a long time since I stabbed anybody
I'm not missing fencing as much as expected - though it's more than a week since I held a sword and the club in on holiday Wednesday. Then there's a week off (the club dinner - I can't go, alas) followed by the arrival of new beginners.
Christmas happened quietly, apart from the Doctor Who Christmas special, in which alien Santas terrorised London. A sonic screwdriver is far more useful than a sword should you happen to encounter daleks, cybermen and the like. But it's not exactly a fair combat.
Our festive Christmas meal took only 50 minutes to cook - an advantage of being vegetarian. Gifts were exchanged, friends and relatives contacted - but no opportunity for a little friendly stabbing presented itself. My epee is still festooned in tinsel.
We didn't have a white Christmas. Pre-Christmas freezing fog cleared, there was a little sun, and now we have rain and gales.
Perhaps I should make New Year's Fencing Resolutions: correct my epee stance right, practise footwork, try to keep fit. I might even resolve to work on foil as I've forgotten so much.
But fencing isn't duty - it's pleasure, so resolutions are a little out of place. I'll work as much as I can, because I love it.
tinsel, fairy-lights and Grimpen Mire
England is beset by freezing fog. Domestic flights are grounded. A chill creeps under doors and through keyholes. The cat-flap is a source of Arctic gales. Radiators do their best but they've lost confidence in their ability to provide heat. Luckily I have a large, soft dressing-gown which fits over jumper and jeans. I'm wearing it as I write.
I went alone to fencing. Cycling seemed a bad idea, especially since I've broken my front light. A cab seemed a needless extravagance. So I set out to walk - along the main road, past the building site, houses and golf course, then down towards the leisure centre.
Nobody else seemed to be walking - it wasn't a good night for a stroll. The street-lights were little patches of white and yellow fuzz, as though the fog and frost had frozen the light an instant after it left the bulb. On the long walk into the leisure centre, lacy white mist had settled on the surrounding marshes. Small trees and bare bushes poked finger-twigs out of the gloom.
Grimpen Mire, I decided - without the huge hound. Sherlock Holmes was established as a fencer in Watson's first account in A Study in Scarlet . It seemed possible that Holmes and Watson, bored with stalking villains through the mist, would enter the leisure centre for a bout or two. Watson (the later Watson) would certainly encourage Holmes to practise his swordmanship if only to avoid the lure of the seven per cent solution.
The sight in the leisure centre dispelled Holmesian imaginings. Sherlock Holmes can be imagined in a range of settings but I balk at the idea of him wearing Rudolf antlers on a sabre mask, or a Father Christmas hat with Christmas tree baubles as earrings. Not many fencers had made it through the cold and fog but there were some fine costumes. I found myself, for the first time, facing an opponent who had fixed lit fairy-lights all down his epee. I couldn't believe they would endure but he fenced with the decorated and lit epee for the whole evening. They were very tough fairy-lights.
My sole contribution to the seasonal atmosphere was a long (2 metre) strand of green and red tinsel, with small red stars attached. I pretended it wasn't there for a while but eventually it as wound round my epee blade and, although the subsequent bout left a carpet of tinsel bits and stars, my sword and most of the tinsel survived.
I fenced better than I had expected (not well but better). And despite the silly costumes, my opponents gave mehelpful tips which extended my reach (to do with en garde position and even trying a hold nearer the pommel to take further advantage of the French grip). I was also advised to be more aggressive - but I think we were all affected by the Christmas spirit.
Then it was out and back to Grimpen Mire. A rustling noise in the undergrowth recalled escaped convicts and desperate men. Where was Sherlock when I needed him? But it was nothing more sinister than a light, cold (almost frozen) rain. A few minutes later it paused, leaving tiny still droplets on the ends of twigs - not quite solid but too cold to tremble or fall further. Some streetlights had failed. I wondered what to do if anyone attacked me. Should I wave my sword, still decked in tinsel? Surely that would make anyone laugh.
No-one attacked, Holmes and Watson stayed wherever they were hiding and I staggered home as my legs began to ache.
Time for a glass of wine.
Cheers. And Happy Christmas!
'Tis the season to be jolly and fencers at my club are certainly doing their best.
Festivities started in November when the prize for the one-hit epee competition was a chocolate santa. Now the coaching regime has paused till the new year and we're fencing for fun.
This week was the foil handicap competition for all-comers. Two coaches took down names of all competitors and listened to their pleas for a helpful handicap - "Oh no, I'm a really dreadful fencer," "foil isn't my weapon", "I've got an awful cold this week" and impose a handicap system, ranging from -4 for the smallest beginners to +4 for the coaches and really good fencers. All the names were written down and put into a mask and then, as 21 of us were competing, we were drawn at random into poules of three to fence steam with the poules judging one another. The winner of each would go into Direct Elimination (there was no time for more). I was in a poule with a small beginner, who I beat despite the minute target, and a good fencer with a bad cold, who beat me despite my advantage (and who subsequently reached the final). Most of the bouts lasted longer than usual as we were having fun. Some of the descriptions of the fencing phrase took ages too as people who hadn't presided before were encouraged to practice. It's fun to fence when a good fencer is pleased at reaching a score of 0. In theory a fencer could lose with a negative score, though I think the handicapping was good enough to prevent that.
The poule which received most interest included my son, the very smallest fencer in the club (he's swamped by his tiny jacket but wields his foil with determination) and the club president (coach, ex-Olympic fencer and dangerous left-hander). The president, fencing with a -4 handicap, decided to even things further by fencing right-handed, as he does when coaching. His opponents could win if they landed a single hit on him and, as both did, he ended bottom of the poule.
After watching for a while, I fenced epee for the last 20 minutes or so, trying to put into practice some of the techniques I'd been taught in the absence of my coach. It didn't always work but my experienced opponent encouraged me, as he always does, saying "nearly" when I missed a good hit or "nice one" when something worked - so I felt pretty pleased by the end of the session, even though my fencing advances very slowly indeed. After we stopped, I watched the end of the final, which was still going as we were instructed to put away our kit. A relative newcomer already had a handicapping advantage over the good fencer who beat me in the poule and, when the leisure centre staff began to set out the badminton nets, the president decided the bout could last only a minute more. The beginner attacked but also defended with vigour and held on to his advantage; at the end we all applauded as he held his medal aloft.
Next week is the last session of the year. An e-mail arrived today directing me to the club website. Apparently next Wednesday is to be a "fun night" and we are advised to bring tinsel, antlers, foam swords and decorations for swords and kit! I'm not quite sure what to expect - Santa with a sabre, perhaps or polar bears fencing foil. Suggestions on how to decorate kit and sword are welcome, but I'm neither practical nor artistic; I'll probably achieve no more than a strand or two of tinsel wound clumsily on the grip
I gain a second epee
I'm a one-sword person. That is, I owned one of each of my two weapons: a foil and an epee. The foil was part of my first fencing purchase and a declaration that I was going to continue fencing after my year as a beginner. And while I couldn't run to a lame, I chose to buy an electric foil, though I've often fenced steam with it.
At the end of last year my parents bought me an electric epee as a joint birthday and Christmas present. They know I enjoy and comment favourably on how much fitter I am and, inevitably, how much weight I've lost and what a good thing this is.
Both foil and epee came from Leon Paul and were made to my specifications: the cheapest of everything and a French grip. I was thrilled by both purchases.
When my epee blade-wire snapped earlier this year, I was devastated. This is an over-reaction but I think fellow-fencers may understand the attachment a fencer has to a new weapon, especially if it is the only one. A kind coach offered to fit a new wire for me and lent me a blade of his own while he was doing this.
That happened months ago and I continued fencing happily with the borrowed blade.
Then, last week ... "I've mended your blade," the coach said, and smiled. He'd done more than that. He'd fitted the blade to a spare guard, pommel and grip that he "happened to have lying around" and said I could keep the blade he'd lent me as well. "You've got two weapons now."
Fencers may stab each other but, apart from that, many fencers I know are remarkable for their kindness.
I'd like to report that I fenced brilliantly after being given a second weapon. I fenced pretty badly. My shoulder tensed in a brief epee coaching session. That made my arm ache, and I was more aware than usual of what I was doing wrong in epee. After the club championship, I'm more aware than ever of all that I've forgotten in foil. But several people took the trouble to encourage me and offered really helpful and uncondescending advice.
There won't be much chance to fence epee next week as the club is having a foil handicap tournament. In theory this means anyone could win. In practice, the coach who gave me my second epee will probably start a number of poule matches at a handicap of 4-0 down, and rise to the challenge to win them all 5-4. But it will be another good opportunity to fence a number of opponents and encounter a variety of styles - not to be missed.
feeling good about losing
After eighteen bouts, I came home, made three jars of piccallili
, put two lots of sweaty fencing kit in the wash and phoned out for three small pizzas. I'm eating mine as I type this.
Judged by the standards of good fencers, I was atrocious. I didn't win a single bout. By my own standards I wasn't bad at all, apart from the my final epee bout (a direct elimination and therefore to 15) in which I couldn't work out how to fence my oppenent. He was one of a few who successfully adapted foil techniques to beat experienced epeeists. I wish I could work out how they did it - and how to respond.
The other fencers had all been fencing at least as long as me - some for decades longer. Apart from my son (and perhaps the other junior), they also tend to fence twice a week, so only in the world of Hollywood movies could I hope for a sudden brilliant win. Moreover, thirteen of the bouts were in foil, which I've fenced only occasionally this year. And I was the only woman fencing epee - just like last year - but there were two other women competing, in foil and sabre.
I scored points in a number of bouts. In the foil D.E. I was set against the club's tallest fencer (the number two seed and eventual winner) and somehow, despite an ungraceful fall when my body attacked but my feet stayed still, I won three points. I'm not sure how, given the distance he can lunge (half the length of the piste, I've said on occasion). Club members congratulated me, "Three points! Off him - that's very good."
Club members are good at congratulating. One told me the single point I scored against him had been "excellent". And when my son found himself against the famously difficult (ex-Olympic, now world veteran) club president, all the other fencers encouraged my son and clapped and cheered the two points he scored. (He had a good day, winning four bouts - three against three different adult fencers).
There was plenty of fencing for all. Those of us knocked out in the first D.E.s at foil fenced each other in a poule unique. Some fencers had family who came to watch for a while. As we loosened our clothing between bouts, the viewers shivered in the December cold of the unheated hall and gradually donned jackets, scarves, gloves and hats. We could have made a fortune renting out blankets or selling cocoa. Visitors to the leisure centre would pause for a few minutes on the balcony above, amazed (I like to think) by the spectacle of the day. Once I'd been knocked out of the epee, I watched for a while and was sorry to leave after seven hours of the championship. I don't yet know how sabre turned out or who became master-at-arms.
I was pleased to be part of it, pleased to fence so many bouts without exhaustion, pleased to score a few hits and start thinking through technique and strategy, even if I wasn't fast enough to carry out my ideas. I looked at the way club members encouraged one another (not just me) and took trouble to make sure everyone had fun ... and was glad to be a member of such a club.
Mind you, it seemed a little odd to phone a fellow Quaker from a fencing competition to explain why I wasn't at Meeting today.