Saturday, 6 November 2010
William Morris Martial Artist
I belong to the generation for whom the films of Bruce Lee, from The Big Boss to Enter the Dragon in 1973, were a revelation of what the human body could do and of what screen violence could be. Instead of two ham-fisted cowboys slugging it out John Wayne-style, you suddenly had the extraordinary balletic intensity of Lee’s high-kicking jeet kune do; we were entranced, and within weeks we were signing up at local kung fu or karate clubs which mushroomed across the country.
It takes a considerable effort of mental reframing to see William Morris as a martial artist, and yet he clearly was, as J.W. Mackail makes clear early in his biography: ‘in playing singlestick, of which he was very fond, his opponent had to be guarded against Morris’s impetuous rushes by a table placed between the two combatants’; and later, in Maclaren’s gym at Oxford, Morris offered to teach his new friends ‘the cuts and guards’ in singlestick. Little known though it may be in the epoch of kung fu, singlestick is a longstanding indigenous British martial art, one which has indeed been making something of a comeback in recent years (it was revived by the Royal Navy in the 1980s, for example).
Perhaps the most famous literary adherent of singlestick is Sherlock Holmes, who uses it fight off various enemies in the course of his exploits. ‘I am something of a single-stick expert, as you know’, he boasts to Watson in the ‘Adventure of the Illustrious Client’, though it is another martial art, ‘baritsu’, which Holmes employs to defeat Moriarty in their final one-to-one tussle. For anyone who wants to do further research on Victorian martial arts, I would recommend the finely named online Journal of Manly Arts, which no doubt also has articles on Bruce Lee’s contributions too.