Squash and the World of Wodehouse

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“There had been other dark moments in Freddie’s life. Once, back in London, Parker had sent him out into the heart of the West End without his spats and he had not discovered their absence till he was half-way up Bond Street. On another occasion, having taken on a stranger at squash for a quid a game, he had discovered too late that the latter was an ex-public-school champion.”

From “Jill The Reckless” by PG Wodehouse first published in the US in 1920 under the title “The Little Warrior”.
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PG Wodehouse was, and arguably still is, England’s best-loved humorist. Born in 1881, his father was a British judge who spent much of his professional career in Hong Kong, then a colony of the British Empire. In fact, Wodehouse was born, prematurely, whilst his mother was on a visit to England from Hong Kong. When he was three, he was sent back to England and placed in the care of a nanny before being sent to a succession of boarding schools. Between the ages of three and fifteen, he was to spend less than six months with his parents.

wodehouse pelham grenville1905 photo Squash and the World of Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse in 1905

Despite his unusual childhood, Wodehouse was to enjoy enormous popular success as a writer, poet, lyricist and journalist during a career that lasted more than seventy years until his death in 1975. His many writings, including the Jeeves and Wooster stories, continue to be widely read. In many of them, he pokes fun at the English aristocracy, establishment figures (including judges), and American businessmen and philanthropists. All entertainingly embellished with the use of contemporary London clubroom slang.

But it was as a pupil of Dulwich College in South London that the young Wodehouse came into his own as a sportsman, gaining his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and the rugby First XV. Not surprisingly, both sports were to feature heavily in his writings along with golf, tennis and a relatively new game which was emerging from the shadows of an older predecessor, racquets, then played at Dulwich.

The game of squash.

Racquets, Fives and the Rise of Squash

Classed as a Minor Sport, the game of racquets was well established at Dulwich by the time Wodehouse arrived as a pupil in the mid-1890s. The sport had originated as an 18th century pastime in London’s debtors prisons at King’s Bench and Fleet where the prisoners modified the even more ancient wall game of fives by using tennis rackets to speed up the action. They played against the prison wall, sometimes at a corner to add a sidewall to the game. Racquets then became popular outside the prisons and was played in alleyways, usually  behind public houses.

Nowadays, racquets is played in an enclosed court measuring 9.14m by 18.28m) with a ceiling height of at least 9.14m (30 feet). The singles and doubles games are both played on the same court, the walls and floor being constructed from smooth stone or concrete; both walls and floor are generally dark in colour to contrast with the white ball. Players use a 77.5cm wooden racket, known as bat, to hit the hard 38mm diameter white ball which weighs 28 grams.

In Wodehouse’s time there, Dulwich College maintained courts for both racquets and fives, the latter being built in 1894 and destroyed by enemy bombs in the Second World War. The racquet courts at Dulwich are also long gone although about 20 courts still exist in England’s public schools.

So, Wodehouse would have been familiar with both games, even though he didn’t gain school colours in either of them. Squash, on the other hand, was a new, up and coming offshoot of racquets and, at the beginning of Wodehouse’s writing career, was just the kind of trendy activity sought out by the younger set of London’s upper middle-class.

Including certain members of some of the British capital’s gentlemen’s clubs.

Squash and the Drones

Located off Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair district, the fictitious Drones Club was a recurring setting in Wodehouse’s writing, with many of his stories featuring the club or its members. The Drones was meant to typify the kind of private club originally set up by British upper class men in the 18th century to provide an environment in which to carry out gambling, which was still illegal outside members-only establishments.

Wodehouse’s description of the Drones Club’s young members, precisely fitted the contemporary Edwardian idle rich stereotype. However, he was keen to point out in his writings that some of the club’s members did actually hold down prominent jobs. Reginald ‘Pongo’ Twistleton, for example, was described as studying for The Bar whereas G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright (a rival of Bertie Wooster) worked, albeit briefly, as a special constable.

Nevertheless, the Drones with its restaurant, swimming pool and squash court was typical of many of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, even down to its numerous sports competitions, from golf to tennis and squash. Competitions, of course, on which wagers could be made and around which humorous stories could be written.

And one favourite storyline of Wodehouse’s involved young men displaying, or at least attempting to display, their sporting prowess in order to impress young ladies.

Jeeves and the Squash Handicap

Perhaps the Drones Club’s most well-known member was Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

In Wodehouse’s writing, Bertie Wooster is the young, amiable and naive man-of-leisure, whereas  the older, and considerably wiser, Jeeves is his valet and friend. Most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories involve Bertie getting into some sort of scrape with a young lady, an aunt, a representative of the Law or, in some cases, all three. Typically, the omniscient and resourceful Jeeves  comes to the rescue in his inimitably modest, no-nonsense style.

Jeeves and wooster screenshot Squash and the World of Wodehouse

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

In “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit”, Bertie and Jeeves arrive at the country estate of Lady Wickham whence they’ve been invited “for the festivities”. Bertie announces that he is in love with Lady Wickham’s daughter (and accomplished tennis player) Miss Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham.

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“During your stay here, Jeeves,” I said, “you will, no doubt, be thrown a good deal together with Miss Wickham’s maid. On such occasions, pitch it strong.”

“Sir?”

‘You know what I mean. Tell her I’m rather a good chap. Mention my hidden depths. These things get round. Dwell on the fact that I have a kind heart and was runner-up in the Squash Handicap at the Drones this year. A boost is never wasted, Jeeves.”

“Very good, sir.”

From “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1930.
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As revealed Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season”, Bertie is actually a racquets blue, a sporting honour awarded during his time at public school. So the revelation that he’s also a squash player is not really that surprising. He also plays darts and billiards, swims, and plays tennis, all activities well-catered for at The Drones. But which sporting activity should he choose to impress the object of his affection?

A Squash Player at Blandings

The Drones Club also features in Wodehouse’s Blandings novels, written between 1915 and 1975. Blandings Castle is the fictitious seat of Lord Emsworth and home to many of his eccentric family, including his younger brother, Galahad Threepwood. Galahad is, in fact, a member of the Pelican Club, an older, more traditional version of The Drones with it’s more unruly younger membership.

Lord Emsworth is an amiable, absent-minded old chap who loves his home and gardens dearly and is never happier than when pottering about the grounds on a fine sunny day, poking at flower beds or inspecting his champion pig, The Empress of Blandings. For the Threepwood family and their friends, the castle is forever available for indefinite residence, and, in Wodehouse’s writing, is often a setting for love-struck young men and ladies to act out their personal dramas.

In ‘A Pelican at Blandings’, Galahad Threepwood, muses on the appearance of John Halliday, son of the late JD ‘Stiffy’ Halliday who had been a fellow Pelican Club member.

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“There was about him something of the air of a rising young barrister who in his leisure hours goes in a great deal for golf and squash racquets. And that, oddly enough, is what he was. His golf handicap was six, his skill at squash racquets formidable, and he had been a member of The Bar for some five years”

From “A Pelican at Blandings” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1969.
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Halliday later arrives at Blandings in the persona of a psychiatrist ostensibly hired to analyse Lord Emsworth but, in reality, hoping to press his suit with his fiancée Linda Gilpin who is visiting the castle with her uncle, Alaric, Duke of Dunstable. In fact, Galahad has been instrumental in smuggling Halliday, now his god-son, into the castle, having been called on for help after an estrangement between the man and his beloved Linda, caused by Halliday’s zealous devotion to his duty as a lawyer despite his fiancée being a witness in…

…well, you get the idea…

So, does the squash player get the girl? Well, there’s at least one way you can find out.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as ever, to Wikipedia and it’s army of contributors to entries on rackets, PG Wodehouse and beyond. Also, thanks to the Russian Wodehouse Society and The Literature Network for various articles on the great man and his work.