bag lady goes fencing
I put my back out.
A fencing injury would be bad enough, but I hurt my back carrying too many bags.
It's a twenty-five minute train journey to work, with a walk at each end. I have only four bags when I start out. There's my handbag, decorated with the fencing-club badge but containing usual handbag things: purse, tissues, pencil-case, keys, bottle-opener, two small notebooks and so on. There's the large work bag: papers, two or three notebooks in different sizes, newspapers, magazines, three or four books for work, light reading (Slaughterhouse Five plus another book, in case Slaughterhouse Five is too depressing), a book in French, a dictionary to help me read a book in French, train timetables, spare pens in case I lose my pencil case, a lighteweight waterproof, sandwiches, fruit and a flask of coffee. There's the laptop computer in its bag and that bag also holds my desk diary, a couple more notepads and a couple more books in case I get fed up with the books in my work-bag or can't reach my work-bag on the train. And finally there's the supplementary work -bag, holding half a dozen books I suddenly felt I couldn't be without and a couple more notepads (but no pencils).
It is, you understand, important to have something to do on the train - or if the train breaks down - or if I'm kidnapped and held hostage for a year or two. I believe in being prepared.
Perhaps it's a little much to carry, especially as I can't go straight to the office but must detour to the bank, picking up free newspapers and leaflets on my way. I should have remembered that Wednesday is staff training day and the bank opens late.
I don't mean to go to the market - just to the little coffee shop that does excellent espresso and small cakes. But it's farmers' market day It's only once a month, so I have to look. Reaching the bank, I have four more bags, holding cheese, a bunch of beetroots (does anyone else cook the leaves? they are delicious), some home-made fruit pies, a vegetable pasty and a version of Bakewell tart with lemon-curd.
There probably is a good way to carry all those things, but I don't know it. Suddenly my neck and the top of my back are acutely painful. I strugglk on to the office.
I'd planned to work a half-day and go to the cinema. The new Ken Loach film (The Wind That Shakes the Barley - winner of the palme d'or at Cannes) is on and, as there are only thirty prints circulating in Britain (as opposed to 400 in France) I needed to take the opportunity to see it. But eight bags at the cinema seems rather too many - even for me.
I made the brave decision to leave at least eight books at the office. (I'm still worried about them - some of my favourites are there.) Re-packed, I'm down to four rather bulky bags when I leave the office to catch another train My back is still hurting and a cinema seat won't support my neck. Still, the cinema bar sells iced tea (no alcohol before fencing). With nearly an hour until the film I have the chance to take advantage of a wi-fi hotspot. I get the laptop out, spread my books out, and log on.
Of course, there's a fire alarm. Is there really a fire? Probably not, but we have to vacate the building. Repacking bags is slow and painful. I'm last out of the building, clutching a cinema-ticket, a couple of programmes, a glass and bottle of iced-tea as well as the four bags. The weather is hotter now and I'm over-dressed. Two minutes on the steps, wilting, and we're let back in. The pain worsens.
The Wind that Shakes the Barley may be Ken Loach's gloomiest film. It's certainly as gloomy as L'Armee des Ombres, and that's saying a lot. It's the sort of film that makes me think a lot, which is probably good, but I can't solve the problems it poses. I decide that current political and economic systems are wrong and better ones can be imagined - they might even work and it's worth a chance - but I don't know how to change the system. There's a lot of unbearable grief in the film and some of the loveliest landscapes I have ever seen. It's County Cork, I believe. I've never been there.
My back is not improved by the cinema seat, nor by my final train journey. Making supper hurts. I don't see how I can go fencing but I get changed - very slowly, taking an age to put on each sock. I dissolve a couple of aspirin and swallow them, hopefully.
To my surprise, I manage most of the warm-up, though not very well. I stagger through a knock-about bout, losing most of the points. And then, suddenly, the pain retreats and I'm fencing better and with more energy. I have a daft knock-about with one of the boys, in which we amuse ourselves by arguing each point, stabbing one another lightly to emphasize the strength of our arguments. "That was flat". "It's an epee, not a sabre" "You hit the floor - the floor isn't taking part." "I got you on the back." The ref can't speak for giggling. Every so often we raise our masks and stick out tongues at one another.
After the silliness, some coaching in epee and, for the first time, I take an opponent (and me) by surprise with a hit to the foot that actually lands. And more epee - not brilliant but nowhere near as sluggish as I've been on the previous couple of club nights.
I think I'm feeling better. There's a good chance of more systematic epee coaching too. But then the evening ends on a low note. I really am going to have to buy a new mask and jacket. The ones I'm using are illegal and the club can't overlook it after September. Leon Paul will probably have their usual sale but they've moved out to Hendon which isn't easy to reach. And it's going to cost me quite a lot of money.
As I sit down at the computer a little pain sneaks back - small, subtle, like a warning.
"messing about in boats"
There's something about rivers and boats. I walked through a small, reconstructed Edwardian pleasure garden, past the bandstand and the teashop, and found that there were boats for hire. Only rowing boats, unfortunately. Last time I wanted to hire a boat I was in Durham and was told sternly that I couldn't go on the river on my own because it wasn't safe. (They hadn't even seen me row.) I tried arguing - did they want me to pick up a stranger so that I could spend an hour on the river? - but I lost. The man hiring out boats on the Derwent in Derbyshire had no problems with a solitary oarswoman, and didn't ask any questions about my skill.
I was grateful for his reticence. It's not just that I never rowed in the Oxford-Cambridge boat-race (wrong gender, wrong size, wrong level of ability). While I like being in boats and attempting to control them, I'm not very good at it. My most recent experience has been on a boating lake with a canoe - and that was a year ago.
I realised, as I picked up the oars, that rowing boats present two serious problems to the solitary rower. Two oars have to be used at the same time - each hand has to know what the other hand is doing - and, even worse, the boat travels backwards.
I'd forgotten about the backwards bit. My progress was uneasy enough - three uneven dips with the oars, then craning round to see if I was going in the right direction.
Still, all went well until I reached the railway bridge. The bridge supports looked far enough apart so I thought I might just keep rowing straight on and hope I came out the other side. The gap was certainly wide, but that didn't stop me hitting one of the pillars, watched by the only other people out on the river that day.
Humiliation turned to wonder as I looked ahead on the river. The other rowers went out of sight under the bridge - back to the boathouse, I suppose, with their time up. I paused, caught in the bridge support, and remembered why I liked boats and rivers. The traffic from the road was a mere blurred hum and even the moorhens and Canada geese were silent.
This was much better than the Oxford and Cambridge boatrace, even if a cox, telling me where to go, might have been helpful at times. Thinking about that boatrace, I began to wonder why they bother. Where's the pleasure in it? All that shouting and no time to appreciate the scenery. In all my years of watching them race from Putney to Mortlake, I've never seen a rower stop to take a picture.
I stopped to take a picture. It was much easier because my boat was stuck in the bridge supports. And after I'd taken my picture, I used an oar to push myself free and went a little further up the river, stopping to take more pictures from time to time.
I didn't have very long. I'd opted for the shortest and cheapest hiring period - half an hour. The boathouse would be due to close shortly after I returned. Making my uneven return, I got back through the bridge without trouble and thought I'd take a picture of the bridge and its supports, as a way of commemorating the occasion. I let the boat drift as I raised my camera.
As the camera clicked I realised the boat was stuck again, this time in mud close to the riverbank. Working my way free took some time, especially as I had to remember which oar had which effect and when to row backwards and when forwards. I had the impression that the man in the boathouse was watching.
When I returned the boat, however, he avoided the obvious jokes about my style of rowing and said that I seemed to have managed perfectly well. He even suggested I might enjoy a longer row on a weekday when charges were lower. Apparently you can row far up the river, taking two and a half hours there and back.
For a while I daydreamed about taking a day off work to idle in boats. But I had visited the town only to hear a friend play in a concert. I walked back to town, just five minutes away through the pleasure gardens. I'll be back one day, perhaps. This year, next year, sometime, never ....
football and fencing
England has gone very quiet. Car aerials have sprouted flags and a plague of bunting has broken out. Yesterday, some of the best restaurants were empty all evening while the small groups who congregated in theatre foyers glanced nervously at one another across empty spaces. The city centre was empty except for a couple of pairs of policemen in lemon-yellow jackets. Every so often the click of a horse's hooves on tarmac could be heard or a horse's eager snort in the face of restraint. Mounted police were patrolling the little streets around the old market square. Every so often, a band of young people would erupt from one pub, singing and draped in St George's flags. A minute or so later, they would melt into the darkness of another doorway. Once, two band met, united, sang and danced together. They were not ecstatic; there was a forced element to their celebrations. I wanted to ask them a question, urgently, but judged it unwise. I hurried across the square, into the darker streets. And the question became more urgent. "What," I longed to know, "was the score?" England was playing Sweden and I had been to the theatre. It was a play about Philippe Petit and his 1974 high-wire walk between the twin towers of the World Trade Centre. I had to reach another, smaller theatre where my17-year-old daughter was playing the title role in Wedekind's Lulu ("superb", said the local paper, but I won't see the show till tomorrow). England had qualified for the last sixteen before the Sweden game and I was determined not to get caught up in the match. In the interval, the score was 1-0 to England. The few who had any opinions were surprised; no-one expected an England goad. The precedent of Tunisia - similar score against Spain at the interval, beaten 3-1 - loomed in my mind. Only on reaching my daughter did I discover the score had been 2-2 and England topped the group. My daughter knew - a friend had texted her. I know the key moments - Owen was injured, crawling and stretchered off a minute into the game, Joe Cole's goal in the first half, Rooney's anger at his substitution, Sweden's equaliser, Gerrard on fine form pulling England ahead, England's scrambling and inefficient defence and Sweden's second equaliser. Nobody expects England's success. There's a gloomy sense of duty about the celebrations and a reluctant determination to view each match till the inevitable defeat. Someone may believe in the England team - a child, pperhaps. There was gloom and emptiness at fencing - familiar faces missing. Holland versus Argentina ended as a draw. The Czech Republic against Italy tomorrow could be a good match, but I'll be working. My fencing was fairly gloomy too - more conversation than fencing tonight. I have no more hopes for my fencing than for the England team but like them I'll keep going, as long as I can.
fencing in my sleep
In the big Scarlet Pimpernel omnibus I read in my teens, the third novel was Eldorado. Here Sir Percy Blakeney, though kept without sleep for days in an scheme to break his spirit, outwits Chauvelin (again) and rescues the Dauphin.
Such are his super-human powers that, even after months without sleep, the Scarlet Pimpernel could fight four epeeists at once and beat them all.
I lack those qualities.
It's been a busy week and work has spilled into the evening, night and early morning. I was down to three hours' sleep on Tuesday night. On Wednesday I began to wonder why I'd started a sport which needs its practitioners active, alert and awake.
Awake was the tricky one. Never did gym floor look so comfortable. My kit-bag tempted me to use it as a pillow. If we'd had to lie down in the any of the warm-up exercises, I'd have curled up and gone to sleep. Standing was a triumph, fencing an act of folly.
Opponents pounced like panthers. The air through which I waded had turned to invisible jelly. Somehow I won a bout against a beginner. It was a struggle. I won byf luck. Every so often my eyes would close. I'd launch an attack and fail to see where or if it landed.
Foil was hard, but epee .... My tall, experienced, male opponent was generous. He slowed down, giving me a chance to land hits. After each point I'd know where I should have hit. My point landed in the air, six inches to his right. Every so often I walked onto his blade or hit short.
My opponent slowed down - and down.
Suddenly I caught him on the wrist, far harder than I'd meant, with a judder that reached my sword-hilt and jarred my fingers. I'd have been delighted with that hit on anyone else. But he'd slowed down out of kindness and now he was hurt from the awkward way my blade had attached.
I know it's a violent sport but I don't like hurting people.
Mind you, it's a lot better than work. And I plan on a bit more sleep soon - in a week or two.
when was history?
Britain doesn't seem an old country to me. Set beside China, India the Middle East - or the rest of Europe - we're a new country that took a long while to reach decent standards in art, literature or manufacture. When I look at Sung ware, read the Epic of Gilgamesh, hear about the Icelandic parliament or look at Classical Greek sculptures, I feel the newness of our civilization. To the Romans, we were barbarians - a strange people whose men wore the most comic of all garments: trousers. I suspect we still seemed new and odd in Shakespeare's age. In his plays the English are often blunt and slightly rough while European counterparts are courtly and guileful. Even the English language seems slightly unsure of itself, newly-made and splendidly experimental.
I started thinking about this when an American reader of this blog suggested that his was a new country. I've only been to the U.S.A. once and was indeed struck by its newness, not to mention the entrepreneurial acquisitiveness that would bring a mediaeval building brick by brick across the Atlantic to make a museum on Manhattan. I was shown old buildings that were lovely but recent by British standards. Recently a colleague spent time in Waco where he assures me a plaque was unveiled declaring a building 50 years old - younger than me!
I wonder if fencing seems different in newer countries. Here it's part of the recent past; duels continued into the 19th century, though most fought with pistols by then. My son's paternal grandfather learnt to fence with a bayonet (not allowed now) as part of his training in the Territorial Army. That's a little too near and nasty to be romantic. I prefer to think of fencing in the further past - and a setting of Parisian streets or Loire chateaux is better than the familiar scrubland of Putney Heath.
Even so, most of the British history I know is before fencing. There are druids; Boudicca; Angles, Saxons and Viking invaders - all more than a thousand years ago but leaving traces as much through domestic utensils as through battles. I've been to the neolithic site of Skara Brae on Orkney and seen a liveable space, and I've stood in Maes Howe, where returning Crusaders - Jerusalem-men they called themselves - took shelter during a three-day snowstorm and left graffiti on the wall. That's distant past - I feel closer to the Romans when I walk on Hadrian's Wall; at least I can read their records.
Once I get to the seventeenth century, I begin to feel closer to the past. I can take sides in the English Civil War in a way I can't with the Wars of the Roses, But even in seventeenth century England, fighting with swords doesn't seem like proper fencing. I know Hamlet fenced rapier and dagger in Shakespeare's play but, all the same, I think of fencing as a late eighteenth century art - an idea that comes more from romantic novels than history I know. That's getting a bit close. It's the era of parliamentary debate - MPs fought duels - and dangerously close to the birth of photography.
The fencing stories I love were born in nineteenth century serial novels and popular plays. They're fake, but a glorious fake. I ought, I know, to admire the Chevalier Saint-George, composer, soldier and champion fencer. But Saint-George is a bit too real. I mind about the racism he encountered (his mother was a slave) and his sufferings when imprisoned. I even like his music. But I want my swashbucking heroes unreal.
Alexandre Dumas may have shared that preference. Like Saint-George, he was descended from a slave and the French president, speaking when Dumas's body was finally reinterred in the Pantheon, suggested that racism had prevented his earlier burial there. You'd think Dumas might have written of Saint-George. Instead his heroes were outsiders in a different way: Edmond Dantes, imprisoned unjustly in the Chateau d'If returning wealthy and brilliant to take his revenge, d'Artagnan the country lad riding into Paris to join the musketeers.
D'Artagnan, Dantes - and the Cyrano created by Edmond Rostand - are outsiders with wonderful powers, the super-heroes of their day. Like comic book heroes they travel through cities both like and unlike the cities we know, though a fantasy past replaces fantasy present or future. It's close to history - closer than Robin Hood - but I love it because it's not real and, in fantasy, nobody really gets hurt. Poor Chevalier Saint-George. His sufferings were too real - too much for a swashbuckler.
When I fence, I don't want to be in history. Fantasy-fencer, that's me. Given the way I fence, it's just as well. I wouldn't last a minute with Saint-George. But when I hold an epee ... d'Artagnan, stand beside me. It's "All for one and one for all." Cyrano, dreaming of Roxane, make a ballade as you win this bout. Edmond Dantes, avenge the loss of your Mercedes beside me, at swordpoint. We're weak against strong, just against unjust, love against hate - and with such style!
In my dreams, perhaps - but dreams are such a might-have-been.