It is my pleasure to welcome Sam Swords onto the show.
Sam -also called Samantha- Swords has been passionate about swordfighting since he was old enough to hold a stick. Strongly inspired by the stories of western warrior culture as a child, he has grown up to build his life around those same values, specialising in historical swordsmanship as well as being a professional craftsperson for the film and theatre industry, and immersing himself in creative projects on the side.
Sam grew up in Australia and New Zealand, where he learned Western Martial Arts with Colin McKinstry through the New Zealand schools of historical swordsmanship. He was also able to learn the basics of mounted Medieval combat through the Upper Hutt Martial Arts Academy’s cavalry reenactment group, the Order of the Boar. Sam went on to travel widely and train with a vast range of instructors across North America and South East Asia, especially fighters who specialised in some form of personal self defence.
Samantha became well known as female swordfighting role model in 2013 after successfully winning the Harcourt Park longsword competition in New Zealand. This led to much global attention and enabled him to expose many people to Europe’s historical martial arts legacy, as well as inspire many women (and people of other genders!) to start their journey with the sword.
Sam proudly upholds the work and legacy that he was able to create as a female role model before his transition to male in 2018, although his focus is now on using his platform to inspiring people to be true to themselves and courageously live their passions, whatever those might be. He has also spoken on the relationship between martial arts, storytelling and heroism at the Hero Round Table in 2016.
Sam enjoys most forms of historical combat but is especially excited about the study and practice of sword and buckler, as well as the potential of sport-based LARPs to enable field combat simulations that are not safely available to weapons practitioners in other ways.
Sam is very active on social media through Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. He also has a clothing brand on Etsy and is currently building a community on Patreon.
You can also listen to his Hero Round Table talk here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NBET_-0aRl8
The sword Sam mentions in the podcast is this one:
GW: Hello everyone! This is Guy Windsor, also known as The Sword Guy. I’m here today with the famous longsword champion, Sam Swords, who is currently in Melbourne, but has spent a lot of time in Montreal and I believe hails from Australia and has spent a lot of time in New Zealand. But rather than mash up their introduction, I'll just say, so, Sam, where are you today and what took you there?
SS: Hey, Guy, thanks for having me. So I'm in Melbourne, Australia, in a very exciting state of lock down. I did not expect this. This was not the apocalypse that I was anticipating.
GW: Not enough sword defences. Swords work against zombies, but they are useless against corona.
SS: It's kind of the apocalypse-lite, isn't it? Yeah. Maybe if we pass this level, we'll get to the zombies and aliens or something, which we've actually prepared for. So, yeah, I came over here at the end of last year/beginning of this year, to come and help with the bushfire effort because Australia was on fire not so long ago and I got here and suddenly everything kind of closed. I was living in Montreal, Canada, before that.
GW: So what was what were you planning to do with the bushfires? Put them out, I imagine.
SS: I wanted to be here. I anticipated that after the initial response had died down, there would be a very strong need for second wave people because the first responders were completely burnt out. So I just wanted to put myself here anticipating all the inevitable less talked about, less glamorous, clean up and preparation for next year that was going to need to happen. But I'm kind of at a bit of a strange time because I got here and everything kind of just shut down.
GW: But surely the fires are unaffected by corona. So what about the fires?
SS: It's now going into autumn. So everything cooled down, but what I'm thinking about is more the massive damage to areas that are going to take a while to recover, so those areas are not going to fix themselves just in a few months. And I mean, there is huge economic damage. Prior to the coronavirus, lot of rural Australia had been hit by all the effects of this. So they're losing tourism as an income. They're losing all kinds of things. And there’s going to be of all kinds of roll-on effects that are kind of invisible when this kind of massive, disastrous event occurs. I really just wanted to put myself here because historically I've been very useful at helping connect people and effecting positive change in a kind of strange and personal way.
GW: OK. That explains what took you to Melbourne. Not the answer I was expecting at all.
GW: So before you went to Montreal, you were working for Weta Workshops, is that right?
SS: Yes, that's right. I was in New Zealand. I left Australia at 18, actually, and decided that I really didn't want to be here for a lot of reasons. And New Zealand was a lot better for all the reasons which I think the world is starting to realise now.
GW: Oh, yes. It seems to be the poster child for successful corona response.
GW: And no one is surprised that it's New Zealand that is this poster child. When all the other countries grow up they want to be New Zealand.
SS: Right. Right now, the very funny thing is my parents are in New Zealand and Vietnam, which are the two countries that have completely crushed the coronavirus for entirely different reasons. Vietnam is a very successful one party country which has used its powerful propaganda machine to completely shut down what it has a lot of experience with, which is basically viruses brought in from other countries around it. And they completely dealt with it. And then in New Zealand, we dealt with it in a very socialist kind of way. Except it's not a socialist country, so it's very interesting. But I digress. The move to New Zealand was because I was very passionate about fantasy and film making. At the time, Lord of the Rings was the biggest thing and I wanted to work in the film industry. So I put myself there not having a clue of what I was going to do or how I was going to do it but I really wanted to work for Weta, and I wanted to work on The Hobbit. It took a while, but I eventually did that.
GW: How on earth did you manage? I mean, that that's the sort of thing that people think talking about is like, “I know I want to work in the film industry, I like fantasy, I'm just gonna go to New Zealand and work for Weta workshops on The Hobbit. That's what I want to do”. How did you actually pull that off?
SS: Well, I think there’s this wonderful kind of local effect in a place like New Zealand where if you are actually living there, it's not that hard to kind of get involved with things and really just apply time. So it wasn't an immediate thing at all, it was definitely a lot of persistence. And a lot of other people doing really good things for me that eventually led to those opportunities.
GW: What did you do for them? What was your job?
SS: I did all kinds of things. I started as more or less an assistant and I was kind of tossed around different departments. Helping deal with different, like, anything that Weta did, with a few exceptions. Over the four years that I was there, I kind of became a professional assistant. Which is kind of how I describe myself in the film industry. So I now have 10 years of technical knowledge, materials knowledge and all kinds of things. And I know all kinds of things I don't know that I know. But, when I was at Weta I was more or less assisting with processes and projects and pipelines and, you know, just random things, just being very responsive and having enough technical skill to catch the ball and not drop it when it was thrown in one direction, which is a very vague kind of response. But it's also very broad. It's a very, very broad range of skills that that kind of place covers.
GW: Yeah. Making stuff. Did you actually make stuff with your own hands?
SS: I surely did.
GW: Excellent. I know you've done quite a lot of artistic stuff. I've seen some of your T-shirt designs, for example.
SS: Thank you. I am very happy with my T-shirts.
GW: And I'm very happy to plug them on this podcast. So if you'd like to tell everybody where you can get them, go ahead.
SS: Oh, thank you so much. I'm about to bring out a few more for Pride in June.
GW: Where can we find them?
SS: Sam Swords, on Etsy, or Samantha Swords, on Etsy.
GW: So, Montreal. What took you to Montreal? I mean, Canada's a lovely place, but it's a long way from New Zealand.
SS: It sure is. So after a grand series of adventures and affairs of the heart, I found myself in North America. I had heard good things about Canada in terms of the film industry. And I, for the first time, really put myself out there to work on films without the protective sanctity of New Zealand, where everything kind of came to us. So it was my first time. It was my first time really being a film professional, a technician. If I really want to work on stuff, how do we do it in the world outside? So I was in Vancouver for a while and I was making some big budget films there. And then a strange thing happened where a lot of the world suddenly knew about me and wanted to do interesting things and offered me strange and unusual opportunities.
GW: Okay, we can talk about that.
SS: Yes, well, it was a very odd period of my life. I knew that. So what happened was I was invited to Montreal.
GW: Okay. I mean, if you'd like to talk about what happened and the ramifications of that I’m sure people would like to hear.
SS: What Happened? Capital W and capital H. Yes. What happened? Goodness. The world needed someone to fill a role, I think is what happened. And I happened to fit that role. Right place, right time. So I had been fairly enthusiastically and somewhat naively sharing my exploits and adventures in little old New Zealand, where I'd started swordsmanship and been trained by the wonderful people at Upper Hutt Martial Arts Academy. I believe you're familiar?
SS: So those fine, fine, folks gave me a fairly solid and fantastic grounding in martial arts. Specifically historical martial arts. And I left New Zealand and went across to North America. And I kind found myself in this unique position of being the shiny new thing that people wanted to talk about. And I didn't know the rules of North America in terms of, you know, the culture and the HEMA scene outside of New Zealand. I was rather good at promoting myself. My story got picked up and it got promoted and suddenly it became this kind of living legend that had a life of its own and filling all the hopes and dreams of everybody, which was astonishing. And at the time, I mean, I just went with it because it's kind of fun to be involved with that. But I think through that experience, I definitely learnt a lot. And I always had the desire to be in a position of leadership. So I kind of took every opportunity that was given to me and tended a little bit into, you know, trying to help people towards personal leadership and personal growth in some way, because those were things that I value.
GW: OK, so we're talking about a longsword competition. Is that right? Just to put this in context, I'm not really good at the whole social media thing, and unless people actually take something and stick in front of my face and say, “Guy, this is what's going on.” I tend to be oblivious to it all. I just kind of get on and do my own thing.
SS: It's not a bad thing.
GW: At some point a few years ago, a whole bunch of my friends from different places, most of whom have nothing to do with swords, emailed me this story about somebody winning a longsword competition and this has made it into mainstream media. And that was you, as I recall.
SS: Yes, I believe so. I think so. If the faded memories are right.
GW: What was the competition?
SS: The competition was a regional competition for New Zealand. It was a subset of the Harcourt Park Invitational Jousting Tournament, which is actually a fairly big deal. And the main event is a jousting event.
GW: That is a big deal. Horses and armour. And that takes a lot of doing.
SS: Well, it's organised by Callum Forbes. And yeah, it's actually a very high standard event and a held to the highest standards of the international jousting organisation. It's a sport, it's a legitimate sport. And Callum has done a fantastic job over the years of creating this really quality event in little old New Zealand that attracts international competitors. And he runs it as well as a kind of a mediaeval living history event or similar to a renaissance fair, but with a little bit stricter standards. So the attraction is very clear to everybody. It's a big deal. So he was also trying to incorporate Western Martial Arts. That's what it was called at the time. I am very proud to be of the generation that still calls it this.
GW: Yeah, you and me both! I remember when Western Martial Arts as a term was sometime in the late 90s. People came up with it as a thing. Before that, we'd been doing historical fencing. So I remember the birth of the term. Anyway, sorry, I digress. You're at this massive event with horses and jousters and stuff. So, what happened next?
SS: What happened next? Oh, my goodness. It's a story. The event was almost cancelled, because there was a scheduling conflict. Oh, my goodness. Here it comes. So what happened was the previous time that the event had run, there were a couple of safety problems in that some of the people that competed should not have been competing and they hurt themselves. And the effect was that the event that I went into, the previous year two people had gone to hospital. And I haven't talked about this until now because I didn't want to bring attention to that aspect because Callum was running a very, very responsible event and it wasn't his fault that this happened. But the fact was, it scared off everybody from this one competition which was longsword and also a sword and buckler component. It was a variation on what most HEMA tournaments are run by in that we had points we were trying to defend rather than score them off the other person. It's a really good approach because it encourages defence.
GW: Can you just describe it a bit of detail, because I'm sure people will find that interesting.
SS: Yes, certainly. This was Colin McKinstry’s idea. Colin wanted to encourage defence in competition rather than putting yourself out there for these almost suicidal attempts of scoring points on the other person. So he reversed the usual, which was usually you try and get a point off somebody, but instead you had to defend your points. You are more or less just letting your opponent do the silly thing. So if you can outlast your opponent doing the silly thing, you win. I haven't seen it practised that way since. And I'm very converted to the idea because it did change how I fought on the day. Anyone I've spoken to who has more than intermediate martial arts experience sees the value in it. So, yeah, it was it was a defensive scoring system rather than, you know, trying to go out there and get it.
GW: You know, interestingly, any economist will tell you that losing a pound doesn't actually make any difference. You know, if you and I were fencing and let's say we start out with five points each and every time I hit you, you lose a point. Or the other way around. It makes absolutely no difference whether it's you losing a point or me gaining a point. Except that human beings are very resistant to losing things. They would rather not lose something than gain something. It's is a purely psychological hack. It doesn't actually make any practical difference to what ought to work in the tournament. It's pure psychology because let's say, you hit me five times. I only hit you three times. You win, right? And that's the same whichever way round the points are scored.
SS: OK. So let's change the economy instead of it being five pounds. Say 50,000 pounds.
GW: Oh, yeah, yeah. But again, in terms of the way the points are scored, the difference in whether you lose points or gain points is entirely psychological. So at least in theory, the same tactics that win tournaments the way you score points by hitting somebody, should work in this sort of tournament, but people are reluctant to do it because they have this psychological predisposition to avoid losing things, which isn't there when the points are scored the other way around.
SS: Mm hmm. Exactly.
GW: It is an interesting psychological hack.
SS: But it's vital because psychology is everything, I find.
GW: Absolutely. I didn't mean to denigrate it. Fighting is all psychology.
SS: I think we’re saying the same thing but we’re discussing it from two angles.
GW: I'm sorry, you say that you are in this tournament where a lot of people haven't joined up because last year things went wrong and you have to hold on to the points you've got rather than score points.
SS: All I did was turn up, and I didn't mess it up, Guy.
GW: But how often is that the case? You know, for pretty much anything, you just show up and don't fuck it up and everything's fine.
SS: That's what happened. It's one of those things where you're like, “Oh, I'm not going to go in this competition. I'm never going to win”. When everyone else decides not to go in the competition and you're one of the few people who does. It got me in a lot of hot water later because the numbers came out of the competition, which, for a long time I was very embarrassed, until I looked at it from the wider context of the fact that that event had run the previous year with, I think it was something like 80 people, or more. And, you know, so it wasn't a small event. It was just it didn't show and I didn't want to bring attention to that to keep people's face, because a lot of those people who didn't show were my friends and fighters, you know, proud, and also and they're totally entitled to not turn up.
GW: Absolutely. In mediaeval terms, if that was a mediaeval feat of arms and you were standing there holding the field and people don't show up, you automatically win anyway. That's a question of knightly virtue. The boldness to show up.
SS: Look, I know I fought well that day, I was proud of how I fought. It wasn't exceptional. It wasn't the best fighting ever done. But I fought well, I fought better than my opponents. That's what happened, and I won the thing. I won the bloody thing.
GW: Excellent. So that that was that was after you been training fencing for a while. So how did you get into training longsword? What brought you to swords?
SS: Well, when I was two, I watched Peter Pan and it was basically all on from there. It took me a very long time to get into historical fencing because I didn't know it existed. And I was finding it in other ways, but it was kind of pre-2000’s. And I didn't have an awareness that that it was a thing until I found it on the Internet. I looked for groups that were doing it in New Zealand and finally lucked out on Colin and Callum's Martial Arts Academy, where I kind of just embraced everything and learnt as much as they could teach me. Which is quite a lot given they're rather special martial artists.
GW: I've met both of them and I've never wrestled Colin. And I wouldn't. I can imagine it would be hard to get a better start in martial arts than showing up to their classes. So what was it like?
SS: I’m deeply grateful for that. And then Mike O'Hara joined the mix at some point, between all of them, he's the head of style for freestyle karate. He was my sparring partner.
GW: Wow. I know Callum teaches Hapkido as well. So were you doing Hapkido as well, or was it just the swords?
SS: I visited the Hapkido, but I mainly was focussing on Western Martial Arts and I was also doing mounted combat with them as well.
GW: So you can ride then? I can ride a little bit. Not well enough to fight on horses. No way. I imagine that when you left New Zealand you had to leave that training group behind. So what happened next, in your sword career?
SS: Well, I was catapulted to irreversible fame. And every single martial arts club I turned up at knew who I was. So it was very difficult to find a place to train, because as I've been saying for a while, you need to make mistakes in martial arts. And if you run a place where everyone expects you to be perfect or has a very high expectation of you, its just debilitating.
GW: Yeah. Do you know what I do? When I'm teaching a class if it's people I don't know and I feel they are maybe a little bit nervous because, you know, I'm quite well known in my field, and maybe it’s their first class with this well known instructor and they feel they have to be perfect and they feel like maybe I'm judging them or whatever. So what I do is I fuck something up. I will sometimes have to deliberately screw something up because I'm not making enough mistakes early enough. But I make the mistake, point it out and move on from it without it being an issue. And it just normalises the idea that you're not here to do it right, you're here to do it better. It really helps with that because it is a really oppressive and impossible training environment if you are expected to be perfect.
SS: You can't, you can't. There's no growth. You can do moves. Perhaps you can get a certain technique perfectly. But there's no organic growth in the process, you know. So actually, it set me on a very interesting learning path because all my training from that moment had to be chaotic and bits and pieces here and there because I'd lost the safe structure of the training environment that I'd had in New Zealand. I was very embarrassed about it for a while until I realised that actually it made me a better learner because I was able to apply what I what I'd learned into very dynamic environments. Which ultimately made me better and more adaptable as a fighter.
GW: So are you training at the moment?
SS: Currently, now, I admit I'm not. I was. It's the great irony. I'm actually neighbouring two fantastic mediaevalists who are very enthusiastic about HEMA. All of us have gone into our kind of artistic focussed states over the last week or so. I mean, I'm doing I'm doing weights, training, but I haven't been doing anything since basically the lockdown.
GW: OK. But that was in Melbourne. So what were you doing in Montreal, sword-wise?
SS: In Montreal I had a group of people that I trusted that I trained with. Over the years of trying to figure out how to train, I've found people of advanced skill that I asked to be my training partners as I'm travelling around, because I haven't always been in Montreal. Well, I’ve actually been fairly nomadic, semi nomadic over the past few years. I've tended to gravitate towards people that I trusted. I've had a few instances of being injured that have made me very careful because some of which was deliberate. Some of it was not.
GW: Deliberate injuries? People have been deliberately injuring you? OK. That's profoundly offensive. Is this something you feel comfortable discussing?
GW: Actually, yes. I spoke about it at Valkyrie when I went to teach at the Big Gay Sword Day. The Valkyrie Martial Arts Assembly. I talked about intimacy and safety in martial arts practise. So, yeah, I actually gave a whole speech on that. It was more about calibration than deliberate intent to harm. And the result was I was injured to the point that I didn't know if I was going to be OK, by somebody who, by the fact of their position, should have known better. And me, by the fact of my position, should have known better, and we had no one above us to oversee the situation because we were the most, you know, we were the tallest in the room.
GW: Do you think you think that would have helped?
SS: I think so. Because I'm always used to having someone to look to and having someone to look to who is more experienced than me who can call when things are getting too intense. Even if they don't, just having that reference point gives me a framework to judge the situation by. Because I've also done other martial arts as well. I've done Muay Thai kickboxing, I trained in Thailand. I was taught by a Cambodian champion. I've had people who do these really intense physical combat sports who have been my instructors in the past. So the level of intensity that I've been able to go to in my own fighting has always been tempered by having someone who really does actually know when things are going to go bad and putting myself in positions where I didn't have those people kind of moderating led to some very unsafe situations. And the talk that I gave at Valkyrie was actually paralleling those kinds of circumstances with having sex with people that you don't know. And I directly paralleled the intimacy of martial arts with the intimacy of meeting someone and deciding if it's safe to do that.
GW: OK. Could you tell us a bit more about the injury itself or what happened?
SS: What happened was I hadn't been training for a couple of weeks and I met somebody at an event that I was invited to just speak at. I wasn't even expected to perform, as it were. And the two of us just wanted to kind of put our masks on.
GW: And have a bish bash bosh?
SS: Yeah. Exactly, exactly.
GW: Nothing wrong with that, it’s perfectly normal behaviour.
SS: Right, exactly. And, you know, all the words were normal and all the terminology was normal. I didn't pick up on any problems. I've got a fairly good awareness of people. But the problem that happened when we actually started fighting was his intensity. And the power of his strikes was way, way over challenged. And the protective gear that we were wearing was not suitable for the strikes.
SS: And I fell into that trap of being like, “Oh, it's my fault. I should defend better,” rather than stopping and saying, “Hey, dude, you are actually in danger of hurting me. Calm down a bit.” And the problem was we were in an environment I didn't know, where I was being looked to as being a senior and I kind of felt like I could get on top of it, instead of recognising, hey, this is really unsafe. I just didn't have the flag of “this is really unsafe” because I probably just wanted to spar. And he hit me in the face. I was wearing a mask, and I was wearing a mouth guard, which I habitually use when it's people I don't know. And I'm so glad I did because the mask slammed back into my face and put my jaw out of alignment and the mask brushed on my face. Superficially, cutting me very small. That was OK because I was wearing a mouthguard. It was way too powered but I keep going. And then they hit me in the chest so hard that I couldn't close my arms for two weeks. And I couldn't see a doctor because I didn't have health insurance, which is also a very iffy part of what I was doing in the first place.
GW: Very American problem, that.
SS: Yeah, it is. I have huge sympathy now, having lived as someone who doesn't have healthcare in a foreign country. And trying to have fun and trying to do things, you know, like that. So anyway, I was I was hit so hard in the chest and there was the possibility that my ribs cracked. I was actually much more concerned about the possibility that a bone fragment could break off and go into my heart, because that’s a thing. So, yeah, it was bad. It was very bad. I kind of self-moderated my training and recovery after that. I knew I wasn't bad enough to, you know, like I was getting better. But it was just very, very slow. But it caused me to really re-examine meeting people in martial arts circumstances which are informal, and safety and conversations that need to be had around that. So I've done a huge amount of thinking about that because I over-think a lot of things and I do think that there is definitely need for those discussions because there is a very Wild West kind of approach to a lot of people meeting with swords and perhaps not so much in the main scene now, but definitely around the fringes of it.
GW: Yes, I've experienced, not the same thing, but I know what it's like to be put in a position where you are expected to strutt your stuff, even though that's not what you're there to do. I got a couple of really good pieces of advice a long time ago when I started my school in Finland. This very experienced karate guy called Jari Renko, who's done traditional Japanese martial arts and is a very serious martial artist. One thing I was worried about was dojo busting, which was, you know, where people come in and say, who the hell are you to be teaching this martial art? And they challenge you to a real fight. As I said, I asked him what do I do if that happens? Because on the one hand, if I fight the person, if I'm any good, they're probably going to get hurt. And if I'm not good enough, I'm going to get hurt. It's not a good situation for anybody. He was this totally senior martial arts dude and he said he “Call the police.” I was like, “Woah, you mean I don't have to fight absolutely every son of a bitch who wants to fight me? Really? Awesome!” Wow. It's like permission from above to just decline fights that I didn’t want to do. But it's difficult because, you know, a lot of people are perfectly well-intentioned, but not necessarily that, well self-moderated or that well-skilled, and put you at risk. And some people want to fight you for the wrong reasons. They want to fight you to prove that they're better. You often can't tell from the manner in which they ask, what they're really asking for. It’s difficult.
SS: I'm very fortunate because I started with the extremely grounded down to earth people that I mentioned at the beginning. Callum, Colin and Mike, who were just total steady rocks for me and helped me work through my rambunctious stallion behaviour in my early years. My very first year, all I wanted to do was fight everyone. I wanted to fight and know how good I was and be proven, get an idea of my standing and my rank and then they kind of just stomped it out of me.
GW: I can imagine.
SS: Oh my goodness. They are just fantastic. And at the time I was very frustrated because I had no way to assess myself. But then one day I just got it and realised I didn't need to and I've had that attitude more or less since I was training with them some years ago. And when I went over to North America, I maintained that attitude. I think the problem that I had with this situation that I mentioned was just I think I just really wanted to have a good fight and I didn't necessarily want to go hide. I just wanted to have someone to spar with because I hadn't had it for a couple of weeks. And not having a regular training in place left me vulnerable because I was hungry. I was hungry.
GW: And over-ate. Easily done.
You're known for longsword. Do you have any other weapons interests, any other martial arts interests?
SS: Well, here's the thing. When things get too popular, I kind of lose interest. I hate to say it because it makes me sound awfully, you know, but I've been that way with everything. It's like I haven’t even watched the latest Star Wars. It's far too flippin’ popular.
GW: OK. Right. That's a disease. That's a disease, Sam! Okay. So you’re not too keen on longswords any more. OK, so what does float your boat?
SS: It's not that. It's just that I'm always interested by things on the fringes. I'm always interested in things that are being discovered or put together for the first time. Kind of the frontier in a way. I mean, I still love longsword, I still love doing it. I think it just comes down to being overwhelmed by how much information there is out there. I look for things that are a little bit easier to process, which is often those things that are kind of unusual or there's big questions and then I can go down a research rabbit hole as it were. So yeah, I discovered sword and buckler a few years ago. And it is a massive passion. I am so into it.
GW: What kind of sword and buckler?
SS: Mostly I.33 era, although I won’t claim to study I.33. But kind of early mediaeval.
GW: What research are you doing? Who are you talking to?
SS: This is all kinds of bits and pieces putting together. I think I've come back to the early days, honestly. Just getting whatever I can. Figuring out what works. It's awfully illegitimate of me to say that, but that’s what I do.
GW: That’s fine, so long as long as you are honest about what you're doing and representing that faithfully. You don't have to pick one treatise and study it exclusively and become an expert in mediaeval German and read Latin and all that kind of stuff.
SS: But it's OK if you do those things, right?
GW: Absolutely, yeah. But as long as you don’t say you're reading Latin, when actually you're not. It's fine.
SS: I am very passionate about the practise of it. What I think I do is find other people who are interested in fencing and we see what works and if it doesn't work, then we figure out why.
GW: Any specifics on that?
SS: Probably the greatest thing that I found with the sword and buckler practise was the hip hinge from Roland Warzecha. When I started applying that to my sword and buckler it just became the most effective and defensive fencing combination. So all of my practise with sword and buckler is working from the hip hinge and it's just so beautiful. So flipping beautiful.
GW: Not everyone listening to this will know what a hip hinge is. Would you explain?
SS: Oh, yes. Terribly sorry. Before I nerd up.
GW: That's why we're here tonight, after all.
SS: Indeed. So the hip hinge is basically the move that weightlifters use when they're picking up weights, it's kind of a squat in a way where you stick your bum out and you use the mechanical structure of your body in a way that we are not really taught how to do in our present society. But up until kind of early last century, people were using it fairly actively in their daily lives. We've kind of evolved out of it in practise. So it's used by people during Pilates or yoga and other kind of body oriented movement practises. And as I mentioned, weightlifting as well. You're more or less bending without arching your back.
GW: OK, so hinging at the hip, in fact.
SS: Yes, it's kind of like makes you look like an orang-utan. Yeah. Or a gorilla or a bonobo.
GW: OK. So what are the advantages to this when you are sword and bucklering?
SS: It gives you an amazing reach.
GW: Yes. OK. You’re quite tall, aren’t you?
SS: What's your definition of tall?
GW: Well, my wife is five eleven and I'm five seven and a half, eight.
SS: I was five nine before my injury.
GW: A fraction over average height.
SS: So, yeah, I do have unusually long arms. What I think gives the most advantage in the way that I fence with sword and buckler is the fact that I’m leaving my defence quite far away from me. And because of the fact that you have a big bloody shield in front of you the mechanics of getting around it becomes very beautifully intricate. If you're practising for sharp sword practise, if you're not going with a baton or something - and I also do that, too - if you're working with a someone who’s a very good fencer, it becomes beautifully intricate. It brings out the best of fencing. It brings out the fact that when you bind there so much to the mechanics of it, your intention, your angle, how much pressure you’re using. It's the art of the bind. And I think it's why a lot of people don't actually know how to approach sword and buckler because you do have to have an advanced understanding of fencing already to be able to do it well.
GW: So how does how does the hip hinge relate to this sophisticated binding?
SS: I'm trying to think about how it was for me before. I mean, it still works without it. Perhaps it’s just the way that I fence because I'm extremely defensive when I fence. And it's set up for defence. It provides you that extra space and time you need. See, I'm trying to think about other stuff like latest styles that don't use that.
GW: Well, I would argue, actually, that you find a modified hip hinge in rapier.
SS: Yes, actually, I agree.
GW: Like Capoferro does a sideways hip hinge and Fabris does a forward hip hinge.
SS: Yeah, that's a really good example.
GW: I don't know that it actually went away, but you wouldn't want to do it in armour because your central gravity is too high.
SS: No, I totally agree. Yeah, I’m trying to think why else it works.
GW: I mean, I have my own theories, but no one's here to listen to me talk. So you carry on.
SS: Oh, tosh. It's worked for me for a really long time and it's worked for me against people fighting me with totally different intensity levels. I've had people come at me with a lot of intensity trying to break it. Something about the way that I do it gives me a really excellent structure in defence. It works for me.
GW: So you’re mad about the sword and buckler. This is good.
SS: I’m mad about the sword and buckler. And I tell you what I'm also mad about is the lack of good tools for people studying sword and buckler.
SS: Oh, my goodness. It's terrible. If we're looking back at the state of the sword market for longsword fences and rapier fences, probably about an eight to 10 years ago, that's about the state that we're at for people wanting to do sword and buckler. The kind of bucklers on the market that are available are so limiting, overly heavy, poorly weighted, poorly built. And a lot of people just don't have access to good tools, which I think really contributes to them not getting into it.
GW: Sure. I mean, my own buckler, the one I use most, I got from a re-enacter in about 1995 and the sword I use most was custom made, so it's not really available on the open market. I have another buckler that Roland Warzecha gave me when he visited me in Finland and taught a sword and buckler seminar for me, which is mostly wood with a steel boss and a rawhide rim around the wood. So it's nice and light and mobile and unlike the steel buckler, the blade will often slide off a steel buckler, but it kind of sticks to the rawhide. So when you're doing your sword and buckler with a blade and the buckler together, they stick together in a way that gives you literally everything easier.
SS: Delicious. You're talking my language. Tools make the art. It’s so important to have access to good tools, and it's not just with sword and buckler, it’s with anything you do.
GW: Have you tried doing your sword and buckler windy-bindy stuff with sharps?
SS: I have, yes.
GW: And how do you feel about that? Personally, I love it. It just changes everything. But I don't want to bias you if you hate it. Feel free to say so.
SS: Well, the problem is that I don't have my own sharps, so every time I do it, it's kind of like having a really delicious coffee and then having to go back to instant or something. But I think I blow my lips just simply because I know I'm not making the most of it. And it's so much to working with sharps and I preach sharps. I preach so much. I always have. There’s so much to working with them, that changes how you move. And I hesitate to comment simply because I know that's the thing that I'm not doing enough, given how much I love it. I mean, if someone wants to sponsor to buy me beautiful sharps, I'll be very welcoming.
GW: Well, here's a thought. You can get machetes for, like, two dollars apiece, sharpen it up a little bit with a file. That's what I do. I have my fancy beautiful sharps that I only ever use for solo practise and for test cutting. And I have my cheaper sharps. For longsword I've got a couple of Angus Trims which are fairly old. They're not his super fancy ones. They are his more budget range ones. Very good weapons, but not so expensive I couldn't afford to wear them out by doing longsword drills sharp on sharp. But for single-handed swords, I looked at them, like, I can't find single-handed swords that handle right that are sharp and affordable because basically when you use a sharp sword for long enough.... So I use machetes instead. You can wear them out. You don’t have to worry about them. It's not exactly the same, but I bet you anything you like if you buy yourself a machete, just a cheap one, the cheapest one you can get - get a pair - and then if you go around all the museums that have single handed swords and you handle them, you will find one historical single-handled sword that handles the same as your machete.
SS: I think I just need to take a moment to think about that wonderful idea. Did you know, I went around the Met Museum with Peter Lyon from Weta Workshop?
GW: I know Peter very well. I can imagine what that experience was like.
SS: Oh, it was glorious.
SS: Here’s the bizarre thing. By the time that he and I caught up and went around the museum, I knew enough to give him input. My mind was blown! Peter, I didn't work directly with him, but I was in the workshop and so became friends with him because we were both doing jousting. A wonderful, wonderful person. I’ve got a lot of time for him.
GW: And he's a walking encyclopaedia when it comes to swords.
SS: Oh, my goodness. And yeah, his library, when I was getting into mediaeval everything, he allowed me to look through his library, which he’s put together over decades. It's wow, I hope one day, when heaven forbid, he should leave this earth, he should leave this to some school or something because it's astonishing.
GW: Yeah, inspiring. Maybe a university or something.
SS: Yeah, I know. He showed me what a library could be.
GW: So I have to go to his house next time I’m in Welly. Did you hear that Peter, if you're listening to this? I'm expecting an invitation to tea, are we clear?
SS: Going to the Met Museum with him was a true treat. Yes, definitely. Definitely one of the highlights of probably my life, even though it wasn't an active, you know, swordfencing movement.
GW: So if there was one sword you could have in any collection anywhere in the world, just the one, which one would you go for?
SS: I really love the sword that Peter Johnsson made for the 2015 Solingen Knife Show. It is an original that was based on his work and as a lot of listeners are probably aware, he's one of the foremost researchers in mediaeval swords that we have at the moment.
GW: And sword design particularly. He's a first-rate smith, but his work on the design is extraordinary too.
SS: He most notably discovered that mediaeval swords were designed to geometric ratios that correspond to ratios within themselves. So everything, every part of the sword relates to another part of the sword. And beautifully, mathematically. And I actually have my arm tattooed with that sword.
GW: All right. Oh, wow. Which has his circles on it. That’s the sword, is it?
SS: It's probably the most beautiful sword that I've ever seen.
GW: So if that's the one sword you could have, that would be the one.
GW: Right. OK, so I have to find a photograph of that and stick it in the show notes so people can see this thing of joy.
SS: I will happily furnish you with a picture.
GW: Please do. Excellent. OK. Now we've been talking for a little while. Is there anything you particularly would like the listeners to come away with? Any words of advice? Any requests? You have their ear. How would you like to use it?
SS: Well, I think I'd just like to encourage people to feel comfortable exploring. I think there's a lot of mainstreaming of martial arts going on at the moment. And certainly, since I got into it, I think people have started to feel a bit restricted compared to what I saw when I first approached it. And I think I think that's one of the wonderful and terrible things about when something becomes very successful once you get these kind of firm boundaries in place. In some senses that's important because it can create safety that we need for, you know, for people to train and avoid situations like what I mentioned earlier. But on the downside, it can restrict people knowing what's possible within it and realising that, you know, you can contribute as much as take in from the arts. I think that there's still so much to be explored, so much to be discovered, so many, you know, attics that haven't been opened that contain immeasurable treasures of knowledge that we don't have yet. So really, if anything, I want to encourage people to keep that kind of frontier enthusiasm that defines so much of yours and my approach to swordsmanship.
GW: Frontier enthusiasm. That's a good phrase right there. Well, Sam, thank you very, very much for taking the time to talk to us.
SS: It was really a pleasure. Thank you for inviting me.
GW: I look forward to seeing you next when I'm in Australia or Canada or wherever else in the world we happen to be at the same time.
SS: Excellent. Well, stay safe and keep doing the excellent work that you're doing.
GW: Thank you Sam.