Some context, as it were.
Where the seventies introduced us to kung fu and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kun Do, the eighties brought up the shadowy worlds and seemingly mystical abilities of the ninja, and Sho Kosugi and Michael Dudikoff were briefly stars of movies that actually got a cinematic release. Like their on screen anti heroes they too disappeared without a trace, and unless you’d witnessed it for yourself there’s scant evidence they were ever there at all.
Why is this at all relevant?
Well, enter a man in his late teens, early twenties. Let’s call him Mike. Mike was fascinated by this phenomenon. Not the on screen ninja who of course wore the regulation black gi and split-toed tabi boots regardless of location, time of day, or the mission at hand; Mike wasn’t quite so stuppit to buy into all that rubbish. He had however dabbled in a fair few other martial arts- mostly shotokan karate, aikido, a bit of wushu and the like with recently acquired friend Tim- and was caught by the philosophies espoused by real life ninja Masaki Hatsumi, grandmaster of the Togakure Ryu. The assassin depicted in the movies was as fictional as Batman, but the history and spirituality that lie behind Hatsumi intrigued me.
There was a deep resonance with their balance of mind, body and spirit, long before that became a section of its own in Waterstone’s. It centred on the drive for accurate self knowledge, and an honest understanding of personal strengths and weaknesses. They honed their physical prowess alongside deep meditation, acute self awareness and mindful observation of the world and people around them.
At the core of my fascination was The Void. This is a term for those things beyond our everyday experience, and the awareness that all things are made up of pure energy. Harnessed bodily, this kū informs our thoughts, feeds our subconscious mind and connects our creativity to the divine source, or universal energy.
I met Maha Abu for the first time around the same time, introduced by a mutual friend.
Well, for disclosure’s sake, that’s not wholly true; I’d encountered him in two very unrelated contexts in the previous five years but hadn’t made the connection. At the time of the second of those earlier encounters I had been advised that he was ‘a nutter into black magic and voodoo and shit that you should avoid’.
So. Anyway. Move forward to 1985 when we were formally introduced and started to converse over ales at The Grafton pub in Hull- made briefly famous due to its Plasticine immortalisation in The Housemartins’ Happy Hour video. In these irregular but weekly-ish conversations Tim, Abu, myself and others would cover a myriad of topics from Ogden’s Nut Gone Flake to the debatable merits of flat beer, but would always meander through to a spiritual bent, with much common ground between us. Not on the flat beer- that is Abu’s particular peccadillo- but the philosophical discourse had a number of shared anchors.
My 19 year old mind, which was all knowing as every 19 year old mind is, didn’t give much credence to his ‘occult’ ravings, nor did it take on board such nonsense as tarot, because the tarot is after all just fortune telling gypsy ouija nonsense, right? Remember, this was the eighties, and bookshops didn’t have whole bookcases dedicated to them. Any mainstream shop that did have them usually kept them under the counter so as not to risk their serious repository reputation. One would have to ask the senior assistant in a whispered voice like you were trying to get a fix of some esoteric porn. The only reference many of us had for tarot cards was Jane Seymour in the Jimmy Bond flick You Only Live Twice. With that as a backdrop, it took a while for Abu’s regular referencing of The Fool to take hold. When take hold it did, and Mike’s penny suddenly dropped, the knowing grin on Abu’s face was palpable. The Void too got a new expression, and it was that of a fool.
The Fool’s Taro
It was during this time in the late eighties that Maha Abu asked me to collaborate on his big project. Like any tarot deck worth its salt, The Fool’s Taro required some illustrations- 21 to be precise- and as I was the only one of our small band who could actually draw it was to fall upon me to provide some visuals. It took a little persuasion. My initial opinion of the tarot had softened considerably over the intervening years, but much of my scepticism remained. I had no belief in fortune telling, and no interest in creating such a device. Buoyed by reassurances that this was not what was being asked, and swayed by the opportunity for some serious esoteric study, I was on board. It was not to be the product in commercial venture, but the produce of a life work. This was important. After moving to Northumberland to study in 86 I had settled there with no plans to return to Hull and there was no internet, or even computers as we know them today. Digital art was in its infancy and electronic mail solely in the employ of geeks.
He gave me an early draft of the first two chapters of his Book of Gateways to take away to ruminate upon, and set my mind to the challenge. A challenge it indeed was, because it wasn’t quite the esoteric text I had anticipated. It was very interesting, a treatise on the one and the nothing, introducing his System of the Laws of Paradox, but its abstraction was not something that would be easy to condense into the conventional tarot image.
On my next visit to Hull Abu gave me his trusty Emin Frown Strong tarot deck with some associated texts for additional inspiration, and so they proved to be.
To be continued…