It's not the same
I went to Southsea and Portsmouth, where I briefly contemplated other weapons. I wasn't tempted by the cannon but had to admit that these shiny pistols were beautiful. Friends of mine were involved in antique pistol shooting, which seemed to involve such arcane crafts as making bullets (in a saucepan on the stove!) and I can see that it requires skill and a sense of history. I'm told it's chancy too - with early guns one of the biggest dangers was that the gun would explode in its owner's hand.
The guns were on board HMS Warrior, an iron-hulled battleship which seemed spacious compared with its older neighbour, the Victory. But rows of guns and canonballs - as well as a few sabres - recalled its purpose. The ships at Portsmouth are made to help people kill efficiently at sea - some of the glamour of the Mary Rose, which sank off Southsea in sight of Henry VIII, is lost at the thought of those 200 archers and the effect they would have in warfare. In the Mary Rose museum I got to hold one of the heavy stone balls used in early cannon and I smelt the tar - its odour was still strong - on an original timber. We were allowed to pick up pikes and try on helmets but there was no opportunity for swordplay.
War in Southsea and Portsmouth is serious. There are two tanks on the seafront and a huge anti-aircraft gun. I thought of the smashed houses and lives and the delicate bombers hurtling down in flames with their human cargo. It seemed a long way from the skill of fencing though I know there's skill involved in warfare too - so much training to aimed at death and conquest.
Still, I'm sure the exercise of scrambling over ships - and chasing after three teenagers - was good for me. And later I had my afternoon of swimming in the sea from a crowded English beach on the Isle of Wight. I drifted and swam gently as far out as I could - sometimes the tips of my toes touched sand and sometimes I was too far out. The water was cold and my skin tasted of salt for at least a day. The only sorrow was my return to land. I hate reaching that point where lightness and grace depart. At the end of each swim comes the moment when my feet feel the sand as grit and my body drags in the unaccustomed air.
My heel ached, and sometimes my legs ached from the exercise, which I thought was probably a good thing - though it may simply indicate how little exercise I've taken.
On my last day away, the Olympics began. I haven't caught any fencing - it's barely covered by the British press who don't seem interested in a sport where Britain lacks good medal chances. I picked up some clips on the BBC website. There's a small space dedicated to Olympic fencing, but the authors are mainly describing it as a British disaster, although Richard Kruse's 15-14 loss to the number 1 seed (who had priority against him, forcing Kruse to attack) seemed pretty good to me. I've been limited to the video replays. Unfortunately the commentary I've heard has been lamentable. There's little explanation of the points, no use of video replay and commentators even refer to the time periods as "rounds" as though they were watching a boxing match. I've seen fencing on Eurosport with excellent and clear commentary, explaining the bouts in a way which would appeal to non-fencers as well. But so far as I can tell, the BBC commentators have never fenced - nor taken the trouble to learn how fencing is described and judged. It's such a shame that a sport that works so brilliantly on TV with proper commentary has been left to people who seem confused by the rules and terminology.
It's not all difficult - it's easy enough to use terms like "attack", "parry", "counter-attack" and "lunge" without confusing an audience. And it might help to explain the different rules for each weapons and even - where relevant - rules about "right of way". After all, it's much simpler than offside in football.
The picture shows the great Italian foilist Maria Valentina Vezzali (facing) fencing fellow Italian Margherita Granbassi in the semi-finals. Vezzali won that match and went on to take her third consecutive Olympic gold medal.