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

Monday, December 29, 2008

but what shall I wear ...?

The fencing club dinner approaches. I don't go every year but this year. budgeting carefully, I chose it over the slightly more expensive work Christmas dinner. The food won't be so good (the venue has unadventurous ideas on what vegetarians eat) but I'll enjoy the company and won't feel compelled to be on my best behaviour. But this sets up a difficult problem. The dinner has a dress code.

Last year the rules were simple: no jeans or trainers. A simple blouse and skirt sufficed. But the committee, perhaps overpowered by the vision of elegance so many created last year, have come up with a stricter dress code. The man are asked to wear dinner jackets with bow ties or suits and ties. And the women are expected to turn up in cocktail dresses.

I don't have a cocktail dress. I don't even know what a cocktail dress is. I'm reluctant to purchase anything that sounds so extravagant in these cash-strapped times, especially since it might require the additional purchase of cocktail shoes, if such items exist. Nonetheless, I spent part of two days wandering in and out of shops, looking for second-hand items in charity shops or bargains in the sales.

It wasn't a success. I returned home from one excursion with two pairs of gloves (my hands were cold and there was a special offer of two pairs for £1). And I came home from the other carrying - with some difficulty - a new mop and broom. Perhaps I was inspired by thoughts of Cinderella. But I fear my fairy godmother's unlikely to appear.

I've been searching the internet for ideas. But although I've found pictures of cocktail dresses and women with swords, I haven't yet found the sort of cocktail dress that goes well with an epee. And the costume question is taking up far too much of my time.

I wonder if men have the same anxieties. Perhaps they all have decent suits and ties. (It might be more fun if women wore suits and men wore the cocktail dresses - I'd like to see them manage high heels and I'm sure the Oxfam shop would supply me with a suitable tie.) But, much as I admire the extravangant costumes of 17th century fencers, I also look back with nostalgia to an era where a fencer could wear casual clothes to fight with elegant courage - even in a great fortress.

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Saturday, December 20, 2008

sabreur versus snowman

Festive fencing is an odd concept but, in our club, it's become an annual Christmas tradition. The week after the one-hit epee, we conclude the year by decorating masks, jackets, breeches and swords - and then fencing, more or less seriously, in costume.

It's not easy to find a way of decorating fencing kit that will survive a bout - only a skilled engineer dare risk a sword decorated with (sturdy) fairy lights. One fencer chose lights inside a mask as a safer option. I'd have worried about hitting the small epeeist while she wore lights on her jacket.

My own solution involved a hasty visit to Poundstretcher on the way to work. I'd decided a headband was probably the best solution, coupled with tinsel. Antler headbands are particularly popular but Poundstretcher didn't have any. Instead I settled on a lilac headband with two all-purpose festive figures bouncing happily on springs six inches above the band. I'm still not entirely sure what the figures are supposed to be. They had jolly faces and fluffy Father Christmas beards which turned into white snowy bodies and they wore the kind of hats that are usually associated with Albus Dumbledore. The tinsel was a slightly sad selection - there was nothing as glamorous as the black and gold (club colours) that I'd adopted last year. But there was something called "marabou" in lilac and I thought I could wear that like a feather boa.

I still had the decorations in a bag when I arrived, slightly late, for fencing. But a fellow fencer, wearing a miniature Christmas tree on his mask, helped me by securing the headband with garden twine while an old Quaker badge saying "ONLY JUSTICE BRINGS PEACE" secured the marabou boa to my jacket. I didn't dare look in the mirror but I felt that I had made a proper attempt at looking festive. And the figures on my headband were, by general agreement, identified as snowmen.

I briefly noted the bemused looks from people passing along the gallery corridor - I suppose there was something slightly odd in a fencer disguised as Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer fencing Father Christmas, but I was soon involved in watching bouts and then started fencing epee against an opponent wearing a brown woolly hat with gold tinsel and peacock feathers. The tiredness and gloom of winter seemed to have entered my fencing and at first I couldn't land any hits. Meanwhile my opponent was filled with seasonal joys which gave him extra speed and agility. I took a few bruises before I began to fence with any conviction and, even then, was too aware of my lack of speed to do well. But evidently my opponent enjoyed it because, a little while after we had finished, he suggested we fence sabre (his preferred weapon). After explaining my lack of expertise with sabre - I began by asking "am I holding this right?" - we fenced a few points and I tried to respond to my opponent's encouragement. But that was when the disaster occurred. Sabre is, as I have frequently remarked, a nasty, slashy weapon - the weapon of the Peterloo Massacre. And the sabre did its nasty, slashy work, ripping one of the snowmen (or santas or Albus Dumbledores) off the headband and sending it spinning across the hall. Concealing my grief, I put the dead snowman safely to rest on my kit-bag and continued fencing.

There was a sad shortage of epeeists at the festive fun-night but the fencer who'd helped me fix my costume has some skill in epee (and had done much better than me in the one-hit competition). I therefore suggested he lay down his foil and pick up his epee for a final bout. Perhaps he was looking rather tired but so was I. However, I thought I had a chance.

I tried to fix the dead snowman back onto my mask while my opponent adjusted the 18-inch Christmas tree he was wearing on his head. It was a particularly attractive tree, garnished with red bows and small packages - nothing exceptional or distracting in the general array of festive costumes. We decided to use the piste with new fencing scoring kit which registered hits in big numbers. Being uncertain about how it worked, we asked abother fencer to ref. He was a bit snooty about the ease of reffing epee bouts (no complex descriptions of the fencing phrase, no determination of right of way) and sat on the floor to watch.

My opponent's tiredness seemed an illusion - he raced ahead. Soon he was 7-1 up - and my only point came from a double. Then I landed a neat hit to his forearm which landed just ahead of his point. 7-2.

That filled me with enthusiasm, if not skill. There's one piece of training that usually kicks in when I'm fencing: the advice that if you miss the first hit you continue the attack. My went for my opponent's arm, he took evasive action, and I landed my hit square on his mask. It wasn't just 7-3 to me - the force of my hit toppled my opponent's Christmas tree and he was doubled over with laughter as the tree drooped in front of his eyes.

He pushed the tree to one side and we continued but I think my hit, and his laughter, had affected his momentum. And I'd begun to gain confidence. At the end of the first time period he was still ahead but only by 13-11. Silly costumes or not, I was determined to do my best and filled with the will to win.

My first hit after the break landed squarely on my opponent's chest - and didn't register on the box. The ref had been unaware of a button that should have been touched on the remote control. "Can I have the point anyway?" I pleaded ... but the ref said no. The scoring box sprang back into life, my opponent yet again pushed the tree to the side of his mask, and we started fencing again. I scored. 13-12. And again: 13-13.

By this time I was determined to end the fencing year with a victory. The will to win took over, probably disconcerting my opponent who was still contending with a felled tree. I hit again - 14-13 up - and was in the lead for the first time. For a moment I could foresee the most likely conclusion: my opponent would draw level and then win the final point. I brushed the thought aside, noticed my opponent was tiring, and took my time, letting him move forward and backward on the piste. Then I launched my attack. 15-13. I don't know how I scored that final point but I do know I ended the year on a win. I know my opponent was tired and hampered by a falling Christmas tree but my victories are rare enough for me to treasure them all.

And now fencing is over for the year but the chef is back on a visit and we're planning to drink gluehwein together soon in a festive celebration.

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one hit

Sometimes fencing doesn't go well. I was feeling a little down when I headed for the one-hit epee but tried to convince myself I'd enjoy it. All went well until the club president, who donated the coveted chocolate Santa trophy, informed us that, as there were sixteen of us, we'd be fencing in two poules of eight instead of the usual poule unique. Sadly I looked at the list and decided I was grouped with seven people I had no chance of hitting on a first point.

There are a few people in the club I can, on occasion, take by surprise. But these don't include people who have coached me. And they certainly don't include the club's sabreurs, who are fast, effective and ready for anything.

It wasn't a good attitude to start with. I tried to watch the bouts and determined to move more than usual on the piste. But pretty soon I'd lost my first two bouts and with those defeats, my enthusiasm for the evening was waning. I began to think my attempts at fencing were ludicrous. Then, in my third bout, I heard a voice cheering me on. I still lost, but felt immensely encouraged. And in my fourth bout - against the man who'd cheered me on and always encouraged me - I scored a hit. It landed on his forearm. I don't know if he made it easy for me but, if he did, at least I scored the point. I would rather have landed a hit on a different fencer but I still felt good because I wasn't going to finish the evening without a point.

That was my only point but, when I checked the sheets at the end, I found it meant I hadn't come last. A fencer in the other poule - a better and more experienced fencer specialising in sabre - hadn't managed a hit. He didn't seem too downcast and I felt a lot better.

Semi-finals followed. Three sabreurs had qualified and one epeeist - the doc. The sabreurs got together to cheer the sabreurs. The epeeists - a quieter group - offered words of encouragement to the doc. And finally epee skills won through. It was lovely to watch the doc's light and accurate touch as he waited for his moment in semi-final and final. It was his second consecutive victory in the one-hit epee and he held his chocoalate trophy aloft.

There were plenty of small chocolate santas for the rest of us.

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Thursday, December 04, 2008

neat hands

Like most fencers, I admire good qualities and skills that I lack. There are plenty of those. For instance, almost all fencers are faster and more accurate than me. I can usually beat beginners. Occasionally a better fencer will have an off day and I'm learning to take advantage. But that's about it. And my age is against me.

Still, there are fencers it is a pleasure to watch and fight. I like fencers who evidently enjoy the bout. Every so often I'll fence someone who is skilled at fencing but doesn't seem to enjoy it - or whose only interest is how many points he (it's usually a he) can score. I understand fencing to win. Even I want to win. But I can't understand people for whom their own progess on a score board is their only pleasure.

I fence because I love it and I enjoy people who share my delight in swordplay and the fun of it all. They often fell in love with fencing through watching the old, swashbuckling movies and enjoying the swordplay. Some even read forgotten authors like Stanley J. Weyman.

Happy fencers come alive with sword in hand. Their eyes glow and they laugh with pleasure at good hits or amusing errors. While TV audiences thrill to Strictly Come Dancing, I just know that Strictly Come Fencing would be ten times as much fun - so long as the fencers enjoyed it. (But there isn't going to be much fencing on TV. It sounds as thought British fencing has just lost all its support in the run up to the 2012 Olympics.)

Some fencers win through strength as well as speed. The Historian (who the chef calls, approvingly, the Curmudgeon) is like that. Lately he's been suffering from epeeist's elbow (as tennis elbow has been renamed) so he can't take control of my blade so convincingly. The Doc is neat and subtle. He's a great admirer of neat hands and deft parries.

One of the newer fencers is skilled in both. At the club championship I found myself in the same poule as her and another young fencer. She was the nervous one, worried that she would make a fool of herself, so I reassured her, telling her she could look for hits one at a time and not worry about the outcome of the bout. She didn't tell me she was a left-hander and I didn't realise, until I saw her fence, that she was a quick learner with a good eye and neat hands. She won her first bout, against another intermnediate, 5-0 and began to relax. I managed three hits to her five. Then she beat her coach 5-1 and her poule fight against the club's best sabreuse ended with a 4-3 to the sabreuse, thanks to a hit just before the call of "time." She was beaten easily by the best fencer in the poule but went into the D.E. ranked eighth out of eighteen - quite a feat for a 16-year-old who started fencing only last year. As for me, I was knocked out easily by one of the club's best fencers (I think the score was 15-1) and finished fourteenth overall - the highest I've ever finished. (Thank you, newish fencers, for joining in - you'll all be beating me this time next year.)

I think I am improving a little but I didn't do well in the epee poules. Fortunately the D.E. saw me fencing a veteran epeeist (who prefers sabre and rarely fences epee on her visit). She's a few years older than me but not easy competition - she fences internationally as a veteran and sometimes brings home medals. I was pleased that the final score - in her favour - was 15-10. I enjoyed the bout.

Last night was devoted to sabre (I know that fleches aren't allowed in sabre any more, but couldn't resist the picture.) A visiting team took on some of our sabreurs in a team competition. Our club was victorious - we have a number of excellent sabreurs - but it looked like a good match. There weren't many epeeists but we took turns on a spare piste, pausing from time to time to watch the excitement.

When the match was over, members of the visiting team joined in casual fencing. It was good to see one stripping off his lame and taking an epee in hand. He approached us and asked if he could join in.

He was a young Frenchman, spending a few months in England between school and university. Without thinking, I replied to him in French and found myself scraping around for words - it's too long since I've had to speak French. He fenced us all, although only the Doc was a good match for him. Learning my age and relatively recent involvement in fencing, he set out to encourage me, letting me win subtly, encouraging me to attack and enjoy the bout, I don't always like it when I'm allowed to win but he was so encouraging and so polite that I was charmed. However, I didn't accept his invitation to fleche him.

Fencing in French felt special. The young fencer didn't resemble d'Artagnan and was far too youthful and enthusiastic for the cynical Gil de Berault but the language was right. Besides, as the Doc pointed out, the young Frenchman had excellent parries and ever such neat hands.

Note: I've been absent from the blogosphere for a while. I've been busy with work and other matters. I'll try to find time to blog more often.

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