Do you know the story of Operation Pedestal? It was the British operation in August 1942 to carry urgently needed supplies by ship to the beleaguered island of Malta – a vital base in the Mediterranean used by the “goodies” to attack Axis (“baddies”) convoys. Of the 14 merchant ships that sailed from Britain, only five reached Malta’s Grand Harbour – an incredible story of bravery (told in full in Max Hastings’ superb book Operation Pedestal). Over the last month, I’ve felt like one of those vessels steaming not to Grand Harbour but to the port of Karate Yellow Belt, under near-constant attack.
Problems started when I slipped on wet leaves a month ago and “did something” to my knee (well documented in previous posts). I still don’t know what I’ve done but it has remained, occasionally keeping me awake at night, a localised electrical storm midway down the left leg.
With just over a week to go till grading, a bad cold descended like an avenging angel, which knocked me sidewards. Its sniffly grip lessened after five days so that I was able to chip away at the kata heian nidan – while occasionally running through heian shodan after being given a shock order to run through this red-belt routine the previous week.
Our Monday hour proved that I was still some way from being a yellow belt certainty. I’d tightened heian nidan to the point where I thought it was effective. Bunkai, where we show the practical application of the kata moves, was more problematic. At times I was like Mr Confused. The same was evident with blocks and punches on the move. I left the dojo annoyed and once home, complained to the long-suffering Mrs Gale that there was no way I’d progress because I was too old and couldn’t take on new tasks. I mean, grading was three days away! I should have had this all sorted and in the bag by now!
Part of the training for yellow belt is knowing two defence moves each for jodan (face), chudan (chest) and gedan (stomach). I knew one for jodan but couldn’t remember any others. Chudan and gedan were both OK, but in a panic I called an airstrike, ie: emailed Sensei Amrit. She sent some video clips for me to follow. I studied them in fine detail.
My world-famous bunkai chart, meticulously created by my own fair hands, was found to be only partially correct, and I shall be suing myself at my earliest convenience. Its pristine annotations and instructions were soon joined by furious pen scribbling issuing updated information. It was a form of martial arts self-kettling. At times, I thought, “All this genning up – and I’m not learning anything.” But like revising in sixth form, it’s incredible what you remember.
Thursday morning dawned like a Christmas Day with menace. I knew I was excited about something when I woke up, rubbing my bad knee, and then the realisation hit me like a diamond bullet in the forehead. Happy Grading Day!
I was working at home so I roped in Mrs Gale as my karate partner before the laptop was switched on. She’s been a willing foil over the last week – the only problem is, she cries with laughter when I repel her punches and kicks and she bends over double when I launch a counterattack with daggerhand. Even so, being a bunkai and defence/attack buddy was vital to my strategy.
Every screen break, toilet visit or tea-making venture was accompanied by karate practice. The clock whirred and my butterflies flapped and fluttered. I studied video clips right up to leaving the house. Although I’m not superstitious, I wore my lucky green Nikes and took my good-fortune long route to the church hall. And there was the judge’s table and my fellow karate travellers – four, including me, going for the yellow belt, two young ’uns going for orange. Ages: 51, 14, 13, 11, nine and eight.
I couldn’t have got off to a worse start if I’d arrived dressed as a clown. We were drilled – my now-dreaded blocks and punches on the move. I couldn’t keep up nor think clearly and quickly enough. I went through the usual thought pattern. “What are you doing here?” – then, “Think of this as good exercise!” I was glad when this section was over. I mean, do I really know what a reverse punch actually is?
My nidan was fine. My two defences for jodan, chudan and gedan were passable, but then, to my horror, we were asked to show how we’d deal with a side-kick. I didn’t think we needed to know this and had only had a brief look at clips. As usual under pressure, I stuck my hand out for my brain to pick me up only to see it sail past with its destination blind reading BUS NOT IN SERVICE. Defence and counter attacks should be intuitive so I made it up loosely based on what I could recall from gazing at the laptop earlier in the day.
Monty chose me to be his partner to showcase his defence skills. He asked for a mae-geri kick, which I dutifully provided and he glanced my leg away with a mean sideswipe that made my shinbone chime. The lad’s got titanium bones. I went, “Oooooh!” and the dojo fell about laughing. You should see the bruise.
It was at this point I thought I’d probably blown it, but at least I couldn’t be demoted and, y’know, grabbing for positives, I’m feeling fitter, feel better in myself, losing a bit of fat (but not much) and I think I could defend myself now if a problem arose in, say, a seedy nightclub in East London… OK, maybe not that. More probably the Esso vineyard on Green Lanes where I buy my bottles of Barefoot.
A potential sting in the tail was presented when we were asked to perform the heian shodan kata – but I’d worked on this. Even so, I was grateful not to be asked to go first and carefully watched the others. Note to self: do the katas kihon, shodan and nidan at least once a day.
And then we lined up. It was over. The yellow belts were handed out one by one, until there was just me left in the dojo awaiting my fate. I mean – it was fine. I liked being a red belt and the red worked well with the white gi from an aesthetic point of view. Sensei Amrit was not well. I’d evidently passed my cold to her. “And now,” croaked the sensei, “Lee… Lee Gale…”
I’d done enough. I’d made it. I received more of a talking to than anyone else on how I needed to improve. I stoop, for example. The problem there is that I’m from a Northern family of stoopers. Even though, some de-stooping needs to be looked into. And I don’t turn very well. Not under pressure anyway. And a few other things to work on. I’ll tell you what, in this group, I’m not its Maverick from Top Gun. But I passed. I’m a yellow belt in karate. And I could not be happier.