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Why Blades?

When I was a kid in the early 1960s, WWII was still very present in British life ... we played Japs and Commandos with our mates in the street, machine-gunnned Jerries, and read comics full of heroic deeds. Like a lot of other kids, I was fascinated by the Battle of Britain; read fighter pilots' biographies, and made Airfix kits of fighters and bombers. We were in the jet age, but I still wanted to be a Spitfire pilot. Spitfires never lost their appeal, that appeal just became more complex. I still think it's a wonderful piece of sculpture, a collection of elegant, sweeping forms. That beauty, is a by-product of good design; it's made to cut through the air, to generate lift, to allow manouevrability. Or, as we kids probably liked to say, it was made to be a good 'gun platform'. We talked about that stuff ... we knew what distances the guns were harmonised at ... which version of the Spitfire first used rockets ... We liked the fact that it was all about killing. So you grow up and learn a bit more, but the Spitfire's beauty is inseparable from its design as an efficient killing machine. The same is true of blades. They have evolved over millennia, and through those years certain debates have never really been decided ... all swords, for instance, are designed either to slash or to stab. The roman soldier carried a short, stabbing 'gladius', and was taught by his centurion that 'two inches in the right place is enough'. No ambiguity there, then. A cavalry trooper carried a sabre with which he could slash down from above.

One of the reasons the japanese blade ('nihon-to') is so attractive is because, better than any other blade, it achieves a compromise between the two basic functions, slash and stab; it's basically a slasher, but the shallowness of the curve and the overall balance make it a good stabber too.

Around the world, refinements and variations have been worked out which have given blades of different sizes and shapes, and technical developments have produced better metals and methods of construction. Japanes blades are among the best made, too, although some European blades show pattern welding of comparable sophistication at an earlier age. (Pattern welding is a forging technique which combines steels of different qualities so that the completed blade has the strengths of each type of steel where it needs it ... typically softer low-carbon steels in the body of the blade for flexibility, and higher-carbon steels at the edge for hardness and edge-keeping - sharpness.) But one constant remains: the human body. Blades in use become an extension of the body, and they are designed to part flesh and bone as cleanly as a Spitfire's wing parts the air. Efficienty of function tends to produce purity of form, and purity has that awkward knack of looking beautiful, however terrible, however sublime.

Another thing: writing. Calligraphy ... 'beautiful writing' ... often shows shapes very like those of a blade in motion. It's all a dance, after all. Letter forms are cut, stroke by stroke. An Arab calligrapher would make his own reed pen, with a knife exactly made to the purpose, which he may even have made himself. The pen may be mightier than the sword, but both draw lines.

When I started drawing with a bamboo pen I quickly noticed that it naturally lends itself to quick, cutting strokes, and I started to see the same shapes in the figure ... the long muscles of the leg, for instance, or the curve of a rib. The base of the spine, with the hollows in the big muscle of the back that often show as dimples, and the tapering form of the coccyx, look like an indian 'Hanjar' ... a short stabbing blade with a handle that's gripped crossways and with two projections that reach back either side of the wrist, allowing the dagger to be strapped to the arm so the whole makes a solid unit that can be punched powerfully into your opponent. Opponent? Enemy? I like archery, too; and as every archer knows, it's essentially a mind game. Or, as the Zen masters put it, the archer is always aiming at himself.