This Interview was conducted in 2003.
I think it’s important for all Martial Artists to know what their roots are. Month by month in this column I’ve been building up a picture of the people who were there at the birth of Karate in England. Most Karateka will be able to trace their roots back to this handful of people. It’s no coincidence that they are all members of one Governing Body, properly named The English Karate Governing Body.
Peter Spanton was there from the start. One of the first students of Tatsuo Suzuki at the Honbu Dojo in Clapham in 1965 and one of the first Wado Ryu Black Belts graded by him in England. Peter has had a major influence on the path of Karate in England, teaching many of the Instructors around today. He has sat on the various Technical and Executive Committees belonging to the succession of Governing Body’s we’ve had in this country and was a founder member of the now settled and permanent EKGB.
His group, Higashi Karate Kai has been a major player in the tournament scene for 30 years and a rock solid group of some 50 clubs, having a formidable influence on the development of Wado Ryu Karate in this country.
Having recently celebrated his 60th birthday and maintaining a training and teaching schedule that someone half his age would envy, I was pleased to be able to interview Peter at his home recently.
SR Where do you come from Pete?
PS I was born in Bow in the East End of London in 1943.
SR What did you do before you started Karate?
PS After I left school at 16 I started working in a Grocers shop as an apprentice, I intended to make it my career but eventually changed my mind as I didn’t fancy being stuck in a shop for the rest of my life. I left when I was 18 and started lagging boilers with my Father. I soon got fed up with that after about 6 months and wanting to see a bit of the world, joined the Merchant Navy. I went round the world and back and forth to South America and came out just before I was 22.
SR Was that when you started Karate?
PS That’s right. I started at the Honbu in Clapham with Tatsuo Suzuki in February 1965.
SR How did you get to know about Karate?
PS I’d heard people talk about this new art from Japan and read a little about it. I looked around in the papers and magazines, bearing in mind we didn’t have the “World Wide Web” then, and in the end I rang the British Judo Society and they gave me Len Palmer’s telephone number. They told me that he was bringing a Japanese Karate Instructor over. I telephoned Len and he told me that he was bringing Tatsuo Suzuki to England and that he would be teaching at the Honbu in Clapham. As soon as I saw it I was fanatically hooked!
SR Who else was around at the time?
PS I didn’t know too much about what was going on up North at the time, but I know that Danny Connor, Martin Stott and Walter Seaton were around then. Ticky Donovan started at the Honbu about 6 months after me and we used to travel together and train there about 3 times a week.
SR What was the training like?
PS It was quite hard and one might say occasionally boring because it was repetitive. We would pound up and down with basic punching and kicking techniques. If we were lucky we might get to do some beginner Kata like Pinan Nidan but it was mainly basics, basics and….. basics! When we watched the Japanese Instructors who were so strong we figured that these repetitive basics had to be the method of getting that level of skill, so we persevered and didn’t really question anything.
SR Wado Ryu has always been known for it’s sparring and competitive abilities right from the early days, what was it like then?
PS I started sparring as a white belt after about 6 months training. Bearing in mind in those days you stayed a white belt right through to 6th kyu and then it changed straight to green belt. There was no yellow or orange belt in those days. Suzuki Sensei would often spar with me and hammer my shins with kicks and drive that front kick right in to the body, but I loved it! All of the Japanese Instructors that followed seemed to enjoy the sparring as well, especially with me! Maybe it was because I was tall and a good target!
I took part in some of the early tournaments, including European events but stopped. in 1966. I liked sparring, but found tournament too restrictive. However I preferred the tournaments of those days rather than those of today because it was more realistic. There was no “diving’. If you took a whack, you just got on with it and we had no mitts, shin guards or groin protectors.
SR Were you the first of Suzuki Sensei’s Black Belts in the UK?
PS In the South I believe I was, but Danny Connor or Walter Seaton in the North may have got theirs first, I’m not sure. I was certainly the first in the Honbu and I got my Shodan in December 1966.
SR Then the Wado split came, what did you do?
PS I never really got too involved, I just went along with everyone else. I guess it put me on the spot being a senior grade I was then expected to do a lot of the teaching and I don’t think I was qualified. There was Ticky, John Smith and myself basically running the British Karate Association, with the help of Len Palmer of course.
SR How did Higashi get formed?
PS In ’72 we were a group of clubs, Forest Gate, Swindon, Cheltenham, Cardiff and Bristol who used to get together on a regular basis, to train and have friendly matches. We decided to have a mini-group within the BKA, then a lot of other Instructors were doing their own thing and it seemed that the BKA was gradually breaking up into smaller groups, so we decided to become a federation in our own right. We started with 27 clubs, we had already named our group Higashi Karate Kai before the split to give our group a name and already had a badge so we carried the name and logo on.
SR How did you come up with the name?
PS Higashi means “East” and my first club was in East London.
SR How did you come up with the logo?
PS (Laughs) The times I’ve been asked this! It was a tattoo I had on my arm that gave me the idea, I had a drawing made of it and everyone liked it. We joined the Governing Body which was the BKCC in those days and that was it!
SR You actually became quite involved in the politics of the day didn’t you?
PS I tried to because I wanted to do something for the Governing Body. I went into refereeing and was at one time Chief Referee for England and a World Kata & Kumite Judge. I also sat on the Executive for the BKCC and then the Executive of the English Karate Council, when that became the Governing Body.
SR I remember, I was the Chairman! We used to have the Governing Body meetings at your “local”!
PS That’s right, at the Eagle pub… then when we formed the English Karate Governing Body, Higashi came in as founder members. I’ve been on the Technical Committee twice and on the Executive Committee and I’m still a firm supporter of the EKGB and the concept of a Governing Body. In all my various positions I hope that I was of some help to karate while out of a karate-gi though I prefer to be in one!
SR Many people know of you in the Martial Arts is through computers, can you tell the readers how that came about?
PS I have always been fascinated by computers, right back to the days of the Sinclair ZX 80. Then I bought the 81, then the Sinclair Spectrum, and all through the range until we got to the point that I thought why can’t we keep the membership records on them? We put them on floppy disk, then hard disk and we’ve kept our records on computer ever since.
SR The Membership Register Program that you created was the first of it’s kind…
PS That’s right and it’s still going! It’s still used by the Welsh Karate Federation and various other groups, both large and small.
SR You also devised the Tournament Draw Program used by everyone…
PS Yeah, with a programmer friend in Tewkesbury and the system was quite complex. We supplied many countries with that program including Japan. It’s still being used to this day by many Federations both here and in Europe.
SR I guess a lot of “modern” Karate-ka will know you as the guy sitting at all the major tournaments on the computer.
PS I suppose so but I’m not so sure I like that idea! I think I would prefer to be thought of and remembered for my Karate. The computer is my hobby and the sales of the programs supplement my income, but first and foremost I am a Karate-ka. The Karate conditions my body and the computer keeps my brain sharp. So both activities compliment each other in many ways. You need a good logical brain for computers and that helps you to teach and understand Karate, especially kata.
SR Toru Takamizawa often likened the human brain to the computer and programmed technique almost like you would into a computer.
PS He was right. The two are very similar. I also think that if in the future I become unable to train physically or teach, I would still be of use to the Martial Arts world through my computing skills, even if it’s just keeping a database running or working the draw at a tournament. I could still be involved and have some input.
SR What courses do you teach now?
PS I still do a Kata course each month at my club in Forest Gate, and we have Dan Gradings there 2 or 3 times a year. I teach on a regular basis around the group, and most of my weekends this year are taken up with teaching commitments. We have to plan at least a year in advance so that everyone knows what’s going on. I like to be organised!
SR How do you see the future?
PS I’m 60yrs old now and still manage a training routine to suit where I am at the time. I do what I can when I can without overdoing it. I’ve just completed a course in the mountains of Snowdonia training and teaching a large class outside for 6 hrs a day and had no problem with that. I think I know my body’s limitations and try not to exceed them.
SR How about the group?
PS Tournament-wise we did very well last year. Both the BKF’s and EKGB’s where we topped the medal table winning both male and female team kumite. I am very proud of our reputation and squad. Our membership’s doing quite well too, so we don’t really need to advertise. We’ve got around 50 clubs with groups in Wales and Ireland and I’m especially proud of our technical standards.
SR Do you still see the guys from the old days?
PS Yeah, Ticky’s just a couple of miles down the road we speak or meet pretty regularly. Then there’s Chris Thompson, Mick Billman and so on. When I was on the Technical Committee we used to have our meetings here.
SR How do you see the future of the technical side of Karate with everyone cross training and so on?
PS I think it’s a shame that some don’t stick to their original style. Nothing wrong with learning material from other styles, I practised other Katas from Kyokushinkai, Shito Ryu and Shotokan though not in depth, but I don’t teach them because I’m not qualified to. I’ll show what I know of them to my students if asked, but I’ll not teach them.
SR Do you think that “styles” have faded into the background?
PS I fear this may be the case. I think it’s a shame that tournament seems to have taken over and we’ve lost a lot of our tradition.
SR I was talking to Dave Hazard last month and he was saying that Kata tournament has improved since the introduction of Bunkai – what do you think.
PS I’m a staunch supporter of bunkai – we do it for all our kata with the attackers around and the performers have to make it work for “real”, sticking to what I’ve learned and developed. We have 4 Higashi Katas because the Wado Ryu style doesn’t have a lot of kata compared to the other styles, so I introduced the Higashi forms. However, I did construct them according to Wado Ryu principles and values.
SR Have you made any videos?
PS I did a video on the Pinan Kata some years back for VMA and it still trickles out to the public. They can still be purchased from VMA but I haven’t done any since. I did appear in several books courtesy of the prolific Martial Arts author David Mitchell.
SR Who do you admire most in English Karate?
PS I admire all genuine Karate-ka who take their training seriously. However, if you mean higher grades from the old days who are still around, I would have to say most of them because they are still around. Certain people do jump to mind though such as my old mate Ticky, who has done so much for English karate.
SP What is your proudest moment?
PS Obviously the day I received my first Dan grade, and perhaps when I got a bronze medal at a European championships in Paris. I’ve had many such moments since, but most with regards to my federation and members.
SR Do you have any intentions with regard to retiring from karate?
PS Yes, when I ‘snuff it’!
SR Well I must say Peter that you’re in good shape for age 60 and I hope that you’ll still be teaching and training for many years to come. It’s good to see you and remind the new generations of who you are.
PS Thank you, Steve.. It’s nice to be remembered.