Guy's Blog

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

Tag: boarding school

Last week I ran a survey to find out what I should be working on next. This generated a very clear ‘get on with the “systems from sources” online course' response. I am following orders, and hope to have the first couple of modules up for beta-testers next week. I will set it up so that a small number of people can sign up at a big discount, on the understanding that they will let me know what needs to be improved before I roll it out to the public. I'll send an email to my mailing list when it's ready for preview.

The survey also generated some interesting questions and comments, which I have answered below.

1. Your Syballus for level 4 is a bit confusing when you name the drills but give no clue on how they are done.

My response: Yes. The level 4 drills are all on video, which shows you what they are, but they are not instructional videos. This is deliberate: my syllabus wiki is free, and intended as a reference resource for everyone who is following my syllabus. It is not designed as an online course.

2. I live in a small province on the east coast of Canada and have just started taking longsword instruction at the new and only school in the province. The instructors are basing their instruction on Liechtenauer's work. I know you have an add-on for Audatia based on Liechtenauer, but does any of your work focus on comparing his approaches to the ones you use?

My response: Not really. I actually think that the Liechtenauer material is not a complete system; it is part of a system (as Fiore's Longsword material is too). It seems to me that it assumes a lot of basic training on the part of the user; basics that we find in all other sword styles are simply missing from Liechtenauer. I think that the basic material is shown with the messer, with Liechtenauer's merkeverse being, if you like, the advanced course. I don't find it terribly useful to compare and contrast except with students that have an in-depth knowledge of both.

3. I think a book about building participation on a local level including marketing, weapon and and armour procurement and financing, finding a location and course structure and design would be just jolly. Most new students have a difficult time building momentum, and finding practices. This book should be a ground up treatise on how it was done historically, and how to do it today. Just saying…. I have been at it a few years now and have faced several challenges including being ‘Dear John” ed and the ebb and flow of new faces. Might even want to throw in some info about building a facebook group and how social websites can help(I assume that a social website historically was a pub) TY
The online training course sounds intriguing also…

My response: A book on how to start and run a study group or school… hmm, interesting. I might, but there are already some good books on the subject out there, such as Starting and Running your own Martial Arts School by Karen Levitz Vactor and Susan Lynn Peterson. I don't know anything about how schools were started and run in the past (I have an idea, and there are stories and legends, but hard data not so much). Leaving history aside for a moment, a booklet on how to start and run your own HEMA group might make a good instalment of The Swordsman's Quick Guide. Let me know if you agree!

Too many damn choices: 1. Breathing is my top pick because no one has really spoken on it. 2. The community needs a review of how to create training systems when pulling from historical treasties. 3. Really, your next book should be something fun, why I chose other: contact Mark Ferrari who did the art for Monkey Island, add in what you know of historical come backs, and then make a book!  Just a thought…

My response: I think I'd better get the course up and running and Breathing published, and Sent, before I think about a comedy project… but I'll take that under advisement!

Hi! I love you books and videos! Great work! I am an AEMMA (Canada) club member (Fiore Scholar) working towards my Free Scholar challenge in a few years, so gathering my armour and learning to move, train and fight in armour. Any future material (books, blog entries, videos, seminars) on all things Fiore would be very helpful for me and our club's students – but especially any insights to help with armoured plays/ drilling and sparring would be excellent. Thank you very much, Aaron Beatty (Scholler, instructor AEMMA Guelph, Ontario, Canada).

My response: Thank you Aaron, glad you like my work. Armoured plays and such are a tricky problem for me, now that I'm in Ipswich and not surrounded by armour-wearing thugs. I think this is one area where the guys who run the IAS might be able to help: Sean Hayes, Greg Mele, Jason Smith, Christian Cameron etc all have a lot more time in harness than I do.

I really need the training systems one as it is basically the only thing preventing me from teaching a class.

My response: OK, so the course would be useful for you; but in the meantime have you read this?

Hello, My name is Wiktor Grzelecki, and I'm a long-time reader of your blog. I also bought some of your books and Audatia game. While I disagree with some of your opinions, I greatly value your materials and input. I like the project about online course, but I would also like to ask you about something different. You are a father, I will be a father in a couple of months. I would like to ask you, how do you keep children safe, how do you keep sharp weapons knowing that your children are near them? Would it be enough to just keep them high enough, that they can't reach them? Or would it be better to have a key-closed chest or closet? Similar to those required for firearms? Or simply to show them wooden weapons, and metal ones with you so they lose the “forbidden fruit” taste for children (What I mean is, could kids be less interested in touching weapons if they got used to them? Something like teaching kids to use bb gun so they don't see actual firearm as appealing.). I understand that this is a complex matter, that would also require lots of time to spend with a child to explain what weapons are and how to use them, but I would like to know what do you think?

My response: Congratulations on your impending fatherhood! Kids and weapons.. This is a tricky matter, as it makes people very nervous. I'll explain how I've dealt with it with my kids in my home, but this is “reportage” not “advice”.

Guns: My guns (two revolvers and a semi-automatic) were always in the safe. The kids could ask to see them any time, though they very rarely did, and I would get them out (hiding the 10 digit combination from them), check they were safe, treat them as if they were loaded, and closely supervise how they were handled. They could play all they liked with rubber band guns and cap guns, but the real thing was (obviously) very strictly controlled. Now we live in the UK my guns are at a gunsmith's in Finland, so the issue is moot. If they had wanted to, I would have allowed them to shoot at the range, under very close supervision, starting with a .22 or something similar, when they were strong enough to handle the weapon.

Blades: Blades are easier, as they are less dangerous (it's harder to kill someone by accident with a knife than a gun), and they are everywhere; scissors, penknives, kitchen knives, eating knives… The kids have been helping to cook since they were so little that that meant sitting on the floor and banging on a saucepan with a wooden spoon. They have been cutting and peeling vegetables since before they can remember. Cutting began with them standing with their left hand round my waist and their right hand holding the knife, with my hand on top. I'd hold the vegetable and do all the actual work. That progressed to their hand under mine on the vegetable, and so on. The only person who could get cut was me (though I never was). Now they can chop stuff without supervision, using my proper kitchen knives (they are 7 and 9).

Until a couple of weeks ago, all my swords were at the salle (I didn't keep any in the house, except for a sabre for champagne). I'd take the kids to the salle quite often, and we would fight with wooden swords, lightsabres, or any other weapon. They could ask to see anything they wanted, even sharp swords, and I would get them off the rack and they could touch them, heft them, that sort of thing, but under careful supervision.

In summary then, nothing is forbidden, but some tools/weapons/things can only be handled under supervision. When my kids were very little, I kept everything dangerous out of reach. Since they have been old enough to understand that some things are dangerous, and also old enough to get a chair to stand on when they want to reach something that is ‘out of reach', we have taught them what needs supervision and what doesn't. Kids are curious, so I've always let mine have a go at anything they want to, while I control the situation to maintain the necessary safety. The idea is to teach them to use things properly, so their skill keeps them safe, not their ignorance. I even let them drive my car. They have never been injured or injured anyone else with any weapon or tool. They will eventually cut themselves with a kitchen knife or chisel, but that's ok; it's part of life.

Now, I'd better get on with that course material!


Sixteen years ago, I was at a crossroads in my life, so I went and sat on top of a hill in the Scottish Highlands, and meditated for a sign. A voice in my head said “go to Helsinki and open a swordsmanship school.” So I did.

Now that school has become “The School”, and has sprouted branches in many countries. The Helsinki branch was always the “main branch”, because it was the first, and I live here. But as my readers know, I stopped teaching there regularly at the end of November last year, and am now moving to Ipswich.

I have left a couple of swords in the Salle, just in case, and a picture of the In Gladio Veritas logo that Titta Tolvanen made for me, as a reminder to the students that the principles of the school don't change, but should be the springboard for their creativity, not shackles to bind them in place.

For the first time ever, I’ve bought a one-way ticket out of Helsinki airport. I don’t know when I’m coming back. But I am confident that while the students here can manage just fine without me, I am not entirely without skills to offer and they will be wanting some instruction again soon.

The lorry arrived to collect our stuff this morning:

Not all by myself then 🙂 Thanks again, Auri and Rami!


Mikko Kari, moving professional.

(And I would highly recommend this company, should anyone think of following us over to the UK; Mikko Kari here is a lorry-loading artist.)

My reasons for moving are many and various; the most obvious and pressing one being my mother-in-law’s health. But the justification I’ve been using is that I do not want my school to suffer from the dread disease of founderitis. You know, that horrible condition where the founder of an enterprise can’t let go, and stifles the growth and creativity of his or her creation. A part of me, I will admit, was somewhat sorry that my students in Helsinki have thrived in my absence, but, since the very first day I started teaching here, I’ve been saying that my job was to make myself redundant. It seems that I have succeeded.

But leaving Finland is much harder than I thought it would be. This is mostly because I had the homesickness reflex and attachment to place burned out of me when I was a kid. When I moved here, leaving friends I loved behind in beautiful Edinburgh, I never once suffered a pang of missing them or it. Sure I’ve kept in touch, but that ache in the space where a person used to be just didn’t happen. I don’t miss people or places. Or rather, I didn’t.

Thanks to the boarding school recovery work I’ve been doing, I’ve relearned how to feel miserable when I leave a home behind me. Remember when I wrote about defence mechanisms rusting in place? Well it seems like this one has been thoroughly WD-40d and is now working all too bloody well. This may seem like a bad thing, and indeed it sucks goats to experience it, especially as I am so out of practice at dealing with it as an adult. But it’s actually a positive development, in terms of my long-term psychological health.

I am leaving behind many lovely and wonderful people, and many places that have sunk into my sense of home. For some reason I can’t explain, coming to Finland was like having lead boots removed, ones I hadn’t known I was wearing. That itch between my shoulders became the sprouting of wings. Suddenly I could do anything, be anything. The challenge now is to retain that feeling somewhere else. And in the meantime, Finland:

Kiitos kaikista, ja nakemiin!

I am right now in Ipswich looking at potential homes for my family. I travel a lot, and have the practicalities pretty much down to a fine art, but the night before this trip I was consumed by a deep and abiding sense of dread. I feel like this the night before just about every trip away from home, but this time it was way more severe than usual. I manifest the symptoms by compulsively hunting through my home looking for that one thing that mustn’t be left behind, deciding on something, reopening my bag and packing it in, then realising there’s just one more thing missing, and rehearsing all the things that could go wrong leaving me stranded forever in some ghastly airport (because airports are filled with people who have been stuck there forever, right?).

On this trip I packed my essential swords (should I do a “what’s in my bag” video?), my essential woodworking tools, and had my oldest and most valuable books taking up all my hand luggage. These will all be left in my lovely cousin’s house near Ipswich until we move in to a place here at the end of the month. It’s a psychologically important step in the direction of leaving Finland and actually living in the UK.

The swords, tools and books took up all my weight allowance, so I had none left for random bits and pieces. But the dread was driving me and my bags were bulging before I noticed it, so I stopped, and spent a moment or two sitting with the feeling to figure out what’s going on. I travel a lot, I know what I’m doing, I’m a competent adult with a working line of credit and a large support network of family and friends; barring accidents which could happen anywhere, nothing really bad will happen. There might be problems with the car hire company; the flights might be delayed or cancelled; it might be very difficult to get the kind of home we need… but these are all trivial problems, easily conquered with patience, cash, and a little help from my friends. So what, really, was I dreading so much?

Of course. It was exactly the feeling of the last night of the holidays before being sent off on a plane back to bloody school. And the thing I was looking for to pack and take with me was the one thing I couldn’t take with me. Home. No amount of warm socks (in case it’s cold) or swimsuits (in case it’s warm) or an extra pair of shoes (just because) can fill that hole, and so the bag is never fully packed. I’m never fully equipped. Once I realised this, I could stop fidgeting with more packing and go to bed.

Dammit, I’d thought I was further along than this.

What has most concerned me about this whole boarding school thing was that it was affecting my feelings and actions for years in ways which in retrospect were wholly obvious and predictable, before I even knew it was there. Figuring out what was going on was a relief, because then I could make a plan and execute it.  It had been a field of landmines in my psyche, waiting to go off. Which begs the question, what other landmines are there yet to explode? I’ve been seeking out triggers and setting off controlled explosions, and it does seem like the problem is mostly dealt with, but this sick dread (which evaporated as soon as I got on the plane, and I’ve been fine since I got here) is an echo of the past that is still reverberating.

If you're wondering what on earth I'm talking about, you must have missed my other posts on this boarding school business (lucky you!). You can see them here:

The Price of Privilege

Dealing with it

Progress report: Letters Home, Abandonment, and the Matron effect

It’s easy to forget that “blog” is shortened from “web log”, which is adapted from “ship’s log”, which is a daily record of every notable thing that happened on board ship; your position, distance travelled, direction, weather conditions, Seaman Jones flogged for impertinence, Midshipman Smith lost overboard in a freak encounter with a Kraken, that kind of thing.

So, in the spirit of the log, I thought I’d update you on my current position, progress, and floggings.

I am working on five major projects at the moment. They are (in order of likely to be finished soonest) Audatia’s Liechtenauer Expansion Pack and the Patron’s Duel Deck; Mastering the Art of Arms volume 3, Advanced Longsword, Form and Function; Sent: Surviving the Boarding School Experience; preparing to move to Ipswich in the UK, in June; and sorting through and fixing the damage done when I was sent to boarding school. I am also working on a few minor projects, such as organising and uploading photos of various books.


Our dashing Patron

You may have read my post on playtesting the almost-perfect decks. Rami and I have received corrected pdfs back from Jussi Alarauhio, our fabulous artist, and they should be good to go on DriveThru cards very soon. The main delay has been that this is Rami’s side of the business, and he has been struggling with some family issues that have kept him away from work a lot over the last few months. I won’t go into details because it’s not my story to tell, but suffice to say no decent person would expect him to be doing much work at this time. I’m taking up the slack as best I can, but I can’t replicate his expertise. Still, I am confident that all the printed decks will be shipped to our backers and the print-on-demand service will go live, very soon.

Advanced Longsword

Just this very morning I sent back the 5th corrected pdf of the final version of the book; with only three minor fixes to do. The covers are also done; I’d be very surprised if I don’t get the book uploaded to the printers by the end of next week. Fingers crossed!

Sent (and other projects)

I received a grant from the Suomen Tietokirjailijat Ry (Finnish Non-Fiction Writers’ Society) last month to write this book, and I’m now 35,000 words into the first draft. I’ve not written much for the last week or so mostly because I’ve had a horrible cough for the last fortnight, and I only work on difficult tasks when I can give them 100%. The cough took the edge off my writing, so I stopped for a while and did things that take less brainpower, like for instance organising the photos of my copy of the 1568 third edition of Marozzo’s Arte dell’Armi, and uploading them for free download (or pay what you want) from my Selz account.

I’m also half way through preparing the free download of photos for Advanced Longsword, and of my 1606 Fabris and 1740 Girard.

It’s been really interesting to see the number of downloads, and the range of payments people have chosen to make. It has been downloaded 516 times, with the majority paying nothing (of course!); and a generous minority paying as much as 20e for the photos. It’s raised over 200e, which is very helpful.

Moving to Ipswich

This is a major undertaking, especially with two children. We know where in Ipswich we want to live, for the sake of getting the kids into schools we like, and we have some idea of what we are going to do there. After writing about it here, and posting the final destination on Facebook, the two most common questions I’ve been asked are:

1) What will happen to your school? This tells me that the asker thinks that the Helsinki Branch is “The School”, which is not accurate. It’s just one branch. The School will carry on exactly as before, and so will the Helsinki branch of it. While I can’t predict the future, given the excellence of the students running it, I confidently expect the branch to go from strength to strength. I wouldn’t have planned to leave Helsinki if that were not the case. As for the wider school, well, flights are cheaper from the UK than from Finland, so it should be even easier for me to get to visit the branches worldwide.

2) Are you going to open a branch in Ipswich? No. I have already gone to a foreign country and opened a school of swordsmanship. That went very well, but I have no plans to repeat the experience. As I wrote in this post, I consider myself now a consulting swordsman. I’ll be happy to come along and help any school in the UK that wants it, but I do not intend to open any kind of formal training establishment in Ipswich. At some point I imagine I will need a cadre of people I can train with and bounce ideas off, as I have done with my senior students here since forever, but I expect that will happen organically. Starting a branch is a huge undertaking, and I have other things to do.

I have already packed up my fiction books. Non-fiction next. Then woodworking tools. Then swords. Then disposing of unnecessary items, and packing the rest for shipping. This is a long and tedious process, but it does offer a great opportunity to get rid of clutter, and think really hard about how much stuff we actually need. My core fencing kit is three longswords (blunt, cutting sharp, and pair-drill sharp), two rapiers (blunt and sharp, plus matching daggers), two smallswords (blunt and sharp), two foils (left and right handed), schiavona, backsword, cavalry sabre, arming sword, buckler, mask, gloves, gauntlets, freeplay plastron, coaching plastron, stopwatch, teaching stick. But lately when I travel to teach, I bring absolutely nothing. Hmmm….

I spent much of yesterday afternoon in my shed, fiddling about, and thinking about what tools I absolutely cannot do without. I noticed that I have 21 different woodworking planes, and thirteen different hammers. Non-woodworkers might think that's a lot; craftsmen will wonder how I manage with so few. If you're interested in a more detailed exploration of the de-cluttering, packing, and moving process, as regards books, tools, or swords, then let me know in the comments here, and I'll start documenting it.

Stuff in the shed

Boarding School recovery

This is indirectly tied to writing Sent, of course, though oddly enough I haven’t had any real emotional issues when writing. My wife was worried that I might, but it’s been fine. The place I have got to, through talking to the right people, meditation (which has been really helpful), and just thinking about things, includes the following:

  • While there has been a definite emotional cost to the experience, it has come with some benefits (especially education).
  • Given the outcome (I am happily married, in a great job, with lovely kids and friends and so on), there is no reason to think that it was the worst course of action that could have been taken. I could have been eaten by a lion in Botswana, or died of cholera in Peru; who knows?
  • I am out of it. I got out. And I got out without incurring the kind of damage that I recognise in many of my peers.
  • Looking back I can see the many, many occasions in which I found a feeling of family and home in the kindness of the people around me.
  • I’m still having trouble with the mercilessness of it. Boarding school back then was wilfully, deliberately, spartan. And even that was an order of magnitude more civilized than even a decade before. But still, the whole idea of sending little children away from home “for their own good” is, except in really exceptional circumstances, utterly wrong.
  • The time is long past for a minimum age for boarding. Many of my friends chose to board, from the age of 15 or so, and loved it. While every child is different, and any specific age limit is arbitrary, we still recognise that people are legally adult at 18; can drive at 17, can smoke at 16 (in the UK at least); can watch certain kinds of movie at 15, or 12, and so on. So here’s a thought. The next Pirates of the Caribbean movie will have, in the UK, a 15 certificate. Is a child who is not yet mature enough to watch Pirates of the Caribbean old enough to be sent away from their parents to boarding school? I think not. So I think I will campaign to introduce a minimum age for boarding. That will keep me busy in the UK, I think…


There are no floggings to report. If you think there should have been, you can take it up with my wife.

“Oh, Matron” (in the voice of Kenneth Williams)

This is a progress report for the “get over boarding school” project. If you’re here looking for some technical sword stuff, I suggest going here or here.

I usually edit my posts quite carefully. Not this one, because if I do, I will end up deleting the whole thing. So please bear with me.

Shortly after posting the last instalment of this boarding school crap (if you haven’t read them, this post will make much more sense after reading The Price of Privilege and Dealing With It), I went to the UK with my wife and kids for my parents’ 50th wedding anniversary. It was a lovely family event, as you may imagine. While I was there, I went looking for stuff from my boarding school years, and, in a box in the attic, I found all my old school reports, and all the letters I had sent home. The first few would make you cry. Basically, “I hate it here, please come and get me”, repeated over and over, in my 8-year-old handwriting. That was ok; my wife was worried about the effect they might have, but I could handle it, mostly because I’m out of there now and don’t ever have to go back.

But part of me is still 8 years old, and waiting for Mummy to come and get me. And I have to rescue that little boy.

(I think I’ll transcribe the whole lot and publish them in some format; it might be useful for the psychiatrists working on the boarding school problem.)

I came home to run the Fiore Extravaganza seminar; you’ve probably read my update about it here. My wife and kids stayed in the UK to see more family and friends; they get back tonight. The seminar was great; really productive, and the students and I collaborated on creating a whole new pollax form. That kept the days occupied. I spent most of the evenings hanging out with friends, sometimes talking about this stuff, sometimes not. The major work was done yesterday; I went to an old friend’s place, someone I love and trust, and talked and talked and cried and talked and listened and talked and stalled and talked and set up distractions and listened and cried and talked. I had been dreading it the whole week. My brain is very good at avoiding pain, and I knew that this was going to be really, really hard. I have rarely been so scared. The closest was when my second daughter was born (that was way worse, because she and my wife nearly died that night). But in terms of distress, this was comparable.

That’s the problem with the things that really work. They often hurt. Surgery. Training. Therapy.

And the shit just boiled out. The things I am having the hardest time coming to terms with are the abandonment, the sheer mercilessness of it, and what we might call the Matron Effect.

Let me gloss over this in bold strokes. Picture a big scary old house in the country, populated by 200 boys aged 7-13. The adults are mostly men granted the power to beat you at will, a few women teachers, and half a dozen women, mostly in their twenties, all wearing nurses’ uniforms, and all wielding absolute authority. The Matrons. It is a well established fact that boys are pretty gross. They tend to wash only when coerced into it. So showers were supervised by said matrons; 4-10 naked boys at a time, all under the watchful eye of an attractive older woman? One who could send you off to the headmaster for a beating at any time? Dear god, it’s like they were trying to raise a generation of perverts.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with adults getting up to all sorts of mischief with fellow adults, so long as it’s all informed and consensual. I really don’t care what floats your boat in that department. And I don’t suppose you care what floats mine.

But I very very strongly object to a system that punches holes in said boat while it is being built.

I think this is why the Mark Vorkosigan story arc Lois McMaster Bujold’s books Brothers in Arms, Mirror Dance, and A Civil Campaign is so powerful for me. A boy was deeply fucked up by the adults in his life, and over the course of the books gets some pretty stellar revenge, and finds not only his true family, but also a girl who can handle the quirks that he’s left with.

Moving on…

One obvious consequence of all this is that I have a profound distrust of authority. I simply cannot trust anyone in authority to have my best interests at heart. One of the questions I am asked most often is why I never joined the Army. There it is. I was a) determined never to set foot in an institution again, b) I just knew that some wanker of a commander would get me killed for his own advancement. The only hierarchies I can abide are the ones I’m at the top of. Anything that even smells the tiniest bit like somebody being in charge of me: just fucking no. Except my wife, obviously 😉

I’m planning a separate post, something along the lines of “Renegotiating my Contract”, to look at how this stuff has impacted the way I have run my school, and what I’m doing about it. Why, for instance, I never wear all black these days. [Update: that post is here]

I have also figured out why I’m blogging about all this. Partly, it’s easier to go through it all if I have a means to make it useful to other people who may have had similar issues. “If Guy can do it, so can I.” But also it’s to keep me on track. It makes me accountable for progress. Because a large part of my mind wants this whole mess back under wraps where it slept for so long. My students have been keeping me honest in the salle for years. My readers here are doing the same. That’s you, recruited into Team Guy. Thanks for stepping up.

I had a bad night last night. I slept very little, and woke up still scared and tired. I cleaned the house a bit, to settle my stomach before breakfast, and while I was making coffee, suddenly doubled over like I’d been punched in the stomach and howled my eyes out.

I did it again in the middle of writing this.

I’ll keep doing it, until it’s done.

I expected this. It’s ok, it’s part of the process. All sorts of stuff will come up, and most of it will be bad enough that my mind had to hide it from me for over 20 years, until I was ready to handle it.

I’m ready now.

Orwell Park School: doesn't look too bad, does it? Image credit: James Appleton, 2010.


Oh my, what a week it has been.

I was scared of hitting “publish” on my last post, for obvious reasons. I am a big bad scary martial arty swordsman, or at least that’s how a lot of people seem to see me. And now anyone who reads my blog can see me as a great big cry-baby if they so choose.

I had to be ok with that before I published. The risk was entirely about how people regard me. Who wants a swordfighting lesson from a wimp?

But here’s the oddest thing: the single most common response I’ve got has been “you’re brave”. Because, and this is the heart of it, everybody who has lived at all has taken some kind of damage in the process. Some has healed completely, some has left scars, and some is still a big gaping wound. And everybody knows that it can be very frightening to face it, and even more so to expose it to others, because it feels like they could use it to hurt you more.

Because everybody has some experience of trauma, and of being scared of it, so long as the person you’re talking to is actually a decent human being, you get no criticism or contempt at all for opening up about something like this. It’s really not that risky.

Think about that for a second.

Of course, this would be a million times more difficult if I had any shame about it; if I felt that it was my fault, or if I had behaved appallingly. (Which I have at times, but it wasn’t my fault I got sent away.) Likewise, I have no crimes to confess in this process; nothing that might get me sent to jail, anyway. The only thing I risk is my ego. So there’s no real risk, because my ego is not in the hands of the general public; it’s in the hands of my wife and kids, family and close friends.

This is still a very new situation for me, but I thought I’d update you all on what seems to be working for me, and what I see the pitfalls as being. I am moving very fast on this, because that’s how I approach problems: I attack them with a vigorous blow to the head. To give you an idea of how fast: this all came up in such a way that I realised it was a real problem on Tuesday last week. I wrote and posted “The Price of Privilege” on Wednesday. Since then I’ve had three counselling sessions. None with conventional psychotherapists (yet), but the sessions have been incredibly helpful. Perhaps because it means setting aside specific times in which the only thing on my to-do list is deal with this shit. And these lovely people have made me feel safe enough to really go back there and dig. I think that finding the right person to talk to is probably much more important than what therapeutic discipline they practise.

[‘“Therapeutic discipline”, eh?’ I can hear the back row snickering. Fine, laugh it up! Nothing like a good dose of the swishy cane to bring up childhood memories, what? See what I mean about the “naughty club” references in my last post? If you want to know what happens to beaten children, I recommend both Roald Dahl’s Boy and Tall Tales by Ian Kendall. And if you think beating children is funny, it’s not me that needs help.]

Amongst the general outpouring of affection and support that I have received this week, for which I will never cease to be grateful, there were also quite a few contacts from people who also went to boarding school, and some who went to mine. It is very clear that I am not at all alone in this.

Now, things to watch out for. This is an aide-memoire for me; I absolutely am not speaking for or about anybody else. But these things might bite me on the arse, so I’m sharing them here.

1) Trauma explains much, but excuses nothing.  Sure, I can point to several occasions in my life where I am 99% sure that my boarding school experience lead me to treat somebody badly. But it’s still my responsibility; I’ll go further: it’s still my fault. I am not responsible for my feelings, but I am 100% responsible for my actions. Unless or until I am certified insane, that remains the case.

2) It’s not a competition. One of the things that held me back from posting about this is knowing so many people who have gone through so much worse experiences. Boarders who made no friends; combat veterans; rape survivors; domestic abuse survivors; the list goes on. What happened to me is utterly trivial next to what has happened to them. It felt like whining, until I realised that even relatively minor wounds can turn septic. In fact, the most dangerous injury I’ve sustained in 15 years of professional swordsmanship was a splinter I got while woodworking. I took it out, but it went septic anyway; without modern antibiotics I would probably have lost my hand. Ignoring it because there are people out there dying of worse infections never occurred to me. Likewise, my experience was empirically worse than some other peoples’s. So what? There is no prize at all for being the most injured. Exactly the reverse.

3) Attention is addictive. It’s really lovely to get such overwhelming messages of support. I can quite see how Munchausen Syndrome develops. This could lead me (especially given the attachment issues that are part of “boarding school syndrome”) to hold on to the damage to keep getting the attention. That would not be good. But I’m aware of it, as are all competent therapists, so it shouldn’t be such a problem. I intend to purge this, heal it, and move on. I have no interest in defining myself as “that kid who was fucked up by boarding school”. I'd rather be a master swordsman, excellent writer, great dad, adored husband, and much-loved friend, thank you very much.

I hope my experiences are useful to you. This is what I’m for, after all. At root, I am by nature a teacher. I can’t quite see the point of mastering a skill if  I’m not going to pass it on; and it’s much easier to allocate the necessary time and energy to this problem if I think that my example might help somebody else. If that's the case, please do let me know. It makes such a difference.

You might be wondering what effects this problem has had on me. Well, there are dozens, some of which I don’t intend to share just yet, and some I may never share outside of counselling, but here’s a big and obvious one.

I have no sense of home being a place. Home is people. Originally my parents, of course; now my wife and kids. The only exception to that is a negative: in my head, England ≠ Home. England is the place I was sent to that by definition was not home. Anywhere else on the planet could be home, but not fucking England.

But rationally, England ≠ boarding school. There is a whole ton of great stuff there that I have shut myself off from. This would have been different if my family had lived in England at the time, of course, and perhaps if I had got into Cambridge University (Edinburgh was my second choice, more fool me). We lived in England until I was five years old, then we moved to Argentina (’79-’80),  then Botswana (’81-’86), and then Peru (’86-’92). They were home. My family then moved to Scotland, which as anyone who has ever been there knows is very much NOT England. And since then, I’ve only lived in Edinburgh and Helsinki (if we don’t count 3 months in lovely Lucca).

Why does this matter? Because to my wife, only England will ever = Home. And I have twisted and turned in a totally irrational way to avoid giving her the chance to live there. Not fair. I realised this when after we got back from Italy, and saw that the School thrived without me (as it should), we decided to go to England for a significant period, from the middle of next year. This is a perfectly rational move to make. And it was my suggestion. But it made me absolutely miserable, and I didn’t know why, until all this boarding school crap bubbled to the surface. So when I have cleared it, the aversion to living in England for any period, or more precisely, calling England “Home”, should clear with it. This should give my wife a fair crack at living in England, as she has wanted to do for the last decade.

I’d say that was worth a few tears, wouldn’t you?

I intend to keep posting about this; to keep it separate from the usual sword-specific stuff I've created a new category, “boarding school”. I think my next post on this topic will be about the people who made being in boarding school much easier than it might have been. [Update: that next post is here.]

I spent much of yesterday evening crying my eyes out. The kind of wracking sobs that leave you weak and shaky for hours afterwards.
This is not normal.
I was packed off to boarding school at the age of eight. Unlike most other boarders, I did not get to go home every three weeks. Because we lived in Botswana, and school was in England, I got to go home 13 weeks later. This went on for the next ten years: three terms at school, three holidays at home.
It was not okay. It is not okay. I am not okay.
There, I said it.
One of the difficulties I have found in dealing with this over the years is that people in the English-speaking world treat boarding school either as some kind of naughty club (in the decade I was incarcerated (that is not too strong a word) I was never once beaten or buggered. Are we entitled to a refund?) or as a bastion of privilege (which it is), which I should be grateful to have attended. Those from the rest of the world get this look of pity and horror when they hear about it.
Before I go on, a couple of points.

  1. my parents honestly believed that boarding school was the best thing for me (and my siblings). Except in this one thing, they have been excellent parents all round, and I love them very much.
  2. the schools I went to were in general staffed by some excellent, kind, and decent people. It’s not the people that were the problem; it’s the system they were working in. The savage sadists and pederasts of boarding school legend were mercifully absent.
  3. the education I got was first-class, and has been very useful. It’s not the school I have a problem with. It’s the boarding.

The main reason that this is coming up now is that my eldest daughter is about the age I was when I was sent away. I look at her, a small child, charmingly innocent and childish as she should be, and it breaks my heart. I could no more abandon her to the mercy of strangers than I could chop off my own leg.
Other things have triggered this too. I have started to come across studies and stories about “boarding school syndrome”, and recognised myself in the list of symptoms. I was on the phone the other day to the mother of my goddaughter, who will shortly turn 12. Away at camp, after two days she was very homesick. So she called her mum, who came and got her. Of course she did! For fuck’s sake, children need their parents! But when said mother casually mentioned this like it was nothing, as indeed it should be, it took all of my self-discipline not to both break down in tears, and howl at her: nobody came to get me!

Clearly, this has all the hallmarks of unprocessed trauma. My attitude to trauma is neatly summed up in this article. Yes, fuck your trauma. And fuck mine too. Get over it. I will.
So the question is, how?

And that’s where swordsmanship comes into it. I am a swordsman, which means that the primary toolkit I have for solving problems is swordsmanship. So many bullied kids end up doing martial arts. So many victims of assault of all kinds look to martial arts to make them feel safe. So did I. And I have trained for long enough, and deeply enough, that I have a range of strategies for dealing with injury, and dealing with the sort of psychological issues that prevent a person from living up to their best self.
In brief, this is what I am going to do:

  1.  own the problem. This blog post is part of that. This is my problem. I will fix it. The problem is in two parts: the trauma itself, which is relatively simple, though not easy, to address. And the coping mechanisms that I developed to get through boarding school. These saved my sanity at the time, but have been causing problems ever since. Looking back I can see dozens of instances in which the persona I created to survive abandonment has hurt good people, and betrayed my core self. Time to dismantle it. But that is way more difficult, as it was built 33 years ago and has rusted in place. This is like breaking down scar tissue to restore range of motion; something I have done hundreds of times to joints and muscles. Less so with minds.
  2. recruit allies. The first step in any campaign. To this end, I have already recruited my wife (obviously, to normal people. But oh my god, that was really hard. Because the first thing you learn in boarding school is show no weakness. But howling your eyes out is much more effective when you are in the arms of someone who loves you) and two of my closest friends. I will be reaching out further afield in due course, and there is a list of organisations and survivor groups at the bottom of this post.
  3.  gather intelligence. I am reading up on the effects of boarding school, working out the exact shape of the problem, and studying what other people have done to solve it.
  4. make a plan. I am formulating it now, but it will certainly include talking to professional therapists, crying a lot, and finding ways to dismantle the defences. This is, right now, training priority #1. Way more important than my fencing skills.
  5. ruthlessly execute the plan. This will hurt, like pulling out a splinter. But it’s necessary.

I am also a writer. Those of you that have read Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists will probably recall that I wrote about being bullied at boarding school in the section on handling fear. That was my first real attempt to crack the seal on this great big pot of shit. I felt when I was writing it that it was probably the thin end of a big and horrible wedge. I feel a book coming on; possibly a memoir. But there are so many facets of this that I need to break it up into pieces. And this blog feels like the right place to handle those, one at a time.

I am a writer in the same way that I am a swordsman. The process of writing is a method for solving all sorts of problems. One major problem is the culture of silence around boarding school issues. You are taught at the time that you are lucky to be there. You are taught to not cry. To suppress feelings. To not talk about it. So talking about it is of course simply essential. And it strikes me that talking about it in public through writing might serve some useful purpose. It is much easier for me to do what needs to be done if it serves a higher goal, something more than my own benefit. There are literally thousands and thousands of adults now who went through a similar experience; some came out just fine; many more came out deeply fucked up. My writing about this might encourage even one of them to open up a bit, to somebody. Physical injuries require physical treatment. Psychological injuries require psychological treatment; which is mostly done with words, gestures, and physical closeness. Writing might help someone else.

And if it changes the mind of just one parent about dumping their child in a fucking institution, however gilded the cage, then I truly do not care how much it hurts or what it costs. Because just fucking no, don't do it. It's wrong.

One final note. I do not intend to allow this to interfere with my work, nor to I wish to be perceived as a victim. I don’t need your pity. I certainly don’t want to whine about it. So I would prefer it if, when we meet, you not mention it or bring it up, unless it has helped you in some way to read about it.

For those readers who have no idea what boarding school was like: Monty Python nail the incredibly arcane and arbitrary rules here:

And this documentary is, frankly, chilling.


Update: I've written more on this:

The Price of Privilege

Dealing with it

Progress report: Letters Home, Abandonment, and the Matron effect

An actual blog post





Boarding School Survivors

Article about the effects of boarding.

Abstract of another article on the effects of boarding

Boarding Recovery


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Sad news, but be happy

My father Roger Windsor died on Tuesday 22nd, at home. Sometime in the night- so