GW: Hi sword people, this is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy, and I’m here today with Claire Wemyss, who is an ADHD coach, co-founder of Kunst des Funkelns, and we’ll get into what that means during the episode. And she is very much into play-based learning and she is an up and coming tiktoker. And as a father of daughters, I know exactly what that means. So without further ado, Claire, welcome to the show.
CW: Hi. Thank you. Stoked to be here.
GW: Thanks for coming along. Now, just to orient everybody, whereabouts in the world are you?
CW: I live in Vancouver, Canada, and that’s also where my club is based, though, mind you, location is not as important as it used to be. But yeah, I’ve trained and started teaching here in Vancouver.
GW: Lovely. And yes, we’re recording this at the middle of January, 2021, with the pandemic still arseing around outside. So, yes, hopefully future listeners to the show in a year’s time will have only a vague idea as to why you might not be able to get out and train.
CW: It’s true.
GW: We can but hope. OK, so how did you get started with the whole sword thing?
CW: I started with LARPing. That was the first time I got a sword in my hand, 13, 14, 15 years ago. I lost count now. But I mean, it’s definitely closely tied to that whole play-based learning, playing with swords is fun and that was really appealing. I was like, what do you mean? I can just be a fantasy character and swing a sword around and go to battles? And I can just do that for a weekend? And that was the start of it, and then I started looking more and more into a martial arts type of approach to it, and that eventually evolved to where I am now.
GW: OK, and so you didn’t go straight from LARPing to the starting a club I don’t think. So where did you get your original training from?
CW: So it was LARPing. And then I started to do heavy armed combat in the SCA. So the Society for Creative Anachronism and the heavy armed combat is kind of a blend of stick fighting and what I feel is a very sabre fighting kind of style of movement. And so that was where actual training started for me, more specific about defensive, perspective, and how to think about other people’s bodies in relation to mine and how power generation works, and that’s where actual teaching started. But again, in actual application, I think it’s a play-based culture, even if some of the people in the community wouldn’t call it play-based. The fighting in the SCA is absolutely play. And it’s wonderful that way.
GW: OK, you’re a co-founder of Kunst des Funkelns, that is a very unusually named martial arts school and I am not a German speaker and many of the listeners are not either. So would you care to explain exactly what that means?
CW: Yeah. Jon Mills, my co-founder, my teaching partner, and I both love wordplay and we’re both queer. And so we very much wanted two things to be part of our identity and how we present ourselves outward to the community. And KDF is a very well understood acronym for the German tradition of historical martial arts. So we ended on the acronym. But I was thinking, well, what can the “F” be? I don’t want to be just meaning swords. I want it to mean something personal. And I was like, well, what’s the word for glitter in German? So “Funkelns” is effectively the transitive verb form of glitter or sparkle. So it’s like the art of sparkling and within Valkyrie Martial Arts, which is the organisation that took us in when we left our previous space. They affectionately call us Sparkle School, which is very, very sweet.
GW: That’s fantastic. I gather you are mostly into Messer. Is that correct?
CW: I am. I’m super passionate about Messer. And that’s really the reason why Kunst des Funkelns started, because Jon and I used to just weightlift together and I was grumbling at one point about how there wasn’t really any good options for me to train Messer here in Vancouver. And then Jon had the brilliant idea of why don’t we just start our own club? And I was like, wait, wait, I’m allowed to do that? Isn’t someone going to tell me that I can’t? It turns out no one has the authority to tell me that I can’t do that. And we’re going into our third year. Oh, God. Yeah, well, maybe. As of August, in 2021, that’ll be our full third year, I think. Time is strange, but, um, yeah.
GW: OK, so you started the club a couple of years ago. A lot of the people who listen have started clubs or are thinking about starting clubs who are stuck in places with no clubs. And so they have no choice but to think about starting a club. So it might be useful to hear about how you went about it. Who you got help from, how you arranged it?
CW: Absolutely. Personally, I work really well with a collaborator, especially in martial arts training, it’s really good to have a training partner because so many of the manuals are framed as plays between two or more individuals. And it’s really beneficial to have a training partner or a studying partner, both for that reason and for sharing motivation. One of the things that Jon and I, early on, while we were still developing our student base, kind of committed to each other, is that even if we had no students show up, we would still be training together. We’re still members and that mentality has served us really, really well. I really benefited as someone who didn’t initially see myself as a martial arts coach. I had a coaching background from before. I had a pretty strong movement background from before, through dance and through training in historical martial arts myself. I had those two pieces, but I didn’t see myself as combining them, and I think Jon has a really, really deep background in martial arts. And so to have his full trust as an equal colleague in our club was pretty significant. I was like, oh, you don’t really ever feel a need to question where I’m taking things in class. And like, while we do definitely discuss pedagogy and that kind of thing, we’re always very much on equal footing. And I think being treated that way was enormous for me to really recognise it. Like, this is my club and I am a martial arts coach. And I get to claim that without criticising myself and doubting that.
GW: I had the same thing 20 years ago when I started my school as a professional, I showed up and the students we’re kind of primed to expect me to be the teacher and everything, and so their acceptance wasn’t that hard to get, but it was when martial arts instructors in other much more established fields would show up to a seminar of mine. And these people have been training maybe since I was like three years old, just to see what this historical martial arts thing is all about and then come back to another seminar a few months later and then ask me to come and teach a seminar in that school. It is like, do you mean that I actually have chops? Are you serious? It makes such a difference.
CW: The other the other piece that that really had a huge impact perspective was I can’t remember. I think I got this concept from another place. It wasn’t from within martial arts, but basically no one can contribute what I can contribute. My voice, my focuses, my background, my passions are unique, just like every single other person who’s contributing to the arts in the community. The workshops that I keep in my back pocket, the things that I provide to my students, they can’t actually get that from anyone else. Knowing that and knowing that my students come to our classes for that specifically – they could go to another class, there’s lots of good teaching out there. Valkyrie is very rich with good coaching, but they come to my class because they like what Jon and I provide. And people have really enjoyed my workshops because they really liked the content in them. And that’s just my workshops alone and my passions and recognising that no one else has done those things before, prioritised and explored the things that I looked at. I’ve never heard of workshops kind of touching on those topics.
GW: What sort of topics are you talking about?
CW: One of my first workshops, which was at the very first Big Gay Sword Day, was Design Your Own Good Time, which was talking about…
GW: I can think of lots of ways to do that that have nothing to do with swords.
CW: Well, the workshop itself could apply to any sphere of life. But basically it’s about identifying why you’re showing up to the activity in the first place. It’s a process of identifying that so that you can identify both the values and outcomes that you want out of your training and from there developing priorities in your training relationships.
GW: That’s really sensible.
CW: Because it’s such a huge part of the quality of our experience.
GW: Right. I see it from the other perspective where, as the teacher with 20 students in class or whatever, they’re all there for slightly different things. And occasionally someone will be there for something that I can’t or won’t give them. But I have to kind of intuit why they’re there, because an awful lot of students don’t know really what they’re really there for. A classic example, is a common thing that happens where a student shows up to the beginners course, buys the sword in the second week and quits in the third week because what they really wanted was to buy a sword, but they felt they weren’t entitled to buy a sword unless they were learning how to use it. Showing up for the beginners course means they’re actually learning swords now so they can buy a sword. So they’ve actually got what they want.
CW: I would guess that they would go home with that sword after they’ve left the course and still feel kind of unfulfilled because there’s still another layer underneath the sword of what they want. What is it the sword brings them? For me, I know that if I picked up a sword, I want to use that sword. I want to have it in my hand and feel something in my heart.
GW: I absolutely agree. I’m the same. I don’t collect swords, I have lots of swords, but I don’t collect swords. Because I’m more interested in the use than the object. But there are plenty of people who, like Ewart Oakeshott, for example, as far as I’m aware, wasn’t a historical fencer at all, but he had an enormous sword collection because for him the object was the thing. Owning that object was the thing he wanted.
CW: Yeah. Oh, yeah, absolutely.
GW: You see the same thing in woodwork tools, for example. I once counted, I have 13 different hammers and that sounds ridiculous until you realise that they are all completely different hammers. And for me they have their own use. But there are people who have literally thousands of similar woodworking planes or whatever, because they’re collectors. So, yeah, most of those people who bought a sword went home totally happy because they’ve actually got what they fundamentally wanted.
CW: Yeah, true. Absolutely. I think one of the other things that that that workshop provides, because as you say, when those students show up to a beginners’ course, they don’t always know what it is that’s drawing them in. It starts to provide them the language to be able to self-direct, whether if they’re just in free time sparring, they can negotiate training goals or objectives or games with their training partners. And it builds that skill, which creates a lot of independence and that agency is really powerful.
GW: This is far too useful to go, “Oh that was interesting. Now, tell me about how you get the Messer from the text.” So I think it would be good for the listeners to get some solid tips or approaches to do that for themselves.
CW: Absolutely. So the opening question with that workshop is, if you think of swords and think of the big excitement of it, what does that look like? And so for some people, it’s winning a tournament. And for other people it’s being on the battlefield and that dream is really the thing to chase. Or for some people it’s mastery of a very specific art. And so that starts to lead you down that road. So then you say, OK, what in my training serves that dream? What part of it is it? Is it very precise repetitions of certain movements? Is it developing improvisational skills? Is it reproducing historic garments and armour? These dreams inform what practises you want to focus on. And that’s often the thing to come back to, is to come back to the dream when you’re feeling frustrated with your training or frustrated with your focus, going back to what really makes your heart feel good. And the other piece of that is with your training relationships, how can you make those relationships benefit that goal? And that sometimes involves explicitly discussing it with your training partners. Is it, OK, I would like to try this very specific motion. Sometimes it’s OK, I’m working on this thing and I’m going to keep working on this thing. And by identifying your priorities as an individual practitioner, it gives you a lot more confidence to negotiate those things. You actually recognise what you’re trying to get out of the hours that you’re spending.
GW: Yeah, it’s a difficulty from a coach’s perspective or an instructor’s perspective, when you have a room full of people who all have somewhat different goals and intentions. So how would you handle that?
CW: We generally and Valkyrie also shares this approach. I think that my teaching has been influenced by the fact that I was a student with Valkyrie for many years. When you have more open, not so much drills, but I would call them movement games, stimulus and response type patterns. People can play. You can direct a priority or it’s like, OK, this is the stimulus. And that informs what reactions you’re going to play with. But people can also start to think of, for example, maybe they’re thinking about flinch reactions, so they’re trying to think of their own response, or maybe they’re thinking about flow of motion or maybe they’re thinking about power generation. So even within those movement games or even drills as well, this can also apply to, they can think of what their focus is. Because their body’s movement has so many different aspects. And even just thinking about that aspect as we’re moving in our bodies changes the way our body moves and still serves the drills that our coaches are providing for us. It’s kind of shifted the framing from coach to student, but I guess it’s trusting the students that they will find the balance and when I see them overfocusing on something just shifting away to a different movement. If I’m seeing someone hyper focussing to the detriment of their experience, maybe they’re getting frustrated because they feel a tension between the exercise and their focus. Maybe they’re getting distracted, just gently shifting away from that. And there’s a nice balance that organically happens. I have generally found.
GW: Yeah, one thing I found over the last maybe five, six, seven years or so, instead of showing up and teaching a prepared class, I show up and I ask the students what they want and why they’re there. The usual thing I’ll say, let’s say this is a rapier class, I’ll say if I’m Salvatore Fabris, that makes you the king of Denmark. So how do you think that relationship should work?
CW: Yeah, it’s a service relationship.
GW: Precisely. But students are so conditioned to they show up and they do as they’re told and they have the class and they enjoy the class. Getting them to articulate what they actually want is really hard and they asking them to actually articulate what they actually truly want, because very often they’ll ask for something that they think is appropriate, as opposed to the thing they actually want.
CW: I found some really interesting, spontaneous insight and curiosity. Our classes are structured into unarmed stuff, armed stuff, and then what we call “book time”, which is some kind of study. It used to be from Liechtenauer’s manual, back when we were in person. But now it covers a whole bunch of things. We watched Escrima Filipino martial arts last week. We’ve looked at large paintings and talked about what’s being conveyed in large scale paintings of battles. I found that with those things, just general open ended questions, the students will answer those questions through the lens of what’s going on in their mind, what’s their priority and what they’re thinking of. So I start to get insight on what they’re focussing on. And it’s almost always something that I could never have guessed, but by providing something that they can look into and explore, they start to pull out of that what their mind is wanting. One of the most interesting ones was when we all sat down and researched the history of duelling laws, which is really interesting, so we saw who had more of a background in academic research, that kind of pulled out a piece. We had someone who kind of looked at it from a kind of a psychology sociology perspective. And these are not necessarily trained minds, I’m using these terms to describe specific perspectives, because there’s no need for any kind of training to do this, but someone’s like, OK, this is the different relationships in play. This is maybe the cultural context of this. Why would these weird things be important? Why do you need six friends? Why is it seven guys on seven guys and it’s two guys who’s fighting plus their six friends and the last man standing decides the victor. That’s an actual thing you’ll find in Swabian duelling law. Watching my students pull insights or the biggest thing is what are the new questions they are asking? So I just provide a very open question and where they keep questioning shows me what their what their brain is wanting more of. And this is very much informed by my background, working with children, doing early childhood education stuff. Children, any human being, will be naturally drawn to what they crave. So if you provide something open-ended to explore, people will naturally go into what is most interesting to them.
GW: OK, so you’re trying to get the students to be honest about what they actually want and have a language for articulating what they’re really there for. OK, so what do you do when somebody has fundamental training goals that you can’t help them with for either practical or ethical reasons?
CW: Sometimes it’ll show up very clearly, very quickly, like what I want is to win in competitions. I love corner coaching during the competition. I love doing that. I’m not the kind of coach who can train and prepare someone for competition. That’s a clear goal. It’s a specific skill. I have enormous respect for people who do have it. It’s not my skill. So that’s one that for practical reasons I could very clearly say I couldn’t do. But for ethical reasons, let’s say someone is getting involved in in martial arts because they’re in a situation where being able to fight is necessary for them, I wouldn’t really know how to approach that situation. I imagine there are other ethical complications, like actually, here’s another good one. I was dating someone recently who really wanted me to train them. It’s awkward, mostly because I have personally been abused by an instructor. And so for me, that’s a very sensitive thing, which is not to say that their request was from a bad place, but for me, I couldn’t ethically do that and be treating myself right. Also I wasn’t the right person, there were people that I could direct them to immediately and say, you’re going to get better at murdering someone with a knife. Theoretically, air quotes on the “murdering someone with a knife”. We’re not actually trying to do violence. We are playing. Kaja Sadowski if you want to learn how to how to stab someone, you go to the experts. I’m good at Messer. So I’m not going to ever give someone the misconception that I can do something that I’m not going to be comfortable with, I know, I can feel that my teaching is immediately compromised and I know what that sensation is. When I am having to constantly filter myself because I’m not in a teaching relationship that I’m comfortable with and usually even if I don’t know exactly why I’m uncomfortable, that discomfort is usually an ethical one.
GW: Yeah, I got a phone call six, seven years ago from a guy who had an argument with someone. They were going to duel with smallswords for real to settle it and would I train him. I’m like, OK, the moment you told me that your intention is to actually try and murder somebody with these skills, you put me in a difficult position. That is literally what I train to be able to do. My emphasis is entirely on mortal combat and training people to be actually able to do that. Because precisely because that’s where all the interesting ethical stuff happens.
CW: So it makes me think of something I’m going to put a pin in about mortal combat and ethics. Yeah, but finish your thought.
GW: Yeah. I said, well OK, if I train you and you win, I’m an accessory before the fact in a murder. If I train you and you lose, I’m an accessory before the fact in attempted murder and not very good at my job. There is literally no win state for me here. Also I have children. I can’t justify risking 15 years in prison for your very strange sense of honour. If you had just come and ask me to train you for a hypothetical duel, and never once mentioned that you were actually training for a real duel, and I could have done it with a clear conscience and you’d probably have done just fine.
CW: I know there are people out there who are, I’m going to use the phrase, “ethically compromised”.
GW: OK, but to this guy’s credit, about nine months later, he called me again and apologised for having put me in that position.
CW: That’s fantastic. And I think that really speaks to the fact that having a good sense of one’s own ethics and boundaries and being clear and strong in that, impacts other people in really positive ways because he remembered that limit of yours and it stuck with him. It was in his mind and it probably has affected him, which I think is really wonderful. Talking about the ethics of mortal combat and murder, I think it’s really interesting because so much of our sport is focussed on movements and behaviours that will end in someone’s death. It’s hyper focussed on that. And I think something that I was circling back to, stuff that is unique about what I’m passionate about and what I deliver, I’m not really interested in murder. I’m interested in the stuff where both people get to walk away alive. And the interesting things, because it is actually, in my opinion, more difficult to effectively disarm, disable, wrestle.
GW: With lethal weapons, yes. If you are both holding Messers, guaranteeing your opponent’s survival is a trick. It’s really hard.
CW: Tat’s where my fascination is. And because, Leküchner has an enormous amount of content so that he even has little comments where it’s like, OK, well, this is how you just do an insulting wound, like the kind of thing where you could cut the person with the short edge on this final movement, or you could just slap them with the flat of your blade on their forearm to embarrass them. And his writing is explicitly aware of that nuance in a way that I really enjoy, because I think in terms of what I want to be doing with my friends, sparring-wise, that’s what I want to be doing. I don’t want to fight to end up in just one of us getting stabbed. I want it to be difficult and contentious and wrestley, because that’s really one of the beauties of Messer, is that it is a very wrestley sword. And when you’re wrestling, you have generally decided not to stab someone, because if you’re wrestling for more than a couple of seconds and you haven’t pulled out your dagger and got them right in the kidney, you chose not to. And to me, that is more fun. And I am in this sport for the fun. Just stabbing someone isn’t. I mean, I love Rapier. It’s very good at what it does, but it always felt very…
GW: You can’t fence Rapier that way.
CW: Exactly. It had a lack of intimacy that was why I kept craving Messer. I did a workshop with Jess Finley in Messer, nine years ago now, and it never left my mind, it never left my mind because of that messiness in closeness. And so to be able to navigate that messiness and closeness in a way that’s on purpose to me is really technically challenging and fun.
GW: We get similar in Fiore’s longsword. We got a lot of that, too. And there are some very flashy moves like disarms and throws and what have you, which you can do instead of running them through.
CW: Pommel strikes. I love a good pommel strike. I’m a total dirtbag. I’ll be so close I could stab you, but I’m just close enough that I could pommel strike you too. I love that I have two options. Messer is beautiful for that. You can either cut someone or smash them in the nose and it’s great. I have foam LARPing style boffer swords that have a very padded pommel. People’s heads are still on necks and brains are still delicate. That is never going to not be true. But if you’re going to boop someone in the nose, it’s much nicer to boop them with some foam, then to boop them with a wood and metal pommel.
GW: It requires a deal more strength to not boop them with the steel.
CW: Booping them with the steel straight enough that your pommel ends before it contacts their face is absolutely the ideal. But if you want to get that last little boop just to just to make it funny.
GW: Oh you’re doing it without masks. Then you definitely want the foam.
CW: The ones that I’m talking about are big and blocky. They are very unlikely to go through someone’s eye socket.
GW: I would happily give them the children to play with.
CW: I literally recommended one yesterday. I was walking to the alley, taking the garbage out. I ran into an old childcare client of mine, someone I worked for years and years and years ago. And I was talking about how I was starting to make sword content on tiktok and how I’m teaching sword stuff. And he asked me what I would recommend for a toy sword. And I immediately recommended those boffers because they’re fun, they feel good, they have wonderful balance. They are actually, in my opinion, very effective, just as effective as a waster or another type of training specific sword, because they’re generally built by people who are familiar with what one wants to feel.
GW: Who are making these?
CW: Mine are from Foametheus Swords. I was super happy you can get them customised, so I had them make me a pair of them that are more or less the same measurements as an average Messer trainer. And it’s a delight to play with them. The other magic of training swords like that that don’t really look like swords is that people stop taking themselves so seriously. And there’s all sorts of new ways that people move when they stop taking themselves seriously and they often become better fighters because they’re not thinking so hard. They’re just moving.
GW: Interesting. I will dig them out online and I’ll put a link in the show notes. You make a good point about getting people out of that kind of strict, formal, this is my sword style, this is how I must move, and again play helps with that. But there are limits to how you can play with sharp swords.
CW: Because I’ve been teaching online now for the past almost a year, there are limits for what you can do with sharp swords when you are in a partnered training experience. But there are a lot of things you can do. I actually don’t own a sharp myself, I’ve had very limited experience with them. The experiences that I have had have been really, really amazing, like cutting parties which are wild and very viscerally informative.
GW: Yeah, very much so. Followed by a barbecue usually.
CW: Indeed, yes. Followed by a barbecue. It’s always a party. There’s the sober cutting part and then once the pig is all in pieces then the beer comes out and the sharps have been put away. And there’s definitely a very specific sensation to playing with sharps. Even just moving by yourself at speed with a sharp I still think is different than with a blunt. I haven’t had enough experience comparing the two to articulate it, but I remember it’s a very distinctive sensation.
GW: Shall I articulate it? Because I do a lot. To my mind, a sword is sharp. If it’s not sharp, it’s a training tool. The difference is primarily the consequences of an error. Anyone who has learnt swordsmanship, particularly anything cutting and where you take the weapon behind you and strike, like longsword, for example, they will have had the experience of clipping the back of their own mask on the way forward or clipping their ear, or running the sword over a bit of themselves that they shouldn’t have done. As soon as it is sharp, that can have fatal consequences. So you have to be completely in tune with the edge and the point in a way that you don’t have to be if it’s blunt. Ideally, you move past that to the point where the sword is going wherever you want it to go, but it’s always still a sharp edge. So the way you move a kitchen knife is different to the way you move a hammer. And the way you move a sharp sword is different to the way you move a blunt sword, because it is much more like having a very long kitchen knife, and the Messer is a knife, right? Just a really big knife.
CW: It certainly is.
GW: And it is much less like using a hammer. And when you’re going to do sharp on sharp practise, you are mindful of using your edge for what it’s for. And you are just that much less inclined to start kind of mindlessly whacking stuff with it. It just doesn’t feel right.
CW: When you were describing that it makes me think of some sparring play that I did with a friend some years ago, but we had managed, through totally legitimate means, we had gotten our hands on electrified shock knives.
GW: Are they restricted in some way?
CW: They are. They were loaned to us by a colleague who worked in law enforcement and had access to them in a totally legitimate way. But we got to play with them. And, boy, the movement that we had and shock knives are still very different from sharp knives. Blunt shock knives, sharp knives, three different types of movement. And one of the funniest things is that I’ve never sparred with sharp knives, but shock knives, the consequences are in some ways funny. Especially depending on who you’re fighting, because some people are less adverse than others.
GW: It helps to be a bit of a sadist.
CW: Yeah, it does. Or a masochist for some. But it’s so funny, and I’m using this word metaphorically now. It is an electrifying feeling when the consequences suddenly shoot up. And I imagine that going from a training tool to a sharp is a similar kind of electrifying awareness.
GW: I have taught seminars where I bring a pair of sharps with me and take individual students in the class, give the class stuff to do, and then take one student at a time and give them the experience of doing some basic things, sharp and sharp.
CW: I have a question for you about sharp on sharp. Jon and I have been in this debate for about two and a half years now, and neither of us are ever going to let it go. But I am going to use this as an opportunity. I know that sharp on sharp in the bind is a very unique sensation that cannot be replicated by blunt steel. I have these synthetic trainers that I put hockey tape on because then it creates a kind of traction. What do you think of that as a way of creating increased feedback in the bind for someone who’s learning about what fuhlen is, what that sensation of connection between two edges is?
GW: I wouldn’t bother.
CW: All right, Jon wins this one.
GW: I would just take a couple of sharps and give them the sharp.
CW: Jon, you’re welcome. I validated you.
GW: Most people are fairly responsible, and when you have trained them for a while you know them fairly well and you know how they’re going to respond. I do this with people I don’t know because this is my job, I’ve been doing it for a long time. I’ve built up a level of experience. At this roleplaying convention I had a bunch of students with me, about eight of them. And I did a demonstration on historical swordsmanship for about a half an hour or so. So everyone in the audience was primed to listen to me, or would have left already.
CW: They were there on purpose.
GW: Yeah, they were there on purpose, and at the end of it I was talking about sharps and blunts and I offered to give people the experience of sharp and sharp. The way we did it was I was facing the audience. I had four students behind me in a line, just basically psychologically holding the space. I had another student who handed a blunt sword to the person and another student who would do the drill I was about to do with them, which is basically this edge on edge, swing the sword around a little bit. How does it feel? How does that feel? That kind of thing. And so they would do it with blunts first with one of my students. And then another student would give them a sharp sword and they would then do the same drill with me and then they’d go. And then the next person will come, I forget how many people we had, it was at least ten, it might have been 20, but these are people who most of whom I’ve never met, did know anything about, hadn’t trained. But bad behaviour only occurs in psychologically appropriate spaces.
CW: When there’s space to do so.
GW: They were filtered. They were very clearly in my space. I had an enormous team making sure it was my space. They were willing to queue up. They were willing to do the basic drill with my student to get to this, and I didn’t have the slightest problem with anyone. Not the slightest.
CW: This this immediately made me think of what you were talking about earlier around ethical limitations. I’m like, oh, I don’t have the familiarity with working with sharps that I would feel like I could design that space at this point in my coaching development.
GW: I had been using sharps for about 15 years by that point. That really helps.
CW: Yeah, totally. And I guess it’s another example of, you know, for me, keeping my students safe is incredibly important and the ethics of doing so extends to what tools are we using and how are we using them. And another situation where I might feel conflicted and where I’d have to say no is that if someone was insisting on tools that I couldn’t keep my students safe with.
GW: Absolutely. Yeah. And it’s a specific skill. I keep coming back to woodwork because I do a lot of it these days. I have a shed in the garden and I can go there and do woodwork even during a pandemic. And I can control the space completely. It’s a very psychologically safe space when in a very stressful environment.
CW: I got into cosplay this year and it’s very parallel where you construct your own bubble of existence and in that bubble you own everything that happens.
GW: Yeah. So with different woodworking machines, they all have their risk profiles and there’s some training you have to go through to use specific machines. I worked for five years as a cabinet maker for a living and there are some machines I will not use. They’re just too dangerous and the risk to reward profile doesn’t make sense. But selecting the tool. If someone is absolutely insisting on using sharps, but they’re not ready for it or the teacher’s not ready for it, that’s just a “no”, and the fact that they would insist on it would suggest that perhaps they’re in the wrong space.
CW: And I also think that for me, in that experience, the one thing that I’m going to claim authority in in my classes is, is safety. That’s the one thing that I’m going to always say that I get the final say on.
GW: It’s your responsibility.
CW: Absolutely. That’s, at the end of the day, where my role as an instructor, actually, to me, starts and ends. My role as a facilitator is everything else. Jon and I both share this, we try and have a very flat social structure, with our study stuff, there’s an enormous amount of agency that goes to our students about what we study and when we’re going through class stuff, we will deviate anywhere we want to, usually based on where the interests of the students are. There’s an enormous amount of agency that we want them to have because it gives them a better experience.
GW: And we’re not in the business of training soldiers who must obey. We’re in the business of training duellists, who must be willing to express themselves to literally stand up for their own personal honour. I mean, duelling is not an art for obedient people.
CW: Yeah. And I don’t even really see myself focussing on duelling. Messer to me is the people’s weapon. There were periods of time in places where they were used by nobles in hunting contexts.
GW: Maximilian’s Messer is quite something.
CW: Is that the one at Metropolitan Museum? I saw one of Maximilian’s swords, it might have been the rapier.
GW: It is extraordinary, engraved, oh my God.
CW: How is that even a sword. It’s like a crown in the shape of a sword. I think I saw Maximilian’s rapier, not the Messer. I didn’t know there was a Messer in the same place. And now I’m really excited. I’m so excited.
GW: I think it’s from the 1480s, 1490s, if I remember rightly.
CW: Even with that, the Messer and its history comes out of laws restricting who could carry what. Knives were something that everyone really had a right and necessity to carry. So you just make them bigger, just make them real big, just keep growing them. And so in that case, you’re looking at a population where there’s very high consequences if someone dies, there’s very high consequences if a fight would prevent someone from continuing their trade. But conflict was reasonably common. So in my mind, if I were to be thinking that I’m training people to take these skills and use them in the rough world outside it wouldn’t be duellists. I’m not working for the king of Denmark. I’m working for the trade class and Leküchner wrote his manual for oh, God, I can’t remember, I haven’t picked up that book for a few weeks now. He did write it for a noble, but he very specifically, in many cases, references how what he is documenting relates to the lower classes, makes it very clear the relationship between what he’s teaching and them. It starts out at the very beginning with what is called a Zornhau where the dominant and shoulder cross body cuts downwards. That very, very conventional cut. He explicitly identifies it. It’s the cut of the people. He very much identifies that this is a very common movement. But also it is a very powerful movement. In the German tradition, it is early identified as a parry, as a block as a tool. It is both offensive and defensive and very effective at both. And the Messer is, for those who don’t know about Messers, Messers are a one handed sword that have very similar movements to longsword in a lot of ways. You can see bits of sabre and then you can see bits of longsword in them, you can see bits of even dagger in some ways, but longsword shares a lot of movement with the Messer, especially in that downward cut. So both longsword and Messer, it’s almost like translation guide from the common people’s movement to longsword, in a way.
GW: My theory about Messer, where it exists in the German tradition, is in the Liechtenauer sources we have for longsword, a lot of the basics are just not covered, it feels to me very much like the advanced course and sophisticated actions and what have you. So the question is, where are all the basics? And my view is that the basics are there in the Messer sources, because really common actions that are missing from Liechtenauer are right there in the Messer, for example, like the parry from the low left side up against pretty much any attack, it’s in Fiore, it’s in 1.33, or at least arguably in 1.33, it is for sure in all of the 16th century sources. But it’s not there in Liechtenauer. But all the Messer treatises have it.
CW: Yeah, and because Messer, uniquely for one handed weapon, has such an extraordinarily long grip, like for one, it’s delightful to use in wrestling context when you’re using it as a lever to break someone’s grip or shoulder. It’s also something that you can immediately put your second hand on and recognise how that movement is just like a long sword. Once you are engaging that second shoulder, having to use a rotation of the hip, because you can’t just single arm it anymore, you can’t just use it chopping like a machete. That’s no longer an option when you put that second hand on and now all of a sudden, boom, you’re moving just like you’re holding a longsword. And that foundation is really quite clear.
GW: Speaking of machetes. My top tip for getting into sharp Messers is buy a pair of really cheap machetes.
CW: Again, Jon, here’s your validation, that’s literally what we ended up doing, during the process of this debate of ours, which is what we ended up playing with a little bit. And because machetes are super accessible, it’s very easy to get a pair of cheap machetes.
GW: if you buy them by the gross they are about two bucks each. You will wear them out eventually because you have to keep sharpening them.
CW: They are lousy, lousy metal. It might have been when I was talking to Castiel about my rapier, that this came up in conversation or maybe it was with Randy Packer. Someone in the past few years made me recognise that even metal swords are consumables, just like sharp machetes, the edge is a consumable. Wasters are consumables. None of these things are actually meant to last forever. And appreciating that was kind of a light bulb moment for me.
GW: Yeah. They are tools which when you sharpen them enough, eventually you sharpen them away and you have to maybe turn the steel into something else.
CW: It’s still steel, it’s still there, but it’s expensive.
GW: But you may maybe need to get it reforged into something different.
CW: Yeah, just like you’d see in a parallel example, in terms of quality fabrics and garments, you would see them repurposed into other things for many centuries when those things were all made by hand labour. Now we see less of that.
GW: OK, now we’ve had a very enjoyable chat. I’ve completely and utterly not followed any of my list of questions, but that’s OK. I have a couple of questions that I asked most of my guests to roundoff on. And the first is, what is the best idea you’ve never acted on?
CW: I have a whole list of workshops that I want to write that I haven’t, and I could pull up that list right now and read those off to you. I think in terms of martial arts, that’s where all those best ideas I’ve never acted on live. It’s not just one. There’s a list of like half a dozen of them, things that I’ve just never gotten around to fleshing out. I haven’t looked at that list for a little while.
GW: Why not write a book instead?
CW: Oh, my God, that’s so intimidating.
GW: OK, let me rephrase. Get those workshop ideas, write out the workshop plan. For each of them, though, maybe flesh out each one. See where it takes you. Add in any references you need. And you know what, you’re half way there.
CW: I mean, the absolute magic of that idea, is the first workshop I ever wrote, I was so anxious I broke it down to five minute increments. I meticulously planned it out. I can just hear the cringe. And so I said this to a few people being like, can you give me some feedback? I’m really nervous. And the feedback I got was, “Oh, my God, no. Like, this is a great idea, but what are you doing?” But when you talk about a book, a book is actually the place where that kind of exhaustive, anxious approach creates a positive result, rather than in a workshop doing that will basically, you know, railroad students and exhaust them and frustrate them if I force them into that kind of pacing. But when you can read it and explore it at your own pace, then that creates something totally different.
GW: So you can add in footnotes, you can add in pictures.
CW: What have you done?
GW: Well, with any luck, I’ve done what for you what I also did for Kaja, and we’ve seen how that turned out.
CW: I’m literally looking at it right now. I’m literally looking at how that turned out. It’s three feet in front of me.
GW: Right. For listeners who may not be aware that is Fear is the Mind Killer. If you want to know more about that I did an interview with Kaja in episode five, I think, of the show. So anyway. Don’t write a book, write a workshop plan, maybe write a few paragraphs, when you’ve got a workshop plan and some paragraphs, maybe write a chapter, and then when you’ve done that several times, then put them together and see what you’ve got. And then maybe it is pretty much book shaped, you just need to maybe add this or add that. So then maybe write an introduction, not a book, just an introduction. No one in their right mind ever writes an actual book. They don’t sit down to write a book.
CW: That’s very comforting. It’s very comforting.
GW: Unless you can hold the whole book in your head at once. You can’t a book at once.
CW: I can barely hold a whole day in my head all at once.
GW: Right. OK, listeners, watch this space. We may be getting Claire back in a while on the launch of her first book. All right. Last question. Somebody gave you a million dollars. Not Canadian dollars as they are not worth that much, maybe five million Canadian, what would you do with it to improve historical martial arts worldwide?
CW: The thing is on my head is I’d give it to HAMA, the Historical African Martial Arts Association. There are some incredible things happening there and there are some incredible people doing that research. And it and it deserves that kind of prioritising.
GW: OK, and again, for listeners who are not quite sure about Africa martial arts, I have an interview with Da’Mon Stith, one of the researchers and instructors in that field again on this show. I forget the number, I think it’s somewhere around episode 20 or so. But if you go to guywindsor.net/podcast, you can find Da’Mon Stith there and you could listen to him tell us all about historical African martial arts, because I agree with you. It’s a fascinating field that deserves a lot more attention.
CW: I would love to see what would happen if Da’Mon Stith could devote the rest of his life because I’ve done a workshop with him. He is an incredible person. His work is incredible. I want to see what he would do with that five million dollars. I’m really happy personally doing what I’m doing now at the scale that I’m doing it. But that’s what I want to see grow in the community worldwide.
GW: OK, excellent, that’s an excellent point to finish on, but actually, I can’t quite let you go just yet because, OK, you mentioned being an ADHD coach and I know a lot of my students have ADHD. Is there anything you can, maybe top three points that from an ADHD Coast perspective, applies to teaching or practising martial arts?
CW: Yeah, I think ADHD folks have spent their whole lives being told that their brains don’t work right. And a lot of that happened in contexts of learning. And I think re-learning how to learn in a martial arts context is a really wonderful opportunity because we can actually follow our instincts. So if we ask the questions that are popping up in our head, if we are given answers and trust in coaches who know what they’re doing, the opportunity to re-learn how to learn, but in a way that’s actually intuitive to the ADHD mind is really, really valuable. And I think recognising that ADHD minds are fantastic at learning and having those experiences can be really powerful at healing the hurt that a lot of us have experienced by being told that we can’t learn right.
GW: As if there was one right way to learn.
CW: I think the curiosity and obsession and passion of the ADHD disposition is so fantastically appropriate for pursuing historical martial arts.
GW: Which may be why there are so many people with ADHD doing it.
CW: Hyperfocus and the need to move is very complementary.
GW: Yeah. So if the instructor does not have ADHD and does not have any particular training or experience in ADHD, how would you advise them how best to help their ADHD students?
CW: Learning how to self-advocate is a really, really important skill for the student. Unfortunately, not a ton of neurotypical people take the time to learn how to develop those kind of translation skills and how to develop those listening skills. So self-advocacy, this ties into the Design Your Own Good Time workshop. Self-advocacy is so important. Designing both relationships with your training partners and with your coaches sometimes involves saying, this is what I’m working with. That’s not going to change. I’m going to respect what’s going on here in the class, but this is what I’m working with. And so you both have to learn yourself to be able to self-advocate, but you also have to believe in your own advocacy. And I want to think that there’s a lot of instructors out there who can be receptive to that. I know there are some who are not, and that sucks. But I also have met many who would be inspired by the idea of reframing their teaching in a different way and see that as a learning opportunity for them as a coach. I have met those people, too, and their coaching gets better when they have neurodiverse students.
GW: Oh, for sure, because if you have a large class with no neurodiverse students, either your teaching is so unfriendly to those people, they have all left, or they are hiding it. It is really pretty common.
CW: It is a unique expression of Valkyrie as a community. And I’m counting Kunst des Funkelns as part of that community, because there are so many neurodivergent coaches, almost all of us. We have a lot of neurodivergent students and it’s a wonderful learning environment. And I think that is specifically because of that breadth of different types of minds. It makes a better learning environment full stop. It just does.
GW: That is a perfect place to finish. Thank you, Claire, it has been an absolute delight talking to you today.
CW: It has been wonderful being here and wonderful just talking to you again. It’s been a minute. It’s a pleasure. A pleasure and a privilege.