Master Pat, A True Force of Nature

This is a guest post, by Michael Hancock, one our instructors at Aikido of San Diego. Originally from England, he teaches, and leads meditations, with a lovely Brit-dialect, respect for tradition, thoughtful insight, and a gentle sense of humor. Michael is an avid golfer, pilot, and horseman, and when living in England was an accomplished polo player, having once been Chairman of the oldest club in the world, Silver Leys. He is an entrepreneur whose focus is on his family and community. Among other things, Michael is active in promoting and advising the Wampler Foundation, providing camp and outdoor education programs for kids with physical disabilities. Enjoy.

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Master Pat – A True Force of Nature

By Michael Hancock
Written Early 2011

Because my Google search gave me little since he received an honor from the Japanese Ambassador on behalf of the Emperor in London several years back, I wrongly assumed he had since passed on. I’m back in England, and last night, by chance or providence, I’m nearby the dojo of ‘Master Pat’ Stratford, my first mentor.

It was 7.25 pm for the 7.30 start and the door was still locked. He looked old to me 25 years ago, but I was still surprised to see a pensioner struggling to climb out of someone’s car and stagger across on crutches at 7.29 on the dot. Yes, same face and instantly recognizable except for a few more good vintages behind him. For a fleeting moment I wondered if this was a good idea, but I reintroduced myself anyway and he cheerfully engaged. We chatted about old times and old members for a short while.

We sat for a few minutes to one side. I declined his offer of tea that I’m sure had an aromatic whiff of medicated navy rum as he drew on his pipe. He informed me that there are now eight aikido clubs in the Coventry area alone, but added that they are losing their way. He believes they are generically too mindful of ego and money.

A couple of the old boys are still around, reminding me of the clichéd movies of boxers or ball players of a bygone age, still with the enthusiasm of teenagers and a wickedly dry wit that bantered between them. The warmth of camaraderie made me feel right at home again.

He shared with me his thoughts on Japan and said there is a lot of “crap Aikido” because the culture has changed so much as a result of the Americanization of the country after the war, and that most are now chasing the dollar and missing the fundamentals. I sensed an air of nostalgia or sadness when he added that no one turns up here anymore. Master Pat has an endearingly maverick character that is so likeable. He’s the real deal. You cannot question his dedication, yet I think he inevitably divides opinion.

Master Pat was sincerely and genuinely, “…worried for the future of pure Aikido, as there isn’t another martial art that comes close to the practice of Zen and Budo. This is now just a club for black belts only, and anyone who wants to study Aikido, I mean really study.”

In fact, he is worried for the state of the world in general and was satisfied to be his age. He added that a couple of the other dojo owners still come back once a month or so and are very welcome. Years ago he would teach all over Europe, however, he still leads monthly Aikido events, albeit these days hosting at his home dojo as traveling is difficult.

Master Pat founded the Aikido Union of England in 1958 with the support of his teacher and close friend, Shigeho Tanaka Sensei. He explained how he has dedicated his life to the study since his time in Japan through the 1950’s and 1960’s. “Aikido was around long before the Samurai.” He paused, looked me intently in the eye, “I am in my mid 80’s and if it wasn’t for Budo, I would have been dead thirty years ago. I am in pain 24/7, but never let it beat you, take charge of thought and you will never be depressed or stressed.”

I declined his invitation to train and told him I’m sporting an injury. He ordered me through his wry smile, “Don’t be a soft nancy boy and get on the bloody mat, you’ve been in bloody America too long!” Ah yes, I remember him clearly now, and started to stretch. Six turned up last night and I made the seventh.

After a brief warm-up, he stepped onto the mat a different person and I could not believe what I saw. He was incredible, so amazing. Master Pat transcended time and his presence was dominating. He focused on the essence of ‘feeling’, in understanding the body. He ‘touched’ my chest and I instinctively slapped out on the mat with a pounding in my lungs. Then he came around each of us and we dissected it. He was demonstrating the force of nature and allowing its power, “…without the laying on of hands, which will create resistance.”

I am somewhat ashamed for playing my part in not returning for 25 years, and to say that in my opinion, he is an under-valued magician, a somewhat forgotten Master that by all that is right, he deserves to have a huge entourage of followers surrounding him and absorbing this beautiful art while they can, not a mere half dozen. Inevitably, he won’t be here for long.

I learnt something about myself last night and will consciously embody some of his thoughts and his portrayal of ‘feel’ in my own personal training hereon. In fact, I wish I could get back here again soon, but living six thousand miles away in San Diego creates its own difficulties.

He declared while teaching something that still lifts and resonates with me. “There is nothing more perfect than nature. It has no muscles and no physicality. We must copy it. Everything else is bollocks!”

Thank you, Master Pat, you are one of a kind and still remain an inspiration to me.

Master Pat Stratford, 8th Dan & Michael Hancock

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A bit of follow-up information, from the News page at AikidoUnionEngland.co.uk:

On 26th May 2009 “Master Pat Stratford was awarded [by the Japanese Government] the honour of the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’ Gold & Silver Rays upon him in a special ceremony at the Japanese Ambassadors Residence, Kensington Palace Gardens, London. Master Stratford is the only ‘Budo Sensei’ outside of Japan to receive such a high level of the ‘Order of the Rising Sun’.”

On 6th November, 2011 “Master Pat Stratford [8th Dan], Honorary President and Chief Technical Advisor of the Aikido Union England, sadly announced that he would be retiring from active teaching on the tatami due to on-going knee problems and strict medical advice. He maintains his weekly presence at the dojo to give Technical Advice to the Instructors and will continue to attend each Aikido Course at Coventry as long as he is able to do so. …”

Facing a Shut Gate

Large-Closed-Gates-Empire-Mine

Sensei has announced that there will be an uchi-deshi program at our dojo, beginning in mid-summer [this was in 2011]. You can contact him for details (via the Aikido of San Diego website) if you are interested in participating.

It looks to me like a rare and valuable opportunity to train intensively, deepen one’s understanding of Aikido, learn to teach, test one’s own limits, and discover new possibilities, all under the guidance of a truly gifted teacher.

It also looks to me like a right of passage. Forging, like seeing combat, for a future military officer. A gateway. How one moves from casual student to serious practitioner.

Right now I’m not in a place to walk through that gateway. I don’t know if I ever will be. I hope, maybe, somehow, someday… There’s a little fear and frustration about that. What if I’m not able? What if it’s not there? A sense of loss. And there’s reminding myself that upset from thwarted intention just points to a commitment.

It’s OK, though. There are cracks to peek through, high places where one can see over, and a lot of space to explore on this side of the wall. For now.

[Added the next day…] And now I’m seeing that there is more than one gate. Not feeling so stuck on this side. :-)