Chris Thompson was a skinny, ‘half-blind, black kid’ growing up in a tough part of London in the Swinging Sixties.
His story could so easily have been that of a drop-out, making the most of the drugs and the new-found freedoms available to teenagers at the time.
But on a hot summer afternoon in 1969, the path of Chris’s life was changed when he walked into a dojo (karate studio).
The magic and majesty of the martial art enveloped him and he fell in love with the physicality and the philosophy of karate.
Now 61, he went on to become national and regional champion in the washinkai tradition, and is the founder and president of a well-respected karate teaching organisation with clubs around the world.
The father-of-three has now published his memoirs and has been reflecting on the life karate has given him.
Chris was one of only three black children in his school.
In his first year of secondary school he lost the sight in his right eye. He says: ‘We put some potassium permanganate, Andrews Liver Salts and a little bit of everything into a screw cap bottle and shook it up.
‘There was an almighty explosion and I was left with a massive chunk of glass in my right eye’.
Surgeons fought hard to save the sight, but a few months later the school bully flicked an elastic band at him and destroyed it for good.
The loss made Chris’s senses even keener and, once that was combined with karate, the school bullies didn’t stand a chance.
He recounts a tale that meant the skinny kid was never bothered by the bigger boys again.
‘A boy who had been badgering me regularly over four years grabbed me from behind in the playground,’ says Chris.
‘I turned round and immediately unleashed two back fist strikes at full arm’s length. A technique given power and momentum from the hips. He fell like a sack of potatoes’.
Chris’ father Tom was born in Jamaica, while his mother Joyce was born to Chinese parents in Jamaica.
They both moved to London, met and married.
‘Times were tough’ says Chris, ‘but I was lucky. I was one of those rare kids who enjoyed school.
‘I worked hard and got a job at a bank in the city, where my parents expected me to get promoted and have a steady career in finance. But that’s not what happened.’
Two years into the job Chris risked everything to set up his own karate school. This was in the shadow of the Second World War when there was still a lot of distrust of the Japanese.
‘For me, karate had a magic element to it’, says Chris, ‘definitely a mystique. You never knew what the next part of the learning would be.
‘My parents were concerned and angry at first. They wanted me to stick to a ‘proper job’. My mother was a very shrewd businesswoman and couldn’t see any future in karate for me. My dad was more flexible but they made clear how they felt.
‘Family and friends believed it was wrong to have any contact at all with the Japanese, so strong were the memories of Japanese cruelty to prisoners of war.
‘All my father’s friends hated the idea that I was practising a Japanese sport. They were detested as a cruel race, but that was not my experience at all.’
But Chris’s risk-taking paid off. When he started taking karate lessons dojos were hard to find.
But by the 1970s there were queues out the door – because of Bruce Lee.
He says: ‘I was very lucky. Being young and talented, I had the opportunity to go to Pinewood Studios and I met (film star) Steve McQueen.
‘While we were talking about karate techniques he kept telling me “Bruce does it this way, Bruce does it that way”.
‘I had no idea who he was talking about. It was only later when the Bruce Lee films came out I realised.
‘He shook all martial arts up but karate especially. Everyone wanted to do kung fu.
‘Dojos which had a handful of students all of a sudden had people queuing to get in.’
Other stars Chris has worked with include Oliver actors Mark Lester and the late Jack Wild.
Having moved to Havant with his second wife Alison in the 1980s, Chris set up the British Traditional Karate Association. It was a bold move away from traditional Japanese instructors but Chris was unhappy with the direction teaching was going in.
He is now in demand around the world and regularly jets off to Spain, Hong Kong, Norway and America to teach.
He tries to go to Japan every year.
‘Karate is about self-control and being a better person’ says Chris.
‘It means fighting your own inhibitions, weaknesses and flaws.
‘The biggest enemy in karate is yourself. If you can control your weaknesses and your flaws and strive to be on top of them then you will be a good karate-ka.
‘That’s the philosophy. It’s not just about kicking and punching. The ethos of karate is about being a better person and helping people. I look back on my life and feel very lucky.’
‘It makes them better human beings’
Chris Thompson is one of the country’s leading martial arts teachers.
He has published a memoir, Fighting Spirit, with Bill Taylor, aimed at showing how people, particularly teenagers, can benefit from karate.
He believes it can help beat bullying and build life skills, confidence and self-respect.
Chris says: ‘The greatest gift we can give our children is the capacity and the right to live without fear.
‘I believe karate practised properly and taught well can help create safer communities and individuals. We all strive for an environment where we feel safe. The bully mustn’t win.
‘At the same time, respect, humility and courtesy sit at the heart of karate. Studying martial arts not only creates more confident children, but it makes them better human beings.’
He studied with the first generation of Japanese masters who brought karate to Britain in the 1960s. Fighting Spirit charts the history of modern karate and contains extensive interviews with teenagers who saw their lives changed by martial arts.
‘When I started out, children weren’t allowed in the dojo and women were actively discouraged. Now three-quarters of all students of karate in Britain are schoolchildren. And they often train together with their mums and dads. It’s become a family affair.’
Chris teaches at Warblington School, Havant, on Tuesday evenings.
Go to washinkai.co.uk.