Anyone who visits my blog on a regular basis or knows me as a reader, knows I love a memoir! I have also been close to a number of people who have raved to me about the benefits and excitement of martial arts. Therefore, I was keen to read a first hand account of a ‘karate fighter’!
Novelist and former karate champion Ralph Robb recounts his experiences at one of Europe’s toughest dojos and provides an insight into the philosophy and training methods of a club which produced national, European and world titleholders. In a hard-hitting story, Ralph tells of the fights on and off the mat; his experiences as one of a very few black residents in an area in which racist members of the National Front were very active; and the tragic descent into mental illness and premature death of the training partner who was also his best friend.
I have thoroughly enjoyed this book. I think it is a well-written, emotional and important memoir. Unlike some memoirs I have read, the writer comes across as someone who wants to showcase aspects of society, rather than focus solely on their own experience. In doing so, Ralph Robb provides an important and detailed commentary about many aspects of life, including class, race and even touching on the overarching question of: Why are we here?
I am going to share with you a quote from the book which I loved:
“In retrospect I am now keenly aware of how much that decision changed my life, because it was not until I left school and entered the adult world did I fully appreciate just how dangerous the place in which I grew up could be.”
I really identified with Ralph as he was writing this quote. He is clearly someone who keenly feels like a single decision changed his life, and improved it for the better in many ways. He also brings across a naivety and insular sense of childhood. Karate, for Robb, has caused positive changes to the body and mind.
Related to this quote are also some of the key themes of the book. It is clear that Ralph chose karate and ‘the straight and narrow’ when the other option quite readily available to him, and in some ways almost expected of him due to his race, was a life of gangs and violence. Instead, he chose sport. He provides an interesting commentary about lots of different types of people, who live on either side of this ‘line’, as well as sitting in between the two choices. He shows the difficulties of choosing such a life at every turn, and I have loved the realism and humanity that comes across as a result. When talking about his experience about fatherhood, he says “Even though she was small and light, I knew she was the heaviest load I’d ever carry in my arms”. I love this quote as it shows the worry for our children, but also that sometimes we can feel overburdened by our responsibility as parents.
Although this is a serious book, this is not a book devoid of joy. There are clear ‘high points’, and even in the low points, or within the intense atmosphere of the dojo, Ralph provides exampels of blunt, dark humor to show, but also in some ways to make light of, the brutal and reckless attitudes to the sport. He also provides effective descriptions that make you feel like you are a spectator during a competition.
I also loved the use of quotes at the start of each chapter. My favourite was: “Many things cause a loss of balance. One is danger, another is adversity and another is surprise.” I liked this as it really made me think about all the things that can ‘tip us over the edge’ and this is also a book that deals quite sensitively with issues of mental health.
Overall, this has been a thought-provoking, emotional and inspirational memoir, with a central persona that I felt I could really connect with. This is not a book that pays homage to karate – it is far more, and far better than that. This is a book about how karate has changed a man’s life, and holds a mirror up to some of the issues of our society and how we deal with them. I would definitely recommend this original and important memoir to fans of the genre. It is one of the best I’ve read.