Guy's Blog

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

Category: Travel

It's been a while since I last posted here, because I have been dashing about from pillar to post, or from Ipswich to Adelaide, teaching sword stuff to the koala bears, kiwis, and even the occasional possum.

I arrived in Melbourne on Wednesday November 6th, after a pretty quick tramp across the globe. I flew direct from London to Perth, passing over places like Mumbai, as seen here:

16 hours is a long time to spend in a plane, but as much of it was night time in Melbourne, I spent the first few hours asleep. I had ‘dinner' in Heathrow at 10am local time, 9pm Melbourne time, and settled in to ‘bed', with my surgical mask, noise-cancelling headphones, eyemask, and really good neck pillow. I woke up horrid early by Australian clocks, but every little helps. The plane change in Perth was easy as pie, especially as it was the same flight, same plane (so if we had been late, then our connection would also be late, so there's no chance of missing it).

At Melbourne the kind Scott Nimmo delivered me to Jeremy Bornstein's house, and we drank some amazing Armanac before much needed bed. I hung out with Jeremy and Leslie the next day, and Friday morning, before heading off to Geelong to teach a longsword class for Scott on the Friday evening.

Scott's wife Michelle delivered me to Gindi Wauchope's salle (“The Melbourne Salle”) on Saturday morning in good time for my full-day Fiore seminar, which was well attended, and good fun. That evening in the pub I made the shocking discovery that they sell glow-in-the-dark cockrings in pub toilets in this fine country. Really, whatever next? I expressed my surprise to the students present, and lo and behold, guess what I now have in my case for the trip home?

The following day we covered I.33, which I haven't taught for a while, but it seemed to go down well. It was Remembrance Sunday, so I paused the class for a minute's silence at 11am. I do this every time I'm teaching on that day, which is actually most years. Every time I do it, somebody with a military connection thanks me, and somebody asks what that was all about.

Monday I spent chatting and drinking tea with Eva Corona, giving Gindi a private lesson, watching some of Jeremy's aikido class, and back in the pub with these reprobates:

Gindi and Jeremy

I flew to Adelaide on the Tuesday, and was met by Mark Holgate, who runs a school there. I taught a private lesson to Ben, who asked the ‘horses or ducks' question in my AMA a few months ago, and a rapier class that evening to Mark's students. They train in a church right round the corner from, I kid you not, ‘The Windsor Adult Store'. I love Australia. I meant to get a selfie there but we didn't get round to it. Next time.

The next morning Mark took his daughter and I to Manato Safari Park. It was fabulous, with chimps, giraffes, tasmanian devils, wallabees, emus, lions, cheetahs, even nyala.

There was even time for a much-needed nap before class that evening, longsword this time. We got home from the pub about 11.15pm, and I was up at 3.45 to catch the plane back to Melbourne on route to Wellington. My napping habits and my plane-sleeping skills served me well, so I wasn't a complete basket case when I arrived on Stephen and Tamara's alpaca farm. It's birthing season down here, so this little treasure was less than a day old when we met:

Bede Dwyer was also staying, and Stephen and Tamara have more than a passing interest in Middle Eastern and Asian weapons and archery, which made dinner an education. Here are Stephen and Bede at the table:

Don't worry, we didn't use the antiques for cutting the cheese. Really not.

The next day Stephen drove Bede and I to the event that catalysed this trip: the New Zealand Sword Symposium. There I met up with many old friends, including Richard Cullinan, over from Sydney, Eric Myers, over from California, and a host of New Zealand residents. My classes were well received, and on the Monday I got to have a go with thumb-ring archery (I'm usually a three-finger longbow style archer).

“You won't need a bracer” they said.

Which would have been true if I'd ever done it before and my technique was perfect. But.

I've been doing martial arts long enough that I expect bruises as mementoes of training, but this one is large even by my standards!

The following day we passed by Weta Workshops on the way to the airport. Eric had a few extra days in NZ, but I was heading off to Sydney, and had just enough time to take a snap with the trolls:

I'm writing this in Paul Wagner's house, having done a couple of classes here (rapier on Tuesday, dagger on Thursday). I spent Wednesday afternoon and Thursday morning catching up with an old friend from Helsinki days, Jen Rowland and her adorable infants. She took me to Cockatoo Island to look at the really old historical stuff (some of it dates back nearly two hundred whole years!!)

Yesterday Paul drove me out to the Blue Mountains, where we went to an amazing hat shop (I had mislaid my trusty travel hat). The Hattery in Katoomba is an amazing shop, with assistants that actually know and care about hats. I bought two: a Barmah summer hat in the Australian style (at literally half the price you pay in Europe), and this gorgeous beast, an Akubra Adventurer, here shown with the famous Three Sisters in the background. Sorry about the model, he was the best we could get at short notice:

Which brings me about up to date: I'm teaching a class on half-sword plays from Fiore this afternoon, going to a birthday party this evening (the lovely Alonya, who took me scuba diving last time I was here), and teaching a Vadi seminar tomorrow before flying home on Monday.

It's been a wonderful trip, but I'm very much looking forward to seeing my wife and children after three weeks away.

It is standard operating procedure to write up an event review in the few days following, and blast it across the socialz. Indeed, after the awesome SwordSquatch I attended at the beginning of September, my various feeds were filled to bursting with just such posts. I was tempted to jump in then and there, but refrained because I hadn’t processed it all yet, and also on the grounds that if it’s worth writing, or worth reading, then it will still be so weeks later. There are very few fields (political commentary being one) where getting it written and published right now is essential, and being even a day late can make your writing pointless.

The event was lovely, as one would expect. There were many interesting instructors, including some I hadn’t met before (such as Maija Soderholm- with whom I actually had a short conversation in Finnish! And much longer conversations about duelling culture) and I think every attendee got their time and money’s worth, and then some. So much, so not much different to many other events out there. So let me focus on the things that made this special.

Firstly, it is far and away the most inclusive event I’ve ever been to. Not just in terms of being explicitly inclusive regarding identity (race, gender, sexuality, etc.), but also in terms of instructors, their backgrounds and experience. They have created a slot explicitly for inexperienced instructors to get some experience at event teaching under their belts. This produced some of the most interesting classes of the weekend. By far the most Renaissance thing I saw was Isaiah Baden-Payne teaching a class on Fabris’ footwork in high heels. This makes perfect sense, because duels would have been fought shod, and those shoes would usually have some pretty chunky heels on them.

A historical perfectionist might note that Isaiah wasn’t wearing early 17th century-type heels, they were wearing snazzy modern stilettos. But the point they were making was abundantly clear- footwear affects footwork, and here’s the takeaway: Fabris’s weird guard position works well, better even, in heels. And it’s easy to get hold of modern heels, much harder to get decent period gear. 

I was also thrilled to see the results of a conversation I had at last year’s Squatch with Rebecca Glass, when she told me she was memorising Liechtenauer’s zettel (mnemonic verses, the foundation of German longsword, to the point that the sources people are basing their interpretations on are almost exclusively glosses on those verses) and I got all excited about the medievalness of doing that. This year, she performed the entire thing. Sadly I was teaching a dagger class at the time, but she kindly did a preview performance for me when I was free. Memorising the zettel has to be the most medieval thing I saw all weekend. And it’s a testament to the organisers of the event that they make space for that kind of thing in the schedule, and more to the point, are themselves so approachable that Isaiah and Rebecca felt comfortable putting themselves forward and applying to run such unusual sessions.

At this event there is none of the respect for hierarchy (or even clicqeuyness) that can lead to the instructors being set apart as an exclusive club. As I’ve usually been a member of that club I’ve tended to take it for granted that that’s the way things are done, and when you’re on the inside, it’s nice. But this is better, for several reasons:

Firstly, there is a lot more interaction between groups that would not normally mix. Everyone fenced everyone, as far as I could see, and there were people crossing swords pretty much all day every day. This is good for training, good for socialisation, good for inspiration. 

Secondly, it prevents the instructors getting precious. Not that we ever would, oh no.

Thirdly, it creates a clear and transparent path for anyone who wants to teach to get started. If all the instructors have decades of experience and multiple publications, etc. etc., then it sets an expectation of ‘that’s what you need to have done to be worthy of teaching’. But it obscures the fact that those of us who have been working in HMA from the beginning were also beginners once, and when we first taught at an international event, we had probably less experience and lower skills than many of the up-and-coming young instructors. And much of what we taught back then was crap. State-of-the-art at the time, we hope, but crap by modern standards. Beginners are the future of the art- but only if there is a path for them to pursue the art along. And this goes double for those learning to teach.

I should also mention it’s the one event offering flaming tetherball as an after-hours activity, which is awesome good fun, and only looks dangerous.

Plus, Mike Lerner set up spear-throwing battleships. I cannot possibly do justice to his introduction to the game, nor the sheer exuberance with which he kept a whole lot of somewhat drunk swordspeople safe while throwing spears at targets. Yes, weapons and alcohol shouldn’t usually mix, but he did an amazing job of setting up and running the game in such a way that it really was safe. Plus, it turns out I’m quite good at throwing spears. I even won a beer!

No wonder this is the only event I’ve ever bought special underwear for. Really. These from MeUndies  encapsulate the Squatch experience.

Rainbow unicorns and stars- but also, really comfortable.

As last year, the organisers gave themselves permission to reward the sorts of behaviour they want to see more of, and during the closing ceremonies they handed out a lot of prizes, for all sorts of things. One student got a beautiful sharp sword made by Gus Trim. One of the volunteers did too. And one instructor. Me. I’m not sure why, but clearly I’ve been doing something right. 

The last time I was in Seattle, in April this year, Gus came by to visit and show me some of his latest creations. I played with them all, and he asked me which was my favourite. The slashiest, wickedest messer was the stand-out choice for me. With no less than three martles on the blade (the bit where the back edge widens out in a spur, to add mass to that bit of the cutting edge). It was gorgeous. And it was the one they gave me during the closing ceremonies. Oh my. Words failed me then, and they continue to fail me nearly a month later. It even came with a group hug. This moment was one of the highlights of my career.

So if you’re thinking about going next year, don’t think, just do it. And if you have an idea for a class, pitch it to them through their online form (all the instructors have to do that- it’s the only way to get on the roster). They won’t bite, and you’re guaranteed a supportive, welcoming, environment whether this is your first event, or your fiftieth, and whether you’re teaching, training, just watching, or all three. See you there!

I have just returned from a trip to the USA, centred around Lord Baltimore’s Challenge, a rapier-themed event held in, you guessed it, Baltimore, and organised by David Biggs.
Because of the vagaries of international air travel, I flew to New York on Wednesday 3rd, and took the train down to Baltimore on the 5th. This gave me a full day in Manhattan, which I spent hanging out in the Metropolitan Museum of Art with Jared Kirby, and then in the Morgan Library.
Oh my. The Met is huge, and has everything.
Even Christian Cameron in a glass case.

(Note, probably not actually Christian)

Before going to visit Christian, I paid homage to the Studiolo of Gubbio. I remember it from my last trip in 2001 as a woodworker’s explosion. Hot damn that’s some fine marquetry. I love my study, but wow, this is in a different league. While chatting to Jared about it I spotted the garter symbol (the ring-shaped object on the left in the picture), and said that the owner of the studio was probably a Knight of the Garter.


I’d forgotten, or never quite made the connection, that the Studiolo of Gubbio was made for Federico da Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino! Father of Guidobaldo, to whom Vadi dedicated his treatise!
Father and son are shown here, but this is not the same study, obviously.

 

I should probably do a “Guy's guide to the Met” or somesuch as I could rhapsodise on about these museums for pages, but will move swiftly on to the event…

I took the train down to Baltimore on the Friday, and we began at about 9 on Saturday morning with a rapier and dagger tournament. I was ring director for three pools, and began each with this address to the combatants: “I am drunk, blind, and biased against you. Make it so even an idiot like me can see your hits. I’m not interested in trying to figure out what might have happened- if it’s not clear, I’ll throw it out and you’ll have to try again.” This established my expectations quite clearly, I think, and certainly I saw a lot of clean fencing.
After lunch I judged three or four pools in the sidesword tournament, which was fun to be a part of. Things were running on the late side by then, and I was not needed for the sword and buckler tournament, so I went back to my hotel room (chauffeured by the excellent Conner Craig, who looked after me the entire weekend) and got a solid hour’s nap. That restored me for ring-directing four pools and several elimination matches in the final tournament, sudden-death single rapier. Oh my we got through a lot of fights (on average there are 15 fights per pool, and a further 8 elimination bouts (I think) per tournament). Though at least one of my pools had seven fencers, so 21 bouts.
What stood out for me though was the honourable nature of the fencers. By the end of the day if a fencer disavowed a match-winning point, or called a match-losing point against themselves, I just took it for granted, because that’s what had been happening all day. It was a delight and an honour to be part of it.
Organising tournaments is not my thing- waaay too much work! But it’s certainly more fun to judge or direct than to simply watch, and while it was a very long day (we finished just shy of 8pm), it was very good fun.

On Sunday I had my classes. We started with an hour of learning how to develop fencing memory (as detailed in The Rapier, part three: Developing Your Skills Workbook), and then I taught a subject I’ve never actually written down, nor covered at an event before: Controlling the Story. This is my approach to eliminating expectations in yourself (to prevent the possibility of being surprised), while creating them in your opponent (to be able to surprise her). I think I’d better write it up somewhere in full, do you agree?Tom Leoni visited the event at lunch and gave a fascinating lecture on the Vienna Anonymous, a fascinating manuscript that is essentially a fencer’s notes on Fabris and Capoferro, dating from the early 1600s. The whiteboard looked like this when he was done:

17th century handwriting for the win!

Immediately after that I taught two hours of Problem Solving, running the students through my approach to training by systematically finding and solving problems. Of course I was then buttonholed by students wanting advice on various aspects of the art… which meant I missed all of Devon Boorman, John Mackenzie Gordon, and Mike Prendergast’s classes
One of the greatest pleasures of events like this is putting faces to names. Quite a few names I recognise from email exchanges or attendance on my online courses came up and introduced themselves. (If you were thinking about introducing yourself but didn’t, next time please do!)
The next day David the indefatigable squired Mike and I around DC: the mall, the Air and Space Museum, and then the Smithsonian Museum of American Art.
Holy shit. The plane the Wright brothers built and flew in at Kitty Hawk, in 1903. The Spirit of St Louis, the first plane to cross the Atlantic. The X-1, first plane to break the speed of sound. They have a goddam Moon Lander.


And at the MAA: the only know portrait of Custer. Rockwell’s painting of Nixon. Kehinde Wiley's portrait of Obama. The list goes on and on.

The following day I went back to Manhattan en route to JFK, with enough time to visit the Fountain Pen Hospital (fellow pen geeks writhe in envy), the Public Library to see Winnie the Pooh, and then the Frick Collection, because why the hell not.

They have, among a million treasures, Holbein’s portrait of Thomas Cromwell. But the buggers don’t let you take photos (unlike every other museum I went to this trip), so I scalped this off t’internet.
Home at last yesterday, in time for my younger daughter’s sports day- literally straight off the train from London, no shower for the wicked.
All in all, a wonderful trip, and the event itself was an absolute gem. Thanks particularly to David and Alix, Monica for the food, Lisa for the tea and general organisyness, Conner, my ring judges, and the attendees who made the event such a delight.

In a rural corner of County Clare there is a tiny little village (only three pubs that I could see) called Feakle, which is perhaps the last place one would expect to find a historical swordsmanship event. And yet, I have just returned from the Tempest event held there last weekend, which started off on Friday evening with some knife and axe throwing, and a slinging class lead by Kevin O’Brien (of the Turku branch of my school, no less). I taught a three-hour class on both Saturday and Sunday mornings, and the afternoons were taken up with tournaments: Longsword on Saturday, Sabre on Sunday. This was organised by Adam Duggan and Sandy Robinson of the Irish School of Historical Combat, and drew fencers in from near and far (I think Kevin travelled the furthest though). 

Helping Sandy appreciate the ligadura mezana…

The best way I can describe the tone of the event is this: apart from Kevin, I had never met any of the attendees or organisers before. But I felt completely at home the entire time. 

Better still, they seemed to really enjoy what  I had to teach, and to find my ‘consulting swordsman’ approach (where I asked them what they wanted and gave it to them) a refreshing change from attending a class with a set content. We covered all sorts of things, from how to hold a sword properly, to structure, power generation and control, and a short intro to Fiore (abrazare, dagger and longsword- nobody had horses or armour with them). My goal was to give them the kind of class that would benefit their training for months or years to come, and I’m quite sure that for several of the students, that’s exactly what happened. Once your eyes have opened to grounding, everything changes.

I can’t possibly name everyone who made the event so enjoyable, but I have to thank Hex for the proper breakfasts; Allie for the wonderful curry; Stef for being the Bard; Nick for bringing a pole lathe, of all wonderful things, to the event; Nina for the best request in class (and lending me her lovely sword); Megan for pushing me over in front of the whole class; Dennis for a great game of Audatia; and Kevin for the slings. As soon as I hit “Publish” on this post, I’ll think of a dozen more folk deserving of thanks.

One final note: tournaments often do not bring out the best in people— everyone wants to win. But at this event, the tournaments stood out for the willingness of the competitors to acknowledge hits against themselves, or dismiss hits that the judges would have awarded them. It was a delight to be a part of it.

I'm currently in Helsinki sitting at the dining table in my friend Tina's apartment, and it's a very good day, on several counts:

  1. I spent the weekend at my salle teaching my students. We covered breathing exercises on Friday evening, spent all day Saturday torturing ourselves with rapier footwork, and all day Sunday working on Longsword. I don't miss teaching every evening and most weekends; it's nice to have a normal social life. But teaching seminars is what I'm built to do, I think.
  2. While here I've spent literally every lunch and every dinner catching up with old friends. It's 10 am here and I'll be having sushi for lunch with my godson and his family. I haven't got to see everyone, of course- after 15 years here I have far too many friends to be able to see all of them in a single week. But what a lovely problem to have.
  3. While I've been here I've also managed to shoot a ton of new training video footage, for my various courses and other projects.
  4. I just this minute sent the final print files of my new Rapier Workbook to the printers. I expect to see a jolly fine printed proof *very soon*.

I'm off home tomorrow afternoon… and leaving again on Friday to go to up to London, prior to flying off to Michigan for the Hero Round Table. I have to give a 12 minute speech there, something I've never done before. An hour? easy. Two hours? no problem. Twelve minutes? Dear god, I've got no idea.

So I'm practising…

My basic idea is that heroic behaviour (i.e. doing the right thing despite reasonable fear of the consequences) can be trained for, and the historical duelling arts offer a particularly useful way of doing that.

It will be an excellent opportunity to practise doing the scary thing.

Fortunately I'm also doing two short intro-to-Longsword classes at the event too, which will be much more comfortable.

A load of unarmed people sitting down and listening? Very scary.

A load of armed people standing up and swinging swords? Not scary at all.

Not long ago I braved the North Passage and flew to Seattle via Iceland. This was about my twentieth trip to Seattle, but my first to SwordSquatch. The event is run by a group of Lonin students who got together a few years ago to create the event that they would want to go to. This is its third incarnation. I can’t speak to the first two, but if my Facebook feed is anything to go by they were awesome. My expectations were very high, and increased by the instructor line-up, which included the likes of Jake Norwood and Jess Finley, as well as a host of less well known (for now) faces.

From outside HEMA these included the legendary Ellis Amdur, who taught a fascinating polearms mechanics class, and Da’Mon Stith, who taught a variety of African sword arts, the first time I’d ever seen any. Let me put it this way: it’s a good thing Da’Mon is a nice bloke, so I never have to fight him.

The organisers (Beth, Shanna, Erik, Aidan, Leigh, Olivia, Shane), clearly think outside the box- as well as core HEMA subjects, such as wiktenauer maestro Michael Chidester lecturing on Liechtenauer, there was also Mary Mooney lecturing on European magical traditions and how they relate to swordsmanship. No wonder the event was magical. They booked a magician! (She also gets props for the best class handout ever.)

But it wasn’t really the instructors and classes that made the event for me. Nor even the three hour open session in the flying trapeze tent. (I went three times. It is very frightening.) 

It was the atmosphere. I saw a diversity of people there, on either or both sides of the teacher-student divide, all of whom were getting on with each other. For such a large event (over 150 people) it was remarkably free of politics and ego tripping. As Aidan Blake, one of the organisers, put it on his Facebook wall:

From day one, our goal for Swordsquatch was to create an inclusive, safe space where people could experiment, fail without judgement, and grow from it. Play, Fight, Learn. We wanted a place where everyone, regardless of their level of experience, gender, orientation, religion, race or anything else, was welcome. We also wanted to throw an event where tournaments were not the most important thing, but workshops are.

I’ve never been to an event with more prizes awarded- mostly paper plates with drawings on, also some medals, and a pink plastic unicorn, but also a few seriously good sharp swords. And I think that’s part of the secret sauce. The organisers have given themselves permission to reward the behaviour they most wish to see, regardless. And it works. It tells everyone what is valued in that community.

The Open Tournament was deservedly won by Jan Deneke. He got a medal and much congratulation. Yay!

But Sihong Fu, who came third, won a brand-new Angus Trim sword. Because in the opinion of the organisers and staff, he earned it through the way he pushed himself, without pushing anyone else. As I would put it, in their view he best represented the spirit of the Art.

I enjoyed my three classes; the students were bright and engaged, even in the post-prandial slump (teaching at 2pm is the hardest slot, I think). I revelled in Neal Stephenson’s Indian Clubs class, though had to bow out of the heavy stuff thanks to my still-recovering back injury. Ellis’ polearms mechanics was fascinating; it’s quite different to how I’ve been doing things, and he freely and clearly taught the inner mechanics that are often buried behind mystic bullshit or clan secrecy. 

SwordSquatch brings out the good crazy.

This is me playing flaming tetherball with Alex Hanning.

You read that right. A roll of toilet paper soaked in what Americans call “white gas” (something a bit like diesel, I think), fixed to the end of a chain, and set on fire. Then you bat it back and forth. It is oddly very very hard to see the ball of fire coming towards your face…

It’s also the only event at which nail-painting is strongly encouraged. I got into the spirit of things and let Kaja Sadowski loose on my cuticles.

Normally my nails only get a bit of bling when my kids want to play beautician. But one gay friend of mine at the event told me that my teaching in painted nails sent a kind of welcoming bat-signal to the non-heteronormative students in a really clear and unambiguous way. So don’t be surprised if you see me wearing it more often. It’s not really my style, but it’s a very small thing to do to encourage students who might otherwise feel automatically excluded.

If I had to define the event in three words it would be these: Kindness. Community. Quirk. I was right at home. And proud as hell of my Lonin crew for pulling this off.

In early September I will be leaping aboard an aircraft with a spring in my step, as I will be off to see my friends in Seattle (again). The pretext for this merry jaunt is attending the awesome SwordSquatch event for the first time. This is the third Squatch, and for the last couple of years in early September my social media feeds have lit up with a cacophony of praise for this event, which makes me a) very proud of my students who run it and b) rather jealous that I didn't get to go.
This year the stars have aligned, and from September 7th-9th I'll be there, along with some really good instructors.

I'll be teaching the following classes:

Rapier and Dagger. 11am Friday 7th
Weapons: rapier, dagger, mask.
Managing one weapon at a time is challenging. Managing two at once is an order of magnitude more so. In this class we will go through through my rapier and dagger skills progression, starting with games to encourage rapid learning, and building up to specific plays from Capoferro (or other masters). Students will come away with a system for practising and teaching control of both weapons at once, and new insight into the rapier and dagger systems they study.
This class will suit both experienced rapier and dagger practitioners, and those who have never used this weapon combination before.
 
Research and Recreation lecture. 1.30 Friday 7th
Weapons: bring any you like, but you won’t need them unless you really hate the lecture. Definitely bring questions though.
Research is what makes our art Historical. The process of developing workable fighting systems from historical sources is relatively new, and in this lecture I will cover what to look for in a source, how to approach that source, and how to glean useful technical and tactical instruction from it. We will also cover how to use translations, and how to organise the material into a training syllabus, if there is time.
If you have questions about a specific source, please make sure you bring a copy of that source, and if you are using a translation, bring a copy of that too.
I recommend reading pages 37-117 of The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts beforehand, as the lecture will be based on that.
Problem Solving for Any Weapon. 11am Saturday 8th
Weapons: this class is weapons agnostic; you will need the weapons and protective gear (and partner) required to set up whatever problem you are trying to solve. If you’re not sure, bring a longsword and a mask.
Skill development is a matter of diagnosing problems and solving them. The mantra for this class is “run a diagnostic, fix the weakest link, run the diagnostic again”. We will begin with surveying the class for problems to solve, and then applying my approach to solving them.
This will include:
  • How to run a diagnostic drill (if you don’t know what the problem is, you can’t fix it)
  • Distinguishing between technical and tactical problems
  • Setting up corrective drills, specific to the problem
  • Coaching practice
  • Practising at the optimal rate of failure
I recommend reading pages 176-187 of The Theory and Practice of Historical Martial Arts beforehand.
There is no minimum experience level for this class: if you’ve been training long enough to encounter a difficulty, then that’s sufficient.
With all my classes the content is heavily student-lead: I am a consultant, not a tyrant. If I were Fiore dei Liberi, that would make you the Marquis of Ferrara. So if you're planning to come, feel free to prepare questions or problems beforehand. I'll be around all day every day, and within the limits set by jet lag and other biological constraints, I'm there for the students. If you can't make my classes (because you just like other instructors more, that's ok, I understand, my feelings aren't hurt at all, honest) then come find me betweentimes and I'll do what I can to help.

I spent last weekend on the Isle of Wight taking part in the Action Challenge Ultra event, which raised a chunky £844 (so far) for the excellent charity Room to Read. Six writers set out at 8am on Saturday morning, lead by Joanna Penn who had invited her podcast listeners to join her on the hike. Some of us (like me) had no experience of endurance events, others had several under their belts already. We had agreed that we would go at our own paces, and not try to stay together over the course. The event allows many forms of participation, walking, jogging, or running the Quarter Island challenge (25km), Half Island (52km), or Full Island (106km). The latter could be done in one go, or spread over two days. I signed up to walk the full island it two days. As this was my first time doing anything like this, I prepared carefully, but without the benefit of experience. The most contentious of my decisions were a) to use barefoot style shoes, and b) to establish a state of ketosis before the walk and do the whole thing running entirely on fat. At the end of January, I managed to sprain my back, which did not bode well.

So how did it go?

We set off in fine style, and I spent the first 10km (to the first established break stop) mostly chatting to the Vancouver historian Donna MacKinnon, which passed the two hours delightfully. The walk itself was pleasant, with lovely views, and not too hot. At the rest stop I wasn’t the slightest bit tired or hungry, but there was a slight hot-spot on my right heel, so I spent five minutes on foot care before setting off again. The second stage was about 12km to the lunch stop, and included the glorious Tennyson Down. I had a short rest at the top of the hill, because I hadn’t realised how close I was to the rest stop, and then trundled in to lunch at about 1pm.

Most of that time was spent listening to podcasts, including Tim Ferriss’s fascinating interview with Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I spent another five minutes airing my feet (there were no issues), and scoffed my prepared ketogenic lunch concoction (streaky bacon fried in butter with some cabbage and kale, a dash of MCT oil and a squeeze of lime juice), stocked up on water (I was carrying only one 500ml bottle), and set off at 1.10. One of my team-mates was at the rest stop, but she was taking a longer break. A couple of hundred metres in, there was a moment’s doubt about the route, which triggered a conversation with the woman charging up the hill behind me, and we started walking together. Her pace was a fraction faster than mine, so by keeping up with her I was making excellent time. We chatted all the way to the next stop, 14km later. There I drank 750ml of water in ten minutes, because my 500ml was not enough, and there were no opportunities to fill up en-route. That was the hottest part of the day over though, so I wasn’t worried about drying out on the final 17km stage of the day. I aired my feet and changed my socks. Debbie and I set off together, and soon found ourselves in some pretty deep mud, slipping and sliding, which slowed us down quite a lot. There were several stretches of quagmire over the course of the 17km to Cowes, which presented the biggest route difficulty of the day. 

With about 40km behind me, my thighs were feeling it a bit (not so bad as after a serious footwork training session), my back was fine (I could feel where the sprain was, but it wasn’t serious), and my feet were a little tired but not painful and with no blisters or hot spots. When I sprained my back it was because while doing a deadlift, my right leg suddenly stopped supporting the load, which then crashed onto my lower back. I was unable to figure out why my leg had checked out on me, and had worked my deadlift gently back up from zero to 90% of bodyweight (it was at 147% of bodyweight when the accident happened) with no trouble. But as my legs got tired on the walk, I could feel the attachment points of my hamstrings at the back of the knee wake up and start complaining, and it was really clear that this was the problem that had triggered the collapse. It started out as a nagging local pain, and got gradually worse over the course of the next 10k. This gave me plenty of time to think about what to do. Should I a) ignore it ? B) keep on to the day’s finish, and then withdraw from the second day? C) withdraw immediately to prevent further damage?

It wasn’t so bad that I couldn’t finish the final few kilometres, that was clear. Long experience of this kind of injury lead me to believe that I could finish the challenge the next day, but it would cost me perhaps a couple of months or more of knee problems. This was annoying, because I was feeling otherwise fine- not mentally tired, nor seriously fatigued physically, and my feet were in fine shape (90+% of withdrawals come from blister-related problems). Just sore thighs, like any other training day.

In the end, I had to imagine what I would advise if I were my own student. Then the answer was obvious. Pain in the big muscles, ignore it and carry on. Pain in the joints, stop. It turns out that no part of my ego is tied up with meeting external (and quite arbitrary) targets. (On the subject of when to quit and when to stick, the best book ever is Seth Godin’s The Dip. If you haven’t read it, you must!) So when I arrived at the Half-Island rest stop 52km, 12 hours and 9 minutes after setting out , I went left through the Finishers’ entry, took my t-shirt, medal, and cup of very not-ketogenic sparkling wine, and went over to the Info desk to let them know I was done. I was very glad that my fundraising efforts were not dependent on completing the trek; that would have been a much harder decision, and I'd probably be badly injured at this point.

I should mention that the organisation of the event by Action Challenge was superb. The lady behind the desk made sure I was all right, didn’t need medical attention, and was being collected by my wife, before she would let me go. In fact, at every stage of the event, the organisation was simply excellent- from abundant free foot care resources, paramedics in attendance, free food (which I chose not to indulge in because I was being so careful about keto), and a very encouraging and supportive attitude towards all participants. I wouldn’t hesitate to sign up to any of their events in the future.

The data they provide is excellent too: here’s a sample. My speed was best in the first section because it had the easiest terrain.

As to my contentious choices: my footwear was amazing. I was wearing my Primus Trek Men’s Leather from Vivobarefoot. I originally started training with their Scott boot, but after four months of use, the sole on one foot wore out. I sent them back, and was sad to hear that they didn’t make the Scott’s any more- but the shoe I chose was actually much better for this expedition. My feet were dry all day, despite a lot of sweat and a lot of mud, and I could feel the terrain the whole way. Also, I found the fault with the boots on a Wednesday, and had my new shoes that Saturday. Great shoes, and great service. But yes, they cost a lot. Perhaps not the best choice for road walking, but for this kind of multi-terrain hike, perfect.

The ketosis plan worked splendidly too. I was never low on energy, or hungry, the whole time. I didn’t even need the lunch I took, I just ate it to free up pocket space. The only symptom of fatigue was sore thighs, and of course the injury rearing its ugly head.

My goals when signing up to this event were to meet Joanna Penn in person (she’s been hugely helpful in my writing career) and to try something completely different, ideally without injuring myself. Two out of three ain’t bad 🙂

Given the state of my knee on the Sunday, I’ve no doubt that withdrawing was the correct decision, and given how it’s responding to treatment and coming back online quickly, it was a very good idea to not cause any further damage. 

I need to thank Joanna for instigating this, my team mates for their encouragement and support (and a special shout out to Nicole Burnham and Ali Ingleby who both finished the full 106km), Debbie for keeping me company over 30+km, and especially the kind souls who have contributed so generously to my fund-raising campaign. It was a great experience!

I’m just back from a teaching trip to Seattle, and not too jet-lagged… which is good because I’m re-packing my bag for a trip to the Isle of Wight tomorrow. I’ll be spending the weekend walking round in enormous circles: two full circumnavigations of the island, totalling about 106km. Why, you may ask?

Well to start with, just to do something completely different. I don’t normally do any kind of monster endurance events. And while I was at it, I thought I’d raise some money for a good cause. What could be more important than educating children? It’s the silver bullet that solves so many problems. The charity I’m supporting is Room to Read, and you can find my fundraising page here.

Every little helps, and if you think this is a good idea, please also share the link with your friends.

I’ll write up the experience next week…

 

You can read more here about my preparation and pitfalls.

Boldness is a key virtue in swordsmanship, at least according to Fiore dei Liberi (and who am I to argue?). So I’d like to commend Adam Weller of Auckland Sword and Shield for having the wit and boldness to contact me and ask me to come to Auckland to teach a seminar for him. About a dozen enthusiasts from northern New Zealand congregated in a scout hall in Auckland for a day of dagger training, and another of longsword. It went extremely well, I thought, and as usual I let the students determine the content so we also covered the first six plays of abrazare in the beginning of day one. This laid an excellent base for us to build on. I moved on from Auckland having seen old friends and made new ones, and I hope given a boost to Fiore scholarship in the area.

I then got on another spine-wrecker (I mean aircraft) and tootled across the Tasman Sea to Sydney, home of my old friend and comrade in arms Paul Wagner, who hosted me for the week, and set up a series of evening classes for three of the Stoccata branches. Monday night we covered some Vadi longsword for Paul’s group; Wednesday we covered Fiore’s plays of the sword in one hand for Richard Cullinan’s group, and last night we did ‘how would Fiore counter Liechtenauer’ for Stuart McDermid’s group. As always, as a consulting swordsman, I let the organizers decide what they needed, and gave them that. What did I do on Tuesday, you may very well ask. Well, I spent Tuesday hanging out with a dear friend and her two glorious children, kicking a football in the garden, reading them stories, and generally catching up.  Teaching swordsmanship is the best job ever, obviously, but you’ve got to take time off sometimes!

Wednesday morning though was a revelation. My friend Alonya Mazoyer, whom I know through sword swinging, happens to be a very highly qualified SCUBA instructor, and while we were in New Zealand I mentioned that I’d never tried it. She took a day off work, organized the gear, and picked me up at 7am on Wednesday to go diving. We went to a little sandy beach in Sydney harbor, geared up, and got in the water. Then she wanted me to actually breathe in while my face was immersed. “Are you fucking nuts?” My whole body replied (my mouth didn’t). But obedience is a skill which I can apply when needed, and after a couple of tries, I managed it. Of course there was a regulator supplying air in my mouth at the time, but try telling my lizard brain that. We went through the key skill of breathing in and out in very shallow water, then went a bit deeper and did the three basic skills: remove and replace the regulator, recover the regulator after ‘dropping’ it, and get water out of the mask. Removing and replacing the regulator wasn’t so hard, but taking my goddam air supply and throwing it away was another opportunity to practice blind obedience in defiance of every instinct. But I managed it, just. Actually the hardest thing was clearing water out of my mask; it just didn’t want to go, because I was doing it wrong, water went in the wrong places (nose and eyes), and I broke for the surface. It took a minute to collect myself, then we went back down and repeated the drill until it was working, then “went for a swim”.

Under water, for about half an hour. Oh my.

We saw a baby Port Jackson shark. Pipefish, cuttlefish, really huge sea anemones, and lots of other things I’ll have to check my notes to recall the names of. This was awesome on every level: I was completely out of my element, out of my comfort zone, doing something really cool, plus I was dressed like James Bond. And it is really beautiful down there.

What next, you ask? I’m off on a plane in a few hours to Melbourne, where I’m teaching this weekend and Monday night at Gindi Wauchope’s school, Be there, or be square!

I’m flying back home (at last) on Tuesday, after three and a half weeks away from my girls. It’s been a wonderful trip, but I can’t wait to see them.

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

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