29th November 2010
There’s a moment I’ve not been brave enough to experience for fifteen years. It’s a moment I’ve thought about a lot and, like everything in my life which I think about a lot, I’ve analysed it to death and been absolutely convinced that I knew what it would feel like and as a result, it didn’t matter if I was never brave enough to experience it. After all, bounded, king of infinite space, or as popular ’90s beat combo Go West would have it, wishful thinking.
The moment is this; I’m standing by the side of a Judo mat before my first lesson. I take a step forward and my bare foot makes contact with the mat for the first time, ever. It’s a classic bit of hero’s journey rubbish, exactly rhe sort of thing that arts post grads get mocked for, Bilbo in a gi muttering about how the road goes ever on and on even as he’s being shown how to choke someone out using their jacket. It’s a moment I’ve thought about for fifteen years and it’s a moment I experienced tonight.
The Railway Institute Judo Club owns a first floor balcony at the Railway Institute gym in York,. It;s a brilliant building, huge and arched and sitting somewhere between Dickensian and steampunk, tucked away behind the RI building itself which is, in turn, tucked into the side of the Victorian pile of York Railway Station and less than two minutes away from the city walls. Inside it’s all wooden floors, badminton courts and, in my case, the slight hint of boiled cabbage and echoes of ‘You’re the fat kid’ that I’ve had since my first games lesson at school.,
Let me tell you something about being not only the fat kid, but the fat geeky kid. It’s a fine identity, a lot of the time, especially if, like me, you’re able to parlay it into the ‘Overweight, Smart, Funny Man’ identity, or, at least, convince enough people you’re that that it doesn’t really matter. It enables you to be clever, funny, nice, a little odd, a little eccentric. It means you can be the Doctor without the TARDIS, Venkman without the Ghostbusters, Giles without Buffy and that last one is particularly apt. Because you see, one of the things I’ve come to realise about myself is that I go English and I go English hard in physical situations. I went to two lessons of boxercise eighteen months ago and I distinctly remember throwing right crosse during pad work, somehow wasting some of the only breath keeping my ridiculous frame from expiring on making jokes. My partner pointed this out, I re-focussed and I threw a punch that could actually do some damage. The lesson here is clear; shut up, stop talking, accept three facts;
-I am six feet and one inch tall
-I am broad shouldered and built large
-I do not feel comfortable with either of those facts.
I’m a brain in a meat suit and I’m always a quarter step back from that suit, that’s how it feels sometimes. I’ve done sport before, more so than I wanted to to be honest, given that I was drafted into my school rugby team based on the fact that I look like a wall but it’s always been something I’ve done not something I’ve enjoyed. Sport has been something that was foisted on me rather than something I chose, and that’s not healthy, literally. Sport, physical exercise, should be something that I enjoy for God’s sake, I mean, how else am I going to look like Henry Rollins as well as think like him?
Which brings us back to Judo, that rarest of breeds; a sport I’ve been interested in for years because it seems suited to people with my body mass, is a fantastically good way of getting confident and getting fit and crucially does not involve me getting punched in the face, because, after all, I’m just too pretty. See my previous comment about being funny rather than concentrating, something which I was all too aware of before I even turned up.
Matt Wallace is one of the best writers I know, and I know a lot of writers. His podcast series, The Failed Cities Monologues, is a toweringly ambitious two-fisted Rashomon take on cyberpunk, exploring an engineered war from the streets it’s fought on to the people moving the pieces around on the board. He’s also a ridiculously dangerous man, a former pro wrestler and martial arts polymath. He’s also built like me, which is why I asked Matt for advice about what to do before I went along. He told me three things that, I suspect, are going to be the cornerstone of my approach to the martial art:
That was what was going through my mind tonight as I took that first step. There was none of the Bilbo, no hint of Joseph Campbell, nothing special about it, especially as I had to walk across the mat to get a jacket from the club’s stash which just about fit., but that didn’t matter. I took that first step, I felt the mat bend beneath my foot and it felt…normal, real. It didn’t feel like coming home, that’s the sort of metaphor that’s reserved for people who write about sports professionally instead of simply badly, as I’m doing here, it felt like…opening a door into a new room, one that I’ve always been meaning to open, and finding out the room inside is filled with potential.
You see, the thing I’ve only just started to figure out about the hero’s journey is that the concept itself is a misnomer. The hero’s journey is a destination, an ending as you begin the transformation from small hobbit who wants to be left alone to ringbearer, or farm boy to Jedi knight, or any of the thousands of other examples. It’s the point where real people’s stories end and characters’ stories begin. Real people’s stories begin in a Scott Pilgrim t-shirt and a pair of tracksuit bottoms with dodgy elastic and slightly unsettling bloused ankles that make them, or, in this case, me, look a little like I’m wearing pantaloons.
I still took that first step though. And all the ones that came after it as well as the breakfalls, the hold downs, the sacrifice turn, the throw and sparring. I was silent, I was receptive, I was respectful, I got my arse well and truly handed to me and I learnt not just about the art but about myself. As first steps go, it was a pretty good one.