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I first became aware of the martial arts in the spring of 1972. Like most people I'd seen actors aping Karate movements in James Bond films and the like but they singularly failed to inspire, my first exposure to martial arts was strangely, given the decade, Tai Chi Chuan.
In the post flower-power days of the early seventies there was a definite turning toward the spiritual side of things. Free love and the drugs culture of the late sixties was yielding, at least for some, to a new interest in all things spiritual. Particularly Eastern spirituality. A friend of mine was a Buddhist; his father Alf, an extraordinary man then in his sixties and ahead of his time, had been a Buddhist for twenty years and was a friend to Tibetan Lamas and High Court Judges.
It was thanks to Alf's influence that I came to be in Scotland that spring, staying in a cottage called Moodlaw across the river Esk from a Tibetan Buddhist temple called Samye Ling. It may have been Spring but there was snow on the hills and a hard frost lower down the valley on that early morning in May. I was up early because, despite the cold, the sun was shinning from a clear blue sky and I just had to get outside.
As I walked in the hills on the Moodlaw side of the river Esk, I spotted a man on the other side of the river dressed in what looked to me like white silk pyjamas, he was moving slowly and rhythmically and executing what appeared to be a sequence of prearranged movements, something akin to a dance, but with a sense of purpose and a focus I had rarely seen. I was used to strange people doing strange things around Samye Ling but I found the movements quite beautiful and I was intrigued. Unfortunately there was no way for me to cross the river and ask the man what he was doing so I had to content myself with watching the movements as I walked.
When I got back to the cottage where I was staying I described what I had seen to the collection of good natured souls who lived there and asked what they thought the man was doing. One chap was convinced he knew what I had seen. "Oh he'll be from the Gesheku being held up the valley." he answered knowledgeably "That's a kind of Karate holiday where they practice all day long for a couple of weeks. They're a crazy bunch, they go running across the rocks in the snow in their bare feet and stand under waterfalls meditating." He was quite wrong of course, at least as far as what the man had been doing was concerned, the man had been practising Tai Chi Chuan. At the time though his explanation seemed quite credible, so the next day I made my way up the valley in search of the Gesheku.
I found it at a large farmhouse. When I arrived twenty or so people were going through a vigorous Kata. They did indeed have bare feet and, as it was above the snowline, they were practising in the snow on the rocky ground. It was good enough for me. Though their movements bore little resemblance to those of the man on the hill I assumed that they were simply doing a different set of movements from the ones I'd seen.
I waited till they'd finished and then approached the black belt who had been leading the group and asked if he could spare some time to tell me more about Karate. He said he had to lead the group in another Kata but he was sure that his Sensei would be happy to talk to me and directed me to a tall Englishman who was sitting and meditating on a stone wall to one side of the group. I learned quite a lot about Karate that day, at least on an intellectual level, and found the Karate group to be very nice people, and quite as crazy as I had been told. I resolved to take up Karate when I got back to London, where I was living at the time.
The group I had met in Scotland also operated out of London but too far from my home to make joining them practical. I looked around for a local class, though the imperative lost its edge once I was back home and back into the daily routine. About three months later a friend of mine told me he had joined an evening class in Karate with one of his friends but this other chap had dropped out and did I want to take his place. I started the next week.
I practised Karate for about a year but I never really felt at home with the style, or Karate in general for that matter. The Sensei who taught the class also taught Ju Jitsu and I quickly took this up, at first alongside the Karate and then instead of it.
I really enjoyed Ju Jitsu. The practical mixture of strikes, throws and locks fascinated me and I trained for three years, attaining a 1st Dan Black Belt. Toward the end of those three years my Sensei, a man in his sixties, became more and more debilitated. He had a wasting condition and ended up on crutches. As he lost the ability to train he lost enthusiasm for the club and for teaching and soon the classes hardly seemed worth attending.
It was now 1975 and the early 70s 'Kung Fu boom' was well underway so I decided to try some of this new art that seemed to be forever in the news. By now I knew that the man I had seen practising in Scotland three years earlier had been doing Tai Chi Chuan but I had formed the impression that Tai Chi was a non-combat art and my interest was in martial arts, not esoteric systems. I looked at several Kung Fu clubs. Some were awful, half trained Karateka teaching their own brand of nonsense to the gullible and the hopeful. In those days most of the Chinese teachers either wouldn't accept western students or would only teach them superficially. I eventually found a good Wing Chung school which accepted westerners and set about training. I liked the quick cleaver movements and the flexible use of power. I trained in Wing Chung for about six months but, alas, the style did not suit my physique. I started to develop increasingly painful elbows from the straight punching and found training more and more difficult. Eventually the Sifu noticed that I was having problems, I was too proud or too stupid to ask for help, and, after examining my sore arms, he gently explained that due to the shape of my arms (the elbows do not lock out but are always bent) Wing Chung was not a suitable art for me and that I should try something else. I was disappointed and back to square one!
I tried a few more Kung Fu clubs but found nothing suitable. About this time a friend gave me the address of a Tai Chi class run by a Chinese teacher. She said he was amazing and that I should really check him out but knowing she was not a martial artist I filed the address under not interested (sorry Leila) and carried on looking. I was on the verge of giving up on the whole Chinese Kung Fu thing and looking for another Ju Jitsu class when another friend, who had some experience in the martial arts, asked me if I knew of any Tai Chi classes. I dutifully fished out the address but warned him that it was probably not what he was after. I saw him again a week later and asked him what he thought of the class. "Oh yeah! Brilliant!" he said "He's a really good teacher." He proceeded to rave about the class for some time and, knowing he had enough experience to know martial arts when he saw them I decided I should check it out as soon as possible.
So it was that the wheel turned full circle and I met my teacher, Master Lam Kam-Chuen. It was obvious to me as soon as I saw Master Lam that I had finally found the real McCoy. His movements were light and effortless yet he could exert enormous power without appearing to try. I couldn't even touch him, despite having trained hard for several years and he could throw me off balance or onto the floor seemingly at will (I was very grateful for my Ju Jitsu break-fall training) and when one day he invited me to punch him in the stomach he just stood and smiled, completely relaxed, through my first two blows and on my third attempt he moved forward slightly into the punch! Not only did he almost break my wrist but he threw me back several feet and almost knocked me down!
With Master Lam I learned Tai Chi Chuan, Nei Kung (Chi Kung), Choy Lee Fut, and quite a bit more. Master Lam himself is also accomplished in Northern Shaolin and a plethora of weapons styles, I only managed a few, but of all the things he taught me Tai Chi Chuan is the art I treasure most. The deceptively soft movements of Tai Chi Chuan can hide an effortless power and I have yet to find a more effective method of boxing.
I am most grateful to Master Lam for his open teaching, his patience and his expertise. I feel privileged to have discovered something of the extent of the art I first saw practised one cold spring morning in Scotland back in 1972.
Sifu R Rand