Episode 75: Viruses and Bats with Dr Emilia Skirmuntt

Episode 75: Viruses and Bats with Dr Emilia Skirmuntt

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Dr. Emilia Skirmuntt runs the Oxford branch of The School of the Sword, and in this episode we talk about running a school with different branches and specialisations, and improving diversity and inclusivity within historical martial arts schools.

Emilia is also a virologist at the University of Oxford, which brings up some topical questions about a certain virus. We talk about her fascinating research into virus-like genes in bat genomes and some truly game-changing theories about memories and consciousness. Not long after this podcast aired, she passed the final examination for her PhD.

Emilia has started a cookery blog, called The Corgi, The Princess and The Kitchen, which we also chat about in the podcast. The molecular gastronomy book that Guy refers to is: On Food And Cooking: The Science And Lore Of The Kitchen by Harold McGee.

You can find Emilia on Twitter @ESkirmuntt, or look out for her on Sky News and other news outlets where she is frequently interviewed about the pandemic.


GW:  I'm here today with Emilia Skirmuntt, a historical martial arts instructor and a virologist who I can imagine has all sorts of nasty stories about viruses to tell. Of course, everybody these days thinks they're an expert. So we'll get into that in the interview. So without further ado, Emilia, welcome to the show.


ES:  Hi. It is very nice to meet you as well and talk to you today.


GW:  So whereabouts are you?


ES:  I'm in Oxford at the moment, in the UK. I'm originally from Poland, but I moved to the UK 11 years ago and right now I live in Oxford.


GW:  And is that because you work at the university there?


ES:  Yes, I work at the University of Oxford.


GW:  OK, now I was born in Cambridge and so I'm very sorry but it is sort of baked into my DNA that Oxford is an absolute stink hole and no one should ever go there. But I am reliably informed that that's not true. So do you like living in Oxford?


ES:  I mean, I think it is very nice city. Before I lived in London, and I also like London. But right now, when I moved to the smaller city, which is Oxford, I can see why London is very, very tiring and hectic.


GW:  Yeah, well, you should definitely also have a look at Cambridge because, Cambridge has all the good bits of Oxford and none of the bad ones.


ES:  So yeah, I heard was a comparison which is amazing. It is like Oxford is like Cambridge if it would be built by Disney.


GW:  There you go. OK, let me just get us gently closer to our topic. I ask most of my guests this. How did you get into historical martial arts? What drew you to it?


ES:  So that was a long time ago because I was 16 at the time and I really liked fantasy and roleplaying games and stuff like that. And I also liked swords. And at some point my friend at school said that she's going for swordfighting training. And I went with her and I just loved it and since then I'm doing it.


GW:  So that was in Poland.


ES:  That was in Poland. And that was right now many years ago, because it will be, I think, almost 20 years ago, maybe 19 years ago.


GW:  OK, so if you don't mind my asking, who were you training with in Poland?


ES:  So I don't think they exist anymore. And the name of the group was Lorika. And it is also a weapons academy. And right now the instructors from this group also have a fencing school in Warsaw. But it's not the same group.


GW:  Who do you train with in Oxford?


ES:  Oh, I have my own school here. It's The School of the Sword and I'm the leading instructor. So I'm training, well, not only myself, but my students.


GW:  Excellent. So you started your own historical fencing club. The last person I interviewed for the show and his interview will probably come out before yours, he's also in Oxford. His name is Milo Thurston and he runs the Linacre School of Defence. You must know him.


ES:  I know Milo. But we don't have that much contact.


GW:  Because he's an early 18th century Napoleonic sort of person, the smallsword and Hope’s New Method sort of instructor. I take it you are not doing mostly smallsword, you're doing rapier and longsword?


ES:   Yes, we're doing quite a selection. The main weapon which we are training with is Fiore’s longsword.


GW:  OK, now you're speaking my language.


ES:  I love Fiore. We do also wrestling and dagger.


GW: You have to, it’s part of the system.


ES: Exactly. Exactly. So that's what we mainly train with. But I'm also an instructor of rapier, and I also do Tomahawk and side swords.


GW:  OK, so I imagine you’re teaching your own interpretation of Fiore, is that correct?


ES:  I would say so, yes.


GW:  OK, and as to rapier, what sort of rapier are you doing?


ES:  Mostly Italian rapier. But I've done also some war rapier, Saviolo, which you can argue is Italian.


GW:  Kinda.


ES:  Well, it's also German war rapier. It's so complicated. I have also done some of it.


GW:  Yeah. Historical martial arts systems and historical weapons very often don't fit neatly into our nice modern categories. I mean, none of the Italian rapier masters ever referred to a rapier in any of their books ever. It's just a sword. “Do this with your sword.” So what rapier sources do you study?


ES:  So it is again a selection. I looked at Giganti. I like Giganti. It's very easy, especially for beginners. And to be honest, I have a selection of quite a few of the Italian masters and I just mix and match.


GW:  OK, all right. OK, most of us that are studying rapier, we look at Fabris and Capoferro and Giganti and those are like the main sources and it's the same basic instructions. Some have different takes on specific actions and there'll be some actions in some books and not in others. Fabris seems to have these sort of rather odd mechanics preferences.


ES:  Yeah, if you want to hurt your back.


GW:  But I mean, I can see teaching a generic, this is a 17th century Italian rapier, and you're drawing from all these sources. It's not my approach. I like to be very much by the book. So on this day, we are doing Capoferro rapier and it's like this and this is what it's like in the book, because I'm extremely pedantic.


ES:  No, I agree. I sometimes do that as well. Sometimes when I’m preparing a lesson and I'm, for example, doing Fabris or something like that, then in my mind, I remember another plate from another book which quite well matches the topic of the lesson. And then just try to also incorporate that into the lesson. So that's that.


GW:  Sure, fair enough. And so you started your club, The School of the Sword, is that correct?


ES:  Yes, we are a branch of the School of the Sword.


GW:  OK, so that's Fran Terminello’s umbrella school. Is that correct?


ES: Yes.


GW: OK, if you don’t mind me asking, how does that actually work?


ES:  You mean being a branch?


GW:  Yeah, because I have branches all over the place and I started out trying to keep them as recognisably branches of the school so that anyone who showed up would go, OK, this is Guy’s sword school. Like a franchise almost, it wasn't a business, but like a franchise. I gave it up because it didn't really suit the character of the clubs that were forming and wanting to join. I don't have strong feelings about it either way, so I'm just curious as to how that how that system works. I had Fran on the show last year, she was like my third guest, I think. I should have asked her then.


ES:  I mean, we are not very strict on it. We have three branches at the moment, one in Godalming, one in Reading and right now one in Oxford. The branch in Godalming, I think they teach mostly side sword and rapier there. But I said that I want to teach mainly longsword. Obviously some side sword and rapier as well, but start with longsword. And it was fine. So we are a bit different than the other branches. But again, I don't know how to really say it. We are three separate clubs, but we have some events when we meet. Also our members from each branch can go to the trainings, to the other branches if they want. And there are sparrings, obviously when there is no pandemic, there are sparrings at each branch every month as well. So it is good because it is quite a lot of lessons, quite a lot of sparrings in three different locations and everybody can go to them. So if somebody wants, they can do a lot of swordfighting every week.


GW:  I guess because Oxford, Godalming and Reading aren't that far from each other.


ES:  Yeah, yeah, that's true. It's very easy to reach by train from each location to the other location. It is very easy.


GW:  OK, so someone who's a member of The School of the Sword can just go to any of these classes, whatever. I guess you have some sort of shared admin.


ES:  Yes, we have a board. We have shared money. We can also book the halls and also we have things to that. We have our club kit so each club has their own kit. And not every club has that. Sometimes members need to buy their own stuff from the beginning. And the good thing is that we have that just in our club. So the beginner's lessons are quite easy.


GW:  Yeah. It makes a huge difference when you can actually equip the beginners properly. The unintended consequence I found of getting a permanent training space is that students started leaving their swords and masks there. And then I invented a rule which was, if it's dusty or rusty, anybody can use it. And it goes on the beginners’ rack. Because people get enthusiastic and they buy a weapon and they leave it at the salle and then they get busy or whatever, their weapon gets dusty and it goes on the beginners’ rack. Of course, they can come and reclaim it any time. They still own it. But with enough turnover and enough people coming through, within about a year, we could equip a beginners’ course of twenty-five students with steel swords and masks. It was amazing. It was completely unexpected. That was not why I rented a salle and it would have been cheaper just to buy all of our equipment because salles are really expensive. But it's one of the side benefits of having a permanent space and also of course, reducing the barriers to entry for the students so that they don't have to buy anything, they just show up and everything is provided and so they can try it out. And we have some students who trained for like four or five years without ever buying a sword because they had no money. But it didn’t matter because they can just use the club kit.


ES:  Yeah, that's true. Having club kit, or kit they can borrow, is very good. So that's basically how The School of the Sword works. Sadly, we don't have permanent space. So that's a big problem sometimes. But I guess in Oxford it would be super expensive.


GW:  So yeah, I can imagine some nice big training hall in Oxford is not going to be cheap. I mean in Helsinki I managed to find a space that was a twenty minute bus ride from the centre of town in a kind of dodgy neighbourhood, the sort of neighbourhood where you probably wouldn't want to buy an apartment. And it's an industrial building with car fixing garages on the ground floor and we're on the floor above and it was great, it was cheap and accessible, but it was cheap because it was in a horrible neighbourhood and it was like a 20 minute bus ride out of town. I think Oxford's a bit posh for that sort of thing.


ES:  Yes, it is. And the places which would be cheaper are not very well accessible without the car and that also would be a problem.


GW:  Yeah, that's sort of an English thing. I noticed when we moved here five years ago from Finland, my intention was we could live without a car and after nine months of my children missing out on stuff because no one could give us a ride or there weren't any taxis or whatever. And it was just so damn inconvenient. But now we have two. That was not the intention. I was like, this will be great. This will be super green and environmentally friendly. But no, in England you need a car unless you live in the central London. In which case you’re fine.


ES:  I wanted to say that.


GW:  Yeah, my sister lives in Hampstead and I don't think she's ever owned a car.


ES:  In London it's not good to have a car because it's hard to get anywhere. You need to pay additional taxes. And also, if you want to get out of London, you will probably spend more time trying to get out of London than to get from London to this place you want to go.


GW:  That's right. Ipswich is an hour from central London. If I get to the train station, I am an hour from Liverpool Street. Super convenient. Driving? Oh, my God. It's just a mess. We sort of got a little bit off topic. The listeners will forgive us, I am sure. OK, you're a virologist and there is a viral plague going on. I have no idea what that's like, but I imagine that it's a bit like being a medievalist going to see a movie like A Knight’s Tale or whatever, and just seeing all these complete misunderstandings of medieval culture, medieval history and knights and armour, all that sort of stuff on the screen for a couple of hours. And it's pretty dreadful. But you can get up and leave any time you want, but you are entirely surrounded by this constant barrage of people who know absolutely nothing about virology, spouting on about viruses and how they work. Is that fair?


ES:  That is very fair. I really want somebody to let me out from the cinema. But it is tiring at the moment after more than one and a half years. Still everybody thinks that they're experts in virology, epidemiology and everything close to it. Biology as well. So is it is hard. And from the beginning, I was also trying to engage a little bit more into science communication with the public and the media. And I must say, I was very successful in that because right now I'm giving interviews to big TV outlets and newspapers almost every day. I don’t know how that happened. For example, after this podcast recording, I have a Sky News live interview.


GW:  OK, so this is like a warmup for Sky.


ES:  Yeah, exactly.


GW:  You are being asked to give opinions to TV shows and what have you. But what do you wish everyone knew about viruses, other than the fact that they can't tell the time or the date and so they don't know when it's supposed to be safe for us to go out?


ES:  Yeah, I wish just even basics. First of all, that viruses evolve like everything and also that viruses will evolve more if they infect more people because they cannot evolve without infecting people. I think that's the main thing. But it would be nice if people just know the basics of biology because they don't. And it would be very nice if people who try to give their opinions, or people who try to tell what's true and what's not, at least have some understanding of basic concepts, because at the moment it's just very hard to explain to people how science works even. Because the WHO said that we have a pandemic, the coronavirus pandemic and also an infodemic because of all this totally false stuff which is out there, especially in the social media, and it is sometimes even hard for me or other scientists to tell what is true and what's not, because these people who create this fake news try to put some truth and also a lot of fake stuff and just mix it. And then sometimes the stuff which looks real, it's not. And there is so much stuff out there like that. It is sometimes hard even for the experts to say what is true. And it takes a lot of time for us to just check every single information to see if what’s true or what's not. And that takes a lot of time. Certainly, nobody pays for it.


GW:  Yeah, it does seem really unfortunate that you should have to spend any time at all dealing with that deliberate misinformation. I mean, there's plenty of ignorance. Genuine, honest ignorance, like most people haven't studied biology to any level and most people haven't ever study viruses at all. I have never studied viruses at all. So the question then, I guess, would be, you have reputable sources. But the thing is, because people are finding new stuff out all the time, those sources change their opinions. So the stuff they were telling you to do a year ago, they're not telling you to do the same way anymore. So, oh, well, obviously, they don't know what they're talking about because the truth is unchanging, and I think that has maybe bothered me the most because it's like a reflection of what happens in any field where you're learning stuff all the time. Historical martial arts being a great example. I mean, you remember what things were like 20 years ago, right? We knew absolutely nothing. And so imagine if you expressed an opinion in 2004 and you're expected to hold the exact same opinion in 2014. That's just absurd.


ES:  Yeah, that's true. And that's the problem as well, because people don't know how science works. And for them, if experts say one thing and say that's a fact, that's how it is. Or that's based on what we know right now. In their minds, it is, no, that's unchangeable, as you said. And that's exactly how it is. But science is something which changes all the time. With more data the science will also change how we understand things. And unfortunately, people are unaware of that and not familiar with the way science works. And it makes the science less, at least makes the experts maybe less authoritative.


GW:  OK, so you suggest people don't know how science works. I have a vague idea of how science works. I've read a bunch of books. I did some science at university, but it was a long time ago. So for my benefit and for the listeners who are perhaps not professional scientists, how does science work?


ES:  Well, that's a very broad question. So it depends on the science, but if we are talking about biological sciences, for example.


GW:  Let's simplify things and say, how do biological sciences work?


ES:  Yes. If we look at the new concepts, our first hypothesis might not be true or our first ideas might not be true, but we need to check if that's how it works. So we are just performing experiments or observations or things like that. In the beginning, these observations or these data might confirm our hypothesis because we’ve seen that what we are observing on the small sample of data. So that might be true to some extent. But if we make the sample bigger and bigger and we have more and more data, we might see that trend change and then we will see that our initial hypothesis was not true. But that needs time and that needs a lot of work. And we can see that also with viruses and how we understand pandemics, epidemics. If we want to compare, for example, pandemics. Right now with novel coronavirus, it’s a novel coronavirus because we it’s in a human population only for one year and eight months, which is not long. And with influenza virus, we have a lot of data at the moment from many, many years. We were observing it for at least I think 50 or 60 years in a proper way. And from the 60 years, we can see the trends in a lot clearer way than from like one and a half year or one year and eight months, which we've seen in this coronavirus pandemic. So unfortunately, when it goes to coronaviruses, we still don't have answers for many questions, but hopefully we'll get them with time. But, yeah, with viruses, it's still very hard.


GW:  I think perhaps the thing I want to just amplify is you have a hypothesis, so you test it. With that hypothesis, you have to be able to falsify the hypothesis to prove it wrong. Otherwise, it doesn't work as a hypothesis. And early stage experiments may appear to confirm the hypothesis. And so you get all excited. And naughty newspapers run irresponsible headlines. And then as more data comes in, you find out that, no, actually, that hypothesis is incorrect.


ES:  Yes. I mean, it can be also the other way around. Maybe more data will come in and the hypothesis will still be true. That can also happen. But the thing is that science changes. It's not constant. It will change if we get more data.


GW:  I have an analogy for you. If you're interpreting, for example, one of Fiore’s plays and you come up with this brilliant idea. So you test it with your loyal student of many years because that loyal student of many years is entirely used to basically making you look good in front of the class because you've demonstrated with them a lot. This amazing new technique appears to work. But then when you try it again someone who is actually really trying to hit you and is not your loyal student of many years, you get smacked in the face. And so you have to go back and rethink your hypothesis. Is that a reasonable historical martial arts analogy for what we just discussed?


ES:  Yes. If you want to have an analogy in martial arts, I think that's the perfect one.


GW:  Honestly, I'm happy to talk virology as much as I am to talk swords. I think for the average listener that they're expecting some swords to at least be mentioned every now and then. If I can just keep them happy by making a sword analogy here and now, I think I think we can carry on talking about the viral stuff, because, and this is fabulous, you are a specialist in virus-like genes in bat genomes - actual bats, right? And OK, there is a sort of theory that some bloke in China bit the head off a bat and got infected, not necessarily bit the head off a bat, but that got infected by a bat. And I have just lobbed this ball gently in your direction, do what you like with it.


ES:  Can I just throw it away?


GW:  Of course you can.


ES:  No, this very weird idea people have. Zoonotic viruses which are present in animals jump to the human population, maybe not all the time, but it happens. And also with viruses like Ebola, we've seen that. With coronavirus it is a bit different because right now it's a human virus and not any more an animal virus because it mutated and changed. So right now it's a human virus. But when it goes to coronaviruses, their main reservoir species is bats. That's why probably it might have been either this virus jumping to another animal from bats and then by contact with humans, for example, on these wet markets, it got into human population. It's infected the person there because obviously wet markets are not best known for the hygiene and stuff.


GW:  I think quite a few of the listeners won't know what a wet market is.


ES:  OK, so wet markets are these big markets in China where they sell animal products, products and live animals, also the exotic ones.


GW:  OK, so the virus from a bat to some animal and at one of these markets, perhaps, it went from the animal into a person and then it kind of exploded from there.


ES:  Yes, it might have been the shorter route. It might have just jumped from a bat to a person. For example, in a cave or somewhere like that where people have some contact with bats. But in China, they don't eat bats.


GW:  I know they don’t. But Ozzie Osborne has bitten the head off a bat live on stage. So maybe it was an Ozzy Osborne fan.


ES: It’s not Ozzie Osborne’s fault.


GW: I know it’s not. OK now, this is entirely for my own curiosity, but from what I understand of what I've read about the research you're doing, when a bat is infected by a virus, it copies bits of that virus into its DNA. Or bits of the viral DNA get copied into the bat’s DNA and then that provides some kind of immune capacity later on. Have I understood it basically right?


ES:  Yes. Although it's not only bats, it's in all other organisms. And we see that also in humans. We also have some genes which help us to fight the infection from viruses which are out there. And we just stole it from viruses and used it in our own immunity. But not only, because we have some other genes which we again stole from viruses after they infected us. Which one of them, for example, help us memorise things.


GW:  You’re kidding.


ES: No.


GW: Explain, this is fascinating.


ES:  I know. That's my research.


GW:  All right. Please go ahead.


ES:  So I'm talking about the gene called Arc. And this gene is called the viral gene. And it also helps us memorise things, but also probably help us with thinking.


GW:  The origin of consciousness?


ES:  Yes. Yes, exactly.


GW:  Holy crap.


ES:  It is cool, isn't it?


GW:  That is incredible. So basically some early human got infected by this virus and their body absorbed some of that viral DNA into its own genome and that actually triggered the skills of memorisation and thought.


ES:  Maybe not early human, but an ancestor of humans or animals even.


GW:  How do you know?


ES:  Because there's a lot of techniques to just compare. You're looking through the genome of the species of different animals. It is also in plants, but not this exact gene. I'm talking about these viral genes. So we can look through the genome of a certain species. And then you are picking up sequences which are similar to viruses, like genetic sequences, which are similar to viruses. And then you can compare these sequences to known viruses. And sometimes they're so similar and there are some additional features which would tell us that this is the virus sequence. This is like a co-opted virus which is in the genome. There's a lot of techniques to do that, mostly bioinformatics and statistical and mathematical modelling.


GW:  We probably shouldn't go into the details of that because I would have difficulty following you. But how do we know that the Arc gene is connected to memory and intelligence and consciousness?


ES:  So this gene, in a very, very basic explanation, is involved into creating this little vesicles which jump between neurones in our brain. And this is how this how our thoughts are created.


GW:  OK, so what does that gene do in the virus?


ES:  It creates the vesicles which encapsulate the viral genome.


GW:  OK, so the little protein packet that the virus is running around in.


ES:  Yeah.


GW:  Basically the same gene enables the virus to build that, as in our brains enables us to make those little packets that fly around. Holy crap. I had no idea that this is going to be such an interesting interview or that we would spend most of it on viruses. This is just fantastic. OK, now you probably know that I have patrons who support the show, and one of the things that they get to do is to suggest questions for guests and as regular listeners will already know, and as obviously you know, but regular listeners may not, all my guests also get to see their questions in advance. And you don't have to answer anything you don't want to answer. This apparently made the list. So one of our patrons asks, well, she's asking about inclusivity in the lab, such as making labs accessible for disabled people. And so I imagine you have a lot of experience in labs so you can maybe speak to that. And I'm curious as to how that extends into the historical martial arts environment as well. What are your thoughts?


ES:  That's a tricky question, obviously, at the universities at the moment, when it goes to disabled people is very important and most of the labs which are new labs which are built, they are trying to do them in a way that everybody can get to the lab, everybody can work. And I think that's very good. In some other older labs out there, unfortunately, there is nothing like that. But I think that things right now are changing, at least I can speak only for the U.K., obviously, because I work mainly here, but things in science at least are trying to be very, very inclusive. So for science, I can say that. For martial arts, it's also hard because obviously many of us who teach don't have formal education in teaching.


GW:  Yeah, I don’t.


ES:  Yeah, me too. Apart from teaching at the university courses in biology or something, but that's not the same as teaching movement and fencing and martial arts. So that's something which I think might be missing, because with disabled people, you need to understand that they need some other exercises and you have to be more careful. And I think that in these cases, a formal education, in some kind of, I don't know, movement or physical education would be quite, quite good. I would be a bit worried and scared that I will just injure such a person.


GW:  I've taught people with various disabilities and I have no formal training in it at all. And so what I did is I make it absolutely clear that if there's an exercise that we're doing that's not right for them, they shouldn't do it. And I'll tell that to all the students. You might have a slightly dodgy knee, not actually disabled but maybe a deep squat is bad for you, so you shouldn't do it. So the first thing for me was normalising adjusting what we're doing and not having to slavishly copy everything that the instructor does or you get shouted at. That's like the first thing. And then, I mean, the disabled people who come to me for training have all been really interested in swords, obviously, but also vastly more experienced in their disability than anybody else. So I just ask them, what can they do? How do they want to approach this? And so I provide the historical and the martial side of it, and they tell me how they can apply that with the disabilities they have.


ES:  I think that's a very good approach. And I think since in martial arts, we see so many different people because obviously there are people who done some training before, there are people who never even do anything else than walking from work to their home and they don't do any other exercises. We need to be quite flexible when it goes to the thinking about the levels.


GW:  Right. And we're not training people to have a professional career making tons of money as an exponent of that particular art. Unlike, for example, perhaps a gymnastics coach where you can actually make a living as a world class gymnast if you get that far. So it doesn't actually matter how good a person gets by any sort of objective standard of skill because there is no real objective standard. And, you know, if they are enjoying what they're doing and they are improving from their own perspective. That's more than sufficient.


ES:  No, that's right. From my own experience, because obviously I wouldn't compare it to the full disability, like the person who couldn't walk. But for example, I cannot see out of one eye, which is a bit hard when you think about fencing.


GW:  Yeah, because you've only got one eye left. I had a student in a class I was teaching a few weeks ago and there weren't enough fencing masks. We were doing stuff slowly and carefully. It was, shall we say, reasonably safe. But he went off the side and was basically doing something else with somebody else. And I came to find out what was what was going on. And he's like, I've lost the vision in this eye. I can't afford to risk that one. So I'm just going to do this instead, is that all right? I was like, fine, OK, let me know if you need help and off you go.


ES:  Yeah. So when it goes to being one eyed, it's you don't have depth perception as well. I found that when an instructor didn't really know about that or didn't think about that during training, I was getting quite annoyed. Not at the instructor but at myself that I cannot do something or something is not working. So I think also that we should take that in into consideration when training people like that.


GW:  Absolutely. Lack of depth perception is an interesting problem because you can see. I've done experiments with fencing with a one eye blacked out and stuff. So I don't know what it's like to lack vision in one eye, but I know what it's like to fence without depth perception. And it's really hard. So what do you do, if you don’t mind my asking? What do you do, let's say you're fencing rapier, for example, what you measure the distance with? How do you make sure you're standing in the right place?


ES:  That's something which I don't even right now notice. I just learnt to try to just compensate for that. For me, it's hard to say how I'm compensating for that, but it works but it took 20 years of work.


GW:  Right. So you have these unconscious workarounds.


ES:  And yeah, I also tend to be quite an aggressive fencer and shorten the distance very quickly.


GW:  OK, that would help.


ES: Yes, it does.


GW: Now, cookery. Here’s a sudden left turn. We talked about viruses, we talked about fencing, we talked about fencing with one eye, but cookery. The Corgi, the Princess and the Kitchen.


ES:  Yes.


GW:  OK, now. People who have been in my classes and who may be regular listeners, I used to be a cabinetmaker and I'm forever making analogies for making things out of wood is exactly like historical martial arts, which strictly speaking, it’s not. But there are so many sort of crossovers. Funnily enough, when I was doing my physiology at university, I was constantly thinking about things like how enzymes, like how an amylase enzyme will sit on a starch thing, it's like, OK, it's built the right shape out of these amino acids, which is exactly like how you put together a piece of furniture and its shape that makes it work. So I'm an analogy person. So do cookery and swordsmanship complement each other?


ES:  I would say I never thought about it like that. And I would say cooking is more like science, so I'm afraid I will go back to virology.


GW:  Oh yeah. I have a brilliant, brilliant book. You must know it. It's called On Food and Cooking by... Oh, it’s like the origin of the whole molecular gastronomy movement.


ES:  I haven’t read it, I heard about it.


GW:  I will look it up and put it in the show notes and I'll send you a link before that obviously.


ES:  But yeah, I would say that I never thought about sword fighting as cooking, so I'm not sure if I can say anything about that. Again, I would say that cooking is a science in a way, there is a lot of chemistry. There is physics. So that would be similar to science.


GW:  But also, I guess like science, you have to have that kind of artistic flair, you need to have flashes of artistic insight and oh, what if we try this with that?


ES:  That's right in that sense, yes, of course, that would be very similar to every art, if we can say that cooking is also an art, if we see all these all these chefs out there, that can be very vicious.


GW:  So they do you actually have a corgi?


ES:  Yes.


GW:  Ah, she’s sleeping behind you. Yes. We have a floof on the show. It's a very cute sleeping corgi sleeping under a table.


ES:  Yes. She's very old right now. She's 13 years old.


GW:  That's pretty old. So are you the princess then?


ES:  I mean, my family kind of is from Lithuania where they had a title, yes.


GW:  OK, so. So the Corgi is the actual Corgi, and you’re the princess and the kitchen. For people who don't know what I'm talking about, what’s this corgi, princess, kitchen thing?


ES:  So it's my cooking blog. It's on Instagram and also on Facebook, but I'm planning to make a proper page at some point. I needed to stop doing it. I'm still cooking. I'm cooking every day.


GW:  You’ve got to eat, right?


ES:  Yes. But you can also buy something in Sainsbury's or Tesco or other shops. But I really hate takeaways but I'm still cooking. I just don't have time to take photos and make descriptions because writing a blog takes a lot of time.


GW:  It really does.


ES:  Yes. You probably know.


GW:  I do know. I’ve had a blog for about ten years and that's a lot of time.


ES:  So I'm going to start doing that again. And just because I was doing my doctorate, I was finishing my doctorate, I just didn't have time. So I stopped for a couple of years. But right now it's finished and I have my defence in on the 30th of September.


GW:  Oh, good luck. OK, all right. Shall I tell you about my first defence? My external examiner very politely, very correctly, tore me a new one. I nearly died. It was just the most horrific experience. But I just managed to get onto the, OK, make these corrections and we'll re-examine you. So I did. I made the corrections. And there were all sorts of problems finding another because that external examiner couldn't do it again for some reason and stuff happens what have you. And they finally found another external examiner. And I made it through on the second attempt. But the most useful thing was when I was going off for the second time, absolutely terrified because I thought I was going to get slaughtered again. My wife said to me, it's all right. It doesn't matter whether you pass or fail, because no matter what happens, I'm never calling you Dr. Windsor. I was like, oh, well, fair enough. And I just relaxed completely.


ES:  That's fine.


GW:  By the time this episode comes out, you will have had your defence, I suspect. It’ll be either slightly before or slightly after. So I will check in with you and see whether we need to upgrade the title for the show. Hopefully. Good luck. And this is for your viruses in bats research?


ES: Yes. Yes.


GW: I have a couple of questions I ask everyone. I know you probably haven't listened to the show, have you?


ES:  I didn't have time.


GW:  Most of my guests don't listen to the show. In fact, I have noticed that most people on the planet don't listen to the show. It's fine. I don't mind because the people who do listen to it seem to really like it. All right, first question. What is the best idea you have never acted on?


ES:  Yeah, I was thinking about this question when you sent it to me, and then I thought I act on almost all my ideas, which is probably not good.


GW:  No, it's very good. About coming up to about half of my guests answer with something like that, and I think it's the sort of people who I end up interviewing tend to have done interesting things that I’ll have noticed or other people have noticed and said, Guy, you've really got to get this person on the show. And that comes from acting on ideas, generally. So there isn't any sort of little passion project in the back of your head?


ES:  There are things which I wanted to do. But right now, in retrospect, I don't think that these would be a good idea. So when you ask me about the best ideas, I've done quite a lot of things I came up with. When it goes to the ideas, which probably in retrospect, wouldn't be that good. I haven't bought a horse even though I was planning to.


GW:  Horses are lovely. Yeah. So I take it you ride?


ES:  For a while right now I didn't have opportunity because I was doing my research, but I really want to go back to it. I was riding since I was like 12 years old.


GW:  OK. If anyone was listening to the show who lives near Oxford and has a horse that Emilia could borrow, that would be lovely, just get in touch. Horses are ridiculously expensive to keep and look after. And I have a friend, Jason Kingsley who has modern TV history, History YouTube Channel thing, and he has, I think, seven or eight horses. And he spends about four or five hours a day looking after the horses.


ES:  Yeah, that's also the problem, they are high maintenance,


GW:  Which is why rich people had them and then they had poor people to look after them.


ES:  Yeah, yeah. Something like that. At least it's lower maintenance than children.


GW:  True. I've looked after both. I have never owned a horse, but I have some experience of horses and I have two kids and yeah, particularly in the early days. By the time they get to like 12, 13, they're pretty low maintenance, or at least mine are. But yeah, when they're little. When somebody who doesn't have kids says they are either tired or busy, as parents, we just kind of smile and nod. It’s a bit like listening to somebody talking about virology who has got all of their information from Facebook.


ES:  Yeah, that might be quite a similar situation.


GW:   OK. My last question: if you had an unreasonably large sum of money to spend on improving historical martial arts worldwide, and if you want to say, actually, I’d spend it on virology instead, that's fine, how would you spend it?


ES:  Well, I love virology, but I have enough of it right now. I can spend it on swords. Hmmm, worldwide…


GW:  The thing is, you can't just buy yourself some nice swords with the money. You have been in the historical martial arts world for a while. You have seen it. And obviously, as with anything, it could be improved in various ways. How would you improve it?


ES:  You know, as we talked before, it is very expensive to get like a permanent home. And also I think I would try to make it like the proper branches of the school in some places, of course, in Oxford, but also around the U.K., but maybe also in Europe with their own permanent halls and but not even rented. And I know people who have done that, not branches, but at least their schools in the inner cities, for example in Warsaw there is one. So do that. And also just to create a safe space, a very inclusive space for fencers which are minorities, for example, for women or for non-binary people. So I would try to do that because I think that at the moment there is a bit of a problem. It is better than it was before, but a bit of a problem with inclusivity, especially in some parts.


GW:  You’re being very diplomatic. I know exactly what you are talking about. The average listener might not. Why do you think this podcast has slightly over 50 percent female guests?


ES:  And I think you are very good at that.


GW:  Because I was thinking of what the hell can I do about it. I thought, well, OK, I'll start a podcast and make sure that the people I invite on are not all middle aged, straight white dudes. Because while a bunch of now middle aged, straight white dudes tended to get into this sort of thing a long time ago. And so, you know, they are overrepresented in the senior levels of the art for good historical reason or for the natural reasons. It discourages, perhaps, people who are not middle aged, straight white dudes from taking it up.


ES:  The visibility is very important. And also, we have three schools here in Oxford and obviously one is very small and concentrates on their own thing, on their own stuff, like these Napoleonic fighting styles. And two bigger ones, my school, and another one, Oxford Sword and Staff, and Oxford Sword and Staff people are lovely. They're great. They started as a very small school, just founded by people who loved swordfighting, they didn't have any money, which just like starting in the beginning, I think. And obviously we had more money from the other branches of our school. And I noticed that the main core people in the Oxford Sword and Staff, maybe the majority of new students are middle aged white guys because they have more money. And in our school, the majority of people are students who don't have money, younger people and are woman. So you can see the differences, I'm not saying that Oxford Sword and Staff is doing something wrong. I'm just saying that because of these differences.


GW:  Because your club has the money to subsidise the beginners so that anyone can start, you get a much more diverse group, whereas if you have to have money to start, you get a much more restricted group.


ES:  Yeah, yeah. And I think that's very in this sense, very visible, when you compare both clubs in the same city, really, and not that far from each other. We like each other.


GW:  I get it, you're all friends.


ES:   And also, as I said before, visibility is very important. And I was asked several times by some instructors how to make it better, like how to help their club grow, but not only with the students, with male students, but also to attract to their club some other students like women or minorities, not just white people. So my main advice was just find some woman instructor and like do some classes, for example, or seminars or things like that. And so your students or even people who look through your website and see the pictures see that there's not only guys there, or not only women as students, but women can also be instructors. Women can also do stuff like that. So I think that's important.


GW:  Many years ago, I had a meeting of some of my senior students, almost all of whom were men, saying, look, almost always of you men. We get like 30, 40 percent women coming in the beginners’ courses. Where do they go? What's going wrong? One of my students said, well, Guy, you always demonstrate with us. I said, well, yeah, because you're the most technically accomplished, and so I'll get the best technical demonstration. And he said, OK, what that does is it when you demonstrate to someone, you are selecting them out of the student body and you're basically holding them up as an example. If you only have to do that with blokes, that would be an assumption that only blokes can get up to that level. Even if it’s not spoken. So OK, so what if I preferentially demonstrate with women? Will you guys be all right with that? And they're like, yeah, that's fine. So I tried it and within a year we had significantly increased the proportion of women who are staying on past the beginners’ course. No one told me this at the beginning! I didn't know! So for the first 10 years or so, I was prioritising the best technical demonstration over the demonstration that's going to get the results I actually want in the student body.


ES:  It's not only instructor problems. Sometimes women are scared because they think that they need to do it perfectly and they compare themselves to the guys there and the even more accomplished or more experienced fencers and they think that they cannot demonstrate in front of the class because it won't be perfect and it won’t be good and they are just scared. And just as we mentioned before, that I do this science communication for Sky News and stuff like that, I’m probably there not only because I'm an amazing expert and virologist, but I'm also a woman. And not just this white, middle aged Oxford professor, who people can see on TV. I'm young and I'm a woman. And that's why they also ask me to comment on these things, to show that in sciences, women can also be experts.


GW:  They can in fencing too, as the guest list for my show clearly demonstrates, but also my first fencing coach was a woman. Her name was Gail Rudge. To me she looked ancient. She was probably like 40 odd when I was like 13. And she was a highly skilled fencing coach and I was a complete beginner. So, of course, if she felt like just stabbing me, she could. I was lucky in that my first exposure to actually having a fencing coach was it was a woman, so I never got the idea that women can’t do it. But that was just luck that wasn't built into anybody's strategy at all. So it's good to build these things in deliberately, I think.


ES:  And also, we need to remember and we're coming to the thing I wanted to mention in today's podcast, we need to remember that obviously there are differences, physiological differences between men and women. But that doesn't mean that women are inferior fighters in martial arts. Martial arts, at least historical ones, were made for people to fight like any size of opponent, bigger one, taller one, stronger one, and winning with them. If you do it correctly, you can win with stronger opponents with the proper technique.


GW:  Everything changes when you're murdering people with sharp weapons, right? So being bigger and stronger and having more endurance and perhaps being a bit quicker, whatever, is a huge advantage, particularly in any kind of sporting combat. But it's much, much less important when sheer viciousness and willingness to kill is actually a relevant factor. And when someone can just cut your hamstring and down you go and now you're shorter than they are because you're on the floor because they've cut your hamstring. It changes everything when the weapons are real, I think. And I think we get this unfair misrepresentation of how important things like size and strength are when the weapons are not sharp.


ES:  That's right, but you can still work with that. People are not robots, we're not like all the men are from one factory and all the women are from the other and all our skills and characteristics are the same. All the guys who are, for example, weaker than some women and there will be women who are stronger than some guys who have bigger muscle mass. It differs between people. It's not that all the women are weaker than men and all the men are stronger than women.


GW:  And if you've ever seen Simone Biles on a mat, you know, beyond any reasonable shadow of a doubt that not all women are weaker than men.


ES:  But of course and again, even with that, even if you are weaker than your opponent, you can still with proper technique, you can still win.


GW:  Stab them in the eye. The whole point of having a sword is you don't need to be very strong to hit people with it and actually have them die.


ES:  Yeah, yeah. Of course. So, yeah, exactly. With the proper technique, you can still win. And I don't see why this weird notion that women are inferior fencers is there, but, well, I have an idea.


GW:  I agree with you, but it leads me to ask the question, what are your thoughts on having women only tournaments? Or women's events like you’ve got the open tournament and then you got the women only tournament.


ES:  So I'm really pro woman only tournaments because quite a lot of women are just scared of fighting men. That's why I don't push them into open tournaments where, again, the guys are sometimes quite aggressive. And that's a problem with many tournaments, men can be quite aggressive and hit very hard. I normally take part in open tournaments and in longsword tournaments and also in women’s tournaments. I take part in both. And I must say that I got injured more in woman tournaments. I don't know, if women feel better fighting in women only tournaments, I don't see why not. It only helps promoting going to tournaments. Well, there will be some, for example, me and other women who take part in open tournaments, but we are the minority there still. But hopefully with women tournaments, more women will see that tournaments are not super scary, because even in women tournaments, sometimes women are scared to take part. So maybe that will just show that tournaments are fun. They're not only like, I don't know, hitting each other on the head. So, yeah, I hope that that can only help. I would prefer everybody to fights everybody.


GW:  OK. So you see women's tournaments is a useful way of basically getting women who wouldn't go to an open tournament to at least go to a tournament and gain some experience that way. And maybe it will lead to…


ES:  …going to open tournaments and seeing that women also take part in open tournaments. So I think that's quite, quite a good way of promoting it.


GW:  OK, so just to get back to the unreasonably large sum of money, you would spend it on creating salles in the UK to start with, but also in Europe. How would you make sure that the people who are creating the clubs that were going to be in those salles, how would you make sure that you didn't end up giving one of these salles to, for example, a white supremacist group?


ES:  Wow, I don't know, I’ve never done it.


GW:  It is a is a tricky problem, but now you've got all the money in the world so you can you can throw money at the problem if you need to.


ES:  Yeah, I think that's important to know that people you are giving this position of power to and not to just like random fencers who might have a lot of medals.


GW:  I have a thought. So your organisation, which had all this money, is going to be buying all of these beautiful, beautiful, gorgeous, like gothic barns and transforming them into these glorious salles, some of which will, of course, also have stables attached. So you can do mounted combat, of course. But how about if the organisations that use the spaces have to agree to a code of conduct which is really explicit about and inclusivity and that sort of thing. Would that solve the problem?


ES:  I think it can but we heard that before in the UK. There was an organisation which was trying to have this code of conduct for all the clubs which joined it. And it didn't work very well in the end. But not because people were not following it. It's just clubs weren't joining. And that was the problem. I think if it were to be like some bigger organisation which owns the clubs that might work because they would be forced.


GW:  But also if joining some random organisation, let's say you have your own fencing club, as you do. And you choose to join some umbrella type organisation and you get some maybe insurance, and admin or whatever. And it's not really such a big deal. But if the organisation is providing you with a gorgeous salle to train in where you can leave all your gear, it's perfectly safe and everything, I think getting people to sign up would not be a problem.


ES:  No, I agree. I think that's because it's quite easy then. So the thing is only that they need to follow it. That would be something which needs to be controlled. I don't know if that's the right word because I don't want to.


GW:  I don't know how Polish is related to Swedish, but I've noticed in a lot of conversations I've had with Eastern European people, “controlled” is often used to mean to check, whereas in English it means you literally “take control of”. So like passport control, in Stockholm, for example, when you fly in, it's “kontrollera” or something and it means “to check”.


ES:  No, you are right, as I said, it's probably not the right word, so it should be checked every now and then.


GW:  One possibility would be if they kept the personal data of the people in the clubs that's anonymized, but the demographic statistics and you need to have a certain proportion of, for example, women in the club. To keep your lease, for instance. That gets into a legal quagmire though.  I tell you what you do with all this money, you also have an entire team of lawyers to manage it for you. No, don't give money to lawyers, never give money to lawyers. Unless you're unless you're being accused of a crime you didn't commit, in which case give money to lawyers. But other than that, no.


ES:  What about the crime I did commit?


GW:  Well, then you need to pay for the lawyer even more. And hopefully the crime was very lucrative so you can afford a good one. Brilliant. All right. OK, well, thank you very much for joining me today Emilia. It's been a delight talking to you.


ES:  Thank you very much. It was very fun talking to you.

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