Attempts to put experts to sword in noble art foiled

Jordan Cross gets stuck into fencing  Picture: Malcolm Wells
Jordan Cross gets stuck into fencing Picture: Malcolm Wells
Lucas Ballinghall, left, faces Michael Dehamnia in a featherweight contest Picture: Ian Hargreaves

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Will West-Thomas even looks like a French musketeer.

In full fencing regalia, complete with a Gallic goatee beard, the 17-year-old looks every inch the swordsman.

And I’m fairly sure the Academie d’Escrime member would comfortably have been able to slice me into several pieces if this was Paris in the 17th century.

Fortunately for me, it’s the John Pounds Centre, Portsea, on a Thursday night and West-Thomas seems a thoroughly-likeable chap.

He is my providing my introduction to the noble art of fencing as I prepare to be put through my paces by his coach, Kevin Reilly.

Reilly will this summer prepare Team GB for action at the ExCel Centre in London Docklands, as they go for Olympic glory.

For now, though, he has to try to make some sense of my floundering efforts as I try to put my foil to something approaching its proper use.

Firstly, however, Reilly has to inform me of the etiquette that is so important to the sport and the chivalrous salute which must take place before each contest.

It’s a nod to the origins of fencing, along with the traditions still very much in place.

That, however, leads to a slightly uncomfortable moment when I’m told the correct procedure to initiate a battle with 15-year-old Ellie MacFarlane is to launch a red gauntlet in her direction and bellow: ‘Madam, I demand satisfaction’.

MacFarlane seems pretty non-plussed about it all, however, and she kindly indulges my decidedly un-fencing-like request to go easy on me as we begin our contest.

Her club-mate Oscar Bird is having a busy time of it at the moment.

The Portsmouth Grammar School student is currently in a period of heavy exams.

But that hasn’t stopped the 12-year-old taking part in Academie d’Escrime’s weekly session, despite it being on the eve of sitting three papers.

Bird’s angelic appearance is reassuring as he stands opposite me and we prepare to don our masks.

It’s immediately noticeable through the mesh, though, that the smiling youngster is gone and replaced by a steely, focused competitor when it comes to showtime.

Fortunately for me, Bird is operating purely on the back foot as I vainly attempt to perfect my attacks.

I fear for his opponent when he takes part in the forthcoming exhibition he’s been selected for.

I’m assured by Reilly there appears to be some natural talent in my work as I shuffle forward and attempt to thrust my foil in the explosive manner required.

‘Are you sure, you haven’t done this before?’ he says. I’m pretty certain he’s humouring me.

That’s certainly the case when it comes to my exchanges with West-Thomas.

He allows me to take the initiative, but then consistently repels my attacks as if he is indifferently swatting a mildly-irritating fly.

West-Thomas doesn’t even bother to deliver a riposte to my efforts, but still has no problem dismissing my cumbersome advances.

I’m pretty sure this guy could throw an apple into the air and slice it into a thousand pieces like they used to in the old Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds cartoons, so I decide not to let my frustrations show.

Likewise, his long-maned club-mate Chris Mills. I manage to land a generously-awarded blow in his direction as I attempt to get to grips with the sabre, a cavalry weapon which means the scoring zone is above waist height, just as the target area would have been on horseback back in the day.

That effort, I think, was generously awarded by our youthful referee, however.

He probably knew what was coming next, though, as Mills effortlessly advances and puts me well and truly in my place.

By this stage, my suit feels like my very own portable sauna as the sweat fills beneath the plastron worn to offer protection from the (many) blows I’ve received.

So I’m secretly thankful my frayed hamstring offers me an exit route after one clumsy lunge too far.

That just allows time for a chat with Reilly, who takes the opportunity to debunk a few myths about the sport and its elitist reputation.

That’s far from the case at Academie d’Escrime where members’ subscriptions are minimal, equipment is provided and enthusiasts come from all types of backgrounds.

Our conversation then wanders into the realms of the fencing’s long and rich history.

‘We use all the fencing weapons, but are a foil club,’ the coach explains.

‘The foil is a court sword, used in places like castles and the target area is where the essential organs are – you were out to kill.’

It’s at that point I’m thankful I didn’t meet Academie d’Escrime 400 years ago.