Episode 123

Elementary, my dear Windsor, with Dr. Ashley Polasek

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Show Notes:

Dr. Ashley Polasek is a historical martial artist who started with Lichtenauer and now teaches Bolognese swordsmanship. She is based in South Carolina, but spends much of her time travelling for her day job working with one of the world’s most successful playwrights.

Ashley is an expert in Sherlock Holmes. She was a consultant on the first Enola Holmes movie and is a member of the exclusive ‘Baker Street Irregulars’. Her PhD is in adaptations of Sherlock Holmes, and it is fascinating how the character pops up in so many different versions, and yet they are all recognisably Sherlock Holmes. Even Sherlock Gnomes.

(I’m sure Ashley won’t mind that the misquoted title of this episode, “Elementary, my dear Watson,” was never actually said by Sherlock in any of the books.)

We also talk about how having no vision in one eye affects Ashley’s swordfighting, training to be a Ninja Warrior, women’s hips, and getting swords into schools.

GW:  I’m here today with Dr. Ashley Polasek, who is a historical martial artist, something of a ninja, (we’ll get into exactly what that means later,) and an expert in Sherlock Holmes. She teaches Bolognese swordsmanship and was a consultant on the first Enola Holmes movie. So without further ado, Ashley, welcome to the show.

 

AP:  Thanks very much.

 

GW:  So whereabouts in the world are you?

 

AP:  I live in upstate South Carolina, but I travel for work probably two out of three days of the year. So you find me at home today, but I could be anywhere.

 

GW:  Yeah. I think you were in the U.K. recently.

 

AP:  Yes, I work in the theatre, so we were involved in two shows at Chichester Festival Theatre this summer. So I was there for a long time.

 

GW:  Lovely. Okay, we’re going to get into some of your theatrical stuff in a little bit. So let’s start with the swords and then ease into the other things. So how did you get into historical martial arts?

 

AP:  I’ve always been a very unathletic person. I only have vision in one eye. So anything that involves somebody throwing a ball at me, the ball’s just going to hit me in the face. So I kind of always thought being athletic was pretty hopeless for me. I started sort of seeing turning 30 on the horizon, and I felt like I needed to start doing something physical just for my health. I had done sport fencing in college, which I really enjoyed. I started searching around locally to see if there was maybe a sport fencing academy that I could get into. And I stumbled upon the website of a place called Sword Carolina which said they did historical martial arts. I’d never heard of it before, but they offered a free intro lesson, so I went to it and at the end of my intro lesson, I signed up for the whole thing. I just loved it so much.

 

GW:  Excellent. So what started out as a, “I’ve got to get moving for my health,” turned into “swords are cool.”

 

AP:  That’s right.

 

GW:  Absolutely. “Swords are cool” is like the one thing that connects pretty much all of my guests together. We can all agree on that one thing. Many of us disagree on many other things, but no, we all agree swords are cool. So when did you start?

 

AP:  I’ve been doing it now for maybe eight years, I think 2014 is when I started, beginning of the year.

 

GW:  What did you start with, sword-wise?

 

AP:  Sword Carolina, the school that I joined does Liechtenauer style. So we started with longsword and they would primarily do longsword. That’s where they started all their students at the beginning. And then if you wanted to join other classes to try other things, they would sort of branch out a little bit. So I dabbled a little bit here and there with  Messer for a little while. I dabbled a little bit. We played around with pole weapons. I was never very good at that. Again, the depth perception thing being a problem. The farther my opponent gets from me, the less likely I am to be able to hit them reasonably. But mostly I started out with German style longsword.

 

GW:  Right. And you liked it? Didn’t like it? I mean, I know that’s not what you do mostly now, so.

 

AP:  Yeah, I liked it. I think it’s a great place to start, particularly if you doubt your own body control and your strength just because you have the leverage of both arms. So kind of anybody can do it.

 

GW:  Yeah, that’s one of the common misconceptions, like people saying, oh, rapiers are super light because you hold it in one hand and it’s fine. Longswords must be really big and heavy, but it’s entirely the other way around because when you have got two hands on the thing, it weighs half as much.

 

AP:  That’s right. That’s exactly right. And so I found that I could do it fairly well. I started competing in longsword within, I think six months of starting my training. No one told me that, like joining an open longsword tournament when you’ve only done six months of training is like a scary thing to do. And because nobody told me I probably oughtn’t, no one discouraged me from doing it. I just did it. And I did really well and found that I really liked that. I’m not actually a naturally competitive person, but I enjoyed kind of the personal test of that. So I’ve continued to train longsword, but a few years in, I wanted to try Italian style and I wanted to try sidesword, which looked to me like something that was quite beautiful and graceful. And I was tempted by that to begin with. And so I started my school even though they didn’t do any Italian. The owner of the school, Aaron Shober, is very encouraging and he basically said, great, here’s a night for you to do this if you want to start a study group or you want to teach. He joined my class to be supportive.

 

GW:  Wow, that’s a good teacher.

 

AP:  He’s great. Yes. He’s very good at what he does. And we started out with about six regulars. And I’d work on a lesson beforehand and work on the vocabulary and build what I wanted to do with the training day. And then we’d all come in and when we’d work on a technique, we’d troubleshoot. Because when you’re doing it on your own, you kind of don’t know what’s going to work and what’s not going to work. What makes sense in your head sometimes doesn’t make sense when another person is standing in front of you. And so we kind of work through things together. So I’ve now been doing that for maybe five or six years.

 

GW:  So what sources are you working with? I mean, using translations or using the original Italian?

 

AP:  I don’t speak Italian. I think that the material in the Bolognese sources is actually really accessible. So primarily, depending on whether we’re working on single sword or whether working on sword and companion. So I’ve done units where we’re going in the next four months we’re doing sword and dagger or the next four months we’re doing sword and rotella. So we started out with Marozzo and we’ve worked in some Manciolino as well, a little bit of the Anonymo. But mostly those.

 

GW:  Whose translations are you using?

 

AP:  I’m going to mispronounce people’s names horribly, I’m sure, but the Jherek Swanger.

 

GW:  Jherek Swanger. Yep, old friend of mine.

 

AP:  Marozzo, yep. Excellent translation. And Tom Leoni’s Manciolino.

 

GW:  And do you find that the sources complement each other? Or do they contradict each other at all?

 

AP:  I’m the sort of person that thinks that contradictions actually are useful. So I kind of don’t mind when sources use different terms for things or one recommends that you move in this particular way, and another one would suggest a different way to work. I find that those actually help me be not so monolithic in my interpretations, because the same thing is true with the longsword stuff, which I wasn’t dealing directly with the manuscripts in my longsword training. I was getting it second hand and I would find that things that were being taught, for instance, by a six foot four man didn’t work for me as a five foot four woman. And it wasn’t because I was doing it wrong per the manuscript, it was because I needed to reassess what they were actually trying to say. And I find that the contradictions, such as they are in the Bolognese sources are kind of similar. You can reconcile them or you can view them as options.

 

GW:  And to me, it’s always a red flag when an instructor’s students are all the same size and shape that they are. Because if the way you’re teaching only works for people who are your size and shape, then what you’re teaching isn’t really an art, it is a specific way of winning fencing matches that works for you.

 

AP:  Yes. It becomes a game instead of an art. And I have to say, one of the great things about Sword Carolina, I’m going to brag on them a lot here I’m sure, is that the number of women who train at Sword Carolina is actually really high. The school is owned by a man and primarily run by him. But he is happy to, like he did with me, if someone comes to and say it’s Gosh, I really want to study this. So there’s a couple who started training around the same time I did, and they wanted to look at sword and buckler. And so he said, great. He did the same thing for them that he did for me with Bolognese and said, here’s a night for you. We will advertise your class. He joins the class to make sure that they feel like they have somebody to  talk to who has really good fundamentals and they would work things out. And so it’s the other Ashley at Sword Carolina. She teaches there a lot, too. And so we’re senior members of the school and there are as many women training there now as men, which is, I think, an impressive thing.

 

GW:  Wow. When I was running my school in Helsinki, the best we ever got to was about 35, maybe 40% women. And that’s over time. So, OK. What do you think makes the difference? What makes the school particularly good for women to attend? Why do women stick?

 

AP:  I think, one, it always helps to see women in leadership roles and to see women being elevated. So the fact that  Aaron instantly made space, he didn’t say, oh, that’s what you want to do. Okay, well, you know, give me three months to get a heads up on it and then I’ll start a class for it. He said, great, here’s space for you to do it and you be in charge. And on top of that, even behind the scenes things he went, that makes you an assistant instructor. So he remitted all my fees. He said, now that you’re teaching a class, you’re an instructor. And you know the support. And then when someone comes into the class and sees that a woman is in charge of that space and is being respected by the person who’s the owner of the space, I think that culture makes a lot of difference. There’s also I mean, it has to do with club culture too. The culture at Sword Carolina is not very “bro-y”. We’re serious about what we do but we tend to be laid back and silly.

We like socialising with each other. All of that helps. We’re all welcome in the same spaces. We encourage each other. There’s never been a point where I felt like I was being talked down to in any way or it wasn’t being accommodated. If I said something like, for instance, there are certain techniques specifically to do with footwork, where as a woman you learn that actually your bones hang different from your pelvis. And so things that make sense in terms of footwork for men actually don’t work for women because we’re physically built different, our lower bodies are structured differently and so our footwork doesn’t match. So instead of saying, no, you have to do it this way, finding ways to make it work or saying, that’s great. You should probably talk to some of the other women here about that and see if you can help them because maybe they don’t understand that thing about themselves. Those sorts of parts of the culture are really important.

 

GW:  That’s fascinating. Can you be specific about something to do with footwork that is different for women?

 

AP:  Sure. So it has to do, I think, a lot with moving straight forward and moving to the side. So if you look at a male skeleton, which is the one we all have in our mind, because it’s the one that they studied in anatomy classes. Your thighbone is hanging directly from your hips. That is, your legs are perpendicular to the ground. Because women have wider hips, our thigh bones actually go in.

 

GW:  Your femurs form a V.

 

AP:  Right. So women’s knees are going to be closer together just naturally. And it’s going to also affect how you can turn out your feet or not. So, for instance, I’m much more likely to be able to do a nice cross step with my front foot in front of my back or have my feet both turned out. Those things are more natural for me because of the way my bones hang. They are going to be less natural for a man, but it’s going to be more natural for a man to be able to keep his knees safe, for instance, when he’s moving.

 

GW:  Yeah. Because women’s knees will tend to pull inwards when they lunge.

 

AP:  That’s correct.

 

GW:  And that is dangerous for the knee.

 

AP:  That’s right.

 

GW:  Fascinating. Okay. There’s a slightly awkward pause here. It shouldn’t be awkward at all. It’s just you said something that is making me really, really think about something that I’m really, really interested in and it is probably terrible podcast behaviour. That is fascinating and I have to go away and really think about it for a while. Okay.

 

AP:  So it’s just one of those things where like, it’s not your body so it never occurred to you, right? And because we don’t we don’t study female anatomy specifically. Generally, if you’ve got any elementary anatomy we have historically viewed the male body as default.

 

GW:  Yeah. Although that is that is absolutely true. And I don’t know if you have you read Caroline Criado Perez’s book, Invisible Women?

 

AP: No, I haven’t.

 

GW:  Oh, my God. Okay. This podcast exists because of that book. It made me so cross. Because basically she is a data scientist and she has produced a whole lot of data, scientific study stuff, this that demonstrates all sorts of areas in which because the default is male, women’s needs get sidelined. So, for instance, car safety, the crash test dummy that they use is default male. And so cars get a five star safety rating where if you put a female sized dummy in, it would only get a three star safety rating. So women are driving around in cars are they’ve been told are safe and not actually safe for them. And so women are more likely to be killed or injured in a car crash.

 

AP: Neat. Just one of the extra bonuses.

 

GW:  Right, exactly. Exactly. And yeah, so I have some hundreds of female students in my classes. And what you’re saying about how female hips work? Yeah, they are obviously different. But it’s also true that across the spectrum of human pelvis arrangements, I’ve had male students who’ve had very odd pelvis and femur arrangements, which means, for example, they will never, ever be able to do a classic squat with their feet parallel. It’s simply physically impossible for them because the bones jam together. The problem with the historical fencing system is we have this model given to us by the historical swords that we are looking at which if, I mean, if you happen to be perfectly proportioned according to the Vitruvian Man, then certain things they say actually work in terms of how your lunge length should relate to your arm length to relate to your sword length and so on. But seeing as almost nobody has those proportions, we always have to adjust things. So what we’re talking about seems to me to be part of that same process of taking this theoretical ideal art and adapting it for the students we happen to have.

 

AP:  Absolutely. None of this is to say, oh, you can’t do it. That is to say that exactly as you say, none of us have the ideal proportions, whatever those happened to be according to Renaissance art. So it just it requires an adaptability. If you view it and you go, you’re not doing the art unless you’re doing exactly this. You know, if you if you open up one of the Bolognese sources and you try to recreate the illustrations, for instance, with lots of people like to try to do.

 

GW: Which we do. I do that.

 

AP: We do. And there’s a benefit in doing that. Because you want to feel certain things like until I tried to do that holding a Rotella, for instance, I realised that I wasn’t holding the Rotella up with the right muscles until I tried to recreate those images. And I went, oh, actually, I’m now holding the Rotella up with my lower back muscles. That works a lot better. But at the same time, moment to moment you’re not always going to be perfectly recreating those illustrations. Because you don’t look like the person in those illustrations. And I’m not built like the person in those illustrations. It doesn’t mean I can’t do the art. It just means I have to have a better awareness of my own body, which is kind of why I went into this in the first place.

 

GW:  Absolutely. And speaking of changes in specific bodies, you say you’re missing the vision in one eye. I mean, I know the theory of binocular vision and depth perception and whatnot, but how does that affect your swordsmanship training and how do you get around it?

 

AP:  I have never had vision in my right eye, so I don’t know how it would be different. I don’t have any comparison. I don’t know what the world looks like to you. But essentially for me, if things are within five or six feet of me, I understand depth pretty well. If something is free flowing through the air. So like I said, if a ball is thrown, it’s just going to hit me because once it’s left somebody’s hand and it’s now in the air. I can’t judge if it’s two feet away from me or ten feet away from me. With swordsmanship. I have the benefit of knowing how tall I am and how long my sword is. I can judge pretty easily how tall my opponent is and have a sense of how long their sword is. So I more or less understand the distance between us. But it does mean that I have to be a little bit more concerned with, for instance, taking a thrust to the face where I thought you were six inches farther away from me than you were. But let’s face it, we’ve all taken that thrust.

 

GW:  Yes, I was at the chiropracter just this morning.

 

AP:  Yes, exactly. We’re familiar with that one where we were about to execute the perfect technique and now we’ve been thrust right through the mouth hole. You just go. Well, that wasn’t it. But, you know, being a little bit more aware of that, but because I’ve always had this vision problem, I tend to be more aware of my surroundings that way. The other downside is that really the worst part about it is the loss of peripheral vision on my right side. So if someone is throwing a zwerchhau to my right side, I might not see it coming until a little bit later than somebody else would. So it has to do with watching distance and being aware of some of the other mitigating factors that that you can do to try to deal with that. Train that right block, that right parry as well as you can to try to watch out for it.

 

GW:  Yeah. So your opponents in tournaments absolutely should be throwing strikes at your right hand side.

 

AP:  Yes, they should.

 

GW:  They should.

 

AP:  And they often do. You know, I don’t make a secret of it. So usually if I’m fighting in tournaments against people I fought before, and that’s not uncommon, then they probably know that I don’t have vision there, though that’s probably not something that they have the brain power to be paying attention to going into a fight. Where you’re thinking the hundred things you’ve trained, you now do the six you remember when you’re in a tournament. To have brain space to go, oh, but she can’t see out of her right eye. So I’m going to do this to her. They may land the strike and then go, I’m going to try that again because it worked. That’s probably the worst that’s going to happen.

 

GW:  Well, until you are up against serious competitors, who absolutely will deliberately construct their training coming up knowing they’re going to be fencing you. They will have studied your fights, know everything about you and construct their entire approach to that particular bout based on what they know about you.

 

AP:  I don’t tend to compete quite at that level.

 

GW:  Well, I actually had a sudden thought. One of the difficulties that is presented to you when you start training to fight in armour is loss of peripheral vision. Because basically, if you’ve got your visor down, suddenly your peripheral vision becomes tunnel vision, and you really can’t see anything out to the side at all. Now if you’re used to that, you just have to get used to the loss of peripheral vision on the left hand side. But that might actually be an advantage. And, tell me if this is a good idea, because armour should be custom made, right? If your right eye isn’t doing you any good anyway, you could have a seriously weird helmet with no ocular on the right hand side, which would freak the fuck out of your opponents. Good idea?

 

AP:  Great idea. Done. Well, if anybody’s listening who does custom helmets, be in touch.

 

GW:  Well, there are plenty of others out there who could do something like that, but it’s probably worth doing if you’re actually going to get into the armoured combat stuff because it’s really expensive.

 

AP:  Yeah, it is. I’ve thought about it, just really in the same part of my brain that goes, swords are cool. That looks pretty. I’ll buy one of those is going. But you should do armoured combat because it’s cool. I don’t have the disposable income for it right now, but talk to me again in two years.

 

GW:  Okay. Well, I’m very curious to know what you’re going to be doing in the next two years to probably double your disposable income, because that’s what it would take to take up armour.

 

AP:  Well, that was a career change I made last year.

 

GW: To do what?

 

AP:  I used to be an English professor. Lecturer. And don’t have to coins to rub together at the end of the paycheck.

 

GW:  English lecturers at universities do not buy armour, generally.

 

AP:  No, but I now work in theatre and it’s a really unlikely trajectory of being plopped in at really the top tier of professional commercial theatre.

 

GW:  OK, doing what?

 

AP:  I run the business of a playwright. So he writes the plays and I do everything else.

 

GW:  Oh, that is fascinating.

 

AP:  It’s super fun.

 

GW:  Okay. This is completely not on my list of questions but do you mind digressing a minute? Okay. What exactly do you have to do and what I mean, how to act as a playwright these days actually make enough money to have someone to run their business?

 

AP:  So this playwright, his name is Ken Ludwig, and he’s somebody who already has a really, I mean, before we met, he’d had 40 years of successes. So he’s had six shows on Broadway, seven on the West End.

 

GW:  Wow. Anything I’ve heard of?

 

AP:  Crazy for You. The musical, Crazy for You. Tap dancing thing. Yeah, he wrote that.

 

GW: Right, OK.

 

AP:  Yeah. Which is, by the way, in its last couple performances at Chichester right now, it’s been getting very good reviews. So that’s what I was there working on. So he’s had a long career. He’s one of the most produced playwrights in America every year. So we have this really robust regional theatre network as well as amateur stock, student and everything. So any given night, you could go somewhere in America and see one of his plays up somewhere.

 

GW:  Right. And most of those people are paying for the use of his work.

 

AP:  All of those people are paying for the use of his work. Yeah.

 

GW:  That’s fantastic. What a business.

 

AP:  Well, so depending on the size of the theatre and the number of shows they want to do, you know, whether it’s a professional or an amateur theatre that will determine how much revenue he makes from it. But if somebody comes and says as they have, oh, we want to do a big production in X country touring this particular show, they’ll pay upfront a pretty considerable sum to do that. And if he has something like 30, 35 plays and he’s continuing to write more plays, and so that’s just a lot of stuff to manage. And he has other things he also wants to do. He writes comedies. All of his plays are stage comedy. So he wants to write a book about stage comedy. Well, he can’t write the next play and write the book on stage comedy at the same time. But I have a Ph.D. in English. So I can work with him to, jolly along the book while he’s still writing plays. And, you know, it ends up still being his book and it’s ends up being a book in his voice with his thoughts. But a lot of the grunt work I’ve done, which is good because writing non-fiction, writing scholarship is what I’m good at.

 

GW:  Right. Okay. There are so many places I need to go here. Firstly, how did you get that job? Not that I want it. I’m happy doing my thing.

 

AP:  First of all, it’s a job that, as far as I know, doesn’t exist anywhere else. I’ve invented it for myself. And it came about because Ken and I are both members of the same Sherlock Holmes society, the Baker Street Irregulars. He gave a lecture for the Baker Street Irregulars, maybe four or five years ago at our annual meeting in New York. And I was familiar with his work. He came to give a lecture because he’d written a Sherlock Holmes play. My Ph.D. is in Sherlock Holmes adaptations, so I was particularly interested in it. And he mentioned during the course of his talk in passing another author that he likes that I also love, P.G. Wodehouse. As it happened, I just edited a book on P.G. Wodehouse. So I went up to talk to him after his lecture, I gave him a copy of the book, which he then read on his on his way home to Washington, D.C. And we struck up a friendship, kind of on mutual love of literature. He started trusting me with drafts of his plays in earlier and earlier parts of their process. And I would give him feedback. Well, that’s something I do professionally. My side hustle is consulting on stage and screen. So it kind of hit an inflexion point where it was like until a certain point, it’s a friendship. And I’ve been beyond that point as a job. And kudos to him. He said, Good, let’s make it a job. I want not only your consulting, I want all the other things you can do. So now I work for him full time.

 

GW:  Right. And do you actually manage the business?

 

AP:  Yes. So we kind of do that in partnership right now. But more and more, I kind of take over day to day running. He has a team of people who have very specific duties. So he has a manager who’s in charge of licensing, he has an agent who’s in charge of contracts. He has a press agent. But I’m basically like a second brain for him. So I help him when he’s stuck on plays. He can talk through things with me because I have this background in literature that’s helpful. I travel with him, so if he’s going to go, he doesn’t work obviously on all his plays, but if there is a world premiere, he’s on the ground, you know, making sure that edits happen on plays so that the first production of a new play is as good as it can possibly be. Or if there’s a big revival or there’s a European premiere, or something like that, or a play’s going up on the West End or a play’s going up on Broadway, we travel to places to be part of those productions. I’m actually credited on productions as Creative Associate. So if there’s a new production like that, I’m in the playbill as Creative Associate. So I work with him on script stuff, but I also liaise with other parts of the production. So the design team, the cast, the administration of the theatre, all of that kind of stuff, which is great. I mean we’ve been in the UK all summer, we’ve got a play going up. It’s in rehearsal in Houston right now. We were in New York for an opera that he wrote. Because why not?

 

GW:  Yeah, why not? Clearly you actually travel more than I do, which is unusual.

 

AP: It’s a lot.

 

GW:  Yeah. But fun, from the sound of it.

 

AP:  Yes. I love travelling. If I wasn’t happy to just kind of get on a plane and go somewhere and be gone for a week or two at a time, it would not be a good job for me.

 

GW:  And you mentioned your Ph.D. is an adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. So there are several questions there, but the first is, okay, so what you’re actually studying isn’t so much the original texts, it’s the adaptations of those texts and perhaps how they relate to the texts and to each other. Is that fair?

 

AP:  Yeah, something like that. What I’m interested in is the process of adaptation itself. So how, how a text becomes another text in a different medium. And particularly the reason Sherlock Holmes is so interesting, apart from just being a Sherlock Holmes nerd. I’m interested in texts and multiplicity. That is the same text that’s been adapted a lot of times over a long period of time into lots of different media and how all of those texts interrelate. You know, Sherlock Holmes is the most adapted human character in all of literature, and you can find him in so many different versions, and yet they’re all Sherlock Holmes. So what does a reanimated pre cryogenically frozen character in the 22nd century have in common with a mouse and a dog?

 

GW:  A gnome. Don’t forget the gnome. Sherlock Gnomes. I love Sherlock Gnomes. Because what really strikes me is that that’s actually very similar to the historical martial arts project, where people like me are doing, in effect, adaptations of Fiore, Capoferro or whatever. And there’s going to be a relationship between my adaptation as presented in books and videos, versus the actual manuscript. I’m kind of struggling to ask the best question here, but could you just riff on the relationship between your Sherlock Holmes kind of stuff and historical sword fighting?

 

AP:  Sure. So a lot of it has to do with understanding the relationship of different contexts. So when you think about an adaptation of a text, like a book to a film, for instance, take that. That’s the most straightforward. When we think of an adaptation, we think it was a book and now it’s a movie. So when you look at that, the book was produced at a particular moment, by a particular person, for a particular audience, in a particular system of production. All of that affects what the book actually looks like. Fast forward to now we’re making a movie. Maybe it’s 150 years later. The movie is made by a system of people. But even just to say, oh, it’s just the screenwriter, or, oh, it’s just the director. But actually it’s all this whole constellation of people for a completely different audience who has a whole host of other kinds of cultural references, they expect different things. So, for instance, Sherlock Holmes in 1891, dealing with women isn’t going to fly in 2022. We wanted a different kind of an interpretation of what that relationship would look like. One, because we don’t want to be complicit in a misogynistic text. But two, because we don’t want our hero to be misogynistic. So we’re going to reimagine what he might look like. So looking at that translation and the relationship of all those different contexts, why make these particular changes? And also, I like the question of persistence. So my adaptation studies uses a biological model. That is, what changes have to occur based on what pressures so that this text continues to be made? We don’t keep adapting text one and yet we keep making a zillion new versions of Sherlock Holmes. What is it that we can do in historical martial arts to make sure that the texts continue to persist? And part of it is what we were talking about earlier, which is we need to be aware of ourselves. So, for instance, what’s different now? Well, we have different ideas about what should constitute safe training. So obviously, we’re going to have to change how we train based on the safety gear that we want. We know that all our martial arts training based on gear, is a give and take between dexterity and safety. You’re going to have to sacrifice one in order to accomplish the other. Well, where are we going to draw that cut-off line and why? That’s part of understanding the adaptation process. Recognising that our pool of fighters are, you know, the people who want to study this is much broader and more diverse, for instance. Than the pool of people historically who would have been participating. Where there are cost issues, there are geographic issues. You now don’t need, for instance, to live near a salle in order to be able to fence. You can go to an online academy where people build resources to help you train solo. What a wonderful thing that is.

 

GW:  Was a specific reference to something?

 

AP:  It was almost like I read your bio on your website. So, you know, we have access issues that are different. All of these things are going to affect our ability to understand the text. The thing I hate the most in adaptations that makes me cringe is, oh, well, it’s not like the book, so it’s bad. In adaptation studies we call that fidelity discourse. That is, we judge the success of an adaptation based on its likeness to the original text. I don’t find that that’s a helpful measure because if you want the book, read the book. We don’t have the ability to build a time machine and go back in time and train with the people who wrote the manuscripts we train from. We must do this in the context that we’re in now. And what that means is embracing the changes that make it possible now and go, “well, it wouldn’t work in a real sword fight” is the is the historical martial arts version of that, right. Well, I’m not going to be in a real sword. I don’t ever want to be in a real sword fight. What I want to do is I want to train a martial art for fitness and for intellect and for historical preservation and all the other reasons that people do this. But it means that we’re going to have to take into account that our modern context is not something we fight against. It’s something we have to adapt to. And it has its own set of strengths.

 

GW:  Yes.

 

AP:  How was that for a riff?

 

GW:  That was splendid. That was a really, really good riff and the problem is now I’ve got like eight other questions that your riff has just sparked off and I’ve scribbled some of them down. So a valid question is where do we go from here? I’ve actually written a blog post about movie adaptations of things and how a really faithful adaptation of a book very often makes a really shitty movie, because it just doesn’t work at that pace.

 

AP:  No. The strengths of written prose are not the same as the strengths of cinema.

 

GW:  Exactly. And I have the same issue when some of the content I produce has to be a book because it’s all about because the logical and academic structure and the research process and how we create the interpretation. Whereas to communicate how you should move, video is much more effective. And I’ve found ways of also combining those two things. So for example, having links in books to videos so you can see the movement as I’m describing it, you can just click on the link and there it is.

 

AP:  And don’t you think Marozzo would have been really happy to have that option?

 

GW:  I think he would, except one major difference between the historical martial arts project and the arts as they were practised historically is they were actually being taught as state of the art, this is how you kill people with a sword, generally, and therefore the books were, generally speaking, not written for the purpose of teaching people who didn’t know it, how to do it.

 

AP:  Right.

 

GW:  Right. And they’re very often written, like Fiore’s text came out at the end of his life and in manuscript form, so one person would have had it and it wasn’t like just displayed across the entire non-existent internet because that would have been a security nightmare in the same way that, modern military techniques and tactics and whatnot tend to be kept secret. So a sort of begs the question why people like Marozzo would have written his book. And my feeling is generally that he was teaching for a living, and he even discusses the money side of things in his book. So I have always found the Bolognese stuff very frustrating because it really isn’t clear, not the way Fiore is clear and not the way Capoferro is clear, although Capoferro is a terrible writer and Marozzo is a terrible writer. They have that in common. But it’s like to my mind, like Arte dell’ Armi was kind of like a business card.

 

AP: This is what I’m capable of teaching you if you hire me.

 

GW:  But the book, I think, almost deliberately is vague and obscure in places where, if he was actually trying to teach people through the book, he wouldn’t have been vague or obscure.

 

AP:  I think that that’s fair to say, which is one of the reasons I like training across the several different Bolognese sources, because I think a lot of them fill in each other’s gaps. But I like the puzzle of it and I kind of like that it’s not quite so straightforward. All of those appeal to the kind of mind I have, I think. But I don’t disagree with you. I think that that’s a fair assessment. Yeah.

 

GW:  Okay. Now, you said earlier that you have a side hustle in consulting. I guess people who are adapting Sherlock Holmes into another medium might need your services. So what exactly do you do for them?

 

AP:  Yeah. If you think about really any television show or film that involves anything professional. So imagine like a show where they have doctors or lawyers or police, they’re often going to have a technical adviser, somebody who’s a consultant, who’s a professional at that thing. Like a medical show is going to have doctors who are technical advisors who say, no, that medicine doesn’t make sense, or this is how you hold this instrument or whatever. An adaptation, sometimes the people making it, depending on what their particular goals are now, sometimes they don’t care, but depending on what their goals are, sometimes they may consult somebody who’s a specialist in the text they’re adapting, just to try to be precise about what makes sense tonally. They don’t care necessarily about total fidelity either, which isn’t the kind of advice I give anyway. But they do care about, one: does it make sense? Does the text make sense? Are we doing something that’s just totally bone headed? Which sometimes you read a script and you go, wow, the person who wrote this script didn’t even, like they don’t even have Wikipedia. They did not look up anything. And they just want somebody to clean it up and say, no, actually, you can’t swim the Thames in 1890 in a full bustle gown.

 

GW:  No, you really can’t.

 

AP:  No, I mean, it’s a sewer and you would also drown. So, you know, those are the sorts of things and often if it’s a period piece, their technical adviser will be a historian. Well, if it’s a Sherlock Holmes adaptation, having somebody who is a specialist in Sherlock Holmes in particular, particularly Sherlock Holmes adaptations, can be helpful. So depending on the mission of the adaptation, for instance, I consulted on an episode of a PBS Kids show called Let’s Go Luna. So PBS Kids has an educational mission, and this is a television show that is geared toward 4 to 8 year olds and is trying to teach them about social studies, world geography and a little bit of literature and history. And therefore, it was very important to them that they were precise with details when they wanted to do a 15 minute episode on Sherlock Holmes. That made sense. The biggest consultation job I’ve had is being a technical advisor for the first Enola Holmes movie.

 

GW:  Can I just interject there? I have two teenage daughters who are obviously totally unimpressed by everything I say or do. But when I said I’m interviewing someone who consulted for the Enola Holmes movie, there was no eye rolling. I actually got some, like, genuine respect.

 

AP: Like an emotion? They showed an emotion?

 

GW:  Yeah, and it wasn’t contempt either.

 

AP: That’s amazing. Oh, you’re doing such a good job. I wasn’t involved in the second one, it’s coming out. I can’t wait to see it. The first one, I thought they’re fun, right?

 

GW:  It was great.

 

AP:  They’re really good fun. And it’s a great character. And the books that they’re adapted from are great fun, too. And the author is brilliant and interesting and delightful. That came from a, as so often is the case, my Twitter handle is Sherlock Ph.D., so I’m pretty easy to pin down. I got a DM from somebody who was part of the production back when they hadn’t quite finished. Jack Thorne hadn’t finished the first draft of the screenplay yet, but I was hired to read the first draft of the screenplay and provide notes and feedback. The way these jobs work is you’re paid for a block of time. So you’re paid for a week or two weeks’ worth of work. They give you access to the screenplay for that period of time, and you’re expected to provide your detailed feedback, preferably in writing, so that they can read it and ignore it in their own time. And then at that point, I no longer have access to the process. So I saw the film at the same time everybody else did. But then I was able to watch it and go, okay, they took my advice there. They revised that, they did not take my advice there. They kept that in. That’s fine. You can see some of the changes that get made based on the information that you provide for them.

 

GW:  That must be very satisfying.

 

AP:  It is, until you watch bits of it and go I can’t believe they left that in. That was the thing I thought was most important. And then you still did that thing.

 

GW:  We’re not going to ask for specifics there.

 

AP:  I signed an NDA. I can’t talk.

 

GW:  That would be professionally embarrassing and we won’t go there. But I should ask, just gut level response. Who is your favourite onscreen Holmes?

 

AP:  That’s really difficult. It absolutely depends on what mood I’m in. But for aid and comfort, I probably go back to Jeremy Brett most often.

 

GW:  That’s a good choice. I think probably the most accurate of all of them. Closest to the book.

 

AP:  And it’s not even really that. I like that it’s period. Jeremy Brett is actually not really all that much, we’ve sort of bought into the idea that he’s like the Holmes in the stories is actually a lot more sort of weird and moody and gay but they’re so watchable and I found that, just like Conan Doyle did, Holmes works a lot better in short form than long form. So Conan Doyle wrote four Sherlock Holmes novels, 56 short stories. It works really well in short stories. In long form, you have to find ways to get rid of him so he doesn’t solve the problem too soon. So each of the four novels has a whole chunk where he’s missing in the middle because you don’t know what to do with him. And for the same reason, I think that Sherlock Holmes on television tends to be more successful as a format than in film. Because in a film, you have to make the stakes so big, it’s the one case that made it into the film. Whereas on television, you can be episodic the way the stories are, and it feels more satisfying when the cases are actually about an individual person. Who maybe isn’t, you know, it isn’t the apocalypse. It isn’t going to start World War Three. It’s just this person is having a problem. And those tend to be the stories, actually, even with Conan Doyle, that are most enjoyable to read, but they tend to make for the best television.

 

GW:  Okay, so what did you think of the Benedict Cumberbatch BBC version?

 

AP:  I love it conceptually. I really enjoyed the episodes for the first couple seasons. Then when the stories began, it sort of had the same thing where they had to feel like they kept they had to keep topping themselves.

 

GW:  That’s what that made me think of it. They kept raising the stakes bigger and bigger and bigger until Moriarty is somehow in control of the whole of Britain.

 

AP:  Yes. And on top of that, the stories became about him. So the stories that I like the best, the Sherlock Holmes stories I like the best, are client comes in, client has problem. Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson go on adventure and attempt to solve problem, which is how the Cumberbatch series began. And then it became that the mysteries were actually about them, because it was this hero villain thing. The problem that needed to be solved was a problem that he essentially created in the first place. And that felt to me self-indulgent and not as enjoyable. So I was a little bit frustrated by how it ended, but never frustrated by the quality of the acting, which was always great, and the beauty of the production. I love the production style on it. I think all of that was great.

 

GW:  Yeah, I really liked the way Watson’s character, he’s basically an adrenaline junkie. Just the way they interact in that first season is absolutely brilliant.

 

AP:  And I mean, bearing in mind that Sherlock Holmes stories are actually Doctor Watson stories. It’s in his voice and it’s really his story and it’s his observations of this weirdo that he has to live with. Any time you can elevate Watson and make him a more interesting character and tell his story, I think the adaptation tends to work better or is a little more interesting.

 

GW:  Have you read the George MacDonald Fraser Flashman story where Sherlock Holmes appears briefly?

 

AP:  Flashman and the Tiger.

 

GW:  That’s the one.

 

AP: In fact, I have a first edition.

 

GW:  Do you indeed? So what I really like about that is, of course, that Sherlock gets it all entirely wrong. And that’s George MacDonald Fraser, just having a really good time at Conan Doyle’s expense.

 

AP:  That is, well, in in the best Flashman style. And it’s not actually an unusual trope to play that idea that actually Sherlock Holmes was, you know, the whole reputation is all invented and everything. There’s a wonderful film Without A Clue, with Michael Caine and Ben Kingsley. It’s just brilliant. You know, the idea that Holmes is an invented character and an actor has been hired to portray him. But actually it’s Watson that’s the brains. It’s fun.

 

GW:  Genius. Yeah. So overall, not necessarily Sherlock Holmes, but just adaptations in general. Do you have like a favourite example of a movie or TV series that has been made out of a particular source? Like if you wanted to say, this is how it should be done, what example would you use?

 

AP:  I would say maybe the original Lord of the Rings trilogy, the Peter Jackson Lord of the Rings trilogy, would be a good example of that, where such enormous care and devotion was taken over the adaptation. And certainly if you read Tolkien, the style of Tolkein is not the same as the style of those films. The kind of language that’s used. But I think that the films took the same care over what they were as films as Tolkien took over what his books were as books. So that might be a good example of that.  I’m kind of a sucker for adaptations in general. I will always go and watch a new Three Musketeers. I will always go and watch a new Pride and Prejudice and I can always find something to enjoy. And the other thing for me is that, especially with Sherlock Holmes, the more that get made, it’s all job security for me, so I kind of don’t go there and say they are terrible. So, like, when they went, well Will Ferrell is going to do a Sherlock Holmes movie. Did I take my entire family to go see that movie on Boxing Day? Yes, I did. Was it a terrible movie? Sure it was. Did my entire family laugh their asses off? Yup. You know. And then I go home and go I wonder if I can write an academic journal article about this movie. That’s the kind of sick person I am.

 

GW:  So you’re still active in the academic field, then?

 

AP: I am, yeah.

 

GW:  Okay. A lot of what I do is academic, but the whole kind of formal academic world with spending months working on writing projects that you never get paid for. And all of that, I just couldn’t do it.

 

AP: Yeah. I think a couple things keep me involved in it. One of them is that the scholarly community around adaptation studies is a really welcoming and lovely one. The Association of Adaptation Studies is UK based. So I did my PhD in Leicester. So the Association is UK based and because adaptation studies is like the bastard child of a bastard child in terms of discipline, film studies emerged from literature studies and literature went, oh, we don’t really want anything to do with that. That’s not real. And then adaptation studies emerged from film studies, and even film study was like, ooh, we don’t really want that. That’s not real. So we are all kind of a bunch of wonderful misfits who are all cobbled together. Everybody always says, “Well, I’m not an adaptation scholar, but,” is always how everybody starts their paper. Even though here they are at the premier conference on Adaptation Studies, because this person is from comparative literature and this person’s from television studies and this person is a historian, and we all kind of do it a little bit. There aren’t that many of us who actually have our degree in adaptation studies, and because of that, the annual conference is a kind of really joyful sharing of experiences. I don’t need to grind to get lines on my CV. So it’s just the pleasure of reading and writing and sharing now.

 

GW:  Right. It is the way a lot of people do historical martial arts too. They put a huge amount of work in. But if you’re trying to make a living as a career academic in universities and stuff, I think it’s a very different thing. That’s what never held any appeal for me. Too many restrictions and not enough money.

 

AP:  Yeah, it’s a nasty process. Even going, oh well, I want to teach, that’s all well and good. But the number of tenure track positions, particularly in subjects that are in the humanities, are shrinking and shrinking. And of course, all the good posts are still held by people who are like 800 years old and they’ve glued themselves into the chairs and they’re never going to go. That’s not to discourage people from doing academics, but finding ways to make it something that remains joyful instead of something that is soul crushing, which it very much can be. I mean, I wouldn’t change my choices. I wouldn’t ever go back and undo doing a PhD in a subject I don’t have my job in because it’s essential to everything else I do and so much part of who I am. But the grind of academic posts and publish or perish all that stuff, it’s ugly.

 

GW:  Yeah. It’s like employment practises that most companies who do them get lambasted about, you know, zero hour contracts and people working at effectively less than minimum wage and all that sort of stuff, academia is full of that. There’s a few people at the top who seem to be doing okay, but even they are having to do ten times as much admin now as they did 20 years ago.

 

AP:  But Guy, you get summers off!

 

GW:  But you don’t.

 

AP: Exactly.

 

GW:  Well, if you were actually paid a proper living wage the whole time and you didn’t have to, for example, run a summer school for foreign students at your university during the summer, then, yes, maybe you would get summers off.

 

AP:  They would never have enough teaching for me to be full time. So the whole time I taught, as soon as I would have the three summer months I would be like a sailor on half pay. I’d get half my regular salary and trying desperately to pay your bills on that is not a fun look.

 

GW:  No. Now, a complete change in direction, my dad went to Leyton County High School and at Leyton County High School, it must have been in the fifties, there was a chap in the year above him who was very good at acting. So my question is, how do you know? And I know because one of the great things about running a podcast, as you know, is you get to do research on your guests and stuff that would be creepy, weird stalking if you didn’t have a podcast is necessary due diligence and research if you do have a podcast. So yes, I found out through creepy Internet stalking on Twitter that you are friends with Derek Jacobi.

 

AP: I am indeed, yes. That emerged from my theatre work. So the, the playwright that I work for is based in Washington, D.C. And for a long time he was on the board of the Folger Shakespeare Library.

 

GW:  Oh really, which has 120 first folios or something ridiculous.

 

AP:  82 or 84 or something like that. Yeah. The largest collection of first folios in the world. It’s an extraordinary place. And the Folger Shakespeare Library also has Folger Shakespeare Theatre. A lot of work at that theatre was done by Richard Clifford. Richard is Derek’s partner, so Richard directed a lot of shows at the Folger and he and Ken struck up a friendship while Ken was there. And of course, you get to know somebody, you get to know their partner. So he and Derek became friends. And then when I started travelling with Ken, Ken started introducing me to his friends. So now every time we go over to London, we visit with Derek and Richard. They come to our openings, they came to our two openings at Chichester. We’ve reached the point at which you kind of step back and you look at your life from a distance and go, how am I sitting in Derek Jacobi’s house eating takeout Chinese food and playing cards? This is one of those moments where you go, I’m not sure how I got here, but I don’t want to question it in case it goes away. And they are Derek and Richard, both the most delightful people in the world. I love them to pieces. I told them that I’ve already started the paperwork for adoption, which they are willing to sign. So, yeah, they’re, lovely. And my, my work has allowed me to meet a lot of interesting people. I also have, through my Sherlockian stuff, my dearest friend in the world is also an actor, an American actor. And so through him, I also know other networks of actors, weirdly. So I don’t know, I just I have a strange life. It’s weird and I love it. And I love all these people.

 

GW:  Yeah, I have similar experiences of being sat at a table and seeing people who maybe I’ve been fans of theirs for like 15 years or something and we’re all just having put it together and it’s like, how the hell did that happen? Well, I guess they like swords, generally. That’s how it tends to happen for me. People from all sorts of walks of life like swords and so I meet them that way and whatever, I’m quite good at hiding the starstruck thing.

 

AP:  Famous people want to be friends with people who treat them like people. They don’t want to deal with fanboying and fangirling. They have enough of that in their regular lives. I don’t tend to be too prone to that, at least in their presence. I apparently come off as like a competent human when I’m having conversations with them. And then it’s like I go home and I sit and I squee in private. The key to friendship with famous people is squeeing in private.

 

GW:  Yeah. And then invite them onto your podcast sometimes, that’s also good. And sometimes they come. So you’ve done lots of different things. So I’m not sure where this question is going to go, but what is the best idea you haven’t acted on yet?

 

AP:  See. And this is a question that you put in the list of questions that you sent me well ahead of time.

 

GW:  I did. I do that for all my guests.

 

AP:  Did I spend a lot of time thinking about it, or did I go, I’ll bet by the time I get there, I’ll just have a really good answer.

 

GW:  I can lend you a really good answer if you like.

 

AP:  Sure! Great.

 

GW:  Okay. It is well, when I get a good idea, I tend to act on it immediately. So I don’t really have any really good ideas that I haven’t acted on. That’s a good one. About a third, I would say, of my guests come out with some variation on that theme.

 

AP:  So what if I told you that I am, in fact, acting on all of the good ideas I have right now? But I can’t talk about them until the contracts are signed. How about that?

 

GW:  That’s even better because it has that kind of mystery.

 

AP:  Based on the things I’ve talked about, the sword stuff, the theatre stuff, the Sherlock Holmes stuff. You don’t know. But when you see it on my Twitter, you’ll go, that was it. That was one of the good ideas.

 

GW:  Well, I just had a brilliant idea. I think that you should, if you don’t mind me just handing out tasks. I think that you should create a Sherlock Holmes adaptation for the theatre that emphasises sword fighting. Put it all together in one place. It’s Sherlock Holmes and the swords all in one place. Boom. I think you even know a playwright who might be willing to advise on things like structure.

 

AP:  Yeah. And some actors who are pretty talented. Yeah, I will bear it in mind. There is, of course, martial arts in Sherlock Holmes. He’s a Bartitsu practitioner, though Conan Doyle misspells it. Baritsu, yeah. Boxer and expert single stick player. And when you are invested into the Baker Street irregulars, which is this whole kind of black box process, there are only 300 members worldwide at any time, and nobody knows what the criteria are to actually become a member. It’s just you kind of have to be found.

 

GW:  They approach you?

 

AP:  They approach you. You cannot ask to be invited.

 

GW:  And you were approached?

 

AP:  I am an invested Irregular. Yes. But when you are invested, you are given an investiture. In other words, you are given a nom de plume that comes from the Sherlock Holmes canon somewhere. And the idea is in some way they believe, you don’t get to choose it, they choose it for you. In some way they believe it represents what you do, what you contribute to the Sherlock Holmes world or something about your personality or whatever. So, you know, if you’re a lawyer, you might be named after a lawyer or something along those lines. My Sherlock Holmes investiture is Single Stick.

 

GW:  Really?

 

AP:  Yes. That’s my BSI investiture name.

 

GW:  That is the best one of them all by a mile.

 

AP: Isn’t it great? A lot of people will get saddled with a crap one. And there’s nothing you can do about it.

 

GW:  Like slippers. Or Lestrade.

 

AP: Oh, listen, Don Hobbs, one of the great collectors, he had the world’s largest collection of international Sherlock Holmes editions. When he was invested as Inspector Lestrade. Happiest day of his life.

 

GW:  Really?

 

AP:  Oh, yeah. Well, Lestrade. Nobody is invested as Sherlock Holmes. Nobody is Dr. Watson. So I think his investiture is the person who appears in the canon the most. And so it was pretty excited about that.

 

GW:  Actually, when you look at it like that, that is actually pretty flattering.

 

AP:  What you don’t want to be invested as is like a character that is one from one of the worst stories or one who, like, just dies uselessly or in infamy. Those things happen.

 

GW:  Yeah, you don’t want to be a red shirt.

 

AP:  No, no, you don’t want to be a red shirt.

 

GW:  Right, now in the introduction. I did promise I would ask about the ninja stuff. And then we got completely off on the other things and I forgot. So the way I originally phrased this question is, do you enjoy creeping across rooftops and felling guards with throwing stars? Now, do you?

 

AP:  To which the answer is obviously yes. Doesn’t everybody?

 

GW:  Fair. Okay. But you put a ninja in your Twitter bio.

 

AP:  This was another one of those, I want to do something else to keep fit. And actually it emerged from a historical martial arts practice, because we have depending on where your audience is, they’ll either know this television programme or they won’t. But there’s a show here called American Ninja Warrior. There’s probably a Ninja Warrior for every country. Basically, it’s adults running huge scary obstacle courses. They tend to be people who have gymnastics background or a parkour background or rock climbing backgrounds. Big, bulky, you know, athletes. American football players sometimes try, but they’re not very good. It’s usually people who are…

 

GW: Lithe.

 

AP:  Yeah. But it has a lot to do with body control. And it’s also problem solving, much like HEMA is problem solving. And we have a local, somebody who competes on the show, who lives near us, who came to Sword Carolina and said, I like to diversify my training and do lots of different sorts of things. Can I train with you guys a little bit? That will help with my ninja training. And so he trained with us some and in fact, he actually filmed some of his audition video one year with us and he’s a very nice guy. I was already a fan of the show. I liked watching it. And then I learned that he and another couple who both also compete on the show and a fourth guy who is a professional parkour athlete, the four of them opened a ninja gym. So part of it is all set up for parkour obstacles and working on vaults and balance and all that, flips, everything. And then part of it is set up with all of this rotating bevy of obstacles where you’re swinging from rings and you’re climbing up walls and you’re leaping from thing to thing. And again, being somebody who never felt like I was a natural athlete, it seemed like it was a really fun way to do some different kinds of strength training to the types that I do in HEMA. And because I already knew one of the gym owners, I was comfortable going in and saying let’s sign up for a couple of intro classes and see how it goes. And I really enjoyed it. So. So now instead of having a regular gym membership where I run on a treadmill, I have a ninja gym membership.

 

GW:  Much, much better.

 

AP:  Much better to go and swing from ropes and stuff. You know, all the stuff that you hated in gym class when you were 13 is actually fun when you’re pushing 40 and you don’t feel like you have teenagers watching you.

 

GW:  Well, I think that’s a large part of it is the character of the people watching and also the character of the instruction.

 

 

AP:  The whole ninja community is incredibly supportive. So you’ll see that if you watch an episode of the television programme, you’ll see that they cross train a lot, that they all root for each other. So even though they’re technically competing for a limited number of spots, you run the course by yourself and you’ll see that every time someone is running, all of their so-called competitors will like switch in and wear their t shirts and cheer for them.

 

GW:  Really, that’s lovely.

 

AP:  On the side and everything. So it’s an incredibly supportive community and even at the micro level where you’re at an individual ninja gym, it’s very much that. I don’t make friends easily. I made friends right away at the Ninja gym because if you’re trying something and you’re not doing it very well, somebody will come over and show you how to do it better. You can always go up to somebody else who’s doing something and saying, hey, can I train with you? Can I try that too? Or can you show me how to do that? And it doesn’t matter sometimes, because of the people who run this gym are part of have been part of this community for so long. Some of the really elite athletes from the television show come and train at this gym. And if you go and ask them, can you show me how to do X, they will stop what they were doing and show you how to do even a basic skill. They’ll cheer for you on the sideline if you’re doing a you know, if you’re trying something, it’s just it’s a very supportive place.

 

GW:  It’s fantastic. And I have to wonder, why don’t we have a ninja gym in Ipswich in the UK?

 

AP:  Now you can always start one.

 

GW:  Now I see, I have absolutely no flair for that sort of acrobatics. I’ve done a parkour class once and I really enjoyed it and I was absolutely terrible at it. And it was in London, so it’s like 2 hours away, so I wasn’t going to do that regularly. If there was one locally, I would probably go fairly regularly because I like the idea of it, but yeah, no, I don’t have the aptitude for that kind of training.

 

AP:  You can of course find a local, like an outdoor playground. A lot of those things can be adapted for the same kind of training.

 

GW:  Sure. One of the things that kept me fit when the children were little is when they were playing on climbing frames and I was always out there playing with them.

 

AP:  It’s really the same thing. It’s like a playground for grown ups. It’s quite similar to that, though. It helps a lot. So much of it is technique, and so much of it is stuff where you can really hurt yourself if you do it the wrong way. It does help to have people who know what they’re doing.

 

GW:  Right. I did that parkour class with a guy called Dan Edwardes who’s been on the show. I forget which episode number but I’ll stick it in the show notes. He is like a world class parkour instructor of instructors. And it was great. And that he’s my sort of age and ridiculously fit and flexible and does these amazing things. And I just look at it and think, oh, my God, if I hadn’t spent the last 20 years doing swords, I might be able to do that. But no, my idea of a sword fight is I stand still and my opponent runs their face onto my point. That’s the perfect fight.

 

AP:  That’s ideal.

 

GW:  Yeah, that’s absolutely ideal. I want to move as little as possible and get the job done with the absolute minimum of movement on my part.

 

AP:  Can I make a slight amendment to that? My ideal sword fight is that I leave my sword somewhere and go have a pint somewhere, and my opponent then impales himself in my absence.

 

GW:  Well, you see, I actually like being there when they do it, because I’m a bit of a sadist.

 

AP:  You’re a sick man. Can we compromise? Can we have them impale themselves on our sword but also be drinking a beer?

 

GW:  Yes, absolutely. Or even sipping a glass of chardonnay, if that’s your preference.

 

AP: Actually. A nice scotch would be my ideal.

 

GW:  Well, I’ve literally just come back from Islay. My dad, my brother and I, we went round the distilleries of Islay. Just to make sure that that production was still up to scratch. And I can happily confirm that it is still up to scratch.

 

AP:  That’s good to know. It’s important to check every once in a while, though.

 

GW:  Absolutely. Because otherwise they might let their standards slip. And then where would we be? And we wouldn’t even find out for like 15 years.

 

AP: I know. And then it’s too late to do anything about it.

 

GW:  Right, exactly. So you’re a Scotch person, that is that is good to know should I ever come to your part of the world. Okay. My last question. Somebody gives you $1,000,000 to spend improving historical martial arts worldwide. How would you spend the money?

 

AP:  As somebody who has been an educator for most of my career, I would say that funding more historical martial arts programmes for younger people, particularly if they can be tied to school athletics. So for instance, when I was in high school a zillion years ago, you’re required to take a P.E. class. They rotated us through volleyball and softball and track and field. And I hated all of it. And it put me off, not just of those sports, which I was terrible at anyway. But it put me off of P.E. It put me off of thinking of myself of being an athlete. It put me off of exercise. I because of my bad experiences there it took me until I had been doing HEMA for, I don’t know, four years before one day I looked at myself and I went, oh, I think I’m an athlete. I’d never used that word to describe myself before until I was in my mid-thirties.

 

GW: I still don’t.

 

AP:  It’s just not right. It’s because we’re so put off by our options, particularly if they’re all blocked in. So if I had $1,000,000, what would I do? I would seed HEMA into particularly secondary school phys. ed.  programmes. So providing instruction, providing equipment. Not as an extracurricular activity, but as actually part of the P.E. curriculum like you could do HEMA instead of doing volleyball.

 

GW:  You know, in my secondary school, where I went when I was thirteen. The year I arrived, after I’d been there for one term and had to do bloody rugby standing outside in the freezing cold, in the rain, running after some stupid inflated leather bag. Everyone have to do what they call a major sport. And at the time, the major sports were, I think, rugby, hockey, cricket, those sorts of things, and they weren’t all available every term because they come in seasons. And after I’ve been there for a term, they made fencing a major sport, which meant that I didn’t have to do any of that stupid running around like a moron, and I could just stab people in the face and chest and various other places all afternoon instead. Honestly, if that had happened, I probably would not have just had the will to keep up the fencing. And it’s when I got to university and did sport fencing, that that led into doing historical martial arts because me and my friends got frustrated with sport fencing because it’s not very realistic and so it went from there. So that one decision that they made at Oakham 1986 or 7, 7 must have been was like a critical point in me actually ending up being a professional historical martial arts instructor. Which is weird to think so I am entirely in favour of your programme and if I had the money I would give it to you. But the question is how do you go about doing it?

 

AP:  I’m not sure what the system is in the U.K. In the U.S., you would have to start probably you would have to start by lobbying the government to make it an accepted part of the curriculum.

 

GW:  So in this country, that means become a billionaire first and then ring up your mate Boris. Right. Okay.

 

AP:  Right. Yeah. As Steve Martin says, I can teach you how to be a millionaire. All right. First, get $1,000,000, then.

 

GW:  Right.

 

AP:  You can put together, I mean, the mechanisms for lobbying government, obviously, it helps a lot if you already have a lot of money, if you’re well-established and you have a lot of friends. But you can, in fact, do groundwork in those sorts of things. We do have people locally who, for instance, have started similar programmes in secondary schools if they’re private schools, because they’re not governed by the same curricular requirements and regulations. But I would specifically like to focus on public schools, as somebody who supports public education top to bottom. I would think that’s really where we want to do it. And I think you would also find that starting it at that level of early teens is also going to help with some of the issues we have in terms of diversity in HEMA. You know, we tend to be a very white male community. And if you had something like, everybody thinks swords are cool. So if you give you give a 14 year old a sword, they’re not going to see themselves as someone who’s not welcome in the community if the other people around them who are also with swords look like them. And then they graduate into the sort of broader adult HEMA community and they already feel like this is a place where they belong. I think that would help a lot.

 

GW:  To my mind, the biggest stumbling block is actually training the teachers to be able to teach it. Because we’re talking about thousands of schools and we don’t have thousands of people who I would feel comfortable putting up in front of the class full of kids. Personally, I don’t even teach kids generally. I have kids in my adult classes, absolutely fine. And if they’re comfortable there they’re welcome. Various instructors of mine have that have kids classes in their clubs because they have people in the clubs who are able to know who are able to run a kid’s class effectively. But the skill set is different. So we’re going to need a lot more than $1 million to train up thousands of people.

 

AP:  Yes, I think $1,000,000 gets us maybe a pilot programme in a couple of schools, you know, pick a district, pilot the programme ,show how it can be done. I mean, the other side of it, of course, is that at that level, because of the time limit that is your kids graduate out, you would have probably a set curriculum that repeats once a year. Something like that. And you probably aren’t going to get your kids into, for instance, free play in their first year. That’s not going to be a safe thing for them to do. So the level of expertise that the instructor has to have in historical martial arts isn’t as high as it is to run a club for adults. I think. It would have to be something that your regular PE teacher who teaches you. They’re not a professional rugby player either, but they can provide you enough information about rugby to get through it. The same thing with cricket. They’re going to have to jump from thing to thing. You would just add in that level of knowledge.

 

GW:  Huh. It’s tricky. Dan Edwardes, as I mentioned earlier, he has got parkour into some schools. So basically I need to get Dan to give up all his leaping about and take up swords properly again.

 

AP:  Listen, you can only do that for so long before you have broken every bone in your body, before all your joints give out.

 

GW:  Actually, honestly. I think the way down trains, that’s probably not true. Because I mean, he’s my age. I’m 48 and he’s like a year older than me or a year younger, probably really close to my age. And I asked him what he does to his joints, and he said that the way he trains is so low impact and is so generally good for him that he doesn’t actually have any joint problems at all. And for somebody of our age, like almost 50, that’s really unusual.

 

AP:  So, yeah, it’s  when you try a new trick and you land on your head.

 

GW:  Oh, sure. Injuries.

 

AP:  I’m sure he doesn’t land on his head very often.

 

GW:  No, he doesn’t. But yeah, I think we all have in our heads we have these wipeout videos from YouTube or whatever where people are doing a parkour trick and they do hideous things to themselves,  like hitting the top edge of a brick wall with their kidneys at god awful speed or whatever. No, don’t do that. But I think actually that’s not most parkour practitioners.

 

AP:  No. Though I will say that I’ve seen a lot of people rotating in and out of my ninja gym with various injuries. And a lot of them are really elite parkour athletes. There’s a fearlessness involved in what they do that sometimes borders on stupidity. But this is from somebody who plays with swords. So, you know.

 

GW:  And the thing is every activity has a risk profile. And if you roll the dice often enough, you are going to end up with some injury. And it’s dangerous to take a shower. No one should do it because you could slip and hit your head.

 

AP:  You’re right.

 

GW:  But my current obsession is flying planes. This is very, very, very dangerous, because if you make one critical mistake in the air, you’re going to die. I mean, if you make the critical mistake.

 

AP: Have you died yet?

 

GW:  No. The thing is, pilot training is all about how to avoid getting into those situations and what to do when the unpredictable disasters happen. Like what happens if you’re taking off and your engine quits? What do you do? You have about 2 or 3 seconds to push the stick forward a little bit to drop the nose or it will stall. And if you stall at that height, you’re just going to hit the ground because you can’t recover from the stall quickly enough. So you drop the nose to maintain flying speed, find a place to park the plane and just land it as best you can. And also turn off all the bits that can catch fire when you hit the ground and you have a reasonable chance of surviving that. And then, you know what do you do if your engine catches fire when you’re at 3,000 feet or whatever. My instructor is telling me this and I’m like, are you seriously telling me that that’s such a significant risk of this engine catching fire that we actually have properly worked out drills to what to do when it happens? Hmm. Hmm.

 

AP:  I need to reassess my interests.

 

GW:  No, honestly, no. It’s too much fun.

 

AP:  It’s the same thing with HEMA. I mean, we’ve had various injuries. My right knee is so screwed up, I can’t even.

 

GW:  Really. How did that happen?

 

AP:  I was fighting in a tournament an open, longsword tournament. And my opponent was taller, younger, and more male. And we were sort of half way to three quarters of the way through our bout and I was significantly ahead. And I think that bothered him. And he went for a he went for a kind of desperate moment. We got locked in high, which I generally try to avoid as the usually shorter opponent. And he thought the thing to do would be to throw me. And instead of doing it in a safe way, he put his entire weight against the side of my right knee and just collapsed on me sideways.

 

GW:  Not good.

 

AP:  No, it wasn’t great.

 

GW:  Was this an ambulance job, or did you manage to get hospital on your own?

 

AP:  I went to the hospital for X-rays once I got home from the tournament. I didn’t go then. We had an EMT on site and they could assess that it wasn’t a break. It wasn’t going to be something that going to the hospital could have

 

GW:  Solved right now. Yeah.

 

AP:  So basically I applied ice, painkiller and alcohol and the swore a lot. So that was that. But it still doesn’t bend quite right. And once you injure a joint like that once you continue to reinjure it. So I’ve re-injured it during ninja training because I was doing an obstacle called the Jumping Spider. So you jump onto a mini trampoline and then into a narrow corridor, you kind of have to open up like a starfish. You move through it. And I opened to grab it with my legs too soon. And so instead of the impact coming out, my body went forward against my knee, which if I’d had two good knees would have been fine, except that knee was already weakened from the previous injury. It probably will never be quite right again. And it does make a lot of fun noises when I go up and down stairs.

 

GW:  Do you have a practise for looking after it?

 

AP:  If I’m going to spar or I’m going to be in a tournament, I always brace it. If I’m doing controlled training, I tend to be aware of where my knees are more. But when you’re in the adrenaline rush of a bout, your brain is only applying as much to each part of your body as it can. And so keeping it braced, make sure that I don’t accidentally hyperextend it.

 

GW:  No, I mean because you know, I’ve been doing this for a living for a really long time and my joints are not particularly good. So I have an entire kind of maintenance system I do on all the joints I can reach. I would recommend you have a look at, I have a free course on my courses platform called Human Maintenance and it includes a section on how to look after your knees like regular knee massage and basic stretches and knee mobility stuff which you might find useful.

 

AP:  Great.

 

GW:  Because your injuries are not unique. Lots of lots of people sadly have similar stories. But I’m a big fan of maintenance and there are exercises you can do that maybe makes it less likely to happen again and can encourage it to heal. Have a go at it and if you have a look at it and if you have any questions, feel free to ask me and I will happily talk you through it.

 

AP: Will do, thank you.

 

GW:  So swords are technically more dangerous than ninja stuff then, based on the evidence of your knee.

 

AP:  I’ve been doing swords a lot longer than ninja. So I’m not sure that that’s fair. And it also depends on what you do. So I’m not as adept at the ninja stuff. And there are a lot of things I can’t do just because I don’t quite have the upper body strength for them yet.

 

GW:  I like the “yet”. It makes a fundamental difference to what’s going on in your brain. I’m not strong enough to do this, or I’m not strong enough to do this yet. Totally different thing.

 

AP:  Yeah. With the ninja stuff, there’s a certain point where you hit a ceiling if you can’t do pull ups and women’s bodies are just.

 

GW:  Not as good at pullups.

 

AP:  Structure differently. So pull ups are harder to get. I can now do a handful of pull ups.

 

GW:  Hey, well done. I can do about four. On a good day.

 

AP:  It took two years of really focussing on it to be able to do like, two. But they’re gettable. But because of that, there are there are obstacles and things that are potentially more dangerous where I could hurt myself that I actually can’t try yet. So I’ll hit the higher injury stuff.

 

GW:  But that’s the thing though, the more advanced you are, the more likely you are to get hurt because you’re doing more dangerous things. This is true for pretty much everything. Like most injuries I think happen at a fairly intense level of tournament fencing, just because everyone is like going faster and harder. And so the risks are actually higher and I think the same thing is true if you’re doing anything gymnastic. The more advanced you are, the more speed and power is involved. And so when things do go wrong,  they go much more catastrophically wrong.

 

AP:  On the upside with the ninja stuff, I don’t compete in it. And I have no wish to compete in it. So I’m not ever doing it for speed.

 

GW:  Right.

 

AP:  That’s where a lot of the injuries happen is where people are like, oh, you know, I only have so much time to get through this obstacle. It’s really like a really intense game of the floor is lava, right, where you’re trying to get through all these obstacles without touching the ground. And at a certain point you go, oh, I can’t hang onto this thing anymore. I’m really going to have to fling myself hard to make it to that safe spot. I just go, I don’t need to do that. Next time I’ll just do it.

 

GW:  Yeah. Look after your joints. Thank you very much for joining me Ashley, it’s been lovely talking to you.

 

AP:  It’s my pleasure. Thank you for having me.