Arms race

Everyone at one point or another goes through a phase of some kind. Some whim that mutates into a minor obsession, whether it’s fuelled by delusion or the pursuit of being ‘cool’. Usually they’re fairly harmless; you lose a little bit of time, a little bit of money and a pinch of self respect every time you recall this moment in your life. But the stakes have the potential to be much higher. Higher than that time when you were convinced you needed that plastic tupperware container to add to the hundreds you already own. Just in case, obviously. Unchecked habit can have dire consequences. It infects you, worms its way into your daily life until it becomes a thought and action no more exotic than weekly groceries. It’s how addictions become life style choices.

There was one phase in particular, that was at risk of becoming a ‘severe’ life style choice. I’d made plenty of others already. By that point I was carrying an umbrella with me everywhere, I walked barefoot when I could and my hoard of films and books was excessive (all of which make up perfectly sane and fortuitous behaviour of course). But this one was a little different. I wanted a sword.images

My interest in Japan was at its height and along with that came the history, the culture, the anime, the films and so on. Throughout it all, the Japanese katana was a constant symbol illustrated in history textbooks and hammered through anime. Nothing was quite as cool, as the samurai with the ridiculously big spiky hair that comes up so often in Japanese media. Somehow I believed that if I had such a sword, then I too would be as cool as the figures I read about, or the heroes on the covers of manga. Before you question the logic behind that, I would ask you to remember (or watch if you haven’t already. In fact, go do it now please) ‘My favourite Brunette’ starring Bob Hope, playing a photographer who fantasises about becoming a private detective. As his character aptly puts it:

“You see, I wanted to be a detective too. It only took brains, courage, and a gun… and I had the gun”.

But obtaining a sword was not an easy whim to satisfy. For a start, they were expensive. London had plenty of antique shops that sold authentic katanas that were confiscated from Japanese officers during the second world war and each one cost a small ransom. Modern ones built today were hardly that much cheaper, and sold in very small circles. Apparently trying to own a sword was as much an elitist endeavour as it was eccentric. Undeterred I continued my search and the longer my search progressed, the more devout my desire grew. Oh you have a car do you? And you’ve landed a new job in London? Well, I’ve got an over-priced sword with no practical use whatsoever. Who’s the cool one now?

While price could keep down my insanity to a reasonable degree, a new law emerged in the UK that helped me overcome that inconvenient barrier. It would become illegal within one month’s time, to buy or sell swords as they were deemed to be dangerous  weapons. Preposterous, I know. But it galvanised me into action; I had but a month to get one or risk never accomplishing this dream.

In the end I found myself in an armoury. Before you raise your eyebrows, that was also the name of the store too, specialising in medieval weaponry and armour as ornaments. It was here that I found a katana I could afford. It was a modern replica of one supposedly held by Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a brief Shogun who held power at the end of the Sengoku period. But more importantly, I could afford it. Black lacquer sheath, yellow cord, bronzed guard and folded steel. It was almost perfect, if not for the fact that the blade was blunt. All I needed was the big hair, and that just took either a bathtub’s worth of gel or a lightning bolt to the face.

The next two weeks saw me waving it around my bedroom, performing mock interpretations of real Kendo stances and moves on imaginary opponents. I’m proud to say I won all my duels. I’m a natural at swordsmanship you see. In this time my sister witnessed my fencing prowess with jealousy and awe. Like me, she also desired to be as cool as her anime characters, and questioned me endlessly on where I had gotten my sword. ‘Two weeks until the law puts that store out of business’ I bragged, cradling my sword as though I had saved it. Only two weeks is a good excuse for anyone.

My sister used that excuse the same way I had. I looked on in horror when that same weekend I found her waving not one, but three swords inside the house. Determined to surpass me, she bought a set of three Japanese swords in green sheaths. A dagger, a kodachi and a katana, complete with the plinth to display them all. She was an ‘Afro Samurai’ fan like me, and modelled herself on Jinnosuke, a samurai who just happened to wear a massive teddy bear head as a helmet. He summed up my sister’s ambitions rather succinctly; looking adorable while also being murderously dangerous. The girl who wouldn’t be satisfied being cute unless she was also feared.

e161e2064a0bfe70819217bf6b919f71My adorably homicidal sister, whether intentional or not, had stolen my thunder. I wasn’t the cool guy with the samurai sword any more; I was the forgettable brother to the woman who was armed for war. Worst of all was when I checked the swords myself. They were sharp. Mine was nothing more than a blunt ornament, a statue to be seen. Fake. Her swords could be used for their original purpose. It’s not that either of us intended to murder anyone, despite our hit lists being fairly long. It’s about the satisfaction of knowing you ‘could’ horribly impale someone on your expensive and impractical but cool metal stick. That satisfaction was key and although I could have forgotten my blade’s bluntness before, it was impossible after seeing my sister’s arsenal.

But our arms race had extended beyond even us. Our father, on seeing us with brandished blades, butting heads as our egos threatened to spark conflict between us, did what every parent would do in such a situation. He went and bought a sword too. Joining the arms race was by far more sensible than say, trying to intervener between us directly. He came back with a single katana that far outmatched ours. More than double the price, his had been crafted by a Japanese blacksmith in the original method that older swords had been. The hilt and sheath were beautifully engraved and the blade shimmered. Literally shimmered in the light. I asked him how sharp it was and he said very, but we couldn’t touch it to check. When I asked why, he explained that the blacksmith told him in the store that the acid from the skin of our fingers could compromise the ‘purity’ of the blade. Which meant that it wasn’t just sharper than mine. It was also spooky mystical too. He stored it in a wooden case under the sofa, easy to reach in case an intruder burst through the front door. It took up a nice spot beside his baseball bat.

My mother hung her head as she watched this escalate, and continuously warned us not to take it too far. The police wouldn’t be happy if they somehow found out our house was stocked up to supply a small army of anime zealots. So we tried our best to hide my sister’s and my father’s swords from open view.

I was determined not to be out done all the same, despite the growing tension. So after school, I would diligently finish my homework before preparing my makeshift workstation. We had a knife sharpener in the kitchen that only came out over winter when we had a bird to carve; probably because Christmas cheer had dulled them all. But I guessed it could also be used to sharpen my katana sword. Resting the sword in my lap, I would spend hours every evening hearing the metal screech as I sharpened, stopping only occasionally to test it with a finger. My mother always came home at 6pm and my father had warned me to pack up before she arrived. We needed a clear table for dinner after all.

There was one fateful day however when we were caught red handed. My mother had left work early as she was feeling ill and got home a full hour earlier than normal. When she came into the dining room she found all of us together. Me at the table, concentrating on sharpening my sword. My father demonstrating Kendo moves with his very real sword, and beckoning my sister who was facing him with hers, to copy his moves, as though training for a duel to shortly follow.

“What are you all….Poncho, what are you doing!?”

“I’m sharpening my sword”

“………Why!? ”

“…because it’s dull” I explained as though it were obvious. Why else would I be sharpening it?

“No. No more! That’s enough! No more swords! One of you are going to cut yourselves. Put the swords away! I can’t believe I’m saying this. Sheathe your swords! No more swords!”

We were no longer free to play again with our swords after that. They remain to this day on display in our bedrooms, except for my father’s which rests beneath the sofas in shame because my mother doesn’t want it in her room. But I felt assured. Whatever the future held, whether it be feudal war after emerging from a time machine, or a zombie apocalypse, or a family civil war, or Uma Thurman arrived to finally get payback for that wedding misunderstanding, I’d be prepared. I was a skinny kid with huge fluffy hair, an obsession with nerdy Japanese culture and a not so but almost authentic samurai sword. How could I possibly have been any cooler?



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