Week 10: Valhalla

In the beginning, I fought on rage.

Every time I stepped onto the piste, I’d tell myself to fire up. Mask down, sword up. Time to break the opponent. 

The FIE got its knickers in a knot back in the 2000’s about how you couldn’t see the opponent through the mask mesh. That’s why they brought in the ill-fated plexiglass visor masks, which weighed a ton and made everyone look like an extra from a low-budget sci fi romp.

The best description of these masks came from a K-pop boy during a reality TV show where one of his bandmates — an ex-pseudo-pro-sabre-fencer-turned-Idol from Hong Kong — challenged Gu Bon-gil to a bout. Gu showed up in his brand-new mesh mask, complete with Korean flag paint job.

“Whoa, your mask is really cool,” said the K-pop boy.

“What about me?” asked the ex-pro. He was wearing one of his old visor masks that he’d dug up from his fencing days.

“You look like a welder”

And that was before they stuck little fairy lights inside that flashed prettily after every hit.

Those visor masks lasted just long enough for manufacturers to cut costs by outsourcing production to the lowest-bidding Chinese injection moulders they could find. Then it was only a matter of time before some kids ran their blades through them in a bout.

That only happened in foil though. The sabreurs were too busy whaling on each other as hard as they could — the visors weren’t conductive, so people seemed to make up for it by hitting extra hard — and the epeeists wouldn’t use them at all. This story is probably apocryphal, but apparently some poor dumb ref tried to force an epeeist to wear a visor mask instead of the mesh mask at an A-grade somewhere, to which the epeeist responded with his most disdainful side-eye before punching his epee right through the visor, like snapping marzipan.

Visor or no, the FIE was wrong — you can always see the opponent through the mask. Even two masks; yours and theirs. How do I know? I always fought better when I could see the other punk sneer. Put me up against a real sweetheart of a family man who volunteers at a homeless shelter in the evenings, and I have about as much combat motivation as an ageing hippie on a nature reserve. Put me up against an entitled trust-fund snotling who’s already thinking about where he’s going to take his barbie-doll girlfriend after the medal ceremony in his mom’s Boxter, and I get all motivated for some reason. Fortunately for me, there’s at least an order of magnitude more of the latter than the former in fencing.

Until you get further in the leagues, that is. You still get punks as you go up the difficulty curve, but they thin out dramatically after the whack-yell-run C-grades and the I-just-wanna-make-the-Lypmics B-grades. That’s when you start seeing the pros and proto-pros. And they might still be delusional, but no more so than I was, and for them this was a job: 9-5, six days a week, four weeks off a year. It’s hard to get worked up against a guy with a wife and kid back home who is forced to tour the finest community recreational centres in the world for nine months of the year.

These guys fought on rage too. “This is not fencing,” said Daddy, during a match between Georgia and Iran, “this is war.” I once saw the Batman take off his shirt after a bruising round with the Brony; his back looked like he’d been scourged by a cat o’ nine tails. He gave as good as he got, turning into a Bruce Lee-berserker during bouts. “Never show pain,” he said. “when they hit you hard, smile. Then hit back harder.” He showed me how to cleave through an opponent with enough force to snap blades and crack bones. “Open your hand, then crush it,” he explained, “so you don’t wind up.”

He wasn’t the only one. Plenty of others went psycho during combat too. The Paladin flaunted his own back piece on social media after an otherwise successful competition, though to be fair, Clark Kent put him up to it. The person who did it to him had started cleaving once it became clear that victory would not be possible via more traditional means. The worst offender for this tactic, at least in my day, was Il Douche. He’d lob these all over the place as soon as the bout started, even in the early rounds of the competition. He’d even lob them after the bout ended; he once tried to disembowel Clark Kent after losing by some ridiculous margin on the second day. But Clark parried.

The difference with Batman was that he could switch it off the moment the bout ended. That was rare. That yelling you hear at the end of sabre bouts? Some of it is theatre. You can pick the drama queens — they stop mid-yell to take another breath. For the rest of them, it’s catharsis. Sabre hurts. Getting flayed is only part of it. The sport is about as safe as they come in the amateur leagues, but on the circuit it isn’t unusual to come away with a buffet of bruises and a couple of broken bones. Your hindbrain snaps; I just survived a fight, it says.

If you win. If you don’t, your hindbrain thinks you’re dead. Worse — they killed you. The crash can be devastating. It isn’t unusual to see defeated sabre fencers, big bad warrior men in their prime, sulking in corners of the competition hall after their losses. All the while being comforted under the arm of their coach who — like an ancient mother bear — has seen this all before, needs you to leave them alone now thank you for your concern, and where are we going to go for dinner tonight.

Skittertank did it, after dropping out in the 32 during qualification season. The Paladin did it, a few times, the Maestro giving me an eye-roll when I came over to enquire whether I could get them anything. Hitman’s coach just slumped there, radiating a forcefield of sombre malice. K-pop deepened his usual sulk, ever-present even before he loses, the better to attract random groupies to hear his tales of woe about how mean his coach is.

The other problem with rage fighting, win or lose, is that its power comes at a price. It costs you control. Rage is a helluva fuel source, but you have to tend that engine with as much care as a ship’s engineer to his boilers. Too much and it blows, too little and you splutter out. This, of course, was hardly a novel observation. Everybody from Marcus Aurelius to George Lucas to whoever wrote the script for Avatar: The Last Airbender has written about the rage-for-control trade. Peter Westbrook even wrote a book about sabre fencing called Harnessing Anger.

But for all its drawbacks, rage provided the necessary fuel for combat. You couldn’t drop it unless you managed to find another source. Better men than me have tried. “He lose because too little meow,” some random YouTuber commented, after Clark Kent tried playing it cool in one round. Telling someone to “fire up” is standard coaching advice; one teammate developed a masochistic habit of whipping himself in the legs before every bout just to get himself in the right mindset.

That wasn’t all rage did. It burned away the fear. Combat is scary. Sabre fencing isn’t combat, but your brain is too dumb to tell the difference. It was why I used rage for so long.

My grandcoach told me, the first time he ever saw me fence, that I had no fear. With all due respect, sir, that was about as hilariously wrong an assessment as you could make. I was scared then, and I’m scared now. I’m scared every time I step onto the piste, whether I’m fencing a world champion, or some kid who has just worked up the courage to take a potshot at the old man. Actually I probably get more scared at the latter — kid’s got nothing to lose. Every single time, that freezing tendril trickles its way down my aorta and pools behind my diaphragm. Rage burns it away.

And sometimes rage worked great. Or if not exactly rage, then a close relation, like the bunsen burner flame going from red to blue. The engine would just hum. Fire without the burn, movement without tension, signal without noise. Coders and cryptographers and computer gamers (and athletes) call it being in the “zone”. All of the power, all of the control.

But getting into the zone consistently is legendarily difficult. There are thousands of pop-psychology books and primal rituals that purport to deliver you into the zone if you just think the right thoughts, wear the right charms, and drink the right potions. They never worked for me. Perhaps they will work for you.

I never figured out how to zone consistently. But I did move away from rage. It wasn’t hard. I just remembered that this whole thing is a game. A game I was doing for fun. A game that everybody was doing for fun, or should be anyway; the entire edifice of professional non-spectator sports like fencing exists only as the plaything of nation-states. Countries don’t throw billions of dollars and tens of thousands of their young for the most productive years of their lives into playing games because there’s any real social or economic or technological or educational benefit. Not to the degree that would make it worth it. They do so because they can, and its fun, and maybe we won’t fight a war with these guys because we kicked their butts last year in the medal count, and we live in a golden age where excess capital and labour makes these things possible. The Mars colony won’t be fielding a professional sports team any time soon.

That’s what I say to the professionals whenever they ask me whether they should quit. It’s a hard decision for them. They go from being at the top to starting again from the bottom. They go back to school, intern at a company, hit the metrics like every other graduate, except they are a decade older than everyone else. Athletes die two deaths.

So when they ask me whether they should keep fencing, I ask them right back. “Can you still do it,” I’d say, “and is it still fun for you?”

I said much the same to my students, the coltish cadets going into their first competitions each year. It’s like Valhalla, I’d tell them. You are here to fight and to lose. A-grade competitions and the bigger nationals have around 200 competitors. Only one person will win. Even in the lower ranks, your chances of winning are small — unless you deliberately enter weak competitions to win (to which my grandcoach used to scoff: “You want medal? Go to medal shop.”) Even if you win this one, you will probably lose the next. Or the one after that. Because sabre is a game of chance and skill; you need luck to win, but luck won’t always be on your side.

So do as the einherjar do in Valhalla, and be happy. Be happy that you still get to fight. Be happy when you fight. Fight like a madman, revel in the din and danger of combat, secure in your knowledge that none of this matters except to carve out an epic war story. One that you will share, no embellishments spared, with your fellow fighters who have fallen like you, and will eat and drink like you, in the bacchanals  that follow every major competition. Then in the morning, you will do it all over again. And again. For as long as you still want to, and get to, fight.

That was Batman’s secret. That’s how he could switch in and out of berserker mode so fast. He understood the game. And he was happy he still got to play it.

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