this week the Culture Secretary Ben Bradshaw announced a £6m scheme to fund a new network of after-school sports clubs. These won't offer football or netball, you understand, but Olympic oddities including badminton, handball, table tennis and fencing. That's right, fencing, chortled the Daily Mirror on Wednesday, under the inevitable "On Guard" headline (we fencers say en guarde, SVP). And why these particular arcane pastimes? The more minority the category, goes the thinking, the better chance Team GB will have at winning medals.
As a creaky-jointed, dull-witted, ungainly fencer who only took up the sport at the age of 28 I'm not in any danger of bringing home Olympic medals for my country. I joined a new London club in January, one that uses a beautiful wood-panelled fencing hall at the public school St Paul's in Barnes, long after the boys have gone home for the evening. So I already have an after-school fencing club, and a new generation of young, energetic British teenaged girls armed with foils could make life quite exhausting for me (not having much competition in one's chosen sport does have its benefits). Even so, I think Bradshaw's on to something.
Because while vanilla team sports teach kids things like camaraderie and organisation, traits that later in life make you a useful employee and pliant citizen, fencing hones your wits. The rules are complicated yet logical. You develop a quick eye. It also teaches a useful kind of dishonesty. The fake attacks you're trained to make, dancing the tip of your foil as if to attack your opponent, only to loop around his riposte, are called feints; whether carrying them out yourself, or spotting when your opponent is using them, learning to feint sharpens the ability to second-guess.
Fencing also teaches patience and care; let emotions take over and attack without a strategy, and you'll almost certainly end up skewered. The best fencers never lose their temper. Neither can one be a lazy fencer. There's no appreciating it from the sofa or even sidelines, since the blades move too quickly for anyone but an experienced referee, standing at exactly the right angle, to follow. Oh, and there's a science bit, too: while the equipment is undeniably complicated, it does teach a few practical lessons about electrical circuits. Finally, the clincher for me: fencing does have the hands-down best outfit in sport. Sign up your daughters!
The jokes are on us
What a pleasure to discover London is the stage set for David Sedaris's latest short stories. On Saturday I caught the last night of the professionally bemused writer's three-night residency at the Leicester Square Theatre. Despite the show comprising just an ordinary-looking guy reading stories from behind a lectern, the auditorium is packed, sold out, and the queue for signed copies of his books threatens to swamp the foyer. Like Sedaris, most of the audience are American ex-pats; the best jokes, though, are no longer about eccentrics of North Carolina but describe encounters in Tesco, or infuriating experiences on double-decker buses. Sedaris has said in interviews he's reluctant to write about the English, but will he become the first American to persuade us to laugh about ourselves?