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

Saturday, May 31, 2008

The epeeist's guide to bike maintenance

"Sorry," gasped the chef as her blade slammed into my collarbone, "are you allright?"

As soon as I'd got my breath back, I assured her I was fine. Then, a few minutes later, she hit the same spot with extra force. "Sorry," she said again, "I'm really sorry."

Fencers apologise quite a lot. Actually the chef had no reason to apologise. I'd had a long, trying day at work and was trying to transform annoyance into speed, aggression and accuracy. Possibly this alarmed her. I was certainly getting more hits than usual, especially at the beginning of the session. She naturally transformed the tedium of her day into a similar level of aggression which led to a high number of doubles. The chef reckons too much anger damages her accuracy but I find it helps me.

I'd been up since 5 and working without a break. The hits pleased me. But the next session reminded me how much I have to learn. My opponent has been training and competing hard as a wheelchair fencer, at national and international level, though he stands when fencing on club nights. It's a few weeks since I've fenced him and his increased accuracy is startling. I tried to move fast, since that's the only way I can get an advantage, but it didn't help against the speed of his reactions. I think he let me take a couple of points but most of the time I was nowhere near him. But I was pleased to fence so expert an opponent.

I was tiring when the fencer I call the Man-man invited me onto the piste. The Man-man has a mission when fencing me. He wants me to maintain a better guard and, in particular, keep my elbow behind the guard. Within seconds my arm was aching. Yet I did try to keep my arm up, I managed a few parries leading to hits and the Man-man said I'd improved, so I walked off the piste feeling good, but very tired.

The chef, similarly tired, suggested we leave early and for once I didn't dissent. She watched me get onto my bike, which was just as well. I'd unlocked it and filled the basket when I realised that, although I'd picked up my swords, my backpack was still in the hall. The chef held my bike as I returned to collect it.

As I mounted the bike (I'm getting better at balancing the swords) she pointed out that my tyre was flat. "I think you've got a slow puncture," she said. I planned to take it to the bike shop, being short on time and competence. But work was busy and it was only this afternoon that I found time to take my bike anywhere. I thought I'd cycle to the chef's house first and give her a globe artichoke.

The chef had already suggested (a) that I should mend my own bike, (b) that she should do it for me, and (c) (when she discovered the level of my incompetence) that she should show me how to change an inner tube. I had resisted all these suggestions but, when she assured me it would take only five minutes - and that I could have a cup of Earl Grey tea too - I succumbed, thanked her and watched.

The chef produced a wonderful array of technical equipment. My dad, who had also suggested I mend my own bike, said I'd need two forks but the chef had some useful implements made of blue plastic as well as a remarkably sophisticated bike pump and an adjustable spanner. She also lives round the corner from a bike shop so that, once we'd located the puncture, I could buy a new inner tube.

There was something impressive about the way the chef took my bike, stood it upside-down on the decking and began to attack the bolts with her spanner. Unfortunately the bolts were jammed tight and needed WD40 as well as epeeist super-strength to undo. But then the chef impressed me with her speed and competence. She made me locate the minute hole and showed me how simple it was to insert a new inner tube.

The chef is not just a domestic goddess. Perhaps she'll start forging her own epee blades next week.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , ,

Sunday, May 25, 2008

pistes or penalties?

It was Chelsea versus Manchester United in Moscow. And it was fencing night at the leisure centre. It wasn't a tough decision for me. I was feeling fit after a small excursion by bike. Besides, I'd got it all worked out. Big football matches mean low attendance at fencing so there would be lots of space on the pistes. The only question troubling me, as I approached the leisure centre, was whether there would be enough people to fence.

It was as packed as usual. "I thought everyone would be at the football," said the first person I met ... and the second, and the third. It became clear that, while the football fans had stayed home, everyone else - regular attender or not - had picked up their kit and headed to the leisure centre. We worked that out as we stood in line, waiting for a piste or just space on the floor.

At the beginning I was filled with energy - faster than usual and even, occasionally, accurate. I was very proud of hitting the chef on the leg. She is probably proud of hitting me quite a lot. In the intervals of fencing we discussed men who had annoyed us recently and wondered whether fencing would be a good way to express our feelings. The chef thought not. She reckons that too much anger and aggression damages accuracy. I can see her point but I mostly lose control of my blade because I'm tired or because my arm aches, not because I'm cross.

There wasn't much aggression in our fencing. I spent a short time being beaten (only 5-4) in foil by a very small 12-year-old boy, who I remember as a babe in arms. His target area is tiny. I persuaded another fencer to take him on, put my foil away and picked up my epee again.

Mostly I fenced the chef. My determination continued but, by the time we reached the electric piste, I was flagging. She got a few more hits than me and lots of the points were doubles.

Towards the end of the evening I had the chance to fence the doc, who has a light, accurate touch. I didn't do well. It wasn't just that he's much better than me. He's such an encouraging opponent that I sometimes do best against him. He always pauses to congratulate me on good hits. There wasn't much to congratulate this time. I could feel tiredness from the cycle-ride stealing up on me and reflected that I hadn't yet recovered my stamina since the fall. It was getting late too. I signalled that I could manage only one more point and.somehow ended with a neat hit to the forearm. I apologised to the doc for my tiredness and incompetence. "You ended on a nice hit," he said, encouragingly.

I got ready to go as fast as I could as the chef was waiting for the regular comedy of my attempt to mount the bike and cycle away while carrying three swords. (I must lend her my collection of Charlie Chaplin films.) As I was struggling out of my plastron, my phone rang. "One all," my friend reported. "They're going into extra time. If you get home quickly, you'll see the end of the match."

The match was still on when I reached home. The radio news announced that Drogba had been sent off and the teams were preparing for a penalty shoot out. I wondered if I should stand up, turn on the TV and watch. But I was too tired.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Friday, May 16, 2008

picking up speed

Perhaps the brief excursion to Robin Hood country did the trick, although Nottingham Castle isn't the same as when Robin fought his way up staircases and swung from chandeliers. Perhaps it was the hour or so I spent sitting in the sunshine. Perhaps I'm just recovering. Whatever it was, I noticed a change for the better.

I was late and slightly wobbly when I arrived at fencing. I wanted to do the warm-up but the exercise required partners and everyone was paired up already. I had to wait for the short footwork practice to join in, But when we had to lunge, I felt an improvement. It wasn't a deep lunge - I can't do those - but it was definitely a lunge rather than a step forward followed by a slight bend of the right knee.

When the chef and I got onto to epee piste, I was filled with energy and, for the first time since my fall from the loft, speed. I probably wasn't that fast but I felt terrific as I launched the attack. I took the first two points despite the chef's vigorous and equally speedy defence and the third was a double. After that, she began to win points. "I don't want to read on your blog that I'm easy to beat," she commented. She isn't. After that promising opening she won more points than I did. But it felt like real fencing again.

The problem with picking up speed, I discovered, was the loss of accuracy that accompanied it - not that I'd been brilliantly accurate before. Too often my point glided harmlessly above or along my opponent's arm or shoulder. I tried to deceive opponents by changing the position of my arm, so that it would be harder to gauge a constantly changing distance. The aim was to lure opponents into reach and hit before they noticed. It usually didn't work like that. They would see my exposed hand and wrist and take the hit. The chef is particularly difficult to catch out. She's smaller than me with a deep lunge. If I reach under her arm to angle upwards, she can manage a downwards hit. But reaching her arm from above is also a risk because she's smaller and lunges so well. Most of my points involved parrying her blade and hitting to the chest, or occasionally the mask, though I did achieve a couple of forearm hits and one to the thigh.

I didn't get quite as much fencing as I'd have liked - I had quite a bit of time on the piste but only two opponents. But it was good to see new fencers, including an epeeist from the university club and a good left-handed foilist (with epee in bag!) making her second visit. It's still crowded, though the number of fencers in the hall had dropped below 40 by 9.00 p.m. And I was tired and limping before the session ended. The chef watched me get on my bike with all my equipment - "for entertainment value," she said. She suggested wego on a bike ride together some time but now she's realised how slowly I cycle I expect she's changed her mind. I manage a steady pace on my sturdy mountain bike. She races ahead on her young person's bike - is there a biathlon in fencing and cycling?

Meanwhile, I'm contemplating old age. I was cheered by the story of the old people's home in Australia where the residents have taken up fencing. The oldest beginner is a retired nun in her 90s. That's the sort of old people's home I want. When I'm a frail old person, looking for somewhere to stay, I shan't accept the offer of knitting classes and community singing. "Do you offer fencing?" I shall ask. (I suppsoe I might have to compromise and exchange my epee for a foil.)

I'm still wondering if it was the visit to Nottingham Castle that did me so much good. It's a steep climb up castle rock, whether by slope or stone staircase. This may be where Robin Hood fenced the Sherrif.

Labels: , , , , , , , ,

Friday, May 09, 2008

new bruises

"It doesn't hurt, does it?"

I've lost count of the number of times non-fencers have posed that question. The majority of people seem to assume that hitting being hit with a sword doesn't hurt because the point is covered - and fencing clothing provides 100% protection. They're a bit shocked when they see the bruises.

Most sports hurt. Just watch runners' faces when they're doing the London Marathon. Even the gentlest sports involve aching limbs while muscle-damage is a frequent problem. Years ago, my daughter lost the use of her right arm for weeks after a teacher urged her to try harder at the shot-putt. (She was 12 and small for her age with no idea of the technique required.) I experienced hockey at school and would say that fencing is less dangerous. My best technique at hockey involved lurking in the pavilion to avoid being hurt - or volunteering as a back on the strongest side. I've been hit by a hockey ball and that was far worse than any fencing injury. Friends and colleagues who go to the gym return worn out and often gasping for a drink.

I suppose what alarms people is the idea that fencers set out to damage each other - that we see bodies in terms of target areas.

But no good fencer sets out to damage or wound an opponent. The aim is to land a secure hit, with just the right degree of force, attaching the blade - although sabres are different because they employ a slashing movement which cuts, usually lightly, to the head or torso. Sometimes I don't even feel the hit scored against me - but that's usually when my opponent is an expert using minimal force and maximum accuracy to score the point.

Bruises happen when a fencer uses too much force or when a fencer moves toward the attack, often to launch her/his own attack. Because of the number of hits in an evening's fencing, bruises are an inevitable result. Sabreurs display red slash-marks on their arms, foilists have small, circular dots while epeeists have larger, darker bruises because of the greater weight of the weapon and the greater force required to score a hit. Often I have a bruised area - usually on my right upper arm - where I've been hit repeatedly. This should tell me about problems I'm having with my guard.

It's quite possible that I cause worse bruises than I receive because I'm a less-practised fencer than most of my opponents and weaker at blade control. Although I'm often advised to be more aggressive, I sometimes move in too fiercely in an effort to attach the point. My opponents are almost always polite and say "sorry" if they think they've hit too hard.

This week I have a blue-purple splodge on my arm just below last week's yellow-green. As summer has arrived, I may have to explain the bruises.

My fitness and fencing are recovering slowly, though I was no match for the chef, who has returned after a couple of weeks' absence. "I'm not fit," she assured me, moving easily through footwork practice, and showing off the depth of her lunge. (The dancer has a brilliant lunge - the lowest I've ever seen. He was showing it off before sabre practice. Sadly he's deserted the epeeists for a couple of weeks, just because he wants to prepare for a competition.) Of course, it took me a while to land a single hit on her and, when I did, most of them were doubles.

Still, I fenced, I managed some hits and one or two of them pleased me. Between bouts, the chef told us of her planned move to Paris in the autumn - where else would chefs go? I offered her a job swap. I'd have liked to work near the Isle de St. Louis. But negotiations broke down. I was prepared for a salary swap, so long as I kept the cat and she looked after and maintained the teenagers. For some reason, she didn't think this a good deal. So I shall continue fencing in England while the chef will be cooking - and, I hope, fencing - in France.

She came to watch me getting on my bike with sword-bag, rucksack, handbag and water bottle. "You need a mounting block," she remarked. "A girl's bike would be easier." But I love my sturdy bike despite its cross-bar. It cost me £45 in a second-hand bike shop some years ago and was one of the best purchases I ever made. Somehow I managed to mount the bike without a block, at which point the chef noted that I'd forgotten to turn on my rear light. She turned it on for me. Then she said, "If I were your children, I wouldn't let you ride like that."

I said goodbye, wobbled a little, and cycled off into the night.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , ,

Thursday, May 01, 2008

fitting in fencing

The day began with a trip to Manchester. Unfortunately this didn't include a trip to the pub (not even the Jolly Scholar) but only a day of papers and discussions. They were good and interesting but their effect would have been enhanced by a pint or two of well-kept real ale.

The journey by train wasn't too bad - less than three hours each way - but I wondered whether I'd manage to stay awake for fencing. I've been more tired than usual for a few days, even heading for bed before 9, so I wasn't sure how feasible an evening of fencing would be after a day away. I'd overslept too - till 6.00 a.m. - and had to leave the dishwasher unemptied. Perhaps the iron tablets kicked in. I made myself a hasty sandwich, ignored the dishes piling up in the sink, and squeezed into my breeches Then I grabbed my bags and eased myself, with backpack and swords, onto the bike. It had been a sunny day and I disregarded the single grey cloud. Over the leisure centre the sky was bright and I could smell the blooming plants on the water meadows.

I was slightly late and could hear electric guitars from the school hall. My son was in there somewhere, ready to play at the talent show. I hoped it was going well. With a second performance scheduled I had no need to attend so headed straight for the hall in time for the end of footwork practice. As I lined up I realised I was still wearing my fingerless mittens - very good for cycling but a little unconventional when practising lunges.

Few experienced fencers had turned up. For a few minutes the four epeeists occupied two electric pistes. I was, as usual, quickly beaten but noticed that I was moving a bit more easily even if I seemed unable to put together a strategy. Then, after speaking to a newcomer - a yong woman with experience in foil who hadn't fenced for two years - I thought I'd better offer her a bout. I could tell by her build and youth that she'd be good and quick - and she was. She's a left-hander too. "Well," I tried to console myself, "she's less than half your age and it's not your favourite weapon." That might work better were I winning at epee. Still, I found that foil saw me speeding up - though I probably seemed very slow to her - even if I had to keep reminding myself that there was no point in going for her arm or her mask. Still, getting a few points - it was 15-5, I think - was oddly reassuring. I found the new fencer another bout and returned to epee.

Sometimes an interval doing foil helps with epee and it seemed so this time. It wasn't a proper bout and seemed very slow - about as fast as I could manage. However, I did begin to work out a strategy which included hits to the foot and thigh - and it worked far more often than I'd expected. I was tiring, and took one bad bruise, but also beginning to gain confidence.

Standing at the edge of the piste, I fell into conversation with one of the boys who I used to fence. He's about 14, I think, and involved with the RAF and looking towards a career in the air force. When I mentioned my involvement in peace demonstrations, including the time when I'd spoken through a megaphone outside the local barracks, he thought at first I was joking. My opponent joined in - on my side, to my surprise, as we began to debate the ethics of warfare. It was slightly strange to argue for pacifism with my sword in my hand.

The conversation had become circular when I heard my mobile phone. It was my son, home from the talent show which had ended earlier than usual. "What's for supper?" he asked.

I thought of telling him to cook for himself or to order a pizza but reflected that he too had had a long day. "What's the weather like?" I asked. "Is it raining?"

He was vague on the subject but thought not. I put my kit away, said farewell to my fellow fencers and staggered back to my bike. The rain had begun and was getting heavier, and my hoodie was the nearest thing I had to a jacket. I was more worried about the swords and did my best to fasten the velcro of the sword bag around them. The pommel of one epee stuck out of the gap where I couldn't seal the bag and I found it hard to mount the bike in the rain. After the first speed hump I swerved dangerously as the swords swung me round but I steadied them against the basket and went on. At least I was soaked quickly and after that I barely noticed the rain. I did notice the other cyclists who were all wearing waterproof jackets.

So I got home, cooked spaghetti, poured myself a glass of wine and decided I was just too tired to unload the dishwasher. I left the saucepans and bowls in the sink. "Tomorrow," I thought, and set my alarm for 6.00 a.m.

Labels: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,