We are developing the social individualist meta-context for the future. From the very serious to the extremely frivolous... lets see what is on the mind of the Samizdata people.

Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Thoughts on martial arts and fencing

I am glad to see that a long-standing US friend of mine, Russell E. Whitaker, is back posting to his blog, which has had a bit of a haitus due to the man’s shift from California to New York and his being incredibly busy with work. Russell writes a lot and has a lot of knowledge of martial arts. Thanks to him, I started to go to Bujinkan classes in London’s Hammersmith. It is great fun and an extremely useful set of skills about self-defence, although physically tough as well to learn. Unfortunately, due to work reasons – I had to work late in the evenings last year – I was not able to attend as much as I liked last year but that has changed and I intend to resume. In the meantime, I have started to fence. Fencing, I find, is even more physically demanding than Bujinkan (yes, really). Initially, I am learning to use the foil, a very light sword where you score if you hit the opponent on certain parts of the body. Depending on which type of sword one uses, you score differently by hitting certain body parts. Of course fencers wear lots of protection these days so there is little chance of getting injured although you cannot afford to be reckless. I find it incredibly good for eye-hand co-ordination. I have also learned that one needs to do lots of stretching exercises since fencing requires people to be flexlible. My knee joints felt pretty sore the following morning after a class. It is a good incentive to get really fit.

Our lead instructor is a Frenchman – French seems to be the language of fencing – and another instructor is a Hungarian. More than half of the class are women, who are often much better than the men.

On the subject of fencing, we all have our favourite films. There are some great sword fighting scenes in Cyrano de Bergerac, Le Bossu, and in the excellent Ridley Scott film, The Duellists (starring Harvey Keitel).

For those interested in fencing as a sport, here’s a book worth looking at. But in the end, if you want to have a go, you have to go to a class. One word of warning: the kit can be expensive, so it is best to go to a few classes, use the class stuff to see if you like it first.

31 comments to Thoughts on martial arts and fencing

  • guy herbert

    I think you may know, Jonathan, that I used to fence. I also worked for the publisher of that book from shortly after it was published. Small world.

  • Sport fencing is indeed a jolly good pastime, but I feel obliged to plug Western Martial Arts as well. More information here:
    http://www.bfhs.org/

  • JP,
    Much though I like the cut of your jib in general. And I’m flattered that you posted my doggerel from Cats on Sami…

    The Duellists is one of the dullest films I have ever seen.

    I am sure i shall one day disagree with you on something vastly more important on this fine blog but I had to say that.

    Alien is a great movie. Thelma & Louise is a great movie. Gladiator and Black hawk Down have their moments but The Duelists is awful.

    I really ought to try fencing again. Thanks for the reminder.

  • Eamon Brennan

    Not his worst by a long shot. The cinematography is extraordinary and Harvey Keitel is always value for money.

    Now “Somone to watch over me”. That was shite.

  • I started to go to Bujinkan classes in London’s Hammersmith. It is great fun and an extremely useful set of skills about self-defence, although physically tough

    Hm. Are there any easy to learn, not so tough ones to learn that might help out with self defence? I’ve been thinking I should stop whinging about being disarmed by the state and take what responsibility I can for my own safety.

    Fencing sounds a lot of fun. No doubt you have to keep your swords locked in a safe, or some such…

  • Nick M

    Harvey Keitel is always value for money.

    Two words: Bad Lieutenant.

    That scene with him gyrating naked made me want the Earth to uopn up beneath me.

  • Eamon Brennan

    I have yet to have that cinematic pleasure Nick.

    Surely it would be better to wish for the earth to open up beneath him.

  • Rich Paul

    I can’t say it’s easy to learn, but I recommend Silat, from Indonesia. I studied it for a couple years. I like it’s philosophy: in Karate, they teach you that if you knock down your opponent, you should step back and let him get back — which is as silly as rebuilding a hostile nation. In Silat, they teach you that if you knock down your opponent, you should finish him before he pulls the gun out of his wasteband and finishes you.

    There are also important tactical lessons in martial arts. One think you learn is how much easier it is to damage an opponent who is attacking you. If you want a fight, the best thing to do is to provoke your opponent into losing his temper and launching a hasty attack which wastes his energy, places him off balance and allows you to use his own energy against him.

    Interesting that unarmed combat can be so much like war.

  • Nick, please tell me you were very drunk tired, and so forgot to mention Blade Runner???

  • Ah, we have you now! First it’s the tiddly little foil, which bears only a passing resemblance to a real sword, then we lure you along to either sabre or epee, which are a bit closer to weaponry.

    After a bit, especially if you’re historically minded, you start to get an urge for something . . . weightier. Then you find yourself looking at rapier hilts, and before you know it, you’re signing up for the SCA or enrolling in classes with your local WMA salon.

    It’s inevitable.

    Worse, you find yourself saying silly things like “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

    It’s all good fun.

  • andrewdb

    The first step into the knife culture!

    The Chief Justice of England will be so upset with you.

  • Episiarch

    Neither foil nor saber is at all realistic. The rules for right-of-way are extensive and complicated, and you can only hit above the waist (slight differences between foil and saber). At least epee has none of those restrictions and is therefore a bit more realistic.

    Fencing is very good exercise but you end up massively building your quad in only your lunging leg, and need to do exercises on the other if you want to be balanced.

    Fencing can also be very fun but a lot of people in fencing take it way too seriously.

  • No Alisa,
    I was neither drunk or tired. I just forgot Bladerunner.

    If it was legal to own a gun I would now shoot myself.

    I love that movie. Maybe it’s because I’m a Dick fan and prefer his title.

    Alisa, do you have an electric sheep and can you loan me it to keep the grass down?

  • Nicholas,

    Your final comment…

    This will make sense – promise.

    A rather smart “gangster” rapper I heard interviewed not long back said he grew-up listening to his Mom’s Johnnie Cash records. He said, “Yeah, they accuse me of inciting violence but, ‘I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ – I can’t even compete”.

    Well, it reminds me of a line from El Cid, starring Moses.

    Some geezer who has downed their foe and has four feet of Toledo steel at the chap’s neck says, “Before you die I just want you to know the woman you love offered herself to me”..

    That is seriously bad-ass.

    I would love to use that line in anger.

  • RAB

    Well some are much easier than others.

    It’s all in the wrist apparently.

    Cant see them getting away with some of this nowadays, can you?

  • Alisa, do you have an electric sheep and can you loan me it to keep the grass down?

    No, have you beer dreaming about one?:-)

    BTW, that line from Johnny Cash can be understood in two completely different ways, and I prefer the other one.

  • As a long time fencer, I definitely encourage you to switch to epee as soon as possible. :)

  • before you know it, you’re … enrolling in classes with your local WMA salon

    Please do – my fees are very reasonable. ;-)
    Sport fencing is indeed how I got into it in the first place.

  • Andrew Weitzman

    Are there any easy to learn, not so tough ones to learn that might help out with self defence? I’ve been thinking I should stop whinging about being disarmed by the state and take what responsibility I can for my own safety.

    Krav maga for a self defence system. Hey, it’s used by the IDF and Mossad! Note this isn’t a martial art like karate or kung fu. It is a “combatatives” system akin to the Defendu taught by Fairbairne to the WWII commandos. Its founder was a Czech Jew who developed the original version to counter anti-Semitic rioters. He later taught it to the Hagganah and refined it over the years for both police and military uses.

    It doesn’t use kata or rigid forms. The emphasis is on learning instinctive strikes and grapples, and spontaneous live sparring in unfavorable conditions (uneven surfaces, dim lighting, etc.) The basic system was designed to be learned as part of a recruit’s training cycle, so getting up to speed should take a few weeks.

    One hitch is that this is a no-nonsense system. It assumed that if you are actually fighting hand to hand, things have gone so pear shaped that the fight has to end *now*. Krav maga teaches to do the maximum amount of damage in a short time to either create an opportunity to escape or kill/cripple the attacker. Something you might run into problems with in England…

  • R C Dean

    My recollection from my training in aikido, which included some kendo, is that weapons training is much less demanding physically, but is mentally exhausting.

    I don’t know that any worthwhile martial art is easy to learn – the challenge is kind of the point, in many ways. In any event, to be proficient enough to use it in combat, it has to soak in to muscle memory, which requires hours of repetition.

  • Nick,

    You calling Alisa an android? Or in her case, I suppose a gyndroid.

    I used to fence, but that was at school, many a long year ago. Can’t otherwise offer to comment.

    In terms of fencing scenes, well Montoya was mentioned earlier but still, I am surprised no one has explicitly mentioned The Princess Bride or Scaramouche.

  • Sorry, I had to go look for this, Hollywood overstatement at its best.

  • Francis Begbie

    Hm. Are there any easy to learn, not so tough ones to learn that might help out with self defence? I’ve been thinking I should stop whinging about being disarmed by the state and take what responsibility I can for my own safety.

    Fraid not. Worthwhile styles are hard. Thats partly what makes them worthwhile.

    Someone suggested Krav Maga. That might be worth a look, but Krav can be something of a mixed bag. I’d go along and have a look at a class first to see what you think.
    I, personally, don’t much like Krav due to it’s lack of free sparring.

    If I wanted to study something purely for self defence, and I had the time, I’d go for Boxing or Muay Thai and Judo.
    All solid, proven styles, with sound training methods, the mix of which should cover every eventuality.

  • Nick M

    No Cats. I am merely saying Alisa might be a replicant. And if she’s a Nexus 6 I’m screwed.

  • Self defence is more than effective fighting techniques. There are strategies and skills around awareness, decision making and communication which, IMO, more important that being able to hit.

    Whilst the afore mentioned Booj, boxing, Thai boxing and judo are all good, there are physical techniques, culled from such things, which are high-percentage, effective options, that can be taught quickly. This is, I feel, a better option for those who don’t want to devote the time to training in a sportive or artistic style.

  • Yay, we’re starting to actually show up on the radar!

    (I’ve been doing Hungarian military sabre for a little over a decade now. It’s like tennis compared to ping-pong.)

    There are a few techniques that may help you. But in fact, even Taebo and aerobic kickboxing, as ridiculous as this sounds, have stacks and stacks of thank-you letters saying “I really used this and it saved my butt.”

    Plus, you’re in shape. But otherwise, if you’re serious, at some point, you have to learn to take a shot and keep going. I’m a big fan of boxing, even the gentrified sort, for that reason.

  • Beer dreaming? I meant been dreaming, of course, and no beer was used in the making of that comment!

    And if she’s a Nexus 6 I’m screwed.

    Relax, my knees are not what they used to be.

  • Sunfish

    Russ,
    That actually does make sense, about tae-bo. Situational awareness, mindset, fast response, and violence of action count for far more than any specific technique. I spent my first several years in fights with techniques and systems that I’ve since discovered to be lacking, but even a bad system can still be a 50% solution.

    Francis,
    WRT boxing/kickboxing in a real fight…hitting with a closed fist? If you don’t mind breaking your own fingers, then be my guest. And if you can kick high no matter what you’re wearing, no matter what you’re standing on, no matter how icy the sidewalk or whatever, you’ve better balance than I do.

    We’ve started looking at Krav Maga. Initial impressions are promising but we’ll know more in a few years. So far, it looks like it borrows heavily from the WWII combatives published by Rex Applegate in “Kill Or Get Killed.”

  • Don’t forget distraction techniques and multiple attacks. Disorientation is important. Hit someone and you’ve got two or three seconds to do something else. Short jabs and “upset” punches and low (shin) kicks are excellent for a distracting jolt.

    Re fencing. get into epee as fast as you can. Develops the wrist, punishes any over-reaching and it’s a whole body target.

  • andy

    God, why do people always bang on about breaking your hand if you hit with a closed fist?if you do that then you aint punching properly.All the ancient systems would not teach closed hand blows if the risk was that great.My own training is Wing Chun for empty hand stuff but I ensure that I am armed if I think I”m going to need it,I know its illegal but given the appalling state of policing in this country and the fact that i have twice been attacked in street by gangs of thugs,the last time i was stabbed 6 times and was lucky to live through it, I no longer care what the law says.

  • Francis Begbie

    WRT boxing/kickboxing in a real fight…hitting with a closed fist? If you don’t mind breaking your own fingers, then be my guest. And if you can kick high no matter what you’re wearing, no matter what you’re standing on, no matter how icy the sidewalk or whatever, you’ve better balance than I do.

    Don’t fancy punching with a closed fist? Fair enough, though I think you overestimate the danger. How about elbows then? Or kicks to the knees and thighs? Or knees to the gut? All of those are trained in an alive manner in Thai Boxing.

    Someone else said, it’s not so much about particular techniques, it’s about being able to hit while being hit yourself and fighting through it. Thats the great advantage that the sportive styles have going for them.

    But again, fighting skill is only part of the equation. Good sense and awareness are far greater parts. I guess it just comes down to doing something you get enjoyment from.