FairFight interviews: Alton Brown tells us about his extraordinary bid for the Olympics, his career highlights, his family…and favourite pizza!

An ambassador for karate, for the arts and for living with purpose: Alton Brown is taking time out of his Olympic preparations this year to help our special project in India. Here’s some insight into the man himself!

Alton’s visit to India is being crowdfunded as part of our 2019 development plan. If you’d like to donate please go to http://www.gofundme.com/FairFightIndia2019. If you’d like to book Alton for an Olympic/FairFight seminar please contact him alton@teamalton2020.com

To contribute directly to Alton’s Olympic bid please use http://www.gofundme.com/teamalton

Tell us about representing Jamaica in karate.

The transition to representing Jamaica in karate has been a roller coaster of a journey. That said, it has proved to be the most exciting, rewarding and meaningful journey I’ve ever been on. To think, karate would reconnect me with my roots in the Caribbean and take me all the way into the Gleaner offices in Kingston Jamaica, the Jamaican newspaper I used to run out to the shops to buy for my dad as a child. Alongside my new team mates, we’re on a mission to put Jamaica karate on the map, and provide opportunities for the next generation that just never existed before. That’s what gets me up in the morning.

What’s been the highlight of your competition career so far?

The highlight of my career has and always will be the first time I won the European championships as a junior athlete.

I’d broken my jaw not long before the event at national selections and was taking a huge risk competing. I’d had the worse pre-training camp ever in terms of my performance, was battered left right and centre by team mates, but the result was a dream come true.

Why have you become involved with Fairfight?

Who wouldn’t want to be involved in something like this? It’s a bit of an honour to have the opportunity to use my skills and my art form to support the ambition and development of others. Personally I’m all about supporting the development of young people, providing new opportunities to gain new insight, raise aspirations and have more control over their journeys. I’ve done this for the last 15 years through my career within arts education, as well as through my sport in the UK.

What are the benefits of karate, in your opinion? Instead of answering this question in the traditional way, I like to think of the opportunities and experiences I’ve been fortunate enough to have as a result of karate. As a young boy aged 11, karate gave me a real sense of ownership over my destination, and how much I could achieve in life provided I put in the work. It also gave me an opportunity expand my horizons and get out of East London, to travel the world, meet new people from countries I’d never heard of (still happening) and has taught me resilience in a way that has supported success in every area of my life. Those are the benefits of karate.

 

Girls of Disha House, Varanasi, India. This safe house provides a home and education for impoverished and vulnerable children. They learn karate with FairFight to build their confidence and resilience.

What keeps you going when you want to stop?

Depending on which day you ask me this, you’re likely to get a different answer. It’s a combination of things but the most important parts are: My wife and two daughters, memories of my little brother Dwayne, absolutely my faith and the fact that I actually enjoy hitting and being hit – I know it sounds strange, but hey – it is what it is. I like to think I’m here for a reason, and that’s to do something incredibly positive and inspiring with the tools that I have.

Name 3 things you like to do to relax?

I love chilling out in coffee shops (just discovered a nice place on the 1st floor of the National Portrait Gallery), dreaming whilst awake again preferably in coffee shops and doing things that take me a step closer to achieving my dreams.

Apart from your family, what would you rescue first in a house fire?

Notebooks. I love a good notebook and very much addicted to buying new ones. I’d also grab a team Jamaica track top to remind me just how far we’ve come, wow!

What’s your favourite pizza topping?

I love a BBQ sauce base on a pizza and definitely swapping out the bitter green peppers for the sweet red ones.

What music do you listen to?

I love a bit of chill out/ easy listening. Currently well into Chronixx, but also love Ben Howard, Amos Lee and a lot of gospel. Although if the kids are around it doesn’t matter what music I like, it gets replaced with cartoon soundtracks. I have to say though, we love a good dance off in the kitchen at least 3 times per week. My eldest does a serious robot dance impression!

What’s the best mistake you’ve ever made? 

If I answered this now I’d offend too many people, so I’ll skip this for now. Wait for the autobiography. Lol!

What animal would you be?

Squirrel because they’re quick, crafty and my daughters are fascinated by chasing them.

What setbacks have you had to overcome in your life to get to where you are now?

The death of my father when I was 19 and the death of my 21 year old brother have by far been the toughest setbacks I’ve had to overcome in life. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I’ve overcome them, but definitely found motivation, inspiration and meaning in them. I continue to do what I do to the best of my ability in tribute to them.

What’s one thing people should know about you that would surprise most of us?

I almost died in a fire aged 4, which I actually set myself trying to burn a fly on the sofa. At my church they call me the boy who walked through the fire. It should be the boy who set the fire and was lucky to get out!

How do you define success and how do you measure up to your own definition?

Success for me is running my race, achieving great feats with the tools that I have and enabling others as a result of that work. In that regard I am absolutely successful, but I haven’t done it alone. There have been a lot of people who have helped me along the way. I’d consider these my role models in life/martial arts.

Pictured: Jamaica Karate Federation WKF Rep & Technical Director Nathaniel Peat (left), His Excellency Seth George Ramocan, High Commissioner to Jamaica (middle) and Alton Brown (right) at Jamaica High Commision – London

To name just a few, Joe Anderson & Terry Daly who made it possible for a young boy to train, travel and stay motivated despite the financial barriers, Wayne Otto whose input and mentorship took me to a whole new level, Raphael & Patricia from Veras Academy whose belief in what’s possible has had no limits, Natalie Williams who has consistently been a positive force since we were kids, William Thomas whose immense knowledge and experience have guided me greatly in recent years, and Nathaniel Peat who entertained a conversation about a dream, and has consistently given new life to that dream since. There are a few more, wait for the autobiography!

What are your ambitions after the Olympics?

Oh wow! That’s a tough one. Definitely dedicate much more time to my family, especially my wife and two children. They’ve made some serious sacrifices for me to continue within my sport – my turn to give back in the way I’d really like to. I’d also love to coach a national team and continue to develop young people and have real impact in supporting others to achieve their dreams. One step at a time.

Alton’s visit to India is being crowdfunded as part of our 2019 development plan. If you’d like to donate please go to http://www.gofundme.com/FairFightIndia2019. If you’d like to book Alton for an Olympic/FairFight seminar please contact him alton@teamalton2020.com

To contribute directly to Alton’s Olympic bid please use http://www.gofundme.com/teamalton

 

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‘The FairFight is a long fight’

Professor Stephen Chan is known to blog readers as the head of Jindokai – the international martial arts association which connected me with FairFight. A more- elegant Yoda, he tells me this is a long fight. Politely, he suggests I need more patience.

We are seeing real results now in Varanasi, but this visit has been about extending our work. Rather than fighting, we are planting seeds and it’s hard to leave before I can see which will grow.

This morning I had the great pleasure of visiting Banaras Hindu University. It is one of the most prestigious universities in India, and has a campus of 30,000 students. I didn’t write that incorrectly. 30,000 students.

The campus is beautiful. We met with Dr Uphadhyaya and Dr Mishra to discuss gender equality and the psychology of self defence. We hope we will be able to link our work with theirs at the Peace Centre at BHU with seminars over our next few visits.

Here you can see Charlie with Dr Manoj and Dheer, our local coordinator, as they look at a potential space for seminars.

The university is working to create a positive culture of gender equality on its campus.

And then…packing time. Remarkably easy, as most of our suitcase space is now empty.

Menka drew me a Varanasi peacock to take home.

And at BHU we saw the real thing roaming comfortably in the extensive grounds.

As it’s so hot, there are fewer monkeys raiding the city. Here’s one engaged in the usual parkour.

There’s no shortage of swag in Delhi.

And as we wait for our flight home, I am once again like the snowglobe – brain is swirling with plans and potential. As these plans develop, I’ll share them on the blog. For now, thank you all for following this visit and giving us your support. Please look at our fundraisers for the development of this work: http://www.gofundme.com/fairfightindia2019 and also our fund for the awesome Alton Brown whose Olympic journey will surely inspire our students when he visits Varanasi with us in October http://www.gofundme.com/teamalton

I sat to reflect on what we are doing, soaking up this familiar view. I look forward to sitting there again and reporting on results. Project blog March 2019 complete.

The heat is on

We’re in the endgame now.

The quiet season descends over the city as the temperatures soar. Adding honey to my ginger tea has never been easier; it pours like water.

I went down to the ghat to take treats to my favourite cow. She was hanging out close to the river.

I’m used to seeing these steps buzzing with life. Now the sellers are few, the homeless have gravitated away and even the boatmen can’t be bothered to tout as I amble past.

The cows are having a beach holiday.

This golden galleon seemed both bizarre and majestic.

A puppy was scrounging for scraps along the water’s edge.

And these cows had scored some tasty garlands.

We love their faces.

I’m still not ever likely to jump into the river (sorry Professor Chan) but if there was ever a day to be tempted it was today.

Some ran.

Some dived.

Others just needed the shade…

…wherever they could make it.

We’re flying tomorrow so tonight was our last chance to visit the girls at Disha. Charlie brought her bo to work on wrist rolls with them. Here’s big Kajal:

And Susmita:

Then we had our now-traditional dance party in the basement.

Fittingly, our farewells were hit by a power cut so I can spare you the tears and sad faces. We love these girls and seeing them grow up at Disha: supporting each other; laughing, playing, training…it’s a privilege. I feel like those of you who read the blog really travel here with me and you see it too.

Tomorrow I wind up with the university meeting before heading to the airport. So this is the penultimate blog of this project visit assuming I don’t melt as the temperatures continue to climb tomorrow! Varanasi out.

On Wednesdays we smash the patriarchy (and eat pancakes)

The pace of this visit was always going to be fast. In truth, I’m not sure if I’m being swept along with the momentum or if I’m managing to surf. Either way, we’re getting a lot done. As the heat begins to rise in the city even the pilgrims slow down. The middle of the day brings an unusual peace to he ghat.

It’s never too hot for Pawan’s chocolate pancake.

My first meeting of the day was with another school and I’m very hopeful we will soon be able to proceed with our plans to make a strong local partnership to develop educational martial arts here beyond Disha. There will be more about this when every ting is confirmed.

We travelled to Disha for training and planning. I was entranced by this family outing complete with ice creams.

The great progress we have seen at Disha can easily be seen in today’s pictures so I will hold off on commentary and let them speak for themselves.

Muskan kicking:

Team kata: Kajal, Pooja and Ritu.

Anita punching:

Ujala sidekicking Pankaj

Pooja’s shuto uke

Rishika’s ready stance:

Susmita working on her kicking:

Anandi punching:

And in guard stance:

Anita practising kata:

Squad:

Menka with Anandi. Menka’s suit is still coated in pink powder from Holi (the festival of colours).

Kajal has nearly finished her bear – just the head to go!

We had a rickshaw invasion on the way home: two little boys hitched a ride until our driver hollered at them.

And on the ghat, peanuts are being roasted for the hungry pilgrims who visit the Ganges.

All is going well here despite the jet lag. One more day to get things done, then Friday will whisk us back again. Current mood:

Goodnight from Ashish!

The innocence of play and the city’s mask of darkness

A rough night here: a few hours of thunder and lightning from 3.30 until about 6. Regular readers will be delighted to know this didn’t deter the morning chanters belting it out stoically between the rumbles. I don’t know if the laughing yogis saw it off because I’d fallen asleep before they got their turn.

This was a good day to start with my RR shirt #nichecricketreference after the Ashwin/Buttler incident. I had to show solidarity to the pinks.

Katie drew a version of herself and Charlie stretching on the roof. These were taken several months apart but are now together. Which is nice.

I put my phone in my bag before leaving for Disha because I always think I have photographed the ghat too many times. Once more the colours and tableaux made me stop and take it out again. The way the people interact with the Ganges really is mesmerising.

I’ve been happy to catch up with my favourite cow. She’s always friendly and loves to hang out.

We took the first stack of equipment to Disha as although official training is tomorrow, we couldn’t carry everything in one trip. An impromptu juggling, sparring, and footwork workshop ensued. The girls are growing much more skilful in their practice and so it’s a great time to have more resources for their training.

The craft projects are underway – here’s a felt pencil case completed by the industrious Ujala.

And we had great fun working with focus pads – the students quickly finding their rhythm and distancing:

This is me explaining through mime how a stance switch can confuse the opponent in kumite. That’s why the confused face!

Lots of kicking went on.

Dheer was also learning to juggle as all genies should.

Then began our undercover operation. Knowing that the holy city has a huge problem with prostitution and human trafficking, I wanted to spend some time researching the locations and context. The railway station has historically been the centre of the sex trade but this is a different world which only comes out after dark so our observations had to be carried out discreetly and at a certain distance. Here’s Charlie, Moyee and me practising our covert poses:

Of course it was actually Dheer who took on most of the real research. A male Indian had a better chance of finding out what was truly happening so we really did try and stay out of trouble while he sniffed out the relevant trail and sailed off to the red light zone. Our wait was slightly tense, it must be said. However, he returned much better informed and without getting either arrested or knifed so that was also good. There is a tiered system in operation and it’s clear that the landscape changes rapidly away from the bright lights of the main station.

Under the flyovers small groups of women wait, supervised by their pimps. These are the older, cheaper, prostitutes. Younger girls are kept nearby, and the pimps escort their clients to the brothels. Later at night -11pm/midnight and onwards – it is time of the the college girls who are working their way through university: more expensive and carefully managed by the pimps. We did walk through the soliciting zone to see how the women group together and the men scan the perimeter. But we didn’t stay long as simply by pausing there I was attracting attention … as a tall white woman would do in such an environment. Obviously no pictures of this!

On the way home we passed this lamp emporium which I think is especially well-named.

AshaDiya (the organisation that runs Disha) means light and hope. Light is the best disinfectant – FairFight’s mission is to help bring the light. Right here right now as I write my blog there are so many women being abused in this city. You are helping to bring hope for their futures. Thank you for your ongoing support.

Hearts and crafts

Monday morning – still inside the first 24 hours of the project visit and I was thankful I’d invested in some super powerful earplugs. The event down on the Ganges went on very late and, as ever, the chanting and laughing yoga kicked off promptly at 5am. These were only loud enough for me to notice them instead of feeling like they were actually in the room with me 🙂 It’s not right to have murderous thoughts about yogis at 5am. Or any time…

Morning shopping took me through the busy alleyways.

I’m told there is a movement towards taking the cows outside the city to graze more freely. Too many of them end up full of plastic or injured in the traffic.

Katie Alexander, one of FairFight’s artists, has once again been inking some of our blog pictures. Here’s Arti from yesterday.

We had a good meeting with a school which might provide a base for a second FairFight club in the city.

Later we walked out to Disha House to bring the sewing and craft kits to the girls. It’s always a colourful journey. Here’s plenty of eggs and peas for sale:

And this family of goats continues to thrive in the debris near Samneghat.

As official photographer Charlie worries about angles, light and shutter speeds. Here she’s shooting the Ganges from Disha.

We got all the girls together to explain why I had arrived with such a range of craft projects. They were very pleased with the epic choices and each got to pick some for herself. We’ve also reserved some for their sewing teacher to use with them.

Here’s Ujala, keenly making a start on hers.

Inspired by the drawing of Arti, several girls wanted to have their splits pictures taken:

Whereas others combined stretching with hairdressing. Once again it was Charlie’s turn to model for them:

The others headed downstairs to work on their sparring before dinner. Here Kajal is reffing for Susmita and Ritu who were moving too fast for me to get a good shot! On the background, the students are using the agility ladder we left last time.

Walking back to Assi Ghat, we had the classic rickshaw bartering experience again. Sometimes I feel like I’m debating the extra pence just because otherwise the formal dance is incomplete. How much? 80 rupees. Oh no, I don’t think I want to pay more than 40. 80. 40. 60. 50. 60 final offer. No, we’ll walk, thank you. Ok 50. It’s a reasonable price for a quick trip home.

On the Ghat it is sitar music this evening. Lots of tat for sale. Excited children, sleepy dogs and relaxed cows evenly distributed across the steps.

I wanted to take a picture of this dog sleeping. Moving close disturbed him but he was happy to pose anyway, to the amusement of the tourists on the river bank.

Like many FairFighters before her (I’m looking at you Mrs Alexander/Dr Shpak) Charlie is a great believer in the nutritious value of the chocolate banana pancake.

This sign says every day before sunrise. It’s not lying.

Tomorrow the blog will be online later as we are taking an evening field trip to the railway station. A dot on the transport network, or a den of corruption? Tune in to find out more!

India March 2019 project visit – another beginning

Welcome to the project blog for FairFight’s March 2019 outreach to Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh. Regular readers will already be expecting a daily mix of local animals, travel updates and reporting on our work here. We’ll bring you lots of pictures and information about the girls living in the safe house at Disha – part of the AshaDiya Foundation. Here’s the standard shot of us leaving Heathrow:

And here, Charlie discovered the solution to jet lag:

We didn’t have time to stop and test it, however. Our first flight was late so our trip through immigration and the security for transfer was all pretty brisk and before long we were descending at Varanasi. The roads have definitely improved in the last 6 months and thanks to Dheer and Moyee we were soon settling in at Ashish, our regular riverside cafe/bunkhouse.

This puppy was scavenging in the street by the cafe and is typical of the street creatures in the area, including the humans.

This is the view from my room – a familiar sight to many FairFight team members.

We paused to drink ginger tea and unpack, then headed to Disha to catch up with the girls and their karate teachers.

The evening light is mesmerising. I’m sure Charlie’s picture of this skyline will be good.

We were thrilled to see the girls looking so fit and healthy.

I settled down to a discussion/catch up with the team – Devesh and Pankaj were happy to tell us about how hard the students have been training. They are very proud of the focus and discipline the girls have developed. The positive relationship between these girls and their teachers is clear to see.

Meanwhile Charlie was dragged off for a makeover!

The girls have now got their own beds which they were very excited to show us. Previously they shared floor mattresses.

They were also excited to show their flexibility gains.

Arti:

Rishika:

And Anita:

Priyanshi and Ujala wanted to show Charlie their kata as well.

We wrapped up for today and came back through mad traffic. There’s a big event on the ghat – it’s likely to go on way into the night so we’re digging out the earplugs! Tomorrow we start early with a meeting to discuss opening a club in a nearby school.

We didn’t need the sign directing us to dinner!

That’s us clocking out for project day 1. Updating same time tomorrow -WiFi permitting…