quaker fencer

kathz isn't quite my name. I may be a Quaker. If I'm a fencer I'm a bad one and I don't do sabre. If I'm a Quaker I'm a bad one - but you've worked that out already. Read on. Comment if you like. Don't expect a reply.

Location: United Kingdom

Saturday, February 26, 2011


That's an over-dramatic headline. Yes, I was hurt but not badly.

It was the first hit of the the first bout of the evening. I was against an experienced fencer whose hits usually land so lightly I don't feel them. The first thing I know is the electric alert telling me he's caught me on the arm or wrist again.

I've been trying to improve my guard. I'd like to think that's why he didn't get an arm hit. Instead his epée came just inside my upper arm and caught me hard - which would have mattered less if his blade hadn't slid inside my breast protector.

Breast protectors are unglamorous items. They look like white plastic saucers and slip into pockets in women's fencing jackets. There are more sophisticated protectors which cover most of the chest but I've never felt able to justify such an expense. This is the first time I've regretted the economy.

The second time was the second hit of the evening, which caught me in the same place. By then I was trying not to cry from the pain and very glad to be wearing a mask. I continued, shakily and not well, hoping my opponent hadn't noticed.

Most of my fencing for the rest of the evening was incompetent, though I managed a couple of decent hits, including one to the wrist. But I took some more hits that hurt more than usual, perhaps because the pain persisted. I was annoyed to be caught on the inside of my elbow which I seem to reveal as a target whenever I'm tiring. So much for my plans to try out a ceding parry or vary my style - I could feel myself repeating the same, failing moves.

There was one delight, however. Since the Spaniard returned home I've been the only woman regularly fencing epée. But this night there was a visitor - a woman epéeist who'd travelled some distance with her husband for an evening of fencing. She was an older woman too - obviously a better fencer and more experienced than me but, she reckoned, a bit out of practice. It was fun to fence someone I hadn't fenced before and I think we both enjoyed it. Unusually I had a slight advantage of height and reach so I didn't do too badly. When we stopped, we were both out of breath and smiling.

But the pain continued - and it still does, even though I can't see a bruise. I've been taking things easily. I can't fence next week but I'm determined to recover for the week that follows. I'm definitely not getting enough chances to stab people.

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Sunday, February 20, 2011

cat or sword?

Once again I was looking forward to fencing. But the cat had been wheezing and needed a visit to the vet. And another visit to the vet. And x-rays.

I was once again feeling guilty - if the cat was ill, I had plainly done something wrong - or neglected to do something I should have done. "I never meant to have a cat," I muttered defensively, scratching Joe behind one ear.

He purred back. People don't have cats - cats have people. Joe decided some while ago - could it be three years back? - that he would be our cat. So I'm responsible for food, bills, trips to the vet and general cat-care.

It's usually my son who assists and, last fencing day, he collected Joe from the vet. "He's had x-rays," my son told me, "and a sedative."

I got home from work to find a sleepy, slightly confused cat and a son preparing to go out on a trip he'd arranged some time ago.

Plainly I couldn't leave Joe to go fencing. I settled down at home and tried to persuade Joe to eat his food, which had been sprinkled with white powder on the vet's recommendation. Joe didn't approve.

He began by trying to scrape the powder away with his paw. It didn't work. He tried sliding his bowl away and pretending I'd forgotten to feed him. He tried indignation and pathos. Finally he managed to turn the bowl over and spill its contents all over the floor.

Cat 1 - human 0 (the usual score).

We both had an early night.

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Sunday, February 13, 2011

waterbottles and library books

If there are any readers left out there after my long absence, I apologise. I'm back. I shall try to post more frequently.

When New Year arrived, I contemplated giving up fencing. I was feeling my age. Compared with some veteran fencers I know, I was feeling much more than my age. I expect this to be a regular theme now. I have been fencing for several years and I doubt I can get faster. I don't learn as quickly as I did when I was young - and I was never quick at grasping physical manoeuvres.

I went to the club Christmas dinner. It was an enjoyable event. A splendidly large and shiny sword was presented to the Mistress-at-Arms - a new trophy since it's new to have several women competing in all three weapons. All the time I was thinking "This might be my last fencing occasion." I wasn't sure I had the energy or determination any more.

The following week saw me spending three hours in a long, tedious and not entirely pleasant meeting at work. It was hours till the first fencing club evening of the year. As I looked at my colleagues and listened to their words I was struck with the thought, "I want to stab someone." Since duels in the workplace are almost certainly against health and safety rules (and I didn't even have my epée with me) I thought it best to head to fencing. Just to be on the safe side, I signed up for another term.

My fencing has been erratic, even by my standards. Every so often I land a series of hits that please me - or even reach the score that is my secret target. I've had two or three one-to-one coaching sessions - one when I was so tired I could take nothing in and simply gave way to laughter at my own incompetence but at other times I've made some slight progress which pleases me.

Two coaches have attempted to instruct me in the ceding parry (which I persist in thinking of as the "seeding parry"). It's a splendidly strategic piece of swordplay in which the fencer appears to give in to an opponent's strength before suddenly changing the direction of the blade and launching an unexpected attack. On a good day, I can manage it in slow motion two times out of three. I don't think this is quite good enough to try using it at full speed in a bout but it's good to know how it works and perhaps, one day, the opportunity to use it will present itself. Meanwhile I continue to work on stance, lunges, point control - all the basics that drift if I don't keep thinking about them.

Work is, for me as for many people, a perpetual source of anxiety. In the current climate of cuts most people know that their jobs are at risk, whether directly or indirectly. Coming home after a particularly tough day, I consoled myself with the prospect of an evening's consensual stabbing. I got as far as changing into my breeches when I was presented with a disaster - my water bottle, which had spent the week in my back-pack with the rest of my kit, had leaked. My breeches weren't just damp - they were sodden. Nonetheless, I tried struggling into them in the hope that no-one would notice. They might, I reasoned, dry off as I cycled to the leisure centre.

This attempt at self-deception didn't last long. If I wore the wet breeches I would be dripping over the leisure centre floor. I wondered idly whether it would be safe when wired up for electric fencing but couldn't make up my mind. I struggled out of the breeches and laid them on the radiator in the vain hope that they'd dry in ten or fifteen minutes. They didn't. Later inspection of my water bottle showed that the thread on the screw top had perished in some way - it was no longer possible to tighten it.

I made up for my disappointment in fantasy fencing. Shocked by the current threats to public libraries, which have been my refuge and source of inspiration since childhood, I rejoined the local library and took part in the national Save Libraries day. Looking for books to borrow, I chanced on Isabel Allende's novel Zorro. I remembered thinking I'd like to read it when it came out - I've enjoyed other novels by Allende - but never got round to it. It's my current choice of bedtime reading and highly enjoyable, if a little sketchy on the finer details of fencing technique.

I also came across the best use of fencing in an advertisement. It helps that it includes Zinedine Zidane. Some people have suggested that it isn't really Zidane fencing or even that there's a switch from epée to sabre in the middle of the sequence. I refuse to believe any of it. Why wouldn't Zidane take up fencing now that he's retired from football? - and of course he'd be an epéeist.

Thrilled by all this fantasy fencing, I returned to the fencing club with renewed vigour - and a new water bottle. I bought it in a sale immediately after our local Save Libraries event, which attracted 400 people in addition to the 300-400 regular Saturday morning users - not bad for a suburban public library. I haven't seen a library so crowded since the days when I was sadly dependent on a mobile library which came on wheels and wobbled when anyone entered it.

I must have been over-excited by the prospect of saving libraries as I allowed the chef to persuade me into the purchase of a water bottle with a slightly unsuitable slogan. It seemed funny at the time but on club nights I find I'm hoping no-one will notice it and try to keep it in a position where the delightfully decorated message on the bottle faces the wall.

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Saturday, December 18, 2010

hits and misses

For two weeks the snow and ice meant I couldn't fence. After my fall on black ice last January, I've been more hesitant than ever about venturing on frozen surfaces and the compacted snow topped with a fine layer of frozen heavy frost made walking – or staggering – difficult. I certainly didn't plan a precarious bike-ride over icy roads and cycle paths. Briefly I thought of calling a taxi, which might have been fine, but I had visions of serious skids. Every so often, advice would be issued on TV and radio. It was along the lines of the World War II posters that inquired, “Is your journey really necessary?” I had to concede that my journey to fencing was not really necessary. Besides, I had a cold.

The one-hit epée contest approached. So did the club competition but, as soon as I saw the date, I knew I couldn't take part. For once I had a prior engagement. I hesitated about the one-hit epée too.

I've never done well at one-hit contests. Sometimes I get an unexpected victory. More often the best consolation I get is a run of “double defeats” when simultaneous scores count as losses rather than, as in normal epée, points for both fencers. I had never tried one-hit epée when quite so tired and out of practice.

Part of the tiredness was the chef's fault – but perhaps it would be fairer to blame the chaos on the railways. The chef and I planned to attend a poetry reading and she kindly invited me to a pre-poetry meal. There was no way I would refuse the opportunity to sample the products of the chef's culinary genius so I accepted, even though it meant I would have to leave work after a mere eight hours, instead of my usual ten or eleven. Of course, it didn't work out. Chaos on the railways – combined with lack of information – meant I had to phone the chef who kindly postponed the meal until after the poetry. So the words of the poets – including the excellent Alexander Hutchison – were followed rather than preceded by a meal which included chestnut roast, braised fennel, a creamy mash, cheese, biscuits, cake and mince pies. There was wine too – and conversation. I didn't get to bed till some time after midnight which was less than ideal when I planned to get up shortly after 5.

I think I overslept. I had to rush for the train – at least the ice had briefly melted so that it was once more safe to run – and bought a hot breakfast to eat at my desk, using plastic cutlery. It wasn't an ideal start to the day. I suppose the day itself went better than I had expected but, when I got home, I had to tell myself determinedly that I would do the one-hit epée, even if I never fenced again after that. I got ready in a state of grim resignation, slung my sword-bag over my shoulder and trudged to the leisure centre.

Usually a couple of beginners take part in the one-hit epée. This year all the competitors were reasonably experienced fencers, including a few sabreurs and a foilist. There were twelve of us – just enough to set up a poule unique. “Eleven bouts,” I thought. “If I can just win one – or even two – I'll be content.” But looking at the opposition it didn't seem likely.

No-one bothered to set up an order for fencing. We had two pistes and, when someone suggested we just fence one another, in any order, and hand our results in, we agreed that would be sensible. I watched for a while and then someone suggested I fence the boy.
Once upon a time I could beat the boy but he's been training almost non-stop, competing and taking advantage of any opportunities that offer. My advantage of height and reach (and longer sword) is usually cancelled by his speedy reactions, cunning deceptions and accurate attacks.

We faced each other on the piste and moved up and down. Neither of us launched an attack.
I could see that the boy's wrist was showing, just slightly, below his guard. His blade pointed toward me but, in theory, if I could hit that little patch of wrist from below, I could score a hit. It had to be a trick. We moved backwards and forwards some more. The boy's wrist was still showing. I felt as though I was moving in slow motion when I began my attack. It wasn't a deep lunge - I don't do deep lunges – but it was just sufficient to take me below the level of his blade with my point aiming to his wrist. The boy didn't seem to move. He looked startled as my hit landed and I scored the point. He couldn't have been as startled as I was. “One point,” I thought. “If I can get one more I'll be satisfied.”

My next bout was against a coach – the only competitor older than me but someone I could never dream of beating in competition. I tried to put up some resistance as our blades clashed but somehow he got past me and hit me on the back. I was sure it was a good hit but it didn't register. We continued fencing. I went for his foot, missed, and then – convinced my opponent had trouble with his blade – took the opportunity to hit the floor. This allowed him to check his blade, which definitely wasn't registering hits, and to borrow a replacement.

The uncertainty over the blade must have had an effect on the coach. I told him I reckoned it had been a good hit but of course a hit can't be allowed just because a fencer thinks it has registered. We had to start again. The coach came toward me and, as he began a lunge, my blade, almost of its own accord, went for his knee and scored a hit. I had the two hits I wanted – and now, I decided, I would quite like to score a few more.

It didn't happen quite as I would have wanted. I lost the next two bouts, both against sabreurs. One fleched me and I was cross with myself that I didn't react faster though, given his height, it probably wouldn't have helped. And while for a moment I thought I might catch the sabreuse with a quick counter-attack, her quick reactions and experience led her to victory. “That's it,” I thought. “Two hits. Not too bad.” But I caught the next sabreur on the mask, just as he launched a sabre-style attack.

That was three hits – as many as I'd ever scored in one-hit epée. Perhaps the tiredness was helping me – forcing me to rely on instinct and memory. Or perhaps the other fencers were tired too. In the end I won three more bouts, all against fencers who are much better than me and who have helped me with my fencing. I lost against the foilist, against a young epéeist and a fencer of foil and epée who I really should have beaten.

That's when the Spaniard turned up. She looked so disappointed at missing the one-hit epée that someone at once suggested that, if she wanted, she could occupy a piste and fence everyone in turn while the final bouts on the score-sheet took place on the other piste. It was her last chance to fence us – she's going back to Spain next week – and she was delighted to take up the offer.

I fenced her first. She beat me. She fenced the coach. She beat him. It was the beginning of a run in her favour. The boy, at the head of the poule sheet, determined to fence her last. He watched her overtake his total. I think she had achieved nine wins out of eleven when she fenced the boy. She picked up a small sword so that she would fence him with a weapon of the same length. It was a difficult and protracted bout, both fencing energetically and each trying to trick the other as the rest of us watched. The final hits seemed simultaneous but the light gave victory to the Spaniard, who instantly hugged the boy. He's still young enough to find hugs from a beautiful young woman embarrassing and squirmed away.

Then there were photos of the Spaniard with her trophy (the traditional chocolate Santa) and the rest of is clustered around her.
Coming home, I wondered if I would ever fence again. Gloomy reflections seem appropriate to my age, the cold and the year's end. If that was the last time, it wouldn't be too bad. Six wins out of twelve is more than respectable and, given the double defeats others experienced, probably places me, for the first time ever, in the top half of the score-sheet.

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Wednesday, November 24, 2010

tiredness and anger

It's hard to find time and energy to fence – and harder still to maintain this blog. I need to work, sleep and fulfil various other human obligations. But I continue to fence each week and the blog needs an update.

There have been good weeks. On one occasion, angry with the government, I ended the evening by fencing a relative beginner who is much taller than me and half my age. We've fenced before and are usually evenly matched. On this occasion we'd been discussing politics before the bout, sharing our views on the folly of particular government cuts. “I'm going to pretend you're the cabinet,” I told him. It seemed slightly unfair on him, since he hadn't said a word in their defence. However I'd been criticised for lack of aggression earlier in the evening and, if fencing the cabinet couldn't help, nothing could.

Apart from fencing, I'm a pacifist. It's more than thirty years since I decided on non-violence and, although I still get angry on occasion, restraint has become a habit. But I'm very angry with the government and, since starting fencing, I've made an exception for consensual violence.

I surprised myself. “Take that, Cameron!” I shouted. “That's for you, Clegg!” My first hit to my opponent's head was accompanied by the cry, “That's one of your brains, Willetts – now I'll get the other.” (And I did.)

I have to report that I didn't vanquish the entire cabinet. However my unexpected aggression must have unnerved my opponent. I beat him 15 – 4.

That was a one-off. However I seem to be fencing a little better, at least on some occasions. The following week I beat the same opponent 15 – 12, even though he had the advantage of not representing the British cabinet. And against a young woman who usually beats me with ease, even though she's mostly a foilist, I pulled back from 5 – 0 to fence her on almost level terms. She couldn't see where she was going wrong. Nor could I, but I was concentrating on keeping my distance right and waiting for the best time to strike. We reached 14 – 14. I did my best but she was faster and took the final point, much to her relief. It may have been a defeat but I was thrilled by the best score I'd ever had against her – and that I'd made her make such an effort to win.

Most of my fencing has been less exciting. I go to the leisure centre on foot or on my bike. Sometimes it rains. Usually I find myself matched with much against more experienced fencers - or better fencers - who beat me easily but help with useful advice. I ref. Sometimes the electronic equipment fails but mostly it works.

There have been highlights. One fencer gave a talk on her experience fencing at the Commonwealth Championships in Australia. And a visiting fencer gave me advice I've never heard before: "Keep it simple." It sounds good and plausible but it still depends on speed and accuracy. There's much more to do. And I'm getting older.

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Tuesday, November 02, 2010

twilight fencer

I took two weeks off. Off fencing, that is - I still had to work. A bad cold hit me at the wrong time. I'd have had to be a good deal worse to stay home in the daytime. I sneezed, coughed and spluttered over colleagues through the first week but decided that sneezing into a fencing mask would be too unpleasant.

As the sneezing subsided, I convinced myself I was better. I decided it was my responsibility to take the chef to the Goose Fair, said to be the largest and oldest travelling fair in Europe. We encountered its thrills and horrors with courage, even admiring the terrifying puppy which dwelt in the depths of the Maze of Terror - the pup of the Baskervilles, perhaps.

By the end of the day I was more tired than usual and the following week was exhausting. I was also losing my voice. For a second time I missed fencing and chose an early night instead.

It's hard to go back to fencing after two weeks off. I was still tired - too tired to cycle - and felt flabbily unfit. But I felt that, if I didn't fence a little, I'd never go back again.

When I arrived I was able to congratulate a sabreuse who had fenced in the Commonwealth championships and a coach who had reached the last eight in the World Veterans. But there were many absentees. I don't know if there was an outbreak of autumn illnesses or whether the new Age of Austerity was taking effect - many of us are closing in on ourselves and staying home more as though to hug our worries to ourselves. Enthusiasm was low and there was a distinct lack of epéeists. I wondered if the walk had been enough for me. I had done my best. Now I could go home without having to fence.

At this point a coach offered me an epée lesson. I felt slightly feeble but I reckoned the lesson could end at any time if I was inclined. It began badly but gradually the coach's patience helped me focus on my guard while looking for the best moment to attack. I began to keep my arm steady and slide my blade over or under his guard while angling towards wrist and forearm. Perhaps my tiredness was helping me concentrate - there was no space for any non-fencing ideas in my tired brain. My distance seemed slightly better too.

Back in the main hall, I was invited to fence by a strong, helpful opponent - just to ten. "Be aggressive," he told me, as he always does. "I want to see you move fast, make an effort."

I checked my guard - tried to adjust it, and he told me where I was going wrong. That gave me the chance to adjust to fencing a left-hander.

As we began, I realised I had nothing to worry about. I couldn't expect to win the bout but I was going to try my hardest. Once again the tiredness was on my side, letting me concentrate on distance and varied actions. I continued to make silly mistakes - I wish I could bout without occasionally charging onto my opponent's blade - but I was getting unexpected hits, one to the wrist. "Good hit," my opponent said, encouragingly.

He won 10 - 7 but I was fighting till the end. It was probably the best score I'd ever managed against him. "That's the best I've ever seen you fence," he said approvingly and I glowed with pleasure and exhaustion. I still wasn't used to the exertion.

Then the club president invited me to fence. Epée may be his third weapon but on a good day he can beat most club fencers. I prepared to be crushed - but to do my best. All I could do was take quick advantage of his few unforced errors. I managed a couple of hits, one to his foot - and he managed quite a few on me. But there was something wrong with the electrics. Some hits registered, some didn't. We couldn't work out what was wrong and in the end, fed up, we walked away leaving the match incomplete.

"I gave you those points," he teased - at least, I think he was teasing. Then he changed tack. "No - I didn't - you took them. Your blade went right inside my shoe." He mimicked the motion with his own sword, showing how my blade had glided past his ankle.

Was it luck? Probably. Even if I managed, he wasn't fencing with the determination he shows in competition. But I felt I'd done well, considering the time off. I rewarded myself by cadging a lift home.

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Sunday, October 03, 2010


I hesitated over the dumb-bells.

It wasn't that they were heavy. They weren't. Only 5lbs for the two of them. Enough to begin with. I don't want to be overly muscular but felt I needed to do something to counter the flab and weakness in my arms.
It was the acrobat who suggested weight-training, seconded by the chef, who has added weight-training to her schedule of exercise. I tried the chef's weights which were pleasantly heavy but compact – they seemed to be the sort of thing I wanted: neat and in a neutral shade.

I should have asked where to buy them but was embarrassed by the whole idea.
I wandered into sports shops … and quickly wandered out again. The eager young people who knew their way around were fine but I didn't want to be targeted by enthusiastic shop assistant who were bound to ask what I wanted. It was too embarrassing. I didn't seem a suitable candidate for weight-training and felt sure they would snigger in private if they didn't burst out laughing hysterically at my request.

In the end I started leafing through the Argos catalogue. The range was puzzling to the point of exasperation. I had a choice: I could either leave the shop and give up or I could make an attempt to purchase the cheapest weights in the shop.
Then came a further problem: the colour.

On the whole I'm not too fussy about colours. The weights weren't meant to be ornamental and, if anyone had asked me, I'd have said I didn't mind what colour they were, so long as they worked. But these were far larger than the chef's neat weights. They were shaped like dumb-bells. And they were Barbie pink.

I detest Barbie pink. It reminds me of voyages to Toys'r'us where the boys' aisle was full of camouflage gear and fake weapons while the girls' aisle glowed in a violent excess of parodic femininity. There were dolls on tiptoe whose clothes and figures made Dolly Parton look like a dowdy frump. There were sinister plastic smilers who had no existence below the neck and whose sole function was to display hairstyles of absurd elaboration. The Barbie pinkness of the aisle was so bright and commanding that I wanted to flee from the shop – but my daughter insisted on admiring femininity in its most sinister manifestations.

I tried to persuade myself that there was nothing wrong with Barbie-pink dumb-bells but twice I left the shop. But the weak flabbiness of my arms persisted. In the end, I succumbed. I wrote the catalogue number on the slip provided and handed it to the assistant.

“Dumb-bells?” she said curiously (and loudly).

I began to make excuses at once.
“I think it's good,” she said. “I should get some.”

She was about twenty and seemed very trim. She must have been trying to cheer me up. I collected my dumb-bells, put them in the bicycle basket and cycled home. Then I looked on youtube for helpful, easy exercises.

I manage to exercise a little most days. I'm not sure it's making much difference but at least I'm trying. Sometimes I try to fence well too – but I don't win.

Oh well.

Fortunately the dumb-bells fit neatly in their box, which isn't pink.

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