Monday, July 22, 2013

The Monday Papers: Part Nine

Major Hutton, one of the fathers of 
historical fencing as we understand it today.  

I enjoy fencing and regret that I no longer have the time to devote to it that I used to. I have no particular interest in Olypmic fencing, which always seems to me to resemble nothing so much as a high speed game of tag, but historical fencing interests me greatly. I remember having a conversation with a friend who asked me why I studied something so idiotic.  His point was that given that I was unlikely to compete as a sportsman (as it wasn't Olympic fencing) and that my chances of ever having to participate in a real sword fight were slim; I appeared to be wasting my time.

I think the thing is beautiful and worthwhile in and of itself.

Before men like Major Alfred Hutton took an interest, theatrical fencing was usually conducted with rebated foils regardless of period - it was in the late 19th century that he introduced historical fencing to the stage.  I particularly commend his book "Cold Steel: A practical treatise on the sabre" to your attention.

It must be remembered that sword are killing instruments and were the subject of considerable debate amongst professional soldiers. The sword as a cavalryman's weapon probably reached it's zenith with the advent of the 1908 Pattern.   The debate centred around whether it was better to engage with the point or the edge. I'm agnostic on the matter, as it assumes that there is only correct answer, while in actuality both have their purpose.  Which is "better" is really more a function of terrain, position and the nature of engagement than any inherent virtue.

I suppose my interest in fencing was first kindled by seeing the wonderful sequence between Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone in The Adventures of Robin Hood.  It was heady stuff to a boy of nine and the base it laid was further strengthened by the masterful work of Bob Anderson in The Princess Bride. 

Oh to be a beau sabreur!

I can pretty much guarantee that this chap is not a Krav Maga enthusiast

I've drifted in and out of martial arts and if I've learned anything, it's that there is a large element of PT Barnum in the advertising of whatever chop sockey mucking about one is taking an interest in.  Fashion is also a concern - kicking things was all the rage in the 1980s, ground fighting was the new, new thing some years ago and combatives or "reality based fighting" is its successor.

I was asked by a friend of mine, who was the victim of an assault, if he should take up martial arts in order to prevent it happening again. It's a loaded question - my friend belongs to a group likely to be assaulted (he's a male in his early twenties) and it's been a traumatic experience for him, a chap who hadn't been involved in fisticuffs since school.

I would respectfully suggest that unless you actually enjoy martial arts as a hobby - regular training is probably not worth it as it is unlikely to benefit you significantly in terms of self defence and there are far more efficient ways of getting fit. The vast majority of martial arts are geared toward the sporting arena. There is no shame in that.  It's foolish to criticise a fork for not being a spoon.  Some of the fittest men I know are boxers or ju-jitsu enthusiasts, but the thing itself and not some abstract sense of security is the reward.

There are no guarantees in this life, but I would argue that the majority of people whose business does not bring them into conflict with others are unlikely to be involved in fisticuffs.  It is a black swan event and most likely the engagement will be over before it's begun because the aggressor has size, aggression, terrain and surprise on his side.  That said, a little knowledge is useful. I did a Krav Maga course a couple of years ago and found it very helpful.

Krav Maga is an Israeli fighting system. There's a story behind it - but that's not particularly relevant.  It is rather brutal and at its worst involves more than enough eye gouging, ear tearing and biting to land anyone in the dock. But, while KM is notorious for it's no holds barred approach, the basics mostly revolve around how to escape from confrontation, break holds and a couple of strikes that should dissuade those attackers who are in search of easy prey rather than an actual fight.  For the average person that almost certainly more than they will ever need.  One of the key skills taught is how to recognise a dangerous situation and retreat from it and while I've certainly never used any of the eye gouging or associated horrors, the situational awareness was to me worth the price of entry alone.

A single two day course will cover a great deal of what KM has to offer and it is very unlikely that the average Joe will ever require any more than that.

I'm fascinated by the law. Even if you personally never come in contact with the courts, they will shape your actions, your daily life and the social mores of those around you.  And yet the law itself, for all it's being laid down in black and white is often subject to interpretation and debate.

The other point about the law is that it is vast and ones knowledge of it is rarely as good as one thinks it is. I regularly have to scurry off to to check things that I'm relatively sure of, but just want to double check.  A knowledge of the law can inform one as a citizen and can often help resolve issues before they arise and I would urge anyone to who has any interest at all to look up the relevant wikipedia article for their country and spend fifteen minutes on it, if only to learn the difference between Civil and Criminal Law.

It would appear that there are people who share my enthusiasm for the law and who take a particularly active interest in it and its interpretation.  I have only met one of these gentry in person and his legal theories had a great deal to do with the Magna Carta and the Bill of Rights of 1688/9.  I can genuinely say I was enriched by the experience. Sadly, I do not believe he felt the same.

I respectfully suggest that anyone with an interest in the law could profit by reading this article, which I put forward with no comment other than a excerpt from an opinion written by Chief Justice John D. Rooke of Canada.

Note: The acronym OCPA stands for Organised Pseudo-legal Commercial Arguments.

"The bluntly idiotic substance of Mr. Mead’s argument explains the unnecessarily complicated manner in which it was presented. OPCA arguments are never sold to their customers as simple ideas, but instead are byzantine schemes which more closely resemble the plot of a dark fantasy novel than anything else. Latin maxims and powerful sounding language are often used. Documents are often ornamented with many strange marking and seals. Litigants engage in peculiar, ritual‑like in court conduct. All these features appear necessary for gurus to market OPCA schemes to their often desperate, ill‑informed, mentally disturbed, or legally abusive customers. This is crucial to understand the non-substance of any OPCA concept or strategy. The story and process of a OPCA scheme is not intended to impress or convince the Courts, but rather to impress the guru’s customer."

And now pardon gentles all, I must be off.

Edit: And for those readers from Great Britain & the Commonwealth, Mrs. Kinch and I wish you joy of your new Prince.


  1. One of the great joys of "Theatrical Fencing" for an audience is that a sword is both an offensive and (more importantly to a drama) a DEFENSIVE weapon.

    On stage this second aspect is what allows for much dramatic tension. Not only for the audience, but sometimes for the cast as well.

    I remember a "Romeo & Juliet" I was in many years ago where the stage combat was so exciting and tension-filled that even those of us not on stage at the time would gather in the wings to watch it . . . for every performance throughout the run of the show (18 performances).

    Finally, on another matter, the new Royal baby isn't just a matter for those in the UK. Not many realize that Queen Elizabeth is also the head of state here in Canada (and in a few other former Commonwealth countries) . . . so this new child will become a future King of Canada as well.

    -- Jeff

    1. Is Canada not still a member of the Commonwealth and a Commonwealth Realm?

    2. So far as I have been able to ascertain - Canada is still a member of the Commonwealth .

      Curiously enough actually, I was reading a statistical analysis of 18th century duels and they came to the conclusion that sword fights were more dangerous than encounters with pistols, mainly because a sword fight must continue until one party is injured, while both parties may miss with pistols.

  2. I feel I may have to invest in a pipe so that at the next opportune convening of our sort we may discuss the finer points of combat, unarmed or with blade, in the proper manner.

    For instance, my Tai-Chi Sifu asserts than in a combat situation likely to occur to the average fellow the first two steps of the foundation form are sufficient to avoid harm long enough to escape, and I can see where he's coming from.

    1. I think the point is that one doesn't need to take a defensive driving course to get to the shops. I recall having an argument with an Israeli chap who maintained that KM was useless because he was able to best a KM student using his Karate.

      Leaving aside the fact that the singular of data isn't anecdote, I think the point was made that to reliably do that he had to train three nights a week for *years*.

    2. That really is the crux of the issue, but to make the point properly you really need to see what those moves are. They're far more simple than people would expect.

  3. You raise a whole range of interesting topics, here, Conrad.

    On the matter of sword fighting, there are some quite good sequences in the 'Three Musketeers' movies that G McD Fraser was involved with. Mr Fraser was himself an avid fan of the more swashbuckling kind of movies, though I found his 'Yellowbeard' and his book 'The Pyrates' a tad to campy for my taste.

    On Martial Arts, I have off and on been taking Tai Chi lessons for the last year or so. Like you I'm more in it for its own sake, rather than for self defence or for fitness.


    1. I haven't seen that one in a while. I must look it up. I'm a bit of a Dumas nut to be honest.

  4. For those wishing to know more about the broader principles of Law can I recommend 'Law: A Very Short Introduction' by Raymond Wacks.

    1. I'm not familiar with that one - but the series as a whole is rather good.

  5. I've been a "lurker" on your blog but not said anything until now. Your latest post is so wide-ranging and very thought provoking. So many nuggets in there that set so many different thoughts off in my head. Almost too many to know where to start!

    PS, I'd be much, much happier when you are able to post "congratulations on the birth of your republic" and welcome us to the ranks of the grown-up nations ;)

  6. Well I'm glad you enjoy the blog old chap. It keeps me honest.

    I fear you may be a long time waiting to hear me congratulating someone on the birth of a republic.