This really is about fencing!

Last night was my second fencing lesson, organised by Cardiff Fencing Club. As was entirely predictable, the sports-centre, changing-room ambiance was easily bearable as I focused more on the business of swordsmanship. It’s this ‘get-used-to-it’ factor that has enabled sports centres and their changing rooms to stay the same for so long.

Right, so there are three types of sword used in fencing, the foil, the epee and the sabre. Apologies, especially to the likes of Vanessa Mitchell and Patricia Ann McKinnes for the absence of accents.

So there are ten of us beginners, nine men, one woman. Geoff Keay, our instructor, explains the evolution of swords from heavy, slashing weapons to lightweight sidearms used for stabbing. We are using the epee, longer than a foil, shorter than a sabre.

We are standing there in stab-proof clothing which zips up at the back. Mostly, it doesn’t fit very well because it’s the club’s kit and you have to rummage around in piles of stuff to find a jacket, glove and visor that you can put on. There are instructions about safety precautions, then footwork, balance, how to hold the sword and then the good bit. We are arranged in pairs and told to stab each other in the chest. It’s good fun. You can see your sword striking your opponent and it doesn’t hurt when he scores a hit on your chest.

Then Geoff says “Now go for the face.”

Really? Even though we have wire-mesh visors, we all hesitate before tentatively jabbing our opponents’ faces. Somehow, far more than going for the torso, this action reminds us that this martial art is not just self defence; this is about killing the other guy.

You can stab your opponent from a standing position or by lunging at him. The former is quicker but the latter can be done from a safer distance. Then there are the parries – ways of deflecting the incoming blade – and then the ripostes. If your opponent is close enough to strike you, he’s close enough to be struck. So, if you’ve succeeded in knocking his blade out of the way, he’s defenceless. Go for it.

Two hours passes quickly, no-one gets hurt and then most of us go to the pub. A pleasant evening followed by a very good night’s sleep. (That’s probably more than enough links but I’ve been on a course and I’m practising.)

In the morning, my legs feel heavy and my thigh muscles ache from prancing about in a knees-bent way for a couple of hours. All-in-all, it feels good. Looking forward to next time.

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.