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, November 09, 2008

advancing the arm

Every so often at fencing, someone tells me something so obvious that no-one had said it before - and that I hadn't managed to work out for myself. It happened this Saturday.

I was being coached by a fencer whose chief interest lies in sabre - epee is definitely his third weapon. For all that, I was doing badly: failing to land easy hits, failing to attach the blade, hitting wide, moving clumsily. I was holding my weapon too tight and my arm ached. There was no point in crying so I laughed.

But the coach, who joined me in laughter, took his job seriously. After a little practice, first stationary, then moving backwards and forwards, in which my hitting was erratic, the coach pointed out something new. "You need to straighten your arm as you move backwards. Your sword should be the last thing to follow. It's not like foil or sabre. You have to keep defending from an attack."

It made immediate sense. I'd been retreating from failed attacks or withdrawing down the piste with a bent arm, opening myself up to rapid arm and wrist hits. I was startled that I hadn't realised this before.

The coach went on to explain that he'd been at a coaches' day for foil and sabre but had watched the epee session. He'd wondered why the footwork practice for all three weapons had been feet only - and then learnt that in epee the arm must move differently - not just outstretched in advancing but also stretching out defensively when moving backwards. I tried it out: step backwards letting the arm follow the front foot. I practised down the length of the small hall: step back, pull in the arm; step back, pull in the arm. It felt right but also tricky.

I continued practising with the coach. Everything I did fell apart: I was trying to do too much and thinking rather than acting. My sword arm was out of sync with my body and my failure to land hits became hilarious. Yet I knew I'd learned something important. We free-fenced for a while, then rested. I rang home to enquire after Joe the cat, who had made a determined attempt to accompany me to fencing by running beside my bike. Eventually he decided to take interest in a different kind of fencing and headed home by a new route, throuigh a neighbour's garden. He wasn't yet home safely.

There were only four of us at fencing: two coaches, me and a small, intermediate foilist marked by a keen determination to learn.
She was practising foil and I was drinking water when the lawyer entered, wearing a pair of her favourite stripey socks. I was delighted. The lawyer is a sabreuse but, being busy with a new job, she hadn't been fencing for a while. I'd suggested on Facebook that she might come along on Saturday but never expected she would. She looked at the new colour-scheme for the corridors: "Hmm: baby-poo and the Exorcist" was her mild comment on the two tones of paint. It seemed as accurate a summary as any, and reassured me that the bright shades in the main hall are cheerful, if extremely bright, by comparison.

I assumed the lawyer had arrived to practise sabre but, as I'd suggested she turn up, she started by fencing epee with me. I had to adjust to fencing a smaller woman - I was out of practice since the chef set off on her Parisien adventure. At the same time, I was beginning to remember to straighten my arm while moving backwards. It was starting to feel right.

The lawyer suggested we fence to 5 and I agreed, wondering, as usual, how badly I would lose. Then I scored the first hit, followed by a double. I began to think that, just possibly, I could win and my mood changed. The lawyer brought the score to 2-2. I pulled ahead to 3-2, then 4-2 - and she caught up. 4-4. The next hit would be the decider, we thought, then hit simultaneously. 5-5. We continued. With a burst of energy, I advanced and somehow, in a scramble of blades, managed the final hit. 6-5.

I should point out that I had numerous advantages. The lawyer was out of practice and generously fencing in her third weapon. She had also rushed from home without inserting her contact lenses. When her glasses steamed up, she removed them, so she was probably fencing a white blur. But something had changed for me: I was ready to take advantage and fence for victory. It felt good.

There was a pause. My son rang to announce that Joe had returned home. The small foilist continued to practise with increased determination when her mobile phone rang. It stopped as she reached it. She looked at it - "My ex-husband," she said, with a groan. "Excuse me."

"Tell him you're fighting," the lawyer suggested. We gathered round to listen.

"I was fighting," she said. "With a man." ... "I just stabbed him." .... "In the chest." (We were trying to stifle our laughter by then.) "With a FOIL." She listened some more as we laughed and then, as the call ended, turned to us. "He thought I'd really stabbed someone in a fight." We roared.

I began to fence the other coach as the lawyer practised sabre. There were problems with my grip and my stance and I was opening myself up to attacks. Every so often I was getting through but not often enough and my hits were clumsy. After a while, the coach suggested we fence to 5. He took the first point easily. Once I would have folded at that point but I didn't. Instead I took the next point with a clumsy but effective aggressive hit. He stayed ahead till 3-2. I began to hope. We reached 4-3. He countered my attack easily. 4-4. He'd mentioned that he found it hardest to fence me when I rushed him. I rushed him. There was a clash of blades, he went for me and missed. My hit landed. 5-4. I was the weaker fencer but I'd won ... again.

I didn't win great or important fights and I wasn't against the best epeeists in the club. However I've suddenly found that I have the will to win - something I lacked in the past - and it feels good.

At the end of the morning I fenced the small foilist, marvelling at the lightness of the weapon and trying to remember rules about right of way. She has developed an excellent circular parry - apparently she'd spent much of the morning getting it right.

And so I cycled home to see my son and Joe the cat. Joe had brought a dead bird with him - possibly a supplement to breakfast or a small, unappreciated gift.

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Thursday, November 06, 2008

Finding the floor

"Come round on Wednesday," a friend said, expansively, at the end of Meeting. "We're burning Catholics."

"Sorry, I can't make it," I responded. "I'm stabbing people."

Perhaps it's as well there weren't any newcomers. People don't expect Quakers to talk like that. But the Friends who were present understood that they were being invited to a fireworks party with bonfire and that I couldn't go because I was going fencing. Some Quakers are a bit doubtful about my enthusiasm for fencing but fortunately they're a tolerant, accepting lot.

I forgot about the fireworks until I got home, when anxiety about Joe the cat hit me. Being a cat-owner keeps landing me with unanticipated responsibilities. Perhaps I couldn't go fencing at all, I thought. My son was heading to the display at his former primary school and I couldn't leave a fearful cat alone in the hosue.

Fortunately Joe deosn't scare easily. He curled up in the sink, which would be his favourite place if it weren't for the water. He likes the water and wants to play with it ... if only it weren't so wet.

I cycled through the damp, dark mist to the accompaniment of occasional pops and thuds. Tethering my bike, I headed to the hall - the big hall. It's been closed since July for work on the floor, leaving us to fence in the small hall, squash courts and corridors. But now the floor is fresh and shiny. The walls have been painted too. They are in rather unfortunate shades of bright green, which clash with the new mustard-green paintwork elsewhere. It's a shame the leisure centre didn't consult the fencers on suitable colours for a salle. We'd probably have gone with cream, black and gold. I expect the leisure centre found a helpful discount on green paint.

But the sound was the real surprise. I'd forgotten how delightful it is to hear the clash of blades and the cries and grunts of sabreurs. (I don't know why sabreurs make such a noise when fencing but they always do.) The beginners were still working at one end of the hall and there were three pistes next to the curtain that divides fencers from badminton-players. There must have been nearly fifty fencers there, some fencing steam and some waiting for a piste or space.

There were only three other epeeists and I fenced them all. My single victory over the dancer had given me new confidence and, when we fenced again, I managed far more hits than usual. We weren't scoring but I reckoned I managed three quarters as many hits as he did. More importantly, it felt like a proper bout and I reckoned that perhaps I'd have a chance of beating the dancer on another occasion, with a bit of luck.

I had a much harder time against the doc. His speed and light hits to my arm remained disconcerting. I managed a few hits but wondered, at times, if he was letting me hit him. However he often appears to open his arm to attack only to deceive my blade, so it was hard to tell. I also fenced the brunette again. She may be new to epee but she's an accurate left-hander with a long reach. At first I was as nonplussed as when I first fenced her. I would reach and try to angle but she would always get in first. It dawned on me that the only way I could hit her was by taking her blade. It didn't always work but, as I tried, I began to even up the contest.

I realise I've been slipping into my old habits of mirroring my opponents' techniques - or just repeating attacks in the hope they work. Fencing twice a weeks is giving me the confidence to work more on different strategies for different opponents.

But I'm also inspired by the return to the big hall. It offers opportunities for conversation too. I fell into conversation with a couple of sabreuses about the freedom fencing offers us. The club gives us an opportunity to be ourselves, we agreed - we don't have to modify our behaviour for other people. And we get to stab people too.

I heard the same from the mother of a young foilist. He's slightly autistic and needs clarity and repetition so that he can advance. His mother was full of praise for the club and the coaches - she's found an environment where her son can feel secure and be accepted as he is. Once again, I was glad to be a member of my fencing club.

All the same, I left early, just in case Joe the cat was worried. He wasn't.

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Sunday, November 02, 2008

ups, downs and in-betweens

I've been too busy to blog. I even had to miss a Saturday morning fencing session for work. But apart from that, I've continued fencing.

It's hard to force myself out of bed on Saturday mornings, expecially when there's frost in the air. But Joe the cat responds to the ringing of the alarm, first by expecting cuddles and then by walking around the pillow in a display of restlessness. He has a point. On Saturdays I get up two hours later than on weekdays and squabbling birds outside the window remind Joe of breakfast. And he hasn't yet worked out how to open his own pouches of Whiskas.

For the first hour or so of Saturdays I move in slow motion. I contemplate tasks like unloading the dishwasher, then sit at the computer to read the papers while eating muesli and drinking coffee. Sometimes the chef comes on-line to ask if I'm fencing. I have to force myself to get untether the bike, mount it and wobble unsteadily towards the cycle track. I'm getting better at balancing the sword bag but I'm still unsteady as I clear the sleeping policemen on the drive to the leisure centre.

Attendance at Saturday fencing still hasn't made it into double figures. Too many people work, or stay in bed, or spend time with their families. And of course some fencers do other sports or roam the country in search of other fencers to attack. I hope Saturday fencing keeps going - I love it.

When I fence on a weekday evening I arrive tired and depart tired and bruised. There's a warm-up and some fencing but there's also a lot of waiting around. Some of the the waiting time is occupied with conversation but there are also uncomfortable moments in which I wonder whether I'm too old and unfit to continue fencing. That's when the tiredness is worst. Some evenings, when my co-ordination's worse than usual, the string of defeats gets to me.

My choices are simple: perservere or give up. And I'm not giving up just because my upper arm is black with bruises. I need to learn a better parry and a faster attack. Saturday mornings, with their mixture of coaching and free fencing, are ideal. And for two hours on Saturday mornings I get as much fencing as I wish. I may arrive tired but within a few minutes I'm flooded by energy and filled with enthusiasm. Cycling home, I find myself cheered and optimistic.

I don't know if it's doing me any good, but I've had a couple of surprising results. I fenced the club president last week, during an evening session when attendance was down. Epee is the president's third weapon and he's ten years older than me. But he's a left-hander, still fences in international veterans competitions in foil and sabre, and, when I started fencing, was the club's master-at-arms and indisputed champion of the one-hit epee. I'm usually pleased if I get one or two hits against his fifteen.

The president wasn't fencing as he would in a competition but his swift, light hits to the arm came out of nowhere, registering hits that I hardly felt. I began by trying to remember what coaches had advised, but that leads to slow, deliberate fencing - and pauses in which an opponent finds it easy to land a hit. I dispensed with analysis and focussed on watching for opportunities. And I began to see them. I never quite drew equal but I was in the bout. At about 12-8, I set myelf an ambition: a score in double figures. When I lost 15-10, it felt like a triumph. It almost compensated by the easy way in which the brunette had beaten me the week before.

I still wasn't expecting to win. Last Saturday I was beaten by all the other fencers, as usual, though one of the coaches encouraged me to be aggressive. He'd given me a good tip in the past: to avoid fancy fencing and go straight for the hit. I used it on him as he advanced and was delighted when he walked onto my blade.

The dancer arrived slightly late. He'd been away so was out of practice. I expected him to focus on sabre - his favourite weapon. He has the bounce and speed of a sabreur. But he began by drawing his epee from his case. When I watched him fence the coach I reckoned he'd be hard to hit with all that speed, energy and accuracy. "Good calves," I noticed, admiringly. Men who fence often have excellent legs - the kind admired by Georgette Heyer's heroines.

The dancer was hard to hit. The first time we fenced, he beat me by miles. Later in the morning, I suggested another bout. He agreed and attacked with his usual speed. But something was going wrong for him - he wasn't quite attaching his blade and was missing targets by a fraction, the way I often do. Suddenly we were level at 2-2. I began to attack. It wasn't pretty or elegant - more a matter of forcing my blade through towards his chest. I found myself a couple of points ahead. I kept waiting for him to pull back and overtake me. But a voice in my head said I must take advantage of the opportunity and, as I stayed on the attack, I saw him hesitate. I reached 12-3 and lost confidence. He took a point, and another. I realised that I needed to keep going, fast. The score was 12-5 to me but, if I hesitated, he could still catch up and overtake me. I needed to believe I could win and attack.

I attacked ... and attacked. I could see him surrendering though I was two points short of 15. I attacked again, forcing my way past his guard - but he hardly defended. I won, 15-5. He may have planned to give me a chance but, if he did, I took it. I didn't pound the air with my clenched fist when the bout finished but only because I thought the customary handshake more generous and polite.

Five minutes after the bout was over, the dancer challenged me again. This time the scores were reversed. But I had achieved my victory.

It may, of course, be my last win ever.

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