“A bunch of sissies led by a man with a black skirt…”
That’s what a 15 year old Robert Spence thought when he saw his first Aikido class in Chorley. Some 43 years later, Sensei Bob Spence is the 6th Dan Head of the Lancashire Aikikai, Coach Tutor for the British Aikido Board, and hugely regarded in the British Aikido community.
During his time, he has been a student and uke for Chiba Shihan; he helped “pacify” troublemakers at Chorley Town Hall events; and he became the first ever Tutor of the British Aikido Board. Quite a change from the youngster whose idea of a career path was to “end up in Barlinnie” (the Prison !)
We have all been told (repeatedly) by Bob Sensei to “move your body”. He describes the atemi against yokomenuchi as “slicing the eyes out of your uke”. Here, he talks about where these and many other teaching techniques come from – his enormous Aikido experience.
Looking to the future, he muses over the changes he has seen and what they mean for the Lancashire Aikikai – and it’s good news.
The early days – from sissies to Shodan
Born in Aberdeen but brought up in Glasgow, a young Mr Spence certainly did not lead a sheltered life. He moved to Lancashire as a 25 year old and practiced karate for a while.
He always had a fascination with weapons-based martial arts, so when he saw a poster showing Aikido with a sword, he decided to find out more. A significant decision – the poster was for Mr Marion Mucha’s Chorley Budo Club.
Sensei Marion Mucha with a young Bob Spence
When Bob Sensei turned up, he wasn’t impressed with what he saw and thought it would be easy. He tried to punch a 6th Kyu. Bob ended up on the floor. He tried a second time. Again, onto the floor. Bob didn’t understand how this happened. There was obviously more to this Aikido than he thought. At the time, he assumed it was a clever way of using strength. As he progressed, Bob Sensei was to learn that it was a much more powerful force….
He quickly caught the Aikido bug and started training regularly and seriously. Mr Mucha didn’t usually get involved with the lower grades, so his mentors were Don and Mary Pybus who coached him to his first grading. At the time, the only person who could grade was Chiba Shihan, O’Sensei’s emissary to the UK, and he only graded on courses.
Sensei Marion Mucha in action at Chorley Budo Club
Mr Spence remembers the first time he met Chiba Shihan. Although only a few years older, Chiba had a brooding presence and charisma: “I felt a power enter the room”, remembers Bob. Over the next few years, he would come to know and experience Chiba Shihan’s power in many ways.
Bob Sensei achieved 1st Dan in two and half years, as impressive an achievement then, as it is now. There were two reasons for this. Firstly, he put his heart and soul into learning and improving: “Aikido took over my life”.
He felt that his regular classes at the Chorley Budo Club were not enough. So he travelled – to Glasgow, to Sunderland, to London, to Birmingham, anywhere that offered training, in particular with Chiba Shihan.
Secondly, his talent was spotted and nurtured. Right from his first Kyu grading, Chiba Shihan told Mr Mucha that “you must look after Bob”. And as Bob Sensei progressed to Dan grade, Chiba Shihan would tell others: “Bob is the future of Aikido”.
A young Chiba Shihan
The influence of Japanese teachers
Bob Sensei lived through the early days of Aikido in the UK and was amongst its earliest followers. This band of pilgrims included others who are now senior and respected Senseis in the UK such as Terry Ezra Shihan, 7th Dan, Senior Instructor of Komyokan Aikido Association; the Shidoin of British Birankai: Dee Chen, 6th Dan, Tony Cassells, 6th Dan, Chris Mooney, 6th Dan Mike Flynn, 6th Dan Joe Curran, 6th Dan.
Kenshiro Abbe Sensei who brought Aikido to the UK in 1955
They can all claim almost direct contact with O’Sensei, having been trained by his personal representatives such as Kenshiro Abbe Sensei who first introduced Aikido into the UK in 1955. And of course, Chiba Shihan.
Mr Spence has many stories of his teachers. Such as Chiba Shihan’s remedy for fractures – a paste of flour, water and ginger (it burns if you use too much ginger, so don’t try this at home) Or Tada Sensei’s fearsome classes at the Bracknell summer school that started with 90 minute warm-ups that left 4th Dan grades gasping before training proper started.
Meanwhile, Bob Sensei was learning much more about the strange force that had puzzled him at his first class. By now he knew it was Ki and that it was not about strength but about something else, something greater. His old mentor Don Pybus described it as the feeling in the pit of your stomach as you control the need for a wee !
But Chiba Shihan used another analogy, one which we all recognise in the Aikikai today. Chiba Shihan described it as making your arm like a fire hose, filled with water from the hydrant. It’s fat, you can’t bend it, and its force is directed through the nozzle. Using Ki, the arm becomes the unbendable fire hose, the blade of the hand becomes the nozzle to direct the force – and the body moves with them both.
As well as Chiba Shihan and Abbe Sensei, Mr Spence trained with other significant Japanese Senseis travelling abroad to spread the teachings of Aikido. These included Senseis Tada, Sekiya, Kitaura, Nakazona and Tamuru.
Bob Sensei chuckles over a couple of stories about Abbe Sensei. Mr Mucha and Bob once collected him at Preston railway station. Abbe Sensei was wearing kimono, hakama, a bowler hat and carrying a furled umbrella. When Bob had bundled him into a taxi, he asked Abbe Sensei why he was wearing a bowler hat. “Because in England, gentleman carries umbrella and bowler hat. AND I GENTLEMAN !” Mr Spence didn’t ask anything else.
They lost Abbe Sensei once, during a course at the Hut in West Drayton. They found him in a nearby field, standing on a horse, shooting arrows from a Kyudo bow. They didn’t lose him again…
Reaching back to O’Sensei
Bob Sensei is one of the few who can almost reach back to touch O’Sensei. As a student of Chiba Shihan and other Japanese teachers, Bob Sensei is only once removed from the Founder. He has felt and absorbed this direct influence in several ways. But when asked whether any one particular teaching from O’Sensei stands out, Bob Sensei has an immediate answer.
O’Sensei placed great emphasis on the need to practice Aikido in order to understand it. Bob describes it in a simple phrase: “It is not the knowledge of the technique but how you perform it”.
He expands on this. Knowledge of the technique is essentially physical – posture, position of the feet, the use of the hips. We are all taught these in class.
However, performance comes from a state of mind, which understands and accepts the feeling of the technique. This understanding frees up the harmony, the flow, the blending, all shown by the truly experienced Aikidoka. It is not really teachable.
The Grading Sheet aims to describe this blend of knowledge and performance as best it can. But it is more than words can explain – it is Aikido’s “higher plane of consciousness”.
Again, Bob Sensei illustrates it in a way we can recognise. He is often asked “what would you do if someone attacked you with …[choose here from a range of weapons or attacks]”. Bob’s answer is always the same – he doesn’t know. And he emphasises that he does not need to know.
Instead, he has an absolute confidence in his ability to do something, an inner calmness and contentment that he can respond, without hardness or hurting. Of all the teachings Bob Sensei has absorbed from O’Sensei, this is the most persuasive.
As we discussed all this, something seemed to be missing. Part of Mr Spence’s Aikido training was formal meditation. Students did it on courses in the early mornings and Chiba Shihan certainly considered it important. Did meditation help visualise how to improve one’s Aikido ? Has it been neglected in these faster moving times ? Should it be brought back ?
The past is a foreign country…
Terry Ezra Shihan, 7th Dan, has studied Aikido for over 50 years
Could any of these happen today ? Are we softer ?
Is our Aikido as good ?
Bob Sensei agrees that we have become softer but not much more.
He knows that most people have a job outside Aikido and families to support. It’s simply not fair to put those needlessly at risk. Bob Sensei is equally sure that in a more compensation-aware society, he does not want to be sued !
He also reasons that both the British Aikido Board (BAB) and the Lancashire Aikikai have the right procedures and approach to offer hard rather than harsh training. Anyone in the Aikikai can see that our training can be challenging but is always matched to the abilities of the participants.
Of course, if any of us don’t feel our training is “stimulating” enough, then ask a senior Dan grade to train as ki no nagare. Good luck.
The future of the Lancashire Aikikai
When Bob Sensei took over as the Head of Lancashire Aikikai, he promised Mr Mucha that he would not make any major changes. But Bob Sensei is not going to make the same demand of his successor(s). Why not ?
Unlike Mr Mucha, Mr Spence can call upon five 5th Dan and supporting Dan grades to take the Aikikai forward. These have their own ideas and Aikido styles and it is the very nature of Aikido to evolve and grow. After all, O’Sensei changed his style over his lifetime and his emissary-students, such as Saito Sensei and Chiba Shihan, developed their own variants of his teachings.
Indeed, with limited change and a single-school approach, Aikido will stagnate. Mr Spence does wonder whether Chiba Shihan deliberately disbanded the Great Britain Aikikai, so that new Aikikais would form, allowing Aikido to develop and flourish in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise done.
Bob Sensei teaching at Ribby Hall, 2010
So, says Bob Sensei, why should our Aikikai be any different ? Whatever happens, he urges us all to remember the following:
○ Aikido is a martial art, not a sport. Look how different Judo has become.
○ It is a life skill coupled with an attitude of mind – a powerful blend.
○ Do not discard or forget the basics – they apply to all branches and schools of Aikido
○ Look back at the roots of Aikido and why it was developed by O’Sensei – these provide the compass for the whole Aikido journey
In Mr Spence’s view, these must be the anchor points for the shape of any future Lancashire Aikikai.
This is not a view taken in isolation. Bob Sensei has been involved with the British Aikido Board (BAB) from its early days. Indeed, he set up the very first coaching scheme for the BAB and was their first Tutor of Aikido. Since 1991, he has assessed and accredited BAB teachers as the BAB’s Coach Tutor for Levels 1-3.
So Bob Sensei sees many Associations in action and knows many senior Senseis across the country. He has watched some styles develop and some wither. So he can see that his own Aikikai compares well and is in fine shape for the future. We should all be grateful to him for this.
But Bob Sensei doesn’t take his eye off the ball. He dislikes watching Aikido, much preferring to be practising. But sometimes he has to. So he’ll always have a notebook with him, ready to scribble down comments on what he has noticed, good ideas he has seen and thoughts for the future. Bear that in mind for future courses….
Bob Spence Sensei, 6th Dan, BAB Coach Tutor, Head of Lancashire Aikikai – what else ?
As we have learnt, as a youngster Bob told his mother that his ambition was to end up in Barlinnie Jail. His mother said, “maybe you could be a teacher”, so he said he would be a Headmaster. This didn’t happen, but teaching has been a foremost part of his life.
He has shown that in the BAB and of course, the Lancashire Aikikai. But what many don’t know is that Bob is heavily involved in coaching for the Amateur Swimming Association (ASA). So when he set up the BAB coaching scheme, he based it upon the ASA coaching structure that he knew worked well.
What else? Bob Sensei is a competent coffee barista offering his visitors tasty, specialist coffees. He has just started to learn the art of sushi. So there is even more to him than we see.
It’s been quite a journey from Bob’s childhood roots in Glasgow. He readily agrees that Aikido has helped him take the right path in life. I’m sure he no longer thinks Aikido to be a bunch of sissies led by a man in a black skirt.
Mr Mucha and Mr Spence in centre front, teaching a course at Hazel Grove.
Thanks to Hephzi Yohannan and Algy Cole for the article - Appeared in our October 2013 Newsletter