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Victorian ass-kicking: we learn a nineteenth-century martial art

Posted at 3:45 pm, February 16, 2014 in Arts & Entertainment, Fun London

© Rob Greig

Every week, editor-at-large Alexi Duggins tries out the kind of events that make you say ‘Only in London!’

Victorian ninja-esque ass-kicking self-defence: sounds made up, no? Googling doesn’t help, as all the images of the longlost nineteenth-century technique of Bartitsu look like a storyboard for an Armstrong and Miller sketch. Bowler-hatted gents loft canes at each other like samurai swords. Tweed overcoats are slung as though they’re man-snaring gladiatorial nets. And as for the name? Its inventor, a chappie called Edward William Barton-Wright, took ‘ju-jitsu’ and merged it with his surname. So it was created by someone whose talent for self-reference surely makes him the Victorian era’s ‘Craaaaiiigggg Daaaaviiidddd’. Totally daft.

Which doesn’t mean it’s not a real thing. ‘This was the West’s first mixed martial art,’ explains our instructor James, at an Idler Academy Bartitsu class held in a UCL gym. ‘It was about out-thinking your opponent. You can see why it appealed to a Victorian sensibility.’ You certainly can.

Our first lesson in this blend of ju-jitsu, wrestling and good old fashioned ‘fisticuffs’ is entitled ‘How to prevent someone stealing your pocket watch’. We’re paired up and one of us is urged to grab at our opponent’s waist. Our partner sidesteps, yanks our arm and swiftly inserts a foot. There’s an almighty slam as 50 percent of the room hit the deck. ‘Bartitsu was all about using whatever you had to hand,’ says James. ‘So let’s smack each other in the head with canes!’ For 15 minutes, we thwack away with walking sticks, until we can take on someone ‘whose staff is stouter than yours’ (no sniggering at the back).

Then it’s time for ‘the coat defence’: we drape a coat over a shoulder, before launching it into the face of an approaching assailant and wrestling them to the floor. Talk about fashion victims. By the end, people are chuckling. The room rings with cries of ‘That was so weird!’ But you know what? I have a new-found confidence. That pocket watch is definitely staying put. The Idler Academy’s sixpart Bartitsu course starts March 5, with a talk on its history on Feb 27.

For more details go to idler.co.uk; Read more about Alexi’s adventures or tweet suggestions for his next task to @Alexiduggins

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