When I started to read about the methods and practice of Fiore Dei Liberi and understood that the longsword could be learnt in the modern world, that there were people actually studying this as a martial art, I was reading books by Guy Windsor. At first, I had assumed that his books had been reprinted and reclaimed from the turn of the century, so if you had told me at that time that I would one day be spending a couple of hours being trained by Guy, I would have thought you mad.
I’m sure that at the beginning of Guy’s career if you had told him he would one day be chasing a portly old man around his garden with a wooden stick, he would have thought the same. It’s funny how these things come about.
I was considerably honoured to have Guy provide a couple of hours of his time to fix and correct a hundred different assumptions, posture problems, misconceptions, poor forms, wrong ideas and to put into practice so many things that were purely theoretical beforehand. I had read the books and studied the manuscript but everything changes when you put it into practice.
I must admit that my idea of a ‘first lesson with a sword’ comes from a wealth of fantasy and kung-fu cinema and not from any actual experience. I had a fond idea that it would be similar to the training montage scene. The one where the hero is shown being slapped, struck, beaten and tortured over many days as they gradually learn to ‘do it right’ and not be hit. I think of the sifu placing bowls of water on the disciple’s knees as they attempt to remain in a low stance for hours, or swiping above their heads as the student learns to duck. Even the tiny Jedi Master Yoda, riding piggy-back and poking Luke in the back of his head with a twig. This kind of meta-narrative leads one to conclude that all training must be tough, that serious study must be a painful process. In fact, I imagine that if you look at any of the training sequences in cinema you will probably find some of the worst examples of didactic process imaginable.
Despite this, some of my favourite scenes from Game of Thrones first season was between Arya Stark and Dancing Master Syrio Forel. It sums up most training introductions, which usually give way to the montage. In real life, there is no montage but the similarities between Arya’s training and my own were as follows: I was not very good. I failed to avoid the stick. They differed wildly, of course, because I was never hurt in the slightest despite falling foul of arm locks, wrist locks, and the dreaded wooden stick. The most difficult thing I had to endure was simply taking three steps forward without appearing to be mentally impaired. It turned out to be very difficult.
I watched back a small piece of footage of myself simply taking three steps and within that small distance there was a world of ineptitude, as my thinking self over analysed and interfered with my automatic actions. I could almost hear the soundtrack to Steptoe and Sons. I can see how it may be tempting for any beginner to feel downhearted about being unable to do something that seems simple but I don’t feel it myself. I laugh. I say ‘not today’.
Everything else about the lesson was absolutely fascinating; a revelation at every turn and so many questions answered. The entire experience was also very different to anything I have done previously. I live in my head, an internal being, and I run visualisations for any process I am learning.
There is something enjoyable about martial arts that probably doesn’t exist in any other form and it is a double edged sword; literally, in this case.
One edge brings the joy of realising that, all of a sudden, you have one key piece of knowledge that makes you feel invincible. Knowledge that almost makes you wish that someone would try and stab you in the head, just to prove how invincible you are … but only if they let you know first, only if the attack comes from a certain angle or a certain speed. Try it again, I wasn’t quite ready.
The other edge is that even though you have all the time in the world to formulate a response, move out of the way, do anything other than get hit, you still end up being hit. Even though the blunt wooden stick is moving very slowly and you believe you have all the knowledge you need to dodge or swerve, you still get hit. Even though your brain knows what to do, you still get hit.
All of which brings home how underprepared one is to deal with a genuine attack upon one’s person; whether from friendly training partners or vicious and murderous unknown.
This is standard Noob Syndrome; the new understanding that you didn’t know as much as you thought, and that you have only just become aware of the vast amount of things you didn’t know.
I went into this process with the idea that I am not trying to work out how to learn the art of the longsword without any tutelage but how far one can get with minimal tutelage. By taking a lesson I have in some ways answered that question, the answer on first assessment being ‘not far’, but there is more to it. The primary point behind the Barebones approach is that just because you have no means at your disposal, other than your own resourcefulness, it does not follow that you should not start.
The real problem with the theoretical approach is more that it is so easy to forget or become distracted from what you have learned. I spent the last two years slowly building up my fitness and flexibility, and although I have a long way to go still, my body did not forget. I was able to recover from exertion, perform the required tasks without damage to myself and felt as though I was at least prepared for what I needed to do.
I spent the last six months writing a book, and so did not focus on my Longsword manuals. Only six months without reference to the manuscript and my brain had forgotten all of the basic terminology and concepts, to an almost embarrassing degree.
Now I can go back to my books and apply the things I have learned, see where my assumptions were off and how the new information changes the understanding of the old. It has given me a lot to think about.