Guy's Blog

Guy frequently keeps this blog updated with thoughts, challenges, interviews and more!

Category: Fun

Surf Clam, photo © Allen Hemberger

I can't imagine how this passed me by all these many years. Have you heard of Allen Hemberger's Alinea Project? It's a thing of glory. He ate at Alinea, one of the top restaurants in the world, the sort of place where food is magic, theatre, and gastronomic bliss, all rolled into one. (I've not been, but if any of my friends in Chicago want to take me there next time I'm over, I won't resist.) The experience set him off on an extraordinary adventure.

I don't normally get on the blog to babble about cookery though. Even though cooks get the best knives. So why now?

Simply put, Mr. Hemberger went through the entirety of Alinea's cookbook, 107 recipes (with 400 mini-recipe component parts), and blogged the whole thing. Then produced a book about it. This is so very much like finding the world of historical woodworkers I blogged about a while ago.

His blog is a tour-de-force in recreating a physical practice (and what is more physical than cookery?) from a book. The parallels with recreating historical martial arts from historical sources are in-your-face obvious.

The magic moment comes when he realises that the book is not perfect, that there are errors. He even includes a list of those errors (which makes me feel much better about the occasional typos or outright mistakes in mine). And the presentation is simply breathtaking. Even the search function on his website is beautiful and interesting. Go and search for something, I dare you!

This leapt out at me:

I’m finding that I’ve slowed down on the haphazard jumping around through this book, and am trying to pay more regard to the seasons.  At first I wanted to just attack the recipes that seemed most interesting (and doable), but slowing down a little is encouraging me to look more deeply into these things. This dish is the first one in the Alinea cookbook, and I think I’ve overlooked it specifically because I had no idea what “nasturtium” (which I pronounced in my head “nas-tur-TEE-um”) was, much less what it tasted like.

That is what happened to me around 2003, with Fiore.

Plus, the dude can write:

The one service Cloudy Bay doesn’t offer is shucking the clams. I’ll be honest, this part scared me. I had visions of shell residue scattered everywhere in the kitchen, nicked butter knife blades sitting in the sink, me crying softly in the corner, a sad half-mauled clam limping sadly across the floor like some sort of tongue creature, licking the floor and tasting my inadequacy.

I don't have the book (but I'm on the waiting list for the next printing), because the parallels are just too juicy to ignore. He has one gigantic advantage over us historical sword people though: his maestro, Chef Grant Achatz, is still alive, and so Mr Hemberger has been able to literally eat the master's original versions of the dishes he has so laboriously re-created. That must be like being thrown to the floor (vewwy woughly) by Fiore himself.

Clearly, Mr Hemberger is our sort of crazy. I couldn't pass this by without flagging it up in case you'd missed it. I have a feeling I might write more deeply on this in the future, but couldn't keep it to myself meanwhile.

In other news, the new podcast reached 1000 downloads today! Which is unlikely to impress the Joe Rogans and Tim Ferriss's of the podcasting world, but I'm very pleased that it's finding its niche (there will be another episode out on Friday morning; and I have another ten in the bag, so it looks like this project has legs).

I know you’ve been thinking about nothing else for the last few days. Not the pesky plague. Not economic uncertainty. This, and only this:

What the hell is that thing Guy made?

Dale Belcher, of Independence, Kansas, in the USA was the first person to answer, and the only person to get it right! Well done sir!

It is of course a till for hanging my set-squares on.

Dale’s answer won him a copy of my new book.

But it wasn’t the best answer. That laurel belongs to Vojkan Selakovic of Serbia, who wrote in with this:

Perhaps I’m stating the obvious here, but it should be apparent that we are looking at a type of, perhaps unsurprisingly, anti virus barrier for historical manuscripts.

This is a semi-finished, though cleverly masked, DIY set.

In these dire times, we are faced with an increasing challenge of balancing between our health, our lives, and our need for analysing historical manuscripts*.

That is why a group of aspiring inventors…invented a DIY set for sword fighting instructors and dedicated HEMA practitioners. The current model, unfortunately, only cover Fiore manuscript dimensions, blatantly discriminating against other, lesser manuscripts. Something that will have to be addressed in the future.

So to give you a brief overview I will have to use an illustration found on the link provided [I took a screenshot. GW]. Keep in mind these are copyrighted, like, seriously, very strict and all.

View post on imgur.com

– Piece no. 1 is a plastic sheet/screen holder which is fixed to your regular book stand by a screw, or, if you’re really going for that authenticity – nails.

– Piece no. 2 is just a leftover part Guy Windsor put there to mess with us. It’s useless.

– Piece no. 3-4 are a disinfectant holder, a stand nailed to a side of the book stand. It holds your standard 2,5L disinfectant/hand sanitizer dispenser/bottle you probably have tons of by now.

– Piece no. 5 is a (cleverly) unfinished mock up hand used for turning the pages, pointing to a play, pushing the dispenser button, scratching the back etc.It needs a metal rod inserted into it, and provided are three rod holders (ideally all three can be combined into a 3m single rod for that extra level of social distancing).

Please forgive me for being a Captain Obvious here, but it had to be done.

Cheers!

*I hope it was obvious enough that this part was just a joke. Stay safe everybody, #StayAtHome, and stay positive (except if you are testing for COVID-19).

This was so clearly what I should have made that I sent him a copy of the book immediately!

In other news, I went on a walk to some woods outside Ipswich at the weekend, and for the first time got to see the bluebells in bloom. Previously, I have been travelling at this time of year, and missed them. 

Aren’t they glorious? 

For user-friendliness I’ve only uploaded a small version of the photo to my blog, but if you’d like the full size images  I've put them in a dropbox folder here. No copyright, do with them as you will.

Oh, you were expecting something to do with swords? Well, I’m working on a couple of things, but couldn’t leave you in suspense over that squares till a moment longer.

In a sword fight there is no time to think. You see, you act. The essence of training is to adjust your instinct so that the instinctive response is also the correct one. I’ve spent decades training my instinct, and  I apply this to literally all parts of my life. I don’t decide what to do when I get up in the morning, and I certainly don’t plan my week/month/year. I do whatever my gut tells me is the right thing, and figure out why afterwards.

I’m spending a lot of time in my shed at the moment. Not to get away from the wife and kids- in fact the best times are when one or other of them join me, and sit in the chair I keep there for the purpose chatting to me while I chisel. Or when my youngest is cutting stuff up on the bandsaw, just for fun. I’ve completed the major project I was working on (a Pilates ladder barrel for my wife), and have spent almost all my time in there since re-organising my tools and making better tool storage solutions, such as this saw till.

Please note, I should probably be doing that sabre video class for the Solo course, but I’m not. I will, but not until my instinct tells me it’s time. I wondered why I was spending so much time out in my shed, and eventually it came to me. This is a period where the normal illusion of control (I can go here, I can do that) has been stripped away. We actually have exactly the same degree of agency we’ve always had, but as good citizens we are deciding to obey the government guidelines and stay home (yes really please do). The environment seems stranger and more hostile than usual, and it makes us feel helpless. So I have been spending my time in an environment I can control, and exerting that control in a clear and obvious way by making things, particularly things that change that environment for the better. This is the linear opposite of stressing about the plague. 

When I figured that out, I thought “good job, brain! nice one” and carried on making this:

Here it is from another angle.

What the hell is that? I hear you ask. Well now…

I don’t know if you have ever written a book. I have, several in fact. And every single one is like being constipated for a year or more, before finally it forces its way painfully out, and you lie spent from the struggle clutching this thing you’ve made. I should probably have written ‘pregnant’ for ’constipated’, but I was present for the birth of my children, and actually, giving birth seems to be orders of magnitude harder than producing a book. 

My latest extrusion is done and dusted, and the hardback pre-orders have been sent out. Hurrah!

In it I take you through all of Fiore's longsword techniques on foot out of armour. Each play is shown with the drawing from the treatise, my transcription and translation of the text that goes with it, my commentary on how it fits into the system and works in practice, and a link to a video of the technique as I interpret it. The book contains a detailed introduction describing Fiore's life and times, and extensive discussion of the contexts in which Fiore's art belongs.

You can get the ebook (in all formats) from my gumroad shop here: https://gum.co/longsword1

It’s available to pre-order from Amazon in any one of their national stores, just search for its ASIN: B08629VNKY

But before you go dashing off to buy it: it’s Fiore sword geekery in the extreme. Please ONLY buy it if you are really into the historical side of historical swordsmanship, and/or you want to know how I think Fiore’s art is put together. This is not a basic introduction to how to hold a sword.

Or you can get the ebook for free… if you can tell me what the object pictured above is for, let me know in the comments, and the first correct answer will get the ebook. Note, that the object is lying on my bench, and may or may not be correctly rotated in the images.

I will also give out a free ebook to the best answer, correct or not!

I will post a picture of the object in service, and the best answer(s) next week.

A hundred and four years before Marie Kondo was born, William Morris wrote:

If you want a golden rule that will fit everybody, this is it: Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.

Which I think is a better rule of thumb than does something ‘spark joy'. Toilet paper doesn't spark joy, but I wouldn't be without it.

They say that money can’t buy happiness, and that’s largely true. But some things never fail to provide a deep sense of satisfaction to me, and I thought I’d share them with you. I’ve linked to where I got mine from, just for your convenience- none of the links are affiliate. And, just because I like them, doesn’t mean you will.

Let’s start with Tombow Mono 100 2B pencils. I mean really, if you haven’t tried them, you don’t know what a pencil can be. They are consistent, tough (I’ve never had a broken lead with them), write or sketch beautifully smoothly. Yes, they are ten times the price of cheap pencils, but they are 100 times better, so a bargain, really. I do use a 2H for some woodworking applications, but I almost always have a 2B somewhere on my person. These paragons of pencilhood I usually sharpen with Möbius and Ruppert brass pencil sharpeners. As with any blade I use, I’ve sharpened mine to improve their performance. Yes, I really do take the blade out and touch them up on the same waterstones I sharpen my chisels with. The brass body makes them more stable than cheaper sharpeners, and while they are good right out of the box, they are excellent with a little extra polish, and you get a beautiful point from them. You may recall I reviewed the book How to Sharpen Pencils and was only half-convinced that it’s meant to be humorous.

My Veritas apron plane so-called because it fits in an apron pocket, and my Starrett combination squares (I especially love the little one). I got these from Lee Valley Tools in Toronto, on a shopping spree with Christian Cameron (who is a pretty good craftsman himself). They appear eye-wateringly expensive, especially the squares, until you realise that they have a useful lifespan measured in generations. I spontaneously shot a video of them (and I never spontaneously video anything!).

My Indiana Jones jacket. My wife bought me this for Christmas, and it’s awesome on every level. Not only is it a really high quality leather jacket, it’s also made to the exact same pattern by the same company that made the jackets for all the Indiana Jones movies. I imprinted on Dr. Jones as a kid, and yes, I do wear proper hats, and am handy with a bullwhip (which you can see behind the jacket on the back of my study door). The hat, by the way, is not a Herbert Johnson Poet at some £300+ as Harrison Ford wore in the movies. It’s a much more reasonably-priced Akubra Adventurer, bought at The Hattery in Katoomba in the Blue Mountains outside Sydney, encouraged by my friend Paul Wagner. The bullwhips (a six-footer and an eight footer) were custom made for me some years ago by the excellent Alex Jacob of Cobra Whips.

What else brings a sense of gleeful satisfaction? Why, sending off a new book to layout. Yes, from the chrysalis of the Fiore Translation Project series of blog posts has emerged From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice: The Longsword Techniques of Fiore dei Liberi. It’s a bit late because I re-wrote a big chunk of the introduction, adding more historical background, lots of book recommendations, and thoughts on how to approach the manuscripts. 

The current back-cover blurb reads like so:

Once upon a time there was an Italian sword master called Fiore, and he wrote a really good book. Guy has read his book, translated it, commented on it, and videoed all the cool longsword stuff. Awesome, huh? You should definitely buy it.

Not bad for a first draft, wouldn’t you agree? But perhaps it needs a tweak here and there.

I celebrated this milestone by going to classichandtools.com who happen to be based in Ipswich! Literally a few miles away from my house! Which I discovered last week when browsing their site, and noticed their phone number area code. I picked up one or two entirely essential items. Which also, dare I say it, spark joy, and which I might write up when I’ve had them in use for long enough to fully appreciate their qualities.

Oh all right then. Here's a pair of Simon James holdfasts I got yesterday holding an awkward bit of Pilates equipment-in-embryo tight to the bench.

So, what do you find both beautiful and useful?

 

I’m in that funny limbo state between a book being finished and being published. My translation and interpretation of Fiore’s longsword plays (of which the current working title is now From Medieval Manuscript to Modern Practice: The Longsword Plays of Fiore dei Liberi. What do you think?) is back from the editor, his 2,370 comments and changes accepted, rejected, or otherwise acted on (that number is exact, not figurative. 2,370. Really. That's normal for a good editor with a 65,000 word document) and the resulting draft is now being proof-read. I expect that back in a couple of weeks, then it’ll be off to layout. Hurrah!

So it's a Schrödinger’s book, both finished and not finished. Done and not done. I can’t really concentrate on another sword related writing project (I think the replacement volume for The Duellist’s Companion is next up) until this one is really done. Instead I’m doing some productive procrastination, which for me is usually some craft-related activity. It’s something of a relief to get away from ideas and pixels, and back to physical materials. I’m making bookcases. This one is basically done:

That’s 18mm birch ply with solid cherry banding, and adjustable shelves, held onto the wall with a French cleat.

I haven’t done the cap or base yet, because I’m concentrating on getting books out of boxes. I can add the decorative but not actually necessary elements later. Bookcase 2 is basically the same, but with maple accents. I’ve been using the kiridashi knives daily since I made them– and holy cow, they are beautiful tools. They led me to dust off a chip-carving knife I’ve had knocking about the workshop for maybe 6 years. I got JT Pälikkö to make the blade for me, and I stuck a crappy birch handle on it just to get it into use asap. But I haven’t used it nearly as much as the quality of the blade deserves, which is partly because the handle just wasn’t appealing. So in some down-time between bookcases, while all my clamps were occupied with a glue-up, I started re-shaping the handle. After five minutes I thought ‘you know what? This knife deserves better’, and stripped off the old handle, and made a new one out of maple, cherry, and walnut. You can see part of the old handle in this photo.

Top tip: leave the wood long as long as possible- it's much easier to hold it still if it has a built-in handle! I epoxied the whole thing together.


Then I did 90% of the shaping before cutting the handle to length. I went so far as to actually finish the handle at the blade end before cutting the waste away.

The handle is finished in boiled linseed oil, then shellac. I made a home for it on my tool board- it fits in beautifully!

Of course, in my enthusiasm, I drilled the hole for the tang too deep, and it was visible at the pommel end, so I plugged it with a square cherry plug. I could have made it disappear with some antique-restorer trickery, but decided to highlight the error with a contrasting wood.

This is in the spirit of wabi-sabi: the things that make something imperfect can also make them beautiful. This is true in many fields, but not, ever, book editing!

There is magic in sharp steel. The feel of a perfectly honed edge slicing through wood, leather, or other targets, it’s as if the thing being cut parts before the blade like the Red Sea before Moses.

I’ve spent my whole working life with blades, first as a cabinet-maker, then as a swordsmanship instructor, so it’s odd to think that I’ve never made one. Well, thanks to Sergio Muelle at Twisted Horseshoe Knives, I’ve now made three. Sergio runs ‘Make a knife in a day’ workshops at his forge in the Suffolk countryside, and I showed up on January 9th with a sense of keen anticipation. 

In the three months between booking the workshop and the happy day arriving, I thought a lot about what kind of knife to make- Sergio is happy to help you make literally any kind of blade that a beginner could reasonably attempt: he even runs a three-day damascus knife workshop. His courses are individual instruction, so you really can make whatever you want, within reason. I wanted a knife I’d use all the time, not something fancy to hang on the wall, so I opted for a cabinet-maker’s marking knife, in the Japanese style (kiridashi). Because this is a very simple design with no handle components, Sergio told me we would have time to make a pair of them, both left and right-handed. This is really useful, because in fine woodworking you often need to use one or the other for maximum accuracy. And in the end, we made three: one left handed, one right, and one with both bevels which can be used either way. 

Here they are:

We started with the basic safety briefing (fire is hot, the British government thinks that pillar drills are more dangerous than forges running at 1000 degrees centigrade, etc.) then I sketched the basic idea of the knife onto a sheet of paper, and we got started. The left and right handed ones started out as a piece of steel that Sergio cut out from a sheet with an angle grinder, and the middle one began life as a farrier’s rasp. 

Our first job was to bulk up the steel at the point end. We did this by heating it up, putting the hotter end on the anvil, and bashing it with a hammer like driving in a fence post. I say we, but in every case, Sergio showed me what to do once or twice, then I did it. While I couldn’t have done this without his guidance, I did about 98% of the actual bashing and quenching and grinding etc. It turns out that having two irons in the fire is way more efficient than just one. You get maybe 30 seconds of bashing time, and have to re-heat for maybe a minute. During that minute there is nothing to do, unless you are working two blades at once. So in terms of forging time, two knives take about the same time as one. 

Once the ends that would become the points had been thickened, I bashed the blanks into the overall shape, first drawing out the handle, then shaping the point and the bevel.

I also put holes in each handle for hanging on a nail in my workshop. This was done with a punch, cutting through the red-hot steel, then widening the hole.

As you can see from the end results, I got better with practice! The first one is very wiggly woggly, the other two much cleaner.

I also stamped the blades with my initials. At the end of this process, which took maybe an hour and a half, I had two knife blanks cooling down, and the third about half-way done. The two forged blanks were ready for grinding to shape on static belt sanders.

Here you can see one blank straight from the forge, the other ground to shape:

Then the real magic: the alchemical process of heat treating. I coated the blanks in clay, leaving the cutting areas bare.

I then dried the clay in the forge, before leaving the knife in there (one at a time) to heat up to the point where the steel glows brightly, and is completely converted to austenite. Then out of the fire and into the frying pan (or in this case, the oil bath). The rapid cooling converts the austenite to martensite, giving the steel the crystal structure that makes for excellent sharpenability and edge-holding. 

Oh my, that was fun.

We then took the blades back to the grinder and finished shaping them. I knew exactly what I wanted, and I’ve done a lot of sanding of various kinds before, so Sergio left me to it while he heated up the tempering oven and got lunch ready.

The knives sat in the oven at about 180 degrees while we had lunch. This takes the very hard and rather brittle blade and relaxes it a bit, leaving it plenty hard enough, but tough with it.

After lunch while the left and right handed knives were cooling down, I forged the file blank into the right shape for the double bevelled knife.

Sergio speeded up this process enormously by doing some of the basic shaping in the powered press. The file steel was much easier to beat into shape than the high-chromium steel we used for the other two. It didn’t take long before it was ready to cool down before being ground to shape, heat treated, ground again, and then tempered. While it was tempering I polished up the first two knives.

The time-saving element of doing several blades at once only applies to the forging: grinding and polishing takes ages!

I didn’t sharpen the knives there- I was getting tired, and I have a decent sharpening set-up in my home workshop. So far I’ve got the right-handed knife sharpened, and have been using it for woodwork and cutting leather. It is absolutely beautiful to use. Sharp enough to split hairs, solid and stable in the hand, with enough weight behind it that you need very little effort to get the job done. 

What a start to the year! Three shiny new blades, some new skills, and what is shaping up to be a new friendship.

Sergio Muelle

If you are within striking distance of Stowmarket (Suffolk, UK), then you should definitely contact Sergio to set up your own knife-making experience. Feel free to share this with anyone you think may be interested!

 

Surfing is both huge fun, and very hard to get the hang of. On my last trip Down Under I was offered the chance to try surfing for the first time in my life, and jumped at the chance. My friend Jen Rowland and her two lovely children Rafael and Maya took me on a warm Sunday morning to Collaroy beach in Sydney. The weather was perfect- warm enough, but not too sunny or hot. In borrowed wetsuit shorts and shirt, lathered in sunscreen, I took Rafa’s board out into the surf and had a go.

An hour and a half later, I was done.

In that hour and a half, I spent exactly two whole seconds actually standing on the board. Proof, if you don’t believe me- Jen happened to catch the very moment!

There are many parallels to learning swordsmanship. 

Measure, for example. You have to be in exactly the right spot to catch the wave as it starts to break. Too far out to sea, and it just bobs you up and down. Too far in, and the moment has passed. Expert surfers get on their boards and paddle to get themselves to the right place. Beginners like me stand still and hope. This is so like fencing. When teaching beginners, it’s best if they start out standing still. Doing the same action while already in motion is much harder- and a necessary aspect of their development. Board paddling = footwork.

Timing. You can be in the right place all you want, but if you don’t hop on the board at exactly the right time, you’ve missed the wave and have to wait for another one. Get on too soon, and you drift. Too late, and the moment has passed.

Patience. I spent a lot of that hour and a half waiting for a wave that would work. I don’t think I missed a single one through impatience, which was great. I missed a lot through not realising early enough that it would be a good choice though.

Precision. A little too far back, and the board tips you off backwards, or goes shooting out from under you. A little too far forwards, and the nose dips and you get thrown off forwards. In theory one can feel either of these and correct for it, but I didn’t manage to realise in time even once. 

When it’s right, it’s easy. On several occasions I got myself to the right place at the right time, mounted at the right part of the board, and kneeling, surfed along in fine style. Standing up only happened the once, but I can totally see that when you have the knack, it will be exhilarating and effortless.

Feedback. The sea is a perfect feedback mechanism. It doesn’t care about you or your silly board, it just throws wave after wave at you, tirelessly. You either fall off or you don’t. Either way, the next wave is coming. The sea cannot ease up on you, or give you false positives. You can find gentle spots safe for beginners, or monster waves to challenge the very best surfers. Anyone can get perfect feedback every time. How much faster would we learn swordsmanship if that was true in our training?

Danger. Disrespect the sea and it can kill you. Get unlucky, and it can kill you. Sounds a lot like swords to me. I did stub my toe trying to snap onto the board, badly enough that it’s still visibly bruised a week later, but other than that it was an injury-free experience, because a) Jen chose a safe spot, b) it wasn’t crowded and c) we were lucky.

Failure. This feedback system generates failure automatically. My rate of failure was about 99.9%, if you take standing on the board and surfing ‘properly’ as ‘success’. This meant I got tons of real practice in, and definitely improved. Because ‘failure’ was fun as hell, I totally didn’t care how often I failed. By the end, I understood surfing much better than I did at the beginning. In swordsmanship practice, you should always be operating at your optimal rate of failure, usually somewhere between 20 and 40%, and this is true in every other field too. So the question is what constitutes failure? On each individual attempt, success was being in the right place at the right time to catch the wave. When that got easier, success became getting onto the right place on the board, after catching the wave. In those areas, my failure rate was around 40% (that’s what it felt like, anyway, and my instinct is pretty good about these sorts of things). This is a useful lesson- a big mistake I see beginners make is to view full-speed execution of the technique in competitive freeplay as ‘success’- which is a very high bar, and will keep them at 100% failure for a long time. It’s important to identify lower bars to jump, or steps on the ladder to climb, and to have a specific definition of ‘success’ for every iteration of the action.

Know when to stop. Fatigue is the enemy of skills acquisition, so when I felt that I’d learned everything I could that day, I stopped. (This is the voice of wisdom borne of painful experience.) After 90 minutes, I was getting mentally tired and my toe was sore enough that I had decided to not even try standing for the last fifteen minutes or so. After I’d made the decision to bring things to a close, I stopped after the next successful wave- it’s always a good idea to finish on a success.

I often get asked “What's your favourite sword?”

Here's my answer:

How can one possibly choose amongst so many lovely options?

And in other news, I finished my sword rack, at last! It's in cherry, with acrylic supports, and carved finials:

And it's rather over-loaded:

Because how on earth could I leave any one of these in the bag? They'd feel left-out, unloved, lonely.

The rack is not primarily about display. It's about keeping my most-used swords easily to hand, lowering the barriers to picking them up and practising.

That it looks good too is a bonus. I am pleasantly surprised by the acrylic: I've never used plastic in a design before. I chose it to minimise the visual intrusion of the rack, and I think it works really well.

And yes, I am sourcing more attractive screws. Those horrid chrome posidrive things must go.

For the woodworkers out there, the mantelpiece is made of oak, and finished straight from the plane (no sanding) with linseed oil. The brackets are also straight from the blade, including the screw hole cover. The mantel fits into the brackets with sliding dovetails.

I cut the sliding tail entirely by hand, eyeballing the angle, because some fool designer (also me) made the clip end such that there was no way to get the tail onto a machine, or even use a plane on it. Because the most fun bit of woodwork is making difficult things that are completely invisible.

 

Approximately every 365 days there falls a date celebrated for many things, but in my household principally as the anniversary of my birth. Yes, you have anticipated me: it was my birthday.
As is delightfully customary, I was showered with gifts, chief among them a tome that has, quite simply, changed my life.
How to Sharpen Pencils, by David Rees (henceforth referred to as “The Master”) sets out in clear and pellucid prose the principles and practices of that once-exalted, now sadly under-appreciated craft, the sharpening of pencils. He includes a complete theoretical underpinning, and much sage and practical advice to the novice, not omitting (which gladdened my swordsmanly heart) a thorough warm-up. Because, let us face this truth unstintingly, pencil sharpening is primarily a physical craft, to be mastered before approaching the metaphysical sharpening of graphite encased in fragrant cedar.
The Master is clearly a man of surpassing patience and precision, but he does not neglect the aesthetics of his art: interleaved throughout this meisterwerk are “Reveries”, miniature photographic essays of appreciation for early mechanical pencil sharpening devices. These are included, I think, to raise the reader to a state of consciousness better suited to a deeper appreciation of the perfection that is tantalisingly visible in the crafting of a pencil point, yet will ever elude us.
Just as perfection must ever elude the author of any book. I might point out that The Master, whose veneration of accuracy verges on (but never quite o’ersteps the bounds of) pedantry, would under no circumstances have written “site” for “sight”, as appears on page 96. I suspect some publisher’s minion, jealous of an attainment that will forever be beyond their grasp, of deliberately inserting this homophonous error. Perhaps the same saboteur that misleadingly and entirely erroneously placed this book in the “Humor” category. (I apologise most profusely to my readership for the appalling lack of a ‘u’ in Humor, here. I am quoting directly from the back cover of the book and cannot be held responsible.)
Yet there remains one baffling omission: nowhere does The Master address the pressing issue of pocket-sharpener maintenance, other than simple cleaning of the egress slot. It is surely necessary to, as occasion demands, remove the blade with a small screwdriver (of a type common to jewellers and electricians), and polish the flat of it on a suitable whetstone, re-shape the bevel on same, and return it to the sharpener body, being careful to replace the screw snugly to prevent it falling out, thus freeing the blade with potentially serious consequences, but not so snugly as to render future removal for re-sharpening unnecessarily laborious. This simple process can in many cases transform a lacklustre sharpener.
Here, I also must point out that in my time as a cabinet-maker, I was wont to sharpen pencils with a very sharp chisel, and for the finest point, a small hand plane. This is, I admit perhaps beyond the scope of the specialist pencil sharpening professional, but I would, if pressed, be willing to demonstrate these techniques for the edification and delight of fellow enthusiasts.
Neither of these lacunae are sufficiently serious to detract from the overwhelming excellence of this book; I mention them in the spirit of the ambitious pursuit of perfection that so imbues this work.
This book is not just for Christmas: it is, like puppies, for life.

The trumpet-blast of the Star Wars theme when that logo hits the screen transports me instantly back to the age of 11. Everything onscreen after that gets absorbed with the absolute trust and lack of cynicism that you’d expect of a person who still maybe sort of believes in Santa Claus. It’s magic, pure and simple.

So don’t come to me for an adult response to these movies. 

I loved The Force Awakens. It was pure Star Wars. 

Rogue One is arguably a much better film, and I enjoyed it, but to me it didn’t deliver the heroin-injection of Star Wars magic that I was expecting until the very last moments when Darth Vader lit up his lightsaber. That’s when I really understood that the key, essential, thing that makes Star Wars Star Wars for me is the Jedi stuff. Lightsabers. Force chokes. Magic.

The Last Jedi delivered Jedi magic in spades, and I loved it. Best movie of the franchise, perhaps. They even snuck Yoda in there. So you can imagine my horror and disgust to learn about the self-styled ‘true fans’ getting up in arms about how rubbish it was, because it has women in non-sexualised roles, and even, gods forfend, not-white people in major roles. And even, horrors, not-white-women-in-not-sexualised-roles. Oh no! What is the world coming to! Next we’ll have to give them equal pay for equal work! (I actually tried to explain the wage gap to my daughters. They were initially baffled, as in ‘how is that possible’, and then furious. I think their future employers may find themselves on the sticky end of an arm-bar if they try to pull that shit.)

In other words, a bunch of entitled whiteboy wankers are furious that ‘their’ franchise has been taken over by nasty girls and nasty brown people. This is plainly disgusting, and the cultural tip of a gigantic iceberg of misogyny and racism. But it has also had the unintended consequence of making it seem like the movie is a shibboleth for arseholes. Decent folk who like equality like the movie: stinkers do not. But that is just not true. I have several friends whom I know to be as un-racist and pro-feminist as it’s possible to be with white skin and a penis who couldn’t stand the film. And I think I know why (because one such friend articulated it very clearly). They went hoping for the same experience that they had when they saw Empire Strikes Back in the cinema at the age of 11. And their grown-up movie sensibilities just can’t enjoy a film so completely filled with plot holes, red herrings, and ‘Doh!’ moments. 

So let me say this loud and clear: you can be massively disappointed in the new Star Wars movies, and still be a decent person. 

But I’m still 11 and still believe in the Force, so the critical faculties I bring to bear on things like the study of medieval manuscripts are completely switched off by the hum of a lightsaber. I can see all those flaws, but I just don’t care. It’s Star Wars. I mean, just look at this image:

There is simply no good reason ever to hold a blade like that, still less one that's made of goddam plasma. Her head is entirely unprotected: No! If her opponent taps her blade, it will cut her own left arm off: No! But during the movie itself, I barely notice that kind of thing.

So there was just no way I was going to miss the latest in-between-isode, Solo. I was going to go on my own because my kids professed to hate Star Wars, having never seen any of it. But the rank injustice of me getting to go to the movies without them made them object, and ask to come. I said they could, but only if they were likely to enjoy it, so first they had to watch a Star Wars movie at home with me. Then if they liked it, they could come, and if they didn’t, then they wouldn’t want to come. Seemed fair all round.

There are some critical parenting moments that you can see coming in advance. This was one. I had one shot to get my daughters, aged 9 and 11, into Star Wars, so I had to pick the right film. 

Episodes I-III? No fucking way. Despite the ubiquity of Jedi in these films, they are so bad. And Jar-Jar? No. But also the new movie is all about Han Solo, so it would make sense if they saw a film with him in it. In fact, those episodes were in sore need of a Han-like character to leaven them. So, of the Han movies:

Episode IV, A New Hope? Probably a bit too long and serious.

Episode V, The Empire Strikes Back? Probably a bit too dark in places.

Episode VII, The Force Awakens has Han, but he dies. Not so good.

The clear, obvious choice was Episode VI, Return of the Jedi. We watched it, and my girls have been rabid fans ever since. During the lightsaber fight between Luke and Vader at the end, Katriina turned to me and said “they don’t really know how to swordfight, do they daddy?” but it didn’t spoil their enjoyment. It was the Ewoks that did it. Only kids like Ewoks, I think

But you know what? These are kids’ movies. When RTJ came out, all my friends saw it. We were 12. One of them had his mother make him a goddam Ewok suit.

So I took them to see Solo, and they enjoyed it, it was ok. Nice to see Chewbacca (kids love Chewie too, because he’s basically a giant Ewok). Nice to see that the main baddy-not-baddy was a girl too, and one of the goody-baddies (these are technical terms, do try to keep up). But it was too much of a boy’s movie. I liked it, but it wasn't really a Star Wars film- no Jedi.

 My daughters have now seen all the movies, and thought the first three were too slow, but they really liked… wait for it… Jar Jar. Because he’s funny in a way children understand, and they just don’t know enough to catch the really unpleasant racist undertow.

Their favourite movie is The Last Jedi. It’s because of the women. Rey. Leia. Rose. Even the purple haired admiral whose name I forget, whom every single one of my friends who don’t like the film hate with a fiery passion. In almost every scene, there are women for my daughters to look up to, whose purpose has nothing to do with being attractive to the boys. 

Some franchises start out aimed at one demographic, and try to grow up with that group. Harry Potter is a good example: the books start with him aged 11, and end at 18, and get more and more adult as you go (up to a point). For the first generation reading them as they were published, Harry, Ron and Hermione were always their age. Batman also changed over time. In the 60s, it was really clearly a kids show. Then as the graphic novels got darker (starting with Frank Miller’s Dark Knight in 1986), and the movies started to emerge (with Tim Burton directing the first, in 1989), kids who had enjoyed the tv show reruns at the age of 6 had something much more grown-up to sink their teeth into at 16, and 26.

But Star Wars never did that. Arguably the most adult of the movies are the first two, episodes IV and V; and the franchise was taken over by Disney, for goodness’ sake. They are not well known as a studio for producing gritty dark realism. They’re famous for movies like Bambi and Frozen. Why grown-ups would go to see a Disney Star Wars expecting a movie aimed at middle-aged nerds is beyond me.

So my advice with this franchise is this: if you can get into the mental state of an 11-year-old (something I find disturbingly easy to do, but it seems not all adults have the trick of it), then watch them. Otherwise, leave them to the kids. Because then they might grow up just like me.

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I wrote Max Your Lunge in 2007, long before this blog was conceived. It’s past

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