Once you pick up a sword, it never leaves you. Fencing is said to get into the blood – only returning when you’ve a heavy weapon in your hand and can stare down your opponent through a thick mask and a curtain of sweat.
While Olympic fencing is related to Renaissance-era duelling, it only really took off in these parts after WWII. Hungarians were fleeing the horrors of Soviet occupation and immigrating to our shores in their thousands, and brought with them to Melbourne not only delicious smallgoods and cheeses but also a talent for the blade the likes of which had not yet been seen in this country.
Unlike here it’s considered a proper sport in Hungary – kids do footwork drills for about 10 years before they’re even allowed to pick up a weapon, by which time, of course, they’re all geniuses. (Meanwhile, back in Australia, Warnie is considered the height of sporting sophistication, and at every Olympics we’re forced to watch endless repeats of bogans swimming laps at the expense of more intelligent, exciting sports like fencing and kendo.)
So around the same time the Hungarians started their training for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, my dad and uncle Gaz started fencing at the YMCA Excalibur Club in Exhibition St. Their teacher was the fearsome Miss Letts, whom I thought the old man unfairly called ‘a bit of an old fascist’ until I heard that to get her students in the mood she’d draw the curtains and screen Triumph of the Will and Olympia (presumably to give them a thirst for fighting the Red Menace).
At that time, comps and classes were also held in the ballroom above Flinders Street Station. This was once part of the Victorian Railway Institute, where Hungarian fencers including Andy Szakall, Sandor Szoke and Leslie Fadgyas worked and planned to bring fencing to a wider community (more details here). This formed the basis of the VRI club, which still runs today.
My own foray into swordfighting came when I hit my gawky glory around 13 (the same age as the old man when he first picked up the sword). For some reason my dad roped in the Gaz and I, and off we all went to the Salla Bella Vista Club which then ran in an old school hall in Blackburn. Our teacher was the dapper and disciplined John Fethers, who despite his 60+ years was capable of beating everyone in the club, young or old. With his waved hair neatly curled under like Errol Flynn, pencil moustache and ancient jacket he was as close to a movie fencing master as you could ever find in Melbourne’s suburban heartland.
The Gaz naturally had a huge man crush on him, and they used to go on dates to the Astor where over boysenberry choctops they’d take in a matinee of The Three Musketeers and Captain Blood, or The Adventures of Robin Hood and The Fencing Master. Fethers had an even more considerable collection of crossed swords, lobby cards and obscure third-grip-on-Lawrence of Arabia-style knowledge than the Gaz, and would keep him enthralled for hours with tales like ‘the time I almost met Basil Rathbone’ and ‘swordsmen of Toledo’.
At Fethers’ modest house in Caulfield we gathered around a giant oak table surrounded by massive candlesticks and weaponry, and drank lemonade from heavy goblets to discuss the future of the club. Sadly, Salla Bella Vista closed down some time in the early-‘90s, and that was that for Boo and fencing. Being the usual self-centred teenager (whose dad used to drive her hither and yon and pay for membership and one-on-one lessons), I had no idea what a legendary master Fethers was. What care I that he had competed in the Olympics and countless championships, and was a Maitre d’Armes? Drinking, making merry, and being an idiot beckoned.
Twenty-two years later, fencing and I have unfinished business.
While fencing with Fethers was like being on the set of Scaramouche, my new instructor Gerry is fabulous but in a completely different way. All positions are in English (not French), and we need to ‘work on our muscle memory’ and are told to ‘engage the core’, a part of the body that didn’t exist a few decades ago. He’s also super-encouraging and cheerful, and peppers his lessons with interesting facts and figures to make it fun for us.
I’ve got no idea what I’m doing at the moment, and my best moves amount to viciously defending the blade with wild cries and clangs. But I’ve had some damn good bouts already, and to my surprise some of the old fire is coming back.
John Fethers never married, and he had no kids. It’s a lovely thought that down the years he’s passed on something in his many drills, parries and ripostes.