Today marks the fifteenth anniversary of the founding of my School. I date it to the first demonstration and class I gave in a small room in the Olympic Stadium in Helsinki on March 17th 2001. While going through the accumulated paperwork of the last 18 years or so, recycling most of it, scanning and shredding some of it, and keeping only the very few bits of paper that have value as artefacts in their own right (my eldest daughter’s first signature, for example), I came across this:
This is (I’m pretty sure), my green belt certificate. It’s dated July 3rd 1987, and I’d been doing karate for three school terms at that point. So this year marks my 30th year since beginning to walk the path. In that time I have dabbled in many arts, and trained relatively seriously in a few, and gone deep into a very few. I’ve liked at least something about every art I’ve practiced, and I’ve had issues with at least something in every art too. Here follow my top five martial arts, in reverse order:
Shooting a silenced Uzi on full auto. Oh my, what fun!
This trumps all other arts. A person with a few hours training and a handgun can take out just about any martial artist on the planet- unless they have also trained with and against guns. One of the major attractions of moving to Finland was that I would be able to take up shooting, and, while I’m no expert, I’ve handled lots of different firearms, and can use a pistol tolerably well. So why only #5? Because to me it feels like a fun activity, and a practical skill, but it doesn’t feel like martial arts. Which is nonsense, of course, but there you have it. Also, in most civilized countries, carrying a gun is seriously illegal so it’s not actually as practical as it seems. Draw a gun in self defence in Finland, the UK, Italy, anywhere really outside the US, and you’re going to jail. If you don’t understand why I don’t support the notion of the right to bear arms, then read Stephen Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. But this is not the place to go into it: some of my best friends do open-carry.
4. Tai Shin Mun kung fu.
When I moved to Finland, one of my closest friends (whom I actually met in a gun club, and who gave me my first proper shooting lesson) was teaching this very traditional martial art here in Helsinki. I have always believed that martial arts should include the health and medicinal side, and this was the first time I came across an art that explicitly included massage, breathing exercises, and herbal medicine as part of its core curriculum. In 1999 I had been intermittently incapacitated by tendonitis in my wrist and forearms, thanks to my cabinet-making job. That same year Num took me to his training hall and showed me some things, and I mentioned the problem. In 20 horrendous minutes he did what the doctors of Edinburgh had failed to do, and cured my tendonitis. He also gave me a set of exercises and taught me how to massage my arms, and lo! I have been able to keep the demon at bay ever since. This literally made my career in the Art of Arms possible. When I moved to Helsinki in 2001, Num and I trained together Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings from 7 to 9 or 10, six months of the year (he was in Asia training the other six). The Crane, and the Breathing Form that are in our Syllabus come directly from there, as does some of the massage and conditioning exercises (like the push-up-twisting-squat-jump-burpee). So why isn’t it #1? Because, being a traditional Chinese art, it came with a lot of traditional Chinese cultural baggage, including a kind of god-worship of the grandmaster, a very set hierarchy, and did not seem to encourage the actual personal growth of the students.
I took up Aikido the instant it became available to me, in the summer term of 1994. Rod Biddle, who had trained in Honbu dojo, was doing a degree at Edinburgh, and started a class at 8am on Wednesday mornings. At this time, I would normally set my alarm to wake up in time for Neighbours (an Australian soap opera) at 1.30pm. So getting up at 7am was a serious matter. But I loved it. It was super-quiet; no talking at all, no explanation, Rod just showed us the move, murmured its name, and we would practice it. This went on for a few months, but the class petered out because not enough people wanted to practice at 8am on a Wednesday. Fools. I took up Aikido in Helsinki that same September, and trained a couple of times a week while I was here as an exchange student. It was lovely, but not the same as our quiet morning training. So I didn’t keep it up in Edinburgh, but on moving back here, the legendary H.P. Virkki came and watched one of my classes, introduced himself, and we trained every now and then, him throwing me around, me teaching him some swordsmanship. But when that came to a natural end, I let Aikido go altogether. Still, though, my absolute top favourite unarmed sparring session ever was with Jim Alvarez, an Aikido teacher in California, when we met for the second time at the Dallas WMAW event in 2006. Oh my, that was fun.
But Aikido suffers widely from the fact that most of its practitioners don’t seem to know what it is actually for. It was founded as a misogi (cleansing) practice, an entirely spiritual pursuit. Which is why most aikidoka I’ve met can’t handle a jab or a kick to the nuts. It does produce some astonishingly good fighters, but that’s not actually its purpose. Don’t argue with me on this, go read the outstanding Hiding in Plain Sight, by Ellis Amdur.
If I trained just for fun, it would probably be Aikido.
2. T’ai Chi Chuan
When I arrived at Edinburgh in September 1992, I went to the Fresher’s fair, walked past all the stalls until I found the T’ai Chi club, and asked where do I sign.
“Oh, T’ai Chi is an ancient martial art…”
“No, where do I sign. I’ve been wanting to do this since I can remember”
“We do a lot of forms …”
“Goddam it, where do I sign???”
Something about T’ai Chi has always drawn me; the gentle, flowing motions, the long-term view, it’s just beautiful. And, quite frankly, it is the single most vicious and direct way of hurting people you don’t like I’ve ever seen. That may sound odd, but it’s true. The form is not a set of techniques strung together, unlike most other martial arts forms. It’s the physical embodiment of a set of principles and a way of moving. We did the Cheng Man-ching short Yang form, and my teacher, Steve Fox, taught every step of the form bit by bit, getting us to test why, for example, at this point we turn the foot, or here we tuck the tailbone. Literally every movement was tested against gentle pressure, and that training formed the foundation of how I teach all martial arts. The advanced class trained at 6pm, the beginners at 7pm, so after the first week I started showing up at 5.45, and watching the advanced class. After a couple of weeks, maybe a month, Steve gestured me over and said “join in”. So I did. It’s been twenty years since I last had a lesson, but I still practice the form every now and then to keep it available.
In my first year at Edinburgh my average week looked like this: Monday night: fencing. Tuesday night: T’ai Chi. Wednesday night: fencing. Thursday night: T’ai Chi. Friday night: kobudo (Japanese weapons stuff. Get me started talking on that one day. It was great fun, with blistered bleeding hands). Saturday afternoon: karate (I joined the karate club to carry on where I’d left off after Prep school). Sunday afternoons: if there were no extra classes scheduled, or tournaments to attend, or the termly T’ai Chi weekend seminar, then nothing. I have really no idea how I ever got through my end of year exams.
I guess the only reason that T’ai Chi didn’t become my core art was that the sword stuff is just not very good if you compare it to…
1. Historical European Martial Arts
You guessed that it was coming, right?
I’m not going to kick off an internet cat-fight about which master, style, source or system is best. But what we have going for us is beyond anything any other martial art can touch. Because we can learn from any tradition, but are not tied to a single one. We can experiment with group and school structures to our heart’s content. We have the best swords on the planet, and the best armour too. No metallurgist or engineer would disagree with that. We have a gigantic library of sources, and an emerging academic and practical approach to them. We have forms and tournaments, test cutting and bag punching, sharp swords, blunt swords, big swords, small swords, long swords, short swords, knives, daggers, improvised weapons, concealed weapons, longbows, crossbows, and even cannon.
I got into historical swordsmanship when I met a beginner fencer at a tournament in 1993, and we both bemoaned how unrealistic fencing was. We were looking for “real swordfighting”. Almost by accident, we set out to create it, beginning with my grandfather’s first edition of The Sword and the Centuries and working from there. By the beginning of 1994 we were actively seeking out more people to fight with us, and in June we founded the Dawn Duellist’s Society together. It’s still going today.
That's me on the front left. Yes, I had hair once. This was 1996, I think.
Of course, the lack of an established tradition does lead to a lot of posturing, vanity, foolish claims, errors, accidents, and that’s just me. Lots of others fall into the same bear pits every now and then. Because we can’t just ask the grandmaster, we get into foolish arguments and forget our common purpose. Which is very natural and human, but a shame nonetheless. There is also absolutely nothing preventing crooks and charlatans from taking advantage of gullible students, but every martial art has that problem.
But (this is the real reason why this is my core art) just about anybody, starting right now, could plausibly make a real and long-term contribution to the art itself, in a way that is just not possible for 99.999% of practitioners of established tradition or sport based arts. In T’ai Chi, for example, the best contribution I could make would be to become a really good teacher and train a lot of high level students and future teachers. I could help spread and maintain the art. But I couldn’t add another step to the form, or rewrite the sword syllabus, or do anything that would materially change the art for the better. Besides, I don’t want to follow someone else’s path. I want to blaze my own. And in HEMA, that’s not just possible, it’s normal. There are hundreds and hundreds of people now who are researching and developing the art itself, and therefore can reasonably expect to add to the sum of human knowledge. I just don’t see that in any other art. So that’s why it’s number one.
So, what are your favourite martial arts, and why?