts tourists and their wallets to our little principality from all over the world like; uh, let me think of something appropriate for the purpose of this article; ah got it! Like Vale Karate to medals!
Better this vision, than the drug consuming, homicidal and demented example of typical Welsh life given in Twin Towns! That being said, I have had the quite unique pleasure of residing in a particular and, shall we say, far more colourful, estate in the Pontypridd vicinity than anything depicted in that film. I now absolutely believe in the old adage of, “truth is stranger than fiction” because if I wrote a book about some of the things that went on in that place, nobody would ever….Hmmm; now there’s an idea.
The Welsh nation IS fiercely proud of its identity, if occasionally nationalistic; we DO suffer from an unfortunate case of Anglophobia, ranging from a bit of friendly banter at the match to a mislead and ridiculous hatred of our English neighbours; but we ARE unrelentingly optimistic, and let’s face it, we have to be with our Rugby team, of which we are always filled with pride, no matter the result. COME ON WALES!!!
ENGLAND? I find the attitude many of our Welsh brethren hold toward England and the English quite ugly and not just a little annoying, particularly as I’m writing this article during the 2010 soccer World Cup month. I am no football fan by any means but I’ve lost count of the number of people, friends included, who’ve spewed the “anybody but England” garbage at me whilst donning the shirt of an English Premier League team. The same players they practically worship week-in-week-out are somehow now the spawn of Satan, a reminder of English invasion and oppression over our peaceful people. Yeah right! GET A HOBBY GUYS!
I am thrilled and relieved to say that this is not an attitude that prevails or is in any way encouraged in the Welsh Karate fraternity. After all it was great English Karateka like Sensei Andy Sherry who introduced the art we love so much to our nation. Every year the incomparable Sensei Dave Hazard, the very best of English and world Karate talent is invited to Wales to help improve our technical and sporting skills. Preferring the practice of karate as a pragmatic self-defence system, I travel all round the country to train with, in my opinion, the best instructor of Karate bunkai these islands have, Iain Abernethy, a proud Englishman and EKF instructor.
So even if it is only for the World Cup month, shout COME ON ENGLAND! Or perhaps just whisper it quietly to yourself to be safe.
The fantastic thing about world Karate and the world’s karateka is that we are all one big family. Regardless of country, affiliations or club; we are all one big class if you like. For Karateka, more than any other sportsmen, are by their very nature incessantly hungry for knowledge and will glean it from as many sources as possible. Therefore, the very best instructors I know are the ones that can hold their hands up and say, “I don’t know.” then suggest an instructor who may; the very best instructors I know are not too proud or too egotistical to train in someone else’s dojo; some of the very best instructors I know are WELSH and that is something of which we should all be fiercely proud.
So dragons and daffodils, castles, collieries and choirs; yes, we’re all well aware of the romantic stereotypes of Wales and Welshness but haven’t you noticed how COOL contemporary Wales has become in recent years. Cardiff dominates peak time television with Dr Who and Torchwood; Barry Island has become world famous due to the incredibly popular Gavlar and Stacey; and have you noticed that Welsh news readers and weather girls have invaded London.
Our incredible tradition in the performing and fine arts dates back centuries and prevails as strongly as ever with the likes of; Terfil, Jenkins and Church; the Phonics, The Prophets, The Manics, and of course Sir Tom. We have an incredible tradition of world class poets, authors and artists such as Dylan Thomas, Roald Dahl and Kyffin Williams.
Hollywood, once the property of Griffith Jenkins Griffith (1850-1919) a Welsh dairy and sheep farmer from Bettws, has remained the domain of the dragon with huge stars of the past like; Richard Burton and Glynis John and a current crop of film superstar Taffs including; Christian Bale, Anthony Hopkins, Ioan Gruffudd, Zeta Jones-Douglas and Michael Sheen.
We have a rarely talked about tradition of unsung heroes; pioneers and innovators in the world of science such as Dr Lyn Evans, the head of the Large Hadron Collider project at CERN. So, if the scaremongers are to be believed, it could be he, a Welshman who brings about the end of the world! Stick that on your C.V!
From influential, revolutionary politicians to ruthless, blood-thirsty pirates of the high seas; Wales, but a tiny speck on the world map, has produced world beaters. Hmm, should we be proud of the exploits of Captain Henry Morgan and Co….YARRRR! Why not?
Our tradition for producing world class sportsmen and women is also truly phenomenal; Rugby legends aside, we’ve had globally successful competitors in sports ranging from athletics to horse trials and from bowls to boxing. What of Karate? Can we claim to have a Welsh tradition of our sport, of our beloved art? I’ll come back to that question in a moment, but first:
Tradition / Traditional: Words synonymous with Karate and the martial arts and equally contentious. Karateka from a variety of styles and even practitioners from within same style, self-styled factions calling themselves “REAL Karate”, “SPORT Karate” or “JKA style Karate” all claim to be using the traditional form of the art. So who is correct in their conviction?
If we look at the definition of the word traditional the simple truth of the matter reveals itself.
Traditional – Def: The passing down of elements of a culture [karate in this case] from generation to generation.
So there it is, as plain as day, written in black and white and smack dab in front of your baby blues. You see, it all depends on what your interpretation of traditional is. We as human beings have had to adapt and vary our lifestyles since the dawn of man in order to survive as a species. Likewise, Karate has had to adapt and vary from generation to generation to suit individual body types and abilities in order for it to survive and become accessible to the masses.
Gichin Funakoshi recognised and acknowledged this in his book Karate Do: My Way of Life. Written at a time which, many karateka today herald as the cradle of traditional karate and believing that the art he bequeathed to us is the Okinawan form he inherited from Itosu Yasutsune and Azato Yasutsune. The great man reminds us that this is clearly not the case and that Karate had already rapidly evolved then and will continue to evolve as necessity requires for all time.
“Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too. The karate that high school students practice today is not the same karate that was practiced even as recently as ten years ago, and it is a long way indeed from the karate that I learned when I was a child in Okinawa.
In as much as there are not now, and never have been, any hard and fast rules regarding the various kata, it is hardly surprising to find that they change not only with the times but also from instructor to instructor.”
Funakoshi concludes with, “What is most important is that karate should be simple enough to be practiced without undue difficulty by everybody, young and old, boys and girls, men and women.”
So, throughout the centuries since Karate’s beginnings on a tiny island in the East China Sea, many interpretations of it have been made and therefore many traditions have been created and recreated; including whichever incarnation of it you happen to participate in now. Ergo, my humble opinion is that we are all traditional karateka; the traditional Karate debate is moot so let’s all stop arguing the point eh!
Right then, I believe the question was – Can we claim to have a Welsh tradition of our sport, of our beloved art Karate? Answer - Absolutely, YES WE CAN!
Karate’s arrival in Wales is, around about now, reaching its half century, which is ample time to claim it as a Welsh sporting tradition; especially when you consider that the form of the art we all recognise today as Japanese karate, is itself still not a century old and only really began to gain momentum around the rest of the world after World War II, just sixty or so years ago.
The pioneers of Welsh Karate, including, I’m proud to say, my father, laid solid foundations way back in the early 1960’s and began to build from nothing, a great tradition of Celtic Karate excellence that continues to this day. As early as 1977 the Welsh team was beating the world’s best, taking a silver medal at the European Championship in Essen. The most memorable fight I can remember was also in the decade of flares and afro hair, though I cannot remember the exact year; it was when Cardiff’s Von Johnson absolutely destroyed the legend that is Terry O’Neill in the KUGB British finals at Chrystal Palace.
Welsh tournament success has continued at varying levels in every decade since Karate was introduced to our fair land and we now have a current crop of young athletes that are promising truly great things for the future. On the rare occasions that I attend tournaments, as a spectator these days; I am completely blown away at the skill levels of our young competitors. Funakoshi was absolutely correct when he said “Times change, the world changes, and obviously the martial arts must change too.” Witnessing the athleticism of today’s youngsters is sometimes comparable to watching a scene from a Jackie Chan movie. Amazing! As well as top class competitors, it’s also great to see that we have two world class officials as well. Officiating tournaments is a thankless task, so to have risen to world status must have taken incredible dedication and incredibly thick skin.
Success in the sporting arena is not the only measure of Welsh Karate’s growing tradition of excellence. We have governing body of our sport recognised by the Sports Council that allows us greater funding and grant aid than ever before. The NVQ instructor qualifications that are now available through the governing body, ensure that our instructors are suitably trained not only to teach the art but to recognise and deal with one of the most emotive issues of our time; that of child abuse. I truly believe that this qualification is one of the biggest improvements to happen to Karate in Wales. The piece of mind the NVQ certificate gives parents when they first hand the duty of care of their children over to you is priceless.
Of course, everything is not all wine and roses as there is also a tradition within a tradition when it comes to Karate; a tradition of fracture and in-fighting, splits and spats; old rivalries and personality clashes that have endured for decades and still occasionally sour the cream of our sport. I often wonder if, like our nationalistic rivalry with the English, some of these people even know what they are arguing about anymore or if throwing a spanner in the works has just become an endemic flinch response.
I would urge our younger generation of instructors and our up and coming students not to follow suit and allow the old views and arguments of others to besmirch the promising future that our sport in Wales has. Our tiny nation has some of the most studious, knowledgeable, talented and experienced instructors the United Kingdom has to offer, many of whom I count as old colleagues and old friends. The men and women I speak of are not pre-occupied with political one-upmanship and their vision of the future for Karate is not blurred by belligerence. The men and women I speak of realise that with a little good will and a lot of hard work our tradition of producing incredible karateka is secure for decades to come.
Yes indeed, the father’s of Welsh Karate, some now reaching the twilight of their careers, others sadly no longer with us on this earth; can look at, or down on their legacy with great pride and satisfaction but also perhaps, with just a little trepidation. Surely now it’s time for some metaphoric hatchet burying, reconciliation and cooperation. Only then will the full scope of Wales’ rich talent pool of karateka be truly visible and available to us; and only then can the fathers of Welsh Karate and those of us responsible for its perpetuation rest assured that it will continue long into the future, constantly evolving and improving. The passing of time will then, I’m sure, firmly establish Karate as a true Welsh sporting tradition built of success, built of tolerance but most of all, built of friendship.
So, dragons and daffodils; castles, collieries, choirs and Karate-do.
This is my Wales.
No Anglo Saxons were harmed during the writing of this article.
Written by Andy O’Brien, Karate Union of Wales 6th Dan
Author of, The Little Bubishi: A History of Karate for Children
www.littlebubishi.com email: Andrew@littlebubishi.com