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, May 31, 2006

d'Artagnan on a bicycle

I've always laughed at those moments in what the French call "cape and epee" films when the hero, who has fought his way up a spiral staircase, reaches the window, whistles and, sword in hand, jumps straight on the back of his horse. Without a pause, horse and rider gallop down the road.

I'm not laughing now. I'm filled with admiration. I'm not convinced about the horse. I reckon they faked the window's height. How did hero know to find the window - just as the villains were closing in? (Silly me - there's always one. Castles were built for swashbucklers.) Where did he leave his horse?

But riding away - that's the marvel. How did he do it? What did he do with all his fencing kit?

This week the boys had half-term. Illness, revision and pleasure kept them from fencing. I couldn't ask for a lift so thought I'd cycle to the leisure centre. There's cycle track all the way and it's only a mile and a half. Do you know a good way to get on a bike with fencing kit and two swords?

I didn't cycle in breeches so the bag for my clothing and mask was bulkier than usual. I strapped it awkwardly over my bicycle basket and then wondered how to carry my foil and epee. The woman at Leon Paul assured me I could cycle with the sword bag I'd bought to disguise my purchase on the tube, but she couldn't tell me how to balance it. At last I slung the bag across me like a satchel, mounted the saddle, and set off swaying slightly. I filled the width of the 2-way track as the bag lay horizontally against my back. I wondered if the police would stop me.

It was a sunny evening and I noticed all the flowers I usually miss: clouds of bluebells in a field, dandelion-clocks, cow parsley (Queen Anne's lace, some people call it). There was hawthorn blossom and fresh green ivy too as well as trees and flowers I can no longer name. That was on one side of the track. On the other the cars raced, leaving fumes in the air.

The drive to the leisure centre is long and has the kind of speed-bumps that used to be called "sleeping policemen". They're only fun for cyclists who like stunting or have a death-wish. I took the bumps as slowly and cautiously as I could.

And then as I clambered down, tethered my bike and began to unload, my front light flew onto the concrete paving, came to bits and cracked. Luckily the lady at the front desk let me use her Sellotape, but it wasn't a good start to the evening.

It was a funny evening too. I'm working on my en garde position and got helpful tips from a coach and fellow fencers. There's a good chance of more sustained epee coaching from next week - a little at a time with a chance for steady practice.

When I got home I wasted ten minutes trying to open the garage where my bike lives with the wrong key. It was dusk and I'd not been bothered to change. All in white, I looked like an incompetent, luminous, burglar. I bet d'Artagnan never had that problem.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

the football is over and fencers return

After last week's sparse attendance, the hall was packed tonight. Fencers who last week couldn't drag themselves from their armchairs (it was, I heard, an excellent match) bounded with energy. Every space in the hall became a piste and even steam fencers had to wait.

My epee opponents seemed faster than before - and so did I. I'm still not hitting with sufficient accuracy, especially as my arm aches toward the end of the evening. Hitting the arm from below is still one of my most comfortable hits. I'm learning to retreat, shortening my steps as I go, before I move forward into attack. (I used to score points this way in foil - just occasionally - and occasionally it works in epee too.) What I need is more coaching and systematic practice - it looks as though it may be possible other fencers too hope to improve in epee.

As for the left-handed foilist, today I hardly hit her at all. I once had a couple of ideas about how to fence left-handers, but it's been a while and I seem to have forgotten all I knew. I'll have to ask the coaches to remind me. Our two main coaches are left-handed though for coaching they fence right-handed too.

Soon the bruises will ache. This sport hurts. But it's not scary like injections or going to the dentist. (Suppose I injected the doctor back? Combat with dental drills? - nasty idea.) It's not the anxious pain of uncertainty or grief. It's not the helplessness of watching someone suffer. It's not hatred and cruelty let loose in the world.

The pain of fencing is part of the sport. When we fence, we know we'll be hurt. Accepting that is a small conquest of fear. Fencers show off their bruises - badges of courage inscribed on the body. We cause pain. We fight. We win or lose. We do our best. We improve. And all the time we encourage one another. Kindness and comradeship are found.

It's half-term next week. There'll be fewer beginners, an emptier hall, more space on the pistes. Soon the World Cup will begin. How many matches are scheduled on Wednesdays?

Sunday, May 21, 2006

age and youth

One of our coaches brought in a photograph album. Younger fencers exclaimed at the hair, the beard, the psychodelic shirts. It took me back to Jackie magazine in my youth: there were picture stories of gorgous men with high cheekbones and flowing locks who sought out slender, crop-haired girls with small breasts, long legs and enormous eyes. The launderette was often the scene of romantic encounters. All very absurd but, in my early teenage years, the girls at my school read Jackie. Romance was supposed to be, as Lord Byron said, "woman's whole existence".

My fencing was fantasy then. I fled sports and art lessons (did anyone else play truant from art?) for the library and its complex fantasies. I read Agatha Christie and Plato, Paradise Lost and The Lord of the Rings, Georgette Heyer and Gerard Manley Hopkins. One year I was ill and commanded to rest; I read my way through the shelves of the school infirmary: James Bond, the Saint, a late-Victorian weepy called A Peep Behind the Scenes, Seven Little Australians, school stories by Angela Brazil, and all the historical novels I could find. Mostly I wanted male roles. In J.B. Priestley's The Good Companions Miss Trant liked masculine adventure in her fictions but still ended up in the doctor's arms. (The way she read was the only interesting thing about her.)

I dreamt of fencing and bunked off games. Meanwhile, the coach fenced for England. There were action photos. There were earlier club photos too - what happened to all those women fencers?

And what of those other women in the photos - the ones with neat hair and cakes? I thought of The Stepford Wives - but effect came from costume and hairstyle; perhaps when not baking, those women donned jacket and mask and whacked the men with sabres. After all, when not fencing, I've been known to bake.

Apart from the photos, it was a strange, quiet week with a number of absences. The Arsenal/Barca match was on; perhaps fencers were watching. They would have groaned as the goalie was sent off, marvelled when Arsenal took the lead and hung on for ages with ten men, only to grieve when, inevitably, Barca's second goal led to Arsenal's defeat.

I fenced two older teenage boys, one with foil and one with epee - both better than me. "Have you ever fenced epee before?" the epeeist asked, before I started. Am I that bad? That insignificant? I was pleased to see that opponent put out by a lucky hit to the groin. He showed more caution after that. But there's something deflating in fencing boys with all the energy of youth and expertise besides. Had I read fewer books and taken more exercise ...

I don't regret the books. School sports were a hell of humiliation. Books fed my imagination and gave me hope. Now, lacking skill as a fencer, I take what imagination has to offer and enjoy my sport ... and improve, still, little by little.

Monday, May 15, 2006

Cyrano, d'Artagnan and the rest

Swinging from the chandeliers is beyond me - they don't teach it at my fencing club.

Nor is there a convenient high window - so I can't summon my horse, leap onto its back and gallop, ventre a terre, to a loyal village or nearby greenwood. I live in Robin Hood country but I don't have a horse, just the next door neighbour's cat who is somnolent, ovoid and unco-operative. No. I could ask her, but it wouldn't work.

I dream of dressing up in seventeenth-century (male) attire and, with loyal companions, holding the road against the Cardinal's men.

I'd love to leap on stage during a bad performance and fight a duel while improvising a ballade. Poetry, fencing, theatre - there's a grand combination.

Does anyone know what I'm talking about? Did you too grow up on swashbuckling films and books with fencing episodes?. Did you read Stanley J. Weyman - or the early Georgette Heyers. These Old Shades has its duels while The Masqueraders has cross-dressing AND fencing - a magical combination, even if the man dressed as a girl is a better fencer than the woman in male dress - but not in my private version.

It's a long way from books and films to the fencing club. But somehow I've got there - and, once in a while, I take my foil or epee in hand, and feel that at last I'm Cyrano, - or d'Artagnan.

I know - I'm 51, I'm going grey, and I started fencing less than two years ago. I'll never be very good.

But I have my dreams.

Douglas Fairbanks (Senior, of course), eat your heart out!

Saturday, May 13, 2006

so what's a quaker?

I've written quite a lot abouit fencing but have avoided the other part of my blog's name - being a Quaker. It's not something I talk or write about very much but I couldn't resist putting the two words "quaker" and "fencer" together, especially since my son and I joke about having a special banner reading "Quaker Fencers for Peace" when we go on anti-war demos. Although Quakers almost all believe in non-violence, we are not the only Quaker fencers - and most Quakers are characteristically tolerant of our sport, perhaps thinking we'll grow out of it one day.

I'm only going to put a couple of points about Quakers here.

First, history. Quakers (officially the Religious Society of Friends) started in the mid-17th century in England, during the Civil War, when lots of people were questioning usual interpretations of religion, the Bible and state power. Quakers believed that there was that of God in everyone and that everyone had an inner light to guide them. (I'm simplifying a lot here.) They denied the authority of the church and thought it their duty to "speak truth to power". This landed them in a lot of trouble However, over the centuries they were accepted and became, sadly, more conventional and less questioning.

Second, Quakers go to Meetings (like religious services) but in Britain they don't have priests or any programmed worship. Most of the Meeting is usually silent listening, but sometimes people are moved to speak. Sometimes people fall asleep or babies chatter. It's a good chance for a rest too!

Third, Quakers don't have any set beliefs - there is no creed. There's a shared way of worship and there are "advices and queries". These are agreed and adopted by all the Quakers in Britain (through a yearly meeting which every member can attend; decisions need agreement rather than a majority so deciding anything can be a long process) but they advise and question rather than giving orders. Quakers began as Christians but not all Quakers in Britain are Christians now. We are advised to "be open to new light, from whatever source it may come" and look on our religion as a journey rather than a set of doctrines.

Fourth, Quakers tend to be engaged in social and political campaigns. The British Quakers have shared "testimonies", as they are known, on subjects like equality, peace, social justice, integrity and concern for the environment. This enables Quakers to act on such concerns with the support of the Quakers as a whole, even when breaking the law (for instance campaigning for peace or trying to protect refugees). But Quakers can also get a bit smug and self-righteous about this, and I have mixed feelings about their record as employers in the 19th century, when they were rather too paternalistic.

Some of my favourite Quakers from history are: Margaret Fell (also known as Margaret Fox), Gerrard Winstanley (although he was most interesting as a Digger and pretty dull by the time he became a Quaker), John Woolman and Lucretia Mott. Interesting British Quakers today include the poet U.A. Fanthorpe, the actor Judi Dench and the astrophysicist Jocelyn Bell Burnell. (Hmm - all my examples of famous living British Quakers are women - I think there are some men too.)

Lots - probably far too much - about Quakers in Britain here.

Friday, May 12, 2006

being tagged

I was tagged byBeth so now I'm trying to pass on the tag - but I've never done this before.

I am almost anonymous. But some people may work out who I am when/if they read this.
I want a new fencing jacket and mask - the kind that fits perfectly and makes me look glamorous when I fence. (OK, I'm fantasising.)
I wish I had lived my life differently, taken more risks and run away to sea on occasion - or just had a few more holidays abroad.
I hate the fear spread and encouraged by those in power. Courage is the best weapon of the powerless.
I fear
the loss of those I care about.
I hear traffic noise and sirens. I would like to hear mountain streams and birdsong.
I wonder why - and, then again, why not.
I am not a linguist - but I try very hard.
I dance infrequently and badly. On a good day, I can waltz - but no-one asks me.
I cry rarely. Who needs to know how I feel?
I am not happy today - but I have been happy before and shall be again.
I make with my hands, little sculptures from discarded blu-tak, which I then squash and re-mould into a small blue ball.
I write poems which I don't publish - so you haven't read them.
I confuse my students. It's good for them.
I need some coffee before 7.00 every morning. It has to be good espresso, served by the mug. (yes, I'm an addict.)
I start writing a novel. If I had time I would finish it - but it's so gloomy that only the mad or the fooolish would wish to read it.
I finish the day unable to sleep without the aid of peppermint tea.
I try, really - ever so hard - well, I think I do (more or less).
I tag John at Wooldale Friends , dodo at Areopagitica, and applestew

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

defending my daughter's honour

"Mum, you mustn't hit him. Promise you won't hit him."

Thus, my daughter, whose boyfriend (6 feet 2, dark, good-looking, 35 years younger than me) is a fencer. Sabre is his preferred weapon so I rarely fence him, though we've bouted at foil once or twice. My son, two years younger and a foot shorter, takes him on from time to time - always at foil.

A few weeks back, the boyfriend was wielding an epee. "Want a bout?" I called. He smiled, I turned and, when I looked back, found he had melted away. The daughter's warnings restrained me - next time I didn't challenge him.

Today I was fencing badly. A new young woman faced me at foil - she's19 and a left-hander. I once had ideas for techniques against left-handers - no longer. She's quick too. Fencing epee, the remnants of my style fell away. Like one of the kids in the beginners' class I waved my sword at random and my point pierced the air.

Out of kilter, I couldn't judge anything: not distance nor conversation. All evening I hurled myself forward - metaphorically, literally - and had no sense of what I wanted to achieve. Then came a run when I hit without attaching; no points registered as my blade just scraped or touched my opponent's jacket, far too lightly to score.

What could I do but insist I fence the boyfriend?

In fantasies, I defend my daughter's honour. I've evil ideas too; if I need to win a point, I could suddenly shriek, "She's pregnant," and dash through his confusion to win. (No, I wouldn't Well, probably not. Thinking of my daughter, I wouldn't dare.)

The boyfriend is polite and well-brought up. He says "sorry" every time he hits - very lightly - and would plainly prefer not to hit me at all. I have no such scruples and happily hit him as often as I can. His reluctance reminds me of the opening of Under the Red Robe (does anyone else read Stanley J. Weyman?) in which the cynical and experienced anti-hero - a master fencer - takes on and kills a well-brought up young nobleman. In fantasy I stab the boyfriend with a brilliant hit and leave him dying on the road.

We move from practice to a bout. I win 5-3. He's so polite, I think he let me win.

Tomorrow he'll see my daughter. He's bound to tell her. When she gets home, she'll kill me.

Monday, May 08, 2006

the fencer and the spider

Did you ever hear the story of Robert the Bruce? I heard it as a young child, with the result that I know what I then regarded as the essentials and don't know enough of the historical details. Still, if you want those bits, you can always try wikipedia.

(I say that - actually I know I'll look it up if someone doesn't set me right soon. I'm a pedant at heart with a pathetic desire for accuracy.)

Anyway, Robert the Bruce was taking shelter in some hut - I always pictured it raining outside (quite likely - this was Scotland) and he had lost a battle and was hiding from the enemy. While he was there, he started watching a spider. It was trying to climb up the wall but it kept falling down and starting again. Robert watched it and watched it - I used to wonder why it didn't occur to him to give it a helping hand - and it kept falling and climbing, climbing and falling, until, in the end, it reached the top of the wall. (Why? Just because it was there?) And Robert was so inspired by this spider that he went out, got his army back together and reclaimed the throne, thrashed the enemy, threw out the English or whatever it was he had to do. It was probably all very messy and horrible but they didn't tell me that when I was young.

I never really liked that story or saw the point of it.

However, just now, I too saw a spider. I was sitting idly at the computer when it came from nowhere like a mutant bit of fluff with legs, and ambled rather casually across the carpet. "Good," I thought, "I'm having my Robert the Bruce moment. This will tell me all I need to know about my future progress as a fencer."

It got even better when the spider began to clamber clumsily up the side of my black fabric work-bag. I was about to be the grateful recipient of a metaphor.

The spider was black. The bag was black. The spider vanished. It may have climbed over my bag, fallen off, given up, or started a new life in the dark interior.

Some metaphor. Some message.

Well, I never did like that story. And I've never seen a spider wielding a foil, let alone an epee.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

the sweet scents of Spring

Spring has come late this year but now the daffodils are out and cherry trees are heavy with blossom. OK, we've passed Eliot's cruellest month, which signally failed to breed lilacs out of the dead land, and I didn't hear of any folk longing to go on pilgrimage either, though there was some enthusiasm for warmer seaside resorts. News of bird flu and mass extermination of chickens seems to have replaced Tom Lehrer's individual venture of poisoning pigeons in the park. (Could be worse - I remember the pyres of cows in the BSE epidemic a few years back, and the closed countryside and the troughs of disinfectant outside Whitby Abbey.)

Fencing continues - and I suddenly realise I'd forgotten about the sweat.

Of course, we sweat in all weathers - in winter the parents watching the youngest fencers learn to huddle in huge coats and scarves and gloves while the rest of us glow pleasantly in the unheated hall. But with the sudden arrival of Spring, everything has changed.

It was a short warm-up - the beginners can't take much yet - ending with some very simple but rapid footwork. As it ended, I began to notice the sweat - and the smell.

The odours are strongest in the cupboard where club jackets are kept - it's wise to avoid this area at the end of the two-hour session. But odours start very early and become intense after half an hour or so of fencing - after which we begin to get used to it. Of course, we're far too polite to say anything - but I wonder how many fencers, if blindfolded, could identify fellow-fencers from the smell of their sweat alone.

It's a relief to get out into the chill, almost-dark car park when the two hours is up.

I wonder if it's the odour of fencers that makes the badminton players look so serious.

I did a lot of epee today, pretty badly - actually, apart from one or two neat hits, very badly indeed. And foil wasn't any better. Perhaps next week I'll be back to thinking strategically, instead of just hitting and hoping.

Monday, May 01, 2006

a long weekend

I always have a number of plans for long weekends (unless there's a great deal of marking). I shall tidy the house, read a few books, spend time with the children, go to the pub and listen to jazz. I never do all this.

But I didn't do badly this weekend. The resolution not to work helped.

I went to the pub for a couple of halves of bitter - and some very good parsnip crisps. We're lucky enough to have an excellent local, with a range of real ales (a particularly fine Jarrow beer) and malt whiskies (I've never been extravagant enough to sample the whiskies there but I like to know that I could) and a good food menu as well (for special occasions only). The Victoria is a mere five minutes' walk/stagger away and stocks a range of daily papers.

On Saturday afternoon I saw an excellent French Film, L'Armee des Ombres, which left me thoroughly depressed but very pleased that I had seen it.

After Meeting on Sunday we headed by train to London for a party given by an old friend - and met some very old friends as well as visiting my parents.

Then on Monday we even got some housework and tidying done. And I caught up with Saturday's (slightly depressing but very good) episode of Doctor Who. I am so old that I actually remember seeing the very first episode, The Cave of Skulls, with William Hartnell, who travelled with his grand-daughter Susan. She turned up in an English school and, as I remember, two school teachers entered the Tardis and ended up travelling back in time and meeting cavemen - something like that. And now the whole family watch and approve the new series.

I wish I'd read a bit more or revised my French (exam a week tomorrow and I need to know when to use the subjunctive). But it's not a bad total.

Nonetheless, I'm left with a sense of much undone - that awful feeling that time has been wasted.

There's jazz at the Victoria tonight but too much to do at home.

Never mind - I get to stab people again on Wednesday night - again the highlight of the week.