Judo had a strange, almost magical aura in the 1960s. It was seen as the uncanny Japanese art of throwing improbably large opponents across a room, effortlessly and elegantly. Secret agents like James Bond and Emma Peel did judo, but in that careful-but-spectacular way that only a willing or exceptionally stupid victim (and a suitably-placed safety mat) will allow. Ah so! Judo was a metaphor, as much as anything: the triumph of cunning over brute force by using an opponent's own weight and fury against him. Although more deadly and aggressive martial arts like karate were already part of popular culture, judo was usually the only game in town if you wanted to learn one, especially if "town" was a small provincial backwater.
I attended classes once a week from about age 10. For the first few years this was in a slightly dingy local community centre. The tatami mats were kept in a large wall-cupboard, and our first task on a Saturday morning was to assemble our own dojo floor, placing the mats side by side, putting wooden stretchers around the perimeter, and then hauling and lashing the canvas covering into place. The sense-memory of bare feet stepping out of dojo slippers (a.k.a. rubber flip-flops) onto a canvas pulled taut over tatami mats is still an exciting feeling.
Our teacher was a stout moustachioed man who had not progressed beyond a blue belt, and was given to retreating outside for a cigarette while we practised our breakfalls. He was a kind and patient teacher, though, and good with kids, but his own lack of progress was bound to be a brake on ours. Well, what do you expect for half-a-crown a week in a New Town community centre?
A lot of children start judo classes, but not many last more than a few months. It's hard work acquiring the necessary techniques, and constant, boring repetition is required to train your "muscle memory". It quickly transpires that there is no magic or secret knowledge involved. Also, there is no hitting and, at junior level, no strangling, choking or arm-twisting, which some find a disappointment. But I was reasonably good at it, and really liked the sense of a cultural hinterland behind the Japanese names and rituals, so I stuck with it.
A lot of myths about the irrelevance of size and strength are attached to judo. Being short and stocky does give you a low centre of gravity, and certain throws ( morote-seionage and hip-throws like o-goshi, for example) play to your strengths. Others, especially those requiring long legs and crane-like leverage (say, o-soto-gari or harai-goshi) do not. At competition level, contestants are weight-matched, just as they are in boxing. Trust me, a good big 'un will flatten a good little 'un, every time.
Once a year we'd travel all the way from Stevenage to Luton for grading sessions, which in those days required actual combat, and usually came back with a new red stripe or mon on our belts. Somewhere, I still have my British Judo Association license, a little black booklet with my advancing grades filled in and signed off like a school report. There was always something a little thrilling about being licensed to perform judo.
Of course, the irony is that being known to practise judo only serves to attract more, not less, attention from bullies. You soon learn to shut up about it -- a valuable lesson in itself. The zen-like art of keeping a low profile is the natural protective colouration of the school playground, and this chameleon-like attitude is the essence of what is meant by the expression "street-wise".
Alas, in a wicked world, the truth is that judo is pretty ineffectual as a form of self-defence. Setting aside the problem that our streets are not populated by co-operative partners, barefoot in "angry white pyjamas", the sad fact is that judo is essentially a sport, with careful rules and restrictions precisely aimed at not maiming or disabling your opponent. Faced with a bad man with a bad attitude, possibly armed with a weapon, stepping in close enough to pull him into a dance-like embrace is never going to be a good move. As sports go, I would recommend athletics -- sprinting and middle-distance running, ideally -- as the wisest choice for self-defence purposes.
Where judo does come into its own is in falling over. If you've ever been a fan of any form of intoxication, or are just clumsy or unobservant, you'll have tripped or simply fallen over from time to time. I know I have. Constant practice of breakfalls in my youth, however, means that cat-like muscle memory takes over as I head for the floor, and serious injury or embarrassment is generally averted.
Few things are as impressive as a middle-aged man tripping over his suitcase, going into a forward rolling breakfall, and ending up straight back on his feet again. Hooray! Do it again, daddy!
Ah, OK, so that WAS a gun in your pocket...
(image borrowed from JudoInfo.com)