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

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

You are such an interesting person. Cyrano and d'Artagnan are always lurking in the shadows when I am fencing. I often forget they are there. Thanks for reminding me.


3:59 am  
Blogger Elizabeth McClung said...

What about Baroness Orcy adn the Scarlet Pimpernel. I do find a sense of discontinuity living in a "new land" again - in Wales I lived by a castle built to subdue the welsh after Owen Glendower in the 14th century. A few miles away was were the Black Prince was betrayed and murdered. The small villages each have a churchyard where an ash tree grows, from when the long bows were fashioned as required for the welsh bowmen, and practice was done on the village green. Morgan, the 6th century cleric was named heritic and hid in the craigs an hours drive away while 10 miles down the road on the of the Roman forts that secured wales for the Romans is now a town. And when I hear the welsh speaking, you can still hear some of the hillbilly latin they were speaking while the rest of Britian was fighting it out linguistically between the saxons and the oormans ala Ivanhoe (protected by Offa Dyke which ended where I lived).

Here in the new land I know there are stories of battles and heros and heroines but they were all stomped up with the ruthlessness good hearted Christians continue to evidence. I miss my history.

I am glad D'artagnan inspires you. I think for myself it is the female samurai (like western society, Japan had a few cross dressing women who wanted a different life for themselves), who does not consider the odds, only the blade.

5:39 pm  
Blogger kathz said...

Finally back with time to respond to comments - as you'll see from my recent post ("fencing in my sleep") work has taken over. I've had little time even for reading blogs let alone posting - today's blog was written hastily before a long, dull work meeting.

Thanks for comments. As you'll see, I've now admitted my knowledge of the Scarlet Pimpernel, though the women never fulfilled their potential in those books - a pity, as Baroness Orczy also created an early female detective, Lady Molly of Scotland Yard.

History can be a burden as well as a delight, particularly when Gordon Brown - who may be our next Prime Minister - keeps talking about how wonderful colonialism was and ignoring both the abuses and the worrying motives of the colonisers.

I don't know much about samurai. I keep thinking I'd like to find a really good (and fictional) female fencing heroine but while the films Le Bossu and d'Artagnan's daughter do offer women fencers, they don'tb really excite me. I did like Catherine Zeta Jones in the latest Zorro film, fencing in high-heeled shoes and an amazing dress. Not brilliant fencing but terrific bravura in that outfit! But I lack the glamour, even in my dreams - I'd better stick with Cyrano and d'Artagnan.

2:12 am  

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