Tuesday, November 20, 2012

En Garde!

In the past 2 years I have become stronger, fitter and healthier than I have been in the past 20 years … and this has been driven mostly by (and for) my kids.

We are blessed to have strong and active kids, and I take it as my duty to work out with them and enjoy as much sporting activity with them as I can. It's great bonding and great for my own fitness, and it's great fun as both Shaan and Tia love to push harder and harder towards extreme type sports.

Be it off piste skiing, white water rafting, mountain climbing or our forthcoming scuba diving holiday or just running or playing football during the school term, I love to play with them and help train them in whatever capacity I can. Tia has most recently joined the school football team, and I thoroughly enjoy our weekend and evening training sessions. We work on ball control, passing, dribbling, shooting and also how to deal with the more physical side of the game by practicing some "argy bargy". Training her in football is certainly easier for me than training her in gymnastics … not my forte, so this is proving to be a great sharing experience.

Shaan, the young man in our household, plays his football at "house level" in school and has taken a liking (and a shining to) fencing. He has only been at it for 6 months, but is excelling in his academy, and while I have found it a pleasure to watch him, witnessing this riveting sport at the Olympics in summer gave me the bug too. Since we got back to Dubai in September, I have taken a few private lessons myself to get to grips with the basics of the sport. I have learned the footwork and the basic moves … it has proven to be something of a help in guiding Shaan in some of his tournaments as an onlooker, but things changed for me dramatically last week as I moved from the security and isolation of my private lessons to my first group session. I was put up against the other adult beginner and intermediate fencers in the academy and this was to be my first real bout.

Shaan in action - showing how the game should be played!

Shaan was good enough to come along and watch, and this time be my trainer and supporter. I shared with him my fear as we approached the hall … that I might lose both battles 0-5 and totally embarrass myself. Had my trainer prepared me well enough? Did the luxury of private lessons keep me too much in isolation? We would soon find out. Shaan was a good sport and a good motivator, so after the warm up, I masked up, wired myself to the machines and stepped up for a fight. The feeling at that point was surreal. Looking through the mesh mask, it was like I was watching a movie filmed in the first person. I approached the starting marks and stood face to face against an opponent with a sword ready to stab me. The adrenaline began to rush … waiting for the words to start us… I pondered, who will make the first move, and if my opponent comes in fast against me, will I react quick enough?

Warming up!

I crouched down as I heard "en grade" and then listened for the all important "allez" command which marks the commencment of battle. As I heard it, I held my ground bracing myself for the fast paced attack of my opponent, which didn't happen! I remember my coach telling me the importance of these opening seconds. What each player does and how they respond gives away a whole lot of information about the strategic approach needed for the match. So as I found myself holding ground and no fast lunge forthcoming at me, I pressed forward myself. I tested the water and saw my adversary to be experienced and very calm. He kept his distance and I tried again a couple of times, wanting to show that I was confident ... but then I saw the move towards me and scuttled backwards. Not very elegant, and not keeping my footwork as I had been trained to do, but to my relief, I had avoided a first hit. It must have been a total of 15-20 seconds by now, but it felt like minutes. I was sweating but feeling a fantastic high from this encounter. My confidence grew as I engaged in the fight. With each of my moves forward I was able to avoid taking a hit, until I was finally outplayed. I had lost my first point and I was shell shocked. I can only think that I panicked as I was then very quickly down 3-0. I realised I was being badly beaten, although, thankfully, not being embarrassed, but I was learning a lot very quickly. I gathered myself and tried to analyse where I was keeping myself open. I approached the next touche with more caution and looked for a possible opening myself. As I stood firm to feel out my opponent, I saw the chance to strike … I did and scored hit. It was only a point, but I felt like celebrating as if I had scored a goal in a Wembley cup final. I was exhilarated. Not only because, in the worst case, I was not going to lose 5-0, but because I saw there was hope. If I could get this one point, then why not another, and why not five? If I could avoid being hit, then why not for 5 more touches also?

Game on! I was ready. My confidence was growing and I structured my moves carefully. My retreats remained clumsy, but they kept me safe and I could work on those during my next training session, but now I needed to focus on the battle at hand. I achieved another hit and then another. In a flash, I had made it 3-3 … dare I consider a victory? Some of the crowd was getting behind me, and most importantly my son and my coach. Perhaps it was with the hope of victory that I got cocky and over confident. I let my guard down and found myself trailing 3-4. Match point to my opponent. As I hear "en garde" again, I force my focus. I was not going to lose another careless point. I kept my blade point up and tried a few moves. As long as I show some forward momentum, I should keep my opponent at bay. It was a tense battle that went on a while and when I saw the opportunity to strike, I did. 4-4. I really had to contain my excitement now and remain focused on the final deciding point. My original fear of being totally outclassed had long gone. I may not have shown that I am the most elegant fighter and I may have had my fair share of luck in this, my first real encounter, but I was holding my own and was on the verge of a massive confidence boosting victory, "Allez" the referee says for the last time. As the sweat built on my forehead, my legs were tiring and my arm was getting heavy, but the thrill of this fight was pushing me to ignore all of that. Step forwards, step backwards, lunges and parries … the feeling was absolutely riveting. My usual conservative and defensive nature was now out of the window. I could smell victory and wanted to go in for the kill, and that’s when I saw the opening. My opponents guard was up and in training I had been prepared to spot this weakness. I went for the lunge at his wrist and get a direct hit. As I heard the buzzer sound I could not believe I had done it. I was a fencer. I was hooked. This was definitely a new sport for me and I hope I made my son proud.

VICTORIOUS (and relieved)!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

A tough act to follow ...

Apart from being one of the best, Casino Royale was certainly the most expensive movie I ever saw … I ended up buying an Aston Martin as soon as I walked out.

I lived with that glorious piece of machinery for 5 years, and I finally said goodbye to it earlier this year with great sadness. It served me well, was thrilling to drive (and just to look at), but apart from the horrendous service bills, my kids had outgrown the back seats and practicality had to overrule emotion in my life.

So I was considering a "sensible" replacement. A Mercedes, BMW or Audi. All fine elegant cars. I would be happy with any, but none are exactly what you might call inspiring, exciting or sexy and all go well with a balding head and a pot belly (both of which I am staving off with great effort)!

Looking for an alternative that would be more interesting and "different" I considered a Cadillac Escalade 4x4 (too "gangsta"), the Porsche Panamera (too chunky) and the Maserati Quattroporte (had a "clunky" gear shift") and then stumbled across the Jaguar XJ L. A stunning looking car with 4 door sensibility.

There are a couple of versions available and according to Jeremy Clarkson, the 3 litre diesel is a great option, but living in Dubai, where petrol is cheaper than water, the option of the 5 litre V8 "Portfolio" was very appealing. 385 BHP and 0-60 in 4.5 seconds and stunning comfort and luxury to boot, this became a no brainer as soon as I set my eyes on it.

I selected mine in "Caviar" (that’s a deep burgundy colour for some reason). The "Portfolio" version is a "full option" car with upgraded rims. It has everything you can think of and it is sublime to drive. In its normal mode, it is smooth and comfortable, but remains short of being "sensible" because of the light growl you can constantly hear out of the exhaust, and then there is "Dynamic Mode". When engaged, the dials on the dashboard glow red. The car hunkers down, the suspension and the steering stiffen up. Combine that with engaging the Sport mode on the gearbox and the ratios get more aggressive and the growl from the exhaust gets more ominous.

The straight line speed of this vehicle is massively impressive as it has loads of torque on tap, especially in 3rd gear, but it lacks the sure-footedness of an all out sports car around corners. Perhaps not a bad thing as this encourages more sedate driving.

This "limousine" suddenly feels like a sports car and goes like the clappers when you put your foot down. The acceleration is incredible, but comes on so smoothly … less violent than out and out sports car, but with the massive engine it keeps on going with plenty of torque available even when getting to and exceeding (apparently) the legal speed limit.

The detail inside the car is magnificent. The touch screen computer is more logical than the Mercedes and BMW equivalents and the machined aluminium gear knob is beautiful … as is the way it raises and lowers with the ignition. The bluetooth connectivity is as per standard in most new luxury cars and there are USB connectors for iPods and other media drives which project themselves exquisitely clearly through the plethora of high end speakers dotted all over the cabin.

I've had the car a couple of weeks now and have been totally chuffed with my decision. This car is a luxury sedan that is great to self drive or be driven in. It is eminently sensible, but has enough "bad boy" in it for when the urge takes you.

I do miss the sheer coolness of my DB9 (for example, announcing proudly at the valet parking stands that "mine's the Aston"), but with the recent release of Skyfall, I was thrilled to notice what new car the lead character drove (even if it was only briefly and did in fact  belong to "M") ... nice choice Mr. Bond!