Excerpt from Yoyogi Dojo '74 - Graham Ravey
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As the plane left the tarmac, I relaxed and settled back into my seat for my excitement was twofold. Firstly, I had never been higher than a ferris wheel could take me at the local village fairground let alone an airplane ride, and secondly, I was off to the land of the Rising Sun, Japan. I was 20 years old and since my first Karate lesson at the age of 14, I knew this was my destiny.
It all started one day when I turned on the TV, and a karate demonstration by two Japanese karate-ka was being screened. I remember being transfixed, mesmerized by how quickly and gracefully they moved and yet with power.
"Mum," I said, "I want to learn karate."
"Well, look in the local paper. I’m sure, you’ll find it’s being taught somewhere."
I did as she said, and to my surprise, a karate class was being taught at the local school just around the corner. The day could not come quick enough for me. My heart was beating with excitement and anticipation of what was about to happen.
I entered the school gymnasium that night to the sound of student’s kiais as they practiced before class. This, combined with the fact that everybody in that room was at least five years older, made me stop in my tracks and consider a quick exit. Too late. I had been spotted by a man wearing a brown belt. He immediately walked over to me. This man was Nev Coulson and would be my first Sensei in my journey through martial arts. "Do you want to join the karate club?" he said.
My answer was "yes", even before he got the word "club" past his lips. I was told to take off my shoes and socks as I had brought no shorts or T-shirt in which to train. The command of "line up" was soon called and I joined on the end of the back row. Being a stiff young man, I felt very uncoordinated. We trained for two hours that night and what amazed me was how much sweat poured out of my body. After the class, I was ecstatic. My whole body was filled with an energy never felt before. I had been training Judo for a couple of years at a club my brother was a member of, but had never felt like this. By the time I got home, which was probably a ten-minute walk from the school, my whole life was worked out.
"Mum," I exclaimed as I walked in the house. "I’m going to Japan when I’m old enough to become a karate master."
She looked at me a little bewildered but smiled and said: "So, you enjoyed the karate class then, didn’t you? Sit down, your tea is in the oven. It’s your favourite meal - bacon, eggs, and baked beans."
Within the next few months of karate training, I learned that the style of karate I practiced was called Wado-Ryu and that our chief instructor was a man called Phil Milner. He was an ex-soldier who had learned karate from Tatsuo Suzuki and then broke away at Shodan level, and formed his own style "Milner-Ryu". Phil had his own dojos in Dinnington and Sheffield, but sometimes visited his branch dojos such as the one I trained at in Chesterfield. We were due for a visit soon, it would be the first time for me to take his class.
The night he came, everyone was apprehensive and I soon found out why. He was a hard looking man with crossed eyes. Just a stare from him made you feel on edge. His training was rigorous and what he lacked in technique he made up for in power. He truly had "berserker" energy. His classes contained lots of basics and sparring.
I continued to train with Sensei Coulson in Chesterfield, but whenever I could get a ride to Sheffield or Dinnington, I would make Sensei Milner’s classes, too. I wasn’t old enough to have a car or motorbike, so I had to rely on other people for a lift. I once asked my brother if he would take me to a Saturday afternoon seminar that Sensei Milner was giving in Sheffield. I was 15 years old, my brother Trevor was 18 and had his own car. Just like any typical 18-year-old with their first vehicle, he was volunteering to drive any member of the family anywhere they liked, just so he could show off his car. Add to this the fact that he had heard me speak of Phil Milner and was curious to see him in action. He readily obliged.
When we reached our destination, I got changed into my karate-gi and my brother made himself comfortable as a spectator in the training hall. We all started stretching and doing various exercise before class. The allotted training time came by and still no sign of Sensei. About ten minutes later, he arrived with a more than usually menacing look upon his face. Without hesitation, he closed the door and locked it. This action alone caused the heart to quicken and small bumps to appear on arms and legs for he had never done this before. "No one leaves this room for the next three hours unless they are in need of severe medical attention," Sensei Milner snarled, then his gaze fixed upon my brother who was the only spectator in the hall. He added, "And no one watches, everybody trains!!"
My brother, who I thought until that moment had a rather manly voice for his age, squeaked: "B-B-But, I’ve only drove my brother here ’cos he hasn’t got a car. I don’t practice karate."
"Well, you do now. Get your shoes and socks off, lad!!"
I can only impress upon you again at this time, the facial features of Phil with his crossed eyes and mean look. They were enough to make anybody do what they were told. For the next two hours, he put us through commando type karate. Shiko-dachi till the legs trembled and gave way. You couldn’t stand up from Shiko if your legs got tired. This was looked upon as weak-minded and was always followed by a thrashing with a Shinai (Kendo practice stick) as my poor brother found out. I would sometimes glance at him during the class when I thought Sensei was not looking (although this was hard to calculate), only to see a kind of sad puppy dog look upon his face like he’d been told off for shitting in the wrong place. Needless to say, I never got a lift to any more karate venues after that.
He did train at my dojo for a couple of months about three years later and stopped because he lost too much weight. Trev was a bodybuilder and wanted to pack weight on, not take it off, and is one of those guys who like myself sweats profusely with the least bit of exercise.
I gradually, over the years from 14 to 16, got a liking (if that’s the word) for this kind of sadistic training and on reflection, thank Phil for preparing me for what was yet to come in Japan.
I was proud to be one of Milner’s marauders, as we were known by some in the community. Remember, karate in the late 60s was quite rare and unheard of, not like these days where everybody you meet says,"Oh, I did that for a while" or "I know someone who practices karate". We were the 1%ers if you like and karate had a kind of mystery about it. Most of the Japanese sensei like Suzuki and Enoeda were based in London, so it was quite young in the northern parts of England.
YOU’RE ALL MAD
One day, in the middle of winter, we turned up at the dojo and were told by Phil to take our Gi (uniform) tops off and line up outside. It was snowing and about three to four inches had already settled on the ground previously. Off we went running up hill and down dale. My feet, after about ten minutes, had lost all feeling. I kept looking down now and again to check that they were there. It was times like this I found it best not to think about the discomfort and try to occupy the mind with something else. I started to think about the two Japanese karate-ka I had seen on TV that day and how swift and graceful they were, and yet still had power. I then realized we didn’t do enough kata in our training regime and probably too much fighting. Suddenly my thoughts were interrupted by a motorist who came by in his Mini Minor (Minis were very good in snow, because the engine is over the driving wheels and gives them more traction). He slowly wound down the frosty glazed passenger door window and said: "Fucking hell, you’re all mad!"
Yes, we’re all fuckin’ mad, I thought to myself. I tried to smirk
but for some reason my face muscles did not respond to the
brain’s command, so all he got was a frozen stare and
immediately skidded off up the road.
THE NINJA ARE COMING!
I was only a yellow belt and had been training about nine months when the summer training camp came around. It lasted two days with a one-night sleep over in tents (if you had one) in the English countryside. The Gasshuku was held in a field with a wood on one side and a country pub on the other. Being only 15 years old, I didn’t get as excited about the pub as the others. I recall some guys saying as they all pitched tents and settled in: "It doesn’t matter what Milner does to us. If we have a coupla pints first, we won’t feel a thing."
I thought it strange they said that because training started at 9 am and the pubs don’t open till 11 am. I was to realize my mistake later that day.
The training consisted of lots of sit-ups, push-ups, squats, basics, sparring, some kata, two men combinations, bare foot runs through the woods and crawling on the ground through mud and nettles. I should also mention toughening-up methods like lying on the ground all shoulder-to-shoulder, feet raised two inches off the ground while fifteen Black Belts ran over your stomach stamping down their foot edge (Sokuto) as they went. It was always a good idea to cover the balls with your hands as now and again they misplaced their foot by accident, I hope!
Another favourite was standing in a circle of about ten or fifteen people. The senior grade would then turn to the man on his right and either punch him or kick him hard in the stomach, chest or arms, never groin or head. Then, he in turn would do the same to the man on his right. This would go around the circle many times. It wasn’t just a case of one blow per revolution of circle though, for as soon as you smacked the man on your right, a few seconds later, a blow was administered again from the man on your left. Sensei Milner would join in any circle he liked alternating frequently but with the same result, the man on his right or left, because he changed direction sometimes, would go down after a few blows.
Five pm came around slowly. That day, we had been at it since 9 am with a one hour break for lunch. Everybody scarpered for the pub with Gi still on. They were muddy-sweaty and some were bloody. I went to the pub with the men. As I said it was a country pub with only a few locals in, so when we arrived (about 80 karate-ka), we took over in a nice way. All pubs had pianos in those days; somebody could play the piano. And it wasn’t long before sing alongs like We'll drink a drink a drink to Lilly the pink the pink the pink were being played. I was only fifteen, so I listened a lot to the older men joking and talking. They slipped me a couple of pints during the night. With so many customers, it was hard for the publican to keep an eye on everybody.
We had been told by Phil to be back at camp by 8 o’clock for the "Ninja Game" and for the last hour that was the topic on everybody’s lips. I found out the basic format to the game:
All the Black Belts are ninja. They go off into the darkness of the woods and surrounding fields (there are 15 of them), and we the Kyu Grades have to protect the warlord who is really just a White Belt who has to sit by a fire in the field where the tents are pitched, surrounded by about 20 guards. The rest of us about 40 will split into two teams, scout the woods for ninja and take turns in guarding the warlord every 45 minutes. The objective of the ninja is to kill the warlord. This is done by getting past the guards and punching him. They have black Gi on, we have white. The game will end at 11 pm whether or not they kill the warlord.
I listened as they told stories of last year’s game about how one scout group was attacked in the woods and some were gagged and tied to trees. They were the lucky ones, I learnt, because the others were taken back to wherever the ninja were and tortured by being urinated on, tied up, blindfolded and had needles stuck in them anytime, anywhere. Wow, I hope they choose me as the warlord, I felt. A punch in the chest doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Unfortunately they didn’t. And as I saw the ninja disappearing into the woods under the moonlight (Camps would always be scheduled for the weekend closest to the full moon), I thought to myself, Here we go.
I was in one of the two teams that had scout duty first. We had to give the ninja fifteen minutes start before we went looking for them in the woods, and then none of us set off at a quick pace. The first 45-minute patrol was uneventful. The only thing we saw in the woods was the other 20-man patrol. With the moonlight reflecting off their white Gi, we could see them easily. This brought the fact home that surely the ninja knew where we were all the time. Guarding the warlord was a good shift. The fire was warm and we felt quite safe, as surely they wouldn’t attack yet. The game had only been going for an hour. We all suspected that if they were coming, it’d be in the last 45 minutes. By now, we were all armed with some kind of wooden staff, tree branches, etc, we had found during the patrol through the woods. I had plenty of time so far to fantasize about fight scenarios. I imagined the ninja attacking and me being the hero swiftly dealing with the menacing foe. Then, reality hit me. Surely, I wouldn’t hit them with a stick. They would only get angry and that’d be worse for me. Visions of needles being stuck in my groin area and urinating in my mouth came into mind.
"Com’on lads, it’s time for forest patrol," our group leader said as we saw the third party come out into the field. "Any sign of ninja?" was the question asked as we passed them. "No," came the reply. "We thought we heard something, but it was probably a badger or similar."
Thirty minutes had gone by on our last patrol and still nothing. We had kept to the forest pathways as nobody was silly enough to wander into the scrub. Then suddenly, there were loud kiai, noises of wood clashing together and the cry, "Ninja!!". Without hesitation, I threw my stick away and bolted for the thicket. Within seconds, I felt a blow to my forehead which knocked me on my arse. Ugh! I grunted as I hit the floor. I heard laughter from the pathway followed by, "You silly twats!"
When I got up and returned, all was revealed. three White Belts at the back of the patrol felt bored by all the inactivity, so they rattled their sticks on trees, all kiang and shouting "ninja". As for my blow to the head, it was just a low tree branch that I didn’t see in the dark during my escape. I had a lump to prove it. "Where were you off to, Ravey?" I was asked as I joined the group.
"Well, somebody had to go for reinforcements," came the reply.
I was happy to see though that it was not only me that fled, as about six more men came out of the scrub. I made a promise to myself that night I would never run away from a confrontation again. We immediately made tracks back to camp as it was about 10.45 pm, and the game would end at 11 pm. The other patrol was already there (spooked a bit by all the commotion they heard from the woods), so there we were about 60 men and a warlord, but still no ninja. "They’ve got to come soon," somebody said.
It was nearly 11 pm and, sure enough, about three minutes later, on the horizon we could just make-out if we looked hard enough 15 formidable figures. They were about two-football- pitch lengths away from us on a hill advancing at a slow walk. My heartbeat quickened, but this time the feet stood fast.
"Don’t worry, there are more of us than them," came a shout. "Make three lines, biggest on the front." I was on the third line. The ninja were running now and had covered half the distance to us by the time we had formed lines. Then came the war cries, blood-curdling kiais. Some had balaclavas on, and some had sticks.
"Charge!" said our leader. We kiaied as we ran. The first line made contact. I saw one guy kicked so hard in the stomach, his legs came two feet off the ground and another punched hard in the chest. The Black Belt responsible for this was Colin (I forget his last name). I had seen him fight before. Being only about 5’4", he was a true example of the saying it's not how big the man is in the fight, but how big the fight is in the man. He had true berserker spirit. He hissed and slavered when he got going. This was the Black Belt in front of me. But by the time I got there, he was overpowered by numbers. All other ninja had been subdued in the same way. Colin was one of the last to go down because he hit the Kyu Grades harder. I saw him put three away before somebody rugby tackled him to the ground from behind. We all piled on him until Sensei Milner called a halt to the game. Nobody dared get off him till then because he was still hissing and slavering. I felt good about myself. If Colin hadn’t been overpowered before I engaged him, I knew in my heart, I would have still done my duty which, as a karate-ka, is to do your best irrespective of winning or losing.
We all turned in for the night soon after that. I didn’t have a tent, so I laid on the grass with my haversack as a pillow. One guy gave me a blanket to use, I was glad he did. The temperature dropped a little in the night. I didn’t get much sleep but dropped off for a while. I remember waking up at first light before anyone else, cold and wet from dew. I ached from the previous day’s training, so I walked around the tents until everybody woke up. They looked at me as though I was half mad for not sleeping in a tent, maybe I was. When Sensei Milner overheard them, he just gave me a smirk and said: "I’ve never heard of anybody dying from sleeping on the grass."
I knew he had done it many times. After all, he had been in the army. After three more hours of training that morning, we all went home.
On my return, my mother was horrified as I limped and groaned my way into the house. The car ride had certainly given the muscles a chance to stiffen up again.
"That Phil Milner wants bloody lockin’ up," Mum said. Dad didn’t say anything, just used to look and grin when I came home wounded. He knew the situation; he was a soldier once.