Monday, 27 January 2014


So today I took a step out of my comfort zone and had an introduction to sword fighting!

My mentor Jon, in his Robin Hood days.
My training came courtesy of Jon-Michael Lindsey (right), experienced stage fighter in sword staff and bow, re-enactment performer, Robin Hood impersonator, and all round awesome guy of many, many skills.

Jon was initially trained by the same guy who trained the talented Xena impersonator Jo Marriott, who I remember from many years ago having met her when I was 13, and who was probably the first person to really inspire me in the field of costumed entertainment and charity work - even though it took me many years to get into it myself.

The swords we used for this basic training session are worth a mention for the genius of their design and re-purposing: sleek, nicely finished wooden blades with a solid hilt wrapped in rope for extra grip. Weight and sound aside, they make you feel like you're carrying a real weapon. Apparently they are primarily used as toy swords by the youngsters at re-enactment fairs, but double up as training swords for beginners as you can smack them against one another and they are solid enough not to sustain too much damage. Nonetheless they can inflict a fair bit so the first advice I was given was: "If you can't block, get out of the way!"

A "toy" sword - also used in sword training for dummies!

The biggest difference I found between this and my experiences in Live Action Role Play (in which I used squishy foam swords which don't do too much damage no matter how hard you whack people with them) or in martial arts (I did karate for a couple of years a long time ago) is that here you are not actually trying to hit anyone. Because, y'know, that'll hurt. As such Jon taught me to 'telegraph' my attacks, and to read the intended attacks of my opponent. A big swing level with the intended point of attack not only gives the defender plenty of time to block, but also gives onlookers the impression that you mean business and makes for a more dramatic fight scene.

The defence side of it was, strangely, fairly natural. Even without my distant experience in martial arts, if someone swings a bit of wood at you, swinging your bit of wood right back at it or stepping back out of the way is pretty much a reflex. The challenge came in controlling that reflex in order to make the right call and make the defence more efficient - or as Xena and Gabby put it in 'The Prodigal', "Act, don't react!' Choose the right block for the right attack; know when to block and when to move; push the blade away far enough so it doesn't get you anyway; and most importantly, know how to position your own blade so it doesn't bounce back and hit you in the face!

These early exercises consisted of simple attacks and blocks following patterns which Jon called "Xs and Ys". We started with the X plan: Attacks are aimed at specific points, in this case either the shoulder or the knee, left or right, and follow an X-shaped pattern, starting at the shoulder, then the opposite knee, then repeated in the other direction:

Edward, Earl of Carrick. Sorry Ed!

Sounds simple, yes? Well strange though it sounds even this simple process got me breaking a sweat. The movements are fast and you are actually using your muscles. Then gradually the pace picked up and suddenly this became a workout! Once we broke out of the patterns and I had to rely solely on reading Jon's moves and my own instinct, the adrenaline really got pumping. We switched between attacking and defending, first for set numbers of blows then gradually reading when to swap, advancing and retreating across the battlefield (garden) and "fighting" in a fairly fluid fashion. Initially this was just using those four points of attack, but the next level was to throw another three into the mix - two side blows and an overhead strike. This was more complex, as sometimes reading the difference between a side and a shoulder blow, or a side and a knee, was quite tricky and you find yourself with your sword facing the wrong way up and having the block at an odd angle. I expect this will come with time, but it was useful in terms of learning to use the space provided, and utilising snap-judgements in order to realise when I'd made a mistake and deciding when to get out of the way and when to follow through with the block.

Pretentious as it may sound, there is something delightfully primal about swordplay as a sport. There is so much instinct involved one can't help but feel a link to the past, reminded of our ancestors for whom this was a way of life (or death). It's hard to describe the feeling one gets when another person - albeit a trusted and skilled friend - is advancing towards you swinging a pointy bit or wood at your head! A "fight or flight" response kicks in and you have to channel that into a constructive and well-judged defence. It's exhilarating.

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