By: John F. Gilbey
Secret Fighting Arts of the World
(Charles E. Tuttle, 1963, 150 pages)
The Way of a Warrior
(North Atlantic Books, 1982, 160 pages)
Western Boxing and World Wrestling
Story and Practice
(North Atlantic Books, 1986, 150 pages)
Reviews by Christopher Dow
In 1980, a martial arts friend loaned me Secret Fighting Arts of the World by a fellow named John F. Gilbey. The book had been published nearly twenty years earlier, and its modest length contained the martial arts exploits of the author as he searches the world over for martial expertise in whatever interesting variation he can find. And certainly he seemed capable. This is his thumbnail bio from the book’s opening page:
John L. Gilbey, a Ph.D. fluent in seven languages, is a world-renowned expert in self-defense, holding a 7th dan in judo, a 5th dan in karate, and a master’s certificate in Chinese boxing. Although not keen to reveal these secrets to the public, he finally gave in to the publisher’s insistence and wrote this excellent introduction to fighting systems around the world.
That’s quite a bio for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that any one of these preoccupations could take decades, and Gilbey also claims to be so successful in the textile industry that he is independently wealthy, allowing him time to travel all over to learn all those languages and martial arts. An almost impossibly remarkable man like that must have remarkable tales to tell, and indeed, he does. The book’s pages regale the reader with profiles of highly proficient, if often extremely unusual, martial artists, many of whose exploits seem incredible—sometimes more like what you’d see in a corny mythic martial arts movie rather than in a dojo or kwoon.
The book was similar in format and style to those by Gilbey’s contemporary martial arts author, the great Robert W. Smith, whose books profiling Chinese martial arts and artists helped introduce those arts to the Western world. Several times, Gilbey even cites Smith and Smith’s sometimes co-author and contemporary martial arts expert, Donn Draeger, as sources of information. One difference between the two writers was that Smith’s prose was fluid, fact-based, and pleasant in tone, with frequent touches of humor, while Gilbey’s delivered a bit of sensationalism with a hard-boiled edge. Humor was there, but a little more savagely expressed that Smith's. More important, perhaps, the martial arts profiled by Smith are entirely believable, while some that Gilbey writes about aren’t.
Even so, I gobbled up that first Gilbey book with great abandon at the time and believed every word. So I was delighted when Gilbey published a second, similar volume two years after I read the first. Then, four years after that, he published yet a third book, this one focused on western boxing and world wrestling. I didn’t read that until years after it was published, but by then, I’d learned the truth. That third book was fact-based, but the other two were, in large part, martial arts fiction. No wonder their contents often seemed fantastic—as fantastic as the bio of their author—which also was fiction. There was a definite reason that the basic structure of these books and Gilbey’s writing style vaguely resembled the work of Robert W. Smith. Gilbey was Smith. Or maybe it was the other way around. (See HERE for reviews of Smith’s books, particularly the review of Martial Musings, which contains more of the Gilbey persona's backstory.)
Smith wrote about the genesis of the Gilbey persona in his 1999 book, Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century*, in a chapter titled “John Gilbey and His Correspondents.” (p. 113). The chapter opens with:
John Gilbey was born in Donn Draeger’s house in Tokyo in 1961. Donn hit on the idea of giving me a textile millionaire doppelganger. Then [Jon] Bluming and [Jim] Bregman got in on the act, even getting up some photos, and in Bluming’s case, posing for a drawing, to lend verisimilitude to the story. Gilbey was a joke, an exaggeration, a fantasy. He had money, time, and amazing skill in everything. We were sure readers would be smart enough to realize this. We were wrong. (113)
So I wasn’t the only one taken in by the Gilbey persona. Big-time writers—mainstream as well as genre and martial arts authors—quoted Gilbey and cited some of the techniques he claimed to have come across in his travels. “The world’s most secretly guarded fighting techniques,” stated the Boston Globe in a review of Secret Fighting Arts of the World. The thing about those techniques is that while some were real, just as many were bogus. From Martial Musings:
Secret Fighting Arts of the World contained some truth, plus many whoppers. The Way of a Warrior contained more personal philosophy and some straight history. The chapter on savate and the descriptions of old Hawaiian martial arts, for instance, were as straight as I knew how to make them…. Gilbey’s third book, Western Boxing and World Wrestling was almost entirely straight.
Smith then notes ironically that the third, and most truthful, Gilbey book is the one least quoted, while the first, and most fictitious, is the most cited.
Another giveaway that the two authors are the same person—aside from similarities in their books’ structures and writing style—is that both salt their writing with quotes by famous and notable people from literature and history—though Smith does this more frequently than Gilbey. The effect on the writings of both is that you have the impression of reading the work of intelligent, sincere, and generous men who are knowledgeable not just about the martial arts, but of the world at large. Just as a person cannot disguise their handwriting, so, too, a writer cannot truly hide his or her personality and style behind a pseudonym, so I think this says a lot about Smith.
However, not everything in the Gilbey books was written by Smith. In keeping with Gilbey’s collaborative persona, judoka Bill Paul, who was profiled in The Way of a Warrior in the chapter titled, “Master of Applied Cowardice,” also wrote the chapter, “Mama Su,” in the same book. (Martial Musings, p. 141).
Secret Fighting Arts of the World is the first Gilbey book. Somewhere along the way after the first edition, the book gained the subtitle, A Journey into the Secret World of Martial Arts. It contains twenty chapters following a forward that lets the reader know, through Gilbey’s hard-boiled style as much as his words, that the author is a martially skilled, no-nonsense kind of guy willing to roughhouse with the big boys. Amusingly, the writing style that Smith adopts for Gilbey is very much like his own, but hyped up on steroids and channeling Philip Marlowe—or sometimes even Sam Spade. And certainly Smith, like Gilbey, was willing to roughhouse with the big boys, as his many legitimate books and articles show.
Each of the chapters covers a particular type of martial art or individualized technique. While many of these martial arts and techniques are somewhat straightforward and realistic, such as savate and the corkscrew punch, others veer into strange territory. There is the man who used only head-butts, the Thugee, the guy who fought using only his waist and buttocks, and the Dinkey Little Poke. (You’ll have to read the book to find out about that.) Some even go beyond those, into the bizarre, such as the man who developed the ability to belch out, at will, a halitosis so completely incapacitating that it was potentially deadly.
Actually, once you know that some of this material is fiction—or largely so—it’s possible to recognize the more legitimate material thanks to similar stuff Smith published under his own name. In Martial Musings, Smith also reproduces several photos from which drawings in the Gilbey book were copied.
Although The Way of a Warrior follows the same general pattern as its predecessor, with fourteen chapters doing duty here, this book does not suffer as much from the questionable veracity of the stories. By Smith’s own reckoning, this second volume has several chapters that are “as straight as I knew how to make them,” and it also contains more straightforward martial arts history. Indeed, I first learned of Capoeira from this book. The more fictional episodes are less unbelievable than those in the first book. And one of those, the amusing tale titled, “Chang San-feng Lives!”, which highlights the exploits of a Chang San-feng-like fellow haunting the streets of New York City, still entertains me decades after I first read it. There’s a martial arts movie somewhere in that episode.
Perhaps more important is the generally philosophical approach the author takes with this book. This is what makes it a more satisfying read than the first book. Under Gilbey’s hard-boiled guise, Smith allows himself a freer rein to opine at will—often strongly—on specific martial styles and the martial arts in general. But even here, it’s hard to know how much of what Gilbey says is something that Smith really believes. It is possible that, in allowing Gilbey considerable psychic autonomy, Smith also permits Gilbey to be a little more extreme in his attitudes and beliefs than the real author actually is. In fact, in the Gilbey chapter in Martial Musings, Smith admits to an instance or two of overstatement when writing as Gilbey. As any writer of fiction knows, characters sometimes take over a story against the will or wishes of the writer.
The third Gilbey book, Western Boxing and World Wrestling, is almost completely factual, so I’ll detail it a little more than the previous two books. The book is evenly divided between the two subjects. Boxing comes first, opening with a chapter titled, “The Best Western Boxer,” a chapter-long bio of Andy Jones, an amateur boxer in the 1930s. Using Jones as an exemplar, Gilbey lays out the basic precepts of boxing and defines the types of boxers.
The next couple of chapters delve into the history of boxing from Graeco-Roman times to British pugilism. Along the way, Smith discusses the various methods, styles, and strategies that boxing assumed over the centuries. After that, the remainder of the boxing section talks about the development of the modern sport through thumbnail sketches of boxers, their styles, and their glories and downfalls. These sketches are organized into categories—sometimes weight categories, but other classifications include Black boxers, dirty fighters, tactics, and size and weight advantages.
The wrestling section begins in a similar fashion by going into the history of wrestling from ancient times to the present. Smith states in Martial Musings that much of the wrestling section was based on research he’d done years earlier for a proposed history of world wrestling, so I guess this is that book. Or one-half book. In the introduction to this section, Gilbey is quick to note the difference between “showers” and “shooters.”
To show means to wrestle for money, that is, to play-act and cooperate with an opponent in order to deceive the public and loosen it from its moolah. For it is easier to polish and garnish the thing into high dives, acrobatic throws, and gimmicked techniques that will bilk the uninitiated than it is to “shoot”—that is, to wrestle competitively. (p. 81-82)
From that statement, you can take it that the wrestling Gilbey talks about in this book is not “show”—the kind you see on “professional wrestling” TV programs.
Following wrestling’s history, each chapter delineates the development of the sport into regional variations in style and rules. The wrestling of Europe, England, Switzerland, Iceland, Russia, Turkey, India, Pakistan, Japan, and America are represented, and there are major differences between them—think Sumo as opposed to Graeco-Roman wrestling, to cite an extreme. As with the boxing section, Gilbey uses anecdotes about notable exponents of the sport to keep matters historical and the narrative moving along.
While this book is the most factual of Gilbey’s output, it can wear thin for someone less interested in boxing and wrestling than in the Asian martial arts. Once I was past the more strictly historical material, which I found interesting, Gilbey can seem a little like those characters in film noir who hang around bars and know all the boxing or baseball or whatever statistics from the past eighty years and start rattling them all off as soon as you buy them a beer and mention their favorite sport. The same with fans of old jazz records, who can cite performer, album, song, and year from the quoting of a single line or hum of a single musical phrase—something Gilbey also claims to be able to do with great facility and which Smith engages in in Martial Musings. Great fun for them and those like them but tending toward the boring for the rest of us. No wonder this third Gilbey book is cited less than the previous two, though it certainly would be of interest to—and should be read by—those who want some in-depth history of the subjects it covers.
The one definite thing Smith did have in common with Gilbey was a true expertise in the martial arts. Smith got his start as a youth through boxing and wrestling before moving on to judo, karate, and Chinese and other styles of martial arts. I don’t know what his official rankings and qualifications were in each area when he died, but they were high—3rd Dan in the judo and certainly close to or at master level in internal kung fu, with a smattering of other martial arts thrown into the mix. He knew what he was talking about when he discussed the parameters of a given martial style or skill level of martial artists he’d encountered. And he encountered many during his lifetime. In addition, as a knowledgeable martial arts historian, he was the most important Western martial art writer of his age, educating and inspiring whole generations of budding martial artists with his knowledge, understanding, and willingness to share.
So it’s hard to say why he wrote these fictions. They almost seem counterproductive, much like paranormal hoaxes, which, when exposed, encourage ridicule of genuine paranormal research. He says it was all a sort of grand joke, but it’s one thing to sit around in the locker room, joking about something, and another entirely to sit down at a keyboard day after day and hammer out three whole books based on that joke. But it looks like Smith couldn’t really sustain the joke that far, and so, in order to produce book-length manuscripts, he ended up mixing fact into the fiction.
Perhaps some of that material was loosely based on real people or exploits Smith had met or heard about but didn’t have enough background or detail to fill an entire article for one of his legitimate books. It also could be that he was just stretching his literary stylistic legs in a way that strict nonfiction wouldn’t allow. And maybe he was poking a bit of fun at himself and similar writers, whose nonfiction writings about people whose extraordinary skills and abilities essentially couldn’t be distinguished from fiction—something that too often is the case in the martial arts world, where hyperbole, legend, and lies often are taken for truth. This possibility is supported by Gilbey’s hard-boiled style, which, at its strongest, can be considered a mild parody of the opining bluster that too frequently invades martial talk and writings.
So, there are problems with the Gilbey books in terms of factuality, but even so—even if Gilbey is, himself, a fiction—anything written by Robert W. Smith is worth reading. It should be noted, however, that just as every rule has its exception, so does this one. Gilbey wrote a fourth, non-martial-arts book containing jokes. Lame jokes. Very lame jokes. The few Smith cites in Martial Musings more than aptly demonstrate that this book is probably best forgotten, and thus it is the exception to the “Read everything by Robert Smith” rule.
More important, any problems I have with these books are outweighed by the presence of genuine information and measured and informed opinion. The presence of those make these books as important, in their own way, as any of Smith’s other books. When Robert J. Flaherty, considered the father of both documentary and ethnographic filmmaking for his Nanook of the North and other films, was accused of setting up scenes with his indigenous actors, he responded, “Sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.” Further, since all fiction is lies, this statement can be taken as the fiction writer’s mantra—and regarding the Gilbey books, perhaps Smith’s, too. Besides, the books are pretty entertaining. Even the fictional stories are a fun lure if you look at them as elements of juvenile martial arts movies with outrageous martial artists. But once you’re lured in, stay for not just the more credible accounts, but for Gilbey’s opinions and diatribes. They are the meat of this meal.
* Martial Musings: A Portrayal of Martial Arts in the 20th Century. Smith, Robert W. (Via Media Publishing Co., 1999)