En garde! I take up fencing

One of the guests (I don’t know which one) at my leaving do suggested I take up fencing. So I have. It’s good.

The good bit is that you get to use swords in a disciplined way. It seems very safe indeed as the swords have rubbery blobs to cover their pointed tips and, as well as that, you’re wearing stab-proof clothing and a mask of stiff wire mesh.

Look, I’ll tell you about the good stuff later, OK? First, I just have to mention why fencing, squash, swimming, badminton and pretty much any sport you can think of is a bit depressing. Sports centres are essentially the same as they were forty years ago. They have stayed still while everything else has moved on. Motorway service stations used to be like prison canteens. Greengrocers had never heard of avocados and you couldn’t get olive oil in a supermarket. On cold mornings, cars wouldn’t start. Pubs used to be full of cigarette smoke and they sold dreadful beer such as Watney’s Red Barrel. Cafes used to serve instant coffee made with sterilised milk.  And a bottle of rough Chianti cost as much as a hardback novel – if you could find a shop that sold wine.

In forty years, we have seen gigantic leaps forward in the material quality of life and leisure. Instead of plimsols, we have brightly coloured, computer-engineered running shoes. Instead of bone-shaking, all-steel bicycles, we have lightweight aluminium jobs with 21 gears instead of just three. Or mountain bikes with sprung forks and ergonomic saddles. Everything’s iPods and day-glo spandex.The depressing dreariness of yesteryear has been swept away by a 21st-Century tide of individualism. Except in sports centres.

The place where I went for my fencing lesson reminded me all too clearly of my old school gym. Or the municipal public baths. Or RAF Gaydon. Everywhere smells of old socks and disinfectant. After I’d climbed two flights of stairs and found the hall where the fencing takes place, I asked if there were any changing rooms. No. If you want to get changed, you have to go down three flights of stairs to the basement. OK, if I want to play with swords, I have to go to the dungeon first. It isn’t dirty or creepy or anything but it is rather brutal, like the basement of a police station. I pushed the door marked ‘men’.

It’s called a changing room but it’s the one thing in this fashion-crazy, customer-focused  bright new world that doesn’t ever change. A low ceiling, a tiled floor and the smell of sweaty socks in between. There are showers which make the air steamy and there are little puddles on the  floor where men have walked, dripping, to their lockers. This is the room where you are stripped of your identity. You take your clothes off and put them into a numbered locker. The lockers aren’t tall enough for you to hang a jacket but there is a stumpy little hook inside anyway.

There are no seats, that would be too individual. You get a long, communal bench where you dress and undress with other guys. Same as in school, same as in the military. It makes sense there, where teamwork is paramount. But what about the modern, grown-up, civilian world? Is there no choice? Has anyone looked into this? Is it time for change in the changing room?

If you know of anywhere that does it in a more civilised way, let me know.

Gosh, look at the time. Fencing will have to wait for the next blog.

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