Rhik Samadder tries … fencing: ‘Now I’m ready for the zombie apocalypse’

I get to wear a natty white jacket, insectoid mask and hold an épée like a pistol – my inner child could not be happier. En garde!

Ever since childhood, I have wanted to be trained in the sword. But I have always believed one had to be born a musketeer for this to happen, or have a death to avenge, plus access to castle steps. But here I am at the London Fencing Club in Old Street, which is easier.

It’s a few weeks before omicron takes off, and the government is pooh-poohing any talk of tightening Covid restrictions. I’m learning épée, the thin, pointy blade that most resembles a classic swashbuckling sword. My Russian-born coach, Anna Anstal, loves fencing épée. The opponent’s entire body is a target, and there are no “right of way” rules governing who can score at a given moment. “You must think about the zombie apocalypse,” she says. “Rules are no use with a zombie. The ability to strike first is all that matters.” It’s unexpected advice, her heavy accent giving it even more edge. I’m quite scared.

“Have you held a pistol before?” Anstal asks. I think we had different upbringings, I say. The “pistol grip” is the most common in fencing: blade gripped between thumb and forefinger, other fingers curled under, with surprising delicacy. The legs work far harder. We start with footwork drills, advancing up and down the 14-metre piste, front foot leading forwards, back foot for retreats. “Fast, fast!” shouts Anstal. It’s hard to keep my heels in line, so I quite literally veer off piste. I learn straight thrusts, lunges, an explosive flèche attack. I already feel like Arya Stark.

Rhik Samadder gets to grips with his épée.
Rhik Samadder gets to grips with his épée. Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

We move to a padded pillar, to practise thrusts. I learn to gauge distance, never moving closer than I need to be. Fencing is about intelligence, Anstal explains. Something close to chess, or a conversation. “‘I’m going to hit your leg!’ ‘Not if I parry …’ ‘That was a joke – I’m actually hitting your mask!’” she illustrates. Her idea of a conversation is terrifying, but I’m picking up technique faster than I thought possible. I loved swordfighting as a boy, I reminisce. “All children do,” she confirms. “Then they come here, realise it’s all footwork drills, and say: ‘Mummy, I want to go home.’”

Luckily, the school specialises in beginners’ courses for adults. The class around me is doing an intense warmup: shuttle runs, shuffle reps, squat running – anything that murders the legs. I’m sweating, too, having idiotically worn a polo neck for extra protection. “Listen – my favourite sound,” remarks Anstal with a far-off look. It’s the sound of exhaustion, a faint, fatigued wheezing that fills the room. Odd.

There’s an alien appeal to fencing: those insectoid masks, stinging spines, the scrape and clash of metal. Yet with its elegant, all-white jackets and breeches, it’s also a sport of high tradition. Scores were originally tallied via soot on the blades, which marked the white clothes. (Although I suppose, even more originally, scores were settled by killing your opponent.) Now facing a mirror, sword pointed at my own chest, I learn parrying positions. Anstal divides my torso into numbered sections, like a butcher. Quarte, sixte, septième, octave – if I had known there was going to be so much French, I’d have dusted off my GCSE Tricolore textbook.

Anstal masks up, and teaches me to disengage, ie feint around an opponent’s parry with a tiny circular motion. I’m not striking hard enough, she says. It’s hard enough to remember technicalities of arm line and footwork, and like most beginners, I lack killer instinct. “Everyone starts out very nice,” smiles Tim Gadaski, manager of the club. “Then they get hit a few times, and things change.”

“I am in your country now, and I love democracy. So tell me what you want to do,” jokes Anstal, after an hour. Maybe practice more parries? She looks bored. “I think you should fight someone.” Huh? I’m not ready for that. But she is plugging a thin cable into my blade’s hand guard, threading it through an arm protector. At least I get to wear the natty white jacket. The class is setting up parallel pistes across the room. They face off with wires extending behind them, a marionette theatre of war. My opponent, confusingly also called Anna, salutes. My mask drops down. “En garde!” shouts Gadaski, stepping in to referee. Suddenly, I’m fencing for real.

Anna and I test each other, nudging blades. “Too defensive. You’re not doing anything,” shouts Gadaski. Anna thrusts. I instinctively deflect, then again. I can defend myself! It’s thrilling. “You’re wasting your parries,” coaches Gadaski. “You need to counter.” I try, though technique has disappeared. The winner is the first to 10 points and Anna is leading 6-4. She’s attacking at will, but I’m scoring off her attacks, too, machines bleeping on both sides. Being hit doesn’t hurt, but I’m tiring fast. The entire room sounds like a video game. Anna overtakes me. 8-7! I hadn’t realised I was in the lead before. How? We both score. I steel myself, and concentrate. Maybe I’m Zatoichi, blind to my own abilities. I circle her blade, trying to stay on target. 9-9. We both lunge but I angle away, and have the reach. I’ve won!

Rhik takes on Anna ...
Rhik takes on Anna ... Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

My inner child is jubilant. Fencing is a feeling like nothing else. Anna congratulates me, Anstal flashes a Slavic grin, acknowledging I have crushed my inner weakness. There must be something on those blades, because I feel the rush of adventure in my bloodstream, and leave on a swashbuckling high. I can legitimately declare myself trained in the sword. Zombies, you have been warned! Just let me consult my Tricolore first.

Would I go back?

To be stabbed with swords, and worked to exhaustion? Arya Stark raving mad? Maybe, as I definitely would.

Smugness Points

Yépée! 4/5

Want to suggest an activity for Rhik to try? Tell us about it here.


Rhik Samadder

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