As Christmas 2023 appeared on the horizon and the date of grading for purple-and-white belt (with go-faster stripe) neared, so my social calendar began to worryingly fill up. There’s no escape from homework if you want to progress in karate and the more I flicked through my diary, it became clear that practice away from the dojo in December was going to be limited between boozy get-togethers and festive parties. I thought: “You might struggle here, son.”
The kata for purple and white belt, heian godan, wasn’t sinking in like the previous few had. It was the section where you tear off the scrotal sack of your foe. I couldn’t get the foot movement right. Coupled with this, trying to refresh the katas shodan, nidan, sandan and yondan concurrently to cope with the inevitable curveball thrown into grading made me feel that I was stretched too thin.
I’ve realised I’m a karate worrier. Am I surprised by this? Not especially. It’s funny, the older I get, the more I fret over my lack of spare time and increasing need for naps. If I’ve had a day in the office, as opposed to working from home, the energy needed to commute – standing in one position for too long – means that I don’t have any spark to attempt exercise in the evening. I’m just too done in.
I attacked grading in my tried and trusted manner – by creating a bunkai chart on Word so that I knew what every arm thrust and punch meant in the katas and how these could be applied to a combat situation. I also had to check through all my old bunkai charts just in case I was asked about previous katas. And you start pondering, “Am I over-thinking this?” But it’s the only way I know – I go the extra mile just to be on the same level as everyone else.
The work Christmas party was planned for the Thursday before grading, in a pub in Hampstead. Monday and Thursday are karate nights. I knew how important that Thursday evening in the dojo might be – it would be a thorough run-through, a mock grading, and it would be here that I would be able to see where my weaknesses were. I couldn’t miss it. So I attended the work Christmas party, which started around 2pm, and kept to soft drinks.
I was asked by increasingly sozzled colleagues why I wasn’t drinking and by 5pm it was like having a discussion with grandparents who had lost their marbles: “Do you not remember – I’ve got karate tonight.” But surely you can miss it for one week! “Normally, just not this week.” B-b-but why?? “I’ve told you 100 times today alone – because I want to learn the most efficient way to put all of you on your arse, should the need arise.” I bolted soon after and due to travel problems I only made it to Thursday’s karate session in the nick of time. I felt great afterwards though and sunk a few glasses of red when I got home.
There was also an obstacle on grading week. The night before grading itself was the department Christmas party in a pub in West Hampstead. When I should have been home running through my moves I was standing at a bar ordering drinks. It was a great evening, meeting some of the regular contributors to the magazine for the first time, including MotoGP scribe Mat Oxley who won – actually won!! – the Isle of Man TT in 1985. I sunk pints in Oxley’s company then we both made a tactical switch to wine. I was home for 11.30pm after yet another struggle with public transport.
Age 52, I’m finding sleep difficult. I’ve been diagnosed with a hip problem, greater trochanteric pain syndrome, which is an inflammation of the hip tendon caused by too much exercise. At least it isn’t arthritis as previously thought. Apparently it’s most common in, you guessed it!, ageing people involved with martial arts, but also fell runners. It’ll take a year of physio to treat, apparently. It means that I get pains in my left hip and thigh 24/7 – including through the night, where I have to move every hour or two. Mrs Gale is not amused; but neither am I. Couple that with a hangover and it wasn’t the greatest start to Grading Thursday.
In the dojo, the officialdom table was perched in a corner of the room and I ran through my katas just to be sure that when my time in the spotlight came, I’d be prepared with whatever was thrown at me – and yet with the tiredness from the hangover I knew my performance would be compromised. And so it was. Drills were tough. I s-w-e-a-t-e-d! Out of breath, rivers ran from my forehead. My hip didn’t want to play ball and I was overly nervous. I lost my way on kata heian godan and was invited to sit down and take a break. I nailed it on my return a few minutes later… but grading and Christmas don’t go easily together.
When I got home, everyone had already eaten. Mrs Gale was stacking the dishwasher and wiping the kitchen surfaces. The living room was bright and colourful – our £20 Asda Christmas tree with a slight bend on its trunk was already our slightly crooked star of the festive season. I pulled out the purple and white belt from my bag and Mrs Gale went, “Yeeeeaaaayyyy!”
I’d made hard work of this belt, but the basics of karate are now hardwiring themselves into my psyche – I know it’s happening. Despite my problematic and painful hip, I feel like I’m making progress even though the ageing process is a constant reminder that I’d better not be getting any fancy ideas of becoming a black belt. Next up is brown, but that’ll be in summer 2024 as the distance between belts now lengthens. Thankfully, I was talked out of quitting karate midway through 2023 when I had my ‘blip’. It’s still a big thrill to say, “Y’know, I do karate.”