Splinters and Rice Pudding

Sensei John Couch

Sensei John Couch

Sensei John Couch is head coach of St Ives Judo Club. In an interview recorded in January 2013, he describes the modest origins of St Ives Judo Club and a pivotal administrative error…

Why did I start judo? Difficult question. Why does anybody start judo for that matter? I started judo because I wanted to do judo. I was a small boy, so being able to do judo was something that I thought would be a good thing to do. To be able to look after yourself and do all these things — I had read books on judo and you just want to do these things, don’t you?

There was an advert in the local Times and Echo saying that they were going to start a judo club, so I thought ‘that’s for me!’. It said anybody interested in judo go along to this meeting. So me and my pals went to find out what was going to happen.

Mike used to say ‘it’s like doing judo on a rice pudding!’

I’ll always remember it — you know you never forget these sort of things. We didn’t know what to expect. We were all talking about it at school: ‘there’s going to be a judo club started and we’re all going to this meeting tonight’. Me and about half-a-dozen pals we all piled in to this meeting at Mike O’Neil’s big house in St Ives, 1 Porthminster Terrace. And we got there in the evening and there wasn’t enough seating for everybody so we crammed into Mike’s front room: some were sitting on top of the wardrobe and on top of the dressing table. The boys were all pushed in and it was really quite exciting.

And then there’s this great tall guy, Mike O’Neil, who had been in the army. It was just after the Korean War, which Mike was in. So there were these two guys: Major O’Neil, who was a major in the army, and Bill Weller, who was a Royal Marine Commando and built like the proverbial and very impressive. ‘Well’, he said ‘boys we’re going to have a judo club. What we’re going to do, we’re going to see the vicar and get the parish rooms and start to do judo.

Mike was keen to tell everybody that he and Bill were orange belts which, as far as we were concerned, meant they were the boys. And he said ‘now, it’s going to cost us seven-and-sixpence to have the parish rooms from the vicar, so what we will do is the men will pay a shilling and the boys will pay sixpence’. That was the old sixpence: two and a half pence in real terms and fivepence a shilling. So it was all agreed that everybody would turn up on — I can’t remember what day it was now — the parish rooms and we would be taught to do judo.

But somebody spoke up and said ‘well, what about a mat, don’t we need a mat to do this?’. Mike said ‘don’t worry about that, we’ll get you a mat, there’ll be a mat there when you arrive’.

And there was: there was an eight-by-four horsehair mattress in the middle of the room in the parish rooms. ‘How’re we gonna do this?’ we said. ‘Well’ he said, ‘what we’ll do is we’ll all take turns learning to break-fall on it and then, when it comes to throwing, we’ll walk towards it and throw them on the mattress’. And that’s what we did, that’s how we started. And Mike and Bill had judo suits, the rest of us just had blazers and things like that with a tie tied round the middle for a belt.

Mike was very keen that everybody should do a sasai-tsuri-komi-ashi which he told everybody was a propping ankle throw and then we had a demonstration of how this should be done. We were barefooted on the wooden parquet floor, which wasn’t very even, and people got splinters in their feet and things like that and nobody seemed to mind and we went on from there.

And that went on for quite some time time except the mattresses kept appearing. We put an advert in the Times and Echo saying ‘we want more mattresses and if anybody’s got any old mattresses, we’d be pleased to have them’. So we got more mattresses and put them together. Mike used to say ‘it’s like doing judo on a rice pudding!’.

That’s how we started: in the parish rooms on a lot of mattresses. Eventually we got a canvass to over the top and tucked it around, but, I mean, in those days that’s the way most judo was done — just by people providing for themselves and by everybody finding out the best way they could.

Things start to get serious

As we got more mats and things like that, of course people wanted to know more and they wanted to be able to get suits and we found out we could get suits from J. Millom’s in Manchester and people eventually got suits and the canvass on top of the mats became a bit tighter when we got around to it.

But then we needed more instruction: we needed to find somebody who could teach us more. Someone said they’d heard of a black belt in Plymouth, which is about 80 miles away [from St Ives]. In those days it meant going over on the ferry: up the A30, through Camborne, through Redruth, through all the various towns and then going across the Tamar on the ferry.

Anyway we got in touch with this guy. He was called Charlie Case. He was a third dan. A very good judo player who we were all in awe of because he had a black belt. We’d never seen a black belt before.

John Couch, Ron Singleton, and Charlie Case

John Couch, Ron Singleton, and Charlie Case

He came down, looked at us all and said ‘yes’, but he wouldn’t be able to do gradings in our dojo which was the parish rooms on a pile of mattresses. If we wanted grading we’d have to go up to Plymouth and go to his dojo. Which, of course, some of us did.

Charlie Case had a dojo down at the Barbican. His mat was a canvas nailed to the floor by lathes and stuffed with sawdust and then stretched — very hard! And after we had been practising on feather mattresses it came a bit hard to us all. But he was a good judo player and we all got on.

I remember getting my yellow belt and then I went up to do my orange belt and failed and then I went up and did my orange belt again and failed again! I was a bit despondent. I thought I’d pack up: ‘I’ve had enough of this’ I thought, ‘twice now I’ve tried to get this orange belt’. But in those days we didn’t have juniors. I was a lad of, what, 15, having to fight against men. So I couldn’t master these guys because they were bigger and stronger than I was.

Bill Weller had got up to green belt by now and then went up again, I think, to brown belt. He was a big bloke and he said to me ‘you know boy it’s no good going on like this. If you’re going to get your orange belt you’ve got to start some work’. So Bill took me to one side and started coaching me to do a seoinage — morote-seoinage. And I had to try to throw Bill who was about 16 stone. And a big bloke. He would stand there like ‘man mountain‘ and I would grab hold and get in underneath for my seoinage and he’d say ‘come on pull me over, pull me over!‘ which was almost impossible, you know. And that was the start of my seoinage.

After about a year of practising these uchi-komi with Bill on my seoinage, I went up again to my grading in Plymouth and I threw everybody with a seoinage. I didn’t get my orange belt: I threw everybody, threw all the orange belts, floored everybody, and I was put straight up to green belt. So I’ve never had an orange belt. Always regretted that — never having an orange belt.

The Masutaro Otani Society of Judo

I went to blue belt fairly quickly and then to 1st kyu. Ron Singleton went up to Plymouth and got his dan grade. Everybody was absolutely delighted. We’d got our our own dan grade!

Ron decided he would send for a certificate to Mr Otani in London. We were all members now of the MOSJ — the Masutaro Otani Society of Judo: Mr Otani was running his own judo association in tandem with the BJC. Eventually they became amalgamated, but at that time we were MOSJ. So Ron wrote to 10 Stewart Road in London — to MOSJ HQ — and said ‘could we have a certificate please for a dan grade?’ They said ‘who are you? We don’t know anything about you. Never heard of you!’. For some administrative reason our grades had not been registered with the MOSJ, so we were quite disappointed.

‘Don’t worry’ Mr Otani said, ‘I’ll come down. I’ll come to St Ives and see you all and find out what you’re doing’. So he came down for the first time. He brought with him Ted Thompson, who was the secretary of the MOSJ, Roy Ward, and also Danny Garland, who was practicing in Plymouth with Charlie Case, and other people in the Plymouth dojo. He came down and we had a meeting with Mr Otani.

Mike O Neill, Danny Garland, Ron Singleton, Mr Otani, Ted Thompson, Roy Ward

Mike O Neill, Danny Garland, Ron Singleton, Mr O Tani, Ted Thompson, Roy Ward

It was a great relief when he said ‘you’ve got a good standard of judo and we’re very pleased to have you all on board’. He confirmed all the grades because there was nothing wrong with the standard — Charlie Case was a good teacher and was, at one time, a member of the MOSJ and the BJC and a recognized dan grade. And that was our first meeting with Mr Otani and the MOSJ.

The first Easter Course

Mr Otani said ‘well, I’ll come down again at Easter because I’ve got my time off work. I’ll come down and organize everybody, bring everybody down that’s not in St Ives and around Cornwall and we’ll have our course at Easter’.

We practised extra-hard as we looked forward to the big day when Mr Otani would come down again. And when he came, he brought a number of young people from his own club: Renwood. He brought a group of 1st kyus and 1st dans. And we had a fair number of judoka around Cornwall by now, because Ron Singleton was teaching at Cornwall College and at Falmouth, so it was quite a group of people.

Not only did he then confirm a dan grade for Ron, he graded Mike O’Neil up to 1st dan and then he gave me a lineup! Now, you have to be pretty careful when you’re doing lineups: if you take the first two people to ground you’re worn out. So, the easiest way with a lineup is to throw everybody for ippon. When we were over at [Cornwall] Tech, Ron used to line everybody up and I would throw everybody and then go home again on my motorbike.

Sensei Couch fights for his dan-grade

Sensei Couch fights for his dan-grade

Mr Otani looked around and found everybody that he could — so many 1st kyus and all the rest of it — as many people as he thought would give me a bit of opposition — and I had to mow the lot of them down, which I did! That’s how I got my first dan — I took a lineup. Which was very nice. I like doing lineups, I think it’s the best way to get graded: you beat everybody, there’s no pool system.

Mr Otani awards John couch his dan-grade

Mr Otani awards John couch his dan-grade

Mr Otani came over and congratulated me and gave me my first dan. Which was nice because now we had three dan grades in the club: Mike O’Neil, Ron Singleton and myself. Although Ron was the first dan grade in Cornwall, I was the first contest dan grade in Cornwall: I beat everybody. The other grades were teaching grades. But they were a bit older than me, I was a young man.

And that was the first Easter Course. It was 1963.

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