Reading The Fencing Master reminded me of what I miss about doing martial arts. I studied TaeKwon-Do for several years, and also had a brief bash (if that's the right word) at fencing. I must be the world's least sporty person, but I really enjoyed both — perhaps because there was as much emphasis on just doing and enjoying them as on winning a competition or match.
The Fencing Master is full of wonderful descriptions of the experience of fencing, and of the curious mixture of analytical planning and instinct it requires. On the one hand, you need to react and act instinctively towards your opponent because the action is so fast that if you wait for your brain to catch up, you will already be beaten. On the other, there's a lot of strategy involved. You need to feel out your opponents weak points (acute observational skills are useful here), and then exploit them by employing a feint which will make them react in a certain way and allow you to make a counter-attack.
I wasn't a good fencer at all (much too slow), but I did have a certain amount of instinctive ability. When I had my first lesson, the instructor was going through some basic blocking moves, and was surprised when — without knowing what I was doing — I blocked a thrust with a circular parry. I took up fencing after I'd studied TaeKwon-Do, so it's possible that I was just unconsciously translating blocks involving forearms into blocks involving a foil, and the principle is very similar; you want to deflect any attacks towards your torso or head.
Fencing is a curiously lop-sided affair. All the action is in your right arm and leg (if you're right handed), and I began to feel as if my right side would become grotesquely over-developed, while my left side withered away. I imagined that I might look like a living 'before and after' photograph, with a visible line running longitudinally down my body.
TaeKwon-Do was much more balanced, and a great whole body workout, involving punches and kicks. It's a semi-contact sport, with points in competition being scored for light contact with the opponent. It's quite difficult to learn how to deliver a kick or punch at full power and then snap it back at the last minute so that you barely make contact. However, this makes for much more fluid sparring, because you don't have to stop the bout every time someone scores a hit, nor do you have to wear big protective pads.
Again, I was never going to be a TaeKwon-Do superstar, but I had fun and learnt some fun tricks. The most interesting one was that if you are fighting someone — and let's hope that you are never in this position for real — you must watch the other person's eyes, not their limbs. The problem is that if you are watching the right hand, the left leg is probably just about to clout you round the head. If you look in their eyes, your peripheral vision can do its proper job and detect peripheral motion. As a bonus, most people betray their intentions in their eyes, and so you get prior warning of an attack. The surprising part is that it's very hard to do. As the intensity of the bout increases, your eyes stray to your opponent's limbs; something that my instructor used to pick up by tapping me on the cheek (the one on my face, if you're wondering) with his instep every time he saw me drifting. When you get it right, it's an amazing feeling. It feels as if you are letting a bit of your animal instincts show while playing a challenging game of chess, and it really gets rid of the kind of deadened, muffled feeling we sometimes end up feeling with our safe, sedentary and protected lives.