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

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

fencing the chef

"I am a culinary genius," my opponent declared on Facebook last week.

It's probably true. One of her plans for the future involves opening a cake shop She's the only person I know who makes her own crumpets.

However, culinary genius has its effects, I observed, as I helped her zip her jacket last week. (I had to breathe in to manage the buttons on my breeches but that's lack of exercise and not genius.)

"I can't breathe properly," the chef said. "Oh good," I responded, "that will give me a chance."

But it didn't. We fenced steam epee, as the pistes were taken. The hall was still packed with keen beginners and eager intermediates so we didn't even have a whole piste, just a little space. I was hit quite a lot and, in return, I hit the air around the chef's arm and head. I wondered if I would ever hit anybody or anything at all.

We took a break and conceded the space. "Let's try sabre," I said, thinking that I might manage to hit her with a slashing motion. She wasn't keen. She wanted to try foil. But she accompanied me to the weapon store. There weren't any sabres. "I think it's telling us something," she said. "It's telling us to look for sabres elsewhere," I suggested brightly.

We found the sabres. They were in use. So we tried foil.

I kept hitting the chef's bib, or her mask, or her arm. She kept hitting me. Then she suggested we pause after each hit and analyse it, so that we could describe the fencing phrase and work out who had won. "Like in American football?" I asked ... and somehow that led to a discussion of American football and ice hockey. It was interrupted by the reasonable request, "Can we have this space if you're not using it?"

We retreated to the sidelines, realising we hadn't behaved well, and tried to recruit a fencer to help us to analyse fencing phrases and assign points. But all the fencers wanted to fence. Eventually we found a space again and fenced foil some more, trying to analyse each point. Mostly we analysed the different ways in which the chef had hit me or the ways in which I'd failed to establish right of way, so that my hit didn't count.

I went home wondering whether I could ever progress in fencing, or whether age-related deterioration had set in. The chef is less than half my age so has the advantage of youth.

She has the advantage of fitness too. She cycles everywhere, even up hills, and goes to the gym a couple of times a week. I walk, take trains and read in bed, which isn't quite so effective. However, yesterday her Facebook page announced that she had "failed miserably to go to the gym" and had gone to the pub instead. "Aha," I thought, "I'm in with a chance."

It didn't seem much of a chance but this week my epee seemed more comfortable in my hand. Before leaving the house I'd watched Joe the cat fending off an attack from a large, cross, grey fluffy cat, who has been in the habit of visiting our house on occasion since his kitten days. The grey fluffy cat has lately developed a bad temper, hissing and growling on the most minor provocation. During Joe's recuperation, we shut the cat-flap so that Joe couldn't get out and other cats couldn't get in. From Grey Fluff's point of view, his territory had been stolen. A new cat was encroaching on his empire (Grey Fluff tries to control a number of houses, threatening the occupants until they provide fuss, warm beds and cat food.) Earlier today, Joe responded to Grey Fluff's attach with a sleepy and surprised stare. In the evening, he finally fought back for a moment and Grey Fluff disappeared through the cat-flap, though a moment later his paw reached back in, claws at the ready.

I was appalled at the little outbreak of violence and the cats' quick shft from hissing, growling anger to the rapid whirr of paws and claws. But when I held my epee later in the evening, something in the speed of the cats seemed to inspire me. For the first time in weeks I moved faster and more fluently, gaining accuracy at the same time. It wasn't brilliant - except for me. I started to land hits on the chef - not all the time, but about as many as she landed on me. I was hitting her right arm. OK, she hadn't been to the gym and, as I learned later, her arm was hurting even before I started hitting it, but I felt as though I was moving with greater agility.

Later I fenced a good epee fencer who had been unable to fence for some months. Usually I can't touch him when he's been away because he compensates for stiffness in movement with devastating accuracy but this time I managed to land hits - not the majority of hits but many more than usual. I was tiring, however, and my hits became less frequent. My arm was aching and I was relieved when he signalled that the next point would be the last.

I didn't get as much fencing as I'd have liked. The hall is still crowded and fencers wait for steam space as well as pistes. The coaches are kept busy. The club is popular just now, with sabreurs in particular doing well in competition. But tonight I regained something I'd lost in the last few weeks: the sense that I can still improve and, on occasion, go beyond my expectations. Tonight, once again, I felt like a fencer.

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Saturday, January 19, 2008

cats and swords

As you can see, he's a beautiful cat. I'm not sure if he's our cat yet, but if he's ours his name is Joe. He's lived with us for a week and a half. He came in quietly, as cats do, and lay down by the fire, indicating that this was his house and we were his people. There wasn't much we could do about it so we offered cat food. He's living with us now. And I think he's already had an impact on my fencing.

Last fencing night looked good. I was able to work from home so I reckoned on a leisurely stroll to to fencing - perhaps even time for some exercise at home. I should have known it wouldn't work like that.

I've told the full story elsewhere - and that's where I'll post feline follow-ups. It's enough to say that on the morning of my fencing day, I came downstairs to pools of blood - and no cat. A fox had been barking in the night but I don't know what was to blame. The cat came in briefly and left again - he may have overheard my daughter's phone-call to the vet or my call to a neighbouring sabreur who owned a cat basket. We finally got Joe to the vet in the evening. His wound opened again and he dripped blood over the vet's table.

(Note to North American readers: we Brits always call a veterinarian a "vet" - here the term has nothing to do with the military.)

A decision was made to keep Joe in overnight and operate in the morning - the only question was "Do you take credit cards?" Afterwards my son and I picked up pizzas and I wondered whether to head, late and shakily, to fencing. There was no time to walk. I rang the cab company, changed, grab my swords and backpack and headed into the cold.

The hall was warm. There must have been about 50 fencers in attendance, 20 of them beginners learning what a plastron was and how to wear a mask. I had no chance for a warm-up. Instead, I found myself telling anyone who would listen the story of the cat, and how I seemed to have a cat even though I didn't really want one. A critically ill cat seemed more than I could cope with in a world of responsibilities.

I tried to forget the cat and focus on fencing. "Let's impress the beginners," I said to a fellow epeeist. She suggested gently that we might not be very impressive. "We're rather slow," she said. I thought that the size of the swords might compensate. So for five minutes or so the beginners were treated to the sight of me being hit repreatedly - and fairly slowly - with a big sword while I went on thinking about the cat.

I might have been hit just as many times but I like to believe that, if I hadn't been thinking about the cat, I'd have put up more resistance. Eventually my blade found it's way to one or two hits - even on the arm - but it had little assistance from me.

My fencing didn't improve all evening - and an attempt at foil resulted in a run of bib hits, which aren't, I think, legal yet. Still, I was half distracted.

At the end of the evening I set out to walk home - given the vet's bill I plainly should avoid too much expenditure on taxis. It's only a mile and a half and an easy walk - or so I thought until I realised that I'd arrived in fencing clothes with no coat. It was the only day all week without rain. Instead, the night air was white with freezing fog. I gritted my teeth and strode out, shivering slightly.

At last luck and kindness were on my side. A fellow fencer - the victim of my wine the week before - pulled up beside me and offered a lift. I must have reinforced his impression of my clumsiness as, between cold and shakiness from worry, I dropped my swords on the road. But I clambered in and was soon home to discover a neighbour's cat had taken Joe's place and was fast asleep on my bed.

Note: In case you're concerned about the cat, he came through the operation and is now convalescent. He's got to go back to the vet a couple of times but he seems much happier and livelier. He's had a go at using the computer too.

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Saturday, January 12, 2008

bow-ties, shoes and swords

I hardly recognized the fencers.

We had gathered at the golf club for our annual dinner and awards ceremony. There had been suggestions about dressing up, but I hadn't expected a white-tie affair.

Not that white ties were compulsory. There were also black bow-ties, coloured ties, shirts without ties, waistcoats and, from determinedly casual dressers, sweatshirts. The women did their best but could hardly compete, althought there were some fine dresses and ensembles. In particular, one epeeist had gone for the 1940s look, with straight seams down the back of her legs. Were they stockings, I wondered, or the really authentic 1940s austerity look, created by gravy browning and eyebrow pencil. Alas, she had adopted the modern option - tights. Still, her shoes and dress were very fine, and she approved of my shoes too, before our conversation moved to more general subjects. Soon we had left outfits and fencing far behind and were talking of cinema. "You must see Ang Lee's Lust. Caution," I was told. "I've heard it's good," I responded. "Oh yes," my friend replied, "and the shoes are excellent."

We seemed determined to show that our interests went beyond fencing, although there were fencing questions in the traditional quiz. I didn't know many answers. I have no idea how indicators for national rankings work and couldn't calculate the numbers of D.E. bouts in a large contest. At least I remembered which British epeeist won the 2007 Heidenheim championship. One question revealed the decision to include the bib as a target in foil. My hits often land on the bib but it still sounds an awful idea - and an expensive one. Presumably foilists, like sabreurs, will need special and expensive masks for fencing on electric pistes - a further deterrent for fencers with less money. Epee remains the pauper's sport, with the cheapest equipment.. (Looking at discussion sites, I see talk of outlawing the fleche as well. I hope it will stay. I've never used a fleche in combat but there's something exhilarating about ending footwork practice with a fleche and a shout.)

Speeches at the end of the meal were crammed with jokes. We poured the last of the red wine and were easily amused. Award winners posed with their trophies as cameras, mobile phones and glasses were raised. The main trophies are retired weapons (with ornaments for keeping) but there are also medals for second and third place. We cheered and applauded the winners. Opposite me sat the new master-of-arms. I leaned over to admire his swords and medals and tipped my wine glass. A red stain grew on the medal ribbons. No-one had white wine to remove the stain so a friend tried using salt. It didn't work.

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Saturday, January 05, 2008

Fencing for toasters and falling on ice

It's a beautiful toaster. But while my friend and fellow epeeist acknowledged its charm, she refused to acknowledge its superiority. She too had just acquired a toaster and asserted that her toaster, rather than mine, was "the most beautiful toaster in the world." Hers was, she declared, ecologically superior, retro and mint-green. Mine, she acknowledged grudgingly, might be a classic, but she refused to to admit that my sturdy, elegant, four-slice toaster was the best in the world.

Throughout the evening, we argued the merits of our toasters. Finally she suggested we should settle the matter with foils. (We'd already tried steam sabre, which reduced our ref. to helpless giggles, and done rather better at epee.)

Alas. I couldn't remember the rules for right of way and Christmas indulgence had left me lethargic. I had expended too much energy on the effort to squeeze into my breeches. I failed to uphold the merits of my splendid toaster.

Another foilist came in search of a bout, offering to fence us each in turn. "Do you have a toaster?" my friend asked. He nodded. "What make is it?" He tried to remember, then gave up. "Can you describe your toaster?" He shook his head. "Never mind. You're fencing for your toaster."

He beat us both before admitting ... that he no longer had a toaster. The reputations of our toasters had been demolished by .... no toaster at all.

This didn't seem quite right. But within twenty-four hours, we'd come up with a new scheme. Snow was predicted. We would go skating in Nottingham's Old Market Square, while it was snowing.

It didn't work out as planned. The snow made the headlines in the local paper but forgot to fall. Still, we headed for the outdoor ice-rink, wondering if fencing on ice was possible. "Could you manage a ballestra? It would be hard to stop when doing a fleche." A lunge might be a bit too easy, I thought - and I wasn't sure how I'd recover and reprise. At the back of my mind was a suspicion that my inability to skate could be a problem. "I don't think they'd let us use swords," my friend warned.

After skating - more or less - for forty-five minute, I had to concede that my friend had a point. It was about ten years since I last attempted to skate. At most, I've skated once in each decade of my life. Armed with a sword, I'd probably have stabbed myself a couple of times. My two tumbles could have ended messily - even fatally. There could have been carnage. The children clinging to the edge or gliding with parents would have been in danger.

I'd rather have looked like Jayne Torvill, who opened the ice rink. She and Christopher Dean are local heroes. But I've never seen ice dancers like them - and they certainly didn't have rivals among the twenty or so skaters that morning.

I made a modest resolution. I would try to skate once round the rink without holding on. I'm pleased to say I achieved it. And I made another resolution - to come back and try again next year.

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