Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.

It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.

darcy and elizabeth 295x300 Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself  travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.

During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.

On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also  provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.

His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his  arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M——  in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.

On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.

On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business,  Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his  steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.

Racquets Hall Eglinton Castle Ayrshire Scotland Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an  hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.

Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.

Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.

The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.

At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.

As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the  dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent  embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might  end their visit to Pemberley.

No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master  was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.

Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.

Notes

Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.

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 competition squash 300x229 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

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.

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

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?

Sarah FG Naked Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA 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.

Gossip men plus woman 5 small 300x199 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA 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 New HQ 004 Squash and the Art of Espionage

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 Squash and the Art of Espionage

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 Squash and the Art of Espionage

'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.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display  idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.

A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?

Evolution of squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

The Evolution of Squash

Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.

The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.

Being Playful – Squash Skills

Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.

Fun Squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”

“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw  co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.

Kid rowan on court 150x150 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesBekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a  vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically  and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.

But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.

Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge

From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of  science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.

“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?

Science Squash Ng Dominick2 199x300 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesOne likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”

Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”

Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.

But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”

So maybe the science of squash, or the science in squash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!

But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.

Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour

The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.

For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).

After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules about when one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.

Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.

Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”

So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection  and footwear.  Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.

And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.

I hope you’re keeping score…

Coming Next…

In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…

Acknowledgements

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

My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

The recent appearance of New Zealand-born screen actor Russell Crowe in the British tabloid headlines wasn’t that much of a surprise. Over the last fifteen years or so, Crowe has been a regular visitor to the UK not least to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator and Robin Hood. Shooting on both of those films, and on the forthcoming Les Miserables, took place at Pinewood Film Studios west of London and Crowe, you’d imagine, would be more than familiar with the area.

So much so that he should find it relatively easy to locate somewhere to wind down after a hard day’s filming. And, for the famously sports-loving Crowe, where better to relax than at one of the area’s best appointed leisure centres.

Except that staff at Crowe’s chosen venue ‘rudely’ refused him entry as he wasn’t a member. Feeling somewhat miffed, Crowe resorted to Twitter,  accusing the venue of having “hoity toity staff with chav accents.” Again, given Crowe’s reputation for being somewhat ‘difficult’, his attack – delivered via cyberspace – wasn’t particularly surprising either. What was surprising was that he’d travelled to the leisure centre on a combative mission.

Russell Crowe wanted to play squash.

Russell and Sport

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Russell Crowe at Eight

Where Crowe first started to play squash isn’t a matter of public record. As a child, he played cricket and his cousins Martin and Jeff Crowe are both former captains of New Zealand’s ‘Black Caps’ Test side. In 2008, Crowe even captained an ‘Australian’ Team containing former Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh against an English side in a charity ‘Hollywood Ashes’ Cricket Match’.

Since childhood, Crowe has also been a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and, in 2006, he and Australian businessman Peter Holmes á Court  bought  75% of the club, leaving 25% ownership with the members. In the US, he supports the University of Michigan Wolverines American football team and, in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. Back in the UK, he follows English football teams Bristol City and Leeds United, both located well outside the London area.

But it’s in the relatively affluent English Home Counties that Crowe’s recent sports-related combat mission took place. And, based on his experience of filming and living in the area, you’d have thought  he’d be well aware of the options available to him to book a squash court.

Russell On Set

The filming of Russell Crowe’s latest film, Les Miserables, started in March 2012 in France and in a number of English locations including Winchester Cathedral Close, the naval base at Portsmouth, Oxford and Pinewood Film Studios.

Pinewood Studios were also used in 1999 to film Gladiator, the production for which Crowe received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The opening battle scenes for the film, set in the thickly-wooded forests of Germania, were shot in three weeks in Bourne Woods near Farnham in Surrey. When director Ridley Scott learned that the UK Forestry Commission were planning to cut down the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scenes to be shot there so that he could burn it down as part of the filming and save them the bother.

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Russell Crowe as Maximus in 'Gladiator'

Ten years after the shoot, Scott and Crowe were back in a now rather less thickly-wooded  Bourne Woods filming scenes for Robin Hood. Following that film’s release, Crowe stormed out of a BBC radio interview at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel in London after it was suggested that his accent in the film sounded Irish.

But it wasn’t the first time in his life that Crowe had been involved in an altercation that would subsequently hit the headlines.

Russell On Court

In 1999, Crowe was involved in a ‘scuffle’ in a bar in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales in Australia which was caught on security video. Two men, including a Coffs Harbour nightclub owner, subsequently conspired to extort $200,000 from Crowe to keep the video secret. The matter went to court.

Three months earlier, Crowe was alleged to have attacked several people in a drunken rage outside a Coffs Harbour nightclub, one of whom suffered a bite to his neck and a broken thumb. The matter did not go to court.

In 2002, Crowe was alleged to have been involved in a ‘brawl’ with a businessman inside a trendy Japanese restaurant in London. The fight was broken up by a fellow actor and did not go to court.

In 2005, Crowe was arrested and charged with second-degree assault by New York City police after throwing a telephone at hotel employee who had refused to help him place a call when the system didn’t work from his room. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone). The employee, a concierge, was treated for a ‘facial laceration’.

All of which would seem to indicate that Russell has good eye-hand co-ordination occasionally, but not always, linked to an appearance in a court.

Although not necessarily a squash court.

Russell in Command

To end on a positive note, Crowe’s squash mission did come to a successful conclusion  when he gained entry to a nearby leisure centre. “A friendly spot, where regular folks hang” he later commented.

All’s well that ends well, you might say. And nobody hurt.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any images of Crowe actually playing squash. However, here he is dealing impressively with a large number of black balls flying towards him at enormous speed.

And he doesn’t even have his squash racket with him.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Daily Mirror for it’s article documenting Russell Crowe’s squash altercation. Also thanks to all at Maximum Crowe, a website dedicated to chronicling Russell’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour.

Plaudits as always to Wikipedia and to Gawker for its article “I Will Kill You with My Bare Hands and Other Fun Tales of Russell Crowe.’

Enjoy!

Squash in Tamil Nadu: Snookered in Ooty

In January, 20-year old Dipika Pallikal became the first Indian ever to contest the final of a World Squash Federation ‘silver event’ when she faced the Netherlands’ Natalie Grinham in the Tournament of Champions in New York.

Less than a month later, in her home city of Chennai, Pallikal was again in finals action in the inaugural WSF Under-21 World Cup. This time, the event was held before an ecstatic crowd at the Express Avenue Mall, the largest shopping complex in Southern India. Throughout the 3-match final, a significant percentage of the estimated 75,000 ‘walk through’ crowd were either surrounding the all-glass show-court or hanging over the balconies of the three floors overlooking it.

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Squash Court in the Express Avenue Mall, Chennai

A week after the final, I arrived in the Tamil Nadu capital at the start of a journey across the subcontinent. I wasn’t exactly on the lookout for signs of squash, you understand, but sometimes you do tend to stumble across them.

Even if you’re just passing through.

Heat and Dust

With average day-time temperatures in the mid to high 30s Centigrade, Chennai in February isn’t exactly the ideal place to wander around seeing the sights. Except for Mad Dogs and  Englishmen that is. Even so, a fair amount of my time in the city was spent in the air-conditioned confines of my hotel and, on one memorable occasion, in a vegetarian restaurant overlooking a chaotic petrol station forecourt.

Despite India’s recent successes, I found absolutely no coverage of squash in the media, either in the newspapers or on any of Tamil Nadu’s numerous TV channels. Instead, there was wall-to-wall, non-stop coverage of India’s most popular sport, cricket, the main topic of interest being India’s performance in a tri-series ODI tournament being played in Australia. “Will Sachin (Tendulkar) get his 100th international century?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Three weeks later, when I was still travelling, India had been dumped out of the tournament, and he still hadn’t.

After leaving Chennai, I caught the India Railways sleeper to Vilapuram before heading for the former French colony of Pondicherry. Next stop was Madurai followed by Rameshwaram and then Thanjavur. The city was hotter, and dustier, than anywhere I’d visited so far but did provide me with the first sign of squash since leaving Chennai. In the window of the Deepu Sports shop, I spotted a squash racket.

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Deepu Sports Shop, Thanjavur

Inside the shop, I asked one of the assistants whether I could play squash in the area. “Certainly!” she replied enthusiastically. After a lengthy pause, I cracked and asked where. “Chennai!” she beamed triumphantly. I decided not to point out that a 200 mile round trip to Chennai for a squash match might not be something that a Thanjavur-based squash player would wish to undertake. Even for a vital league match.

Back at the hotel, I switched on the TV to be rewarded with recorded highlights from the semi-finals of the Under-21 Squash World Cup. I started to feel that I was getting warmer. Figuratively speaking.

Into the Hills

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Squash on Indian TV

To escape the heat of the plain, I did what European colonialists in India used to do in summer-time. I headed for the hills. Travelling from Thanjavur via  Erode to Mallapuram, I caught the Nilgiri Hill Railway via Wellington to Ootacamund, known to British colonialists as Ooty.

Situated at 2200m (nearly 7500ft) above sea level, Ooty, known as ‘The Queen of the Hill Stations’, is one of 80-odd high altitude towns used as places of refuge from the summer heat. The British Indian Army built 50 or so of the Stations, the remainder being built by various Indian rulers over the centuries as places of leisure or even as permanent capitals.

Before I got to Ooty, I knew that in 1890, His Highness the Maharaja of Vizianagaram presented a squash court to the Ooty Club. Nestled in the hills above Ooty, the Club is fondly referred to as the “Snooty Ooty Club” and also as “The Morgue” due to the many hunting trophies adorning its walls. It’s also the place where the rules of snooker were formally finalized in 1884 by Sir Neville Chamberlain. They’re still posted in the Club’s Billiards Room.

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The Billiards Room in the Ooty Club

I asked the Ooty Club’s Secretary whether squash was still played there. “No” he said. “The squash court was dismantled many years ago and never replaced.” Despite searching for it, he still didn’t know where in the Club’s grounds the court had been located. He also told me that the rival Wellington Gymkhana Club no longer had any squash courts although he did know that the first one built there had been commissioned in 1927. However, he said, there were two courts at the Defence Services Staff College also located in Wellington.

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Squash at Wellington Staff College

So, squash appeared to be alive in the Nilgiri Hills and being played by the officer classes of the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force.

But what about the civilian population of Ooty?

Did any of them still play?

And, if so, where?

Back to School

On my second evening in Ooty, I stumbled across another sign of squash life in the Charing Cross district of the town. Painted on the wall next to the Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop was the legend ‘squash racket’. And, lo and behold, displayed in the window itself were several rackets….of varying vintage.

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Shanghai Company Sports and Chinese Footwear shop, Ooty

The mystery buyers of the shop’s rackets proved, in one instance, to be less than 15 minutes walk away from the shop. The Hebron School, located near Ooty’s Botanical Gardens, was founded in 1899 to serve the mission community of India and South-East Asia. Now, it’s a co-educational and predominantly boarding school for children aged 5 years to 19 years. And squash is one of the school’s ‘curriculum’ sports.

Slightly further out of town is the Good Shepherd International School, a full time boarding school located on a 70-acre campus near Ooty Lake. Established in 1977, the campus include classrooms, laboratories, lecture theatres and sports facilities including squash courts. All of which gave me the feeling that squash was being passed on to at least some of  India’s younger generation in the Hills of Tamil Nadu.

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Outside the Shanghai Company shop

The day after my Shanghai Company experience, and amid reports that a leopard had been seen in the grounds of Hebron School, I left Ooty for Cochin in neighbouring Kerala. In many ways, I was sad not to have had the opportunity to meet Ooty’s squash players. But, on the other hand, I’ve never been keen on the idea of encountering a leopard on the way to the squash courts.

I don’t think having a racket with me would help much.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to The Hindu newspaper for its article on the Express Avenue Mall and to Al-Ahram for it’s report on the WSF Under-21 Squash World Cup.  Also, thanks to the Secretary of the Ooty Club for his insight into the local squash community.

Squash and the Scientists

I first came across squash early in my professional career when I took a job at a UK scientific research establishment. The main research site covered a huge area and housed offices, laboratories, bunkers where things got blown up, warehouses, a nuclear reactor (just a little one) and, outside the heavily-manned security gates, four squash courts.

It was on those courts that I first saw squash being played, where I first learned to play the game, and where I first won a match, even though I don’t exactly recollect who my hapless opponent was at the time. But, whoever it was, there was a fair chance that it was a fellow scientist; a chemist, a physicist or maybe one of the nuclear-flavoured scientists who made the sharp bits to stick on the end of missiles.

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Enrico Fermi

It’s pretty well known, of course, that the first atomic pile was constructed on a disused squash court in Chicago by an international team of scientists led by the Italian-born physicist, Enrico Fermi. There’s no evidence that Fermi or any of his team were squash players but one thing is certain. If you bring together enough scientists to work on pioneering initiatives or to push back the boundaries of scientific knowledge, they will inevitably want to socialise. They’ll want to share their leisure time, their news, their hobbies and their interests.

And, given the opportunity, they’ll want to play squash.

Squash and the Wonders of the Universe

One current pioneering initiative is the search for the Higgs Boson, the elusive nuclear particle which gives all objects their mass. The search is taking place at CERN, the European Organisation for Nuclear Research, near Geneva in Switzerland. CERN, , operates the world’s largest particle physics laboratory including the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a particle accelerator designed to unlock the secrets of the Universe.

CERN employs almost 8000 scientists and engineers representing over 600 universities and more than 100 nationalities. Plenty of people to support a few squash leagues you might  think. And you’d be right. The CERN Squash Club was formed in 1999 and currently boasts a league membership of over 100, many of whom, I expect, will be called ‘Doctor’ or ‘Professor’ Something-or-Other.

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Professor Brian Cox

One of the scientists currently working at CERN (but apparently not competing in the squash leagues) is the British particle physicist, Professor Brian Cox. Cox is well known not only as a leading scientist but also as a presenter of popular science television series including ‘Wonders of the Universe.’

However, Cox does have form when it comes to squash both as a player and as a former rock musician. His first band, Dare, rehearsed and played its first gig at the Maple Squash Club in Oldham, Lancashire. Dare’s second single, ‘The Raindance’, was released as a 7” vinyl disc in a gatefold cover featuring five profile cards, each with trivia about the band members. Interestingly, Cox listed his hobbies as “squash, running, eating,” with no mention of physics, particle or otherwise.

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Dare with Brian Cox (extreme right)

In fact, you can still check out Dare with Brian Cox on keyboards (and extremely long hair) on YouTube. But I really wouldn’t recommend it.

Squash and the Human Brain

What I would suggest you check out on YouTube, however, is Brian Cox’s lecture in late 2011 at The  Royal Institution of Great Britain, the oldest organisation dedicated to scientific education and research in the world. Squash doesn’t get a mention, I’m afraid, but there is an unusual connection between the Royal Institution itself and another prominent squash playing  scientist.

Baroness Susan Greenfield is a former Director of the RI as well as being a neuroscientist and Professor of Synaptic Pharmacology at Lincoln College, Oxford. She’s written several popular-science books about the brain and consciousness, regularly gives public lectures, and appears on radio and television. She also holds 20 honorary degrees.

Fullscreen capture 24042011 2231071 Squash and the ScientistsThe Baroness, who’s a relatively recent convert to squash, plays three times a week and must be one of the most ennobled and highly academically qualified squash players in history. In recent years, she’s expressed concerns that modern technology, and in particular social networking sites such as Facebook, may have a negative impact on child development. However, she’s also attracted a fair amount of criticism from other scientists who’ve questioned her claims, suggesting that she hasn’t carried out any meaningful research or properly evaluated the available evidence.

This kind of controversy is, of course, part and parcel of science which uses ‘peer-group review’ to question scientific methods and findings as well as their interpretation. Nevertheless, things can get rather personal as passions rise, egos intervene and the science gets forgotten.

Which all sounds like an opportunity for scientists to incorporate a friendly game of squash into the peer review process. That’s just my opinion of course.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the CERN Squash Club. You can find out more about Professor Brian Cox’s rocker past at ‘Love it Loud’ and get to know Baroness Susan Greenfield through her recent interview by the Financial Times.

Squash in Mordor

Amazing what you can stumble across rummaging around on the Web, isn’t it? Take, for example, what happens when you shove the word ‘squash’ into Google. As well as links to information about the racket sport we all know and love, it tends to throw up all sorts of pointers to cookery, the policing of public demonstrations and the repression of popular uprisings. Although not necessarily in that order, or indeed disorder.

But when you inadvertently find yourself straying into the imaginary realm of elves, orcs and hobbits, well that’s another thing entirely. Which just goes to show that internet search engines and  squash know no boundaries.

The Lord Of The Rings

In 2003, Director Peter Jackson’s film, ‘The Return of the King’ won 11 Academy Awards including Best Picture. The film was the third of a trilogy based on ‘The Lord of the Rings’, an epic fantasy novel written by English philologist and University of Oxford professor J.R.R.Tolkien.

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J.R.R.Tolkien

The title of the novel refers to the story’s main antagonist, the Dark Lord Sauron, who in an earlier age created the One Ring to rule all the other Rings of Power. The One Ring is Sauron’s ultimate weapon in his campaign to conquer and rule all of Middle-earth, complete with elves, orcs, hobbits etc.

The story follows the adventures of Frodo Baggins, a hobbit, and his comrades in his quest to destroy the One Ring by casting it into the fires of Mount Doom in the Land of Mordor where Sauron’s power holds sway. A rather nasty place by the sound of it and certainly not a tourist destination.

Along with the other two films in the trilogy, ‘The Return of the King’ was filmed in New Zealand, home to a thriving squash community with a distinguished  history (think Susan Devoy and Ross Norman), as well as to plenty of conveniently-located squash courts.

A Squash Court in Queenstown

At the time of filming scenes on location for ‘The Lord of the Rings’, one such squash court proved particularly useful to Peter Jackson and his crew. Located in the resort town of Queenstown on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island, it was used to film a scene in which Frodo, accompanied by his trusty gardener Sam Gamgee and their less than trustworthy guide Gollum climb the secret stairway of Cirith Ungol into Mordor as Sauron’s forces march out to battle far below.

Squash in Mordor Squash in MordorFrodo, Gollum and Sam on a squash court in Queenstown

Jackson’s decision to film the scene was triggered by the suspension of outside filming in the Queenstown area due to bad weather, the town itself being hit by extensive flooding. The Cirith Ungol stair ledge was quickly built on a squash court located in a Queenstown hotel.

Actors Elijah Wood (Frodo) and Sean Astin (Sam) both baulked at having to perform  such a pivotal scene without any preparation. At the time, Andy Serkis had not yet been cast in the role of Gollum, so the part was played  by a stand-in member the crew. Filming went ahead, with Astin’s scenes being successfully completed.

The following day, however, the sun re-appeared, the floods abated and  exterior filming was resumed. The intent was always to return to the squash court (where the set remained standing) to film Elijah Wood’s scenes but, for the next five weeks, there was no rain to interrupt exterior filming. The crew moved on to a new outdoor location with Wood finally returning to do his part of the Cirith Ungol scene almost year later.

During the whole of the  intervening period, the squash court still contained the film set, the hotel presumably having agreed an amount of compensation greater than the income it could have earned from a year’s worth of court fees. Action shots involving all three characters in the scene were the last to be shot before the set was finally dismantled in late 2000.

So the next time you watch ‘The Return of the King’, spare a thought for the squash lovers of Queenstown whose playing options were reduced for over a year.

And try to imagine what it might have been like to play squash in Mordor.

Postscript: Walking Into Mordor

If you head over to Google Maps and ask for walking directions from “The Shire”(the home of Frodo of Sam) to “Mordor”, this is what you’ll get…

Google Squash Mordor Squash in MordorThe warning is the same as that delivered to Frodo et al by another character from ‘The Lord of the Rings’, Gandalf the Wizard. All of which means that I think I’ll give it a miss for the time being.

But, Queenstown? Well that’s another thing entirely. I’ve been there myself and had absolutely no problem with the Dark Lord Sauron. But I wouldn’t go via the Cirith Ungol route if I were you.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to IMDB and Movie Mistakes for their background details on the making of ‘The Lord of the Rings’. Also thanks to Google for their warning about visiting Mordor.

Point taken.

Squash in Iran: Hijab Stories

In June 2011, Iran’s women footballers were banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics when their qualifying match with Jordan in Amman was called off moments before kick-off. The ban was due to the players’ kit which, following a FIFA ban in 2010, had been changed and (according to the Iran Football Federation’s head of women’s affairs) approved by  none other than FIFA’s beleaguered president, Sepp Blatter. And the kit was designed to meet Iran’s mandatory dress code for women.

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Iranian squash player Nazanin Heydari

Whatever the circumstances surrounding the football ban, the reality for female sports enthusiasts in Iran is clear. In the Islamic Republic, women can only take part in their favourite sports whilst wearing full tracksuits and head coverings that conceal their hair. The code, whether driven by religion, politics or culture, is known as hijab and encompasses both the traditional head covering worn by many Muslim women and modest styles of Muslim dress in general.

But Iranian women have been allowed to compete internationally in an increasing number of sports whilst still following the hijab dress code. In weightlifting, in taekwondo, in boxing…..and in squash.

The National Squash Scene

With less than two dozen functioning squash courts in what is a vast country, Iran doesn’t at first glance seem to be in a good position to develop a sustainable squash community at a national level. Government investment in squash  is minimal yet there still exist small squash-playing communities in cities such as Esfahan, Yazd, Gorgan, Arak and Shiraz as well as in the capital, Tehran. The same lack of investment applies to the private sector although, in the last three years, international squash tournaments have been held in Rasht on the Caspian coast and on Kish Island in the Persian Gulf.

The participation of women in the game is reflected in the recent appearance of no fewer than nine Iranian players in the Women’s Squash Association Top 250 rankings for January 2012. The National Women’s squad is currently coached by Muqaddas Ashraf, a former Pakistan No.2 with the National Girls squad being managed by Iranian-born Nadjmesadat Kasfimofrad. The Iranian Squash Federation (SFIRI) also arranges coaching for National squad members by overseas  players such as Pakistan’s Carla Khan, a former World No.18.

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Carla Khan with Iranian National Girls Squash Team 2009

But whatever the limited resources available to the Iranian squash community, it’s the passion and enthusiasm of its members which helps it to survive and, occasionally, to show others how to overcome seemingly immovable obstacles to achieve success. Such as the   involvement of its male and female players in squash competitions held overseas despite the restrictions placed on their participation by politics and prejudice. And to embody the achievement of that success, you need pioneers.

The Hijab Pioneers

In many ways, the relatively recent success achieved in helping female Iranian squash players compete abraaod is a tribute to the inclusive nature of the international squash community and those who govern the sport itself.

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Sahar Saaremi

In March 2008, Sahar Saaremi became the first female Iranian squash player in history to take part in an international tournament wearing hijab.  The 20 year old student of metallurgy at the Sharif University of Technology wore specially designed kit recognised by Iran’s Physical Education Organisation. The Iranian Squash Federation not only gave her permission to compete but negotiated with the tournament organisers to allow her to play wearing hijab-compatible kit. Saaremi’s family paid for her to travel to Switzerland for the tournament where she lost her qualifying match.

Just under a year later, Saaremi’s pioneering experience was repeated when three Iranian girls travelled to Chennai to compete in the Asian Junior Squash Championships. Pariya Ahinejad, Siadeh Mazidi and Sogol Samodi were leaving Iran for the first time in their lives,  courtesy of their national governing body. Unsurprisingly, they draw curious looks from organisers, spectators and players alike at the SDAT stadium because of their ‘whole body’ squash kit. Although Iranian women chess players had been a common sight in the Tamil Nadu capital, it was the first time that their girls had been seen playing in an international squash tournament.

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Sogol Samodi of Iran in action against Lee Ji-Hyun of Korea at the Asian Junior Squash Championship 2009

But after these initial successes, how can the Iranian squash community continue to press its case for more recognition, more support and more investment? Well, surprisingly enough, taking a leaf from football, or rather the artistic presentation of football as a  passion shared by different sections of Iranian society, may help.

The Art of Sports Passion

In 2006, Iranian film director Jafar Panahi’s cult film, ‘Offside’, about a group of football-crazy girls trying to smuggle their way into a World Cup qualifying match successfully gave the outside world a peep into Iranian society, complete with its politics, prejudices and passion, not so long ago. The film, banned in Iran, won the Silver Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival Grand Jury Prize and was both critically and commercially successful worldwide.

Not so widely known is the Iranian short film, ‘In a Closed Room’ (‘Dar Otaghe Basteh’) also made in 2006 and directed by Ali Alaie and Roya Majdnia. The film follows an  English squash player who is scheduled to coach members of the Iranian Men’s National squad. Players from the Women’s National squad also want to learn from him but are forbidden from doing so due to…well, you get the picture.

‘In a Closed Room’ didn’t gain such a wide release as ‘Offside’ but is nonetheless representative of a kind of storytelling about shared passion and community which is truly international.

And when you watch it or your friends watch it, in whatever country, it really doesn’t matter what clothes you’re wearing.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to James Hardy for his article ‘Iran’s Sportswomen: All Dressed Up and Raring To Go’ in The Times of India. Thanks also to Shirzanan, The First Iranian Women Sports Magazine, for its photographs of female Iranian squash players and its interview with Sahar Saremi ‘Think of the Future Generation’.

The First Squash Court in Cairo

In 2009, the number of functioning squash courts in the world was estimated at just under 50,000. England, with over 8500, was the country with by far the largest number of courts, followed by a number of countries with more than 1000 including Germany, the US, Australia, South Africa, Canada, Malaysia, France, the Netherlands, Spain…and one other.

In third place was the country whose players currently occupy four of the top ten positions in the men’s world squash rankings. Egypt.

But when and where was the first squash court in the country built? And by whom? Well, the answers to both questions probably won’t come as a big surprise. But their appearance during the course of a famous Academy Award-winning film just might.

The British Army in Cairo

The Services Guide to Cairo 150x150 The First Squash Court in CairoAfter World War II, the Co-ordinating Council for the Welfare of the Troops in Egypt published a guide with ‘a view to providing useful information for Officers and Men of His Britannic Majesty’s Forces staying in and coming on leave to Cairo.’ The guide contained ‘particulars of Services Clubs, Restaurants and places of entertainment’ and included details of clubs operated specifically for service men and women from India, New Zealand and South Africa.

Also included in the guide were details of two sporting clubs which are still in operation today: the Gezira Sporting Club and the Heliopolis Sporting Club. Both were identified as providing facilities for playing squash.

Although the British had first taken control of Egypt in 1801, they were defeated by the Mameluke Army under Muhammed Ali in 1807 and forced to leave the country. It was not until 1882 that they returned as masters of Egypt, bringing with them their institutions, their administrators and their own forms of recreation. At the time, squash was not amongst them but the British love of sport was demonstrated by its establishment, in that very same year of 1882, of the Gezira Sporting Club, then called the Khedivial Sporting Club.

Squash on the Nile

Located on the island of Zamalek, the grounds of what is now the Gezira Sporting Club were carved out of the Khedivial Botanical Gardens, which is why acacias and gardens still decorate the area. After the island had been formally leased to the British military command, club rules were licensed and the land was divided into several recreational playing grounds. At first, the club was for the exclusive use of the British Army but, over the years, has developed into the most important squash training centre in Egypt with 16 courts.

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club 300x225 The First Squash Court in Cairo

The Squash Building at Gezira Sporting Club

The first squash courts at the Gezira Club were built in the mid-1920s. But are there any older courts in the city?

The Heliopolis Club was established later than the Gezira, in 1910, by the Cairo Electric Railways and Heliopolis Oases Company. The company managed the club until the end of 1921 after which the club members took over its management under the terms of a contract signed with the company.

It’s probable that the appearance of the first squash courts at the Heliopolis club took place after its takeover at the start of 1922. But when was squash first played in Cairo?

Lawrence of Arabia

In 1916, Sherif Hussein bin Ali initiated the Arab Revolt with the aim of securing independence from the ruling Ottoman Turks and creating a single unified Arab state stretching from Aleppo in Syria to Aden in Yemen.

At the time of the outbreak of the Revolt, Aircraftman T.E.Lawrence, later known as Lawrence of Arabia, was working as a cartographer with British military intelligence in Cairo. As someone who had for years travelled extensively within the Ottoman Empire he was sent to the Arabian peninsula to act as a liaison officer for Emir Faisal who commanded a force of Arab irregular troops carrying out guerrilla operations.

Lawrence of Arabia Uniform 239x300 The First Squash Court in Cairo

T. E. Lawrence

Lawrence documented his experiences in Arabia in a biography, ‘The Seven Pillars of Wisdom’, published in 1922. Many years later, a screenplay based on Lawrence’s book was written by Robert Bolt and filmed by director David Lean as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’. Released in 1962, the film won seven Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Director. Lawrence was played by British actor, Peter O’Toole.

It includes the following scene, with Lawrence, now promoted to Lieutenant Colonel, returning to British military headquarters in Cairo. His fellow officers have some good news.

So did the British Army really build the first squash court in Cairo? In 1917 or 1918? And did Lawrence ever play on it?

Well, one for another article maybe…

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating view of life in Cairo for ex-servicemen and women, read the ‘The Services Guide to Cairo’.