Last weekend, I attended my first ever Swordfish conference. It was an overwhelming (and overwhelmingly positive) experience, and one about which I am compelled to share my thoughts, however mundane they might be. I am writing, I suspect, primarily for my own benefit, but nonetheless I thought that the wider community might find something worth reading here – a new or different perspective, I hope, and an attempt to put into words the meaning and purpose of an event like Swordfish as seen by a newcomer to this community.
I’ll start with a little background – I moved to London from Brisbane, Australia at the end of 2011. Suffice it to say that, yes, Australia does have an active (and growing) HEMA population, but one that is tiny in comparison to Europe and the US, and one facing the uniquely Australian challenge of trying to community-build across small populations separated by vast tracts of absolute bugger-all.
In this context, to me, Swordfish was always like some distant and vaguely exotic place, interesting in a foreign way but not somewhere I ever imagined myself visiting (so a bit like the Gold Coast, really). The only discussions of it that I recall ever having before I moved involved criticism of what we were able to view of the tournament as being ‘UFC with swords’, and a rather thorough condemnation of the ‘brutality’ evident in an injury report that someone came across. In a way, much of what I have to say here is intended as a gentle rebuke to my past self – and hopefully food for thought for anyone who is entertaining the same doubts that I did.
Regardless of your opinions on the tournament, it is undeniable that Swordfish is, at this time, a guiding beacon for the HEMA community – and with something on the order of 230 participants including, I was told, 150 tournament fighters in this year’s event, it is burning brighter than ever. Everywhere I went during the weekend, I moved in a sea of chatter in what seemed like a thousand languages, but everywhere, a constant thread weaving through every conversation, came the sound of Swordfish’s two common tongues – English, and the Art.
People might be talking gear, or techniques, or masters, or favoured weapons, but everywhere the Art (by which I mean, collectively, all of the historical arts that fall under the HEMA umbrella) was being shared, discussed, argued over, and brought to life. In workshops, in the tournament, over beer, in late-night drunk wrestling sessions, in the sleeping areas and the halls and the showers, the art that is HEMA was alive and thriving.
At first I was bewildered, even intimidated, by the sheer size of the event – you have to understand that not only had I never been to a HEMA event this big before, I had never been to an event with such a narrow focus and so many attendees. In fact, most events I could think of that bring so many people together for a single passion usually involve programmers, Klingons, or some combination of the two. The realisation that I was likely to have something specific and sword-related in common with any random person in this crowd was both astounding and terrifying to a small-town Aussie, especially given that the last ‘big’ HEMA event in Australia had piqued the interest of maybe 40 participants.
But if I was shy at first (and I was) it was this commonality that allowed me to come out of my shell over the course of the weekend. I spent Friday and Saturday engaged in workshops, and was consistently impressed by the expertise, enthusiasm and above all the desire to share and collaborate that I encountered in every instructor and every student. And if it weren’t for the fact that I have classes with Dave Rawlings every week, I dare say I would have been impressed by some of the more colourful swears I heard in workshops as well. By Sunday I was happily obliging the requests of complete strangers for sparring bouts. There is nothing quite so invigorating as putting on a mask and trusting someone whom you’ve only just met to swing a length of steel at you, and it was the friendly openness of the Swordfish atmosphere that made this possible.
It would be remiss of me to imply that it’s all sunshine and flowers – some hit harder than others, and often harder than they need to, and the pressure of the tournaments can exacerbate this problem. I personally have no real comment regarding the judging, but I am aware that this is a hot topic of much debate at the moment. Lasting animosity, however, seemed to be rare – at one point I even heard the phrase “He’s too nice to stay mad at!” spoken of an aggressive opponent. The general ambience always remained one of goodwill and sharing, punctuated by random acts of either kindness or sword-related violence (and in some cases, possibly even both at once).
It wasn’t simply a fun, interesting event. It was an experience that gave me a new enthusiasm and reminded me why I do this. It created an immensely powerful sense of belonging to a larger community, with none of the ‘us-and-them’ attitude that characterised my HEMA experience before my arrival in the UK. And while at first I found the event overwhelmingly huge, I came to realise through the easygoing camaraderie prevalent throughout the weekend that I was not lost in the crowd. That I had something to contribute, however small or simple that contribution might be. Together, we are building an edifice to the Art, and every single person who participates in Swordfish and events like it is doing their part. Every year, the structure gets a little taller, a little stronger and a little more visible to the outside world.
And to those who have doubts about what is being achieved at Swordfish, or who tut over the injury report or criticise the quality of techniques or the apparent emphasis on competition, I have only one thing to say to you, and I say it with open arms: “Why don’t you come over here and say that?”
Come on. You might just change your mind. I did.