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

Sunday, October 19, 2008

epeeists take on the dark side

I was quite cheerful on the way to fencing. I'd spent the day working from home, so that the youthful dentist could repair my tooth. The time spent in the dentist's chair was a pleasant rest, partly because work has been so hectic lately but also because the young dentist was remarkably gentle and skilful. There wasn't even any drilling involved. She and her assistant were quick, efficient and explained calmly what they were doing. At the end I checked my bike and decided to explore the university campus.

The exploration took longer than I'd planned. I'd tethered my bike at the Arts Centre so that I could buy tickets for a forthcoming concert (Bach - totally irresistible) when the rain shifted from a grey drizzle to a crashing downpour. The obvious decision was to buy a double espresso and watch the swan and ducks on the lake - so I did.

At fencing my optimism fell away. I was short on energy - this always shows when we're asked to jog up and down on the spot as fast as we can, raising out knees high. I didn't last long.

A rather good sabreur, who looks about 15 but is apparently a university student, has decided to take a rest from sabre and spend a month doing epee. I'm not sure this should be allowed as fencers from the "dark side" (as sabre is known in our club) have a habit of being snooty about sabre.

He began by fencing the doc and I watched attentively, realising that I would probably have to fence him at some point in the evening. While the main hall at the leisure centre is still being re-floored, the lack of space has put off a number of fencers so I tend to take what opponents I can.

Specialists who suddenly switch weapons are always unnerving at first because they do unexpected things. This can be useful. For instance, a sabreur who tried to hit with the side of the blade won't score while foilists tends to waste time trying to establish right of way.

At first the student didn't seem to be making any mistakes. He had a good epee stance with an excellent en garde. His rapid attacks and ripostes meant that he was scoring point after point. Even though he bounced up and down in the characteristic way of sabreurs, I couldn't see any way of beating him. And then I noticed the way his foot beat the ground in an appel just before attacking. He was still way too fast for me but, towards the end, the doc was beginning to break through. Unfortunately it was a little late but, towards the end, the balance of play was with the doc.

After that experience, the doc was in extra good form. So was the Man man, though I'm beginning to feel slightly more confident about fencing him. I tried to put into practice some of the things I'd tried out on Saturday. Occasionally I managed to take the blade but mostly he was too fast for me.

By the time I fenced the student the optimism of Saturday had evaporated. Although I knew in theory how to fight the student, I simply wasn't fast enough. Towards the end, I managed a couple of hits. He was thrilled with the evening and suggested it showed that sabreurs could always beat epeeists. I suggested that next time we would go for their feet, because they wouldn't be expecting it. "We'd bounce out of the way," said the sabreuse. "I don't know," I said."One good, hard toe-hit with an epee - that's stop the bouncing."

The sabreurs looked at me in surprise. Perhaps it's because of my reputation for non-violence - or perhaps because they know how difficult toe-hits are and how rarely I achieve them."

"Not a good evening's fencing," I reflected. "Perhaps improvement takes more than one Saturday session."

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Wednesday, October 15, 2008

"really cool"

I'm becoming a twice-a-week fencer - or, at least, a three-times-a-fortnight fencer. I don't know how long it will last.

One of the coaches at the club has set up Saturday morning sessions at the local leisure centre. I shan't be able to go every week - sometimes I work, sometimes (too rarely) I visit my parents and sometimes there are simply other things to do. But this week I got on my bike at just after 9.00 in the morning, balanced by sword-bag against the basket and set off in daylight.

It was the first Saturday morning session and I was a bit nervous. I thought it might be all the best fencers in the club ... and me. I'd forgotten that there was a competition fairly near - and I think the bad weather had left people tired and longing for a lie-in. There were six of us - three women and three men. All the men were coaches (though only one was officially coaching for the session) and we'd all fenced one another before.

We had one electric piste. There was space for the rest of us to fence steam - and we could do all the fencing we wished. I started with epee and was soon getting helpful tips as well as much-needed practice. My movement and grip were better than usual and I found I was far more alert in the morning than at evening sessions.

I began with epee. Later I fenced foil against the gardener, a foilist who began when I did. Back in the days when I did foil, I frequently found myself fencing the gardener. We were so used to one another that we'd frequently make identical attacks at the same moment. She was more skilful than me, however, and her neat parries and counter-attacks would always bring her victory. It was comfortable to return to fencing her and to discover that her practice in foil and my experience in epee made the fight more varied. It was only a knock-around - we didn't have a ref or try to debate right of way but I think, if we had, she would have won.

Meanwhile the blonde, who a few weeks earlier had sworn undying loyalty to foil, decided that, after all, she'd like a go at sabre. As soon as she picked up the weapon, her eyes shone. She glowed from the thrill of her first lesson - evidently she's found her true weapon and it isn't foil.

I'm not going to be seduced - I know I'm an epeeist. But every so often I like to try something a bit different and it's nearly a year since I last tried sabre. So when a coach (the villain) asked if I would like a short lesson in any weapon, I decided to do some more beginner's sabre. It's certainly not for me, which is just as well since it takes more speed and money than I can manage. But occasional sessions are certainly fun and help me appreciate why the sabreurs enjoy it. Not that I'm deserting epee.

By the end of the session I felt fit and joyful. Cycling home seemed easy in the sudden sunlight.

The fencing was terrific - two hours with as much fencing as I wanted, in all three weapons. There were useful tips and I felt I was improving from the gentle coaching provided. I fenced a range of opponents.

But the highlight of the session came when I was fencing epee and glance towards the door. A group of Chinese students stood at the door of the hall, taking pictures of us on their mobile phones. I spoke to one who looked at my sword with admiration. "Fencing .... that's really cool," she said.

I followed enough of the Olympics to know that the standard of fencing in China is pretty high - much higher than in our club. But I like to fantasise about people in China receiving the photos on their mobile phones and saying, admiringly, "That's really cool."

It's probably just as well I didn't see the photos.

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Saturday, October 11, 2008


Fencing doesn't usually attract a big audience. I'm not sure why because it's obviously exciting to watch a couple of people trying to stab one another. I bet we'd get an audience fast enough if we took to fencing in the streets as the pubs closed.
As things are, passers by at the leisure centre sometimes stand and watch - often with amazement and longing. They linger at the door or on the bridge above the halls, taking in the excitement of men, women and children attacking one another with swords. And then, sometimes, at club tournaments, a few partners, parents and children of fencers turn up to watch and cheer.

The only supporters I've ever had have been fellow fencers. My son would encourage me occasionally when he fenced. (He's thinking of returning but has outgrown all his kit - suddenly he's 6 feet tall.) And occasionally other fencers would cheer me on out of sympathy for the underdog.

Most of the encouragement I received came from fellow bloggers, often on the other side of the Atlantic, or friends who would try to remember to ask me how fencing had been. Friends are very good that way. A friend in France even phoned once to tell me about some fencing he'd seen on television, though he wasn't sure what weapon they'd been using. Sometimes I think my enthusiasm for fencing is quite a trial for my non-fencing friends.

In recent weeks I've been pleased to see a colleague bringing his son to the beginners' class. These days the beginners start before the rest of us so there's a chance to say hello and see how the son is progressing. It's early days but he's looking good and I hope he'll continue with the club. But when I arrived, I couldn't see them.

Attendance was pretty low for us. I don't know if the problem was the dark night or the flu and colds that are circulating. We're still in a cramped area as work continues on the floor of the big hall - we're not likely to be back there till mid-November. Perhaps other people felt the same reluctance as me when I got on my bike, wondering how long I could continue with fencing. My age is against me. My level of fitness is low and I don't get enough practice. I'm never going to be a good fencer. My ambition is to turn up and feel I did better than the week before. "Not enough," I thought. "Perhaps I'll give up next time my epee needs repair."

Warming up banished some of the gloom. I'm always surprised at the way exercise makes me feel better. Afterwards the fencers dispersed and I struggled into my plastron and jacket. There was only one other epeeist there - the Man man. He must have felt discouraged too as he's much better than me. But he smiled cheerfully and said we'd have to fence each other.

Just as I was connecting the wire from the box to my jacket - always tricky as the connecting loop is stiff and hard to open - I looked up at the gallery and saw my colleague with his son. They waved, smiled and gave me a thumbs up. "Oh dear," I thought as I put my mask on, "now they'll see how bad I am." But I was also warmed by the thought of watchers who were, indisputably, on my side. I reckoned I'd have to do my best.

Every time I looked up they were smiling, waving - even clapping gently. I lost more points than I won but it felt so good to have people on my side that I was making more of an effort - and winning more points than I expected. When, finally, my colleage and his son (still smiling) waved goodbye, I felt warmed by their support.

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Sunday, October 05, 2008


After last week's experience I was hesitant about returning to fencing.

It had been a difficult week and, gently as the dentist was, she confirmed that I had, as she put it "a fractured tooth". It's not bad, which is just as well as I have to wait two weeks for treatment.

Getting to the dentist was quite a trial. I decided to cycle, forgetting that my dentist resides close to the summit of a mountain peak in the vertiginous ranges of South Nottinghamshire - or, as the chef put it, on a slight incline. I found I couldn't keep going for the whole of the slope and got off to push my bike, uncomfortably aware of the young, energetic and, I assumed, contemptuous students swirling about me.

I got lost on my way to the surgery and found myself surrounded by the young. Even the dentist seemed no more than twelve, though I'll concede she may have been fifteen. She was very gentle and seemed pretty good at her job despite her lack of years.

At least cycling downhill was exciting - and I managed to avoid an over-enthusiastic articulated lorry as I swerved out onto the roundabout to take the quick, main route home.

Having faced the dentist, I shoud have had no qualms about fencing. But my jaw still ached and I didn't want another run of mask hits. For the first time, I was nervous about being hurt.

I've been bruised and even cut before and it hasn't worried me much. But those repeated blows to the mask unnerved me. The chef, communicating by i.m. from Paris, gave me advice: "You don't have to fence the youth," and "You could always do foil."

Wearily I pulled my jeans over my breeches, clambered onto my bike and cycled off into the night, slightly late. My swords clanged against the bicycle basket. I felt wimpish and stupid but my confidence returned as I gained speed in the cool air. By the time I'd chained my bike at the leisure centre I'd made a decision. I wouldn't fence the youth. And I'd consider doing foil.

I confessed my nervousness, with some embarrassment. The doc said it was like riding a bike - that, if you fell off, you must get on again at once. I saluted and, clumsily as usual, pulled on my mask.

I didn't have any good bouts at epee. However, I found I was moving better against the doc - not just attacking, which is what I usually do when I lack confidence, but trying to vary speed and tactics. I even got a few decent arm-hits. Later I fenced the Man man. He was, I assume, slowing down and giving me a chance, letting me get ahead and then overtaking me. I was grateful, I think. At least I took advantage of the chances so that he only beat me 15-12.

Things were slightly uneasy between me and the youth. He'd meant well, after all. I just didn't want to fence him. So when I found myself talking to one of the intermediate fencers - a young woman who started foil a year ago, I suggested a bout. We fenced a couple of points and then she was called for some coaching. Then the coach agreed to referee a bout between us.

I assumed I would lose. My opponent is younger and had been tough to fence when she tried epee. She's fierce and determined, using strength and speed. And it's a while since I've handled a foil. I did a quick mental check-list: remember to parry, straighten the arm fast, show you've established right of way. Then I picked up my foil, saluted, put on my mask and prepared to be beaten.

About five hits into the bout, I realised I could win. I'm not sure what it was - I think that the new tactics she'd learnt were making her pause, infinitesimally, before she put them into action. And once I was ahead she was cross with herself and uncertain.

The coach called encouragement and advice to her - then apologised that, as a ref, he shouldn't do it. But it seemed fine to me. I was the more experienced fencer and I was ahead.

I didn't want to be brutal or overly aggressive but I wanted to win. One hit I landed on her collar-bone hurt her. I paused and apologised. The coach pointed out that I was fencing, as usual, with my electric foil (the only one I have) while she had a practice foil with rubber button. I don't think she was badly hurt but she probably took a bruise. As an epeeist I expect 6-12 bruises a week but foilists aren't used to that.

The bout continued. I was fencing better than usual and she was fencing worse. I won 15-9.

Next week, my opponent won't pause when she uses new tactics, and I'm unlikely to fence so well. But it was nice to win a bout for a change.

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