Interview with Sifu David Keegan by Simon Keegan. First appeared in Martial Arts Guardian magazine.
You teach Tai Chi, but this isn’t your first martial art. Can you tell me what the first oriental martial art you studied was and when and why?
I was born in 1950 and took my first martial art aged 10 so it was about 1960. We lived in Kirkby near Liverpool and we were in the Scouts at the time but we had to walk one and a half miles to get to class. Then we had the opportunity to take up Jujutsu which was only a quarter of a mile away and only cost six pence. The instructor was Bernie Blundell, the older brother of Liverpool Jujutsu pioneer Jim Blundell.
He was the real deal, he was no wimp. He stood there in his gi and blackbelt and had a great charismatic personality. He showed every technique by example, sometimes with the assistance of older students. There was a lot of running and circuit training to begin with and then breakfalls, both sides then back – a great deal of breakfalls. We had no mats and just had to take our shoes off. Then we progressed to running rolls, then the shoulder throws and hip throws. We’d learn a throw then do the counter.
Were martial arts popular at your school in 1960?
No, at St Kevin’s in Kirkby we did just traditional sports in PE like football, rugby, cricket and athletics. The only martial arts were Jujutsu at our club then St Chads had Judo and there was a few old fashioned boxing clubs. John Conteh (future British boxing champion) was in my class at school and he trained with Kirkby ABA. There was never anything on telly about martial arts back then, just boxing and wrestling and we’d go to Liverpool Stadium on a Friday night and watch wrestling – which were more like real fights than today – with the likes of Jack Pye and Billy Two Rivers. Even the American boxers like Sonny Liston used to train at Liverpool Stadium when they were over here and we could go and see them train. However we did study the Chinese classics in school. In the 4th and 5th year when we studied philosophy we read Freud and Jung and when it came to the Greek Stoics we were taught how they compared to the Taoist Classics which were not readily available at the time, but the William Brown Library in Liverpool had some copies.
Since you lived in Liverpool, was the local China Town somewhere you could learn about martial arts?
I spent a lot of time in China Town and found many good books on philosophy, health but there were never adverts for Tai Chi or Kung Fu or anything. The Chinese made a hard living running the restaurants and everything was kept internal with the martial arts. But there was never any trouble in China Town, you could be there after Midnight and not have to worry. The Chinese had an exemplorary reputation in Liverpool because of that. And you could discuss things with them in the shops. I read the Arthur Conan Doyle (author of Sherlock Holmes) books and Doyle made Holmes a practitioner of Jujutsu and stickfighting (Bartitsu). I had Edwardian drawings of Bartitsu stickfighting and I read all Doyle’s work because he wrote a lot of stories of sea travel and gave background on the Indian and Chinese culture. At the time I would walk home of a night 10 or 15 miles so it was useful to be able to use a stick or an umbrella. I’ve got a 100 year old blackthorne stick which is an Irish fighting stick. It was a good solid walking stick but also had a nice spring in it so after you struck somebody it would bounce back!
Apart from the ones we mentioned earlier like Jujutsu/Judo and boxing there wasn’t really any Karate or Aikido in the country in the early 1960s unless you were in one of the select few clubs [Karate and Aikido were only introduced to the UK in 1956 and took time to spread throughout the land] so where could you go to learn?
I trained in an Indian school in the 1960s which covered postures similar to Yoga and meditation. Classes were held in a private school in Allerton.
In the mid 1960s in Liverpool you must have seen your share of fights. How did they differ from the violent attacks of today?
The only rule back then was you never hit a man in front of his woman or his kids. There were no rules. But in saying that, you didn’t really see people get glassed and once someone hit the deck the fight was considered over and they both went back in the pub, whereas now you’d have 10 people all kicking the loser.
I’ve heard some ‘old boys’ of your generation say that in fights in the 1950 and 60s, there was no kicking it was all fisticuffs. Was this the case?
Well not in Liverpool. Anything was common, fists, feet, headbutt… If you could end the fight with a kick to the groin you did. The man who could take the most pain won. You didn’t circle and posture – both men just came straight forward. As for knives, there were a lot of people who carried them and we even made our own in school, but when it came to it, it was settled with fists and feet.
In the early 1970s you trained with members of the Red Triangle (the first Karate club in the North of England presided over by Keinosuke Enoeda and run by Andy Sherry). How did that come about?
I had a friend who was a blackbelt there called Peter Hignott. Me and him used to meet up on a Saturday afternoon for a pint. One week his car packed in so he asked me to pick him up at the Red Triangle and so I started to get to know the lads.
The Red Triangle were real characters by all accounts…
I used to meet them at Otterspool and train Sefton Park. We’d go for a run around the path then to the Shotokan exercises. I never remember it being kata it was always single techniques drilled repeatedly. 100 punches, 100 kicks, but they were very receptive and keen to discuss their art. After a particularly heavy training session or grading they used to go for a sauna at Picton baths to relax the aches and pains and Peter invited me. One of the lads threw eucalyptus on and it became like a minty coldness, my eyes were stinging I was short of breath, practically on the floor trying to get fresh air from under the door. When we got outside it was like you could see for miles!
Around the same time you joined the Territorial Army. Did that help with martial arts?
Yes, from about 1974-1978 I was in the Duke of Lancaster’s Own in Wigan. One of the corporals Nobby was a kobudo expert and carried his Nunchaku everywhere – even when we went to a nightclub they were in his back pocket – so he taught me to use those. We also did self defence with some of the regulars who had served in Northern Ireland. Their attitude was that if you were ever attacked in a hand to hand combat situation it probably wouldn’t be when there was a platoon of you, so it was individual self defence against a knife and a bayonet. We also did a lot of shooting, survival and evasion. They’d drop us in the Black Hills and we’d have to get to a designated point and survive off the land.
Lots of people say Bruce Lee led to a massive martial arts “boom” in the 1970s, was this the case?
Not particularly. For most people David Carradine’s Kung Fu was the first they saw of Chinese Kung Fu and the martial arts culture. You Only Live Twice didn’t count in my opinion as the martial arts in that film didn’t really register with most people. Most people I knew didn’t really see Bruce Lee’s films as being about Chinese Kung Fu – it may as well have been Karate because it was strictly for film whereas Carradine’s Kung Fu was definitely Chinese Kung Fu all the way through and that made people want to learn more. It was only after Kung Fu had been on that I ever saw English people taking an interest in Chinese New Year in China Town.
In the 1980s when I was about 8 you had a few trips to Hong Kong and Guangzhou, China with your best friend John who was also a Shotokan blackbelt. What was it like working in China?
I met a lot of characters, like Johnny Liu a “refugee” from mainland China who taught me about things like the I-Ching. In China I found people were mostly into education. Teaching the kids so the kids could look after them because nobody was on benefits. Few Chinese wanted to know about things like Kung Fu. Exercise, yes, but not Kung Fu. The kids were more interested in learning English so they could leave and go to America or Australia.
Whereas the elderly were doing Tai Chi in the parks, for health. It wasn’t something that was advertised, just done early morning and after tea.
How about your trip to Thailand?
The Muay Thai boxers in Bangkok were treated like footballers are treated over here, but for them it was about mind, body and spirit. There was a lot of control, ritual and respect for the opponent.The only unruly ones were the spectators.
When I was a child we trained together in your garage, on the punchbags and so on. By my teens I was doing Karate, but what made you take up formal study of Tai Chi?
I had spent a long time studying certain Indian systems, meditation, postures similar to Yoga and so on, but I felt I needed a change in my lifestyle, something that would give me the incentive to quit smoking and so on, and I needed a disciplined teacher. Luckily I found one.
Most Tai Chi beginners start with one of the short forms, but you started by learning the Yang style long form (the 88). How did you find that? Was a 20 minute form hard to learn in that way?
I found the 88 form invigorating. I think our teacher had been teaching the 24 for a long time and wanted to do something different so started us on the 88.
Those were hard classes. I’ve studied dozens of different martial arts and they were some of the hardest classes I’ve ever been to – my legs were like jelly at the end after holding those deep stances for 25 minutes at a time. Yet you teach very differently nowadays. Why is this. Is it still both Yang style?
There are two types of Tai Chi. And that’s Tai Chi for other people and Tai Chi for yourself. When we were entering all those competitions and doing the 42 step (an international competition routine) were were doing Tai Chi to please judges. Now I do Tai Chi like those old people in the park – for myself. I now teach old man Tai Chi.
As you said we went to competitions and we did well and we pretty much knew we were good. So why do you eschew this now?
We were taught skills and knowledge at a very fast rate but what set our club apart was not what we were taught it was how we trained. Yes, we were good, and we knew it. But this arrogance had nothing to do with our understanding of Tai Chi it was because we lived it and breathed and knew we trained harder than other Tai Chi clubs. I never missed a class except for if I was working out of the country. I trained on my 50th birthday, I trained on my 25th wedding anniversary. I trained every Tuesday, every Thursday, every Sunday and we rented a hall ourselves to practice more on Saturdays didn’t we, that’s what set us apart. The over training and the competitions were part of the journey, we didn’t know any different. But now I do old man Tai Chi. I see competition athletes who make a deep stance and then have to drag their foot to get to the next posture. Show me one Tai Chi text book that says “drag your foot”. I no longer practice the 42 step routine. I don’t think it’s for everyday practitioners.
What did you think of learning Sun style?
It shows that Tai Chi (ie Yang style) can be versatile and adapted for a different frame and fighting style. The principles and names are the same, the movements are different.
We also learnt the Tai Chi sword (Jian) for years. Do you still train in that?
I train in the Jian virtually every day. It reinforces the idea that there should be awareness in the room. I’m past the stage of thinking about cutting down enemies, I now let the sword guide me and just see Yang style circles.
What about the other arts we learnt like Hsing-I Quan?
I liked Hsing-I because it enabled you to focus an attack not just a defence and take the initiative.
From about 1998 onwards we got to train on annual seminars with Professor Li De Yin, the foremost Tai Chi master in the world. How did you find that?
He instilled that attention to detail was prerequisite and that without single posture training one could not advance.
What about Professor Zhang Xiu Mu, who we attended one seminar with, what did you get out of that?
He was the first that pointed out to us [on that seminar] the need to be in touch, physically with Chi while practicing. This is not just for the so called secret 22 form, but for any Yang style form.
You also took up Muso Jikiden Eishin Ryu Iaido. What did you like about that?
Iaido is at the other end of the spectrum from the Jian, but the act of drawing the sword can become meditative in itself. It’s not just about one cut, one kill, but about being one with the weapon.
You trained with Japanese masters like Hara, Yoshida and Tose. What did you get out of that
Keiji Tose helped me with a problem I had with kneeling forms. I have well developed thigh and calf muscles which is great for holding Tai Chi stances but not so great for kneeling so he suggested to me doing what some Japanese do with the same problem, which is a 1 legged stool which you keep lowering as the flexibility improves. A few conversations with Hanshi Tattersall also gave me an idea for the mental aspects of the sword – Japanese and Chinese like the psychological angles, how your presence can determine the outcome.
Two of my Karate teachers over the years, Reiner Parsons Kyoshi and Bob Carruthers Kyoshi, I know you hold in high regard having trained with both of them don’t you?
Reiner has a high knowledge of Kung Fu (his Karate teacher Tadanori Nobetsu is a master of Feeding Crane Kung Fu) and his knowledge of breathing and internal power is second to none. He also had a great ability to judge students and see their potential. He sees potential in students other people would write off. When we both started learning Iaido, Bob was already something like a 6th Dan in Karate but he never “pulled rank” or boasted. He just readily shared everything he had. Me and him had a similar philosophy. Once on a seminar with Elizabeth Noissier we were “sent to the naughty corner” because our attacks were, shall we say, fully committed. We both wanted to win and didn’t like the idea of one person in the sequence having to lose! Neither of us would ever give an inch. It is the same when he started doing the stickfighting and brought GM Rene and Angelo over. Nothing was spared in terms of time, generosity and man to man teaching.
Apart from the Iaido and what we’ve just talked about what other areas have you developed your Tai Chi teachings from how we were taught originally? For example, I remember being taught Ba Duan Jin, but I don’t remember ever learning the Animal Exercises of Huo Toa or the Shaolin Breathing Exercises (Liu He Gong) that you teach
I have integrated forms like the Shaolin exercises because they are natural cousins of Tai Chi. A French Shaolin practitioner named Eves encouraged me to teach these forms. I teach the Harbin (the name of a city) versions of the Liu He Gong forms, and also the Tai Chi Ruler and Tai Chi Balls.
We were often told in the past that martial artists don’t respect Tai Chi. Have you found this to be the case?
I’ve found that the likes of Reiner, Craig Bailey (5th Dan Aikijujutsu) have always been very receptive. I think they appreciate that in any fight, whether it’s a Karate contest for example, the relaxed person is the fastest. On the other hand I tell my students that the most sincere martial art is Judo because everything is proved on the mat. I tell them their Tai Chi must have the same honesty.
Why do you do Tai Chi?
To improve my meditation, to increase my wellbeing, to learn more, to pass it on. My path is to teach.
What about self defence?
I want my body to look after me. I want my body to react quickly and efficiently.
What do you say to people who say that martial arts like Tai Chi, Kung Fu and to some extent Karate, are wasting their time with forms and self expression and should just fight like MMA?
I see martial arts as a tradition. Without this history we have no civilisation. We may as well be primitive animals. Martial arts enhances the spirit and the wellbeing. To civilise people, don’t ban guns, give them education. We can learn a lot from something like the Japanese tea ceremony. We should all take the time to learn to do something slowly and properly. Anyone can dump a teabag in a cup but man is supposed to be better than this. If we can’t remember our ancestors, how can we be civilised?
Anything you’d like to add?
Martial arts is like my other hobby, photography. They are both trying to get a true representation. I may take 500 pictures and throw away 495. To get a great photograph you need the same thing you need in martial arts which is to see something before it happens – this is VAT – visual anticipation and timing. When I do a martial arts form I just want it to be a representation of what I’m doing or feeling at the time, the same way a photographer does.
Wigan: Tai Chi classes
Dalton school (Dalton St Michael CofE)
Wednesdays and Thursday: 7:30pm
Sifu David Keegan