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, December 25, 2007

Happy Christmas

To readers who fence: in the coming year, may your footwork be swift, your point controlled, your lunges deep, your fleches fierce, your eye quick, your arm strong, your hand dextrous and your strategy cunning. May your blades and body wires be faultless and may box, judges and referee note all your hits. Enjoy the feasts of the season, and may your plastron, jacket and breeches still fit when you return to the piste in the New Year.

To all readers whether or not you fence: best wishes for the season. Happy Christmas, Saturnalia or Yule - or , if you celebrate none of these, may you still find cause for happiness and celebration.

I wish all of you peace (enlivened by occasional, consensual stabbing).

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Thursday, December 20, 2007

angel v. turkey

The shop assistant couldn't stop giggling. "I didn't think we'd sell any of that," she said, as I presented my black and gold tinsel at the checkout. It did look strangely funereal amid the Christmas red and green.

"It's to decorate my sword," I explained. "Fencing club colours."

I'm not sure she believed me, even though I was wearing my club hoodie at the time.

As it turned out, I was slightly underdressed, as I realised when I walked into the hall for festive fencing to see a sabreur with a plush turkey sat astride his mask. For some reason I thought it was a chicken, possibly because it looked as though the turkey was laying an egg. The turkey caused a certain amount of debate because plainly a hit to turkey wouldn't register on the electric box.

Reindeer were everywhere. Mostly these were created by soft antlers on headbands attached to masks, but one fencer had decided to impersonate Rudolph. His mask sported a red nose but the piece de resistance was a pair of flashing eyes. "I don't know how anyone can fence that," a serious-minded fender commented, but I noticed that Rudolph was managing rather well at foil, with neat footwork and nifty hits.

Most fencing wasn't as serious as usual. A couple of members were home from university - one, in his first term, had gone straight into his university epee team and was fencing three times a week. In a steam bout against him, I became aware of all my errors, particularly a tendency to raise my hand slightly from the wrist before attempting a hit, providing my opponent with a clear target. But mostly my fencing was marked by tiredness - and I was distracted by the difficulty of keeping my tinsel in place. I tried it on my mask first, switched it to the hilt and sword-arm and finally wore it as a garland round my neck.

I had thought Rudolph would be the most excitingly costumed fencer, but that was before the late arrival of a sabreuse. Reminded of festive fencing at the last minute, she had seized gold and silver tinsel and metal coat-hangers. Then she proceeded to make angel wings, attached to the back of her lame, and a halo to sit above her mask.

I wasn't sure how secure the costume would be, but even the halo stayed in place, though it did slip a bit. Towards the end of the evening I glanced across at the sabre piste and saw that the angel was fencing the turkey. I never found out which of them won.

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chocolate santa

We agreed it was a fine trophy. The club president had, as usual, brought a chocolate santa as the prize for the one-hit epee contest. It lay in a basket of miniature santas, on the floor.

With the inducement of chocolate, foilists and sabreurs prepared to join in. Their epee technique may be unconventional but with only one hit to count, it can be deadly. Usually the trick against foilistsor sabreurs is to look for that split second in which they try to establish right of way. In one-hit epee that's a risky strategy since a double hit means a double defeat.

I think there were ten or eleven of us in the pool unique and, for once, I wasn't the only woman. The Polish epeeist had borrowed breeches so that she could join in. She'd brought a friend, another epeeist, who was sadly left to fence foil with beginners and intermediates as he didn't have epee kit.

One-hit epee usually means more time is spent attaching body wires and testing blades than actually fencing. However, inspired by the thought of that chocolate santa, bouts were so slow that a stopwatch might have come in handy. Fencers advanced for a moment, then withdrew, keeping out of range of their opponents' blades rather than risk the hit that would defeat them.

On-hit epee can be wonderfully unpredictable. I achieved two hits, one against the eventual runner-up, though that my have been kindness on his part. There was a happy moment when the women fencing other weapons cheered me, and I managed my second hit.

At the end of the pool, two fencers tied for first place with seven hits each. The final duel was again cautious but won, I'm pleased to say, by a regular epeeist. His Oscar-style speech, thanking his mother, father, grandmother, great aunts, etc. was drowned out as he wiped away a pretend tear. He lifted his large santa for photos as the rest of us ate the miniatures.

I think the Polish fencers were surprised by our lack of seriousness and the amount of laughter between fencers. I think that was something they enjoyed - I hope so.

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Sunday, December 09, 2007

Epee practice

Parts of Britain are succumbing to xenophobia at present and Eastern Europeans have become a particular target. Recently a number of Poles have arrived, mostly young people taking up jobs for a year or so. We Brits are equally entitled to move around the European community. It's a tempting idea, even at my age, but I'm not sure I'll find it so easy to get work abroad when the children have left home. My language skills don't match those of other Europeans. Halting conversational French and tourist Italian aren't good enough for an employer, though I'd be happy to work at improving them.

Perhaps I could take up Polish. That's suddenly become more feasible as a new, Polish epeeist has arrived at out club. She's young, small and slender - and very fast. She's pretty and friendly too - nobody could possibly be prejudiced against someone so open and out-going. "I'm out of practice," she told me. "I haven't fenced for ten years. And I've only done epee." She made reference to competitions and years of training. Ten years ago she was sixteen.

She was fun to fence, even though I was out-classed. I got the occasional lucky hit - probably because she was out of practice - and the worst bruises I've had in a while. I learnt very quickly which areas I was failing to defend. Her guard was excellent - her whole forearm out of sight - and her parries lightning fast. I think she's a little shocked about how infrequently the club meets - "only twice a week?" she asked, disbelieving. Of course, the keenest and best fencers join more than one club. But I think she's accpeted that I'm a once-a-week fencer. I must seem very old to her, and to many of the young fencers. And that, of course, is an advantage. I can get away with more.

I found another new opponent too - a foilist with a startling black beard and moustache. He would have looked like a model for a villain from in a child's dressing-up kit were it not for his friendly smile. He fenced like an eighteenth-century duelist, sideways on. At first I found him almost impossible to hit. Then I realised that, as he moved his sword arm, to attack me I could reach his back - not all the time, but I got three or four hits. He wasn't sure how to deal with that. Again, he's an out-of-practice fencer, which suits me fine.

It was a good evening without being a great one. I liked the mix of fencing familiar and unfamiliar opponents. There was time for conversation between bouts and knock-abouts. My son is over his virus (he gave it to his sister, who gave it to her boyfriend - and his mother) so he got some good fencing in too.

Next week it's the one-hit epee contest. The chocolate santa has already been bought as a prize - donated by the club president who remains the best bet to win it. I'm taking vitamin pills and drinking orange juice in the hope of fending off colds and flu. However low my ambitions, I want to compete. I managed three hits last time - I doubt I can do more. I probably shan't do as well. But I'll be there anyway, doing my best. If I have a few moments, I'll practise lunges, which may get me some odd looks at work.

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Saturday, December 01, 2007

"Fail again. Fail better."

It would be nice to win sometimes but, apart from the occasional lucky bout, it's not going to happen. At the club championship there was a moment in pools when I was 4-1 up. Then my opponent either started concentrating or saw one of the errors I was making and won every point. 5-4 isn't a disgraceful defeat, especially in foil which I barely fence these days, but I'd have liked to win.

At least I didn't come up against my son, who was doing rather better despite very little practice. He won his first D.E. before being eliminated.

Then there was a pause to watch the other bouts and the tightest final I've ever seen, between a very good 14-year-old and a foil specialist aiming at the master-of-arms trophy. The points were long and exhaustingly fought. It was six seconds short of the 9-minute mark when the 14-year-old drew level and the score stood at 13 all. The older fencer fleched and scored. 14-13 and 2 seconds left. We all knew what had to come next. At 9 minutes the match would be awarded to the leading fencer. The 14-year-old had no choice. He fleched, but his opponent was waiting and caught him with a hit, just as time was called.

There was a brief pause before epee began. Non-fencers may have a glamorous idea of a fencing championship. There are moments of glamour, when passing children pause and stand in awe. It should be dramatic and romantic and lunch should involve a lavish feast with silver tankards of good ale or glasses of deep red wine.

It's not quite like that. There are a couple of vending machines, selling cold drinks, crisps and chocolate. They can help but, as Sunday lunch, they're not the best feast imaginable. We'd brought picnics and flasks of tea and coffee to the leisure centre and nibbled between bouts or while watching. Strong black coffee kept me going (more or less) during the morning and cheese, biscuits and apples were a satisfactory lunch. Jaffa cakes were produced and shared. It was cold in the leisure centre, even in fencing gear so it seemed a shame to discard the foil lame I'd borrowed.

In epee, I lost focus. I forgot how to fence. Usually foil helps me prepare for epee but at the championship I was slow, inaccurate and lacking in strategy. I recall - with amazement - one nice wrist hit, but apart from that I offered no real opposition. So of course, I did what I'd decided in advance and proceeded to sabre.

The decisions was ludicrous. I'd held a sabre for thirty minutes in total, in three short sessions. I thought I could just about remember the grip and I had a hazy idea of the en garde position. I knew three defensive positions, fve ways to hit and two parries. The club is stronger in sabre than any other weapon and the keen sabreurs were raring to go. My main aim was not to blink when the blade hit my mask. At least sabre has the warmest kit.

By this stage, the level of aggression from fencers was pretty high. The master-of-arms title was wide open and all the sabreurs were keen to do their best. But at last I wasn't the only woman in the hall (though I was the oldest person). A sabreuse arrived with another woman fencer in support and both offered advice and encouragement. The most useful advice was "They won't be so aggressive with you." Watching the opening pool fights, I hoped this was right.

I imagine my opponents must have held back - probably rather obviously - as I managed occasional hits. The women cheered me in my first bout, which helped, and there was a cheer when I managed a cut. Most of my hits were flailing accidents since I had no idea of appropriate technique but one cut to the inner arm delighted me. And in the D.E. I went out 15-5 - the same score as I'd managed in epee. In epee that was disgraceful but in sabre creditable. I finished the day, seven and a half hours after I began, thinking that at least I was still standing and I'd only fallen over once.

Walking home, I was exhilarated. I'd fenced all three weapons for the first (possibly the last) time. But again I wondered why I fence. I'm not going to be a good fencer. For a few years, I may manage to improve a little, but it's a continuing battle against age. In a few years I'll start getting worse.

The backpack with mask, jacket, breeches and plastron was a familiar weight. The swords jangled gently in the bag on my shoulder. I looked at the stars and thought the most hopeful motto I could find came from Waiting for Godot: "No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better."

In my previous post, I mentioned the case of Jahongir Sidikov. His deportation to Uzbekistan has been delayed, pending a review, but the British government has stated that deporting dissidents to Uzbekistan is government policy. I can hardly believe this. Anyone who wishes to learn about Uzbekistan, should read Craig Murray's book: Murder in Samarkand in Britain, or, in the United States, Dirty Diplomacy: the Rough-and-Tumble Adventures of a Scotch-Drinking, Skirt-Chasing, Dictator-Busting and Thoroughly Unrepentant Ambassador Stuck on the Frontline of the War against Terror. (That American title has a certain something - length for a start.) If you wish to help Jahongir, please follow the links, search on google and do what you can. (There's a Facebook group too.)

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