Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Squash And Love (2012) – Short Film

During a game of squash a man and a woman flirt. Their bodies brush, as they exchange a conspiring glance and smile. But will the game end as it began?

Credits

Squash And LoveCast: Carole Labouze (Joueuse) and Carl Laforêt (Jouer)

Cameraman: Bertrand Picault

Written and directed by Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Music by Eddy Benadjer and Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Produced by Les Films d’AntineA, Île-de-France, Paris, France.

 

 

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

N.B. The first part of ‘Desert Places’ was published previously on this blog.

Three weeks after his meeting with Mr. Salter, William entered the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel in Al Mussab. He was followed by a line of uniformed porters carrying his luggage. In one hand he carried a brown leather briefcase and in the other his kit-bag out of which stuck the handle of his squash racquet. It was a matter of personal satisfaction that he had prevailed upon Mr. Salter to arrange for the latter to be delivered to him in time for his first ever flight in an aeroplane, from Croydon Airport to Paris. The Foreign Editor had also been kind enough to assist William in compiling a parting telegram to his family which intimated that he had been sent on secret mission of national importance without disclosing by whom, for how long or where.

In Paris, he had caught the Blue Train to Marseilles where he had boarded the Meonia, a ship of the East Asiatic Line bound for Aden by way of the Canal. The Meonia had seen better days. She been built in an era of steam navigation earlier than that of the other ships of the Line, and had been furnished for service among the high waves and icy winds of the North Atlantic. Late Spring in the Gulf of Suez was not her proper place or season. There was no space on her decks for reclining chairs and her cabins, devoid of fans, were aired only by tiny portholes built to resist the buffeting of an angrier sea.

East Asiatic LineYet William had managed to occupy his time profitably enough, familiarising himself with all things Al Mussabian aided by Mr. Salter’s hastily-compiled dossier. In the dining room, and for the exchange of day to day information, William’s command of French was just adequate. However, it was not strong enough for sustained argument with his fellow passengers and he had fallen into the habit of muttering ‘peut-etre’ with what he hoped passed for Gallic scepticism before turning his attention to the reading matter or meal in front of him.

At luncheon on his second day at sea, William had encountered a fellow Briton.

‘Anyone mind if I park myself here?’ enquired the new-comer, standing by William’s table.

William had looked up from his entrée to see an unprepossessing young man with sandy-coloured hair. His suit of striped flannel had once, as its owner was later to proudly disclose, ‘fitted snugly at the waist.’ Now, in the mid-day heat, it had resolved itself into an alternation of wrinkles and damp, adherent patches, steaming visibly.

‘Not dressed for this climate, I’m afraid,’ remarked the young man taking the seat next to William. ‘Left in a hurry.’

William’s fellow diners had regarded the new-comer with resentment but said nothing. Meanwhile, the object of their resentment had ordered the soup followed by the fish and, to the horror of the steward, a pint of bitter.

‘You’re Boot of The Beast aren’t you?’ said the young man. ‘Thought I might run into you. I’m Corker of Universal News. I was in Fleet Street on Tuesday, got my marching orders and now here I am. Bit of a rush. Made the ship by the skin of my teeth. Slept through breakfast. I’m starving.’

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

‘You can’t keep anything secret in this business, old chap. I expect somebody got wind of something. Tell me honestly, had you ever heard of Al Mussab before you were sent on this story?’

‘No.’

‘Same here. You know, when I first started in journalism, I used to think that foreign correspondents spoke every language under the sun and spent their lives studying international affairs. Take me. On Monday afternoon I was in Clapham breaking the news to a widow that her husband had jumped off Tower Bridge with a champion lady tennis player in a suicide pact. Turns out it was the wrong widow. Her husband arrived back from the City and cut up rough. The following morning the Chief says, “Pack your bags, Corker, you’re off to Al Mussab to cover the war.” “What are they having a war about?” I said. “That’s for you to find out,” he said. But I haven’t yet, have you?’

William lowered his fork which had been about to deliver a prawn to his mouth.

‘What do you mean foreign correspondents? What war?’

‘Well, whatever’s going on in Al Mussab. We’re bound to find out eventually. All the news agencies are sending special correspondents. We sell our reports to the big dailies like, well like your paper. Didn’t you know?’

‘The Foreign Editor didn’t tell me anything about a war. He just told me to write about wildlife, local customs, current events, that sort of thing. And what’s the point of sending me to write about something that everybody else will be writing about?’

Corker looked at William sadly.

‘You know, you’ve got a lot to learn about journalism, old chap. We’re paid to supply news. If someone else has sent the same story before us, our story isn’t news. It’s easy to write and easy to read but it costs a fortune to send by telegram. So we have to keep things short and sweet and make sure we’re first, see?’

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

‘Well, it looks like The Beast’s competitors are giving Al Mussab a lot of coverage but nobody really knows what’s going on. And you should wait in Aden for the Malaya to take you to Al Mussab.’

Grand Royal Hotel, AdenThere had been two nights to wait in Aden for the Malaya. Corker disappeared into the bazaar and emerged with four carpets, three silk shawls, an amber necklace, a cigarette box inlaid with mother of pearl and a wooden carving of a camel. William visited the British Resident in an attempt to find out whether he knew what was happening in Al Mussab but was refused an audience. Fortunately, the Resident’s subordinate, a disshevelled young man in wire-rimmed spectacles, took pity on him and took him for a tour of the compound.

‘Is that a squash court?’ asked William, pointing to a windowless building located beside the Anglican church.

‘It certainly is,’ answered the subordinate. ‘The only one in Aden. Do you play?’

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

Later the same day, William had sportingly lost his match with the subordinate,  and had learned that neither he nor the Resident had the faintest idea about what might be happening in Al Mussab.

Back at The Grand Royal Hotel, he shared the news with Corker.

‘There’s a story right there, old chap. “ADEN RESIDENT REFUSES TO DENY AL MUSSAB UNREST.”’

They both sent telegrams to Fleet Street before returning to their hotel next to the Zoroastrian temple.

Six days later, William advanced towards the reception desk of the Intercontinental Hotel. It was early evening. He had left Corker at the harbour attempting to secure transport suitable for conveying himself, his luggage and his en route purchases to the Liberty Guesthouse, wherever that was.

As he approached the desk, William noticed two young men in local dress sitting at a nearby table, drinking tea. On the floor beside them lay two kit-bags, squash racquet handles protruding from both. Leaning forward, one of the men whispered to his companion, stood and approached William. He smiled and held out his hand.

‘Excuse me,’ he said, politely, ‘But are you Mr. Boot?’

****

In London, it was the night of the Duchess of Stayle’s ball. John Boot was in attendance, confident in his belief that Mrs. Stitch would also be present. For half an hour he hunted her among the columns, arches and salons. The older guests sat in little groups, while the younger generation promenaded between buffet and ballroom in singles and couples. By eleven o’clock, many of the latter had departed for the night-spots of Mayfair and Soho leaving the supper room full of elderly, hearty eaters.

John finally ran Mrs. Stitch to earth in the Duke’s dressing-room eating foie-gras with an ivory shoe-horn. She was accompanied by three elderly admirers who glared at him as he entered.

‘How very peculiar to see you,’ she said. ‘I thought you’d gone off to the war.’

Her three admirers gave their excuses and left, each securing her agreement to meet them at forthcoming operas, receptions and parties.

‘The last thing I heard was from Lord Copper. He telephoned to say you’d left.’

‘I didn’t hear a word from him,’ said John. ‘It’s been very awkward.’

‘The American girl?’

‘Yes. We said good-bye a fortnight ago. I haven’t dared go out or answer the telephone since, just in case.’

‘I wonder what went wrong?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘It’s all very mysterious.’

****

The following afternoon, Mr. Salter chaired a meeting at the offices of The Beast to discuss developments in Al Mussab.

‘Lord Copper has told me to write a first leader on the Al Mussab situation,’ said the First Leader Writer. ‘What’s going on? What do we know about it? What have we got to go on?’

Mr. Salter looked at the Managing Editor who looked back at him. William’s first telegram from Aden had seemed promising, despite the fact that it had failed to confirm that there actually was any crisis in Al Mussab. Since his arrival in Al Mussab, however, his cables had focussed either on the weather (‘HOT’, ‘HOT AND HUMID’ and, most recently, ‘GETTING BETTER.’), the local cuisine, the prevalence of biting insects and the habits of camels.

‘Well,’ began Mr. Salter, ‘I would point out that, although our competitors have been giving the story a lot of coverage, none of them appears to know any more about what’s going on than we do. The Brute’s most popular article has been the Al Mussab quiz on its Competitions Page.’

‘I can’t write a first leader in the form of a quiz,’ complained the First Leader Writer. ‘What are special correspondents for? Can’t you cable this Boot and wake him up?’

Mr. Salter sighed.

‘Yes, well I never felt that Boot was really up to the job. I was surprised when Lord Copper picked him but he’s all we’ve got. It would take three weeks to get another man out there, by which time…

‘…the weather may have got still better,’ said the the First Leader Writer bitterly.

Mr. Salter winced. ‘I suppose we could denounce the vacillation of the government in the strongest terms. Say that they fiddle while Al Mussab burns, that sort of thing.’

The First Leader Writer gave Mr. Salter a disapproving look.

‘There isn’t someone out there who could point him in in the right direction, is there? You know, take him under his wing?’

After the meeting, Mr. Salter spoke to the Managing Editor.

‘Call a few of the agencies, will you, and find out who they’ve sent out there. Let’s see if we can kill two birds with one stone.’

****

William sat in the bar of the Intercontinental sipping a pre-prandial glass of dry sherry. The ceiling fans whirred silently, re-distributing the humid air around the room.

It was his third day in Al Mussab and had, in many ways, been much like the previous two. After breakfast, he had spent the morning in the main town of Al Mussab where he had been conveyed by a shabby yellow taxi driven, rather recklessly, by a shabby, middle-aged man wearing a white keffiyeh. Wandering aimlessly, yet slightly less aimlessly than the previous two days, he had come upon more official buildings all of which appeared to be shut. He had also mingled with the local residents as they browsed the shops, stalls and kiosks lining the traffic-clogged streets. Disappointingly, his exposure to Al Mussab’s fauna had been limited to the ubiquitous presence of biting insects and of ill-humoured camels pulling carts through its sand-blown thoroughfares.

At noon, the hubbub throughout the town had given way to peaceful calm as the escalating heat of the day forced Al Mussab’s inhabitants indoors. William had, with some difficulty, managed to find a taxi to drive him the mile or so back to the hotel. There, he had composed cables for transmission to Mr. Salter, lunched and retired to his room where he could shower and perspire in private.

Today as he was dressing for dinner, he had discovered a telegram pushed underneath the door of his room. He opened it.

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

William had sensed that Mr. Salter wanted him to send him new stories at once. However, he was at a loss as to what ‘CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL’ meant. He decided to ask Corker.

As he was about to finish his sherry, he heard a familiar voice.

‘Boot, old chap. How are you settling in?’

Corker entered his field of vision and sat down opposite him, gesturing towards the bar steward.

‘I’ve got a cable from Mr. Salter at The Beast. I don’t suppose you could translate it, could you? I can’t make head nor tail of it.’

William took the telegram from his inside pocket and handed it to Corker.

‘I can guess exactly what it says,’ said Corker. ‘I’ve just got one from my Chief.’

He handed William a crumpled piece of paper. William uncrumpled it.

‘See? Mine says ‘CRISIS COOPERATE BEAST’ and yours says ‘CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL.’’

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

‘It’s the telegraphic name for Universal News. Don’t you see? Our Chiefs want us to work together on new stories about the crisis. It looks like they want to get ahead of the competition.’

Corker paused to order a pint of bitter from the steward before settling for a dry sherry.

‘I’m not sure there is a crisis,’ said WIlliam. ‘I’ve been to the town every morning since we got here and everything seems normal. None of the ministries are open so I can’t ask anyone in authority.’

‘Really? Maybe the ministries have been shut down because of the crisis. “MINISTRIES CLOSE AS CRISIS DEEPENS.”’

William sighed.

‘I don’t suppose you’ve come up with anything to go on?’

‘Well, as a matter of fact, there’s another agency special staying at the Liberty Guesthouse. Older chap called Hitchcock. Very experienced, apparently. He told me that he reported the entire Abyssinia campaign from a hotel in Cairo. Street demonstrations, riots, hand to hand fighting, a tank battle outside Addis Ababa, eye-witness reports, the lot.’

‘Where did he get the information?’

‘Oh, one of his university friends was a government minister and one of his lovers was the wife of an Italian general. It’s all about contacts, see? Have you met anyone?’

The steward arrived with Corker’s sherry and handed him the check to sign.

‘Nobody, really,’ said William, despondently. ‘Well, I say nobody. I had a very nice chat with a couple of chaps who were in the lobby when I arrived. Hassan and Abdullah. They play squash here once a week. When they found out that I play, they invited me to join them in a round robin. It’s tomorrow evening.’

Corker scribbled on his check, entering William’s room number which he had spotted on the bronze tag of his room key lying on the table between them.

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

‘I couldn’t help over-hearing. Those gentlemen you were talking to. Do you know who they were?’

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

‘That was Crown Prince Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi and his cousin Crown Prince Abdullah, sir.’

William and Corker sat very still.

‘Crown Prince Hassan’s father is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Nahmi.’

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

What is going on in Al Mussab? What will William report back to Mr. Salter?

Influences

Evelyn Waugh‘s book ‘Scoop‘ was published in 1938. It is the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal. Remarkably, it’s a satire revered among successive generations of British hacks, the breed so mercilessly skewered in the book by Waugh, a one-time special correspondent for the Daily Mail.

Haunted In Philadelphia

I’m not a betting man, but I’m guessing that quite a few visitors to the recent 2015 US Open in Philadelphia will have taken time out to have the bejesus scared out of them.

With a schedule of events stretching from October 8th–17th, competitors and spectators alike would have had ample opportunity to visit an impressive range of ghostly local attractions in the run-up to Halloween. These included The Fright Factory, The Bates Motel and the The Valley of Fear – at least two of which offered visitors the opportunity to participate in (and, hopefully, survive) a zombie apocalypse.

As someone who finds it tough sitting through the ‘previously on’ and opening credit sequences of The Walking Dead, I must say that nothing would induce me to enter enclosed spaces populated by creatures wanting to hunt me down, and from which I am likely to emerge only as an exhausted wreck.

No, I take that back.

I just remembered I play squash.

What Happened On Finals Night

Spot the odd one out.

1.

2.

3.

Sources

Thanks to the Visit Philly website and the US Open Squash 2015 website.

Abandoned Squash Courts

During the Second World War, the East Anglia region of England earned the reputation of being the ‘aircraft carrier of Britain’. This was due partly to the ‘friendly invasion’ of over 200,000 men and women of the United States Air Force who were based at 67 airfields in the region from 1942 onwards.

Many of these airfields existed before the arrival of the Americans, as did others in the east of England used by the Royal Air Force to launch fighter aircraft against incoming German bombers and their fighter escorts. The aerial conflict between the RAF and the German Luftwaffe reached its height in the summer and autumn of 1940, a period known as the Battle Of Britain.

The RAF fighter pilots based at airfields in East Anglia and other parts of the country spent much of their time between sorties waiting to be scrambled into action. They slept, listened to music, played cards and generally tried to relax.  Some played football, others cricket and a few even competed in distinctive custom-built facilities erected to meet the special demands of their chosen racquet sport. Squash.

Ghosts of the Past

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

Today, almost all of the airfield squash courts have disappeared as military property has been re-developed or sold off for commercial use. Yet some still survive as decaying relics of a period of conflict and heroism.

One such court still stands on the former site of RAF Swannington in Norfolk. The airfield was home to Nos. 85  and 157 squadrons which arrived in May 1944 and became operational in August 1944.

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

Another survived, until recently, on the former site of RAF Driffield in East  Yorkshire. Opened in July 1936, RAF Driffield became home to a number of bomber squadrons. By 1938, these had been replaced by No.77 and No.102 Squadrons, and were eventually equipped with the twin-engined Armstrong Whitworth Whitley bomber.

A third court, severely damaged by arson, can still be found on the former site of RAF Binbrook in Lincolnshire. RAF Binbrook was opened as a Bomber Command station in June 1940 and was home to No. 12 Squadron RAF which operated between July 1940 and September 1942 before moving to RAF Wickenby, also in Lincolnshire.

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

Further afield, the squash court at RAF Yatesbury in Wiltshire also survives. The site first opened as an aerodrome during World War I and RAF Yatesbury continued operations in the interwar years before again taking on a major role in World War II. From 1936 onwards RAF Yatesbury and nearby RAF Compton Bassett were major Radio and Radar Training Schools.

These squash courts, used by ‘The Few’, will soon be a memory. Yet, in the annals of British history, the name of one of their number will never be forgotten.

The Squash Player with No Legs

Douglas Bader was an RAF flying ace during the Second World War. He was credited with 20 aerial victories, four shared victories, six probables, one shared probable and 11 enemy aircraft damaged. His story is remarkable in that while attempting some aerobatics before the outbreak of the war, he crashed and lost both his legs. Having been on the brink of death, he recovered, retook flight training, passed his check flights and then requested reactivation as a pilot. Although there were no regulations applicable to his situation, he was retired against his will on medical grounds.

Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader

After the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939, however, Bader returned to the RAF and was accepted as a pilot. He scored his first victories over Dunkirk during the Battle of France in 1940.

Astonishingly, despite his limited mobility, Bader remained a keen sportsman, playing doubles tennis and cricket. But it was his exploits on the squash court which continue to inspire.

“The third game I played until recently was squash rackets. This again was a game I knew very well before I lost my legs, and it is of course played in a confined space which helps.

“There is no question of playing competitively. The best thing to do is to play with someone who is good, who will not hit everything out of your reach but will adjust his game to give you plenty to do and himself plenty of exercise.
He will not, for instance, play drop shots when you are at the back of the court. I played this game regularly until the age of 37 and stopped playing because of the non-availability of squash courts and because it was mechanically rough on the legs.”

Bader died in 1982.

Note

The Few were the Allied airmen of the Royal Air Force (RAF) who fought the Battle of Britain in the Second World War. The term comes from Winston Churchill’s phrase “Never, in the field of human conflict, was so much owed by so many to so few.” It also alludes to Shakespeare’s famous speech in his play, Henry V: “We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.”

Sources

Thanks to the BBC website for its article “World War II US airfields in East Anglia project to record history.” Also thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on RAF airfields and Douglas Bader.

Douglas Bader’s description of his squash playing life are taken from the website of The Douglas Bader Foundation.

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part One

At a relatively early age, John Boot had achieved an enviable reputation as a writer. His novels typically sold 15,000 copies, and even his unprofitable non-fiction works on history and travel had succeeded in furthering his literary reputation in all the right intellectual circles. His latest offering was a description of several harrowing months spent among the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, an experience only slightly ameliorated by a short period of recuperation visiting the tango salons of Buenos Aires.

In London, Boot had many influential friends. The most valued was the celebrated Mrs. Algernon Stitch to whom, like all in her circle, he habitually brought his problems for solution. It was for this reason that, on a bright Spring morning, he called at her house near St. James’s Palace en route to a squash match at his club in Pall Mall. On the doorstep he encountered Mrs. Stitch’s husband clutching a crimson royally-emblazoned dispatch case and in the act of stepping into his chauffeured ministerial Daimler.

‘She’s in the morning room,’ said Stitch hurriedly.

Boot found Mrs. Stitch dressed for the street despite it being barely eleven o’clock.

‘I want to get away from London, Julia’ he said despondently.

‘I don’t suppose it’s got anything to do with that American girl, has it?’ enquired Mrs. Stitch.

‘Well, mostly, yes.’

‘Where were you thinking of going?’

‘That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘What about the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘Algy says there’s a potential crisis out there; Al Mussab or somewhere like that. Something to do with oil and foreign powers anyway.’

‘Do you think he’d send me there as a spy?’

‘Not a chance. He’s been sacking spies left, right and centre for weeks. It’s a grossly overcrowded profession, apparently. Why don’t you go as a foreign correspondent?’

‘Could you fix it?’

‘I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve been to Patagonia. I would have thought they’d jump at you. I’ll see what I can do. I’m meeting Lord Copper at a charity luncheon in Mayfair in an hour. I’ll try and bring the subject up.’

****

Lord Copper, proprietor of The Daily Beast, knew of Mrs. Stitch. On more than one occasion he had seen her at a distance but now, as she approached him across the reception room, he wondered what she could possibly want.

‘I suppose she wants your sketch writer to lay off Algy,’ whispered his hostess, Lady Bamford, as she moved tactfully away.

To his surprise, Lord Copper found himself entranced by Mrs. Stitch’s conversation. She expressed concern about the ‘worrying situation’ in Al Mussab, of which Lord Copper was completely unaware even though he gave his opinion that civil war was inevitable. She also remarked how few famous foreign correspondents still survived, and bemoaned the dearth of young journalists who could write stylishly about the true nature of events both on the ground and behind the scenes.

Lord Copper found himself agreeing with Mrs. Stitch whole-heartedly.

‘Who are you sending to cover the story?’ she asked.

‘I am in consultation with my editors on the subject,’ replied Lord Copper. ‘We feel it to be of significant interest to the British public. Of course, we shall have a team of military experts, photographers and reporters covering the war from every angle.’

‘If I were you,’ said Mrs. Stitch, ‘I should send someone like Boot; that’s if you could persuade him to go, of course. He’s a brilliant writer. Did you know that the Prime Minister always keeps a Boot by his bed? Well his work, I mean.’

Lord Copper suddenly became Boot-aware.

‘Boot?’

‘Yes. If you could get him to go he’s very well-known in all the right circles. Very sporty too, I hear. He plays squash.’

****

Half an hour after leaving the luncheon, Mrs. Stitch telephoned Boot at his club. He was lunching with his old friend and long-term squash partner the Honourable Frederick William Charles.

‘I think it’s fixed. I suspect he’ll be in touch in a few days. Don’t take a penny less than fifty pounds a week.’

‘God bless you, Julia. You’ve saved my life.’

Boot felt as though a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He returned to the dining room with a spring in his step and shared the good news with his lunch companion.

‘All very hush-hush, of course, Freddie.’

‘Absolutely, old man. Mum’s the word, eh?’

It was turning out to be a good day after all.

****

That evening, Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Beast, was summoned to dinner at his chief’s country seat. As he drove to Lord Boot’s frightful mansion, he thought sadly of his care-free days editing the Woman’s Page. His ultimate ambition was to take charge of the Competitions Page, yet here he was, languishing as Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter’s side of the dinner conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right, he said ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, he said ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘This Al Mussab place,’ said Lord Copper. ‘It appears that the Foreign Office thinks there’s going to be a civil war there. I propose to feature it. Who were you thinking of sending?’

Mr. Salter hadn’t been thinking of sending anyone to cover a war he hadn’t, until that moment, heard of in a place which he also hadn’t heard of. He improvised.

‘Well, since we lost Richardson to The Brute we’ve tended to borrow one of the Americans from Reuters. Of course, none of them is familiar to the public.’

‘No. I tell you who I want; Boot.’

‘Boot?’

‘Yes, Boot. Brilliant writer. Very well known in all the right circles. Squash player. The Prime Minister keeps his work by his bed. Do you read him?’

‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘Well, get onto him tomorrow. Get him up to see you. Take him out to lunch. Get him at any price. Well, any reasonable price.’

‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’

****

Newsroom 1950The following day, Mr. Salter went to work at noon. He found the Managing Editor reading The Beast’s Sports Page.

‘Who’s Boot?’ asked Mr. Salter at last.

‘I know the name,’ said the Managing Editor.

‘The chief wants to send him to Al Mussab. He’s the Prime Minister’s favourite writer.’

Mr. Salter listlessly turned the pages of the morning edition of The Beast.

‘Well, I’ve got to find him. Boot, Boot. Ah! Boot – here he is. Why didn’t the chief say he was a staff man?’

He perused the newspaper’s bi-weekly column devoted to Nature.

Country Places edited by William Boot. Do you think that’s him?’

‘It must be,’ said the Managing Editor. ‘The PM’s nuts about rural England.’

‘Well, I’d better get him up here for a chat. I’ll send him a telegram. Funny the chief wanting to send him to Arabia. Still, if that’s who he wants.’

****

William Boot extracted his kit-bag from the disorganised heap in the bar of the Old Cromwellians Squash Club. The handle of his racquet (which was sticking out of his bag) banged him in the knee as he did so bringing an un-Boot like exclamation from his lips. He had spent a pleasant evening losing a league match to a local farmer before partaking of a half-pint of excellent bitter brewed locally by another club member. Now, he felt ready to drive along a series of unlit pot-holed country lanes back to Boot Magna Hall, the ancestral seat of the Boot family. He bade the other occupants of the bar goodnight, stepped into the cold night air and made for his modest Austin motor car.

English Manor House 1950As he drove, William pondered the current standings in his squash league (he was bottom), the state of the local countryside (still boggy after an untypically wet March), and the subject of his next Country Places column (a choice between the habits of the water vole and a profile of the new Master of Foxhounds for the South Wiltshire Hunt.) He had inherited his editorial position on the column from the widow of its previous holder, the Rector of Boot Magna, without even having to go through the inconvenience of meeting, or even corresponding with, anyone connected with The Beast. Having the position was of the utmost importance to him and gave him the best possible excuse for remaining in the countryside, observing its wildlife and playing squash.

On his arrival at the Hall, he carefully deposited his kit-bag beside the coat stand avoiding further injury from the handle of his squash racquet. As he did so, his Uncle Theodore emerged from the library holding a large glass of brandy. He seemed agitated.

‘Thought I heard you. A telegram’s arrived for you; from London.”

He gestured towards a small silver tray resting on a chest two feet from the coat stand beside which William was standing. William was surprised. He had never been to London and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there except…

He lifted the telegram from its resting place, opened it and read.

‘Not bad news, is it, old chap?’

William re-read the words with an increasing sense of dread.

REQUEST YOUR IMMEDIATE PRESENCE HERE URGENT LORD COPPERS PERSONAL DESIRE SALTER BEAST.

****

After an early breakfast, William left for the station. Almost all of his family stood on the steps of Boot Magna Hall to see him off. His mother and sister wept. His Aunt Josephine’s motor car waited to carry him to Boot Magna station. Uncle Theodore attempted to accompany him but was detected and stopped. His father remained in his study.

‘Going to London, eh?’ said his grandmother. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll be alive when you get back.’

At the station, he caught the eight twenty-seven slow train, arriving at Paddington at a quarter to eleven. A black cab conveyed him through the living hell of London and deposited him outside The Beast’s imposing offices at 700-850 Fleet Street. Feeling increasingly nervous, William negotiated the revolving doorway, entered the Byzantine vestibule and proceeded to the reception desk. Behind it sat a uniformed and be-medalled concierge. William handed over his heavily-perused telegram and five minutes later found himself in the office of the Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter greeted William cordially.

‘Ah, Boot, how are you? Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. I know your work, of course. I understand that the Prime Minister is an avid reader of your column.’

‘Are you sure?’ asked William.

‘Definitely.’

‘Oh.’

They sat opposite one another in Mr. Salter’s office. Between them, on the desk, lay an atlas, open at the page where Mr. Salter and the Managing Editor had successfully located Al Mussab.

‘How is the countryside?’ asked Mr. Salter, hopefully. ‘Lot of foot and mouth, I expect.’

‘None, I’m pleased to say.’

‘Oh.’

He attempted a second ice-breaker.

‘Plenty of foxes to hunt?’

‘The season’s finished.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr. Salter’s understanding of ‘the countryside’ was confined to what could be seen from the window of a train travelling between Waterloo and Woking. He attempted a non-countryside ice-breaker.

‘I hear you’re a squash man.’

‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Do you play?’

‘Er, no.’

Mr. Salter decided to take the initiative.

‘Well, I’ll get straight to the point. Lord Copper wants you to work for him in Al Mussab.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s there.’

Mr. Salter pointed triumphantly to Al Mussab’s precise location in the atlas.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Definitely,’ affirmed Mr. Salter confidently. ‘The Managing Editor and I found it yesterday.’

‘No, I mean about Lord Copper wanting me.’

‘My dear fellow. With the possible exception of the Prime Minister, you have no more ardent admirer than Lord Copper.’

‘The Prime Minister?’ said William.

‘Definitely,’ replied Mr. Salter, finding his rhythm. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the PM keeps a copy of your work by his bed?’

‘No, I didn’t,’ said William, astonished. ‘But what’s that got to do with Al Mussab?’

Mr. Salter realised that William knew nothing about Al Mussab, let alone anything about a potential civil war there. He decided not to mention it for the time being.

‘Ah, yes, I thought you might want to know more about that,’ he said.

‘Yes, please.’

Mr. Salter began to warm to his task.

‘Lord Copper wants you to do precisely what you’re best at. No more, no less.’
William had begun to look interested.

‘What does he suggest?’

‘He wants you to write about the Arabian countryside,’ announced Mr. Salter.

William raised his eyebrows.

‘The Arabian countryside?’

‘Definitely,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘Wildlife, the desert, local customs, profiles of prominent figures, current events, that sort of thing.’

‘What on earth for?’

Mr. Salter leaned forward over his desk, looked furtively around his office and lowered his voice.

‘Well, to be honest, it’s all a bit hush-hush. The PM wants closer, shall we say, cultural relations with Al Mussab. All part of his international diplomacy initiative, I expect. He’s specifically asked Lord Copper to send you out there as a sort of unofficial cultural attache.’

William’s mouth fell open. Mr. Salter leant forward again for final effect.

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I were you.’

He tapped the side of his nose with a fore-finger.

William nodded weakly, his position as editor of Country Places slipping from his grasp.

Mr. Salter pressed home his case.

‘Naturally, we’re willing to pay a very fair salary. Shall we say, fifty pounds a month?’

‘Fifty pounds a month?’ said William, goggling.

‘I meant a week,’ said Mr. Salter hastily. ‘Plus expenses, of course. That’s at least another twenty a week; and you can resume your existing position at the end of your assignment.’

William sat in stunned silence as Mr. Salter administered his coup de grace.

‘I’m sure you realise that Lord Copper expects his staff to work wherever the best interests of the paper call them. I don’t think it would be fair to expect him to employ anyone of whose loyalty he was in doubt, now would it?’

William nodded. He could see no alternative than to agree to Lord Copper’s request. He would have to consult his family of course; that would take a week or two. Then, he would need to buy new clothes suitable for working in Arabia, whatever they might look like; he would also need to find a temporary editor for his Country Places column, which could take some time; and he would have to arrange and play the final two matches in his squash league. He had much to do.

‘Excellent,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘The chief will be pleased. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience. Let’s sort everything out over lunch, shall we? I’ve sent for your passport so we can sort your visa out this afternoon. Lord Copper wants you to leave tomorrow morning.’

****

Dubai 1950sOn the squash court of the Intercontinental Hotel, Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi’s weekly match with his cousin, Abdullah, had gone to a fifth game. Abdullah had won the fourth with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner, but now Hassan’s superior court coverage was finally beginning to tell. He won the final game by nine points to four and with it the privilege of buying tea and fresh figs for his vanquished opponent.

After showering and changing, the cousins sat on the terrace in the early evening heat. Across the shimmering waters of the Gulf, the sun was setting over the Al Mussab desert

‘Is your family well?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, praise be to Allah. And yours?’

‘Yes, praise be to Allah.’

They both sipped their tea and fingered their prayer beads.

‘Have you heard from your cousin in London?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, I received a letter from him only yesterday,’ answered Abdullah. ‘He said that one of his British friends had played a man at his club who said he was coming to Al Mussab to report on the crisis.’

‘What crisis?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Oh.’

Hassan decided see whether his father mentioned a crisis at the family’s evening meal, which reminded him that he was hungry. He finished his tea and picked up his kit-bag and racquet.

‘Forgive me, cousin, but I have to get home for our evening meal.’

‘Me too.’

In the hotel’s careworn lobby they waited for their chauffeured Bentleys to arrive and convey them to their family residences.

‘Same time next week?’ said Hassan.

‘Definitely,’ said Abdullah.

They sat in contemplation, watching for headlights approaching along the coast road.

‘Do you remember the name of the man who is supposed to be coming to Al Mussab?’ said Hassan.

‘Yes, cousin,’ said Abdullah.

‘I think it was Boot.’

Next time…

Which Boot, or Boots, will arrive in Al Mussab and what will they find? Will Mr. Salter realise his mistake? Will Lord Copper discover that Mr. Salter has made a mistake? What crisis will befall Al Mussab?

Influences

Evelyn Waugh‘s book ‘Scoop‘ was published in 1938. It is the supreme novel of the 20th-century English newspaper world, fast, light, entertaining and lethal. Remarkably, it’s a satire revered among successive generations of British hacks, the breed so mercilessly skewered in the book by Waugh, a one-time special correspondent for the Daily Mail.

I’ve based John Boot’s club in London’s Pall Mall on the Royal Automobile Club whose premises have housed squash courts since the 1930s.

Hot Snow

It has been confirmed that from 2016, every major squash tournament will be held under the blazing desert sun.

The sport’s governing bodies have agreed that all future competitions will be held outdoors in locations such as Qatar, The Sahara, Australia, Death Valley or somewhere equally conducive to working up a good sweat.

A spokesperson said: “Our decision is nothing to do with money and is entirely in line with those of other forward-looking sports governing bodies such as FIFA and the IAAF. All we care about is the infrastructure, the security and the entertainment value that comes from watching competitors collapse from heat stroke.”

“And, of course, the money.”

A bear

A bear

In a separate announcement, the body representing professional squash players has welcomed the news that more than fifty of the world’s top-ranked players are expected to be about to consider re-locating to, or at least continuing to live in, desert countries. A professional squash player spokesperson said: “Squash should never really be played in temperatures of less than 40 degrees Celsius, in case players succumb to frostbite or snow blindness, or get attacked by bears. And it’s really difficult to keep the ball warm.”

A camel

A camel

Far from being unusual, the move to outdoor desert-based squash has a lengthy pedigree. The British Army built outdoor squash courts along India’s North West Frontier as part of a successful strategy to establish a dynasty of Pakistani players who would dominate the world game for half a century. And, up until less than ten years ago, squash was regularly being played on courts constructed next to a desert necropolis near Cairo inhabited largely by tour guides and their camels.

In an interview with leading squash news outlet CNN, rookie college squash player Kyle Stephenson from Rogers Pass, Montana, commented: “I think it’s cool that they’re moving the game en masse to Saudi Arabia or wherever. Maybe the conditions won’t suit everybody but what’s not to like about playing squash outdoors before heading off to the nearest sports bar to pick up girls?”

“It’s so, like, fucking cold in Montana, man. And there’s fucking thousands of bears,” he added.

In a separate development, the International Olympic Committee has also confirmed the award of the 2022 Winter Olympics to Beijing although most events will be held in the Gobi desert.

A spokesperson for the IOC said: “If you think about it, sand is really just hot snow. Except in the Winter.”

Source

Thanks to the Daily Mash article “All Sport Moved To Desert.”

Sufi Squash Stories

NB. Nasrudin (or Nasreddin) was a Sufi scholar and mystic who is believed to have lived and died during the 13th century in what is now Turkey. He appears in thousands of Middle Eastern “teaching stories” which combine subtle humour with learning. The following three stories re-imagine Nasrudin as a cross between a modern day consultant and a mentor; just the person to advise squash governing bodies, elite players and sport development experts alike.

The Mission Statement

Nasrudin was asked to help the leadership team of a squash governing body with their mission statement.

“What is your fundamental purpose?” he asked.

“To create constantly increasing benefits for our sponsors,” they declared.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they will continue to invest in our organisation,” they replied.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they receive more benefits,” they said, becoming slightly annoyed.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin, nonchalantly.

“So that they invest further and receive even more benefits.”

Nasrudin pondered this for a while, thanked them and invited them to visit his home later in the week to do some more work on the mission statement. When they arrived, they found him in his allotment stuffing oats into his pet donkey.

“What are you doing?” they asked. “You’re giving that poor beast too much food! It will be so bloated it won’t be able to go anywhere.”

“But it isn’t meant to go anywhere,” Nasruddin replied. “Its purpose is to produce manure.”

“To what end?” they asked.

“Because without it, I can’t grow enough oats in my small allotment to feed the greedy animal.”

The Perfect Squash Coach

An elite squash player, the winner of many international tournaments, was having great difficulty looking for a new coach. After much searching, the player could find nobody suitable and, in desperation, turned to Nasrudin.

Over lunch, the player discovered that Nasrudin was not married and asked him whether he had ever come close.

“Yes,” he replied. “When I was young, I was very keen to find the perfect wife. I travelled throughout the world looking for her. In France, I met a beautiful dancer who was joyful and carefree but, alas, she had no sense of the spiritual. In Russia, I met a wealthy businesswoman who was both beautiful and wise but, sadly, we couldn’t communicate. Then finally, in India, I found her. She was beautiful, wise and joyful, and her charm captured the hearts of everybody she met. I felt that I had at last found the perfect wife.”

Nasrudin paused and let out a long sigh.

The player hesitated for a moment before asking: “So did you not marry her, Nasrudin?”

“Alas, no,” sighed Nasrudin. “She was waiting for the perfect husband.”

The Expert Consultant

One day an expert sport development consultant and author asked Nasrudin whether he would be willing to become his mentor.

“There is nothing I can teach you,” said Nasrudin.

“Don’t be so modest,” said the consultant. “I’ve been told that you’d be the perfect teacher for somebody like me who’s already an expert in their field.”

Nasruddin shrugged and invited the consultant to afternoon tea. He carefully laid the table, brought out his best china and warmed the teapot. When the tea was made, he began to pour and kept on pouring until the tea was flowing over the edge of the consultant’s cup and all over the table. Eventually the consultant jumped to his feet and said:

“Stop pouring, you fool! Can’t you see that the cup is too full to have any more tea in it?”

“Well,” said Nasrudin, “I can certainly see that I’ll have to empty the cup before I pour any more in, but cups are a lot easier to empty than expert consultants.”

Sources

These stories are based on anecdotes taken from “The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership” by Peter Hawkins is published by O Books.

Notes From A Windy City

DSCF2031On the Red Line

Evening rush hour in downtown Chicago. It’s cold but dry. I’ve just arrived on the California Zephyr from San Francisco. Now I’m riding the metro’s red line northbound from Washington to Sheridan. Underground at first, then breaking the surface and rising above the streets. North / Clyborn, Fullerton, Belmont. I’m strap-hanging, one hand on my bag, counting off the stops. At Addison, there’s a baseball park right next to the station. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. The next stop’s mine and I head off to find the apartment.

In the Cathedral

Cathedral Hall Stained GlassAt the apartment, my next surprise. John, my host, is a big baseball fan; his team is the St.Louis Cardinals. He’s also an improv comedian playing at The Second City club on North Wells.

John knows that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 but doesn’t know much about squash. He also knows where the University Club of Chicago is; the venue of the Windy City Open. It’s downtown on East Monroe; I can walk there from Monroe station on the red line. During the Open, the show court is set up in the stained-glass splendour of the UCC’s Cathedral Hall, the last word in opulence.

First, though, I decide to check out Chicago’s baseball scene.

At Cellular Field

DSCF2004The Cubs aren’t playing at Wrigley during my stay but the White Sox are playing at lunch-time on Friday at U.S.Cellular Field on the South Side. I travel down to the murder capital of Chicago on the red line. It’s sunny and warm. At Sox / 35th station, there’s a holiday atmosphere and a heavy police presence. But no gun-fire or burning cars – at least en route to the ballpark.

The Sox are playing the Cleveland Indians in a match which gradually grabs my attention, partly due to a recent crash course in the rules of baseball given by a friend in San Francisco. The Indians prevail by 3 to 1 and I join the crowds heading back to the red line.

At The Second City

The Second City

The Second City

Another sunny, warm afternoon. I take in a Second City matinee with John in the cast. It’s a ‘best of’ show featuring the most popular sketches from recent productions. John shines. There are improvised sketches too, around subjects suggested by members of the audience. The relative lack of success of the Cubs is one subject, Mayor Daly (Chicago’s notorious former mayor) another, and gang-crime a third. I’m guessing that squash won’t ever be one. I chat with the regulars and discover that The Second City is the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States. Former members include comedians Jim Belushi, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd and Peter Boyle. John seems to be in good company.

In Union Station

A rainy day and I’m coming to the end of my visit. I’m downtown in the bowels of the majestic Union Station looking for the Amtrak lost property department. Three days after I arrived in the city, I’m hoping that some documents I left at the Amtrak office in San Francisco have turned up. As these include my passport and air ticket home, I’m keen to get hold of them. But the signage isn’t the best I’ve ever seen; plenty of instructions about what not to do but none about where to go.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Eventually, I reach a tiny office manned by two older guys in Amtrak uniforms. They listen to my request in the manner of anthropologists observing a member of a primitive tribe. They seem to understand my non-US accent. One of them beckons me to follow him further into the gloom of his subterranean domain. We reach a store room. He rummages around on a shelf and retrieves a cardboard box which is large enough to contain a bedside table. My name is on a label taped to the top of the box. Inside, we find a mountain of paper packaging and, buried beneath them, my documents. I sign a receipt, thank him and head for what I hope is the exit. After I’ve gone a few yards, he calls out.

“Hey! Give my regards to Doctor Who.”

I turn and smile. Outside, for the first time during my visit, it’s windy.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on The Second City, The Chicago Cubs, The California Zephyr, The Chicago White Sox, University Club of Chicago and Chicago Union Station.

Smash!

I’ve always been somebody who’s keen to share the latest ideas about how squash can gain new followers. So here’s one from 1959, courtesy of British Pathé News.

‘Smash’ was an indoor game invented by David Petrie which combined elements of table tennis and squash. Played with table tennis rackets and ball, the game featured the use of a sloped table to which two angled surfaces were fixed. Together, these surfaces functioned as a squash-style front wall with the table surface acting as the floor of the Smash ‘court.’

The Pathé News video shows Petrie demonstrating his new invention by playing Diane Rowe, twice World Doubles table tennis champion (in 1951 and 1954) with her twin sister, Rosalind.

Diane and Rosalind Rowe

Diane and Rosalind Rowe

In the video, Petrie hands over mid-rally to another celebrated British table tennis player of the 1950s, Johnny Leach. Leach won the World Men’s table tennis title in 1949 and 1951, elevating him to the same iconic status as Britain’s other men’s racket sports star, Fred Perry.

Table tennis was massively popular in 1950s and early 1960s Britain, tournaments being regularly televised by the BBC. In contrast, squash was neither widely known about – and certainly never televised – even though English players reached the men’s final of the British Open four times between 1947 and 1953.

Johnny Leach

Johnny Leach

And Smash? Well, with both players hitting against a front wall, there were definitely some similarities with squash. What’s more, the table could certainly be used for solo drills to improve hand-eye co-ordination and foot-work.

On the other hand, it’s not at all clear from the video whether the rules of Smash really did allow players to take over from each other mid-rally, either for a breather or for a smoke.

One for the governing bodies to consider, I suspect.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé for publishing the Pathé News clip. Johnny Leach died in 2014 aged 91; you can read his obituary here. The Rowe twins celebrated their 80th birthday in 2013; you can read a celebration of their achievements on the European Table Tennis Union’s website here.