WEEK 1: The Arrival

WEEK 1: The Arrival


At the age of 50 I have decided to take up karate.

When I got married in 2013, I hit the scales at 10st 13 and took a medium T-shirt. I was walking roughly five miles a day with school runs and getting to work and back, and I was playing football at the weekends in dads ’n’ lads matches. Even so, as years passed, my weight steadily rose. I blame cheese. The school runs stopped and shortly after that, 48 hit. At 48, everything changed.

I’ve never had a flat stomach, not even in my lightweight pomp, but at 48 my body went through a sort of collapse – what I referred to as my “grandadisation”. The medium tops went to charity and I was now a large. My stomach pushed out and my chin became a soft-play area. A doctor informed me I was going through the “manopause”, common for men 48-51 – and it’s rarely discussed. “You’re not obese but try and lose a bit of weight, watch what you eat and as your blood pressure is on the high side, keep your salt intake down,” I was told.

I was still playing tennis twice a week and doing an extremely gentle yoga session with the wife three mornings for 20 minutes. But it wasn’t enough. The house arrest of Lockdown was cruelly timed, sciatica made its presence felt and the shroud of Covid fell on the house at Christmas 2020, which has made us ever-so-slightly short of breath since. A stressful job had me drinking more than was strictly necessary and you’re never far from roast potatoes in our house.

I didn’t want to be 13st, but that was my heft when I spotted a notice on white paper at the coffee shop at Winchmore Hill train station advertising Middlesex Shotokan Karate. It was like being hit by a lightning bolt. I scribbled the details in my notepad and once back home, I fired off an email. Amrit replied the same day. “Come along for a free session on Thursday,” she wrote. “You’re never too old to start.”

Around the time I’d usually be twisting the screw cap off a bottle of Merlot, I was waiting outside the red-brick Holy Trinity Church on Green Lanes, N21. A man-and-wife duo were the first to arrive with their son. Both adults had black belts, and it was Amrit who called across, “Are you Lee?”

To the rear of the church there’s an entrance to a small function room and it was here that my karate journey began. The first question I was asked by Amrit’s husband – whose name I forgot in all the excitement – was, “Who do you support?” The instructors were Arsenal fans. I’m partial to a bit of football – I even went to two matches this season (Tottenham v Pacos de Ferreira; AFC Wimbledon v Doncaster Rovers) – so I took this as a good sign. I mentioned my split allegiance to Manchester United and Doncaster Rovers.

My only concern was that apart from the session tutors – the sensei in karate parlance – my fellow students looked young. I mean, I think the eldest was 17 at best; the youngest nine! They must have thought I was a visiting instructor whose spare-tyre stomach was in fact brutally acquired fighting muscle.

What was I wearing? Trackie bottoms and a baggy white T-shirt that said The North West on the front in the style of The North Face. It’s a subtle undermining of the brand that every kid in north London is currently wearing. But how long is it till I can get a proper karate gi (y’know, one of the suits)? At this moment, I’ve no idea. Do you earn one?

Warm-up was the sort of stretching we do in our yoga-lite at home, but I knew things would liven up. No mats. Bare feet – and my unsightly nail bed infection in my big toe stuck out like a sore thumb that had been miraculously attached to a foot. My foot. What I learnt was that karate is about creating a steel core, so stance is everything. There were press-ups, reminding me of football training in the 1980s up in Yorkshire, and then the toughening up of the core, turning my flabby tum to a wobbly jelly.

Belting, booting and deflecting was more my cup of tea, with the 17-year-old thankfully became my work partner for 20 minutes. Karate seems to be stylised punching and kicking, and this is something I will have to work on. Good fun though: my first punch sent the pad flying across the floor. And as for my stance – that sticky-out tummy will have to be reduced. I surreptitiously glanced at the clock and to my dismay realised there were still 20 minutes to go. That’s when I had to have a quiet word and remind myself, “This is all good – enjoy it.”

Sensei male Arsenal supporter took us through a few moves to finish off that looked like something from Swan Lake or that Hidden Tiger, Hidden Dragon film. I thought, “I’ll hopefully have that balletic showstopper nailed by 2023.” “Lee, do you fancy having a go at this next?” I was asked. What the – huh? I’m old enough not to be embarrassed by much these days so I reluctantly said, “Come on then.” It was four seconds before I was lost. Even so, I knew – I was in. I walked home on air – via the Esso garage, of course, for red wine.

The next day my commute was hell. A broken rail on the Overground at Highbury & Islington meant that I had to divert via Kings Cross on the Victoria Line, adding £4 to my journey to get to the office on Finchley Road. At Kings Cross, the next tube was in 15 minutes! I sat on a bench and opened Parky: My Autobiography by Michael Parkinson – highly recommended. I’m usually in a froth of fury by transport incompetence, but I was as serene as the Dalai Lama when I arrived at work five minutes late.

I sauntered over to the desk of our 60-year-old accounts guy Kevin, who used to play Non-League football for Dover. He told me he did karate for 20 years and got to blue belt… or was it brown? Regardless… I thought, “Christ, I’ll never reach black belt by the time I’m 51!” I mentioned to Kev how great I felt – really positive. He said, “Oh karate does that – it’s almost spiritual. It enhances your mood and I really miss it.”

My arms and legs are still so stiff and painful that movement is problematic. I should be OK by Monday, hopefully, because in my garage I’m going to do an hour’s YouTube karate tuition so that I don’t look such a chump at my next class.

I’m 50 now. I reckon I can do this till I’m 60. So when I hobble down the road in 2032 to browse the scooters in my nearest mobility shop, I’ll hopefully be 10st 13, fairly slim, know how to take a punch, be more confident than I was ten years ago and maybe have bought myself some extra time on planet Earth. So, err – did I tell you I do karate? Be seeing you!