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

Friday, July 27, 2007

No-one to stab ....

Summer hasn't exactly arrived. There are regular thunderstorms, torrential downpours and tales of flooding in parts of the country. However, according to institutions and travel agents, this is summer, and regular fencing has stopped.

It wouldn't be so bad if it was hot, or even warm. But I'm shivering slightly and huddled up in my club hoodie as I type this. I'd appreciate the opportunity of wearing a plastron and fencing jacket. Those white socks and knee breeches are ever so warm and the mask, once you get used to it, is pretty cosy. And there's nothing like a vigorous bout or two in cold weather.

But what I really miss is not the warmth of fencing but the activity. I want to try to break through someone's defence and make a quick, unexpected hit. I even want to marvel at my opponent's superior skill and puzzle about how to deal with a better, taller, stronger fencer. I miss group footwork practice and the games we play in warm-up. Of course, I also miss the friendship of fellow fencers. Facebook and the club website aren't much of a substitute.

I read on the website that our fencing club may move to another leisure centre - one that I'd find hard to reach by bus or train, esepcially after work. I hope that doesn't happen, though of course it might be best for the club. I've been fencing for nearly three years now. I may not be much good as a fencer but I really enjoy it. These days, it's part of who I am.

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Three-hit epee

The one-hit epee contest has become something of a club tradition. Towards the end of every term, all the epeeists present – and any other fencer they can recruit – fence one another for a seasonal prize, donated by the club president. This time it was a bottle of cava, which he had selected as a suitable summer wine. The mention of summer brought groans although some of us, thinking back over the past few weeks, could recall a day when it hadn’t rained.

The rules of one-hit epee are simple. Every fencer fences every other fencer. The bout stops after the first hit so scoring simply registers V for victory or D for defeat. A double counts as a double defeat.

There were nine of us: seven who fence epee reasonably regularly, a 17-year-old sabreur who had done some epee, and a fencer who had joined the beginners in September and had never fenced epee before. A little was into the contest, we found we had the youngest ref in the business – a boy aged about 9 who took it all very seriously, watched us with care and filled in the score-sheet with great deliberation. He was a rather small and quiet ref but I feel he will soon acquire an air of authority.

One-hit epee makes me feel uneasy. Even in a bout to 5 there’s a chance to get a sense of your opponent and how he’s fencing. (I say ‘he’ because I was, yet again, the only woman competing at epee. The occasional epeeists among the women wanted to fence foil last night.) In a one-hit contest there’s no chance to pause and analyse – you just have to take your chance while watching your opponent.

I began badly. My concentration wasn’t good. Walking to the piste for my first bout, I was sure I’d forgotten something but I couldn’t work out what it was. I did a quick check: mask, hairband, protective plasters on the ears, breeches, plastron, jacket, bodywire. I was just connecting the wire when I realised what was missing – I’d left my epee at the other side of the hall. Not a good start, and my level of concentration didn’t improve much during the swift opening bout.

In my second bout I was beaten by the novice – the one person I’d thought I might beat. I began to worry that I’d score no hits – at least last time I did better than that. Then I was up against the young sabreur. It was some time since I’d fenced him and that was at foil. He’s fenced for longer than me. However, his sabreur’s stance laid him open to hits and he was evidently trying to remind himself of the target area. One hit to me – it wasn’t going to be a blank sheet.

A couple of other fencers dealt with me quickly. Meanwhile, the new fencer was scoring some wins while the sabreur left the piste assuming he’d lost again, only to discover that he’d won with a neat but unintended hit to the hand.

Then I found myself against someone who’d begun fencing when I did. He’s taken part in a couple of competitions at epee and also coaches fencing, so I didn’t have much hope. However, as a coach, he has said encouraging things to me in the past so I decided to take them seriously. He attacked first – and missed. Instinctively I’d responded by extending my arm and he walked onto my blade. A win to me – and an opponent cursing himself for the failed attack.

My final bout was against the ref’s dad – a far more experienced fencer. My previous opponent urged me on. “I beat him and you beat me – of course you can do it. He likes fancy fencing – go straight into the attack and hit him straight away.”

I took the advice. My first attack failed and left me to parry a counter-attack. I couldn’t mess around trying to fence well. I didn’t even aim for the arm but pushed forward as fiercely as I could. A chest-hit shouldn’t have won against a better fencer but it did.

I’d scored 3 hits out of a possible 8. This put me in joint 6th place, beating two fencers. Meanwhile the novice had achieved an unexpected 3rd place. One of the regular epeeists took him off for some coaching. A few minutes later I watched the novice hitting the wrist with apparent ease time after time. He's shorter most epeeists but I think the weapon has just got a new recruit.

I got to fence the novice again when he was tired – he’s not used to a heavy sword. And I ended by beating the sabreur again – 5-3, I think. He had a convenient tendency to pause after each parried attack, as though to establish right of way – and his sabreur’s stance continued to lay him open. Of course, if he were to switch to epee he’d soon learn to avoid such faults. But for the moment, there’s something very satisfying in beating a sabreur.

If I ever fight a duel, I want the choice of weapons.

P.S. The winner of the one-hit epee was the rather good young fencer who I beat so surprisingly a couple of weeks ago. It went to a final elimination bout in which he scored a neat wrist-hit on the club president, who'd donated the prize. Many of the usual contenders lost out through double defeats. And I'm beginning to think there's something to be said for one-hit epee.

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Monday, July 09, 2007

fencing for couch potatoes

Thank you, Eurosport.

I never thought I'd say that. But last week at fencing the word went round - "There's fencing on the telly."

The following day an e-mail arrived giving the times of the broadcasts.

I didn't get to see the events I would have chosen. I'd have liked to see Laura Flessel-Colovic win gold at epee.

But it was amazing to see fencing on television at all. Usually the most anyone in Britain can hope for is a 30-second montage of very exciting bits without explanation - and that happens only in an Olympic year. But Eurosport, a cable channel, carried live coverage from the European championships. Blocks lasted between three-quarters of an hour and two hours. And I watched the last two broadcasts.

I've never seen film of fencing at that level. The skill I saw made up for a shortage of epee broadcasts. I saw the team men's foil final and was startled by the technique of the German Benjamin Kleibrink.

Instead of the small, economical arm movements I was taught, he made large movements. On one occasion he followed a parry in the low-line with a riposte over his opponent's shoulder that attached on his back. Meanwhile the expert British commentators discussed right of way, the reasons for yellow and red cards and the techniques employed by the fencers. It all seemed so clear - and if there were problems, the referee and the audience had the chance to watch the slow-motion replay, which evoked further comment on technique.

Later I saw the end of the final of the men's epee and the women's team sabre final, where everything hung on the final point.

There was a huge distance between those fencers and me. When I started fencing, I used to admire all the experienced fencers and know I'd never be as good as them. But these international fencers are far beyond anything I could have imagined.
I could never lunge so deeply or move with such speed and precision. It's not just a matter of age. These fencers are magic.

But I'm not depressed by the distance between their fencing and mine. I'm thrilled at taking part in the same sport.

And I'm convinced that fencing works on TV - and not just for fencers. It's far more exciting than football (or the tennis or the Grand Prix or the Tour de France). It's fast, elegant and immensely clever. And they use swords.

Note: Not all the photos I've borrowed for this post show this year's European championship. Two come from earlier championships. European championship website - click here to start browsing.

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Thursday, July 05, 2007

earlobe protection

In the end, I decided on plasters.

I’ve never tried to fix plasters to my ears before. I had two boxes of plasters: the “family assortment” and the “extreme sports” variety.

My daughter thought “extreme sports” might be what I needed. The picture on the pack showed a man in shorts climbing a sheer rock face in mountain scenery. I think he may have had a plaster on his knee. Perhaps he was being pursued by bears as well. He wouldn’t want to leave a trail of blood in the wilderness.

Fencing didn’t seem quite as extreme as mountaineering and rock-climbing. I wasn’t sure that my ear-lobes were going to suffer extreme pressure. One of my fellow fencers suggested that the real danger lay in putting the mask on and off, though a hit to the mask could also cause problems.

That led me to the “family assortment”. It sounded like those tins of biscuits you get at Christmas. They are supposed to cater for everybody’s taste. There’s usually a general scrum for the ones with chocolate and jam. Then the custard creams and bourbons go. And finally, for a week or so, everyone contemplates the miserable shortcakes, coconut rings and Nice biscuits, hoping someone else will do the decent thing and put them out of their misery.

It will be like that with the plasters. Most are the shape and size you need for a small cut. They'll be used fast enough. The plasters for blisters will go rapidly. We'll move on to the slightly bigger plasters. In the end two big plasters, large enough to cover an entire knee, will remain. I’ll wonder whether to keep them for big emergencies or cut them down to size. I'll dither, buy another family assortment ... and another. Finally I'll have enough unwanted plasters to cover the bathroom walls, should I develop a strange taste in interior decor.

There were no plasters conveniently labelled: “earlobe protection: for fencers with newly pierced ears.”

By the time I’d twisted the plasters over my ears, I looked like an elf from Lord of the Rings whose ears had been put on upside down.

“Why did you do it?” a fellow epeeist asked. “I couldn’t be bothered with the time and trouble.”

Of course, when I explained my piratical ambitions, she fully understood. “But I thought pirates only wore one earring.” This seemed a distinct possibility but set up a further problem. Was the earring worn on the same side as the parrot?

Apart from fussing with earlobes, I did manage some fencing: against a taller man, a shorter woman, and a very skilful left-hander. While I didn’t shine and lacked the clear focus I’d had last week, I still managed a fair number of hits to accompany the very clumsy misses, though tiredness made me slower than usual.

My earrings and earlobes survived.

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Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Help! I've been stabbed in the ears

My daughter won.

Last week she and her boyfriend (the sabreur) celebrated the end of exams and 6th form college by each getting one ear pierced. The piercings are quite high up - "through cartilege",my daughter said, proud of her ability to bear the pain - and they plan to wear matching ear-cuffs, or something of the kind.

When she returned, after the initial "ow! does it hurt? - my baby's got a hole in her ear" reaction, I remarked that perhaps I'd get my ears pierced too.

I think it was meant to be a frivolous, throw-away remark. For heaven's sake - I'm 52, which is a bit late to embark on a life of glamour and beauty treatments. But my daughter thinks I'm her mission in life (when she's not concerned with acting, her boyfriend, her friends, her busy social life, writing, computer gaming ...). She decided to take me in hand.

It was all slightly alarming. For a start, the professional young lady who pierced my ears - and did her best to check I hadn't been bullied into it - used a gun, not a sword. She gave me lots of warnings about what to do if my earlobes became infected or the stud got trapped inside the pierced lobe. (I was turning pale by then.) My daughter smiled in a way that was supposed to be encouraging.

I raised the crucial questions. What would happen when I put on a fencing mask? Would the ear/stud/piercing be at risk if I took a particularly hard hit to the mask? What should I do if a fencing injury caused problems with my newly-pierced ear-lobes? Strangely, the experienced piercers in the shop didn't seem familiar with this line of questioning.

My daughter suggested I ask my opponents not to hit me in the mask. I tried to explain why that wouldn't work but she seemed to think earrings more important than epee. Then she suggested plasters over the earrings - I think friends with newly-pierced ears used plaster in ballet displays and exams. The piercers thought plaster might work but said I must be careful for six weeks.

I decided to risk it.

My daughter stood by, grinning manically.

The first shot hurt but the second wasn't so bad. Suddenly I had holes in my ear-lobes and sparkly, dark blue studs.

The pierced ears will help in my piratical (post-retirement) career. I've found a place nearby where I can learn to sail too, when I have time, money and a boat. There's a colony of parrots in Richmond Park. Perhaps I could trap one to train on my next visit to London.

But I'm still uncertain about the fencing mask and how (if) to protect my ear-lobes and studs for the next few weeks. Any ideas? I don't want to lose this significant pirate accessory before my career begins.

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