Big John’s Blog

22nd June 2020

Week commencing 8th, 15th & 22nd/06/20

So, we are three weeks into our outdoor training programme. No one has complained about us and we have observed social distancing protocol most of the time. Anyone who reads this but has not yet joined in the sessions, please feel free to come along, it offers a real boost to well being and mental health. You can really sense the purpose and feeling of achievement surging through the group, as if we are collectively saying ‘oh yeah this is what its like training with other people’ after being locked away on our own for three months.

Fingers crossed the weather holds, because its going to be interesting if rainfall breaks out part way through a session. There is an element of endurance and determination that I would love to explore with the group, something like a cross between ‘celebrity SAS who dares wins’ and a rugby match. I’m not allowed to talk about my past in the SAS, its all classified, but, I did once play rugby, usually in winter and often in the freezing cold. My position was wing three quarter, which basically meant hanging around in the freezing cold, waiting for the ball to pop up in front of me so that I could run a few steps and fall flat on my face in a pool of icy mud. So, if I could manage doing that for years and years, I’m sure I can cope with a sprinkling of rain during Basai Dai.

Somebody asked me recently what I will take from the lock down in terms of personal gains. As it was a social occasion I didn't really want to say ‘its allowed me to run through my katas every day un interrupted’ for some reason, and so instead I talked about another aspect of lock down that actually has become a priority which I hope to accommodate in everyday life from now on, and that is walking.

From our own doorstep, we are able to access not only rolling hills, but also moor, heathland and beaches. It really is incredible and I honestly think it has changed our lives. I mean, we always did walk and were aware of how lucky we are, but now we actually factor in our day around our walk, it has become the centrepiece of our day. My wife has an app on her phone which tells us how many miles we walk each day and the last time we looked, cumulatively, it had reached well over 200 miles. We haven't taken phones every time we have walked either, my son and I walked the Templer Way twice, which is 18 miles each time, during which time we didn't have the app. We really are lucky to live where we live, because rather than an inward looking lock down experience, we have been able to look to the horizons and safely stretch our legs. For this I am extremely grateful and aware of the sacrifices others have had to make.

1st June 2020

Week commencing 01.06.20

Finally, the day many of us had been waiting for arrived, a handful of senior members gathered together in a field and trained together! 

Observing the conditions of social distancing and practising common sense, a group of us met outside Sensei Biff’s club on a grassy knoll and got down to business. Darren warmed us up and Sensei Dave kicked it all off with some gentle drills of kicking and punching, followed by some ons step partner routines at arm’s length and rounding off with kata Jihon, one of the three katas that begin with the left hand covering the right, the others being Jitte and Ji in. This characteristic apparently has its roots in ancient forms of Chinese boxing. 

Although how this is recognised I am really not sure because people from every country on earth have been punching and kicking each other since time began so surely China cant have a monopoly on how you hold your fists in between striking.

Although categorised as an advanced kata, certainly black belt at any rate, it is made up of basic movements and therefore is one of those katas that is easy to underperform and lose points on in competition. Upon turning, prior to the three middle steps in horse stance, if you do not execute your gidan bari correctly it will become a glaring error. In fact, the sequences which have distinct directional changes all begin with simple moves like the three age uke leading up to the first Kiai, and if these do not have the correct kimae they really ruin the whole kata. Its further proof I guess that every single move has to be executed fully, there is no room to fudge it, you have to ‘make every move real’.

As we were training, we did notice a passer by who appeared to be filming us, it would be a shame if someone were to report us for a gathering of less than ten in a wide open field when only today there were crowds shoving to get into shops for the much heralded kickstart to the economy. Have we learned nothing from all of this? Surely our economy should hinge on something more sustainable than buying unnecessary items of clothing? Time will tell, but in the meantime lets enjoy a temporary reprieve from training solo!

25th May 2020

Week commencing 25.05.20 

Kata, kata, kata. Combinations, pads, weights……alone, with a partner. On it goes, day after day, week after week. Alongside this some work as a sprinkling of children return to school. Thankfully it appears that people are making their own choices about how much interaction we can safely engage in. After the deceit, double standards and arrogance of those in charge of us, it appears that some people at least are voting with their feet and staying at home. 

Moreover its been interesting to discover what they have all been doing there. Personally, its not all been combat training and walking for me, I’ve not been prepping for the apocalypse particularly, I’ve also been paying attention to lots of other things that have not had the attention they deserve. 

Dozens of jobs in the house and garden have been attempted, and up until recently it was very interesting to be limited by the tools and resources that are already on site. There were no shops open and so if you required any particular tool or material, you had to hope there would be something lurking in the garage or tool shed that would fit the bill. Consequently, in the spirit of this I made a raised bed for the garden out of an outdoor dining table, using the already existing structure but re purposing it. 

Like wise we repaired some windowsills with old fragments of sandpaper, a few tools and some left over sealant. Now the shops are open again it almost feels like cheating by going to purchase particular items for jobs. That said, hopefully the spirit of make do and mend will continue to thrive in the post semi lock down era.

When it comes to relaxing, theres always the telly, but I grew up reading books because we didn't have a telly until I was seven. Consequently I have always read to relax and momentarily escape. However, of late, I have worried that all my reading has been purely escapist with little or no challenge and as a result I finally picked up Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and suddenly I’m in the year 1528, with no electricity, NHS or local authority support. There's a plague, Its bloody and grim, and there are no fairy tale endings……………. 

18th May 2020

Week commencing 18.05.20

As well as practising kata on a daily basis, I set myself a task of really practising those kata that have slipped through the net because we don't often do them in class and therefore don't often practise them in our own time. Brushing up on the finer points of a kata you are not particularly acquainted with requires some research, and for most people this means you tube. However, before you tube, if you wanted to check on something at home, all that you had were the little pictograms with arrows and foot prints, or little camera stills of a sensei performing a kata, one frame per step, a little like Edward Muybridge, (1830-1904) a photographer famous for his pioneering work in photographic studies of motion, and early work in motion-picture projection. 

He is also known for murdering the man his wife had an affair with, and being acquitted in court with a verdict of justifiable homicide.

He took thousands of photos of humans and animals in motion, especially horses, developing a miraculous process for capturing movement on film and laying the foundations for the imminent motion picture industry. He presented his photographs in touring exhibitions using a device called a zoopraxiscope 

It was while I was looking at those tiny photographs of the teachers performing their Kata (some of which are illustrations, some of which are photographs), that I thought about Muybridge and how he had successfully managed to capture the essence of movement in horses, and whether he had ever had any involvement in combat sports. When I discovered the image included above, I became more interested and decided to do further research, more of which later.

The point I was trying to make, in such long winded fashion, was how difficult it is to correct something you are unsure of, or learn something new, without actually practising and having dialogue with another person. This is an example of the term experiential learning,which in other words means learning by doing, as opposed to reading, then attempting to perform a task. Karate is certainly an example of this kind of learning, which we will hopefully not be deprived of for much longer.  

11th May 2020

Week commencing 11.05.20

One of the features of lockdown that may be considered a double edged sword, or a coin with two sides, or a game of two halves or any other example of a duality or idea where two things are grouped together to compare, is television. Part of all television is utter dross and part of it is quite adequate entertainment. I would not describe it as a Janus figure (ancient Roman myth of two sided face) but rather an example of cognitive dissonance taking place. Cognitive dissonance is where conflicting ideas, beliefs or behaviours are held causing mental discomfort, leading to an alteration in one of the ideas in order to restore a comfortable balance.

It is possible that we might consciously apply this process to how we watch television, in order to stimulate the reward sections in our brain, assuming we are not simply turning the television on when we wake up in the morning and letting it exist as background noise all day and night. I understand that some people do this perhaps for company, but that is not what I want to look at today, instead, what I am considering is how we control our consumption of television according to our relationship with the things around us and our activities during lockdown.

Being creatures of habit who strive to create routine in order to establish some control over our lives, the beginning of lockdown was disorientating. No job, no travel, no training, no contact - all of our routines dissolved. Quite quickly, I suspect, we began to impose discipline, to achieve purpose in our new realities, whether this was home schooling our children, exercising, gardening, home repairs, hobbies or Karate. 

For many people (certainly of my generation), television, the digital offspring of the cathode ray, which once occupied a corner, but has now achieved prominence on walls, felt like a slightly dangerous confection, in need of restriction or limitation. Indeed, the fear of ‘laying around all day watching telly’, (which was not actually an option in our childhood as there were only three channels and they ceased broadcasting during the school day hours) has stayed with us and in our house it’s employment is reduced to evening duty.

Moreover, returning to the cognitive dissonance, not only can we control whether the television is switched on or not, when it is in action we can control the content in order to achieve a harmonious balance that we find satisfying. We can do this through choosing between information and entertainment (infotainment?) and between the sub categories of those also. So there is news and documentaries, fact and fiction, sport, comedy etc etc. 

However, in my humble opinion, the one overriding, shining beauty of the digital revolution is the truly wonderful ability to exterminate the tyranny of advertising. This is partly due to digital technology, we can just zapp the filth out, and partly because we have saved the BBC, which continues to create excellent content through the license fee rather than advertising.

Just as every Thursday we clap the NHS, (which is bitterly ironic as the Government are continuing their stealth privatisation of it) and frontline workers: maybe we should clap the BBC? After all, it is also constantly under threat from successive Conservative Government ministers, many of whom would gladly be rid of it for ever.

4th May 2020

Week commencing 04.05.20 

May The 4th Be With You………………..there we are, Ive said it.


In 1977 I didn't have anyone to go and see Star Wars with and cant actually remember wanting to go, so it all kind of passed me by along with a lot of other ‘Sci Fi’. Ive found the real world weird enough, whether or not thats any kind of excuse, I’m not sure, but its certainly not a case of me damning the whole genre, I’m a fan of writers like James Ballard and Raymond Bradbury. 

For me, the best Sci Fi is not a face full of CGI but rather something that is ever so slightly just one step from reality, enough to think you are in the real realm and then wham! you most certainly are not. 

Through parenting I have tried to be interested but maybe due to our indifference, who knows, our children don't seem to have absorbed the global obsession for the franchise either. They like it sure, but they also like the Lord of the Rings films or all the Pixar productions too.

The two other notable events were the death of a pop singer called Elvis Presley, and the Queen’s Silver Jubilee, the latter prompting bunting and street parties, of which I have no recollection at all. The year before however, I do remember for two reasons, the Long Hot Summer and Punk Rock, not that I was allowed to immerse myself in Punk, having a Policeman Father, I had to enjoy it from a distance.

So having just completed our single daily walking exercise, my wife informs me that we walked seven miles, which I find hard to believe but the smartphone never lies. One of the joys of these walks is that the season of spring is here and everything is waking up. Birds, butterflies, plants flowers and trees, all are enjoying something of a renaissance due to the global lockdown. Indeed, recent walks have allowed us to see a wonderfully vibrant natural world of flora and fauna that seems to be rewarding our lack of emissions with a sensational display of sight and sound. For those of us able to get out and about, please make the most of it and enjoy it on behalf of those less fortunate, who are either at work or have other responsibilities. 

27th April 2020

Week commencing  27.04.20

As the weeks roll by, the miles of walking are added to the clock of our daily lockdown exercise engine. With smartphones we are able, effortlessly, to record the distances of our regular perambulatory journeys. Indeed most of the time we are doing it without noticing so that at a later date we find ourselves wondering aloud, “Oh, I wonder how many miles we just walked?”

Depending on your circumstances, you clock up different distances. Some of you will be front line key workers and are unselfishly sacrificing the luxury of a walk, to help keep the rest of us safe, directly or indirectly. I salute you. 

Others of you may be involved in businesses or organisations that have had to cease trading temporarily, allowing you more time on your hands. Some of you will be somewhere in between, either working on a skeleton staff rota, or volunteering perhaps, helping those who cannot or do not feel able to venture out.

Either way, many of us who are not on the frontline of the NHS, will have time at some point for a daily walk or cycle, and this is surely one of the compensations of such a uniquely strange and troubling time.

Setting out walking for an hour or two has parallels with the current situation we are in. There is no roadmap. We are in fact, and I include the Government here, making this up as we go along. Our aim is to cover some ground and feel healthier afterwards, learning a few things along the way, rather like the bigger picture of living in the age of Covid 19, staying alive while we figure out what to do next.

If nothing else, the daily walk, run or cycle allows us time to reflect, and one of the ‘smaller picture’ things I have noticed is how the hills, during the walks, have become ‘easier’. Being reasonably fit and healthy, the hills in the walks that we undertake have never left us completely out of breath, or stationary, but even so, I have noticed how easily we have more recently ascended them, almost without noticing.

There are also parallels between walking and Karate. Repetition delivers improvement through refinement. Considering every aspect of your movement helps improve your technique. When walking up hill there are lazy ways to move, in the same way that there are lazy ways to move through kata if no one is there to give constructive criticism.

So, when you are walking up those hills, drive through from the hips and keep the spine vertical: and when you are moving through those katas, keep the stance low and don't bob up and down! Oss!  

20th April 2020

Week commencing 20.04.20

Another week goes by, another week locked down. If anything, we seem further from resolution than, well, when exactly?

When you discover that the Government’s chief mandarin-in-hiding, Dominic Cummings, is busy stage managing what trusted scientists are being allowed to say, then you know that we are being provided with more mixed messages than your average food blender could rustle up.

There’s the reality, there’s the way the reality is presented to us, and then there’s the people who manipulate and deliver the message about that reality. Its like an audit trail that you can follow back up to the disputed point of origin of Covid 19. 

The mixture of fact and fiction along that winding road is extraordinary, but knowing that Cummings is involved is like feeling comfortable with Dracula being given the keys to the national blood transfusion centre.

A tributary off that winding path that has kept me chuckling over the weeks is a new game i’ve been playing called ‘name the new animal to blame’  in which you don't have to do anything, except wait for the media to slap pictures of a new animal on the front pages, the weirder the better, like a winning Top Trumps card. So, firstly we had the wet fish from the market in Wuhan. This was followed by bats, and most recently we have the truly picturesque Pangolin. Who knows whats next, but I suppose at least it sheds light on the awful trade in endangered species that are being processed for dubious medicinal purposes or unsustainable food production. Hopefully we wont see Joe Exotic and his tigers cropping up in the news anytime soon, but then again, I wouldn't bet on it.

Meanwhile, in the land of ‘patio karate’  I am responding to a challenge thrown down by a fellow senior, to brush up on a kata that for one reason or another has been rarely practised. This is a really good idea because it is obviously quite difficult to practise all 26 katas all of the time and inevitably, some get less practised than others. With that in mind perhaps anyone reading this would like to take up the challenge and find a kata that you rarely if ever practise (there must be one!) and polish it up ready for when we return. Who knows, there might be more than one!

13th April 2020

Week commencing 13.04.20

I imagine that we, as individuals attached to a club, are all wondering about what each other are doing, in terms of keeping the karate mojo ticking over. 

Certainly by now we all have something approaching a routine that involves all the other aspects of our life, some of which I have discussed earlier. But when it comes to the actual karate elements, unless you feature heavily on social media, which I don’t, then the actual karate bit is probably quite private. 

In texts and calls we can all say ‘yeah I'm doing some kata and some pad work’, which is fine, but the structure, the motivation, the order in which we do things is unique and subject to a variety of environmental factors. 

For example, some days I like to be outdoors, others I like to be in, but thats not necessarily dependent upon the weather, its just how I feel. On some days I like to wear shoes of some kind as opposed to traditional barefoot and this is not because of whether I am indoors or out, its more about the surface I have decided to work out on. 

Likewise, with clothing it is usually preferable to be wearing shorts, because something I haven't done even once, is put on my gi and belt. Why that is so is probably down to sheer laziness, but also down to the fact that now I have established a bit of a routine, I know roughly how long it takes me to do what I usually do and so I decide whether I can slip a “session” in, in between other things. This means I don't have to set aside time to prepare or travel, like we did in the pre covid times: I just think well, Ive done my daily walk, or Ive got half an hour before we are going out for our walk, or Ive been and done the shopping, now is a good time to do it .

When it comes to the actual session aims and objectives, being a ‘silver back’ or more senior practitioner, I am aware that I simply have to keep doing all the katas I either like, know or remember, because there are serious memory issues and I am aware that there are some of the 26 katas that over the years, that I have honestly forgotten, because its actually difficult to regularly practice all 26. 

Moreover, there are some katas that I simply like more than others and so I confess that I tend to focus on these at the moment. Sensei Dave once said to me that it was more important to learn and practice one or two katas at a time, to try to become proficient and actually understand them, know what they are for, rather than be able to skim impressively through all 26 at 100mph, without any ‘kime’ or tempo, simply remembering the moves. In other words, its not just a matter of knowing all the katas. Having said that, there has probably never been a better time for some of us to try and get to the confident stage with all 26 katas, so we’ll see! 

Its all about goals and targets on one level, so if you’re reading this and you've not been training very long, just practice the katas you have attempted so far in class, and get really good at them.

Practising kata alone allows you to experiment to a certain degree and emphasise individual aspects like speed and power. I quite enjoy trying to make a kata flow, almost like a dance. I find Heian Yondan particularly nice in this respect, or Hangetsu, Gangaku even. Other katas lend themselves to particularly powerful interpretations, although it simply depends on what particular emphasis you want to employ and how you feel at the time. Whatever you do, keep doing it, this will end some time soon I hope and we can get back to training once again. OSS!

6th April 2020

Week commencing 06.04.20

A friend of mine texted the other day. It was one of those double texts that you naturally read as if there is meant to be a space between them, as though they are connected but require individual digestion. 

I know I sometimes write my texts with that deliberate intention, because I want two points of emphasis in my message and so I write and send one sentence directly followed by another, in the knowledge that they will, albeit sub consciously, be read and understood distinctly. 

There will be a very slight time lag which is useful if you wish to deliver a punch line to your message. An example would be, “I went shopping today, you’ll never believe what I bought?” Send. Wait. Resume. “A piston engine!” 

I suspect it might be more common when using WhatsApp, because the service is free, as opposed to other services which charge for each text, although I may be completely wrong.

Two sentences for one message would have been considered frivolous in my book during the pre WhatsApp days, because I have only ever been PAYG and therefore mindful of wasted text messaging, along with quite naturally being distrustful of anything as racy as a phone contract.

Typographically speaking, this method of twin sentencing is enhanced by the slightly different coloured text boxes that the sentences are written and arrive in, unlike email, or indeed a typewriter generated letter that arrives through the post.

Anyway, my friend’s text began, “fantastic news John! theres a cure for the virus!”. 

I could hardly contain my excitement, though not because of the cure, but instead for the the double barrelled message technique he had clearly employed to deliver the punchline. Unfortunately, the next box read “April Fool”………..

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