Fortunately the mask is very good at stopping you losing an eye.
I lunged. I parried. I feinted. I remised, reprised and reposted. And I lost. Heavily. Three times.
First up was the foil verses Jamie Kenber. They could make getting dressed for fencing an event in itself, but then I suppose it is rather important to do it right for safety’s sake. Suitably togged (and wired) up, I took my guard against the reigning British champion, with Ken, resplendent in blazer and tie, presiding.
“En garde!”… check… “Are you ready?”… are you joking?… “Fence!”…ok, here we g…oh… that’ll be one-nil then will it?
Fifteen times in a row.
The British Champion waits for me to make a false move before striking. He didn't have to wait long.
To say that Jamie Kenber is rather good at foil is like saying that George Best wasn’t bad at football. Fair enough, I suspect any of the rest of the foilists in the room could probably have beaten me 15-0 too, but at least half the times he hit me he did it so fast and so accurately that the sound of the buzzer genuinely surprised me because I hadn’t felt a thing.
Afterwards, as I dismantled my foil outfit and started trying to work out how to put on my sabre gear, while Jamie put on his jeans and started trying to work out what to do with the rest of his evening, he confessed that he wasn’t quite at his best at the moment as he’s carrying a bit of a back injury. All I can say is God help the rest of you foilists when it clears up.
After a quick breather, it was on to the sabre verses Michael Coombes. Having spent pretty much the whole of the first fight like a rabbit trapped in some particularly transfixing headlights, I was determined to get a bit more aggressive in this one. “Fence!” cried Ken. I bounded forward and got slashed on the head for my trouble – time for a rethink.
Michael Coombes's attacks were relentless. So was my failure to do anything about them.
Time and again Michael came at me and I failed utterly to parry his attacks. Time and again as we shuffled back to our marks I did that thing that batsmen and golfers do after a bad shot – I replayed the parry in the air as I would have liked to have done it a moment before and shook my head ruefully. This was a fairly good indicator of how far behind the game my brain was working – I was just about ready to parry the previous attack as the next one began.
Finally, I dug my heels in and remembered the odd fragment that people had worked so hard to teach me over the previous three weeks. I initiated an attack of my own. It was easily parried, and the reposte would have severed my jugular vein had I not been wearing the mask, but it got me thinking that just maybe I might get a point.
With my next attack, I did! As had been the case with most of the other clashes, I’ve really no idea what happened, but the buzzer buzzed and Ken pointed at me and announced that the score was now 10-1 in Michael’s favour. I carried on with my attacking strategy. It didn’t work. I lost 15-1.
By now, I was exhausted, despite having done in total (if you don’t count getting into and out of the gear) about 3 minutes exercise. The layers of protective clothing are very reassuring when someone is waggling a sword at you, but it ain’t half hot under it all.
I stripped down out of the sabre gear and set about dressing for epée. My opponent this time was Matt Dodwell, silver medallist in the British Youth Championships and 3rd ranked junior in the country at the moment. He’s also a good couple of inches taller than me and has a reach like Michael Phelps touching the wall.
Matt Dodwell advances with his big long arms, preparing to stab me in my big fat head.
As I was walking back to the piste Michael, my previous opponent, took me to one side and offered some last minute advice. It was kind of him, and I wish I could have repaid that kindness by remembering what he’d told me before I found myself 7-0 down again. Finally I did remember – “just stick your arm out as far as you can when he attacks and you might get a simultaneous hit” – and did as I had been told. My reward was my second (and last) hit of the night.
In truth, it slightly backfired as a tactic. Much like when Liverpool score early in the Champions League, I couldn’t help but feel like I’d only succeeded in making the opposition cross. With his next attack, he fleched. A fleche is essentially running at your opponent and hitting them on the way past. He later told me it was one of the best ones he’s ever done. The fact that I offered such pitiful resistance perhaps contributed to that.
As Matt reaches in hit me on the foot, I desperately try to parry to avoid him ripping my very attractive socks.
From there on, he pulled out all the stops, hitting me with absolute impunity on the foot, the head, the arm, the chest and the throat. I mostly didn’t have a clue what was going on (that’s true in general, but particularly so whilst fencing), but Ken informed me afterwards that I’d been done very artfully by a real expert.
And so the fencing came to an end. I have enjoyed it thoroughly. I can see why it’s not a more popular spectator sport – it’s too fast to follow unless you’re an expert and you know what to look for – but from behind the mask, it’s very exciting.
I spent most of last night feeling like I was letting down all the people who had given me so much of their time in recent weeks. I felt like everything I’d learnt went out the window the moment Jamie Kenber stabbed me in the chest before I’d even reacted to being told to fence. My teachers had stoked me up with numerous techniques for parrying and attacking, and I’d practiced them at home (La Vache is cut to shreds) until I felt reasonably comfortable doing all of them. In the fights though, it was fairly pointless knowing how to parry a certain attack when my eyes couldn’t move fast enough to see the other guy’s sword most of the time.
But then I got home and watched some of the video footage. Their teaching wasn’t entirely wasted. My feet were quite often in the right place, and occasionally I did manage a parry, not to mention the two glorious points I scored. I was glad to see that my body managed to reproduce some of what I’d learnt, despite my brain’s strongest urging to my legs to turn tail and run.
Ken pulled out all the sartorial stops in his role as president.
Huge thanks to the Oxford University Fencing Club – to Ken for his coaching, presidency and kind donation to Sobell House; to Jamie, Michael and Matt for spending time thrashing a novice; to Alex, Alec and particularly to Ellie for all their coaching and encouragement; and to all the rest of the members for putting up with a duffer taking up one of their pistes all night and for not laughing too much at his efforts.
Also, thanks as ever to the fan-base – to the other Johns, Kev and Tracey for taking the photos, shooting the video and making the sarcastic comments throughout. I’m nothing without you people.
Lost to Jamie Kenber, 15-0
Lost to Michael Coombes, 15-1
Lost to Matt Dodwell, 15-1
Friday, November 25, 2005
Posted by John McClure at 4:32 p.m.