In the latest episode, she interviews Guy Windsor, who has been an enthusiastic martial artist for most of his (still young) life. He is clearly exceptionally dedicated to rediscovering the fighting skills of our forbears in the medieval and Renaissance eras in particular, but his knowledge extends right up to modern Olympic fencing. He runs a swordsmanship academy in Helsinki, where he’s lived for 15 years, and writes books on the subject, as well as blogging extensively. If you have the slightest interest in the subject, I recommend you to spend some time on his blog and particularly watching his videos.
Most of the people who know me nowadays have no idea that I, too, have been a keen martial artist in my time, with a particular passion for swordsmanship. It all started in 1982, during my final year at Sussex University, just down the road from here on the beautiful campus at Falmer. That autumn, I met an American Masters Degree exchange student called Clifford Beal, and between severe drinking bouts (we once made a chainmail vest from Newcastle Brown ring pulls in a single night), he told me about this crazy group he was a member of back in the States. They would dress up in medieval garb, feast, dance, learn calligraphy (something in which I had a keen interest) and, most importantly, fight. In armour. With wooden weapons. Without ‘pulling’ their blows.
I was hooked.
Sometime around Easter, 1983, Cliff received a large package from home. It contained his armour. I’m sure he cringes at the thought of it now, but to me, it looked magnificent. I got to swing his rattan ‘broadsword’ and with the aid of a poor, defenceless tree, learned the basic blows — the snapshot, the ‘moulin’ (windmill), the thrust.
I couldn’t bear not being able to fit into Cliff’s armour. Though I was a slim, fit young man in those days, Cliff was a smaller build than me and, most importantly, had a smaller head. So we set about making a helmet for me from a surplus Italian WWII helmet, some sheet steel and rivets. The results can only be described as comical, because we had almost no money and no facilities of our own to construct it other than the science labs, and that sucker rocked back and forth on my head like a galleon in heavy seas.
But it was my first helm, and I loved it.
With more invention than budget, we cobbled together some carpet armour (yes, really – carpet is surprisingly effective at deadening blows), found some knee and elbow pads, rigged up a leather and foam gorget, got me some old ice hockey gloves and, after some searching, found some lengths of rattan to make my first sword. A couple of round shields, and we were ready.
Our first proper practice session was held on the grass at the back of Park Village on the Sussex University campus. Cliff trooped out, looking very martial in his gear. I followed, somewhat resembling the Basset’s Liquorice Allsorts man. I can remember the faces in the windows of the nearby buildings, mainly Nigerian and Iranian exchange students thinking they were witnessing some bizarre British ritual.
“Now,” said Cliff, as I squinted through my visor, marvelling at how the helmet magnified the sun’s heat, “stand still, I’m going to hit you in the head.”
I didn’t even see it coming. But by god, I heard it when it hit. Imagine having your head inside a church bell when it peals. That’s what it was like. I later learned that a well-made helmet doesn’t share the peculiarly resonant acoustics we’d managed to build into my ‘lid’. But Cliff made that bloody thing ring like a campanologist’s dream all afternoon.
It didn’t matter. I was in love with fighting. And I’ve been grateful to Cliff for introducing me to martial arts ever since.
I learned a lot, very quickly. Like armour is HOT, rather than heavy. After perhaps ten minutes fighting on a summer’s day, wrapped in padded gambeson and steel, you’re drained and dehydrated. The best fighters I’ve seen are the ones who conserve their energy. Forget those big, swinging Hollywood moves – they get you dead real quick. And shields are there for a reason – to hide behind! Why is it that Hollywood fights have the actor swing their shield around, or even keep it behind them, exposing themselves to deadly blows? Doh! And even a good fighter can be defeated by sheer chance – sweat stinging your eyes for a moment, a foot slipping into a rabbit’s burrow, a crucial strap breaking at the wrong moment. (The quick fix for us was always the ubiquitous duct tape, unavailable to our medieval forbears…)
There’s a lot more I could say – and I shall, because ‘real’ fighting is something I’m going to incorporate into this blog from now on. I’m no Black Belt, nor maestro either, but I’ve done my share of martial arts, including kendo, Renaissance rapier fencing and Tai Chi as well as the medieval tournament fighting. And thanks to Joanna and Guy, and at the ripe old age of 54, I’m taking it up again, returning to the study of a subject I’ve loved deeply for so many years. My intention is to learn from those at the forefront of the martial arts and, from time to time, to pass on anything I think you might find useful as writers in ways that are easy to digest, as I resume a journey I began all those years ago.
As well as the nitty gritty of fighting in the ‘up close and personal’ sense, I’m also going to be writing about what I’ve learned from my lifelong passion for military history, especially tactics, strategy and military training throughout the ages. This is another of those things that brings tears to the eyes of anyone who knows anything about such matters when they see it misrepresented in books or on the small or big screen – which is, frankly, most of the time. Here I do claim a certain amount of ‘rank’ since I have a history degree, and for the last ten years have edited magazines in which military history figures heavily.
Finally, whilst I certainly hope that when I post on these matters, my creative friends will find it useful, this is also for my benefit, as I’m writing fiction in which military matters are front and centre, as well as the non-fiction work I’ve been commissioned to write for Pen & Sword with an obvious military connection.
Oh, that logo at the top of this post? Our local group (called a “shire” in that particular organisation) ran a wonderful event in 1996 called “The Sword and The Pen”, for which I designed the logo. How ironic that I should have ended up writing for Pen & Sword!