Phil Hewson, Tai Chi Master Of Stepney
Phil Hewson, Tai Chi Master of Stepney
On a brisk, sunny morning, light streams into the Stepney Scout Hall where a group of men and women dressed in softly shaded loose clothing are moving gracefully in unison. They have gravitated to the weekly Tai Chi class, lead by seventy-five year old Phil Hewson, former boy boxer and sometime taxi driver, and founder of the Tai Chi School of Form and Intention. Sitting on the sidelines, Phil is hunched against the cold, dressed in duffle coat layered over a chunky sweater. As his players sculpt the air with their hands, weaving their bodies with elegant and fluid geometric precision, Phil sits watching, hawkeyed and alert. He appears to be the epitome of strength and vulnerability; force and softness – qualities that are at the core of Tai Chi philosophy.
“I’m the master here,“ Phil says, “but Dawn is my main lady.” Dawn, a former City trader, became ill when she was working for a bank and came across Phil when she was looking out for a class that would teach her breathing. A flyer dropped on her door mat, which in retrospective seems improbably lucky – learning Tai Chi with Phil changed her life. She has worked with him for the past ten years and is following in his footsteps as a future master in Tai Chi.
Today’s class comprises a motley crowd of East Enders and new migrants, including a cabbie, a Spanish lady, a former city worker, and a local artist. On Thursdays, Phil teaches a sizeable group of taxi drivers, some of whom have been coming to his classes for thirty years. He has transformed many lives over several decades. “When you do Chi Kung,” he explains, “it is the expertise of fighting, but it could also be flower arranging or art. Then there is Tai Chi Chi Kung, and that’s what we do, basically.” In both these practices, the players move with fluidity, gently shifting their weight from one foot to the other; it is intrinsically linked to the notion of balancing the ying, the soft and feminine side, with the yang, the hard and masculine side that lie within us all.
As the players reach the end of a movement, closing their eyes in meditation, Phil speaks to them with quiet clarity and concentration. “Tai Chi,” he says, “is a martial art. Of course it is. And the lowest level is dealing with attack. Any idiot can do that! Any boxer, karate, or Kung Fu fighter. It’s a street fight.” And Phil should know all about street fights, growing up in the East End he recalls the Spitalfields fighters from his childhood, Danny Maguire and Buster Osborne, going outside for a spot of ‘cobbles’ – street fighting.
Phil takes a deep breath. “The next level is dealing with life. That’s the real opponent. Dealing with our egos, chasing after the next thing – a better car, a better iPhone, on and on and on it goes. Until you get a tragedy in your life, and you realize that your health and your strength and your well being are what is important. “
As the players move as distinct individuals yet in synch with one another, Phil intones, “We live here together, with every tree, every animal, and you think you’re more important than an insect? You’re not. Everything that lives and breathes has its place on this earth. We’re just a part of the whole, and we need to concentrate on the whole.”
Following his guidance, the group allow their heads to fall down to their chests and slowly bend forward, doubling over for a minute or two. Then, raising themselves upright once more, they open their eyes; mentally preparing, as Phil says, for a relaxing day ahead.
“I am so, so proud of you!” he says, his piercing blue eyes gazing at every one of them, as if they were his family, “your work’s come along so much! Hasn’t it? “ They beam happily for a moment, then disperse – hugging and saying goodbye to each other with a sense of genuine camaraderie.
Wally, a cab driver in the class, tells me that Phil’s nickname is Loz. Apparently, it dates back to his days as a teenage prize fighter – when he used to goad his opponent, “Come on, loz be having yer!” His fighting days are long past, yet his trajectory from boxer to cabbie to Tai Chi master is compelling.
Born in 1937, on Flower and Dean St off Brick Lane, Phil grew up in a family of seven, sharing two rooms, with a scullery, in what he describes as one of the most horrendous tenement blocks in the area. He left school at fourteen and became a boxer, a prize fighter.
“I was doing fairgrounds,” he says, over breakfast at a café nearby, “going up Goose Fair, that sort of stuff, doing a fight for a fiver. Which in those days was a lot of money – my dad earned about £1.50 a week.” His father was a street trader, his mother worked in a café in Whitechapel.
From boxing he moved onto Karate. “I found it very two dimensional,” he says bluntly. The waitress comes over and takes his order, a reduced vegetarian breakfast, plus coffee. “And hurry up!” he cries, with a cackle. “I’m only kidding!” He is a regular here and very popular.
“Now where was I?” We pick up the thread of his career again – after karate, he went into Kung Fu. There was also a short spell working in Spitalfields Market. Then he set his sights on becoming a taxi driver, so he did the Knowledge. The first day he sat in his cab, he realized that that was a huge mistake: he hated it. “The inactivity!”
So he chucked it in, and learnt Tai Chi under the tutelage of various Chinese Masters, eventually opening up his own school.
“When I first took up Tai Chi,” he explains, “I saw it completely as a Martial Art, which it is, but the mistake you make is mixing up the internal and the external.” He offers karate as an example of ‘external’ force, using power and muscle. Tai Chi is different. The key is being soft. You use your internal energy, the Chi, to defeat or defuse the power of an opponent. Form is the physical and external expression of Tai Chi. “A girl can defeat most guys,” he says, with obvious pleasure. “One of the great things about Tai Chi – I’m almost ashamed to say it, like I’m trying to be a feminist – but I absolutely love it when the girls are better than boys. Dawn uses softness to overcome. The girls do the form better than the fellas.”
He stretches out his arm with deceptive languor, like a big cat, wrapping it around mine, gently but with precision. “So when I take your arm martially,” he says, firmly pulling it towards his body, “I can use your power to pull you back, and break your wrist or arm.” Before I can react, he lets go, quickly reassuring me he would never do such a thing. I am in no doubt. His bright blue eyes twinkle with glee at the beauty of what he has mastered over years of practice; strength in softness, power in vulnerability. You can see how Tai Chi is a way of life for Phil, permeating every aspect of his life.
Out of his entire family, he is the sole member remaining in the East End, where he lives with his wife, Marjory, who works in a primary school in Spitalfields. After three quarters of a century in the area, I wonder how he finds it these days.
“We like it, the East End,” he says simply. “We like the mixture of people – it eliminates racism, in most cases.” He pauses and adds reflectively, “I think so. You hear some of the gym users – not my lot – talking about black bastards, Paki bastards, and all that stuff – horrible stuff, it upsets me. I’ve two Pakistanis in my class, Salim and Sahid, – you couldn’t meet two nicer blokes, and me with my Jewish background p we’re like that!” He crosses his fingers, waving them in my face. “It doesn’t need to be like that.“
Evacuated during the Second World War to a family in Newcastle on Tyne, he tells me with a laugh that it did not last long. “About two weeks!” The family did not take to Jews, so his parents came and got him and his brother.
“That’s how I got to see the bombing, you see,” he tells me, lamenting the fact that having lived through all that horror, the human race has not learnt a thing. “I hate the way we treat this world,” he says, with anguish. Recently, he began to use twitter, following stories about palm oil – the deforestation that resulted in its production.
“And all these orang-utangs are being destroyed in the name of palm oil! For Nutella! I saw these photos of them killing the mother, and the little babies left behind. It upsets me so badly.” His eyes brim. “This is our world and we are destroying it. They are living, breathing things.”
The world is a brutish place and hard to avoid. How do you live with it? How do you cope with life, the opponent, as he terms it?
“Softly,” Phil says, “that’s how you deal with it. You don’t get involved with it. It’s not going to give you anything, like a big flashy Merc. Tai Chi teaches you to deal with life, with suffering. The Hitlers and Saddams and Genghis Khans of this world never win in the end. Softness wins, every time.”
He gives a smile. “It’s the philosophy laid down by Lao Tzu – I don’t wanna do your brain in with all this stuff – but water breaks concrete, trees bend in the wind, everything is softness. “
When I go home, I throw out my giant pot of Nutella and spend the day holding onto these wise words from the Tai Chi Master of Stepney.
Phil Hewson, Tai Chi Master of Stepney
Photographs copyright © Sarah Ainslie
You may also like to read about