GW: I’m here today with Shanee Nishry, who is a historical martial arts instructor and founder of Stratford Swords. She’s also a software engineer in the games industry. We first interacted, though, when she posted some photos of a very ambitious woodworking projects she’s working on, and we will be talking a little bit about woodwork today because I’m a complete woodworking nerd and it turns out that Shanee is turning into one. Which is great. So without further ado, Shanee, welcome to the show.
SN: Hello. How are you doing?
GW: Very well, thank you. So whereabouts in the world are you? I imagine somewhere close to Stratford.
SN: Yes, not the Stratford in London, but Stratford upon Avon, so the home of Shakespeare.
GW: Lovely. What took you there?
SN: My work, so I worked in California, just before, for a small company called Google.
GW: I think I’ve heard of them.
SN: Yeah, it’s like the competition to Duck Duck Go, isn’t it?
GW: That’s right, yeah.
SN: And I was completely burnt out from my job and I was looking to leave the company and get back to the games industry instead of general tech. My ex-colleague told me, hey, come work with me, at Unity. I was like, yes, sounds like fun. And I also wanted to get back to the UK, which is a bit crazy, I’m told.
GW: Yes. Why on earth would you want to live in the UK?
SN: I like the weather.
GW: Oh my god. You are the only person I have ever met who says they want to live in the UK for the weather.
SN: Yeah. Well, so I’m originally from Israel, and I didn’t like it being too hot and a bunch of other reasons. But let’s avoid for now. And then I moved to live with my currently ex partner in Guildford for a couple of years and I actually really, really liked it there. But then I was lured to move to California, and I actually really hated it there. So I decided to go back to a place I liked. And then I was told you can come work in Brighton, which I wasn’t too excited about for some reason, which people give me funny looks because Brighton is apparently cool.
GW: Brighton is a lovely little town and it’s on the beach.
SN: I know, I know. I visited it a few times for conferences related to game development called Development Brighton which is really awesome. But it just didn’t quite appeal to me. I like being outside of cities. I like being closer to nature, and I don’t know somewhere more free and open. So then they told me, well, we have another place. It’s in the middle of nowhere. You probably won’t like it. I was like sign me in. We ended up in Stratford.
GW: I wouldn’t call Stratford the middle of nowhere. I mean, it’s got good theatres, for example.
SN: The best. But yeah, I mean, it’s not very accessible unless you have a car. And even then, it’s like a good two hours from London and the train connections are horrible and it is in the Midlands, which some people consider as nonexistent, but it’s really nice, I like it here.
GW: Well, good, and it is a lovely part of the world, although it’s a bit too close to Oxford, for me. I was born in Cambridge, and so have built into my DNA, this sort of general loathing of Oxford and anything within an hour of that. Which is completely silly because there are great places in and around Oxford, and some of my friends live in Oxford and I need to go and actually visit Oxford properly. But you know, it’s kind of like if you’re born Scots, you’re trained not to like the English too much. If you’re born in Cambridge you’re trained not to like Oxford very much.
SN: Well, I mean, I imagine the Scots will depart the island from us very soon anyway.
GW: Quite possibly yeah, unfortunately there’s no way of kicking Oxford out of Britain, which from a Cambridge perspective, would just be perfect. Make it its own separate little city state so we can just forget about it.
SN: I know a few people in Oxford that might not like the idea, but you know, we could start a little HEMA war between Cambridge and Oxford and see what happens.
GW: I will tell you what will happen. Oxford will absolutely destroy Cambridge because I have interviewed so many people who are at or near Oxford, and it seems to be a historical martial arts hub. But I think there’s like one historical martial arts club in the whole of Cambridge.
SN: It’s T’s club isn’t it?
GW: It could be. I need to look into it more because it’s only an hour away from me. I’m here in Ipswich, but yeah, I stay completely out of historical martial arts politics. I just don’t get involved in any kind of inter-club organisation or anything like that. I’m just, no, I let the those that want to do such things, deal with that.
SN: I think that’s an excellent choice. I have avoided any HEMA politics for a good while now. I mean, I didn’t come to it in the meaning of club politics, but you know, you saying that you loathe Oxford means there we go, it’s up to Cambridge and Oxford to duel for it.
GW: Well, that is that is very true. And just for people who may be in or around Oxford. I don’t actually hate Oxford, really. I just have to feel a bit suspicious about the place. Okay, lets get gently back a little bit more on topic. So how did you get started in historical martial arts? What was the path?
SN: So, you know, when you’re little and you see all these knights from Lego and movies and you want to have a sword and a dragon. So you grow up and you find out you can’t have a dragon, but you can have a sword. And one day you pick one and you’re like, yes, that is my life’s calling.
GW: Excellent. So swords are your life calling, are they?
SN: Maybe, maybe not.
GW: It is perfectly right to say yes. I mean they’re obviously mine. I’ve been doing this for a living for 20 years.
SN: It definitely felt that way for a while. And then I kind of got too busy and now I’m getting back into it. And I hope one day I can do more and more of it. It’s just that so many things I get myself into, so saying anything is my life’s calling is insane.
GW: What was that sword that you picked up?
SN: I’m trying to remember. There were definitely some in my childhood, which were wooden swords, but that wasn’t enough of an opportunity to get me into anything. There wasn’t really anything going on where I was growing up. But then at some point, around the age of 20 maybe, I decided to buy a bunch of foam swords just to play around with. And when I finally moved to the UK, my ex, back then my partner, found out that there was a club in Guildford called Historical Martial Arts Academy, I think, or can’t remember. It was Osterwich’s club, which I probably butchered his surname, English Martial Arts Academy. That’s what it was. And that was mostly English backsword based on George Silver and my partner knew I was into swords. So my partner was like, hey, here’s an opportunity. We watched Back to the Source, a documentary that was done by Cedric a few years ago, and that’s how we kind of knew that it had the name Historical European Martial Arts and knew what to look for. So, yeah, then I started doing backsword, according to the understanding of George Silver, and some point after that I came over to fight camp in the UK and I met Keith Farrell. And basically, he sold me my first longsword. I was hooked on longsword ever since as well.
GW: So are you primarily a longsword person now. Is that your weapon of choice?
GW: There’s no right answer. For some reason, in my head, I have an idea of you holding a rapier. I don’t know why. I do actually do research for my interviews for the podcast. But for some reason, although there’s probably no reason for it I have this preconception of you as a rapier person and that’s clearly not true.
SN: Yeah, it might be because the pinned image on my Twitter of the rapier I’ve had.
GW: That’s probably it, OK, that that would explain it.
SN: So I say yes with a hesitation because longsword is definitely the weapon I use the most these days, but I like a lot of weapons. It’s just that there isn’t enough time, you know?
GW: But I have a tip. I do lots of weapons. Looking at it chronologically, I do 1.33 Sword and Buckler, I do Fiore stuff. So that’s dagger longsword, spear, pollaxe. I do rapier, rapier and dagger, rapier and cloak, that kind of stuff. Smallsword, backsword. All of that. The best way to have all the time is to just not have a proper job. Just don’t have a proper job because it seriously cuts into your training and research time instead, just do swords all the time. It totally works for me.
SN: So you see, I don’t tell it to my employer because they really shouldn’t know about it. But my grand plan is I need to stay in the UK for about two and a half, three more years to apply for leave to remain, so then I don’t stay in the constant risk of getting kicked back to my home country. And then if I’ve managed to gain enough money to pay my mortgage, I might just quit my job and figure out how I can spend more time on my hobbies instead of someone else’s pocket. That’s my grand plan in my head.
GW: That’s an excellent plan.
SN: Yeah, we’ll see how practical it is because I have so many things I want to do, and as much as I enjoy tech and video games, I kind of want to do my own thing one day. Like spend my time fencing and woodworking and playing with animals like my puppy over there on the beanbag who is sleeping.
GW: That sounds like an excellent life plan. I mean, I spent pretty much all of my time doing sword stuff or woodworking or doing something with my family and friends. So yeah, it totally works and it can be done. But the trick is getting the money side of things sorted out, but you have already started your own school though, right?
SN: I have. Yeah, we opened about a year ago give or take, you know, just about when COVID hit.
GW: Perfect timing.
SN: We had like maybe a couple of months and then COVID was a thing and we had to close. So it was a bit over a year ago because it was just before the closure. Now we’ve reopened literally two weeks ago, so we have two classes now. We have about eight people. A few more are supposed to join up soon, we’ll see how it works out. And yeah, maybe that’s the start of the dream coming true. Who knows?
GW: Could be. And so what do you guys train? And who’s teaching and what are your resources? What is it like?
SN: So at the moment, I am the main instructor. Kate is helping me quite a bit. And also one of my senior students, Alex. He is actually one of my colleagues back at Unity who had private lessons from me in the parking lot of Unity during lunch breaks. He is helping me with demonstrations and correcting of newbies with their form and stuff. He is really great. And at the moment, we are focussing on Longsword because just focus on one thing at a time. It’s one day a week, two hours. So every Thursday, from six to eight p.m. at the local school. And yeah, that’s really about it. I try to come with a concept and a few set of drills and see how everything is received in class and evolve it a little bit in real time, according to how it goes.
GW: So what kind of longsword are you doing?
SN: It’s a mix, so I’ve been very hesitant to say I do Liechtenauer or Fiore. I do elements of both. I kind of take, you know, Devon Boorman. I take a lot of his approach. I found his teaching really worked for me. And he focuses a bit more on Fiore, maybe I focus a little bit more on the German side of things. But I like the way he teaches the systems quite a bit. At the moment in the two lessons we have had so far, I’ve avoided using exclusively German or Italian terms, but I have also sprinkled both of them. I think that what we are trying to do is teach really strong fundamentals and concepts. Why people are doing one thing or the other instead of just teaching plays from a manuscript because plays have their purpose, but they’re pretty meaningless without the concepts behind them. So, you know, like when in the German manuscript, it says pretty early on do not parry like common fencers. But then in some of the translation of the Zornhau, for example, it says strike on the sword parrying strongly. And it’s really confusing, wait but they say, don’t parry. That’s not a parry, that’s a counterstrike, right? No, if it was a counterstrike they’d say you should hit them, you don’t. They then say you have a clear length, thrust in. And if they do this and that. And I’m trying to really focus on the fundamentals to taken from the manuscripts and assimilate them in training without focussing on the manuscript. So it’s a bit weird. It is not as most people seem to do, it from my experience.
GW: I would agree. Most people don’t do it like that.
SN: Yeah. I went to at least five, the English Martial Arts Academy, School of the Sword in Godalming, Davenriche in California.
GW: Oh you trained with Stevie Thicke?
SN: I did for a bit. Yeah.
GW: Oh yeah, Steve and I are old friends.
SN: There we go. It’s a very small world, isn’t it? And then, Paul Tosetti, Mark Hollinshead, Devon Boorman. There was someone else that I can’t remember, and then for a bit in Oxford with Emilia, who is, by the way, if Cambridge and Oxford came to fight, she has quite a few tournament victories.
GW: Yeah, I interviewed Emilia for the show a little while ago and OK, we’re recording this towards the end of September, her episode came out last week. So I know Emilia, well, I know her to have interviewed her. And yes, I think she should definitely be on the Oxford team anyway.
SN: I think you should hire her for the Cambridge team if you want to win.
GW: That’s a good idea.
SN: But yeah, so that’s at least eight schools that I’ve been training with. And then I had my own group when I worked for Google. We literally had like a Google sword group. So we got to use the Google gym to train in there and there is stuff with swords now. And you know, I find it when people just teach a play from a book and then people get good at repeating the play, but they don’t necessarily understand why they’re doing it. And then if they go over to sparring and they just try to do the play it doesn’t work and they tend to try to just force it and forcing it never works, you need to have the right conditions, the right environment for the play to work. And of course, it depends on how you teach the play. And you can say if they do this and do that, then. But I find it’s actually really, really difficult, especially in the context of the play and in the context of most teaching because you tend to build a very, very strict set of parameters and then people when you’re doing a drill, you have to allow the other person to do something. You have to be a collaborative partner / opponent. If you just deflect the weapon one side, then obviously cannot thrust in after doing the Zornhau because your point is well, to the side. So what I try to do here is take the concept, say when your sword is in this position, when you have the slope or as Fiore people tend to call it the crossing so you’re on top of them, you have the advantage in the bind. Then you can thrust. Then you can proceed. But if you don’t have that, you either have to change side, either from the top or the bottom or potentially step aside and do a volte stabile or winden, whatever terminology you want to use and point your sword the other way to win that bind. And only then you can strike in. But many of them don’t explain it. I mean, they say it, but they don’t teach you that in a very clear way, or at least maybe they do if you dig into it, but there is so much work that people have done researching it and repeating the plays, and personally, I feel like a lot of what comes out of it is people just doing the plays, but not necessarily doing what the text means. And you know, of course, I haven’t actually spoken to Fiore, it’s a little bit too late for me. So maybe it meant something entirely differently and I’m completely wrong.
GW: I have some thoughts for you that might help. First is, you’re absolutely right that a choreographic interpretation of the plays. It’s a really useful start because you have to know what the book is actually trying to get you to do. But it’s a terrible place to finish. It’s like learning a foreign language. You learn certain set phrases. You don’t really know what they actually mean. You just know that when somebody says hello in this language, you reply with this, right? And it’s sort of learnt by rote. I see this a lot in historical martial arts classes that I visit. So you have set drills and you have free play, and there is basically nothing in between. You’re either doing a completely choreographical, and to my mind, rather pointless set drill or you’re doing free play. And somehow these set drills are supposed to work in free play. So what I do is I have the set drills, which are based on plays from whichever treatise we’re doing. And then I have a systematic way of adding complexity to those drills so that you can figure out how the idea in that drill works in these various contexts and a systematic way of creating, well, shall we say when things go wrong, because you’ve arrived systematically, you can wind it back and figure out what went wrong and then you can fix it. And then any given drill of any level of complexity can be trained in three possible ways. You can do it choreographically, which is where everybody starts. Hold your sword like this. Move it like that. Then you can coach each other so that, say, I’m attacking you and you’re defending, if I’m the coach, then I’m giving you that attack and adjusting the difficulty level. Like maybe what comes before the attack, how fast the attack is, that kind of thing so that you are failing at the optimal rate. So maybe you’re getting the parry to work four times out of five. So you have to get the parry better and better. You have to learn how to apply it better and better to keep not getting hit. And then, of course, or it could be done the other way around like you’re coaching me and make me a better attack. And so you adjust the opportunity to attack so that I can beat the parry maybe four times out of five. Or we could do the exact same drill competitively where I’m just trying to throw the attack and hit you with it. And good for me if I get it and you’re just trying to do the defence and good for you if you get it. So rather than just going straight into competitive free play, you can do competitive drills at a lower level of complexity. So I have this entirely kind of systematised for all the systems that I teach. A few basic set drills so that you understand how you’re supposed to move, what the basic ideas of this system are. And then a systematic approach to adding complexity and coaching and competing so that free play is just the next step in a very long series of steps.
SN: Yeah, exactly, you have to build it up and what you just described is exactly what we are doing, which I’ve learnt a lot of it from Devon Boorman of Academie Duello. He calls it “adding context”. So initially, it’s utterly out of context, like you say, a choreographed play. Well, there isn’t really much resistance. Or maybe there is some according to the drill. But then you can start adding more context. Maybe we’ll start out of this sense and the opponent is approaching and you need to do a strike in primo tempo, for example. And initially, maybe they don’t parry and then maybe the do parry and you just evolve it, evolve the context until it becomes nearly free play kind of like a sparring game where all you’re trying to do is this, and all they’re trying to do is with that. And it just evolves naturally in a competitive manner.
GW: OK. I’m curious, does that track at all with what you’re doing, creating games?
SN: I’m not sure, not specifically anything that I do, but a lot of the things that I do see in video games and in game development. So what I do currently is actually I’m not making a game. Well, I am making my game in my spare time, which is nonexistent, I’m not actually making my game, but I’m currently working on game engine tools.
GW: I have no idea what game engine tools are.
SN: So to make a game, you need some kind of a software. We call that the engine that runs all the graphics and all that. And then it is an editor which allows you to place objects in the world, to design the rooms in the level, define what’s the enemy, what graphic visualisation they have, how big they are and what stats they’ve got. But then even making a game is really difficult without a good approach, right? So you might have all the tools, but you don’t know how to use them or how to put all the components together. So you have graphics, you have physics and you have some kind of gameplay that’s supposed to take all of it together and make a cohesive experience. There is a lot to go from having a few models on the screen to a game like, I don’t know, Battlefield from EA Games that has hundreds of soldiers running around shooting each other in multiplayer with helicopters flying and crashing into buildings which actually get destroyed. It’s not straightforward.
GW: That’s the understatement of the century. Yeah, that is not straightforward.
SN: Even in woodworking, right? So I have a chair. I need that chair to be stable. Maybe a butt joint for the legs is not the best idea.
GW: Definitely not the best idea.
SN: And then you can learn about the different joints, but you need to know when to use them, which is maybe a little bit simpler when the chair isn’t trying to beat you at the same time as you’re trying to assemble it. Unlike a person with a sword in front of you, but you still you need to learn the different joints, you need to learn how to make them. My first tenons which you’ve seen on Twitter, were pretty horrible compared to my next few tenons, which my tools and techniques improved a little bit. But then it also needs to fit together. What if your mortice is too wide for your tenon? How did I get to woodworking from swords and games?
GW: Honestly, I have a feeling that pretty much any conversation, now that you’ve been bitten by the woodworking bug, any conversation there’s this gravity well created by woodwork, and every conversation will naturally fall into it unless you carefully steer it around the edge.
SN: It’s also true for swords.
GW: Yeah, it’s true for swords also. OK, so you’re explaining what you actually do for a living in terms of making tools for game engines.
SN: Yes. So even the tools can be too complicated, or obscure to be used coherently. Maybe they can do what they’re supposed to do, but they can be done in a way that is way easier for the user to understand. So for example, right now, I’m working on an AI project, so I’m giving people the tool to make what we call a behaviour tree. And a behaviour tree is basically you have a graph, a directed graph, so you start towards somewhere and then you can say, OK, here is a sequence of actions. Maybe my agent – it’s how we call a character in the world – so maybe my warrior. He’s going to run to the enemy, draw their sword, exactly in that order and bash him on the head before shouting a battle cry. But then you have all kind of statements like, if the enemy does something, you do something else. If your hitpoints is below some amount, maybe you run home screaming and lick your wounds. But without a good tool to represent that and to allow users to do it in an easy way, it can be very frustrating and you can have the same behaviour tree in one tool appear very complicated. And you know, you basically have a node and an arrow connecting to another node, and a node connecting to another node. And it takes your entire screen just to see the arrows rather than what’s even happening, and you can’t understand what’s going on, or you can actually remove all these arrows and have it read like a book, like a script to a play, and then we found that people’s productivity was actually way higher. So it shows how the same code, the same thing, the end result is arrived to in two very different ways. It’s just how we present the data and how we let people use it, and it enables people to do things much better, much faster and much more productive. And then if I take it back to fencing, so you have the same tools, but if they are presented to you in a way that actually connect with your learning, with your brain, with your understanding, then you can actually use them in a more efficient way. I feel like that may be a very weird tangent, but maybe not everybody will get listening to it.
GW: But it’s true that a correction that works perfectly for one student will just baffle a different student and finding the frames of reference that work for a particular student really just is a total game changer. Well, like when I was learning biology A-level, and I did some biology courses at university, we’re doing like cell biology. I have been woodworking since I was a kid. So the idea of proteins folding themselves up into a specific three dimensional shape, which enabled them to connect with other molecules in a particular way, which enabled them to do something like, for example, the way an amylase breaks down a starch molecule, it’s a woodworking problem. All woodwork, apart from bow making, is creating the right three-dimensional shape for whatever it is you want it to do. Especially when you’re making a tool out of wood, like a jig for a table saw or something like that, it’s the shape of the thing that you make that determines its function. And that is just exactly how biology is working at the level of protein synthesis. And so those classes, I had no trouble. I was like, OK, this is woodwork done by clever little molecules, on a very small scale. And it was fine. It was easy.
SN: And in swords too, because, like you say, it’s just the 3D shape. In swords it’s just about position, like, Oh, I can’t drive my point here because there is a sword in the way, but if I take a sidestep over there, suddenly the sword is not in the way and I’m in a good position that enables me to do what I need to do.
GW: Yes. Swordsmanship is woodwork, and anyone who says differently just doesn’t understand swordsmanship or woodwork, I would say. But it is a crazy statement, because obviously swordsmanship is not woodwork. But another thing that they actually have in common: sharp steel.
SN: There we go.
GW: OK. Really, one of the main attractions of woodwork is sharp steel, like really, really sharp.
SN: I must say when I first properly sharpened one of my chisels and tested it on oak and it just effortlessly peels away the outer layer, like an orange, I’m like what? And I didn’t realise it can be this sharp because when I first get my chisels, they were so bad but I assumed they were new chisels, like out of the factory.
GW: They don’t come sharp.
SN: They don’t come sharp. Most things do, but they don’t.
GW: Because no one would buy a chisel sharpened by somebody else. They should be prepped for you, but they shouldn’t be sharpened because every woodworker has their own preferences for an exact bevel angle and the level of polish and all that sort of thing. The expensive ones come ready to sharpen and the cheap ones come ready to be prepped for sharpening. The difference is about an hour of work, usually, per chisel. But yeah, when you actually get it properly sharp, like I thought I knew how to sharpen. And then I went to my first woodworking job and I got taught to sharpen properly, and I was like, Holy shit. And then I went to my second woodworking job thinking I knew how to sharpen, and somebody actually showed me how to really properly. I was like, Oh my God. Holy shit. And then I went to my third woodworking job, and I already knew how to sharpen. And when I got there, I was like, Oh, I have no idea how to sharpen at all. And actually, for anyone who is listening, who is interested in how steel works and how to sharpen, you might actually like this because as a woodworker you’ll like it, as a sword person, you’ll like it. There’s an absolutely brilliant book by a guy called Ron Hock who makes amazing woodworking blades, particularly for plane irons. And it’s called The Perfect Edge. And it explains sharpening in such depth and detail, and it is so completely not interesting to 99 per cent of human beings. But for those of us who care about sharp blades, it is a stunningly good book. So I would totally recommend adding that to your library, really geeking out the whole sharpening thing.
SN: That’s great. I would have to get that, but I just thought about another tangent between what we just talked about when you were learning how to sharpen and then going through three different jobs to learn more and more and more about sharpening, this is the importance of living traditions, right? Like what we have in historical martial arts is the books, but we don’t have a living master or people who have learnt from different masters over the years who this tradition was passed on. So like, if I want to learn how to sharpen really well I can be like, hey, Guy, give me a lesson.
GW: Yeah, so we should do that over Zoom or something, where we get our sharpening gear out and I show you how to prep it properly. Let’s do it.
SN: But you see, you went through all of these jobs. You went to these living masters who probably inherited the knowledge from hundreds of years of woodworkers like my neighbour is a woodworker and some of the tools he has are over 120 years old, which he inherited from his mentor and all of the skill and things he learnt from him. But when it comes to let’s say, European longsword, for example, we don’t have that. We have people who have learnt it from the manuscript and then we have people who learnt it from different people. You know, like I learnt from at least eight different schools, as I mentioned, and you know, a bunch of workshops and visits here and there, but they all have maybe learnt it in the past, I don’t know, five, six decades at most, probably.
GW: Honestly, three, I would say. The very first wave, of which I was a part, started around 1992/93. Some people will say 89/90. The thing that we now call historical martial arts or HEMA or whatever, there were similar things happening earlier. But the idea of, OK, now what we’re going to do is take a historical source and actually learn that system of fencing from that source and that’s what we’re going to do. That really focussed approach came about in the early 90s, so we’re looking at about 30 years and for longsword, really about 25.
SN: Yeah. So we don’t really have the context, the actual experience or someone to say this was done this way because reasons. And we are just making educated guess. And sometimes they make sense, other times, maybe not so much and we find out that they are wrong. But we have to discover it the hard way. We don’t have the option of going to someone who knows really what’s going on.
GW: But then even if we did, let’s say we’re talking about longsword, which kind of stopped being a thing around 1500. So that would be 500 years of masters – student and every generation making changes. And so what we would actually have now would be nothing really like what it was 500 years ago.
SN: That’s why that is the big advantage in woodworking being a living tradition. If longsword was actually practised for those 500 years, then yes, it would have completely evolved and changed. And in some ways, maybe, you know, we’d learn more about it. But. I don’t know, I feel like maybe we’d be able to trace it a bit better. Maybe we’d get a bit more of the context. Maybe not.
GW: I don’t know. I think it would have become a modern sport fencing thing, and it wouldn’t really bear much resemblance to the longsword of the 14th or 15th century. So I actually think that there is enough evidence from the period that we can make as good an idea of how longsword would actually have been fenced back in the day as if we had a living tradition. I would say we are at least on par with the living tradition, and maybe even we have a better idea because we don’t have 500 years of Chinese whispers. Every generation changing what came before.
SN: It’s possible, you know, but it’s maybe more difficult to gather everyone behind the same ideas because now everyone has to put a theory in place and say “This is what I believe because x y z.” But we have a certain number of sources and an infinite number of theories to go along with the community.
GW: True. But then when a theory is published properly… it is like science right. The whole idea of science is we have a theory. We have to make sure it’s expressed in falsifiable terms. We test it to see if it stands up against experimental evidence and if it does, great, then the hypothesis becomes a theory and then we keep testing and keep testing it. See if we can find ways to break it. If we can’t break, it stands as a theory, right? I think that’s a pretty well-established process these days and applied to historical martial arts, we see, OK, well, this idea of how this longsword technique violates the laws of physics so it can’t be right or these three alternative interpretations of this particular bit of the text, this one matches the text and pictures precisely. This one also matches it precisely but looks different. This one that doesn’t match quite as precisely so we’ll discard that one. And so with these two, OK, now we pressure test them and we test them with sharp swords and we test them at speed and we test them in various different ways. And we come up with an idea of, OK, this is probably the one that was intended. And then of course, we train the hell out of it, and we find out that actually those two competing theories, it was basically just different sides of the same thing.
SN: Mm hmm.
GW: So often they’re both right.
SN: Yeah, so that’s true, but maybe the problem isn’t necessarily about proving one thing, it’s about information. So a lot of the way the community goes, from my experience is on Facebook, for example.
GW: Stay away from that horrible place. There’s only one place on the whole internet that I will discuss anything sword related. And that is the Discord channel for my own school, of which incidentally, all of my guests get an invitation. So if you’d like to join us there you’re very welcome.
SN: I would love to.
GW: But that is the only place where I’ll do it, because to my mind, when I want to present my theory of how a thing is done, I present it in a complete way. Literally last year I published an entire book on every one Fiore’s longsword plays out of armour on foot. Here is the transcription, here is the translation. Here’s how I think it’s done. Here’s a video of me doing it. And if it’s necessary to cross-reference to other bits of the text, then I do that. And so there are also bits in there from the dagger and from wrestling. So that anyone with that book knows what I think Fiore’s stuff is and why I think it’s that way. So if they disagree with me they’re actually disagreeing with what I actually think, whereas if I just throw a video up on YouTube or whatever and stick it on Facebook or whatever people might disagree with the first three seconds of the video, I go, Oh Guy’s full of shit, which might be true. But they’re reacting to just a tiny part of what I’m trying to say. So basically anything, anything less than like an article or a book. I just don’t bother with anymore. I haven’t done for years.
SN: So, OK, two things. One, I need to get that book.
GW: I’ll send you a copy.
SN: There we go. Thank you. And number two is this is exactly the question, then, how the information spread? And so in my experience, some of the information spreads via Facebook. Some of it is via certain websites like Wiktenauer and others. But there isn’t really one cohesive place, there isn’t really a place that everyone goes to find all the publications and discuss and debate them. You know, like if we create a new discovery in biology and physics, the textbooks get updated, maybe 20 years later, but they get updated. But a lot of what I feel like I’m seeing, at least from my experience from social media, which is not a great way to look at things, but there’s a lot of people repeating the same mistakes that a lot of other people have already proven to be a mistake. Let’s say maybe the discussion that we had earlier is not about how do we prove something is more correct than the other because, like you said, we have the scientific method to do that. How do we spread the information to the community? How do we align the community that this approach is correct or relatively more correct than another?
GW: Yeah, I would say “useful” rather than “correct”. One of the reasons I just quit Facebook ages ago is that for the 27 millionth time somebody was coming on and saying something about, “Well, and this and this and this about Fiore”, I think it was and OK, this is a discussion that we had in about 2004 in the Fiore community when the person writing this thing was about five years old. And they were coming out with this amazing theory, which had been, I forget even it was so long ago, I forget whether it had been generally accepted 15 years ago or whether it had been generally disproven 15 years ago, but the point was they were thinking of it as something new when it had been around for at least 15 years. And it’s because people aren’t doing the reading because, as you say, there isn’t one place to go to find all the reading. And it’s expensive. Because there are that many books on Fiore, there’s the fantastic editions from Freelance Academy Press, which is like the state of the art edition with translation and transcription and a bit different to my translation and transcription. But you know, that’s OK. It’s really good and a whole load of academic background, which is absolutely brilliant. There’s that. I’ve written about five books on the subject, and then there’s Bob Charrette has got a book out on it, but there’s really not that many books on just Fiore. But even so, if you need to read all of them, which you kind of do, to have an informed opinion is, as we say, that is the state of the art of our understanding of Fiore, where is it published? Well it’s published primarily in books. And how do you find those books? Well, you can get them from the library. But most libraries don’t have them, so they’d have to order them. You have to persuade the library to buy a copy of the book. And some of these books are really expensive. Let me rephrase: a lot of money, though, not for what they are. My books are all fairly cheap. Let me dig it out.
SN: If it’s the one I think you mean, it’s the one by Greg Mele, right? It’s pretty expensive. It’s a really good book, but it’s not accessible, isn’t it?
GW: Yeah, exactly. So it’s Flowers of Battle Vol 1: Historical Overview and the Getty Manuscript. Which, yeah, it’s a stunningly good book. And Greg and Co. did a really, really good job of it. But yeah, how many people have, what is it, $100+ for a book? It would be great if it was in a library. Or in if there was some kind of central library for all the secondary sources. Do you know what? We are coming up with an idea for my last question, which is if you had a million dollars to spend on improving historical martial arts. OK, a central library where anybody can borrow PDFs or whatever of all the books on the subject. That’s a genius idea. Maybe as a subset of Wiktenauer.
SN: Yeah. So I actually had that idea a while ago, not exactly the same, but the idea was how do I make Historical European Martial Arts, or resources for it, like more accessible? I made a website called Learn HEMA. I think the domain is offline by now, but everything is actually in on GitHub like the source for it, and I was slowly working through it. And the idea was have all of the different major manuscripts and then just assimilate them, cut by cut, play by play, guard by guard.
GW: Oh, so doing like a concordance of the manuscripts.
SN: Not familiar with that word.
GW: There are four examples that are existing copies of Fiore’s Il Fior di Battaglia. And so if you have a technique, it might appear in this place in one of them and in this place another one.
SN: No, this I feel Wiktenauer already does.
GW: They’ve published a concordance for Fiore.
SN: Exactly. But instead describe it in a more modern term. Show the stuff from the original description, but also then describe it in a modern term and describe how it should work in our common understanding of the play. Like what the concepts…
GW: OK. There’s a huge problem there. Because people disagree on the interpretation.
SN: I agree with that. But again, let’s say you have your book, you have your video, and people say, oh, this is maybe wrong. But then if we make it evolving, if it’s a community project and then we can prove okay, that scientific method.
GW: It’s a good idea. But what you’re going to end up with because, this comes back to a discussion that we’ve had many, many times, particularly in the Fiore community, but also elsewhere, around certification of instructors. And how do you certify an instructor when you don’t have a common syllabus? It basically is an insoluble problem. You mentioned Devon earlier, so you’ve got Devon Boorman, you’ve got Greg Mele, and say Sean Hayes and me, and we all have different ways of teaching, different ways of training and in some cases, different interpretations of the actual plays. Now anyone looking at the way we fence and the way we talk to each other, will conclude that we are about 95 percent in agreement. But those five percent areas do actually matter. Because they affect how we look at the whole book. But if Devon, Sean, Greg and I tried to create an instructor certification programme, we will run into the problem of whose interpretation wins? Whose interpretation is the basis of the syllabus for which we certify as instructors? The issue there really is also that as soon as somebody has been certified on a specific syllabus, that syllabus is much harder to change. So when interpretations change, like doctors. My grandfather was a doctor, he was a GP, and he qualified in 1917, I believe. And his entire medical training happened at Guy’s Hospital in London and took two and a half years, and he was practising as a GP in the 1980s. He lived to be 91, and he was actually still seeing patients a few weeks before he died. How wrong is that in so many ways? Do you want to be seen by a doctor who hasn’t had any medical training for 50 years?
SN: Yeah. Another problem, we have people on the road driving cars without a refresh of their training.
GW: Yeah, that’s less a problem because the general theory of how you should drive on the road hasn’t changed that much. But whereas medical science is changing all the time.
SN: Yeah, yeah, you’re right.
GW: So I’m very much in favour of the idea of having a central repository where students can get access to all of the secondary sources. So if somebody writes a book on historical martial arts, whatever that book is, a copy of it goes into this Central Library where anyone can access it for free. I think that’s a brilliant idea. If you set that up, I will send you a PDF of every book I’ve ever written. The point of writing the books is so that they get out there and get feedback. I’ve withdrawn one book and replaced it with a second edition under an entirely new title because it turned into an entirely different book. It was my first translation of Vadi, when that went out, that’s when it got the necessary feedback and I found out all the things that were wrong with it. And so I withdrew the book, did it again, and now there’s a much, much better translation of any of Vadi out there. So yeah, I’m completely down with the idea of anybody being able to look at the books. The thing is, I make an awful lot of my living, maybe half of my income comes from book sales. So the initial thought might be, well, OK and if I do that, a bunch of people won’t buy my books because they can just get a PDF for free. But my feeling is that most people aren’t like that. If they go there and they get a free PDF of the book, they’re going to want a paperback or a hardback, or they’re going to end up coming to my website and then maybe buying one of my online courses. So from a business perspective, it could be a bad idea, but it’s probably a good one.
SN: Yeah, I mean, it’s one of those things that if they wouldn’t buy it because it’s there, maybe they wouldn’t have bought it anyway. Maybe because it’s now there, it can point them in other ways to support makers financially.
GW: Exactly. Yeah. So I think it’s a great idea. We just need to persuade Greg.
SN: Then we go. That might be a bit more difficult. I think his book is an order of magnitude more expensive.
GW: Yeah, but that argument goes the other way because that book is a lot more expensive – expensive suggests it’s overpriced – it costs a lot more money. So people might want to make sure that it’s actually going to be completely worth all of that money and so downloading a complete PDF of it is a good idea. Bringing is back to woodwork, you must have heard of a guy called Christopher Schwartz?
GW: Have you not? Oh my God. Oh, you’re in for a treat. He’s written several books. The Anarchist Tool Chest is one. The Anarchist Workbench is another.
SN: I was linked to one of his books. I did not connect the name.
GW: OK. And he publishes his books through his small company called Lost Arts Press.
SN: I found the blog on that, someone sent it to me.
GW: Yeah. And so he has the entire interior of his, I think it is The Anarchist Workbench, his latest book, you can download the entire PDF for free. And still, the book has sold out its first print run because now, people who can’t afford it will just download the PDF and still have the information. And people who can’t afford it are so impressed by his generosity they buy the book on principle.
SN: Then we go, and people who wouldn’t buy it would find other ways to get it anyway, so let’s make information more accessible and hopefully by being good to people, we encourage them to give back as well.
GW: Yeah, and having a central repository of all the secondary sources means that hopefully it would encourage people to actually publish their interpretations in a complete and thought out way. So rather than just, OK, this is how I do a Zornhau video. Five minutes of me doing a Zornhau my way, but actually presenting it in a written form and a form that’s polished enough that you could actually publish it, perhaps with video clips, perhaps not, depending on how you want to do it. But then people can interact with the whole idea and not just the one little facet of it.
SN: Exactly. I think what you described right now, that touches what we should do because there is the five percent that people are not fully agreeing on, that matters a bit. But in my opinion, in addition to that, we still have the 95 percent we do agree on. And then, oh, you know, the select people that we mentioned before do agree on and well, the five percent is perhaps important. We can put that. So if we have the specific pages on the specific things, we can say, this, for example, has different views and currently is not fully resolved. We can present the multiple views on that page so that we actually share more of the information in a concise way, because say, I buy your book. I now have your opinions on it, but now I have to buy, let’s say, Devon’s book, or Greg’s book, which was structured in a completely different way, maybe. And you need to then find the right information, you need to index it, you need to make all the connections and then you need to make a chart of the differences, either on paper or in your head. But if I go back to the previous one where it’s still in an ordered memo, maybe there will also be disagreement about the order, but then we can stick to what the original sources had. And we say this is a point of contention, here are some differences between variety of well-researched practitioners. And then we can also encourage people to see, OK, this is what we need to resolve. This is where we have five percent that needs alignment. So I think maybe this is in a way to accelerate it.
GW: That is a gigantic amount of work.
SN: Well, it’s one million pounds, isn’t it?
GW: That I won’t even scratch the surface because there are seven centuries of source material, which can be loosely… I suppose we can skip out the 20th century stuff, I guess, because it is in living memory. And if we skip all the nineteenth century stuff because it’s basically classical fencing, which is really well documented, we don’t need to worry about that. So we go just the five hundred years from thirteen hundred to eighteen hundred. Then still, we have dozens and dozens of styles and sources and languages.
SN: Let me take it back to woodworking. When you make the table. How many joints do you do each time?
GW: Well, I’ve just made a pair of bookcases and I cut all of the dovetails at once for both bookcases, so I would do all the joints first. Because it’s a process like chopping out dovetails, like cleaning out the waste in between the tails. You stack up all of the pieces which have had their saw cuts and go chonk, chonk, chonk, chonk, chonk, chonk. Oh my God, the person transcribing this, poor Katie, she’s going to absolutely hate me for this, all this onomatopoeic “chonking”. And then you flip them over and do all the other sides. That way you get the whole thing done in maybe half the time it would take if you finished each joint.
SN: But then when if we make such a project, it will have to be one focus at a time, but we can’t go into all the styles to start with. Maybe the most famous ones like Fiore, Liechtenauer, then move on.
GW: A concordance of sort of this whole thing for like Fabris, Giganti and Cappoferro, it would be great. Because here they are contemporary with each other. They have very similar theory, but apparently very different practical approaches. Again, who’s going to do that work? Because that is really high level and difficult work to do.
SN: Well, you know, a lot of what happens in our community is done by the community, right? A lot of the best projects started and then continued by a joint effort. If we can show a small example and that brings value and invite other people to edit, maybe it will succeed. Maybe it won’t, but at least we can say we have tried to accelerate our work.
GW: Yeah, OK. I’m reminded of Michael Chidester’s interview for this show, where he described the origins of Wiktenauer. And it basically it started out as something similar to what you were describing, as a kind of concordance where you figured out if they got copies of the various manuscripts and transcribed them, they could sort of come up with central interpretation that was consistent. I need to check in with Michael, because I may be misremembering, but that side of it absolutely abjectly failed and didn’t work. And there may be useful lessons in that or it may be that this sort of thing doesn’t work or it could be just it doesn’t work when it’s done that way. But then, you know, what do we have out of that? Well, we have the mighty glorious and fabulous wiktenauer.com where you can get copies of just about every historical fencing manual ever discovered and in many cases, transcriptions and translations and stuff as well. So, yeah, it’s a monumental thing. It does sound like the sort of thing where if it fails, it will fail usefully.
SN: Yeah. At least we learn, at least we have the information out there for some people that might be into it and the rest of the community ignore it, but the rest of the community ignores things anyway, right?
GW: Honestly, I don’t pay the slightest attention to the community as a whole. What I do is I follow Neil Gaiman’s advice. I do my best to make good art. I put it out there and the people that like it come to me and the people that don’t like it don’t. I am not a sufficiently socially adept person to manage these multiple… I don’t even really think of the swordsmanship community as a whole; there’s sword people who I make this podcast for and do various other things for, and there’s non-sword people. But within the whole sword people demographic there is, well, we have everything from nice people to raging white supremacists. So I’m certainly not interested in dealing with the entirety of the population that is interested in swords.
SN: yeah, so can it even fail, because if you don’t care about aligning everyone behind it and all you care about is improving the accessibility of the information and the quality of the information out there, then it doesn’t matter if some subset of people don’t like it.
GW: That’s very true. Yeah, that is very true. OK. So am I right in thinking that if I ask you what is the best idea you’ve never acted on, this is your answer?
SN: Well, I did act on it, I didn’t finish it. I don’t know. This is a very tough question. You know, I’m a pretty impulsive person. Not many ideas I don’t act upon. This is probably the one question from your set of questions, which I don’t have a good answer to, but maybe this is an idea that I need to act more upon. I just need to distract my squirrel brain long enough to sit down and do it.
GW: Yeah, I have brain squirrels myself, and the really hard thing is starting things is easy. It’s getting them out the door. I know you studied some George Silver. You might not know I did an audio book of Paradoxes of Defence this year.
SN: I did know that.
GW: So what happened was on a Sunday morning, I thought, huh? Paradoxes of Defence might make a good audio book. By Monday, I’d hired a narrator and then a week later I thought, Hang on! He’s Elizabethan 1599, peak Shakespeare. We should get it done by Ben Crystal, who is a Shakespeare actor, Shakespearean actor who specialises in original pronunciation. So I contacted Ben Crystal’s agent and I got an eye watering quote back and I thought, yeah, fuck it, lets do it. And so then I needed to raise the money and we had a crowdfunding campaign. Four months after my first idea, the product shipped right. But here’s the thing. It was a massive distraction. Because what I ought to have been doing is working on my next book. But the thing is the hard part of that whole thing was the final stages of getting the recordings into the correct format and just edited and everything just right for audiobook.
SN: But now you have the experience and how to do it, and the next one could be a lot easier.
GW: No, no, I’ve had the experience of how to do it and I don’t think I’m ever doing it again. If anybody else would like to do a historical martial arts themed audiobook, find a historical source and create an audio book out of it, I’m happy to advise, but I don’t think I ever want to do that again. But yeah, I’m similarly impulsive. You get this idea that, oh, that’s a good idea and this is a good idea and this is a good idea. And I’ve got these two audio books of Paradoxes of Defence, one in modern pronunciation, one in the original pronunciation, and I’m really pleased with them. But oh god, I could be halfway through my next book by now.
SN: Yeah, but is that bad?
GW: Not really, but it was very painful. It was very painful. Because once you put that much money into a project you have to finish it to get your money back.
SN: Well, that’s an incentive, isn’t it?
GW: Yeah. Yeah. Books are easier, but even finishing books is hard it because you could always add a bit, fix a bit and change a bit or whatever. And yeah, the really hard bit is basically the last week. Everything after that is OK, but the last week is just mentally difficult.
SN: Yeah, we have a saying in game development that the last five percent is like the 95 percent before that.
GW: Yes, it’s true. When people write their first book, OK, they say, I’ve written my book. And what they mean is they finished the first draft. Oh, bless. That’s really good. Well done. I don’t quite have the heart to tell them that they are about a quarter of the way there, because in their head, finishing the first draft is writing the book. It’s like, No, no, no, no. This isn’t it. The first draft is getting your raw materials from the woodyard. Now you actually have to make the furniture.
SN: Yeah, yeah. I’m reading a friend’s pre-publication copy. Giving some feedback and stuff. And as I’m doing this and really enjoying giving feedback, one part of my mind is like, Oh, this is cool and you have some ideas, and here’s how I might do them. And then I’m like, this is really great. I get to give somebody else the feedback on how to improve the product and instead of doing it myself, because this looks pretty simple, this chapter is really simple. I could do it. Well, I’m so glad somebody else is doing it.
GW: So how did you get into woodwork? What made you decide to take it up?
SN: So, you know how I do video games? Swords is kind of like a game. There is a theme in here. I mean, I don’t use a sharp sword for a game and even a blunt sword without protection. So I really like games, board games, video games, whatever, and I play a lot of board games and I wanted to have a board gaming table. One day I looked online and I saw a website, boardgamingtables.com and various others. Anyway, they didn’t ship to the UK. And anyway, they cost, like $5000-$6000 for a table. That’s crazy. I could buy the materials and the equipment and gain a new life skill while I make a table. And then double the amount of money later, give or take, not actually double the amount of money later. But I would say this is not how the world works. You actually have to have the skill to do stuff and skill takes time. But I’m really enjoying it. Since then, I’ve made a bunch of stuff, including this really crappy yet functional air-brushing booth. It’s in my background, that probably will not show in the podcast.
GW: No, but I could describe it, it looks pretty well-made from here. It’s even got a fan on the top. It’s got a fan on the top to suck out the fumes.
SN: Yes, exactly. And there’s a duct there against the wall, which then, when I actually have it on the table, the duct gets connected, the fan sucks the fumes, the duct leads to the window, which is now visible.
GW: OK, that’s very clever.
SN: There we go. And that’s just made from, you know, a bunch of MDF cut with a saw and a few screws. I feel like while it took me maybe a good year to learn how to make a board gaming table properly, I’ve learnt so much and I’ve gained so much confidence that it is a worthwhile life skill. I mean, before I started doing that, I was even intimidated using drill. Like, that’s insane.
GW: Well, but natural because drills are scary and you can hurt yourself with them, and you can accidentally drill through a power cable. One should treat most tools pretty much the way one treats a sword.
SN: Yes. With the amount of respect.
GW: Exactly. Yeah. I must say as a first a woodworking project, a board gaming table is, well, let’s put it this way. If I was creating a course to teach beginners woodwork, that would not be the first project, that would be probably the tenth. Because as things get bigger and there’s this sort of natural scale of woodworking projects where below a certain size, everything is more difficult because it’s really small and above a certain size, everything is more difficult because it’s bigger and the leverage acting on it is much greater. But there’s a kind of happy sort of middle size of something maybe, shall we say, about 30 centimetres by 50 centimetres by 20 centimetres. Something that will fit in there that is light, convenient.
SN: Like a box.
GW: Like a box or a pot stand. When I was doing woodwork at school, the first thing that we made was a pot stand, which was two bits of wood crossed with a housing joint. So basically a cross. And an octagon of plywood that was glued and nailed on top. That was it. That was it. That was the project.
SN: My project was hexagonal board gaming table. Not even a rectangular one, just to make it a little bit more complicated.
GW: Yeah, that’s brutally hard.
SN: Yeah. Well, the table is happily working out, well, the third iteration of it, anyway. The legs needed two iterations, one to stand, the second not to fall when someone tries to use the table.
GW: Yeah, a table that you can actually put stuff on is generally better than one that you can’t.
SN: And now the third iteration of the legs to just make it prettier. I mean, the second one is functional. And look, it’s pretty traditional and so on. But I kind of like contemporary design. So the third iteration is actually going to be a copy from, I don’t know if you know Tamar 3X3. She has a channel and a blog and she did a round table, but with a really cool hexagonal leg design. And I was like, this is going to be a perfect fit for me. And now that I can do mortice and tenons, I feel like it’s within my reach now. I will send you a completed photo.
GW: OK. That seems fair. And of course we can get into that and finishing techniques and inlay techniques. Because once you can actually build the thing, then you can decorate it. And inlays are super fun. Although actually, there’s a table you should probably look up, God we’re going way off topic, never mind. There’s a table that is, I forget what they call it. But a YouTuber, she’s a robotics engineer and does rockets and stuff like that, and is also a qualified pilot, basically, she’s totally living her best life. Her name is Xyla Foxlin. She has this YouTube channel and she made this table which appears to float in space. It wouldn’t work as a gaming table because it is too unstable for that, but the way it kind of sits there, it appears to have no legs.
SN: OK. Can you send it to me?
GW: Yes. I will look it up and of course, we will put it in the show notes as well so the curious listeners can have a look. Yeah. In fact, I don’t spend any time at all on doing online sword stuff, YouTube videos, I just don’t because I just can’t. But craft stuff. That’s where I spend my time online. If I’m fooling around on YouTube, it is woodworking channels and generally sort of craft channels. I first came across Xyla because she made a canoe out of cedar strips.
SN: OK, that’s cool.
GW: Which is really cool, right? And she but she does all sorts of fantastic projects, one of the most interesting ones, she won a beauty pageant, she got a crown in a beauty pageant, and she’s a bit ambivalent about beauty pageants, being a feminist and that kind of stuff. And so she sent her crown into space. With a camera watching it all the way up, and you can actually see this footage of the crown with a background of space. It was on a weather balloon so when it got completely not quite out the atmosphere, but really, really, really incredibly high up. I forget the numbers and I’m not an astrophysicist, she explains it all on her on a video. Of course, the balloon then explodes because there’s not enough pressure to keep it together, and then the whole thing comes back down again. So it’s not still in space, it came back down again. But she’s sent her beauty pageant crown into space, which I think is just a really cool thing to do.
SN: I love it.
GW: OK. I think we better wrap this up or we’re going to end up chatting for like two more hours about woodworking stuff. So thank you very much for joining me today Shanee, and it’s been lovely to meet you.
SN: Thank you so much for having me. And I’m sure I’ll see you around.