What do you consider “real swordfighting”? For some, only tournament bouts really count. For others, there has to be a corpse by the end. My answer to this vexing question is below.
When I was a little boy I want nothing more than to learn real swordfighting. My mum told me that real swordfighting was called “fencing”, and that her dad, my grandpa, was an expert. He had been a keen fencer for about 70 years at this point, and was duly prevailed upon to give his grandson an introductory lesson in the noble art. This involved him sitting in his armchair smoking a rollup cigarette while I stood there holding a foil. When he yelled “extension!” I stuck my arm out, and when he barked “Lunge!” I stepped forwards with my front foot. I was about eight years old, and this was heaven. REAL swordfighting! Unfortunately though he was extremely old (about 88) and my family were living in Botswana while he was in London, so I only ever got a couple of sessions with him before he died.
I made do then with what I saw on the silver screen, though at this time sword flicks were pretty rare. Conan the Barbarian was my primary source, with supporting material from such legendary high-quality movies as Hawk the Slayer. But it was very very hard to get my hands on movies like this, as a) the VCR had only just been invented and b) we didn’t have so much as a TV to plug one into. But while I was home for the school holidays I went most Saturday afternoons to Gaborone’s one and only cinema, the Capitol. The kids’ matinee was occasionally such gems as Clash of the Titans, but usually full-length, uncut, Hong Kong kung-fu movies, complete with hardcore violence and some pretty nasty porn. My friend Mark and I would gloss over the bits with naked women in (we were only 9 or 10) but treat the rest of the film as instructional; on the walk home we practised the top-level moves we had learned. I never did quite manage to jump backwards onto a tree branch, but we waved our arms and legs with vigour, and we were both adept at the sound effects.
My martial arts education took more serious turn when a karate group started up at the local golf course. It was run by Korean man who barely spoke, and spent quite some time after most classes trying to break concrete paving slabs with his bare hands. He would set up a couple between some breeze blocks, put a thin towel on top, and slam his hand down. The top slab always cracked in two, but I never did see him break both at once. The class consisted of three or four students, and we would start by running somewhere on the course, finding a quiet spot and going through a set of ritualised opening moves before the punching and kicking would begin. The first command, which sounded like “Chariot!” had us standing up straight with our hands by our sides; then “Chumbi!” and we would drop a little with our hands fisted in front of us. This was by way of salute, I think. What with commuting to the UK three times a year for school I didn’t get a lot of training, but the buzz of doing real martial arts for the first time will never leave me. (This still strikes me as by far the best use a golf course has ever been put to, and I would urge those of you of an activist frame of mind to set up an “occupy golf courses” movement, so that these lovely spaces can serve a worthwhile function as outdoor dojos.)
My school at this time was a boys-only boarding school in rural Suffolk, not far from Ipswich. There was a general policy that if enough boys were interested in something, the school would organise classes in it. So I campaigned for martial arts, and eventually, at the beginning of my final year there, the powers that be allowed a karate class to start. My name was first on the sign-up sheet, and I went to the deputy head, a normally terrifying individual, and begged for a guarantee that I would be picked. The list of those doing karate was posted a week later and thank the lord, there was my name.
Imagine my delight when the karate we were doing turned out to be basically the same style, chariot, chumbi and all. But this time we also had belts and ranks, and so gradings. The club began in September 1986, which was also the beginning of my final year, and the year in which we moved from Botswana to Peru. This meant that two days before my first ever grading I had a load of really nasty vaccinations, and took the test with my left arm swollen and in constant agony. There were tears running down my face for most of the exam, and I was shaking like a leaf by the end. But, and here’s the lesson, I got a first-class pass. This had nothing to do with my rather feeble ap chagis (front kicks) and everything to do with my having got through it without quitting.
This martial arts heaven lasted only a year before I was packed off to public school and there was no karate to be had. But, joy of joys, finally there was fencing. Not only that but fencing had just been designated a “major sport” in the school, which meant that taking it I was not obliged to do any other sport. In other words I never had to chase after another fucking round object again. I cannot tell you how much of my life had been wasted by my being forced to pretend to care where a leather bag (football or rugby), or solid round object (hockey or cricket) ended up relative to a white line and some posts. Hockey at least had the decency to supply me with a weapon and people to hit with it, but the rest were just so stupid. Surrounded by boys who were sports-mad, as good little Englishmen are trained to be, I had always felt like a complete alien. Sometimes I even faked a bit of enthusiasm. But hanging about outside in a muddy field, wearing shorts in winter, and being yelled at for not paying attention to a completely arbitrary set of rules is just the single least explicable human pursuit. But fencing, that made sense. Someone is trying to stab me. I’m trying to not get stabbed and to stab them instead so they have to stop. Makes perfect sense. I am motivated.
I loved every minute of fencing, from footwork drills to technical drills to individual lessons with the coach, to the actual competitive fencing. But the tournaments themselves were a pain. It meant getting up early at the weekend, going somewhere in a coach (I despise and abhor all forms of motorised transport unless I’m driving), hanging about for endless hours waiting for it to be my turn, fiddling with stupid kit, and then finally getting to fence people I hadn’t fenced before. Total time investment: perhaps 9 hours. Total bouts: maybe 10. Less if I got eliminated early and one of my teammates didn’t so we all had to stay. Inefficient, the least good bit about the whole fencing endeavour, but with some useful aspects, mostly to do with the experience of crossing blades with new people.
I spent all five years of my secondary education doing no other sport but fencing, and by the end of it, I was reasonably good; good enough to be captain of the team, but not good enough to get into the nationals. In September 1992 I went up to Edinburgh University to read English Literature. I naturally joined the Fencing Society, and showed up to my first session wondering what the level would be like. Fencing clubs are one of the few environments on Earth where it is perfectly polite, friendly even, to go up to someone you don’t know and say “fancy a fight?”. This I did, to a tall Chinese-looking chap who was already kitted up. He agreed, and we set to. On the first pass it was obvious to me he was out of my league, but I did ok- I even pulled off a lovely doublé in carte (he was a left hander). The score was 4-3 in his favour when I saw the opportunity for another doublé. As I took it, he neatly stepped offline with his back foot and counterattacked under my arm, my point went sailing inches past his chest. 5-3, I lose. Then I noticed the logos on his kit- he was just back from the Barcelona Olympics, where he was on the British team. Suddenly losing was far less important than the fact that I’d got three hits! And having seen my predilection for the doublé, he had set me up for the second one. Lovely.
Sad to say though, that bout was the highlight of my University fencing, because at the time a completely erroneous interpretation of the FIE rules was being applied by pretty much all tournament referees. The rule states (in foil) that the attack is determined as the extension of the sword arm with the point threatening the target. But it was interpreted as “whoever moves forward first is attacking”. This lead to people running forwards with their point back over their left shoulder, and walking onto my extended arm, while flicking their point around to touch my shoulder. According to the rules, my attack on their preparation. In a duel, their pierced liver versus my small bruise on the shoulder. According to the referees, a hit against me. Given that my interest was in real swordfighting, I was not prepared to fence like that, so I stopped going to competitions. But around this time I fell in with some other fencers who wanted to do things for real, and started meeting up with them to fight the way we wanted to- in a way that felt real.
One of the books in my grandfather’s house was a first edition of Alfred Hutton’s The Sword and the Centuries. It opened my eyes to the possibility of researching historical fencing styles, and even provided some details about the sources I might work from. Amazing- there were books that could tell us how real swordfighters really fought with real swords for real! Then in the National Library of Scotland, I stumbled upon a little book that was to change everything: The Expert Sword-man’s Companion, by Donald Mcbane. What a book! I wangled it onto my English Lit course Identity in 17th century Literature with Dr. Jonquil Bevan, and even managed to get course credit for it- I wrote an essay on it called The Gallant Pander. Best of all, from my perspective, was that the smallsword material McBane presents did not contradict my early fencing training, but allowed me to apply what I knew in a historical way. It may come as a surprise, given that these days I am best known for my work on medieval Italian swordsmanship, but my first love was 18th century French smallsword as taught by a Scottish thug.
So, my friends and I started the Dawn Duellists Society, in 1994, to bring together like-minded people to fight with. I quickly found that in order for the fights to be anything like the books, I had to teach these people first. So I ended up teaching historical swordsmanship in order to create opponents. The whole point of researching these historical systems was to pick up new tricks for winning fencing matches with historical weapons. I had a complete separation in my mind between stuff done with swords, and martial arts. Martial arts were about killing people; sword-activities were about fencing. Martial arts were serious, fencing was not. Martial arts was about the Path, swordsmanship was about scoring touches. Given my interest in real swordfighting, this makes no sense now, but it was how my head worked back then.
The psychological wall I had built between swordsmanship and martial arts melted away during the summer of 2000. I won’t go into the full story here- suffice to say it involves witches and angels, sex and violence, lust, betrayal and a mountain-top revelation. Yes, really. And no, not while sober. Suffice to say I suddenly decided to move to Helsinki and open a school- a school devoted to historical, european, martial, swordsmanship. Above all, restoring the arts of our ancestors, and maintaining at all costs the martial depth of the practice. Because that, to me, is real swordfighting.