In memoriam: Robert W. Smith (1926-2011)

The evening of July 1st, 2011 saw the passing of pioneering American martial artist, scholar and writer Robert William Smith. A short biography recording his many achievements is available here.

I vividly recall coming across the book Secret Fighting Arts of the World, by “John F. Gilbey”, in the Wellington, New Zealand Public Library. I was about thirteen years old at the time, and that was probably the perfect age to first encounter Secret Fighting Arts; a collection of astounding martial arts tales recording Gilbey’s encounters with masters of the Macedonian Buttock, the Parisian Halitotic Attack and the Ganges Groin Gouge, among many other cryptic arts of self defence.

A few years later, on vacation in Auckland, I was delighted to find a copy of the sequel, Way of a Warrior, in one of those strange ’70s/’80s martial arts supply/head shops that you never see any more. WoaW contained even more amazing stories, including Mama Su’s deadly art of spitting betel nuts and Fotan, a metaphysical Icelandic martial art that draws energy from black holes. I read the entire book in one evening, swimming back and forth across a pool in the yard of a house my family had rented, finally emerging with wrinkled toes and a blown mind.

Decades later, in reviewing the Gilbey books for Amazon.com, I described John F. Gilbey as “the Indiana Jones of exotic martial arts”, a phrase that was subsequently incorporated into the publisher’s book description. By then, I had long since learned that the pseudonymous “Gilbey’s” books were anthologies of tall tales authored by Robert W. Smith and his friends. Their stories were James Bondesque satires of the fantastical claims sometimes made in the martial arts world, albeit leavened with many serious and even profound observations:

Never, never sacrifice the living, shining life of a loving wife and happy children to the supposed requirements of a boxing regimen. Underline this – I have known men who traded happiness for a black belt and been miserable ever after.

Sensing, but not, as a teenager, truly appreciating that wisdom, I literally did underline that. And so each time I re-read Way of a Warrior, as I did many times over the years, admiring Smith’s imagination and wryly stylish, old-school prose, that underlining was a message from my teenage self via the words of “John F. Gilbey”.

In his 1999 memoir Martial Musings, Bob Smith revealed that:

One of my first literary brushes with self defense was when the arch-villain Professor Moriarty got his godownance (opposite of comeuppance, see?) from Sherlock Holmes. It came not from some great throw, punch or kick, but from a secret Japanese system of unbalancing known as Baritsu (sic). Here are Holmes and Moriarty struggling at Reichenbach Falls:

“When I reached the end I stood at bay. He drew no weapon, but he rushed at me and threw his long arms around me. He knew that his own game was up, and was only anxious to revenge himself upon me. We tottered together upon the brink of the fall. I have some knowledge, however, of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling, which has more than once been very useful to me. I slipped through his grip, and he with a horrible scream kicked madly for a few seconds and clawed the air with both his hands. But for all his efforts he could not get his balance, and over he went.”

I later learned that Holmes’ trick was based on a turn-of-the-century art called Bartitsu, which combined English boxing and wrestling with jujutsu. The name was derived from its founder, a man named E.W. Barton-Wright.

In due turn, “John F. Gilbey” received acknowledgment in both volumes One and Two of the Bartitsu Compendium.

Smith’s essays, The Master of Applied Cowardice – a lightly fictionalised account of the method of non-violent self defence devised by William Paul during the turbulence of the Vietnam War era – and Peace, Brothers and Sisters, Peace largely inspired my own system of self defence without violence, which I taught to young people during the early 1990s as a positive antidote to both school bullying and unfair “zero tolerance” policies.

Although I’ll probably always regret that we never met, nor even directly corresponded, Bob Smith was my mentor in matters cryptohoplological and deeper than that, and he will be missed.

Per his wishes, Bob’s body has been donated to the Wake Forest School of Medicine. There will be a Celebration of Life on Saturday, July 9, 2011 at 3:00 pm in the Chapel of Givens Estates, 2360 Sweeten Creek Road, Asheville, NC 28803.

In lieu of flowers, memorials may be made to any of the following: Resident Assistance Fund at Givens Estates, 2360 Sweeten Creek Road, Asheville, NC 28803; Care Partners Foundation, John F. Keever, Jr. Solace Center, PO Box 25338, Asheville, NC 28813; or an animal rescue group in your area.

– Tony Wolf

4 Comments

  • By teacher, Wednesday, 9th November 2011 @ 1:44 am

    Robert Smith was a writer I read much of: Tai chi, fighting arts of the world, and secret fighting arts of the world, from which learned head butting on the chapter in England. He was the first to introduce the internal arts to the west on a grand scale. He even appears in the cheng man ching videos. We are greatly indebted to him although I wish I had known that secret fighting arts…was fiction.

  • By lloyd kennedy, Tuesday, 20th December 2011 @ 9:07 pm

    I thought the books were great indeed and if worked on 4 to 6 days a week say 3 to 5 hours each day you might find that some of those techniques were not to be taken lightly.

  • By Bartitsu Society, Tuesday, 20th December 2011 @ 9:13 pm

    True, though by the same token, some of them were not intended to be taken seriously.

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