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

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

iron and steel

Fencing resumed today after a week's break. A crowded journey - the driver, me, three boys aged 12-16 plus quantities of fencing kit crammed into a small car. (I suppose the badminton players have the advantage when it comes to carrying equipment.)

There's a new beginners' class starting up so the hall was packed. "Aha! - new people to stab!" I said to the boys, but of course we won't be let loose on them (or they on us) for ages yet. After the introductory talk the crowd was strung out across the hall in a long row (left-handers together at one end) practising the fencing stance and moving backward a few steps, forwards a few steps before, finally, being given the chance to hold a foil. By this time some of them were surreptitiously massaging aching muscles. "They'll be aching tomorrow," one of the women commented, and we recalled the pain.

I wasn't sure that I should be fencing. Every so often either my iron level or my blood pressure dips and I find rooms darkening and floors swaying unexpectedly. After two or three years with no problems, yesterday saw me rather more tired than usual and the floor started sloping like the deck of a ship toward the end of the day. So I headed off to the doctor, returned later for a blood test and - while awaiting the result - purchased a jar of vitamins with iron. It's not serious at all, by the way, and can be quite funny. Years ago I fainted as I finished teaching a seminar which certainly made it memorable for the concerned students. These days I usually manage to avoid fainting, though I can find myself swaying in harmony with the floor.

But I couldn't miss fencing. "Just a little light foil," I told myself - so within ten minutes of arriving I was happily fencing epee against a beginner epeeist (he started foil at the same time as me but has only recently been trying epee). I got some hits in and maintained a reasonable speed - most of all, I kept going and didn't feel faint. It did wonders for my confidence.

Fencing an experienced epeeist was another matter. However much he slowed down, I was missing easy hits and, just as I began to get into the way of things, the faintness hit. I would not give into it. However, for about five minutes I was more concerned with standing upright holding my epee than with hitting or parrying. My kind opponent, as usual, was saying "sorry" almost every time he hit me - most of the time, in other words. For once I was relieved when he suggested, as usual, that we end with a bout to five.

After that, foil and conversation till it was time to go home. And, fencing a less-experienced foilist (there really are less experienced fencers than me!) I slowed down so that she could practise attacking while I parried. I slowed down so much I was in a daydream at times - and very peaceful it was too.

If it is iron deficiency that's the problem, the tablets should kick in by next week when I'll be filled with energy again. Come to think of it, am I using the wrong weapon for all those swaying and sloping floors? Is it sabre they use in pirate movies? There's an idea .. Johnny Depp, here I come!.

Friday, April 21, 2006

fencing Darth Vader

I got back from Paris last night. Readers may have the image of me wandering (sword in hand, naturally) past Notro Dame and the Louvre, challenging passing fencers to a bout of epee. I quite like that picture myself - next time, perhaps. But it was better than that because I stayed with good friends in a suburb (yes, the dreaded banlieues, where, contrary to recent reports, I find life more relaxed, friendlier and safer than at home in Nottingham) and had a chance to talk and listen and rest, enjoying excellent food with a range of appropriate alcoholic accompaniments.

My two journeys into - or through - Paris were arranged for the entertainment of four young people, aged 12-17. The first was to Parc Asterix - an intelligent and witty theme park. Alas, I missed my favourite piece of street theatre - a d'Artagnan episode including swordplay and an escape on horseback. The nearest thing to fencing I saw was in an Asterix-related Viking spectacle, in which a young woman conquered a man who instantly presented her with a red rose - not the sort of thing that happens to me when fencing at the local leisure centre! And the most exciting thing was my first roller coaster ride for years - not on a very big roller coaster but one that was quite exciting enough, in the classical Greek section of the park The ride was called Le Vol d'Icare (the flight of Icarus) and, after the first few seconds I made up my mind to enjoy the ride - and did, which was quite an achievement. Should anyone reading this plan to visit Parc Asterix, the only advice I would give is to avoid the water rides (Le Grand Splatch, Styx, and Menhir) unless the weather is very warm - I spent a shivery hour or so in damp clothes. Young people don't seem to be affected by this - they warmed up by going on a couple more rides.

The second journey was to the Star Wars exhibition at La Villette. And in some related fencing practice, I came to the conclusion that foil or epee can beat light sabre any time. That two-handed stance and those slow movements used even by Yoda and Obi-Wan - they're just not a patch on a neat hit to the wrist or a rapid ballestra lunge. Star Wars is all very well but I'd recommend a film du cape et de l'epee any time - try Le Bossu or Le Capitan for some really good (and slightly unlikely) fencing.

No fencing-related souvenirs but yesterday's genuine French croissants warmed for breakfast today! And if anyone does get to see the Star Wars exhibition at La Villette, there's also a surprising and delightful exhibition of Roman glass which I recommend - even better than seeing what looks distressingly like a stuffed Yoda (product of a highly skilled taxidermist) in a glass case.

Friday, April 14, 2006

fencers on holiday

Wednesday was my last night of fencing for a fortnight - and it came at the end of my last day in the office for a week and a half. Only half the usual number of fencers turned up and it was a strange evening of casual fencing and more conversations than anything else. Only one chance of epee but I managed a couple of hits to the wrist so was pleased. One advantage of always fighting better and more experienced fencers - rather than fellow beginners, as I did for ages in foil - is seeing my own improvements, slow as they are.

With no need to wake the teenagers the following morning, I even went to the pub afterwards with fellow fencers. (A good range of real ales for anyone who is interested. Marston's Pedigree was off but I had a half of Deuchars followed by a half of Fuller's London Pride. They are both splendid ales; the first recalls visits to the Edinburgh Festival and the second was one I drank frequently when living in London).

And now I'm trying to remember what to do when not working. Well, there's always housework (with the usual backlog) and cooking but I'd like to rediscover leisure and relaxation.

In the interests of having a holiday, we went to see V for Vendetta. I don't know the original graphic novel - perhaps if I did I wouldn't like the film - but we all found the film enthralling. Despite some exciting play with knives, it's not really a fencing film, although the clips of The Count of Monte Cristo (Robert Donat version) do introduce a little swordplay. But it engaged me both as an exciting fantasy story - I was never quite sure what would happen next - and as a film prepared to look critically at the contemporary world and its dangers. The whole question of a government encouraging fear in order to maintain power is one that already interested me. But it's hard to write about the film without either giving away the plot or making it seem dull, which it certainly isn't. There are points at which I would criticise it - but I have to think in order to do so, and too few films really excite the audience dramatically while expecting viewers to think. (The French film Cache, or Hidden, does this too, in a different way - but sadly with no fencing at all.)

A few bruises from last week, but no really bad ones. One conversation in the pub was whether epee or sabre bruises are worse. Somehow I can't imagine doing sabre - all that slashing! - so I'm not in a position to judge. Anyway, the bruises should have faded by the next time I fence. A fortnight seems a very long break. I'd better try to keep fit somehow in the break.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

foil, epee or badminton

We share our hall at the leisure centre. The big hall is divided by a green curtain. We have to enter the fencing area at the far end, going up and down the stairs through the viewing gallery, carefully avoiding the serious sportsmen (mostly men - sometimes a few women) in the first part of the hall nearer the entrance. The first part of the hall belongs to the badminton players.

How hefty and muscular badminton players are compared with fencers. Badminton players wear long, baggy shorts revealing their tough knees and muscular calves. They play with immense seriousness and determination - at least, that's how it seems when fencers are passing.

Sometimes, just before our fencing time is ended and the entire hall is surrendered to badminton, the badminton-players stride in determinedly, pull back the curtain and start to roll their nets into place. They did this tonight. They are set on reclaiming their territory and never seem to smile.

The fencers - often light and lithe - lug or trundle kit and weapons past the badminton players, slightly nervous beside such muscular determination.

I think we should challenge the badminton players to a bout or two. They can use rackets and shuttlecocks and we'll use foil and epee - even I wouldn't loose the sabreurs on them. A new sport might be born. At least the badminton players would look at us with more respect.

Meanwhile, an enjoyable evening's fencing. The under 16s had a contest and enjoyed it. I fenced more foil and less epee than I would have liked but emerged feeling relaxed and cheered by the evening. (Well, a glass of wine helps too.) Oh, and I got to fence a less experienced fencer who is less than half my age and realised that I have more skills and speed than I ever expected. (In six months she'll beat me every time - but not yet.)

P.S. I have to admit that I've occasionally seen fencers playing badminton. Worrying.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

shame and patriotism

It used to be quite common to know people who had been imprisoned in the Second World War: people who had been captured, or interned, or in transit camps or concentration camps. I suppose I grew up knowing about evil. It took me a while to become a pacifist because I believed the myth that the Second World War was a struggle between good and evil. They were the exterminators, the torturers and we were the good people, prepared to sacrifice ourselves so that this evil could stop.

Gradually I realised that this wasn't why Britain went to war. It was a war about territory. But I could see that people also fought from conviction - to prevent fascism and oppose a regime in which appalling cruelties were committed. While war no longer seemed a practical was of stopping evil - didn't it accelerate cruelties and shut off the escape route? - I still believed, somehow, in Britain as the good nation.

Over the last couple of years I have read more reports of British complicity in torture. The recent imperial past - let alone that of a hundred years ago - exposes casual and state-sanctioned brutalities. These, I thought, were the products of racism and nothing else - an evil that we could, as a country, overcome.

The recent archive researches by Guardian journalists tell another story. First they uncovered torture (to death in some cases) of Nazis during and after the war. Yesterday they described the systematic torture and starvation of communists and suspected communists, almost as soon as the war had ended.

There are photographs too. They look like photographs taken after the liberation of any concentration camp

We were the torturers too. The last vestiges of patriotism have left me. All I have left is deep shame.

We were the torturers - and I suppose we still are the torturers. There's enough evidence, after all. We are plainly complicit in torture elsewere. We have inherited expertise and can, presumably, advise on technique.

We are the torturers now. Did it ever stop?.

Fencing tomorrow. Yes, it involves controlled aggression and pain. But the friendly, tolerant community of fencers is filled with surprising warmth. And while we fence and talk and joke, the cold cruelty continues elsewhere.

This is the Guardian link, for anyone who can bear it:

Saturday, April 01, 2006

catching up on sleep

I wonder how many blogs are a product of insomnia.

I've finally had a good night's sleep and the difference is wonderful. Mind you, when I turned on the radio and heard the Jack Straw/Condoleezza Rice double act, I did wonder whether I'd woken up in a parallel universe - they spoke so very convincingly about how the war in Iraq was a remarkable success and extraordinary rendition couldn't possibly happen that I might almost have believed them, if it hadn't been for the weight of evidence.

Sleepless nights, pain from fencing injuries, anxieties about friends and family - these set me thinking about the cruelties we're urged to accept as necessary to protect our way of life. But a way of life that is dependent on murder, torture, hatred, etc. isn't worth protecting because it's already corrupt.

On the march last month there was a conservative with a home-made banner with conservative anti-war slogans - quite remarkable. (He was marching with his daughter who is a member of Respect.) One of the slogans was, I think, "Liberty before Security". I'm fully in agreement with that.

The government here encourages cowardice as though it were a civic virtue. But much that I believe in involves risks and danger. Listening to other people and - as Quakers say - finding that of God in them - isn't easy or safe and won't always protect us. (I'm still thinking of the life and death of Tom Fox.) Nonetheless, recognizing shared humanity is a starting point for progress and for anything I see as a civilized life.

If I look for that of God in others, I have to acknowledge that I do not have exclusive access to the truth. I have to think about what others say and allow them to challenge my preconceptions. And it's through such challenges that minds, people and societies change.

If I see a common humanity (or that of God) in others, I cannot condone actions that deliberately inflict pain on them, or cause anxiety to them or their families. State-sanctioned cruelty and torture are unbearable. The infliction of pain by one individual on another is wrong ...

... except, of course, when it's consensual. As in fencing.

More epee next week.