Friday, November 07, 2008

Fighting with bicycles

At the Telegraph, Tim Martin on Neal Stephenson:
[F]or now he's instructing me, over a pint, about longsword-fighting, walking-stick self-defence and an Edwardian martial art that used a bicycle as a weapon. "When I was writing the Baroque Cycle," he says, "I had to write some swordfighting bits, and it became obvious to me that I was writing rubbish: there's nothing like writing something down to make it clear that you have no idea what you're talking about. So I started trying to get more information about rapier-and-dagger fighting, which got me onto the trail of what's known as historical European martial arts, or western martial arts.

"The premise is that we all know about the Chinese or Japanese martial arts; they have this quasi-mythical status now for people. But if you think about it, the Europeans must have had equally sophisticated martial arts and we just forgot them as soon as we invented guns. So people have been going through German and Italian manuscripts, that are kind of like longsword fencing manuals, and bringing this stuff back to life.

"So we'd mostly been doing longsword, in my little group," says Stephenson. Ropes of muscle on his forearms attest to this, as do the pictures online of a Stephenson-designed spring-loaded practice sword that flexes on impact to soften a blow. "But we became interested in cane-fighting, which was taught in London a hundred years ago or so as part of this school of Bartitsu, founded by EW Barton-Wright, a railway engineer who'd picked up ju-jitsu in Japan. And he brought in a Swiss guy called Vigny who'd taken informal methods of walking-stick-fu and codified them into a system called la canne: he taught the part of the curriculum which involved fighting with walking sticks." No way, I say. "Yeah. There's a whole curriculum over fighting with bicycles. Pictures of an Edwardian lady in a floor-length dress and a huge hat with flowers, riding primly down a country lane, and when a ruffian comes out she uses some trick with the bicycle to flatten him and rides off. It's great stuff. The bicycles we're not sure how to approach, but we've created a little assembly line to make rattan canes, with a knob on the end. But there's, you know, how to use a bicycle pump as a weapon. How to defend yourself with a parasol. Crazy."


  1. There's a rather good mini-documentary on Bartitsu at .

    The "self defence on a bicycle" material was not a part of Bartitsu, per se. It appeared in a 1901 magazine article that may have been a parody of E.W. Barton-Wright's own articles on subjects such as "self defence with a walking stick." Or, it may have been intended to have been taken seriously; readers are invited to judge for themselves after visiting .

  2. I played bicycle polo once. It was kinda fun. But the tactics all seemed to involve using your bike to block other bikes.

  3. This is wonderful stuff. However, I don't think my exercise bike will make a good substitute, if for no other reason than I can't lift it.

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