Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

In the first part of “Squash and Human Nature” we looked at three of the six characteristics that encapsulate what it is to be human: playfulness, scientific thinking and rule-making. Those characteristics, along with the three described in this article, have been identified by anthropologists as the ones that clearly set us apart from other species. Together, they offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of our relationships with each other and our shared passion for squash.

Women in Competition

It’s that passion which drives us in ways that, sometimes, we’re barely conscious of as we focus on the playing aspects of squash. But there are other aspects of our relationship with squash, and those who share our passion for it, which also have their origins in human evolution and pre-date such relatively recent developments as the acquisition of language. In this context, squash is not just a game, it’s a shared expression of human nature.

Participation in the game of squash is, of course, subject to the adherence of its players to a universal codified set of rules. But participation in the story of squash comes in many forms, and is influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political and economic factors. What’s more, it’s not confined to those who play the game.

Whatever your view, one thing is clear. Woven into the fabric of squash are behaviours  which reflect human characteristics drawing on all of those senses we share with other mammals; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing.

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

Where other animals just eat, we make a meal of things. And the main difference is down to one of humanity’s greatest inventions: cooking. “People of every culture cook at least some of their food,” says Richard Wrangham of  Harvard University. He’s made a very persuasive case that cooked food, which delivers more calories with much less chewing than raw food, was the key innovation that enabled our ancestors to evolve big energy-hungry brains and become the smart, social creatures we are today. In fact, humans (well most of us anyway) spend less than one hour a day chewing, all of which leaves plenty of free non-feeding time for other cultural activities, squash included.

Culinary culture includes the phenomenon of ritualised, familial, food-sharing, otherwise known as mealtimes. In every human society, people naturally gather in family groups at more or less regular times of day to eat what has been cooked. And, wherever you go, these everyday meals tend to be cooked by women. We don’t really know why, but it could originally have been in exchange for men’s protection, and because childcare kept women closer to home.

Individual participation in playing squash imposes its own feeding patterns. Eating and drinking before, during and after matches is typically influenced by rules of thumb which vary from culture to culture. Muslim players, for example, will fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan; and their family mealtimes will also be subject to change.

Then there’s feasting. From sharing the spoils of a good hunt to celebrating a special occasion, every society does it. Here’s where you’re more likely to find men cooking. We even see this in our own gardens and backyards, where they do most of the barbecuing.

There are, of course, some similarities between feasting and the post-match meals sometimes  shared by participants in team squash or social squash events. But perhaps it’s in meals celebrating significant anniversaries or the formation of new squash clubs that the true parallel lies. “In all cultures,” says anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “food is used to form social bonds.” Mealtimes are the centre-piece of family life, feasting bonds friends, colleagues and communities, and we also use food to consolidate more intimate relationships, such as  sharing a fancy meal with someone special, whether they love squash or not!

So food draws us together, but also sets us apart. Every culture has its own food traditions and taboos, which help define the boundaries between “us” and “them. They have distinctive cuisines too. “Ethnic differences are marked by what kind of food you eat,” says Weissner. “You are what you eat.”

All very tasty! But, just to heighten the sensual aspect of our relationship with other squash lovers, let’s focus on the intimate, shall we?

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

Nothing reveals an animal’s nature quite as well as its sexual practices, and humans have some rather strange ones. Unlike other animals, women are continually sexually receptive and have concealed their ovulation; in other words, there is no external sign that they are in a position to conceive. Also, we’re the only monogamous primate to live in large mixed-sex groups. But nothing is quite as strange as our predilection for clandestine copulation. Why, across all human cultures, do we have sex in private? And what’s the connection to squash?

A hint comes from Clive Wynne of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Sneaky mating occurs in species where there is a lot of inter-male competition and males control sex by controlling females,” he says. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia agrees: “I think the origin of privacy [in humans] has to do with competition.” And not only between males. Women have been competing with men and with each other throughout human evolution. As a result, human sexual politics has become a lot more complicated, influenced not only by the need to survive and reproduce, but also by the emergence of culture.

For a start, women won some control from men by evolving concealed ovulation and continual sexual receptivity to confuse paternity. Then our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes; males and females started sharing parental care. And monogamy was born. “Infidelity among couples living in large groups became more risky than ever, with infanticide by males the ultimate price,” says Robin Dunbar of   the University of Oxford. So there was a need to strengthen relationships. “We have this odd thing called love,” he adds, suggesting that sexual privacy may also have emerged as a way of increasing intimacy.

David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin thinks that sexual privacy could actually be a benefit. “Humans are socially monogamous, not sexually monogamous,” he says. Infidelity is widespread in all traditional cultures and private sex allows it to occur without the loss of reputation.

So, the uniquely human characteristic of sexual privacy really has its origins in a combination  of three human behaviour patterns which will be familiar to all squash lovers: competition, culture and politics.

Which leaves us with a final characteristic which, some people say, actually makes the world go ‘round.

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

Well, I’ve always said that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OK, it wasn’t me, it was Oscar Wilde. But I agree with him anyway.

One of the defining characteristics of humans was once thought to be language, although nowadays we’re  more likely to regard it as part of a continuum of animal communication. Nevertheless, nobody doubts that it’s shaped our nature profoundly. Language is central to many human ‘universals’ ranging from education, folklore and prophesy to medicine, trade and insults. And, arguably, our way with words has reached its apogee in gossip.

A compulsion to talk about other people is only human. And it’s not nearly as frivolous as you’d think. Some anthropologists believe we gossip to manipulate the behaviour of others, which may help explain why gossip often takes place within earshot of the person being gossiped about. Says Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “A group of girls will gossip within earshot of the girl they gossip about, intending for it to be heard.”

But gossip doesn’t just serve to name and shame. When anthropologist Robin Dunbar eavesdropped on people gossiping, he found that barbed comments were relatively rare compared with innocuous ones. He believes that gossip is the human equivalent of grooming in primates. Our social relationships are too numerous to secure with time-consuming grooming, so we chat instead. “Gossip evolved for oiling the wheels of social interaction,” he says. Even the most powerful movers and shakers depend on it, though they may call it something else. After all, says Dunbar, most business could easily be carried out by phone or email, but people still prefer to meet face-to-face so that they can bond over casual conversation or a meal.

Wiessner observes that a juicy titbit of gossip is actually a gift and, co-incidentally, gift-giving is another human universal. She also goes so far as to assert that a society without gossip would simply dissolve. “People wouldn’t have any common interest to stay together.” In squash communities, as in other social groups, gossip is part of the cultural fabric which holds people together.

So it’s the human characteristics of play, scientific thinking, rule-making, sensual pleasure in  feeding, sexual privacy and gossip that uniquely encapsulate our nature and shape human culture. Underneath them all lie competition and the politics of survival.

In fact, whether we’re conscious of it or not, squash isn’t just a shared expression of human nature.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

Squash and the Art of Espionage

If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6,  supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.

MI6 Headquarters in London

Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.

And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.

Including those relating to the game of squash.

Squash and Special Intelligence

If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.

Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and  ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.

John Le Carre

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5),  squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.

As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.

Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.

In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…

“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”

A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match

While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.

But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…

A Perfect Spy

Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical  espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…

“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”

In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…

“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”

Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…

“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”

But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.

Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.