Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Incense

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So in mid-October the Leeds Savage Club recorded some of our work at South Leeds Community Radio, which was a barrel of laughs and included me nearly fainting from trying to do continuous witch cackling and coughing/dying sound effects in a boiling recording studio. After that, Pete heard that they were doing four-week long Storytelling Workshops so, being the jobless bum I am, I decided to go along to the Monday afternoon sessions. 

It…was hit-and-miss. Initially it wasn’t a writing workshop at all, but a memory sharing workshop where we said what memories certain stimuli reminded us of. The local playwright taking the course soon found that a few of us were interested in, y’know, WRITING, and then tried to mould the last sessions into focusing on that, which didn’t quite work. People dropped out and turned up late – as in, 30-45 mins late for a two hour session – and it all got very disorganised and irritating. I learnt a few things, but nothing I couldn’t have learnt better from Brandon Sanderson’s lectures online.

However, I did end up writing a small something from one of the tasks, which was memories brought up by the five senses. I based my piece on one little memory of aikido (including one of my favourite Sensei Holland anecdotes), so it ended up being quite fun to write. I could write about aikido for hours!

So here’s a small memory of the smell of Glasgow aikido courses. I’m not sure what I’ll be putting up on the blog during the week, since I’ve had a crisis of confidence in my writing recently and have been struggling really hard to turn my inner critic off and let myself write. We’ll see what happens.

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The courses were five times a year, and always sneaked up on us. We would turn up for our normal Friday training, only to find a table in front of the sports hall and Frank asking for twenty quid and our membership books for the Scottish Aikido Federation. Each course took place over two days: the Friday evening and the Saturday afternoon. The Friday went by like a more serious and fast-paced normal session, whereas the Saturday took place in a different hall, and was the only time we ever trained during the day. Because of this, it was the Saturday practice that felt like the “real” course of the weekend.

Each aikido dojo – or rather, each hall that an aikido club transforms into a dojo – has a distinctive smell that lingers on your white suit the next day. Up in north Glasgow, in a small community centre in Summerston, our dojo had the smell of polished dust and fusty mats. The usual sports hall was booked by a dance class every Saturday, so for the courses we’d pile into the neighbouring room: thirty adults in a tiny hall in the midday heat, beating each other up to the muffled tunes of Shakira and Beyonce from next door. Particularly in summer, the heat would be overpowering and within minutes of the warm-up you’d be sweating, and while the smell of sweat was never noticeable, it lent a certain tinge to the usual scent of the tatami. But intruding upon this smell, lying over it like a feathery cloth, was the fragrance of the incense stick which Frank would light especially for those courses.

In a club of no-nonsense Glaswegians – with Sensei Holland the most dominant and no-nonsense of the lot – Frank was the quiet, sensitive one, the runt of the pack, who always gripped you with freezing cold hands even on those summer afternoons. He would light the incense and leave it by the photograph of O-Sensei, the founder of aikido. That smell was the sign of a special day of training, a mark of respect to the original master, and a reminder of the spiritual side of the martial art called ‘The way of harmonious spirit.’

This side of aikido was rarely acknowledged in our club: we had been told that once, Sensei Holland went to Russia, and the aikidoka there were in awe of the 6th Dan. One asked him: ‘Sensei, what is harmony?’ Sensei thought for a moment, and the Russian awaited his profound answer. Finally, Sensei replied:

‘Harmony is not getting hit.’

That was Glaswegian aikido. That was Sensei Holland.

‘I don’t like that incense stuff,’ he said one Monday after a course. Normal practices usually included a time where Sensei would sit us down and impart his wisdom to us, whether that was wisdom was about a technique, or our individual temperaments as trainees, or that time he tricked a burglar into thinking he was a harmless old man and then beat the crap out of him. This session, Frank was absent. ‘I don’t like the smell of it,’ Sensei said, ‘but I let Frank do it for the courses because he likes it.’

Frank would have stopped lighting the incense at the first hint of disapproval from Sensei, because everyone respected Sensei in his dojo – and yet Sensei said nothing, because he didn’t want to disturb one of his students. That mutual respect and mutual consideration, both up and down the hierarchy, was admirable, was very Japanese – and made change impossible. And so, Frank lit the incense at every course, and the smell of it mixing with the dusty mats and the old community centre walls remains the scent of Saturday afternoon aikido in my memories today.

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Written by G.J.

18/11/2012 at 6:11 pm

Posted in Musings

Tagged with , ,

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