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, September 27, 2008

"the way to a man's heart ..."

One of the epeeists drew attention to last week's bruises. I don't know why. They weren't particularly bad - not bad enough to bother with arnica. But three greeny-yellow patches were visible on my right arm, before I donned plastron and jacket.

My first bout, against the doc, was fine. He hasn't been for a while and his hits were a little harder than usual but he remains a precise fencer who places his epee exactly. I enjoyed fencing him. It was just a kock-about - no-one was scoring. Then, after a pause for conversation with the women fencers, the youth suggested we fence.

I've mentioned before that the youth likes hits to the mask - and these don't always work. If you're fencing epee and go for mask hits, you miss all the target areas on hand, wrist and arm. This gives your opponent, even when it's someone as slow as me, a chance to get some hits as soon as the mask-hitter's arm comes within reach, The disadvantage is that, once the mask-hit is launched, it will probably land, even if it is too late to score.

The youth went for mask-hit after mask-hit. At first I was scoring some hits - some mine alone and some doubles. But we weren't fencing a bout with a cut-off point so it didn't stop. Had we fenced to 15, I wouldn't have had to take more than 29 mask-hits, but it went beyond that. The youth's mask-hits are hard and my head was ringing and beginning to ache. I began to wonder how long I could go on.

It became a question of endurance rather than trying to land a hit. Eventually I decided I would take five more mask-hits and then, if he didn't change target, I would stop. I was thinking of the kind of damage boxers suffer. I counted down, "5, 4, 3, 2, 1 (bash, bash, bash, bash, bash)." I took off my mask and held out my hand. "Why the mask hits?" I asked. (I think I may have used more expressive language.) "I was avoiding your arm," he responded and implied I had made a fuss about being bruised. But I never make a fuss about being bruised - bruises simply became a subject for discussion, as they often are among women fencers.

I mentioned to another fencer that I reckoned I'd taken about fifty hits to the mask. He dismissed it immediately saying he would have stopped fencing long before that. But I still reckon fifty is a modest estimate.

I had a headache for the rest of the evening.

I fenced the Man man, pretty badly, and then the intermediate woman who has seen the joy of epee. That was a gentle bout which, predictably, I won but not that well.

Then, as I was standing with the other woman, a coach caught me by the waist from behind and told me to practise my lunges. It's true I haven't been lunging properly. He insisted I push off my left foot. I tried to explain about the policeman's foot - and that my heel would hurt in the morning. He didn't pay much attention and I didn't want to seem feeble. I tried to lunge. I didn't succeed very well. It was plainly time to remove my fencing kit and cycle home.

As we stripped off jackets and plastrons, I caught sight of the T-shirt worn by my female opponent. Its slogan fitted my mood perfectly. "FENCING," it said, in large letters, and, below that, "The way to a man's heart is through his ribcage."

The following morning I tottered out of bed. I couldn't put weight on my left heel. I still had a headache. A little later, I discovered I'd chipped a tooth. It may not have been caused by the mask-hits. I'm not looking forward to the dentist.

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Saturday, September 20, 2008

women with swords

I suppose it's the same in most sports - women are in the minority.

There are practical reasons for this. Women often have to limit sporting activities during pregnancy and when children are young. That gap makes it hard for many women to continue with sports. There are exceptions of course. I remember feeling nervous when watching my then-pregnant friend Anna fly from trapeze to trapeze or fall, as planned, to the net at her regular class. She assured me she would give up when the safety harness stopped fitting and that the circus's experienced trapeze artists knew what was safe. Certainly her pregnancy went well - perhaps trapeze classes are safer than being hit by a sword.

Women also tend to have pressures that don't affect men. They are usually the ones who do most childcare - and that's even the case in two-parent families when both parents are working. That limits the time parents can spend on sport. I was able to take up fencing because my son was already fencing - and the rules said an adult had to be present.

Women are usually poorer than men, which means that they have less money to spend on sport. I'm lucky - my fencing club has low fees and gave me plenty of time to acquire my epee kit. I'm also better off than most women. For many, sporting activity is an impossible dream.

As a result, sports clubs tend to be dominated by men - often in the nicest possible way. Our fencing club now has women on the committee - women who have brought in new, practical ideas and seen the club grow in strength as a result. But all the coaches and most of the members are still male - women and girls probably make up a fifth to a quarter of each beginners' class and are about the same proportion of regular attenders.

Now that the chef has settled in Paris, I'm once again the only woman regularly fencing epee. I wish I were better at it - there's something sad about being the only woman epeeist and the weakest fencer. Years ago, my idea of joining a chess club came to nothing when I discovered I would be the only woman member - it would have been fine had I been a great chess player but I didn't reckon my skill sufficient to represent my gender in this way. Fortunately the skills of women at sabre and foil - combined with my age and late start in sport - means that I'm never the token woman. I'm just a woman in her 50s who enjoys epee without being good at it. Everyone knows that there are brilliant women epeeists - it just happens that I'm not one of them.

Most of the women who fence - probably all the women who fence - are fitter than me when they begin and have experience of other sports. Most of them are younger and seem intimidatingly beautiful and confident. I still try to persuade them to take up epee because it's a lovely weapons, because it's fun, because (just occasionally) it's like being one of the Three Musketeers, and because I like to fence women as well as men.

We're still crammed into the small hall (the floor in the big hall may be ready for us in mid-November) and using squash courts for classes. At least this means conversation is easy and I finally found myself talking to two women who are in the intermediate class for foil. Of course, I tried to persuade them of the superior merits of epee. They would plainly add glamour to the weapon - one is a tall brunette and the other a petite blonde who wears huge piratical hooped earrings - even when fencing. Both have long curling hair - rather like the Three Musketeers.

Perhaps I shoud learn how to curl my hair - but I think I'm a little old for that look. I'll stick with the hair-was-in-a-bun-but-is-falling-down-because-of-the-mask look.

They were hesitant about epee, asking about technique and - inevitably - about bruises. I recommended arnica tablets which, to my surprise, work well for me. "Why don't you have a go?" I asked, hoping that the buzz of fencing would seduce them to the best of weapons.

Other epeeists quickly took an interest - most men at our club like fencing women. I fenced each of them steam - slowly (not much change there), giving them a chance to feel what it was like. I stood with my arm lowered so that they could try wrist, arm and shoulder hits. Eventually body-wires and spare electric epees were produced so that the women could fence one another to 15 points.

One liked it - the other was not quite sure. That's not a bad result. I just hope the bruises don't put them off.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

the villain laughed ....

I left work as early as I could to be sure of reaching fencing on time. But all the trains were halted and, when they started running again, the company chose to ignore the anxious passengers for my small, local station. Every other possible destination was served but, with we had to wait an hour and a half. There was a brief, hopeful interlude inwhich we were told to get on a train. We settled in our seats but it turned out that the interlude had been provided merely for entertainment and exercise. After five minutes of sitting comfortably and waiting for the train to move, we were told to get off again because it had been cancelled.

I eventually arrived home, hungry and thirsty, less than an hour before fencing was due to start. I urged the teenagers to feed themselves, grabbed a pasty and then sat down for what was meant to be a minute or two. The minutes passed.

Suddenly I noticed the clock. I would have to cycle - I had no choice. The only choice I had was what to wear. I could cycle in white breeches and glow in the dark or attempt to wear jeans over my breeches. I've never tried to wear jeans over breeches before - I wasn't convinced they would fit. To my surprise, they did although the combination felt bulky and awkward. I clambered onto my bike, remembeing how to balance the sword bag under the basket, regretting that the chef, en route for Paris, wouldn't be there to laugh at my attempts to dismount.

I sped along and managed to get off the bike with relative ease, only to struggle with the lock at the leisure centre. I usually chain my bike to a metal column. This involves manipulating a coiled bicycle lock that behaves like a recalcitrant snake. The coil was particularly bad-tempered and it took several minutes of struggle to wind the plastic-coated wire through the back wheel of my bike and round the column so that I could - at the tenth attempt - snap the device shut.

I missed footwork practice.

We're still in the small hall with classes taking place in a couple of squash courts. The beginners' class was over by the time I arrived. I caught sight of a work-colleague with his new-to-fencing nephew on the balcony and went up to say hello. It's the first time anyone from work has seen me in fencing kit but this didn't strike me till later. I stayed chatting - and showing off my epee - until two epeeists from the hall below waved to me to come and fence.

Fortunately my colleague had left before my first bout began. As usual, I lacked the brilliance I would like but was glad to be moving much more easily than earlier in the year. I seem to be over the fall from the loft and my heel barely hurts now. All I have to do is gain the speed and quick reactions of someone half my age, and increase precision and accuracy. I know it won't happen but perhaps I can get a little better, especially since epee classes will begin in a few weeks. Unfortunately some of my regular opponents will also receive coaching.

The lack of space makes it hard to get as much fencing as I would wish, and some fencers still haven't returned from holiday. I'm continuing my practice at corridor-fencing which is excellent at encouraging precise bladework. I haven't attempted corridor epee yet - there's an obvious risk to the wall, ceiling or blade. The foil blade is safer because lighter and more flexible but I'm not good at aiming for the torso, let alone establishing right of way.

Club-members are divided on corridor-fencing. Some worry about the health and safety implications - suppose we stabbed a squash player or someone leaving the toilets. We haven't yet. Occasionally non-fencers seem slightly surprised when they chance on a duel but, so far. we've always stopped to let them by. (We tend to giggle as we realise how we must look, which probably spoils the effect.)

I encouraged more people to use the corridor and fenced two opponents there myself. The second was the senior coach. Away from the piste he's a kindly individual who offers lifts and listens to Bach. On the piste he's bloodthirsty with a tendency to laugh when oppponents miss - plainly the villain in any swashbuckling film.

I know what the ending should be. I should fence backwards up a spiral staircase. There should be a moment when I spin the sword from my opponent's grasp. Then I should pause and, with sublime generosity, allow him to pick it up. He attempts by a trick to take advantage of my better nature and that's when I close in for the kill, possibly by swinging from a chandelier.

It didn't happen quite like that. My opponent laughed as he parried, tricked me with feints and leapt back from my blade. I don't even have my usual excuse for failure - he's ten years older than me. I managed to land a couple of hits on the bib of his mask which he generously conceded had, thanks to new fencing rules, been a valid target since 1st September.

Then I struggled back into my jeans only to realise, as I cycled back, that I'd forgotten to turn my bike lights on. It's very hard to reach the rear light of a bicycle when loaded with three swords and a back-pack. But I realised that, having covered my white breeches with dark blue jeans, I was almost invisible. And the streetlights along the half-mile driveway to the leisure centre were all out - perhaps a side-effect of the flooded water-meadows on either side or perhaps an attempt to save the planet.

I twisted uncomfortably on the saddle and somehow managed to turn on the rear light. Life was much easier when the chef was there to help me.

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Saturday, September 06, 2008

corridor fencing

My breeches seemed to have shrunk slightly in the past twenty-four hours. It's strange that dinner with the chef should have that effect. It seemed possible they would shrink further if exposed to the rain, which was bucketing down. I decided to remain dry and conserve my energy for fencing. I booked a cab.

Something bad has happened to the floor of the main hall at the leisure centre. No-one is allowed into the hall but, crossing the bridge to the small hall allotted us, I could see an expanse of fractured concrete through gaps despite curtains of plastic sheeting obscuring the view. No-one knows when we shall get our floor back.

For the moment we have two rooms: the small hall often dedicated to kick-boxing and a squash court. There wasn't space for a full-length piste and we gazed around anxiously. The main hall was further cluttered with large blue mattresses. A large rubbish bin stood in the middle of the floor, collecting drips from a leak in the ceiling. I tried to look on the bright side. The bin could be part of a fencing fantasy. It would become a barrel of wine, due to be pierced by a sword or pistol-shot in the course of a lengthy fight. The effect is included in the d'Artagnan street - and rooftop - theatre at Parc Asterix. As wine gushes from the barrel, d'Artagnan tastes it and comments, mid-fight, and comments, "mauvais cru" ("lousy vintage").

We stood in a circle for warm-up and footwork practice saw us in two rows. At least the weather meant attendance was down - somewhere between twenty and thirty, I think. We kitted up and established four pistes in the hall: two electric and two steam.

As the intermediates headed to the squash court for a lesson, I found myself gazing down the corridor towards the changing rooms and further squash courts. "It looks like a piste to me," I found myself saying. "We could fence there."

One of the intermediates - a tall, dark girl who looks as though she should learn epee - looked up and her eyes gleamed with understanding. Quickly we agreed to to fence foil in the corridor once her class was over. I returned to the small hall. Only two other epeeists were looking for a bout: the youth and the student. They had arranged to start by fencing each other. For some time I watched.

Fencers were careful not to monopolise the pistes and bouts were fast and short. All the same, I did quite a lot of watching before I picked up my sword to fence the youth. He's better than me and hits hard - I've numerous purple circles on my right thigh to prove this.

For some reason he was aiming at my head. He caught the mask with blows that made my teeth chatter and once hit the centre of my forehead so forcefully that I felt the blow there, even though my forehead's well-protected by the mask and no blow can actually land on my face. The hits to my head did him no good. While he scored many more hits than I did, I tended to catch him on the wrist or forearm as he advanced to attack my mask. But his hits landed all the same.

Later I fenced the student, who had remarked that he was very out of practice. For a while I thought I wasn't going to score a single hit. But in the end I landed a few blows. I comforted myself with the thought that he was young enough to be my son. Then I re-assessed. He's young enough to be my grandson.

Eventually the moment for corridor-fencing arrived and I can't praise the practice enough. It was like being in a movie. We went back and forth between the walls and the only thing we could focus on was hitting one another.

When my opponent had to leave, I tried again, against one of the coaches. He'd done dungeon fighting - a real-life fantasy gameplay - and loved it at once. The focus of the bout is sharpened, you need to keep your blade under control and your footwork precise while watching your opponent. All are things you should do in ordinary fencing, but corridor fencing is far more intense. - It feels both real and like freeing fantasy prisoners from a castle dungeon

I managed to ignore the painted walls, the radiators and the safety signs. Stone would have been better.

"Perhaps we could try the staircase," the coach suggested, and then, hopefully, "the leisure centre might agree .. as a one-off, for a promotional video."

Perhaps they'll even install a chandelier.

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culinary genius

It might have been rude to take pictures of every course at a dinner party, so I didn't. But this picture, of a pavlova made by the chef for a party this summer, gives some idea of her culinary genius.

The chef greeted me with an offer of cocktails - I chose one with elderflowers and gin - then took me to see her bathroom, which has recently been renovated. "Probably the best bathroom in the world," I agreed and offered my compliments to the grouter.

The chef's house was strangely bare of books, since she's been packing, but filled with wonderful odours. I will give you the menu so that your mouth can water as mine did.

We began with rosemary soup. I've never experienced this before but I've learnt that it's a traditional recipe and that the first stage involves steeping fresh rosemary in milk. Later potatoes and onions are used. It's a wonderful flavour and the soup was garnished with more sprigs of rosemary and served with warm, fresh bread. We started on the wine too - a Pinot Gris from Alsace.

The main course was a frittata, with cheese and cauliflower. The chef always has spare egg whites, possibly because she likes to separate eggs in her spare time. She included some of these so that the frittata was remarkably light. She served it with a green salad.

The dessert was home-made creme brulee with a crispy top (formed with the aid of a blow-torch) and a raspberry base - a coulis, perhaps. It was wonderful.

We rounded off the meal with fresh coffee - black and strong - accompanied by brandy. Conversation was easy - perhaps I talked too much. We had more brandy ... and more. It was pleasantly smooth. Then, suddenly, I glanced at my watch and found to was 10 to 1. I decided I'd better go home.

The pavement swayed in a disconcerting manner and my feet took a slightly curving route over the paving stones. The teenagers were waiting for me. "What sort of time do you call this?" they asked, and, "Mum, have you been drinking?"

I was too abashed to complain that they were up late. I began to hope that the pleasant evening wouldn't hamper my ability at fencing the following night .... or the fit of my breeches.

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Wednesday, September 03, 2008

breathe in!

It's been a long summer without fencing.

I planned to fence. Then there was something wrong with the floor in the leisure centre, which made August fencing impossible. The chef and I discussed meeting in a garden for a bout or two - not the chef's own garden, of course, because she's too self-conscious, but a garden she could borrow when friends were away. But it rained a lot and the dates didn't work out.

As the return to fencing approached, I was filled with trepidation. I'd meant to take exercise in the summer - and I had climbed over boats and walked on beaches and through cities. I'd even swum in the sea for quite some time - but it wasn't a vigorous swim and included quite a lot of floating. And the holiday, like most holidays, had included good food and alcohol.

Worrying about fitness was bad enough. I had to face an even more serious question. Could I still fit into my breeches?

I worried about it for days. Finally, the day before fencing, I knew I had to find out. It wasn't the easiest fit in the world but not too bad. I tried a small lunge. They didn't split. They felt snug and comfortable. I was suddenly confident about fencing.

So I took off my breeches and put on my skirt, grabbed a bottle of wine from the fridge and set out for dinner. The chef, preparing for her move to France, had invited me to a feast.

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