Monday, 16 July 2018

Thornbury Tales

This is my diary from my trip to Australia to train with Sensei Joe Thambu:

The Thornbury Tales

%$£” it!! 

Way back in the spring of 2005, having just given up my job, me and my partner Pippa came to a decision. When called upon to describe this decision, like now for instance, I would say spontaneous, opportunistic, life changing, exciting, radical, rash and downright irresponsible. However like I said at the time: “@#%$ it!! Let’s go to Oz!”

Sarah Cullerne had already been planning her trip since the previous summer school. To be honest the idea had appealed from day one but just seemed so far from becoming a reality I never entertained it very long for fear of just getting plain depressed about it. That’s the thing about big ideas. At some point along the way you have to actually execute them or they mean nothing. Draw whatever profound meaning and comparisons to training that you like from these golden nuggets I come out with by the way. I have so much Information to convey to you that the elaboration of my philosophies and metaphors would turn this article into a book (soon to be available from the Aikido Shudokan). 

Not Many People Speak English in Shanghai

So fast forward through a penniless early summer and we arrive in Nottingham for a thorough pasting from Sensei Ken and his cohorts before travelling. Sarah, Steve and I were summoned to attain our annually renewed coaching awards. Also I think we deserved a bit of a kicking. Pip and I travelled straight to London from Nottingham. As it happens our traversal fell the week after the attacks on the London underground. Nevertheless delays were only a small setback and we had expected as much before arriving. 

Terminal two! That great, grey prison of the traveller. Considering the amount of traffic that passes through its doors this place is appallingly under maintained. Still it holds a certain amount of charm. I get a great sense of 70’s science fiction production values when I cast my memory back to my whole experience of terminal two, only dirtier. Here we were given the incredible news that our hotel vouchers had not been arranged for an overnight transfer in Shanghai. We were told that everything would be fine as long as we explained everything in Pu Dong airport. Incidentally it crossed my mind at this point that not many people in Shanghai speak English. 

Not many people in Shanghai speak English, and those that do speak it, do so with only a basic understanding of what they are actually saying. This by no means reflects badly on them. Their English is a lot better than my Mandarin. We spent four hours trying to put right the miscalculation. Eventually after finishing the FHM book of bar room jokes for the second time, our predicament was sorted out by a very helpful young lady at the transfer’s desk. 

Pu dong International Airport is a massive monument to architectural excellence. Everything is under one roof. One humungous, well designed, air conditioned roof. None of the claustrophobic but sociable comforts of terminal two were present here. Everything was clean and well organized. Except that is for China Eastern airlines. 

We followed the helpful young lady from the transfer’s desk straight to a bus awaiting us outside. Outside in shanghai felt a little like putting your face against a hot damp cloth. It was 35 degrees and so bright it hurt my eyes to look out the window. 

I was greatly impressed by the Ramada hotel. It is a very grand place and run very well. Although considering its ultra posh interior the service and manner of the staff was a little like the staff of the Hilton London exchanging with a Travel Inn. Still I was pleased with my experience there. There was even a network cable in the room for free internet access. 

The second leg of the journey was a further twelve hours from Shanghai to Melbourne. Twelve hours of dodgy Chinese soaps on a VHS screened randomly throughout the flight. I could tell they were VHS. Not because of the inferior picture quality or the fact that they never quite sorted out the tracking and actually lost picture for great chunks of footage. The biggest clue was definitely the frivolous rewinding and fast forwarding undertaken by the good people of China Eastern airways. Maybe it’s just me but in any presentation I prefer the tactic of concealing as much of the workings as possible. It could be said in addition that this is paramount when dealing with aeroplanes. The illusion of safety is enforced by the illusion of infallibility. By the same token the reality of panic, morbid fear and doubt is compacted by obvious fallibility. 

Hit the Ground Sleeping

By the time we landed in Melbourne, Pip and I had been on the road for 4 days straight. Sleep was a thing of the past. I’d done it recently, I was certain of that, but when and where were difficult to recall. This was hindered further by the frequent change of time zones. Finally we had our feet on antipodean ground. At last we could get down to the satisfying business, referred to by our American friends as ‘kickin’ ass and taking names’. We took our baggage to our room in the hotel, keen to find the Dojo I set about the task of gathering my thoughts. This proved too much for my tiny intellect and I promptly fell asleep. A horrible, unfruitful sleep marred by the tossing and turning of a body and mind that has the least clue which way up it’s supposed to be let alone which limb to use to achieve it. 

Out of the insanity and darkness of this narcoleptic punishment came the piercing din of my ring tone. At the time I believe my composition of choice was a cheeky little bop called ‘Nookie’, covered by Richard cheese and written by the red capped angst ridden whiny nu-metal merchant William Frederick Durst. But at the time I didn’t care about that. In fact I didn’t care about anything. When I answered it I was still asleep. Waking a greeting or so later I realized a few things. Firstly that I’d better start realizing things because something’s up. Then I realized I was on the phone. On came the notion that I was in Australia. Last but not least I realized I was talking to Sensei Joe Thambu and I was being completely incoherent. I managed to take a phone number somehow. But that’s all I can remember about that situation. 

Later that day Pippa and I emerged, a little bleary, from our room and made our way to the dojo in Thornbury. It turned out to be about 20 minutes walk. I had asked the receptionist about the distance and she seemed to think that no sensible man would hike such a length. In that case I must have been just crazy enough to attempt it, even in my fragile condition. 

We bowed into Thornbury Dojo and introduced ourselves to Paul. Sensei Paul is an instructor at the dojo and Sensei Joe’s Projects manager. He was very helpful and we sorted out the business of our fees and talked about the itinerary in the dojo. Unfortunately as I vaguely recall from the telephone call previously Sensei Joe had not yet returned from a trip to Sydney where he was performing a restraint and removal seminar. 

So began our excursion. By this point I was itching to get on the mat. The next day we did. Having met Sarah the evening before, we attended training where Sensei Luke took us through the Kihon Dosa, and Ukemi and such. He was pleased, I think, that what we did was not alien to what they did. I to felt a little relieved that we were not to far removed from their method. Adjusting in this manner is hard enough with the slightest subtlety in advanced concepts let alone when the root of the adjustment is as deep as Kihon Dosa. 

A Glass of Holy Water, a Biopsy, and a Paper Helmet

We settled into the hotel, although Pip and I were already looking for alternative accommodation. Sarah was struggling with a very sore throat and all of us were jet lagged. So we went to bed reasonably early that night. First though we tasted the local cuisine at a kebab shop on High Street. This place was classic. The lady running it was a pretty Greek girl in her mid twenties. I used the facilities and had to walk through their kitchen to reach the garden where they had ‘customer toilets’. There was a man of similar age and ethnicity tenderizing some beef in the kitchen. The main part of the establishment was a small seated area and a long counter about four to five feet high with a glass front. Raised above the back of the counter was a price board made of translucent yellow plastic and lit from behind. As we were about to leave a man walked in through the colourful strips of plastic hanging down from the door way. He had a long grey coat and shoulder length, straight, greasy hair. The lady frowned knowingly. As she spoke to him she appeared to sigh at the same time. 

“Can I help you?” she said. The man looked at her blankly. He was plainly inebriated. He said something but it wasn’t coherent at all.

“Sorry?” Enquired the rather put upon lady.
This continued until it was established that the man wanted some holy water. Sensing some problems ahead for the young lady we took our seats again and kept abreast of the situation. The conversation continued. He was offered a glass of water. Unfortunately he had his heart set on a less secular variety. When asked to leave he insisted on being served his sacred drink. Personally I suspected his Vampire hunting status was fraudulent. In all seriousness he may have been a perfectly normally gent, but right now for what ever reason he was high as a kite, offensive and dirty. It’s possible also that he was quite mad. The discussion went on for a minute or two until he left. At this point we also made our exit.
I think it may have been that evening but I cannot fully be sure. Sarah’s throat had worsened instead of improving as you’d imagine it to. We were sharing a room at this time and she was obviously hoarse during the evening. Any body who knows Sarah at all knows that if there is any sign of upset then its pretty serious. I personally admire her strength and character a great deal. Having known her for some eleven or twelve years I have not known her so perturbed by an affliction. I even once broke her finger in an accident whilst playing Kabadi. I may just as well have given her a dead arm. So seeing her in so much grief that it not only kept her up but woke me, when for all intents and purposes I was in a coma, I knew it had to be serious. I know I shouldn’t take pleasure in winning a debate against someone who could hardly speak, but I talked her into letting me accompany her to the hospital. 

I called a cab from the hotel and pensively waited alongside Sarah. I felt pretty useless. I couldn’t do anything to help her. In true Saloo style she kept apologizing and telling me I should go back to the hotel. For once though I got the feeling she didn’t really mean it. Ten thousand miles from home and on your way to a strange hospital at three in the morning! I wouldn’t mean it either. Whilst in the waiting room I called Nathan who had until now only heard the words hospital, and Sarah. At this point I couldn’t tell him much. I felt like a paper helmet, aesthetically pleasing but essentially useless. 

The hospital staff were very friendly indeed. I think Sarah would concur when I say that they really made her (and my self) feel welcome. You would never get from them the impression that they were to busy or rushed to deal with you in an entirely satisfactory manner. I waited with Sarah until daylight, when the Doctor returned and gave us a better idea of what was going on. This way I could keep the British contingent informed. Unfortunately, Sarah may have to be operated on.

Chinatown Genius

Pip and I continued training and visited Sarah whenever we could. This resulted in one incident when some big lump with a brain the size of a gnats dropping and a gentle tact the likes of which is usually seen in bad sit-coms, started talking about training. Said lump exclaimed about how ‘awesome’ the previous day had been, (which, if not tactful, was the truth) and the results were regrettable. 
The illness passed slowly with the help of antibiotics and we got down to some serious training. I certainly felt that we got some real one to one tuition for a good period of time after Sarah rejoined the group. Sensei Joe really made us feel welcome when he came home from Sydney. At the time I was training three times a day each day. I think I suffered a little from an old war wound but aside from that I loved every cold and painful minute of it. We worked hard at sword forms, knife forms, and grading aspects as well as a considerable amount of time put aside for freestyle. 

During this week Pippa and I had been looking for a new place to stay. Pippa, I should mention, is talented at this kind of thing. She skipped one lesson to hunt for accommodation that better suited our shoe string budget. When I got back she presented me with a veritable portfolio for my perusal. What a woman! So it came to be that me and the squeaky one left our rather over rated hotel and headed for Chinatown. The Exford Hotel here we come. 

Between May 2004 and May 2005 I ran a small pub in Barnstaple called the Exeter Inn. So when I walked into the Exford Hotel I really did wonder if I’d got on a plane home in Shanghai instead of a plane to Melbourne. It was geographically different (in every sense of the word) but the look, feel, and possibly the smell, were all there. It even had an amazing arcade game. I fell in love with it the second I saw it, purely because in the very English climate of political correctness it would never be aloud. It was a well crafted hunting game with a shotgun as the user interface. The sheer genius of this game was that, unlike real life, the action was not based on the tense thrill of the hunt. The planning, the wait, the payoff and the execution were all missing. In their stead was the concept of, well, violence! The deer for instance were not at range like in most lifelike situations. They bound onto the screen at point blank range and eight at a time. To add playability the user has a pump action shotgun. In a word, genius! 
Accommodation at this greebo haven was dirt cheap. Even after we had paid for board and a weekly met card for travel on the tram service it worked out cheaper than the other hotel. Being able to travel freely around Melbourne was also a bonus. The pub is smack in the middle of china town. For all its drug problems the area is brimming with life and a lot of fun. 

Down to Earth

It was one morning on the tram that Pippa decided to go shopping en route. I went ahead to the dojo, and arrived an hour early. I noticed through the corridor to the matted area that there was an unusual business going on for this time of day. As Sensei Joe walks by me he says “get your Gi on Andrew”. Still bemused I said “OSU!!” and proceeded to do so. Bleary eyed and still pulling my lids apart I emerged from the changing room to be presented with a television camera and a journalist eager for information. The way I was feeling that day this situation was far from ideal but, looking back, it was a real experience. Sensei Joe performed for the camera for about an hour, demonstrating on each of us (Luke, Van, and I). The camera crew was making a documentary to be aired on European Sky.

Joe Thambu Sensei teaches courses in restraint and removal. I was lucky enough to be around when he ran a course at the Thornbury dojo. This was a sound investment for me considering my current career path. As a doorman the law’s appertaining to your conduct are counter productive and in some cases downright contradictory. So it is important to at least make an effort to learn restraint techniques. Unfortunately it does not always go to plan at work but the effort is there and demonstrated by certification (and hopefully CCTV). The course that Sensei has put together has the liability issues in mind throughout, whilst still remaining a good resource for effective response to aggressive behaviour. I think it would be easy to underestimate the difficulties involved with putting something like this together. Applying effective training patterns to the ‘reasonable force’ concept is ‘ice skating up hill’. However Sensei Joe’ down to earth approach is the key to his success. It’s the simple manner in which he portrays himself that makes him such a notable teacher. Another admirable trait is his open and honest attitude towards himself. For instance, many times I’ve heard questions directed at him that he has simply replied with “I don’t know!” instead of overstating his own ability and ‘blagging’ it with complicated speech. Despite the fact that in actuality he is probably more qualified to talk on the subject in question than most chaps who would quickly take up the podium just to stroke their own ego.

This course was a defining moment in the holiday for Pip and I. We had rather irresponsibly made the journey to Australia relying on money that had not reached us yet. By this third week in the trip we had, as expected, used our available funds. This situation was not completely unplanned for and we had budgeted almost exactly as expected. The missing link was a cheque arriving in the post at home in Barnstaple. Said cheque had not yet arrived, causing considerable stress for us both. I decided against risking the last of our money, opting instead for an early flight home to get straight back to work. Staying longer would risk being a burden on our kind hosts and I was not about to have that. So I explained the situation to Sensei and he immediately insisted that we rethink the matter. He even offered us a room at his house. I had a lot to think about. I could not be sure of the proper action with regards to finances and more importantly, etiquette. So I sought advice from Sensei John. John was very helpful. In the end we stayed but not at Sensei’ house. In the dojo there is a little Japanese room which Pippa and I called home for the next three weeks. We slept on a futon on top of Tatami.

The Nicest Man in the World, and Frank 

It would be a crime if I didn’t take a small paragraph to tell you about Pier. Between the Hotel in Preston and the Dojo there is a little Café on a junction. The prices here were reasonable and the coffee was amazing. In fact I think a lot less would have got done if it wasn’t for that coffee. It was between the dojo and Sarah’s accommodation, so we could meet there and walk to training. I think the most memorable thing about this café was pier himself. He is quite possibly the nicest chap in the universe. It was beyond customer service. The man has a talent for pleasant behaviour. Every morning pier would come over and greet us and we’d all say “Hi!” and be slightly taken aback by the niceness coming out of his ears. He could come to your house and poo on your cat and you’d still want to make him a cup of tea because he’s just so ‘flippin’ nice.

After the restraint and removal course the focus of training turned to the upcoming demonstration. In Melbourne they have a very good demonstration system. All of the students compete for a place in the main Demo. This works brilliantly and gets everyone involved. It also brings the dojo’ together. There is stiff competition between Oakleigh and Thornbury. During this period we accompanied Sensei Joe to Oakleigh dojo on Thursday nights. It was during these short trips that we really got to consult with Sensei. Out of all the conversations we had, some of which are sensitive and some only really relevant to me, one that really stuck out was his advice on buying new vehicles. To paraphrase as I can’t remember the exact terminology he used: “Just turn to the salesman and say ‘yeah whatever now show me the cup holders’” Needless to say the cup-holders in Sensei’ four wheel drive wielded the utmost convenience. 
Oakleigh Dojo is built into an old fire station. Its layout very much reminded me of how seremban dojo looked in 2001. They had just bought new Tatami which were rock hard. I found the people of Oakleigh dojo very friendly and welcoming. The whole atmosphere of the place rang a chord in me. One night we met with some People from Oakleigh and a few from Thornbury in a club called the Night Cat. With us was a good friend of Sensei John’, Englishman Richard Bobolis. Richard was visiting and also stayed at the dojo in John’s flat. They met on the Sensushei Course (Tokyo riot police). In fact a number of the chaps in Melbourne had done the riot police course. Including Frank who some of you may know as Fat Frank of ‘Angry White Pyjamas’. Although my advice is don’t bring this up with him. I don’t think he was ever properly remunerated for his role in the book but I can’t be certain. I just got the sense that the subject was to be avoided. Frank is a quiet type, serious about training. His power in technique was quite formidable, and luckily for me his control matches it also. He is always nice and generally smiling, but definitely very quiet. 

Melbourne nightlife is very good. There are loads of places to go and they are often open ‘til the wee hours, although if you are new to town then it may not always look that way. Brunswick Street holds a great deal of venues, but it occurred to me that most of the nightclubs and late venues are in real back alley locations. Something to do with legislation I think, or possibly taxation involved when setting up on a main street. I noticed that most clubs are on the 1st floor because the insurance is cheaper for some reason. There is plenty of variety but if you do ever want to go out find a local to show you around. 

The Last Days

My last day in Melbourne was business as usual. I got up and I trained just as before. In the evening lesson the class was Demo oriented as most were at this time. At the end Sensei John called for the ‘ring of love’. The same send off that Sarah had endured where everyone stands in a ring around you, then you throw each of them once and go round once more so they can return the favour. This was being organised for me when Sensei Joe walks casually by and says ‘He’s Nidan… Jiyu Waza!’. My eyes widened a little and my stomach looped the loop a little but I smiled and said ‘OSU!’. 

Seven people stayed for the opportunity to beat up an Englishman. That’s seven Jiyu Waza as Shite and Seven as Uke. I don’t remember much about it. I remember thinking I need to be fitter. After I’d done Seven, Sensei John Marshall said ‘Well… I think sevens a bit of a woosey number! We’ll make it eight’. Every throw I tried to execute on Sensei John failed and he mocked me each time, telling me to stop dancing. Thinking back I remember feeling pretty rubbish. You learn a lot about yourself when you’re absolutely hanging from your own trousers. 

Then It was Sensei’s go to throw me. Sensei John Marshall is a very powerful Aikidoka. In day to day training he is extremely gentle and for such a big set young man his Aikido is performed with grace and care. This in mind he proceeded to take me to the cleaners. Not through strength but with power in his technique that he had not demonstrated to me until this point. I really enjoyed this Jiyu Waza. I couldn’t move my legs very well but I was still clearing a few feet of air. With one particularly good Shihonage Kozushi I landed on my head and was knocked out. I came round a couple of seconds later completely punch drunk. So I got up as quick as I could and tried to keep it together. I couldn’t focus and felt very dizzy. Unfortunately I could see two Sensei John Marshalls. I went for the one on the left.. 

Then We Went For Pizza

The Pizza restaurant across the road from the dojo is where I said goodbye to the good people of Thornbury Dojo. Pippa was staying a few days extra because of a family wedding in Perth on the West Coast. So at 3am I hugged her goodbye and got into the taxi. I was heading home to earn some money. 
Leaving Pippa for a month to come home alone and work seedy night clubs and deal with the scum of the planet is one of the toughest things I recall from this trip. When I start to think that maybe we should just cleanse the world of the entire human population she is what reminds me of how beautiful some people are. Through and through, balls to the wall beautiful. So, as hard as it was, I left. 

I took a taxi to Melbourne airport at about 3am. As I left I took a deep breath. For all my experience to this point in my life I still faced a daunting 2 day trip on my own. At the time I was not very comfortable in cities and I’d never flown alone. 36 hours, 1 dodgy Seagal Flick (with terrible tracking), and a stop over in shanghai later I arrived back at terminal 2. 

This is where the Thornbury tales end. With me sailing past a massive queue of Chinese people and joining the miniscule British nationals queue I realised that maybe there were a few advantages to cheap air travel. As ugly as terminal 2 is I was glad to be home.