Sometimes I just have to interview people I think are super cool and today I talk about swordfighting with Guy Windsor 🙂
I haven’t yet included a swordfighting scene into my modern day thrillers, but it might have to happen, because this was a lot of fun 🙂 We also talk about how the discipline and practice of martial arts applies to writing, facing fear and deep and meaningful stuff on art and death.
In the introduction, I talk about the breakdown of my income – you can see it here broken down by revenue type, fiction vs non-fiction, format and retailer. I also mention the next in the free Creative Freedom video series on productivity which has been getting a lot of great feedback. Plus CrimeFiction.fm with Stephen Campbell, a great new genre podcast and the success of Audiobookblast for promoting audiobooks.
This podcast is sponsored by Kobo Writing Life, which helps authors self-publish and reach readers in global markets through the Kobo eco-system. You can also subscribe to the Kobo Writing Life podcast for interviews with successful indie authors.
Kobo’s financial support pays for the hosting and transcription, and if you enjoy the show, you can now support my time on Patreon. Thank you for your support!
Guy Windsor is a swordsman, author and entrepreneur. He researches and teaches medieval and Renaissance Italian swordsmanship and runs The School of European Swordsmanship. His latest book is Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers and Martial Artists, with a foreword by Neal Stephenson, which is pretty epic 🙂
- The origins of Guy’s passion for swords and sword fighting.
- The importance for entrepreneurs and artists to be good at their art and also at business.
- What writing and martial arts have in common including skill building and dealing with fears.
- Practice and discipline and starting with achievable goals.
- Using tools to create accountability and making mental adjustments about how we are categorizing our writing. Is it work or is it fun?
- The myth of talent and the reality that those who are good at something have worked hard to become good at it.
- How we learn by doing and the importance of feedback
- The mistakes authors make when writing sword fighting scenes
- Reconciling the intermingling of art, beauty and death.
- The Maker renaissance and how that is also occurring in sword-making.
Transcription of interview with Guy Windsor
Joanna: Hi everyone, I’m Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I’m here with Guy Windsor. Hi, Guy.
Joanna: Well, it’s super to have you on the show.
Guy: Thanks for having me.
Joanna: Just a little introduction, Guy is a swordsman, an author and entrepreneur. He researches and teaches medieval and renaissance Italian swordsmanship and runs the school of European Swordsmanship and this is just way too awesome and we are going to talk about martial arts and about writing as a discipline and also we might have a guest appearance of a sword on the show. It’s all super exciting, Guy, you can tell, I’m, like, hyperventilating.
Guy: Swords tend to have that effect on people.
Joanna: No wonder you do it.
Guy: Swords are cool.
Joanna: Swords are cool.
Tell us a bit more about how you became a swordsman and also how you got into writing.
Guy: I’ve been into martial arts since I was little. I don’t really remember a time when I wasn’t interested in martial arts. I think it began because I had a big brother who wasn’t very nice to me. Then I was reading Asterix, I think it was the Twelve Tasks of Asterix and there’s this bit where he has to fight this little Judo guy. And Obelix gets kind of pasted on the floor like this Judo guy is beating a rug.
So Asterix, really clever, he kind of goes, “Oh, that’s amazing!” You know, “Can you show me how to do it?” Sure enough this Judo guy being an instructor and what have you, he shows Asterix how to do it. “Yes, yes, pull this on, do that . . .” and then suddenly this Judo guy is completely immobilized, and so Asterix has won.
It’s the idea of somebody being, you can be smaller and weaker, but if you’re better trained or cleverer you can still win. That’s the thing that I really like. And to me, weapons are a sort of, they’re just so much more efficient. Basically, a sword is a labor saving device. So, you know, if you want somebody to die, punching them in the head many times takes time and is effortful, whereas you can just kinda poke them with a sword and they’ll fall down.
Joanna: Although, although we do have to point out that you don’t actually kill people in real life.
Guy: No. A little boy my wife used to look after, when he heard what I did for a living, at the age of five, he looks at my wife and said, “He doesn’t kill people, does he?” She was like, “No, no, not usually.”
Joanna: No, but it’s one of those very long-term evolutionary skills that I worry about us losing these things, I really do. I’m like, yeah, I’m brilliant on a computer, but come the zombie apocalypse . . .
Guy: Oh, I’ll be fine.
Joanna: You’ll be sorted. I’ll be ’round your house. But you’re in Finland, right? You’re in Helsinki, which is awesome. I’ve been to Helsinki in the summer and it’s super town, really fun.
Guy: I like it. I’ve been here 15 years now. It’s a great place.
Joanna: Wow. But just coming back into the sword stuff.
You started off doing martial arts, presumably, then you started learning about swordsmanship and now you run all these things, right? And you write about swords, so just tell us about that journey.
Guy: Sure. What happened was, I did karate and stuff because that’s what was available when I was about 11. And then when I got to my middle school, they had a fencing club, so I thought, “Fantastic! Finally I get to real swords!” And I was doing, effectively sport fencing, until I got to university and at university there was so many martial arts, so my week went like this, Mondays was fencing, Tuesdays Tai Chi, Wednesdays was fencing, Thursdays Tai Chi, Fridays was Japanese weapons stuff called Kobudo, Saturday was karate, Sunday there was usually some extra classes, something going on. So, I was basically training martial arts seven days a week.
It’s kind of, I didn’t really pay much attention to my degree at the time, it was like, “Yay, all these martial arts! I can do those.” But the thing is, sport fencing is very artificial and is very stylized and it doesn’t really follow the logic of a real sword fight. All sorts of things get you points in competition that are suicide in a sword fight. And there are a bunch of other people who are similarly frustrated with the artificiality of the sport fencing and we sort of naturally got together and started fighting each other with what we thought were realistic rules. And that led us to find books.
I actually found my grandfather used to fence, back in the beginning of the twentieth century. He was born in 1895. He actually has, had a book called The Sword and The Centuries, which was published in 1896, which has all these details of swords and books about swords from the 16th, 17th centuries.
So, “Hang on, there are old books, by people who actually fought with swords for real?” So we went and found them in libraries. And the word got out that we were looking for these things and, in the oddest places, like a fight director in Glasgow heard about it and he had a few early 18th century fencing books in his house.
Joanna: Just for fun.
Guy: Right. Yeah, so we photocopied these and were studying them and reading from them and what have you. And we started a club called The Dawn Duellists’ Society which we officially founded it in 1994. And then, at that time I was graduating, I graduated in 96 and I decided to be a cabinetmaker because my degree was in English Literature and I was kinda fed up with matters of opinion. I wanted matters of fact.
You know, you make a chair and it either works or it doesn’t. You sit on it and it either holds you up or it doesn’t. You know, you put together your interpretation of a particular play and it’s, well, it could be good, it could be bad, it could be well argued, but it’s all very subjective. Woodwork is not very subjective. So I managed to get a job doing that, as an antiques restorer, primarily, and then a different job doing cabinetmaking and a little bit of antiques restoration. Then my boss, who was a brilliant woodworker, unbelievably good, and a terrible businessman, this is a lesson, by the way, for all of your would-be professional writers, it’s you have to be good at both or you go under.
And so his company which had, I think, four employees when I joined. I was the second to be let go, and then there was the other two followed me soon after and eventually he was basically back doing it on his own because he couldn’t make any money.
So I decided to go self-employed. I’ve never wanted, really, a job. I didn’t ever take the job because it paid the rent, because it barely ever did pay the rent. Woodworkers don’t make much money. I picked those jobs because I wanted to be able to do the stuff. I wanted to learn how to be a good cabinetmaker. So, that’s why I took the job, the money was just sort of, so I could afford to take the job.
Going self-employed was natural, but the thing is, all right and here’s another useful warning to the would-be professional writers out there, not all hobbies make good jobs. And woodworking was, for me, a really good hobby and a terrible job. I was actually not very happy most of the time I was a woodworker. So, now l was trying to make a living doing woodworking ‘cuz I was self-employed in Edinburgh and it was not going very well and I wasn’t making any money at all and I was basically miserable and conflicted and all sorts of things happened.
And so, having at that point been a martial artist for 12, 14, 15 years or so, and doing meditation and that sort of thing, I thought,”You know what, this is the classic way to solve things.” I went off into the hills and I sat on a mountain and I meditated. And a voice in my head, this is exactly what happened, a voice in my head, absolutely clearly, said, “Go to Helsinki and open school of swordsmanship.”
Guy: I thought, “What the hell? Okay.” So I did.
Joanna: And, thus, your hobby has become your job, successfully.
Guy: Yeah, for the second time. The first time it didn’t work out so well, second time it went much better.
Joanna: Which is awesome.
Guy: At the same time, I had, obviously, students in Edinburgh, ‘cuz having founded the club I was one of the main instructors in the club. And the reason we founded the club was so we could fight people and the reason we had to teach them is so they would know what to do when we were trying to hit them. Because it’s no fun fighting people who can’t fight back.
Joanna: Was this like reenactments and stuff?
Guy: No. Re-creation of historical swordsmanship was the goal the from the beginning. We did sometimes show up to reenactments just to kind of try and meet other people and fight other people. But the goals are very different, in a reenactment you’re putting on a show for the general public and it has to be very safe so you’re not allowed to, for example, thrust to the face.
Guy: Most historical swordsmanship technique revolves around thrusting people in the face, right? It’s a fundamental kind of disconnect between reenactment and actual, the medieval martial arts or Renaissance martial arts as they’re written down. We were teaching people then anyway, so I had some experience teaching martial arts. And I’m actually, sort of, instinctively a teacher anyway. It’s like if I was having problems with a woodworking issue, trying to cut a joint or something, and I just couldn’t do it right, I would conjure up an imaginary student and I would teach them how to do it. And that way I could produce it much better.
Joanna: Yeah, that’s how I write nonfiction, actually. By writing it down, you actually teach other people. Let’s move on into the writing because, and for people listening, we are going to come back to sword fighting, but I thought for some people who weren’t so interested in that we should probably talk about writing.
Guy: Are there people out there who are not interested in swords? Really?
Joanna: Apparently. Apparently there are, in fact they might have turned off by now, but if you’re still listening.
Do writing and martial arts do have a lot in common? I’ve had other fighters on the show; I’ve had an MMA guy, I’ve had Adam Baxter who does a form of karate, and they talk about this, too. I wonder if you could talk a bit about some of the lessons from the art.
Guy: Probably the primary one is dealing with fear. Because practise of the martial arts is fundamentally gaining the ability to behave as you would wish to behave whilst you are being threatened. That’s basically what it does. People can fight naturally, some people better than others, but if you have a martial art, you have a specific way that you have worked out in advance as being a better way of fighting than just your natural kind of flailing about. What tends to happen, though, is you train the martial art in a nice gentle way and then you get into a fight and it all goes out the window and you go back to natural actions.
Martial arts training, once you’re past the simple “This is a sword, swing it like that” is about being able to do it correctly under pressure and dealing with the things that you’re frightened of. And there are all sorts of exercises and disciplines that we have that address this because basically, dealing with fear is a skill like any other skill.
For instance, I am terrified of hanging upside down. Terrified. I just know if I get my hands onto a bar, get my knees over the bar, if I let go of my hands, my legs will go straight and I’ll fall on my head.
Joanna: No bungee jumping for you.
Guy: The thing is, it’s frightening, but it’s irrationally frightening. It’s not actually terribly dangerous. Because actually my legs are stronger than my hands. So, most days I do it. And the moment when I let go, I am almost certain that I’m going to break my neck. I just know in my head that it’s not going to happen so I do it, but my entire body is perfectly certain that I’m about to die.
Joanna: And equate that to writing a book.
Guy: Writing a book is a skill, it can be learned like any other skill. The reason that people who want to write books don’t write books boils down to either lack of skills or, if they have the skills, they’re frightened to apply them. And the main pressure writing a book, I imagine is, you get this idea of “Oh, God, I’m going to write a book, it’s going to be terrible, everyone’s going to hate me and I’m going to be . . .”
Joanna: It’s fear of failure.
Guy: Yeah, it’s fear of failure or fear of ostracism or even fear of success. Because right now, I’m in my little garret, making no money. I know what that life is like and I can survive it. I don’t know what it would be like if suddenly I was bringing in, I don’t know, five figures a month. Not that that usually happens, but because it’s a change, it’s naturally frightening. Fear of success is probably less common than fear of failure, but it’s equally real. There are lots of ways of kind of getting around this.
One way is we practice dealing with fear in a different context. For example, my hanging upside down thing, I don’t recommend hanging upside down as a way to write books, but it’s useful to do things that you don’t want to do, or that you’re frightened of, on a regular basis because being able to do that is a very useful life skill. Which can be applied to anything, like for example, writing books.
Let’s say you’re writing a book, or you want to write a book, or you’ve even written one but you’re frightened to publish it. I don’t think people are usually frightened of actually the writing, ‘cuz you can do that kind of on your own, in secret, but when they’ve got it, I know at least three people who have finished novels in their drawers that they won’t show to anybody. So one possibility is you don’t publish it, okay? Instead, let’s say you’ve written a thriller, you think of a friend of yours who reads thrillers, and you don’t publish it, you just give it to your friend.
Joanna: That’s probably the scariest thing ‘cuz they’re the ones who are going to judge you more than the rest of the world.
Guy: Or, another approach is, you post it online anonymously, and see what people think of it, right? Think of all the fan fic out there, right? It’s all posted anonymously. Most people don’t turn into E. L. James at the end of it, but if publishing anonymously allows you to publish things which you’re frightened of. And then when you get the feedback you can go, “Well actually, that’s no so bad.” And if people liked it, you go, “Great.” And if people didn’t like it you go, “Well, I can fix that.”
And then you fiddle about and maybe do it again until you’re used to publishing something. Not a book, that’s scary. Not something which is like, “This is a work of art I made, and it is what I think of as a good book should be and judge me from this.” It’s not your masterwork that you’re handing out for judgement, right? It is just this little thing you’ve written, maybe a blog post or something, or a post on Facebook. I mean, people are publishing all the time. People who are afraid to publish are doing it 18 times a day on Facebook.
Joanna: So, it’s doing little things that take you slightly out of your comfort zone.
Joanna: Fear is one thing, but another thing I’m interested in is practice and discipline, because being a master sword fighter and also a master writer obviously practice and discipline are really important.
Can you give us some tips about discipline and practice?
Guy: Okay, it’s a skill like any other. And it can be trained like any other skill. If, for example, you take doing weightlifting you would start with a light weight that you could actually lift, and you would do it until you started to get tired and then you would rest. And you’d recover and give yourself plenty of recovery time and then you’d do it again, maybe with a slightly heavier weight.
With discipline it is exactly the same. You can’t be completely disciplined all the time. And if you take on a gigantic project that takes ferocious discipline for hours at a stretch it’s impossible. So what you do is you start out with something really achievable. Maybe today and every, maybe every day before breakfast I’m going to sit down and write for five minutes. That’s it, and that’s achievable. And it requires some effort of will, but you can do it.
Then what you do is you, you go to the next level of maybe 10 minutes. And you try that and maybe it’s too much, so you bring it back down to five for a little bit, or maybe you do it for five minutes twice a day. But it’s important that you’re not all the time desperately working hard to do things that require discipline.
Another way is if you recast the whole process. If you’re only writing 5 or 10 minutes or an hour a day, you’re probably not a professional writer, you probably have a job. And it takes discipline to get up every day and go to the job. So, the reason that works, the reason you have a discipline for that is because the consequences of failure are quite extreme. You lose your job, things are really bad, and there’s all this social pressure to get it done. If you make yourself accountable, you can use that same process.
For example, Scrivener has this feature where you can tweet your word count. That might work for you, or for somebody. Personally I don’t use that, but it’s that sort of public accountability. If you say. “I’m going to do this.” And then people can track your progress, it’s a very powerful motivator to get you to actually sit down and do it.
But another preferable trick, I think, is you don’t need discipline to write because that’s your relaxing time, right? This is your treat for yourself, you get to sit down and play with your novel, for 10 minutes every day before breakfast or a half an hour when you get home from work or whatever. I do this with my own training.
If I feel like I’m overloaded with work and I really need a break, I do some training. If I feel like I really need to get some work done, well training makes me a better swordsman, it’s therefore work, “Right, I’m going to go training.” I just flip how I identify what I’m doing so that I’m more likely to go and do it. I identify with things I want to be doing a lot and I make whatever sort of adjustments in my head that I need to make to get it to actually happen.
Joanna: I really like that and I agree with you. I actually think it’s one of the things that has, separates people who write a lot and people who struggle to write. Because if it’s not fun, why bother?
Guy: Why would you do it?
Joanna: One of the things that I do now is I have a coloring book, because for me, to write you need to bring out that playful side of you and not think of it as, “Oh, I must do that”. It’s like, “Yay, this is fun.” And I imagine you swinging a sword, it’s fun right?
Guy: When I’m hitting a sword my face is totally relaxed. You don’t hit people with your face.
Joanna: No, I know, but as in, are you grinning away because you really enjoy it?
Guy: Well, if I’m really focused I try and keep my face completely relaxed because it’s important to be relaxed.
Joanna: Yeah, I must say, I’m not sitting there grinning away as I, well sometimes I laugh at myself writing.
Guy: But also, you can write to avoid pain. Like, one book I was writing, was a translation of a medieval Italian manuscript, I’m not sure any of your readers would be the slightest bit interested in that particular book, but it was in my head and I couldn’t get it out. I couldn’t settle with myself until I got it out. I’d be working on it for three or four hours before lunch, and normally after lunch I stop. I’m teaching in the evening, so I have the afternoons off, playing with the children or whatever. And my wife would be looking at me and I’m kind of staring off into space with these lines of Italian verse going in my head and she’d look at me going,”Guy, off you go.” ‘Cuz there’s no point in talking to me because I’m not there, I’m in the book and I can’t stop until I’ve finished.
Joanna: Yeah, and the reward is finishing the book.
Sometimes it’s really hard work, but you want to finish the book and it’s your masterwork of swordsmanship.
Guy: Or just finish a chapter. I’m in the middle of this chapter and if I could just finish this chapter, then I could call it done. So, writing to avoid pain, is also a popular strategy.
Joanna: Let’s just talk about the myth of talent thing.
You mentioned that things are a learned skill, but what do you mean by the myth of talent and how does that apply to swordsmanship and writing?
Guy: I think you should adopt only useful beliefs. And it’s not useful to believe in inherent talent because the thing is, if you want to do something, the first step shouldn’t be to assess whether you’re going to be world class at it in the first week. ‘Cuz nobody is ever world class at anything in the first week.
And while it’s true that the early stages of learning any particular skill tend to be easier for some people than for others, and in any art some aspects are easier than others for some people and different for others, the idea of inherent talent is just fundamentally flawed. I don’t actually think it really exists in the way that people think it does. And it’s not a useful belief to have anyway, even if it was true because fundamentally the people who are good at things are good at things because they’ve worked at them. They may pretend that they haven’t worked at them and they may have also sorts of natural advantages or attributes that make it particularly easy for them to be particularly good at it.
Okay, here’s a classic; sword fighters need to be tall and strong, right? I’m not particularly tall and I’m stronger than I was, but I’m not particularly strong either. Rapier is all about long thrusts and what have you, so you’d think my best ever rapier student would be 6’6″ and long and skinny, right? No.
My best ever rapier student was about 5’1″ because she really, really worked. And she’s rock solid and she’ll put a sword through your face faster than breathing. She’s a terror.
The idea that when you write your first book it’s not going to be very good, but you don’t have to publish it as it is.
The first draft of my first book, I started writing it in about 1999. Because one of my students said “Guy, you’ve got to write this stuff down.” So I went, “Oh, okay, I’ll try.” And I sent it off to a publisher in 2002 and about 10% or 15% of that first draft made it into the final book published in 2004.
They liked the idea, the execution sucked. And that’s me with a degree in English. I’ve been taught to write decent nonfiction because when you write essays, you’re taught to construct decent arguments and that sort of thing. I learned to write it in the process of writing it. And my first book came out okay because it had editors, really good editors who were really, really helpful and threw out all the rubbish and gently encouraged all the better stuff.
My second book, maybe 90% of the first draft got into the final draft and that whole process took two years instead of four. You learn it by doing it and getting feedback on what you’re doing. And this is true for absolutely any skill.
The idea that I can’t write a book because I’m not a good writer, is flawed.
It’s I’m not a good writer, so I have to write a book so I become a better writer, and then I’ll be a better writer and then I’ll write another book and become an even better writer, and eventually after maybe 20 books, maybe the first 19 of these books never gets published ‘cuz maybe you’re really starting from a bad starting point. But it doesn’t matter, so long as you have a system of actually doing it and a system of getting feedback on what you’re doing, and that is critical. Feedback is nonnegotiable; if it’s not there, the process fails. As long as that feedback process is there and you keep plugging away at it you will naturally get good at it. The same way you’ll naturally get good at a computer game.
Joanna: Or sword fighting.
Guy: Or sword fighting. Exactly. In sword fighting the feedback tends to be pretty quick and immediate. You’ll get conked on the head.
Joanna: Pretty painful.
Guy: Yeah, not so much, we’re very careful but yes.
Joanna: I can imagine. No, that’s very cool. And I think, certainly, obviously many of my listeners are indie authors so our feedback is going to be editors and also then, yeah, readers and reviews.
Guy: Readers and reviews, absolutely.
Joanna: And fast feedback is a much better way to learn. I just don’t understand people who spend fours years of an MFA writing one book.
Joanna: Over and over and over again. It’s crazy. So, I totally agree with you on all of that. I also wanted to ask you about what writers get wrong with sword fights in books. Because I’ve had somebody on, talking about what people get wrong with guns. There’s a lot of people who are writing swords and fantasy books. It’s so popular now. I haven’t done any sword fighting in my thrillers but maybe I will.
But tell us, what are the main things that authors get wrong with fight scenes?
Guy: Perhaps the biggest, obvious one is they make swords do things that swords can’t do. For example, there’s a certain kind of idea of how armoured combat works, where you’re all in armour and somebody swings a sword at your head and it cuts through your helmet and you die, okay. Helmets are expensive. And people will pay the money for them because they work. Now, sure, it is possible to get through a helmet with something that is a sword or a sword-like object, but generally speaking, armour works. So there’s the big, obvious one.
And you see it on the screen as much as you see it in books. Also, swords are not heavy. The biggest sword I have is up to about my nose and it has a cross guard about this wide, and for those who are not looking at the video, I’m holding my hands about shoulder-width apart. The thing is gigantic, right? It weighs 3 kilos and I can swing it around with one hand.
Joanna: Wow. Just show us the sword that’s next to you as well.
Guy: This is just a long sword. If I put it on the ground it comes up to about my sternum, which you can’t see on the video. And it is . . .
Joanna: Ooh, it’s awesome!
Guy: And this delightful, lovely thing, as you can see I’m manipulating it with my fingers because it weighs about 1.3 kilos.
Joanna: Goodness! How much does that cost?
Guy: It really depends. My cheapest sword was somewhere around 250 quid and I won’t tell you how much the most expensive one cost because my wife might listen to this.
Joanna: Fair enough. That was a beautiful object, for people who can’t see it.
Guy: That one was about €400, 350 quid.
Joanna: I thought swords were heavy. What are the other things people get wrong?
Guy: Okay, to my mind, the thing that most bugs me about most historical combat that’s put into books, is that it’s boring. Because the thing is, you read a book for the characters and the plot and the action is there because it’s exciting. But the reason it’s exciting is because your character, who you care about, is in danger, that’s why it works.
So when a fight goes on for ages and ages and ages and ages and ages and nobody seems to be in any real danger, you’re kind of, “Oh, for God’s sake, just stab him already,” you know, “Get on with it.” I guess the biggest thing is forgetting, getting swept away in the action and forgetting character and plot. That’s the key thing. That what bugs me the most.
Joanna: Which is actually the same with any kind of fight scene. I imagine, you know, the MMA guy was like . . . all these trading blows that you see, it just doesn’t happen, right?
Guy: Most people, if they’re not trained for it, you give them one solid punch in the head, they will probably go down.
Joanna: And with a sword, you wouldn’t stand much chance, like you said.
Guy: No, it’s a labor saving device.
Joanna: I’ve got to ask you, Game of Thrones, which I love. I’m a super fan of Game of Thrones.
Guy: All right.
Joanna: Are they, oh dear, he’s holding his head in his hands now.
Guy: No, no, no. We can go there.
Joanna: No, I just want to know, how realistic is the sword fighting in Game of Thrones?
Guy: I like Game of Thrones, the TV show. I didn’t much care for the books. I read the first one and everybody I liked died at the end I thought, “I can’t be bothered with the second one.” ‘Cuz the characters I was following, you know all of that, okay. My wife and I both enjoy the Game of Thrones thing and particularly the dragons and all that kind of stuff. All the really kind of fancy gumby elements. The sword fight I remember best is when Ned Stark was captured.
Joanna: They were in the ring and the men were surrounding them.
Guy: Yes. And it was just so bad. It was just, okay, this man is clearly, this is Sean Bean, right? He was on Lord of the Rings.
Joanna: He’s got superpowers.
Guy: He carried a sword for like four years. He was Sharpe, he carried a sword for the 10 years that that TV series ran. The man has probably spent as much time with a sword as I have. And they made him do things, and maybe he has never trained with it, but he has carried one for an awful long time. Now what happens when there is a sword fight in Game of Thrones or any other thing, I tend to shut my eyes and wait until it’s over. Just so it doesn’t ruin things.
Joanna: Because it’s too theatrical, as you say it’s a performance, it’s not real fighting.
Guy: Yeah, and it’s not even really good performance because this person is supposed to be an expert fighter and he’s fighting like a child. It’s just not how an expert fighter would ever behave. The same is true of absolutely any specialist discipline. If I’m watching a film about hackers and the person I’m watching it with happens to be a computer expert, they’re going, “Oh, God, no.”
Joanna: Yeah, I know what you mean.
Guy: I mean it’s true for every single specialist. So, it’s not like Game of Thrones is particularly bad in this respect. And there are some good sword fights out there.
Joanna: Like what?
Give us an example of a good sword fight in a film or TV.
Guy: The Duellists.
Joanna: Is that a film?
Guy: Yep. Directed by Ridley Scott a long, long time ago . It’s got Harvey Keitel in it. And the first fight is between a cavalry officer and a civilian. The cavalry officer is a trained killer who’s never used a small sword before, which is kind of the courtly, straight, light thing they used in the 17th and 18th centuries. And his opponent is an untrained person who is terrified. And the fight goes exactly the way that would happen.
Joanna: So it’s quite quick.
Guy: It is relatively quick. Not completely quick because the guy’s using an unfamiliar weapon. Also they do this fantastic sabre duel, two cavalry officers having a sabre duel. And they’re both, by the end of it, completely exhausted and streaming blood and whatever and it is brilliant.
I also love the fight at the end of Rob Roy. Liam Neeson’s Rob Roy. Really good. A fop with a rapier and a thug with a broadsword, and it was great. Because the characters were there. The way they fought really represented their characters.
Joanna: Are there any you can think of with women?
Guy: Oh, that’s a hard question. A third of my students are women. And I’m doing whatever I can to persuade people that actually, you know, women are just as good at sword fighting as men because it’s not about being bigger or stronger or any of that sort of stuff. The problem is, though, that in any fight, size and strength do actually matter.
Joanna: Yes, of course.
Guy: If you have two people of equal training the bigger, stronger person will usually beat the smaller, weaker one. But if you have somebody with not very much training and somebody with lots of training, then the person with the training advantage can be smaller and weaker and still defeat the other.
Joanna: I want to go and do a sword fighting lesson now. I’m going to put it on my list. I’ve shot guns, you know, I should try swords.
Guy: Yeah, why not?
Joanna: I know there’ll be some people who are listening who are like, “They’re talking about things that actually kill people.” And it’s the same with guns, but we’re writing this stuff, and I think, we’re humans, people have killed us, we’ve killed each other for, you know, since we came out the woods. So it seems to me we have to tackle these types of things.
But how do you tackle that, “This is my amazing sword, it’s a thing of beauty, this is my hobby.” And potentially it’s a killing device, that’s why it was invented, was to kill people. How do you reconcile this kind of art, beauty, death thing?
Guy: If we didn’t have death, we wouldn’t have a word for life. Think about it. If you confront your own mortality, in whatever way you do that, there is an opportunity for spiritual growth that you cannot get any other way. And the sword is fundamentally a transitional object, it transforms you from one thing into another. From a sort of metaphysical perspective, you can think of the sword as something which separates truth from falsehood, or pierces the veil of illusion.
Joanna: Oh, very nice.
Guy: You can go in all sorts of mystical directions with it. But fundamentally, you have to come to terms with your own mortality at some point in your life, and it’s better to do it earlier than later.
And everything that is beautiful has an element of destruction in it. I mean, a beautiful table has a dead tree in it, right? A beautiful painting has things which have been transformed from their original state and made into something else and the person in it may well have been dead for 300 years.
Art is a way of fighting against death.
If you write a book, it lives on after you. If you paint a picture, it can live on after you. It’s a representation of yourself into the future and martial art is no different. It’s all art, and as Neil Gaiman said, “Make good art, this just happens to be mine.”
Joanna: Well, it’s not only, I mean, you have the swords, but you also have the writing and the teaching.
Joanna: And there’s a joy in kind of passing that on.
Guy: Absolutely. Teaching is an art. Writing is an art. And the thing is, the reason that we have these martial arts to study is because people wrote books. In the 17th century, in the 15th century, whenever. Those books have survived when the people did not and when the arts that those books represent did not. So we can recreate them from the books, not perfectly, but we can recreate them, so the art is being revived, now, literally brought back to life, when once it was dead. And that’s because of the books. I’m actually coming to the point where I think the most important thing I do for the survival of the art that I practice is writing the books. It’s actually more important than teaching students or my own personal training.
Joanna: That’s brilliant. And then, I presume you’re having, like, illustrations in the books, too. Pictures of the swords and demonstrations of technique.
Guy: My latest book has, like, six photographs in it, so it’s not really a technical book at all. But most of my other books are technical manuals, how to do it, and so they are extensively illustrated. I also have a lot of videos online as well, if you want to see how a sword should be used.
Joanna: Which is fun and we’ll give your website out in a minute, because they’re really good to go and have a look at that. I’m interested in the revival, because I really think we’re living in this maker movement time. Where it used to be that you just watched TV and now you can make TV with YouTube. It used to be you listened to radio, now we’re making radio. You used to have a publisher and just read and now you’re writing books.
I think we’re in the kind of maker renaissance. And this is happening in craft, too. People are making their own swords now, aren’t they?
Joanna: Actually, my husband likes Japanese stuff, and isn’t it like a 15 year apprenticeship, or something, just folding the steel?
Guy: Oh, yeah. It’s ridiculously long. And there was a chap who made woodworking planes called Sadahide. He was retiring at the end of a long and illustrious career but all is not lost because his son, Sadahide Junior, was going to take over the business, okay. And Sadahide Junior was considered one of Japan’s up and coming young blade makers. Sadahide Junior was 65. He’d been making plane blades for 50 years. He’s an up and coming young blade maker. I mean, it’s just a different perspective.
That’s one thing I like about martial arts, as opposed to combat sports. For example mixed martial arts where you get in the ring and you get the shit kicked out of you. In classical martial arts, traditional martial arts and the kind of stuff I do, we have people who are training into their 60s and 70s. I intend to be training into my 90s and 100s. So we have a whole lot of stuff we have to do to stay healthy and we mustn’t push it, must avoid injury, all that sort of thing. But it’s this long-term view.
But to get back to your point about it’s the age of the creator, I absolutely agree. Absolutely anybody can make stuff and get it out there. Because we have the internet, which makes it all easier.
Joanna: Fantastic. Yes, so talking of the internet, where can people go to find you and your books and all your stuff online?
Guy: Okay, I set up a page on my blog, for your readers, Joanna, ‘cuz most of the stuff on my blog is going to be very technical, like an in-depth academic discussion of exactly how long a rapier should be and stuff like that. Which, perhaps your . . .
Joanna: Most people aren’t interested in.
Guy: Aren’t terribly interested in, but you know for my readers, that’s like crack cocaine to them, they’re super pleased with that sort of thing. So I set up a page which is at GuyWindsor.net/blog/joanna, which is a nice little landing page for writers. And there’s links to articles I’ve written which are appropriate to writers. For example about my writing set up, standing desks and that kind of thing. About crowd funding, because two of my books have been funded through crowd funding, which is one way of getting a publisher’s advance without a publisher. And you can also see my sword fighting book there as well.
Joanna: Which is fantastic and I really enjoyed that even though, you know, this is a kind of peripheral to what I do, but I really enjoyed the book. It’s got stuff about writing in as well. So, that was fantastic, Guy. Thanks so much for your time.
Guy: Thanks for having me.