Tag Archives: Gastown

In the Beginning…

In the beginning, I was a mediocre academic student who’s only real success was a few short stories. About the same time I began studying at Langagra I also started learning Dragon-Style Kung-Fu at the Kerrisdale community centre. I suppose I must have been about twenty years old at the time. It was a class that only ran once a week, and was about ninety minutes in length. My decision was probably as influenced by the popularity of the Matrix films and my love of Bruce Lee as much as anything else.

I did well in my creative writing and literature classes and average-to-poor in just about every other course I took at college. My first year at post-secondary school was fairly enthusiastic. I liked the freedom and the anonymity, I liked meeting (very few) new people, I liked being able to choose the subjects I was interested in. However, by the second year I had exhausted all the courses I actually enjoyed and reached the point where I had to choose things that fit into a program.

Suddenly, I needed direction.

I found that direction in the second part of a Medieval History class when I met Roland Cooper. For better or worse, however, it had nothing to do with what I was doing at Langara.

Roland was one of the very first members of Academie Duello, which at the time consisted of two instructors (Devon Boorman and Randy Packer), I believe two students, and a weekly practice in the leaky covered area of Robson square. (This was many years before they renovated the square back into a functional ice rink, at the time it was uneven cement with a ceiling that didn’t keep out the rain very well.)

He told me about Duello, and I eventually decided to check it out. when I was younger I had a TINY bit of experience training in modern sport fencing, and like most people I was surprised at the realities of using a heavy rapier. The second I was handed a sword to practice with I loved it, which was about five minutes after I showed up. If I remember correctly, I was the third registered student at Duello.

The class grew slowly as we shared the space with the break dancers who used to hang out on the opposite corner of the square. Another friend of mine, Simon Ranier, joined at the same time I did. This effectively doubled the number of students. I can’t remember exactly when Jonathan Whiteley and Chris Moone became regular students. I believe one on them was already there before me and one came shortly after. I do remember that they both had some experience fighting in the SCA so they seemed like super-sword-wizard-masters to me at the time.

Fencing and Kung-Fu didn’t conflict with each other, so I continued to do both, even after Duello started running a second night of classes at Capri Hall on Fraser St. In fact, I cannot distinctly recall when I decided to abandon Asian martial arts and focus entirely on Western ones, but it did happen eventually.

The early Academie Duello crowd posing with Mandy Patinkin (aka Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya) at Robson Square

I loved what I was doing. I started putting one foot in the SCA in order to compete in a few open tournaments (which introduced me to a whole bunch of people who fought in a completely different way than I was used to), and it wasn’t long before my fencing friends were pretty much my only friends. Swords became my life, and I thought I was the coolest guy in the world for knowing how to use them.I liked being able to say that I was an aspiring swordsman, even though that usually received the reply ‘so, you mean like a pirate?’ or, ‘but weren’t the samurai the best?’.

It was gradual, but Duello kept growing and kept garnering more media attention. After a few years the school started looking into a plan for a permanent location somewhere in the downtown area. There was a period of hunting and planning, but eventually it happened – we acquired the second floor of a old building on Richards St.

There were a lot of renovations that needed to be done before the space was really presentable, and I am ashamed to say I took part in none of them. Nevertheless, we started holding our practices around the rusty railings and holes in the ground as the location became more and more polished.

That room would become the centrepiece of my life for the next three years.

At this point I had utterly abandoned school in favour of swordplay. I still wonder sometimes how differently my life would have turned out if I hadn’t made that reckless decision. Would I have finished a degree, would I have secured a better job? Probably not, to be honest. Schooling had always been an endless, upward struggle for me.

Most people don’t know that I am a little on the learning disabled side, since I primarily come off as eccentric. Yet it is true, I have a good old dose of the ADD, coupled with an almost crippling inability to do anything directly mathematical. If it wasn’t for the fact that Mother utterly exhausted herself to force her children though school, I probably wouldn’t have even managed to get to college. As such, the first seventeen years of my life were a constantly stressful period where I usually felt as if I was beating my head against a wall. The English Language was the only thing I excelled at and, apparently, martial arts for some reason.

Thus, experiencing the fairly foreign sensation of being potentially really good at something, I latched on to that ego-boost completely. It wasn’t long before I was spending four or five days a week at Duello, often barely working enough in my off time to keep myself alive. I was consistently short on rent and I ate a great deal of Kraft Dinner, but I had a sword in my hand every moment I could.

An attempt to run a morning class two days a week eventually led to the formation of the trinity that would define the coming years. The people who regularly showed up at seven in the morning dwindled down to myself, Courtney Rice, and the co-founding instructor of the school, Randy (David) Packer. There were a few other people, notably Clinton Fernandes, who showed up some of the time, but it was the three of us who were there almost without fail.

I cannot really believe that I loved what I was doing so much that I woke up at 6 AM to go down to the fencing salle. I have never been an early riser, and it is a testament to the times that I got up that early twice a week when I didn’t really have to.

At this point I was a ‘red cord’ at the school. This was the highest rank that any of the students had achieved at the time (and I think still). The camaraderie between Randy and myself had developed into a actual friendship, and I gradually came to be regarded as his assistant instructor. After the morning classes the school ostensibly stayed open until 10 PM, and on Monday’s and Wednesdays we were there pretty much that whole time. Courtney would sometimes have to leave for work, returning in the evenings. Between those times, Randy and I spent an about seven hours in the salle, often remaining for another few hours to take part or instruct the evening classes.

Those were long days.

We ran small afternoon classes, reviewed curriculum for things Randy wanted to teach, brainstormed new drills, experimented with techniques, or just fought amongst ourselves.

As I mentioned in a previous post, my personal life was a wreck at this time. I was broke, hungry and even more socially unsure of myself than I am now. Yet despite all that, there were these little pockets of time on those long, quiet days that were perfect.

Fighting in the morning and then sharing a sip of good rum and smoking a pipe of smooth tobacco on a warm, summer afternoon… Tiny little minutes where things just seemed so good. (“All those moments will be lost in time…like tears in rain.” Sorry, I love that scene in Blade Runner.)

I think one of the most valuable things to come out of this period was the Palestra classes. (Palestra was the name of the gymnasium for martial artists and athletes in ancient Greece. Randy has since coined the phrase Palestrics to mean any athletic or martial activity done with a partner.)

These were hour-long conditioning classes that occurred just before the regular evening classes on Monday and Wednesday. The idea behind them was to create a long, intense workout that would help to condition students for any kind of martial art they might wish to train in. While we had limited equipment to work with, Randy never failed to come up with something exhausting and challenging for the few of us who submitted to this hour.

Though my approach to training has changed quite a bit over the years, I still thank those early days on Palestra for my general work ethic. It taught me that ‘pain don’t hurt’, to quote Roadhouse. It was probably the first time in my life that I really started to work out as well as practising martial arts techniques, and it set the bar for the rest of my career in that area.

Now, a slight aside; Despite this generally bad-ass work ethic, I have never once in my life enjoyed working out. I LOVE fighting, sparring, slow work, combat drills, even hitting the punching bag – but I very much do not, and have not ever, liked working out. I sometimes like the social atmosphere that comes from exercising with friends, but I was the kid who only attended enough gym classes to pass and then skipped the rest to go read somewhere. While it’s true I love the sense of satisfaction that comes at the end of the routine, working out is all about the destination and not the journey for me. I push myself to do the best I can because I want the benefits that come from it.

There are some I dislike less than others, but even the gymnastic, cartwheel, acrobatic stuff is not really all that fun for me. Like anything else in life you love doing, working out is the side of martial arts that I do because I must, not because I want to.

Enough digression, back to the reminiscing;

There we were, the Kings and Queens of cool. We had an intense conditioning workout, long days in the salle, and as much swordplay as anyone could ever want. Things were good. I felt that we all had a a plan and life was looking up.

That plan didn’t work out quite the way we had thought…



Time Well Spent

*Photos by Holly Maclaren

I had quite a fine weekend this week. When I say weekend, I refer more to the concept than the actual days of Saturday and Sunday. My weekend is, in fact, Tuesday and Wednesday, with the occasional other random day thrown in when my employers feel I am superfluous. Anyhow, my work week was ended and I arose early(ish) to a pleasant Tuesday morning that promised a smattering of sunlight between the dappled clouds. I had been informed a few days earlier that the Vancouver Art Gallery was allowing free admission to those who were members of Vancity bank, and since I did my banking with said company I planned to take full advantage.

So Holly and I set out to the gallery after a delicious lunch of well-prepared Thai food. Admission was indeed free, and also carried with it a complimentary packet of Basil seeds. Not having any kind of garden area I have no idea what I am going to do with them, but there they are. Basil. I still think of Faulty Towers every time I think about Basil…

The gallery here is mostly modern art, which is not exactly something I know much about. Nonetheless I found some of it very interesting. I also found some of it very pretentious, but I suppose that is inevitable. I’m a very classical person, and some forms of modern art that rely on a certain amount visceral brashness will never really impress me. The mirror maze that was part of the Ken Lum exhibit was pretty impressive, and I actually got turned around and disoriented at one point. The whole outing was very enjoyable regardless, and afterwards it was time to get ready for class.

Class was as class is at SCG; lots of energy spent, plenty of wrasslin’, the usual. I was disappointed that the general consensus was for wrestling and not swordplay, as I miss the reassuring ring of steel on steel. On that subject, we have proposed to have another class just for working out on Thursday evenings, which met with some success. I also suggested having a Sabre and Rapier hour on Monday afternoons, which also received some positive feedback. I would love to really focus on teaching the finer points of swordsmanship, the subject I am most keen on.

After class it was a desperate attempt to get to sleep, as Holly and I planned to catch the 9AM ferry to Victoria, which meant getting up at 6:30 – not my favorite hour of the morning. I don’t mind a bit of sleep deprivation if it is for the purpose of travel as opposed to work, however, so up I got with only about ten minutes procrastination. Thus we stumbled out into the morning air to rush for the bus that would convey us to the train that would convey us to the bus that would convey us to the ferry. Each stage met without a hitch, more or less, and we arrived at the ferry terminal just in time for boarding.

The successful timing did mean that there was no chance to get foodstuffs before climbing on the ferry, which resulted in the usual monetary gouging for two sandwiches and some coffee. Not that things would have been much cheaper in that food court area at the terminal . The only real hitch was the whole passel of school critters that seemed to buzz around the ship, most likely on some class outing to the museum. Still, such minor annoyances are scarcely worth mentioning.

The ferry picked its way through the scattered islands and green, mossy rocks as the sea birds swooped across the dark water. It was alternately sunny and overcast as we passed the dense lines of coastal trees on our way to Swartz Bay. We arrived at our destination on time and departed the vessel, making our way to the bus loop just outside the arrival terminal. There was a brief wait before we climbed onto the double-decker bus and ascended to the top floor. We took our seats and the rest of our fellow passengers filed in, both of us noticing the pervading smell of pot smoke and beer that wafted with them. It seemed that some of the other travelers had been having themselves quite a good time on board the ferry.

We pulled out of the station and began the final leg of the trip that would bring us to downtown Victoria. We pulled onto the highway, driving past clumps of purple flowers that clung to rocks beside the road. It was a quiet preamble through the smaller cities and towns that sat between Swartz Bay and Victoria, most of which were decorated as such places usually are with large wall-murals depicting scenes of local rustic beauty. Finally, after about forty-five minutes of motoring, we arrived in the center of the downtown area in Victoria.

The most tourist-centric area of Victoria is much like Gastown in Vancouver, only a little bigger, cleaner and, in a few places, more dramatic. It took a few moments to re-orientate myself with the area, having been a few years since I last visited. After some brief deliberation and a visit to the mall’s food court, Holly and I decided to begin our wander with our one instance of typical sightseeing. This trip our one concession to money spending tourism was Craigdarroch castle. Having a penchant for all things Victorian/Edwardian, I was interested to see this particular local landmark.

The building was initially completed in 1890, and although it had been used as military hospital, school and music conservatory, it has now been restored as a museum. Guests are welcome to wander about through the twenty rooms full of turn of the century items and architecture. Had it offered guided tours, I don’t think I would have been as interested. As it was, however, I was not disappointed. (Although if we had arrived fifteen minutes sooner we would not have had our heels dogged by yet another group of adolescents, but whatever.)

I had never been in a Victorian house this large before. I have seem smaller, average people’s houses from that period, but not a custom built mansion for a wealthy family. I think I understand certain points of Victorian literature a little better now, especially the aspects dealing with eccentric old aristocrats who hide in their huge estates. As magnificent as the house was, it also had the potential to be very confining and gloomy. Most of the rooms had the shutters halfway down, which made some of the less-windowed rooms rather ghostly what with their dark wood walls. With the windows completely covered, I imagine the place would have been quite the shadowy maze.

I now fully realize just how dark, stuffy and spectral Miss Havisham’s house would have been in Great Expectations...

Yet it was as beautiful as it was intimidating. I would say that I would love to live there, but frankly I wouldn’t know what to do with most of the space since I don’t have or intend to have a large family. I also find having a breakfast room as well as a slightly larger (and almost identical) dining room just a wee bit excessive, but that was the way of rich folk at that time, I suppose – everything, including one’s meals, had to be neatly filed away. I suppose that is what I both enjoy, and enjoy to mock about that era. The amount of artistry that went into designing just about everything during that time period always impresses me, though.

I was also tempted to steal the 110 year-old fencing foil that adorned that mantle in one of the bedrooms.

After Craigdarroch, we meandered back downtown, stopping in some of the antique shops along the way, where of course I drooled over aged sabres whenever possible. Mmmmhhhhh, antique sabres… I was also sure to make sure our sojourns brought us past Old Morris Tobacconist, so I could acquire some delectably blended pipe tobacco. I hadn’t had a smoke in quite some time and enjoyed the opportunity to revel in some fresh supplies.

After our wanderings we decided to sit in a aesthetically pleasing pub and have a pint while sharing a small pizza. This had the prompt and unfortunate effect of putting me right to sleep, reminding my body that I had been awake since 6:30 in the morning after only a few hours sleep. One should never sit comfortable and have a meal when one is traveling in such a manner, it causes a vicious coma. After some more dozy waffling we considered catching the earlier ferry back home, but alas we just missed the but that would allow us to do so. Therefore it was time for my third cup of strong coffee and a leisurely puff on my pipe as we conceded to bide our time for an hour.

"Jelly Baby?"

I would also like to mention an interesting fact at this juncture; In the many months since I acquired my fabulous Fourth Doctor scarf, I have only had three comments upon it while home in Vancouver. Of those three comments only two of the people knew what it was to begin with as well. However in Victoria, in one day, than garment was recognized by no less than six very friendly people who all appreciated it’s magnificence. Apparently I’m in the wrong town for a Doctor Who fan. Either that or people are just more likely to actually approach you with a compliment over there, which is also possible, as Vancouverites do tend to be a bit cagey sometimes.

Anyhow, the time was bode, and we trundled back to the bus stop to begin out long trek homeward. By the time we finally set foot on downtown Vancouver concrete we were both so exhausted it was physically uncomfortable. We were also greeted by a sudden and torrential downpour that flooded the streets immediately. After a quick scarf of some last-minute pizza it was time for a speedy collapsing on the bed. And thus perished my well-spent days.

This little excursion verified to me just how much I love going places outside my own city. Obviously, I would rather travel to more far-flung exotic locations, but even so close to home I enjoy wandering around another town all day. When I do wind up in more colorful locales, it is the same way – I am much more interested in walking around streets, back alleys and jungles than sitting on a beach all day being inert. I suppose this annoys some vacationing companions, having me want to rush around, perpetually tugging on their hand and going “Ooh, lets see what’s over here…”