This is the space for all sword-related thoughts arising from my ongoing journey as a HEMA practitioner and 15th century re-enactor in the UK.
I currently train on Mondays at the London Longsword Academy with David Rawlings. I regularly attend HEMA conferences and Wars of the Roses re-enactment events with my partner Robert Hook. In another life I learnt exhibition combat at Prima Spada School of Fence. My favourite weapon is rapier, but I also train with longsword, messer, and sword and buckler when I get the chance. On any given day I have as about as many opinions as I do bruises (i.e. lots).
Now that I’ve had time to consider events of FightCamp 2015, a camp retrospective and reflection seems a good way to finally launch this fencing blog. I have been living and studying HEMA in the UK for over three years now but this event held a lot of firsts for me: it was my first FightCamp; the first time Robert and I have really attended a HEMA event as part of a group, rather than just the two of us; the first time I felt like I genuinely had all the protective gear I needed to be able to play with all my weapons safely; the first time I fenced badly in a tournament and didn’t care; the first time I’ve been really genuinely blind drunk in a forget-most-of-the-night kind of way. Taken as a whole, it was an oddly catalytic experience for me.
For all that, our journey got off to a rough and immensely inauspicious beginning. After two days of sorting and packing, one redundancy and two job offers that came by phone to Robert while I drove, and close to an hour sitting in traffic as we tried to circumnavigate St Pancras International to pick up Fabrice, the unthinkable happened: on our way up the M1, we lost some gear off the roof of the car.
And not just any gear – not a tent or a sleeping bag, but the fencing bag of our friend Sinan, who was joining us for his FIRST EVER HEMA event. Inside was a nylon arming sword, some protective gear including a brand-new plastron, and most importantly, a rapier. A Danelli rapier (I can hear your gasps of horror).
We pulled over as soon as we realised the sound of the straps on the roof had changed, and Sinan and Robert went blazing back down the hard shoulder to look. Alas, luck was not with us that day, and in all likelihood the bag bounced off the shoulder into the bracken, never to be seen again until future archaeologists dig it up and insist it was placed there for ceremonial purposes. Sinan put on the bravest face I have ever seen, and magnanimously declared that he wouldn’t permit us to pay for replacement gear since we were giving him a lift for free. Robert was mortified, as was I, and determined to make up for it somehow. This, dear reader, was the beginning of a conspiracy which would culminate on Friday night.
After our stop to search for the lost bag, we arrived in the dark and erected tents by torchlight, pausing to briefly greet our fellow London Longsword Academy students. We collapsed as soon as we had somewhere to collapse into, and wondered whether the weekend could be salvaged from a poor start.
The rapier tournament pools were scheduled for first thing Friday morning. Reader, I tanked in the tournament. I really did. Bouts were five exchanges long and it took me until the final exchange of my second bout to find my feet in a nice riposte, by which time it was far too late to make up any points. Thoroughly outstripped by my opponents, I had sunk to the bottom of my pool. To my surprise, I found I didn’t mind. For the first time since I started competing, I was able to take an unsatisfactory performance in stride. We are all, of course, immensely proud of Tim who took gold in the finals.
Friday night heralded the arrival of Dave (our inglorious leader), with a very special secret package in tow. We’d alerted him to the loss of Sinan’s rapier with a request to bring a class one for Sinan to borrow for workshops and sparring, and Dave had immediately relayed the tragedy to Marco Danelli. Marco, being an absolute gentleman and all around magnificent human being, kindly offered a rapier he had made for himself at a special ‘tale of woe’ discount price*. In the span of a few furtive phone calls and whispered conversations, we had arranged to split the cost amongst our group and present the replacement rapier to Sinan as a gift from his instructor and fellow students. It was well-received (Sinan did in fact look like he might cry for a moment there). A sense of “all’s well that ends well” settled over our little group.
My memory of the rest of the Friday evening is hazy at best, because it was at this point that I discovered the bar was serving a rather good 6.8% cider, and people started to buy me drinks. (Ed will insist he only bought me the ‘weaker’ cider – as this was still 5.2% I’m not sure that counts). I do have quite a distinct memory of the what I am told was the comedic pinnacle of the camp, in which I, for now-inscrutable (and mostly forgotten) reasons, attempted to fight a bin. The bin won, but I did an excellent pratfall.
I was worse for wear on Saturday, though surprisingly less so than I had expected. I am reliably informed my eyes were red-rimmed and bleary, and I certainly didn’t get up to much during the morning.
Saturday was also my partner Robert’s birthday. I was determined to make it special, and had been organising and agonising over the arrangements for a week. All Friday night, after Robert retired to the tent, I had been doing the rounds with a birthday card grabbing anyone I could find who knew Robert (and, in my drunken state, a few people who didn’t) and asking them for signatures and messages. (My favourite was Fabrice’s, which read simply “Happy. Yes. Fab”). I presented Robert with the card at breakfast. It was less ceremonious than I had hoped but I thought it more important to ensure he knew he had been remembered and appreciated than to make him wait all day.
I had originally hatched a plan to commence the day’s celebrations with some dussack games. Dave obligingly brought a bunch of leather dussacks on the train with him, but the general consensus on the day was that it was too hot for that much running around – and in any case people had workshops they wanted to attend. That particular idea went out with a whimper, but no one seemed to much mind.
All this was merely the build-up. In the evening after the Saturday barbecue (apparently a new idea at FightCamp, and one that was a smashing success), it was time to corral all the friends of Robert whom I could find in the burgeoning twilight, and reveal my pièce de résistance. In the afternoon, I had hopped in the car on a mysterious errand, and drove 20 minutes to The Cake Artists in Solihull, where I picked up the marvellous edible artwork that Dave later christened ‘Academie de l’Eclair’ – a chocolate cake in the shape of an open book, complete with pages from Girard Thibault’s Academie de l’Espee printed on the icing.
Once I had gathered everyone and plonked a large and suspicious box on a nearby table, Robert gave me a pointed look and said ‘what have you done?’. I launched into a rendition of Happy Birthday. In true HEMA event fashion, everyone present in the room, many of whom had no idea whose birthday it was, joined in with immense gusto and merriment. The cake was a resounding success. Robert and I turned in, replete with cake and happiness.
Sunday, after the melee (fun, but we were trounced in two rounds and didn’t get to do more) we sparred. Oh, how we sparred. We claimed a corner of the field and just stayed there, taking on all comers. Well, okay, mostly taking on each other. And talking.
It always comes up, doesn’t it?
“How long have you been fencing?”
Most people have a straightforward numeric answer. I don’t. I have backstory. It feels absurd to write that, but it’s true. As if I were a character in a Japanese RPG, at some point, someone pushes the right button and I start a flashback sequence.
It’s no secret that I used to be in a group in Australia called Prima Spada School of Fence. It still exists, of course, though I expect not precisely in the form I knew it. It is a lovely group with a lot of kind people in it. It is not a HEMA group, but sits somewhere at the intersection of stage combat, martial arts and re-enactment. I learned a lot of value during my time there.
It was the first social group I joined as an adult. It was the first sport I was ever really good at. I belonged, with an intensity and fierceness that was alarming at times. I lived and breathed it for four years. There were people I worshipped. Reader, you know where this is going. There is a reason I say in my introductory post that I trained there in another life. I left the group – and the country – on a sour note, shouldering fear and anxiety along with my rucksack (tournaments, assessments and being asked to demonstrate or explain anything in class still have the capacity to fill me with terror). In the hour of the wolf I dream about things that can’t ever be unsaid, and I probably will for a long time.
Wherever, whenever and whomever I fence, I carry that story with me. It informs how and why I do this. I cannot put it down any more than I can put down my sword – and in truth that would be only way to leave it completely behind. No matter how much I overwrite as I learn and grow, those habits, those ideals, those feelings are etched beneath, palimpsest-like. I have spent three years simultaneously chasing them and railing against them, trying to reinvent myself as a fighter.
At FightCamp, though, I told the story – bittersweet this time, instead of just bitter. Not ashamed anymore, but a little sad. I admitted that I could miss it, do miss it, and still not want to return to who and what I was at that time. For the first time, I told the story to a group of people with whom I belonged.
In three months I have a test to undertake. My six-year-old Darkwood rapier, broken twice at the tang and re-handled once, has finally developed a bend that won’t come out, and is due for retirement.
FightCamp gave me beginnings and endings. I can see a horizon and there are good things beyond it. For once, I am moving forward.
*Disclaimer: PLEASE DO NOT THROW YOUR EQUIPMENT OUT OF A CAR ON THE MOTORWAY IN THE HOPES OF RECEIVING AN UPGRADE FROM A SYMPATHETIC MANUFACTURER. NO MARK, I WILL NOT THROW YOUR EQUIPMENT OFF THE TOP OF MY CAR, STOP ASKING.