Henry Hyde: Designer, Writer, Podcaster

The Sword and the Pen

The Sword and the Pen

The Sword & the Pen logoI’ve had something of an epiphany, thanks to yet another of Joanna Penn’s podcasts. This is getting to be a habit.

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.

Henry delivers a thrust

That’s me (right) delivering a deadly thrust to the head in a summer tournament in about 1997.

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.”

He did.

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.

Henry defends the pass

That’s me again (centre) boldly defending a defile with a spear against no less than four opponents. I was ‘killed’ eventually, but the Thermopylae principle applies.

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.

Clifford Beal launches an attack with sword and shield.

Cliff Beal (right) launches his attack using sword and shield against an unusual combination of broadsword and longsword. Note how Cliff keeps his shield between him and the opponent!

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!

6 thoughts on “The Sword and the Pen

  1. nobby531

    “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. ” – Good news. My most favourite rant: there is too much pseudo-history out there and it is being accepted as real!

    I saw on a forum recently that a wargamer wouldn’t play a shield wall with only eight figures because it didn’t ‘look right’. It seems likely to me that if a bloke of the period only had seven companions then eight would be the number in his shield wall.
    Don’t get me started on equipment placed on a figure that could only be reached if the owner had a severe spinal twist or a companion retrieved it for them. Mention these unlikelihoods and the standard response is, “We must agree to differ.” MUST!!

    Anyhows, more power to your pen and sword. :0)
    Is this a part of your blogging rethink?

    1. henryhyde Post author

      Hi Derek and thanks for the comments. I share your pain!

      Yes, this is part of a major rethink, not just to do with my blogging but also life in general. I’ve been struggling with my weight for years and now have Type 2 diabetes, so I’ve been trying to unravel my past to see when the rot set in.

      Well, the answer turned out to be around the millennium, when for reasons too complicated to go into here, I walked away from a rapier fencing society I helped to create because I couldn’t stand the internal tensions any more. Whilst I would still do the same again, I shouldn’t have let it put me off doing what I loved: the fighting.

      We live and, hopefully, learn…

  2. ashley858

    To think I use to be a member and fought in the Principality of the Far Isles, did Aikido for 16 years and managed to become moderately proficient in Musō Shinden-ryū iaido too.

    1. henryhyde Post author

      Well, blow me down with a small carthorse on a Tuesday afternoon. Small world! I rather think you need to tell me more about this, Ashley!

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