Back when I was still young, in about 1975, I was a cocky young kid brought up on a council estate and trying to find my place in a world where as a ‘smaller than average person’, disputes with your peers would be settled with your fists. (Oddly enough kicking was frowned upon and although kids would often carry a metal comb sharpened on one side, knives were only used by people that were not able to handle themselves.) I very soon realized that to survive or have any chance of keeping anything that you had, you would need to prove yourself worthy of keeping it, or take a beating while trying. With this in mind I went looking for some training that would assist.
The mid-seventies was full of a guy called Bruce Lee and an art called Kung fu, it was everywhere in the cinemas and on telly but not actually available locally. The net result was a massive take up of Karate and Judo which had been around for a long time and was readily available. (I would, shortly after, take up Wado Ryu Karate at the local University under Mr Kitimura 5th Dan and so at the age of 16 was practicing Boxing Aikido and Karate at the same time, so not just you Mr. Sharp!)
Boxing soon made me realize how unfit and weak I was. We all like to think that we are relatively tough and could handle ourselves if we need to. In actual fact, I found out that I could not fight, especially against anyone bigger than me, and in reality that was everyone, so I needed to find something else to compliment it.
The following evening I went to watch a Judo class. This was very interesting and had some very positive points including the fact that the people there were very highly skilled and considered to be some of the best in the country. However, I was concerned that the basis of the combat was purely one on one and took no account of the fact that most fights I had witnessed, involved two large groups of opponents.
The following evening I went to watch the art of Aikido, something I had never heard of before. As soon as I entered the dojo on this particular evening I knew that this was something very different. The whole atmosphere was distinctly friendly, and being immediately approached and invited to come on the mat rather than watch from the balcony, I opted to have a go. People started introducing themselves and shaking this 15 year olds hand advising me not to worry but just go with the flow, however, I soon started to feel apprehensive when the mood completely changed as the sensei entered the dojo and silence ensued. Mr. Bob Forrest-Webb was a solid powerful man, a former Judoka who had taken up Aikido in its earliest years in the UK he had a first dan certificate signed by Mr. Tomiki and would go on to be a seventh dan and president of the BAA. Despite the friendly atmosphere there was a very strict discipline on the mat and a feeling that anything could happen next. There was a sense of danger and I liked it.
The club itself had not been going long and the senior students were around the middle Kyu grade, They were very good and several went on to become 3rd and 4th dans. Over the next four years I trained as much as my meager resources would allow and attained the grade of 1st Kyu although I knew the syllabus to 2nd dan. The training was tough and included a fair amount of Judo as several members were also Judoka and we would often be visited by Mr John Piper who was a friend of Bob’s and a highly graded Kendoka. John was a skilled swordsman who had trained in Japan and took great delight in showing us the futility of trying to defend ourselves against him. The training covered the full Tomiki syllabus and included competition. We held the National Championships at Winchester in 1977 which in them days included Kata, Tanto Randori, Ninin dori and Randori Kiyogi. (Randori Kiyogi has since been removed from competition due to serious injuries caused through technique being fully applied and maximum resistance.)
When Mr. Kitimura returned to Japan the Karate stopped and when during a boxing match I found myself wanting to bring my knees into the action, I realized I had gone as far as I could with that particular sport.
With Bob’s departure in 1979 and with my marriage to my wife Tina I did not renew my BAA membership and only visited the dojo very occasionally to train and this became less and less as other more pressing matters took over including two children. For the next ten years I would not return to Aikido but did study various other arts including Jujutsu, Taekwondo, Ninpo Jutsu and served a couple of years in the Territorial Army until an unfortunate car accident ended all forms of training for a few years and I had to resign from the TA.
In 1989 I returned to my original club and picked up where I had left off attaining my black belt in 1992. I also began training in Yoshinkan Aikido under Dr John Cullerne 4th dan in 2000 at Winchester College and was asked to teach Tomiki Aikido there in 2002 which I continue to do. Although John remains Dojo-Cho it was decided fairly early on that the college should follow the Tomiki system and affiliate to the British Aikido Association as the boys would benefit the most and be more likely to continue after leaving. To date we have produced seven black belts whilst at the college, and a couple went on to black belt after leaving.
From 2003 until 2011 I worked in the security industry starting as a guard at the local hospital. This was where I received my training in the law relating to self defence and martial arts in general. (This is a serious subject and sadly lacking in any class I had previously attended. All of my students since that time receive training in the law related to martial artists.) During this time I devised a program of self defence training for students and NHS staff and a program of control and restraint classes for police and security personnel inline with UK law and NHS guidelines, also working as the training manager for Red Square Security. I believe that I learned many things from training in other arts (and particularly hands on experience dealing with all types at the hospital), some good, some bad and from then on determined to be honest and realistic about the reality of training and not allow myself to be conned or delude myself about what was real. This was the step change that made me reappraise everything I had previously done.
Nothing I have said so far has described what Aikido is so if you’re totally lost at this point then please refer to On Aikido.
It quickly became clear to me in the wake of practical experience of having to forcibly restrain other people, people who were not being nice and compliant, that much of the initial sentiment that went into aikido’s conception was very nice, but practically impossible. Ueshiba famously said that if everyone practiced aikido then there could be no wars. While I see the underlying philosophical point here, Voltaire would take Ueshiba to task in exactly the same way he does Leibniz, for being foolhardy in his optimism.
Realistically Aikido has been hijacked by almost everyone that has followed to become what they want it to be. Some want it to be a fighting system, a way of winning trophy’s, a dance like physical exercise, a vehicle to become a movie star. There is nothing particularly wrong with these things in their own right, and this proves both the strengths and weaknesses of this wonderful art, it can be whatever you want it to be as long as you are honest about the way you use it.
Mr Tomiki was already a senior instructor in Judo before Mr Kano sent him to train with Ueshiba and it should be noted that at this time that Ueshiba had not fully formulated his new Aikido and was still teaching Aikijujutsu. Tomiki went on to develop his own style which was a balance between kata to learn formalized technique and randori or free form sparring with a set of training drills.
For me personally there is a compromise between following a system that has a strong
core in that it is the British Aikido Association organized and run by Britain with excellent teachers and safety systems employed. As a club leader I am able to pick and choose what I want to teach to keep students interested as long as I keep to the syllabus for grading day, also I am prevented from over promoting or favoring students by the excellent grading rules. The down side for me would be the fact that some of the techniques (in the way that they are taught) do not work. Sorry, but this is the truth, not only for Tomiki style aikido, but all styles and other martial arts as well. To negate this problem I always ensure that my senior students understand the weaknesses of some techniques and show how variations would be rather more effective under certain circumstances.
The key facts for me are thus: the foundations of the art are strong and well developed, tested and proved. Altered and made safe they can still be useful for law enforcement. Altered again they are a generous sport, giving fun and prizes. Friendships and societies form lasting relationships and common purpose. Fully understanding the techniques can impart the ability to protect from assailants that are bigger, stronger and more numerous. In my humble opinion there is no single art or style that is better than any other because we are all looking for something different. For me, I know that in 40ish years of studying martial arts as a hobby, I have had great fun, made many friends, protected myself at work and if I have saved any of my students from serious harm I am a happy man.
I would like to end this article on an interesting note. From the very earliest days right through to as recent as this month, I am regularly challenged. When people find out that you are practicing martial arts they form an opinion that you think that you are tough. They sometimes want to test you or big themselves up so they say something like ‘do you think that you can beat me in a fight?’ Experience has taught me that to try and explain what you are trying to achieve and that you are not trying to be superior to anyone else, does not necessarily help. These days my response is usually something like. ‘That is very unkind, you are younger, bigger and stronger than me and I’m middle aged man with a bad back!’ They usually walk away feeling that they have proved a point. I walk away knowing that I have just executed a perfect aikido technique on them!
Bob has been an incredibly patient and long-suffering teacher and mentor to all of us here at Samurai-do throughout our adolescent years. It is entirely true to say that, not only would this project not exist without him, but also that he has been a hugely formative role-model in all of our lives.
Bob, from all of us at Samurai-do, Thank you so much! Keep on doing what you’re doing and we have no doubt we’ll see you again soon!