A British “karateka” offers a bone-crushing, lip-splitting, and often elegant memoir of a tough guy searching for higher meaning through the study of martial arts.
As a youth, Clarke was the kind of hard-as-nails teen who was fond of communicating with his fists. He was good at it, and despite his diminutive size, he could be counted on to win most scraps. But when the Irish émigré’s rough-and-tumble ways ultimately landed him in the aptly named Strangeways Prison in Manchester, England, he realized that breaking noses and cracking ribs had limited value beyond the strict borders of his hard-pressed neighborhood. The author describes his prison experiences in wonderful, almost lyrical prose that delivers both poignancy and punch: “During the visits, no physical contact was allowed; there was no chance to feel the warmth of another person who was dear to you, not your girlfriend, nor your mother, or even your child if you had one.” Sadly, Clarke doesn’t linger on this rich material for long before he’s deep into his karate chronicles, introducing the numerous schools, teachers, and training techniques he encountered during the late 1970s and early ’80s. He discusses various clashes in great detail, which resulted in a variety of injuries. He also addresses the sensitive politics specific to the world of karate. What’s missing in these sections, however, is the sobering, sure-handed universality that Clarke brings to the portrayal of his earlier days. He makes cursory references to the dissolution of his first marriage and the stresses that his single-minded pursuit of karate placed on his personal life, but it’s clearly evident that Clarke is much more interested in delving into dojo dynamics than anything else. This approach may shut out a large segment of non–karate enthusiasts who might otherwise have found Clarke’s life undeniably fascinating.
A compelling story that nevertheless will appeal almost exclusively to karate fans.