On Guard!

Friday, November 04, 2005

In between fights, fencers like to get together and practice their high jump technique.

Fencing is one of only four sports to have been included in all of the modern Olympic games. It’s also one of those things that every man who never really grew out of being a little boy would really rather like to good at. Whether you fancied yourself as Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, Oliver Reid’s Athos, or (in my case) Guy Williams’ Zorro, sword fighting was something no young boy with access to a couple of sticks and a willing accomplice could resist.

Thanks (once again) to Kev Game and his remarkable ability to pull strings, I found myself last night in the Cricket Schools at the university sports centre, surrounded by sword-wielding experts dressed up like svelte bee-keepers. I was looking for Ellie, the kind soul who has offered to teach me the foil (one of the three fencing disciplines – the other two being epée and sabre).

Our plan, hatched by e-mail, had involved me coming along to a practice session and being put through my paces. It was a good plan, ruined only by my latest embarrassing injury. It was bad enough making it through forty arduous, high-speed kilometres of cycling in the triathlon without so much as a wobble only to come crashing to the ground a few weeks later cycling to the shops one Sunday evening, but this time, I may have outdone myself.

I’ve had a bit of a cough for a few days (I’m no doctor, but I suspect that walking home from a nightclub at five in the morning with my shirt open to the waist may have had something to do with it). The cough was just beginning to subside, but it was determined not to go without a fight. During one particularly violent outburst, I somehow managed to strain a muscle in my right side. It’s a tiny muscle – one I didn’t even know I had – but one that seems to be fairly heavily involved in just about every movement I try to make.

Fortunately for me (and my aching side), the first steps in learning to fence would seem to be just that – steps. Having found Ellie and marvelled at how much consideration she seems to have given my quest (“We’ll try to get you fighting left-handers if we can. It’s harder, but it will look much better in the photographs.”), I was introduced to Alex, a sabre specialist, who took me through some footwork.

One of the toughest things about this whole challenge is learning how to do new things. I don’t yet consider myself an old dog, but I do seem to struggle with the learning of new tricks. When I first started giving some serious thought to the challenges I would face in trying to have a go at all the Olympic events, I expected a lack of fitness to be by far the largest obstacle to my completion of most of them. Naively, it didn’t really occur to me that a lack of talent would also be a problem.

As I stumbled backwards and forwards trying to keep my distance from the young lady pointing a sword at my head and reminding me (very patiently) to keep my shoulders level, I suspect I looked more like a man caught up in his first barn dance than Errol Flynn toying with the Sheriff of Nottingham.

I am lucky to have once been good enough at a golf that the odd beginner occasionally asked me for advice. I would do my best to offer it patiently and politely (in the manner it had always been offered to me), but I was constantly fighting the urge to bellow, “Oh for God’s sake, just hit the bloody thing!” As such, I have unending admiration for everyone who has thus far offered me coaching (in any discipline) and managed to resist bellowing the same thing at me. Alex and Ellie are two more such people to add to the list.

Once Alex had finished teaching me how to dance up and down the piste, and even run me through (a poor choice of expression perhaps) how to go about striking my opponent with a sabre, she passed me back to Ellie who introduced me to the foil.

As it turns out, there are five different guards one could adopt when fighting sabre, but Alex must have realised fairly quickly what level she was pitching at and just taught me the easiest one. Ellie had no intention of letting me off so lightly with the foil and was quickly talking me through the nuances of sixte, quarte, septime and octave. Luckily, she also sent me home with a book full of pictures to jog my memory.

If the helmet masked my puzzled expression, I suspect my teacher quickly revised the detail of her teaching plan when we started talking about instincts. Having told me that essentially every movement in fencing is “instinct refined and honed”, she tried to demonstrate her point my slowly lunging towards my left side.

“What would your instinct tell you to do there?” she asked.

“Well – to move my sword across my body and deflect your sword.”

“Very good! Then what?”

“Then I’d probably reach over and punch you in the face with my other hand and wait for a fellow musketeer to break a chair over your back.”

Despite my cavalier attitude, we hatched a new plan, the broad (if optimistic) aim of which is to get me through all three fencing disciplines before the student body disappears at the end of Michaelmas Term (so the beginning of December). They have their work cut out, but they sent me home with a helmet and a sabre so that I could get some practice in at home as my side improves. As such, I take great pleasure in introducing you to my new practice partner. I think I’ll call him ‘La Vache’.

He may not look up to much, but the horns really freak me out.

In the eyes of the law, a sabre is considered a deadly weapon, and therefore not for carrying on the bus. Amazingly though, everyone was in agreement that the act of shoving half the blade into my umbrella was enough to render it legal and I set off for home with a helmet under my arm and a Bank of Scotland umbrella-sword at my side. I’m not so grown up that I won’t confess a certain feeling of satisfaction at paying my bus fare with a ten-pound note despite having change in my pocket. For once, the driver didn’t ask me if I had anything smaller.


Amateur said...

Fighting with sticks, urgh, every time I think of that I am reminded of the day that I poked my brother in the eye with a TinkerToy during one such boyish moment. My brother (a future four-time Olympian) made a full recovery, but we never played swords again.

Lord Bargain said...

I wonder if any other Olympic fencing champion has ever practised with an propped-up ironing board?

SwissToni said...

isn't it "en garde" or something similarly french??

Nice to see you are back and doing something constructive again. Don't make me come over there.... oh hang on....


Anonymous said...

En garde indeed!!
Looks more like "un mouton" in cow's clothing to me

John said...

Perhaps, when my mentors have finished with me, I shall be able to attain the fencing position known as "en garde", but for now, as a complete novice weilding a a sword, I am simply "on guard", i.e. watching, heeding, paying attention and taking care.

I think they call it a 'play on words' - or maybe 'pitching over your audience's head'

Amateur - are you saying this could improve my kayaking in the long run?

LB - I would guess that the odds of me becoming an 'Olympic fencing champion' are quite slim - with or without the ironing board. That said, I do have the natural advantage of being so thin as to be almost invisible to the naked eye when I turn sideways. I believe the techincal term is 'sniper's nightmare'.

Mum - that was it? That was your witty comment? A sheep gag with Monty Python overtones?

SwissToni said...

ok. So explain the exclamation mark.


John said...

I was being emphatic about how much attention I was paying.

No I wasn't. The truth is that the unnecessary use of exclamation marks is an embarrassing genetic disorder (see comment at 08:47 AM) that I battle daily.

If you want to get all correct-english-usage about it, and assuming you're not buying my 'play on words' rebuttal, we're both right. My little book of pictures and instructions for beginners is using "on guard". Perhaps I get to progress to bi-lingual sword fighting in a subsequent chapter.

Paul said...

More of an Athos man myself.

I thought it was compulsory to kick your opponent in the croch at some point before stabbing them?

Maybe they've saved that for your next lesson?

John said...

Next week we're covering the basics of pausing mid-fight to down a goblet of wine and kiss a maiden.

Boots to the crotch come the following week in the same lesson as recovering from a bottle to the back of the head by shaking your jowls as if slightly confused.

The final week has been set aside for the really serious business of throwing people onto tables which then splinter into a million pieces and then, to round off my education, we'll be covering how to make one's exit by clinging to a rope that normally supports the weight of a chandelier but that you've just cut. Depending on my progress, we may or may not try to get me combining that one with trapping adversaries underneath said chandelier.

Anonymous said...


John said...

Neither did I.

Anonymous said...

Hahaha...It's funny because I'm 14 and I've been sword fighting with my friends for many years. We're pretty good, but I want to start fencing...

That's about all..