Living just outside London, I’ve managed to get to some major squash tournaments over the years both in and outside the capital. There was the British Open during its residency at Wembley, the Super Series at Hatfield (and then The City), the Canary Wharf Classic in Docklands and the World Series Finals in West Kensington. Hailing from Manchester, I’ve also combined trips back home with visits to the National Championships (and one World Series event) at the National Squash Centre. Some footage from these events can be found on the Web and, for my own amusement and gratification, I’ve decided to post it here as and when I stumble across it.
But, to start the ball rolling, here are some highlights from the recent 2014 Swedish Open held in Linköping which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to. But I wish I had.
Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana
9-11 11-2 11-8 6-11 11-7
Semi-Final #2 – Nick Matthew beat Gregory Gaultier
England’s squash governing body, England Squash and Racketball, was recently hit by a 20% reduction in its funding by Sport England (another public body) after ‘failing to halt the decline in people playing the sport.’ Along with the reduction, Sport England has demanded “a rapid and immediate improvement in leadership” by ESR which has also been asked to review its “current participation strategy.”
These demands reflect a belief that, if they’re met, the decline in the number of people playing squash in England actually can be halted. Although there isn’t space on this blog to explore the world-view that this belief reflects, one thing is certain. The issue of squash participation in a world of dynamic social change, economic uncertainty and cultural diversity is a complex one. And, to address it successfully, new forms of leadership will need to appear.
To understand why, it’s worth looking at the nature of leadership in complex situations, and at the kind of actions needed if squash is to evolve and occupy the most hospitable socio-economic niches, not just in England but across the world.
The Four Domains of Leadership
Whatever else it is, leadership is about making sense: of social environments and trends; of human behaviour; of cultures; and of situations, current and emergent. Without effective sense-making, it’s not even possible to make effective decisions. And without effective decisions, squash – along with every other sport – can’t respond quickly enough to changes in the complex environments within which it’s competing with other forms of activity.
Fortunately, recent research has led to a deeper understanding of the dynamicnature of social environments. It’s also led to the emergence of some tools which can help people to make sense of the fast-changing situations in which they find themselves, and respond in the most effective way. One of these tools, a sense-making framework created by Welsh researcher Dave Snowden, is shown below.
Snowden’s framework is used in a wide range of contexts by governments and organisations all over the world. Its purpose is to help decision-makers quickly assess dynamic situations and decide the most appropriate courses of action in responding to them. It also helps them to learn how the social groupings and networks around them are changing by monitoring real-time information fed to them by their members.
The framework comprises four ontologies or domains – simple, complicated, complex and chaotic – which can be used to understand and assess current situations. Of course, all of us have different world-views, experience and sensitivities, and so a situation which is complex or chaotic to one decision-maker may appear to be simple to another. With this in mind, it should be obvious that the framework isn’t a static collection of ‘pigeon holes’ for categorising situations or problems; it’sa dynamic tool for leading conversations, seeking consensus and agreeing actions.
When looking at the framework, it’s wise to remember that leadership isn’t just a skills-based capability which is, or even can be, possessed solely by the occupants of certain positions of authority. It’s a state which any individual is capable of attaining, often at times and in circumstances when they most need to – or when others most need them to.
And leadership takes many forms.
1. Feudal / Bureaucratic Leadership (SIMPLE)
In simple situations, we sense that we’re dealing with well-known issues which can be successfully dealt with using well-known methods. These methods are sometime referred to as ‘best practices’ and tend to be straightforward and easy to learn. Everybody agrees about the right courses of action to be taken which are regarded as ‘obvious.’
In simple situations, our beliefs are based on a strong assumption of orderand of certainty that specific actions will lead to predictable and consistent outcomes. When we live in simplicity, we tend to categorise or ‘pigeon-hole’ the situations we’re in and then respond to them in tried and tested ways.
Leadership in simplicity rests on ensuring that reliable methods are in place: methods for performing routine activities; for monitoring for complacency (sloppiness); and for detecting early signs that methods need to be changed. This kind of leadership is often referred to as ‘bureaucratic’ or ‘feudal’ leadership, and is suited to the maintenance and improvement of controlled processes operating within stable environments.
To some extent, living in simplicity is rather like living in the past. It feels comfortable, but previously stable environments can suddenly become unstable or can even collapse into chaos. Think ‘global financial crisis.’
2. Oligarchic Leadership (COMPLICATED)
In complicated situations, we sense that we’re dealing with issues which, although not well-understood, can be understood by experts. As with simple situations, we assume that complicated situations are ordered in some way and that we can forecast outcomes. But we also see that the same outcome can arise after taking different courses of action. So, we accept that we’ll have to analyse each situation before we decide how to respond to it in the most appropriate way.
This approach requires systems thinking and typically leads to the development of good practice approaches(also known as methodologies) for analysing similar situations and deciding bespoke courses of action. Depending on the nature of the situation, we typically seek the help of experts to support us in navigating through the different methods and courses of action available to us.
Leadership in complication rests on ensuring that the right people and practices are brought together at theright time to analyse and respond to situations. Courses of action are typically planned and carried out in the form of structured projects with feedback being used to monitor progress and change direction, if necessary. This kind of leadership is detached, yet sensitive to deadlines and any issues and risks arising. It’s often referred to as oligarchic leadership in that power over what courses of action are to be taken rests with a small number of expert-advised people.
Living in complication involves a constant search for what we believe are the right experts. However, there’s a risk in always believing the opinions of experts. As they compete amongst themselves, experts are sometimes prone to believe in their own infallibility, descend into group-think and adhere to outdated and inappropriate approaches.
And in complex or chaotic situations, this can prove disastrous.
3. Patriarchal / Matriarchal Leadership (COMPLEX)
In complex situations, we sense that we’re dealing with unordered scenarios. We don’t understand what’s happening but we sense that it’s possible to find out. We sense or see coherent patterns of behaviour, but they don’t seem to repeat for any length of time. There appear to be constraints in the system, but if we try to impose rules, people break, ignore or circumvent them. What’s more, any evidence we can find to tell us what’s happening supports multiple, contradictory positions.
Leadership in complexity rests on continuously probing social environments for meaningful narrative information using multiple safe to fail experiments. We know that some of these short, sharp probes will provide new insights into what people are thinking and feeling which can be used to support effective decision-making. Other probes won’t.
To support continuous communication with different social groupings, we acquire the habit of routinely asking for, collecting and responding to rapid feedback about what we’re facing and what we’re thinking of doing. This leads us to the creation of human sensor networks using approaches such as the stimulation of social networks using social media. We try to make sure that our networks are as diverse as possible since people of different ages and from different backgrounds tend to give us different perspectives. This helps us to design different kinds of safe to fail probes.
Leadership in complexity tends to be patriarchal or matriarchal in nature as it is heavily dependent on openness, trust and reciprocity. If openness and trust are lost, they are often impossible to regain.
4. Tyrannical / Charismatic Leadership (CHAOS)
In chaotic situations, we sense that we’re dealing with turbulent, unordered scenarios in which it’s impossible to understand what’s happening. We don’t sense or see any repeating patterns of activity and, unlike complex situations, there’s no evidence of any constraints in the system. Everything seems to be in a state of permanent transition. Things that we once took for granted no longer apply.
Leadership in chaos rests on fast, authoritative action. We are in crisis and there’s no time to be reasonable. Decisions have to be made and stuck to; going back on them will risk further turbulence and uncertainty. Yet, as we take action, opportunities to reduce turbulence and to innovate begin to appear like shadows in fog.
Effective preparation for leadership in chaos depends heavily on the presence of pre-existing human sensor networks. Not only can these provide immediate feedback in response to requests for information, they can act as a source of members for crews, groups of conscripts who can be rapidly organised to stabilise specific situations. And, as in complex situations, the more diverse the feedback the better.
Leadership in chaos is, by necessity, tyrannical. The power to direct actions must be seized if it is not already held. Time is of the essence. Some tyrants, of course, are charismatic. However, charisma alone does not guarantee leadership effectiveness.
The Fifth Dimension and Leadership Dynamics
A closer look at Snowden’s framework reveals a fifth domain. The domain of Disorder separates the other four, snaking like an abyss between them. It represents leadership paralysis and inaction, the state of not sensing which of the other four domains most accurately describes a situation.
The abyss is at its deepest between the Simple and Chaos domains. Simple situations, if not continuously assessed in the light of new knowledge, can suddenly descend into Chaos. Old habits can die hard.
As little time as possible should be spent in the domain of Disorder. Better to cycle through the other four until one is found which feels the closest to current reality.
And that’s the value of Snowden’s framework, along with others which have been developed over recent years. Leadership needs to be felt rather than just done. Different ‘states of reality’ demand different forms of leadership.
And without the ability to sense those states and respond appropriately, leadership cannot survive, let alone serve the evolution of squash.
In the next post, I’ll look at the role of culture in shaping leadership.
Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric, has a handsome although almost entirely new cathedral, a lake of great beauty, and a charming botanical garden.
The sun was setting as my cousin, Mr. John Anderson, whose experiences I have to tell you of now, walked up to the door of the Golden Lion hotel one cold Winter’s afternoon just over a year ago. He was delighted with the old-fashioned appearance of the place which, he was soon to learn, was one of the few buildings in the old town not to have been damaged or destroyed in the great fire of 1726. He was researching the Church history of Denmark and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg were papers saved from the fire which related to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend two or three weeks in examining and copying these, hoping that the Golden Lion would be able to provide him with a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study.
Upon entering the building, he explained his wishes to the landlord and, after inspecting several rooms, chose one on the first floor which looked onto the street. The pretty view, he reasoned, would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise. What he did not know at the time, was what he was about to experience.
On the day after his arrival, my cousin immersed himself in the Rigsarkiv library. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received and access to to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible by the Archivist of Viborg, Herr Scavenius. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting that he had anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic to hold the see. In these there cropped up many amusing and what are commonly called ‘intimate’ details of private life and individual character. There was, for example, much talk of a house owned by the Bishop in the town, but not occupied by him. The behaviour of its tenant, a Magister Nicolas Francken, was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a godsend to the Protestant opposition. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the town; he practiced secret and wicked arts and had sold his soul to the Devil. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly, protesting his own abhorrence of all such dark arts, and challenging his opponents to bring the matter before the ‘proper court’; in other words, the spiritual court. My cousin had not much time to do more than glance at the next letter (from the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen) before the library was closed for the day.
As it was still relatively early, my cousin decided to explore the streets around the Rigsarkiv. Many of the buildings appeared to be relatively new, but he was delighted to stumble upon many which bore some of the architectural characteristics of the Golden Lion. He was also pleased to see that the medieval layout of the old town’s streets had been preserved and so determined to indulge himself in aimless wandering around the area. As the light began to fade, he found himself in a narrow passage-way near the cathedral looking at a brass plate fixed to the wall of a modern red-brick building; it bore the legend ‘Viborg Squashklub.’ Being a keen player, he entered the building and enquired as to the possibility of obtaining a visiting membership for the duration of his stay. The steward on duty was pleased to make the necessary arrangements and even offered to find some suitable opponents for my cousin to play. A tour of the modest yet well-maintained facilities – including two courts and a gentlemen’s changing room – followed, after which the steward agreed to contact him at his hotel with details of suitable court times and opponents. Satisfied with his day’s efforts, my cousin returned to the Golden Lion for his evening meal.
The following morning brought word from the steward that he had located an opponent for my cousin who was available to play at seven o’clock that evening. My cousin sent a reply thanking him and agreeing to the match, before breakfasting and setting out for the Rigsarkiv library. On arriving at the library, he signed the visitor’s book and almost at once encountered Herr Scavenius, who had retrieved more papers for his attention. The Arkivist looked forward with great pleasure to seeing the publication in which my cousin was intending to summarise their contents, and expressed a long-held interest in identifying the house occupied by Bishop Friis’s notorious tenant almost four hundred years previously. “It is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood,” he explained. “We have the greater part of the collection of street plans from old Viborg here in the Arkiv, but the document which contained a list of town property is missing.” My cousin told him that he would endeavour to find the list and continued with his research before retiring to the Golden Lion for refreshment. In the evening, much to his satisfaction, he prevailed in his match at the Viborg Squashklub (against an accountant) before returning to his hotel and his bed.
Over the following three days, my cousin continued with his research being, for the most part, alone in the Rigsarkiv library, sometimes to a late hour. Occasionally, he would leave the building to seek refreshment before returning to his labours, concentrated at a desk and two tables regularly replenished with documents by the Arkivist, whom he rarely encountered in the flesh. Occasionally, he would be joined in the library by other researchers, often sensing their presence as they moved amongst the labyrinthine arrangement of shelves rather than catching sight of them. On occasion, he would glimpse an indistinct figure or even just the hem of a cloak as it crossed a corridor between the shelves; at other times, he would notice the presence of an item of clothing, perhaps a scarf or a hat, hanging from the coat-stand by the library door. But the concentration he brought to his research frequently saw him lose track of time until he was obliged to accede to the audible demands of his stomach.
On the morning of his sixth day in Viborg, a second communication arrived at the Golden Lion from the Squashklub steward, requesting my cousin’s presence that evening to play another opponent. As before, my cousin took part in a highly-enjoyable contest, this time with a physician whose stamina and accuracy rewarded him with the victory. The following day being Sunday, the Rigsarkiv was closed and my cousin took the opportunity to explore the shores of the lake before spending the afternoon and evening resting at his hotel.
Two more days in the Rigsarkiv library followed before another invitation from the steward was delivered to the Golden Lion. On his third visit to the club, however, a most unusual incident occurred. Having left the court and accompanied his opponent to the changing room, my cousin realised that he had left his towel (with which he habitually used to mop his brow between games) at the front of the court. He quickly re-traced his steps and, as he entered the corridor leading to the courts, noticed that it appeared to be longer than he had previously imagined. The far end of the corridor was shrouded in darkness although he could discern a door some distance beyond that of Court 2 on which he had just played. He retrieved his towel and, on leaving the court, determined to inspect the distant door which, he soon discovered, bore the number ‘3’. Unusually, the door was closed although it appeared to be unoccupied. No sounds, either of play or conversation, emanated from the court, nor could he see any light under the door or through the peep-hole. Although he thought this unusual, he did not investigate further and returned to the changing room, later asking his opponent whether he had ever played on Court 3. However, the reaction of his opponent left him in no doubt that his question was regarded certainly as being mischievous and possibly as disrespectful, and the two men parted without further conversation. The steward being absent from his post, my cousin was unable either to relate his experience or make further enquiries, and so returned to his hotel and his supper.
It was several days before my cousin received another invitation to play at the Viborg Squashklub. By this time, he had forgotten the circumstances of his last visit, his attention being focussed entirely on his research at the Rigsarkiv. In the evening, he again attended the club where the steward introduced him to his opponent, a lawyer visiting Viborg from Malmö. On this occasion, he and his opponent were particularly well-matched, the score being 2-2 in games when their court time expired. The two men readily agreed to conclude their match two evenings hence and gathered their belongings in preparation for exiting the court. However, their attention was suddenly drawn to a loud and unsettling sound. It was the sound of a man laughing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice which seemed dry, as if from long disuse. On and on it went, sailing to a surprising height before descending with a despairing moan, like a winter wind in a hollow chimney. Where the horrible sound was coming from, they could not tell, yet my cousin felt that, had he been alone, he would certainly have fled for refuge and assistance.
Instead, the two men left the court determined to discover the source of the sound. They began to discuss a course of action, but my cousin sensed that something had changed in the corridor in which they were standing. Looking over the shoulder of his companion towards the far end of the corridor, he could see a thin sliver of light shining from beneath the door to a court which he knew not to exist. He bade his companion accompany him to the door which, as before, he discovered to bear the number ‘3’. Emanating from behind it, they could hear the sound of laughter.
Being unable to see anything through the peep-hole, my cousin knocked on the door with his racket handle. However, there was no response from within and the sound continued as before. He and his companion then attempted to push open the door but it would not yield. Finally, the two climbed the staircase to the viewing gallery intending to see who the occupant or occupants of the court might be. On reaching their destination, however, they at once realised the futility of their action; the gallery looked down upon Courts 1 and 2, both unoccupied, but not upon Court 3. They descended uneasily from the gallery and, on reaching the corridor, noticed that, not only had the laughter stopped, but that the door to Court 3, together with that part of the corridor in which it had been located, had passed out of existence.
Desiring an explanation, they sought out the steward who assured them that the club possessed only two courts. He also denied having heard any previous reports describing experiences similar to their own, adding that he had worked at the club for many years. He returned with them to the corridor where the doors to Courts 1 and 2 stood ajar. Of the door to Court 3, there was no sign.
On returning to his hotel, my cousin retired to his room and gave careful consideration of everything he had had to eat or drink during the previous twenty-four hours. He concluded that nothing he had ingested could account for the nature of his experience at the Viborg Squashklub. If his sight or his brain was failing, he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case, the development of events would, he concluded, be well worth watching.
The following day in the Rigsarkiv library, my cousin continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence I have already described. To his disappointment, it was incomplete and he could find only one other letter referring to the affair of Magister Nicolas Francken, it being from Bishop Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. The Bishop wrote: “Although we do not assent to your judgement concerning our court, we are prepared to contest your accusations regarding our trusted and well-loved Magister Nicolas Francken against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges. However, I would advise you that our brother has been suddenly removed from amongst us, it thus being apparent that the subject of your reproaches is now no longer able to defend either himself or his faith.” Search as he might, my cousin could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue as to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly and, as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter (when Francken was evidently still alive) and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.
On the morning of the following day, my cousin reported his findings to the Arkivist who, while naturally disappointed, was curious as to what had become of Magister Francken. He therefore offered to retrieve whatever death certificates and other church records were held in the Rigsarkiv which might help my cousin determine the date and circumstances ofFrancken’s death. My cousin thanked him and continued with his studies, leaving the library after a few hours to take some exercise on what was a clear and bright Winter’s day. On his return to the library, he returned to his place, acknowledging the presence, at another desk, of what he assumed to be a fellow researcher, and briefly glimpsing another figure wearing a black cloak disappear into the shelves. After another afternoon immersed in his studies, he left the deserted library and turned his mind to the evening’s forthcoming match at the Viborg Squashklub.
Despite his previous experiences at the club, my cousin was in a cheerful mood. He arrived well before the agreed time, changed, and entered Court 2, which he found to be unoccupied. He could hear a match in progress on Court 1 but decided to warm up the ball in advance of his opponent’s arrival. After almost ten minutes, however, he realised that, not only was his opponent late, but the match on Court 1 had ended, there being no sound to be heard. He therefore decided to find out whether his opponent had arrived at the club and, propping his racket against the back wall, stepped outside the court. At that moment, something gave him cause to stop. To his left, he could see that Court 1 was deserted, its door ajar and the lights switched off. To his right, the door to Court 3 stood ajar, light streaming from it into the darkened corridor.
Fearing that the door would again disappear during the time it would take to fetch the steward, he walked towards it, with no little hesitancy. Upon reaching it, he found that, as before, it bore the number ‘3’. He paused, summoned up his courage and then, with his right hand, attempted to push the door further open. It proved to be heavy, however, and he was obliged to lean against it with his shoulder before it swung slowly inwards. To his astonishment, he found himself standing in the vestibule of what appeared to be a medieval library, not unlike that in which he had spent so many hours at the Rigsarkiv. The room was lit by candle-light, its dark wooden floorboards and panelling giving it a melancholy air. In the vestibule stood two large tables bearing what he assumed to be the library’s catalogues, each bound in brown leather. Several desks, each flanked by chairs, bounded the vestibule, their surfaces littered with manuscripts. The chair beside one desk appeared to have been turned sideways to allow its occupant egress. On the surface of the desk, amongst the documents, lay a black, wide-brimmed hat, typical of those he knew to be worn by clergymen in that part of Denmark. Beyond the vestibule stood the library’s shelves, rowed on either side of a central corridor and disappearing into darkness. In the shadows overhead, my cousin could discern the ceiling which was constructed from heavy timbers. With the exception of the vestibule the room was dimly lit, it being impossible for my cousin to ascertain its size.
It was then that he sensed that there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. A musty smell, an unnaturally strong odour of dust, permeated the room emanating, as far as he could tell, from somewhere within the shelves. He took a few steps across the vestibule, his eyes fixed upon the darkened rows stretching away from him. Reaching the first, he strained to hear anything which would give him cause to determine whether he was alone in the room. At first, he could hear nothing but then, as he progressed further along the corridor, he heard first the rustling of pages being turned and then the unmistakable sound of a man at first chuckling and then laughing loudly; laughing in a high, thin voice. He reached the next row, the sounds becoming louder. There was still no sign of whoever now shared the room with him. At the next row, darker now, he stopped. To his left stood a figure – a man – wearing a black cloak, his back towards the spot where my cousin now stood, barely able to draw breath. The man had a bald head, a head which looked dry and dusty, with white streaks of hair drawn across it. In that moment, the laughter ceased abruptly and the man turned slowly round, letting my cousin see his face. It was perfectly dry, the mouth open, its yellowed teeth grinning, the eyes deep-sunken and sightless. Over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, stretched cobwebs – thick, white cobwebs.
My cousin stepped backwards, colliding with a shelf, staring all the time into the sightless eyes before him. He struggled momentarily to keep his balance, trying to draw in his breath but, in his panic, he felt himself sinking, drowning in an odour of dust and decay, falling towards the open mouth of a tomb. He turned and ran, stumbling along the corridor towards the vestibule, towards the refuge beyond the door, not daring to look behind him, all the while smelling the putrid smell of death and hearing again the laughter of madness echoing in his ears.
My cousin has no knowledge of how he reached the sanctuary of the steward’s office. The steward, who was fortunately on duty, helped him to to calm himself before arranging for him to change back into his outdoor clothes and take a cab to his hotel. My cousin did not wish to remain alone at any time whilst he remained at the club, and refused to return to Court 2 to retrieve his racket and towel. After a sleepless night spent barricaded in his room, he checked out of the hotel and caught the earliest possible train to Copenhagen, arriving in London two days later. He subsequently related his experiences to me, by which time a further development had taken place. Some two weeks after his sudden return to England, he received a letter from the Herr Scavenius, asking after his health and communicating the results of his own research. He had found no evidence of the death of Nicolas Francken despite the availability of surprisingly comprehensive records from the period. Neither had he managed to locate the long-lost property list from the same period. However, within the correspondence relating to Bishop Friis but not yet examined by my cousin, he had found a letter from Rasmus Nielsen asking for assistance in tracing the whereabouts of a member of his movement who had disappeared. The individual concerned was a scholar who was engaged in researching the occult and other aspects of Devil worship and the black arts. Some weeks before, the man had been seen entering the house occupied by Magister Nicolas Francken since when he had not been seen. The matter had been referred to the Overkonstabel of Viborg who had questioned Magister Francken but no trace of the scholar had been found, adding to Nielsen’s suspicions regarding the Bishop’s tenant. The missing man was of English extraction.
His name was John Anderson.
This story is based on the short story ‘Number 13’ by M.R.James. It also includes a scene based on a ghostly encounter in a library taken from his story ‘The Tractate Middoth.’
It is asserted by many connoisseurs that the popularity and comfort of any café can reliably be perceived as standing in inverse relation to each other. So it was that, on one cold March afternoon, I found myself on the Avenue des Peupliers in a small family-run salon de thé whose owners I considered to be amongst the most refined in Paris in providing a traditional yet relaxing environment in which to imbibe the finest tea and partake of the most exquisite cakes to be found in the capital.
On this occasion, I had walked to the salon from the Grand Club de Rue Voltaire, where I had not one hour before completed a closely-contested squash match with Monsieur Charles Gommendy, a match which had, regrettably, ended with my defeat by three games to two. After a much-needed shower, during which time both I and my opponent successfully avoided commenting on each other’s competitive qualities, and on several disputed points which had punctuated the contest, I had politely declined his invitation to take liquid refreshment with him in the club bar and, citing a non-existent appointment, shouldered my squash bag and begged his leave.
Now, here in the comfortable environment of the salon, I recalled that, as I had passed by the open door to the Club bar, my nostrils had been suddenly assailed by an odour of stale beer much of it, I assumed, emanating from the facility’s carpet whither it had been conveyed via a series of spillages over an extended period of time stretching back to the 1970s when the Club had been founded. Such had been the olfactory impact of the carpet’s bouquet that I had at once determined to make for the Avenue des Peupliers in search, first, of more sophisticated refreshment and, second, of sanctuary from the sensory barbarism endemic, both to my current locale and to the immediate vicinity of the charmless building in which the Club was housed.
Leaving the confines of the club, I had proceeded towards Montmartre passing a number of cafés with whose interiors and wares I was, much to my regret, sadly familiar. Despite a feeling of fatigue brought on by my exertions on the squash court, I had found my pace quickening as I remembered the sense of despair I routinely felt during my reluctant visits to these places of researched mediocrity to confer with professional colleagues on matters unsuited to an office environment. I had reflected, with grudging admiration, that from their headquarters in whatever characterless North American cities currently harboured them, their owners had succeeded in finding the precise combination of furnishings – brown sofas, blonde wood and red walls – which offered neither style nor comfort. Moreover, each venue’s ensemble presented the appearance of having been delivered, flat-packed, in a single container, from a culture which cared nothing of the one to which it was supplying its wares. Tea, if it was offered at all in any of these dismal establishments, I had reflected, was invariably presented to the customer contained in a perforated, plastic bag immersed in scalding water, itself contained in a mug or cardboard beaker displaying the name of the corporate entity culpable for the existence of the emporium. The bag was typically attached to a piece of string, the other end of which was fixed to a small piece of cardboard bearing the name of the blend. To the best of my recollection, the skills available to those functionaries responsible for preparing the beverages offered to me were, on no occasion, sufficient to prevent the piece of cardboard and the entire length of the string from joining the tea bag in its occupancy of the scalding water. All that remained was for the customer, should he or she choose to do so, to add milk (contained in a battered communal flask with a screw-top lid) and to stir the concoction with a wooden stick. The removal of the tea bag from the scalding water was, in my limited experience, both logistically challenging and potentially hazardous, there being little choice but to allow it to remain in situ and further contribute to whatever flavour might be discerned as emerging from the slowly-cooling preparation.
Shortly afterwards, as I had neared the Avenue de Peupliers, I remember lamenting the fact that my age now obliged me to take notice of every ache and pain appearing in my body and not only to afford them my attention, but to seriously consider treating them with a modicum of care and rest. As I did so, I suddenly realised, with a certain degree of resentment, that my most recent squash opponent, the aforementioned Monsieur Gommendy was unlikely to be troubled with such concerns being, in my estimation, a mere youth of some sixteen or so summers.
Thus it was that, pushing open the heavy, oak-panelled door to the Café Angelina, I had been momentarily reminded of my Aunt Léonie’s parlour at Combray with its elegant furnishings, fine art and finely-woven carpet. I remembered, in my youth, visiting my aunt’s home for tea, sometimes with my parents, sometimes, when I was older, alone. Yet, stepping over the threshold of Monsieur and Madame.Le Corbusier’s salon, the memory had disappeared almost immediately with the ringing of the brass doorbell, attached by a spring to the back of the door where it was fixed with a steel shoe cap. Suddenly disconnected from my memories, I had removed my hat, sensing a momentary silence as the salon’s clientele paused in their conversation and turned to see who might be applying to join them in taking refreshment.
Yet, even as the sound of the doorbell was fading, it had been replaced by the chiming of a Louis XIV clock standing on the mantelpiece at the far end of the room. Instantly, my attention had been drawn to the clock with its Boulle case surmounted by a brass putto which I had often admired during my previous visits. I recalled that my eyes had sought out its handsome form complete with its glazed door, enamel plaques and ornate decorative mount, and that, even at a distance the length of a squash court, I could discern the movement of its pendulum, crafted, as I knew it to be, in the shape of Phoebus. By the time it had struck four, Madame Le Corbusier had appeared from the kitchen and joined me by the door, smiling in recognition as she walked the length of the salon towards me.
“Your usual table, Monsieur?” she had enquired, immediately upon reaching the spot where I was waiting in anticipation of my refreshment. I recall nodding in agreement, suddenly aware of the seemingly orchestrated rise in the room’s conversational ambience as the chime of the clock faded and the salon’s clientele resumed their social intercourse. In agreeing to Madame Le Corbusier’s invitation, I had immediately felt safe in the knowledge that my hostess would make every effort to ensure that my visit to her much-loved and highly-esteemed establishment would, yet again, surpass my expectations in terms both of service and comfort, let alone of the sheer joy of spending even a brief period of time in such an aesthetically pleasing and historic venue. Such indeed, I had mused, as my hostess relieved me of my overcoat, scarf and squash bag, was the feeling I had so often experienced when arriving at my aunt’s home in Combray, an imposing three-story dwelling constructed in the late 19th-century in the Provincial Neo-Renaissance English style. The splendour of that property, I had recalled as my hostess led me to my table by one of the salon’s lead-framed windows, was reflected in the status of my uncle, a senior diplomat and one-time ambassador to The Court of St.James in London. I further remembered the house being, on many occasions, the venue of glittering receptions, sumptuous banquets and colourful garden parties, attended not just by family members, but by neighbours, local dignitaries and national figures including, on one occasion, Monsieur Pierre Messmer, President of the Fifth Republic.
My hostess having left me to peruse the menu I had, at first, allowed my gaze to wander about the room, settling, in turn, on its occupants, on its many beautiful architectural and decorative features, and on the numerous objets d’art mounted on its walls and displayed in cabinets, on shelves and on plinths throughout the salon. My eyes havingbeen drawn to the early 19th-century French cut-glass and ormolu chandelier and, for a few moments, to the people, and occasional motor vehicle, hurrying by outside my window, I had lowered my gaze only to find it drawn to the handsome face of a fashionably-attired young woman sitting two tables away from my own. I had been immediately in mind of someone from my past, someone who, based on the powerful feelings of admiration I was now experiencing, had held a not unimportant place in my affections. Searching my memory in an attempt to remember who might once have held such a place, I had become aware of the approach towards my table of Cécile, one of Madame Corbusier’s admirable waitresses who, I assumed, was desirous of ascertaining what I had chosen from the menu.
Being, as I was, a regular visitor, I had needed barely a moment to glance at the menu before swiftly making an order of tea and cake which, even at the instant of its making, had become lost to my memory, distracted, as the latter was, by my desire to identify the cause of my current feelings, which I had presumed to be hidden deep within its recesses. No sooner had Cécile written down my order on her notepad and left my table, than I had resumed my observation of my fellow customer whose presence, at such proximity, continued to affect me in a way I struggled to comprehend, my thoughts accompanied by feelings of confusion, anxiety and passion. Of whom, I had asked myself repeatedly, does she remind me? At what time in my life had I encountered someone who had aroused such emotions in me? Such had continued to be my questions to myself when, after what had seemed to be an eternity but which, in reality, was but a few minutes, Cécile had appeared bearing a silver tray upon which my order resided and towards which, in turn, my attention was thankfully diverted. I had nodded and smiled appreciatively as Cécile carefully transferred the contents of her tray to the surface of my table, arranging the individual items – silver teapot, hot water jug, tea strainer, milk jug and sugar bowl, china tea cup, saucer and plate, silver teaspoon, knife and cake fork – in a precise pattern, beautifully conceived to heighten the customer’s sense of aesthetic pleasure and ease of use. I had thanked my waitress who had then smiled and turned her attention to serving those other customers to whom she had been assigned.
Turning my own attention to the ritual in which I was about to participate, I had raised the lid of the teapot and, taking my teaspoon, stirred its contents, suddenly inhaling the intoxicating aroma of the infusion as it strengthened in front of me. After closing the lid and waiting for a few seconds, I had grasped the teapot by its silver handle, lifted the strainer from its base and simultaneously manoeuvred both towards a necessary rendezvous immediately above my teacup. I had lovingly filled the cup noting, with pleasure, the golden-brown hue of its contents before returning the teapot and strainer to their original positions on the surface of the table. Further manoeuvres had then been performed which had added first milk and then a half-teaspoon of sugar to the contents of my cup before stirring the final mixture and returning the teaspoon to its home on the saucer. Reverentially, I had then lifted the cup to my lips and taken a few sips of what revealed itself to be a delightful infusion, refined yet subtly robust with a subtle, lingering hint of sweetness. In a state of high anticipation, I had then gazed covetously at the plate of petite madeleines placed conveniently by Cécile to the left of my cup, admiring their shell-like forms and, even now, gauging their lightness, their consistency and their promise. Slowly and tenderly, as though caressing a lover, I lifted one of the confectioneries from the plate with my left hand, dipped it quickly yet gently into the contents of my cup, and raised it to my lips.
No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which, on Sunday mornings at Combray, my Aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.
Then, as the memory had slowly begun to fade, I had dipped what remained of the madeleine in my cup and raised it, once again, to my lips. Once more, a memory of Combray had come to me, this time of a summer’s afternoon when,at the age of sixteen, in the garden of my aunt’s house, I had been introduced to Juliette, her body flexing like an elite squash player as she bowed in a show of mock courtesy and handed me something which, gazing into her eyes, I had taken from her without knowing or caring what it was. Was she, then, the object of the memory I had been struggling to recall, the memory invoked by my feelings on seeing the stylish young woman sitting near me in the salon? I recalled the slight dizziness I had felt in her presence as I looked at the exquisite shape of her lips and the movement of her mouth as she spoke, too dazed or perhaps too distant to hear her words. Now, even as I reflected on the questions emerging from my own consciousness, I recalled how Juliette had turned and walked away to resume her duties as a waitress at my aunt’s garden party, leaving her young admirer holding, as though it was a love letter, a plate of petite madeleines. Again the memory had faded, the warmth and fragrance of the garden giving way to the hum of conversation and the tinkling of fine tableware.
Suddenly, I had realised that what I sought, what I struggled to recall, dwelt not in heavenly infusions or confectioneries but within myself. The white-hooded elixir and the soft shell-like ambrosia were my guides down to the underworld, and would assist me in shaking free the anchor that kept these elusive memories so firmly held in the depths of my consciousness. Closing my eyes, I had leant back in my chair and breathed deeply, sinking into a state of torpor, suddenly exhausted by the effort of searching for the source of feelings experienced long ago and of desires still lying dormant in the depths of my being.
When I awoke, I was lying in my bed in Combray, my mother gently shaking my shoulder to wake me. At the touch of her hand I looked up. ”I’m sorry, Monsieur, but would you mind moving to a smaller table?” I found myself staring into the eyes of a young waitress and realised that my squash opponent had left the coffee shop to which we had come after our match. My empty mug, complete with spent tea bag, sat on the low table in front of me together with the cellophane wrapper from a brownie. A group of young mothers with perambulators waited in the doorway looking expectantly towards me.
I stood, picked up my squash bag, and walked out onto the busy Parisian boulevard.
Thanks to Patrick McGuinness, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford for his Daily Telegraph article “Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust?” which celebrates the publication, one hundred years ago (in 1913), of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume of Proust’s great novel “In Search of Lost Time.”
Thanks also to Mark Crick whose recipé for tiramisu (written in the style of Proust) was a major influence in writing the above story. You can find the recipe in Mark’s book “Kafka’s Soup.” I’ve used the structure of Mark’s recipé (he’s a chef) in this story.
The above story includes a short passage of text taken from “Swann’s Way” describing what is often referred to as the narrator’s famous “tea-and-cake epiphany” or “madeleine moment.”
Part comedy of manners (the book is often very funny), part quest (for love, for self, for identity), and part anatomy of desire and sexual awakening, “In Search of Lost Time” captures a world that is both universally recognisable and unique to its historical moment.
Ah’ve nae really thought aboot it; Just played it, ye knaw, since Ah was a bairn. Ah still do too whin some fucker rings me up wanting a fix.
Yeah, that’s it; a fucking fix.
Ah dunno. Maybe it kinday makes things seem mair real tae some people, ye knaw? Ah mean, basically, we live a short, disappointing, fucking life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi’ shite, things like careers and relationships, tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally fucking pointless. Wi’ squash, whin ye feel good, ye feel immortal. Whin ye feel bad, it intensifies the shite that’s already thair. It doesnae alter yir consciousness. It just gies ye a hit and a sense ay well-being. Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it really fucking is, and ye can’t anaesthetise yirsel against it.
Maybe that’s whit Ah’m saying. Maybe it’s nae different frae smack tae some people. Fir me, though, it’s different.
Squash is the only really honest fucking drug there is.
OH MY GOD, WHERE THE FUCK AM I?
Where the fuck…Ah dinnae recognise this room at aw…ah can’t swallow…can’t… generate enough saliva tae free mah tongue frae the roof ay mah mouth…Ah can’t see! Whit the fuck…?
There’s something flickering over in the corner, something black and white. The telly’s oan. Ah move my heid…just a wee bit before the jackhammers start. Then, ah can jist see…thank fuck fir that…ah’m lying oan the carpet in the living room…in the shitehole ah call home…feeling… fucking freezing!
Ah start tae move, then…shite, I’m fucking soaked! Ah’m fucking freezing and ah’ve pissed myself. Mah guts feel like they’re bein’ beaten wi’ a fucking egg whisk…churning around like…aw, fuck! Ah slam the anchors oan and scrabble aboot trying tae make it tae the bog before…
Ah try and piece together the last twenty-four hours. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. The match, at Hampden. Fucking stuffed, ah imagine. Ah don’t even want tae think aboot the day. Ah can’t fucking remember whither or not ah even made it tae the game. Ah remember ah met Swanney, Sicko and Begs. Yeah, that’s right. Fucking headbangers, all ay them. Then…
Ah can remember fuck all after that pub in…Rutherglen; the space-cake, the speed, the dope, the tab ay acid. Not tae mention the bottle o’ vodka ah put away before we met in…in the previous pub…before we got the bus tae…
It’s all getting too fucking complicated. Ah decide it’s time fae action. Ah need the old slowburn, something soft tae warm me up and ease me back intae the flow.
The ‘phone kicks in and blows the back off mah heid. Ah make a vague attempt tae remember who the fuck ah dinnae want tae hear from, then give up whin the list gets too big tae store in mah short-term memory. Ah lift the receiver.
It’s Spud, sounding full ay fucking beans, sounding like someone who hasnae just woken up lying in his own urine.
Ah’m non-committal. The last time ah went oan a recreational outing wi’ Spud, ah woke up in Leith lying in a lot mair thin mah ain piss.
“Ah got a court at three doon the sports.”
“Three o’clock, chum. Squash. We agreed, remember?’
Ah’m trying tae get a handle on when the fuck ah was in any fit state tae agree anything. The previous pub? Oan the bus tae…? Ah decide tae go wi’ the flow.
“Yeah, yeah, I knaw. Tomorrow at three. I’ll…”
“Today at three. Monday at three, that’s whit we…”
Whit the fuck happened tae Sunday?
“Yeah, yeah. See you there then.”
Ah’ve got tae get a fucking grip.
Ten-thirty. Ah’ve still got time tae get over tae…where? I review mah slowburn procurement options. Swanney? Yeah, yeah, he’s mah main man, mah Mister Reliable, always…aw, fuck!
Ah remember whit happened tae curtail mah socialising at the previous pub, wherever the fuck it was. Swanney’ll still be helping the local constabulary wi’ their enquiries, nae fucking doot.
Strike fucking one.
Ah resume mah procurement review. Seeker’s services are awready temporarily unavailable tae me due tae his, in mah ain personal view, unfair detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Ah still owe Franco fir mah last major excursion intae white powder land, which leaves…Raymie. Ah dial his number. A lassie answers.
“Hello?” she sniffs. Either she’s got a cold or she’s on the skag. Promising.
“Is Raymie there? It’s Mark Renton here.”
“Raymie’s away,” she says. “London.”
“London? Fuck…whin’s he due back?”
“He didnae leave anything fir us, did he?” Chance wid be a fine thing, the cunt.
Ah shakily put the ‘phone down, feeling cold. Only one choice now and ah’ve still got tae get tae the sports by three.
Nothing fir it. Ah ring that cunt Mikey Forrester. Fifteen minutes later, ah’m oan the thirty-two bus tae Muirhoose wi’ mah sports bag and squash racket. Ah knaw ah’m going tae get fucked aboot and ripped off wi’ some crap gear. But, any port in a fucking storm.
And mah guts are starting up again.
Forrester’s maisonette is in a block five stories high wi’ a lift. It disnae work. Tae conserve energy, ah slide along the wall oan mah journey up the stairs. Christ knaws whit state ah’ll be in whin I get on court wi’ Spud, even after a chemical pick-me-up.
Ah try and pull mahsel together at Forrester’s door, but he’ll knaw ah’m suffering. An ex-skag merchant always knaws whin someone’s sick. Ah just don’t want the bastard tae knaw how fucking desperate ah feel.
Ah knock oan the door. Forrester can obviously see mah ginger hair through the wired, dimpled glass door. He takes a fucking age tae answer, fucking me aboot before ah even set foot in the place. The door opens.
He looks doon, sees mah gear then looks at me suspiciously.
“Whit the fuck’s that?”
“Mah squash gear. Got a match after ah leave here. League match doon the sports.”
His jaw drops. Ah’ve got him on the fucking run.
There’s a pause. Ah can see him trying tae figure oot why someone who’s just off tae play squash is looking tae ingest something that’ll impair his ability to remain fucking conscious. He shrugs his shoulders. Ah dutifully follow him in.
Ah sit oan the couch, beside but a bit away frae a gross bitch wi’ a broken leg. Her greasy peroxide locks have an inch o’ insipid grey-broon at their roots. She’s watching a panel o’ middle-aged boilers gossiping on the telly. Forrester sits opposite me in a worn-oot armchair, beefy-faced but thin-bodied, almost bald at twenty-five.
“This is mah sister, Megan,” he nods at the bleached whale.
“Pleased tae meet you,” I lie. She ignores me, leaving the field open fir me tae keep her brother off-balance. I lean towards Forrester and lower my voice conspiratorially.
“How’s it going wi’ Gail?” I ask innocently. His relatively recent girl-friend.
“No joy yet,” he responds. He doesnae look happy.
“How long is it now then?” I enquire.
“Six weeks! My, that is a long time. It must be quite frustrating fir a man ay yir…” Ah pause fir maximum effect. He disnae let me finish mah impartial observation, stands up and gestures fir me tae follow him tae the kitchen. He closes the door.
“It’s a fucking nightmare, Rents. She told me she didnae want oor relationship tae start oan a physical basis as that’s how it’d principally be defined from then oan in.” He soonds like he’s reading from a fucking script…and it’s no his.
“Where did she come up wi’ that?”
“She read it in Cosmopolitan.”
Ah look concerned, thin shake mah heid in disbelief, tutting
“So six weeks and nae sex then?” Ah let my incredulity segué effortlessly intae sympathy imbued wi’ a soupcon ay male cameraderie. All very fucking Gallic.
“Ah’m telling ye, Rents, ah’ve got balls like fucking watermelons.” He looks like he’s going tae cry.
“Hang in there, Mikey.” Ah pat him oan the back.
We share a brief moment. Time tae dae a deal and head tae the sports.
He digs aroond in a cupboard and produces two white capsules frae a tea caddy. Ah’ve nivver seen the likes ay them before. They’re hard, bomb-shaped things wi’ a waxy coat oan them. I stare at them and, suddenly, a powerful rage grabs hold of me frae fucking nowhere.
“Whit the fuck is this shite?” Ah scream at him.
Mikey looks at me wi’ a hurt expression.
“Opium, Rents. Opium suppositories. Ideal fir whit ye want. Slow release. Bring ye doon gradual like. Custom fucking designed fir ye needs. Ye’ll be moving ‘roond that court like a fucking whippet.””
His tone’s changed. It’s cagey, almost apologetic. Mah ootburst has shattered oor sick symbiosis.
“Whit the fuck dae ah dae wi’ these?” Ah says, then break intae a smile as it dawns oan us. Ah’ve let Mikey off the hook.
“Dae ye really want me tae tell ye?” he sneers, regaining some ay the power he’d relinquished during oor previous dialogue.
“Look, Rents. Listen tae the voice ay experience,” he smiles. “These things’ll melt through yir system, the charge’ll build up, and then it’ll slowly fade away. That’s the cunts they use in hospital, fir fuck’s sake.”
Ah dae the deal then retire tae the toilet and insert the suppositories, wi’ great diligence, up mah arse. It’s the first time ah’ve ever stuck mah finger up mah arse and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits me.
There’s nae time tae waste. Ten past two. Just enough time tae get tae the sports. Ah head fir the door.
“Cheers, Mikey, Ah’m off.”
There’s nae attempt tae acknowledge the departure ay a valued customer, but Mikey’s sister suddenly lets oot an embarrassing donkey-like laugh at some inane remark. Whither it’s frae her brother or the boilers oan the telly, ah decide tae ignore it.
After aw, ah’m heading fir mah next fix.
Ah make it tae the sports wi’ ten minutes tae spare and head fir the changing room. Ah unzip mah bag and stand back as the stench escapes and begins tae invade mah nostrils. Fuck knaws how long it’s been since I washed any o’ mah kit but ah’m half expecting it tae climb oot and head fir the nearest laundrette.
Ah climb intae my shorts ignoring the broon skidmarks ingrained in the briefs. The shirt’s nae better although it’s original colour scheme has changed wi’ the cumulative absorption, over time, ay a range o’ bodily excretions, not necessarily all mine.
Spud’s warming up ootside court two, performing a range ay stretching and lunging exercises which are frightening the bairns waiting tae start their mini-squash session oan court one. A couple o’ them are trying tae hide behind their mums. The coach, a fat guy wearing a navy track-suit, is glowering at Spud who doesnae even notice his presence.
He notices me though.
“Awright, Rents?” he says, predictably. He’s wearing a luminous green shirt which sets mah guts off again just looking at it as he jumps aroond.
He stops and puts oan a yellow headband tae complete his hideous ensemble.
“So, fifty quid then is it?”
“Fifty quid each. Winner takes all. We agreed, remember?”
Ah’m just aboot tae disagree wi’ Spud’s version ay whitever we did or didnae agree, whin ah feel the suppositories begin tae kick in. Suddenly, ah’m feeling surprisingly mellow and well-disposed towards mah old squash buddy, untrustworthy cunt though he is.
“Yeah, yeah, fifty quid.”
A moment ay weakness. Too fucking late tae back oot now.
We knock off the occupants ay court two and start tae warm up the ball. Spud is beating twelve shades ay fucking broon oot ay it, drilling it back tae himself so ah barely get a look-in. Ah try a few drives, drops and volleys tae get a feel fir the court and try tae spot Spud’s strengths and weaknesses as he hurls himself aboot. Based oan his recent attempts tae seek gainful employment, deception probably falls intae the second category.
Interviewer: Mr. Murphy, do you mean that you lied on your application form?
Spud: No! Uh. well yes. But only tae get mah foot in the door, sir. Showing initiative and that, like.
Interviewer: But you were referred here by the Department of Employment, Mr. Murphy; there was no need for you to get your “foot in the door,” as you put it.
Spud: Ehhh… cool. Whitever ye say, boss. I’m sorry. You’re the man, sir. The dude in the chair.
Ah win the spin and serve the first ball oot. Love one and Spud’s not even had tae play a fucking shot. Ah stick his first serve intae the tin, then play a fucking air shot oan his next. Love three and ah start tae imagine mah fifty quid being flushed doon the bog despite the fact that ah’ve nae got fifty quid anyway.
Ah manage tae return Spud’s next serve and a rally develops, me fending the ball ontae the front wall, Spud running aroond like he’s got a fucking firecracker up his arse, thrashing it tae the back ay the court. The sweat’s pouring off him giving his shirt a two-tone appearance which sets off mah guts again as he zips in and oot ay mah field ay view. Ah manage tae stay in a few rallies but Spud takes the first 15-3. Wanker.
In the interval, Spud drinks aboot two fucking gallons ay water frae the cooler, rushes back oan court and starts whacking the ball aroond before ah’ve had time tae catch mah breath. Ah’m still feeling mellow but then it fucking dawns oan me.
Whit the fuck is Spud oan?
A list o’ banned substances flashes before mah eyes…morphine, diamorphine, cyclizine, codeine, temazepam, nitrazepam, phenobarbitone, sodium amytal, dextropropoxyphene, methadone, nalbuphine, pethidine, pentazocine, buprenorphine, dextromoramide, chlormethiazole…
Now ah’m starting tae get mad. Here ah am trying tae come doon safely frae a two-day drugs and alcohol-induced high, and whit dae ah find? The so-called squash buddy who’s kindly arranged fir me tae share some enjoyable sporting activity wi’ him is trying tae cheat me oot ay fifty quid by taking illegal fucking substances!
Ah’m livid. Ye cannae fucking trust anybody nowadays!
Ah storm back ontae court intending tae up mah game and blow the cunt away. Ah hang in there but wi’ a growing realisation, metamorphosing intae horror, that all isnae well in the vicinity o’ mah bowels. Spud wins the second 11-7 but looks fucked and staggers in the general direction o’ the door like a blind zombie. Ah beat him tae it, exit the court like a greyhoond oot ay a fucking trap and sprint tae the bog.
Ah blunder intae a vacant cubicle, drop mah shorts and drop ontae the cold porcelain shunky. Thin, ah empty mah guts, feeling as though everything: bowels, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling oot ay mah arsehole intae the bowl.
Ah’m just aboot tae clean up and flush the bowl whin ah’m struck wi’ the realisation ay mah situation. Ah sit frozen fir a moment, but only a moment. Ah’ve only got aboot twenty seconds tae get back oan court before Spud claims the fucking game, the match and the fifty quid. Conflicting wi’ this requirement is the urgent need tae retrieve mah suppositories frae the pan and return them whence they’ve just beenejected.
Ah make an executive decision, paper mah posterior and fall off the pan onto mah knees. Thin, ah plunge mah hands and forearms intae the broon water. Ah rummage aroond fastidiously and get one ay mah bombs back straight away. Ah rub off some ay the shite that’s attached tae it and stick it oan top ay the cistern. Then, ah go back in and locate the other after several long dredges through the mess and panhandling ay the shite. A quick rinse under the cauld tap and, Bob’s yer uncle, they’re ready fir re-insertion. Ah slip them intae the pocket ay mah shorts and head fir court two at speed.
By now, ah’m guessing that Spud’s finished rehearsing his argument as tae why ah should forfeit the game, the match and the fifty quid. “Sorry, Rents, but them’s the rules. Ninety seconds between games. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”
Whin ah get tae the court, the door’s ajar and Spud’s bag is lying ootside. There’s nae sign ay him and and nae soond coming frae inside. Where the fuck is he? There’s naebody sitting ootside the courts, the mini-squash mums having gone up tae the balcony tae watch their off-spring terrorise the fucking coach.
Ah shrug mah shoulders and shove the court door which, surprisingly, meets wi’ some resistance. Ah poke mah heid aroond it tae be greeted wi’ the sight ay Spud lying flat oot wi’ his heid resting in a pool ay whit ah assume tae be the recent contents ay his stomach. He’s nae moving although ah can see his chest moving up and doon, and a slight ripple effect as his breath wafts across the surface ay his vomit.
Ah wait a couple o’ minutes before summoning the first-aiders frae the front desk tae scrape Spud off the floor. Just enough time tae extract mah winnings frae the wallet in Spud’s bag. “Sorry, Spud, ah thought it was best tae leave ye in capable hands. Pity ye had tae forfeit the match, but them’s the rules. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”
After they’ve mopped up, ah wander back oan court fir a moment tae contemplate the grand scheme ay things. Life, death, drugs, squash and the wonder that is the human fucking body.
As ah hear the sound of balls smacking against the walls ay the neighbouring courts, ah walk over tae the ‘T’, smile…and put mah hand slowly intae mah pocket.
End of fucking story.
This story is based on scenes taken from the first part of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, ‘Trainspotting’, and dialogue from the 1996 film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle. In the film version, Renton was played by Ewan McGregor and Spud by Ewen Bremner. Thanks to the International Movie Database for its collection of quotes from the film version.
The late-1990s. Somewhere in South East England. A squash club bar. It is a Thursday evening in late October. Outside, it is dark. The bar is furnished with a selection of tables and chairs, and a solitary pool table. The floor is covered with a carpet bearing a geometrical pattern consisting of interlocking orange, blue and cream figures. The walls are hung with framed photographs and posters. A trophy cabinet containing engraved silver cups and shields stands against the far wall. A jumble of sports bags and racket covers is piled by a coat-stand next to the bar entrance. Music can be heard emanating faintly from the tannoy.
Behind the bar, Ange Whittaker, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties is filling the sink with hot water. She is wearing a black-and-white print dress. Four men are seated around one of the tables drinking beer from straight glasses.
Jack Sugden, a white-haired man in his early seventies, is the Club Secretary and has been for over twenty years; he still plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
Graham Adams is the League Organiser. A policeman in his mid-forties, he is tall, has cropped fair hair and plays for the Club’s Men’s First Team in the county leagues.
Ron Tetlow is a member of the Squash Club Committee and helps to organise competitions and social events. He is in his mid-sixties and has retired from playing but is a marker at team fixtures. He is of medium build, balding and wears black-rimmed spectacles.
Andrew McGrath is a club member. He is tall and has receding ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. He plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
The men are sitting in silence.
RON: Makes you think, doesn’t it?
He stares directly ahead of him, then takes a sip from his glass.
JACK: It certainly does, Ron. It certainly does.
There’s no doubt about that.
RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.
JACK: True, true.
RON: In the midst of life…
I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.
GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?
RON: In the handicap.
Terry must have been giving him a few points then.
RON: Twenty-seven, I think.
GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.
Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.
RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.
I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?
GRAHAM: I would have thought so.
RON: And Ernie must have been…
RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?
I thought he was older than that.
Behind the bar, ANGE is washing some glasses.
RON: He was looking forward to going on holiday.
JACK: Who? Terry?
RON: No, Ernie. With…you know…his missus…er…
RON: Is it?
JACK: Anywhere nice?
RON: Sounded Spanish I think…or it could have been Portuguese. I’m not that well up on place names, foreign countries, that sort of thing.
I’ve been to France mind you.
JACK: Have you? What part?
RON: Now there’s a question. I’d have to ask the missus. She books everything, see.
Or was it Belgium?
The group sits in silence.
Suddenly, the door swings open and GARETH Prosser enters. He is in his mid-forties, thick-set with black hair and sideburns. He is wearing a tweed cap, a light-coloured parka and a tartan scarf. He looks at the group, then at the bar, then back at the group.
GARETH: Christ! What’s wrong with you lot? It’s like a bloody morgue in here.
The members of the group turn around. ANGE starts crying.
JACK: You haven’t heard then?
GARETH: Heard what?
JACK: Ernie died last night.
GARETH: No! Ernie?
He takes his cap off. ANDREW stands up and walks to the bar, looking at GARETH. He lifts up the counter, goes behind the bar and puts his arm around ANGE.
We had a court booked for Tuesday.
GARETH walks over to the bar where ANGE is wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.
GARETH: Sorry, Ange, I didn’t realise.
He leans over the bar and touches her on the arm.
Very insensitive of me.
Pint of bitter when you’re ready, love. No hurry.
He takes off his parka and hangs it on the coat-stand with his scarf and cap.
Accident was it?
He walks over to the group and sits down in Andrew’s chair.
RON: He dropped dead on court last night.
Behind the bar, ANGE starts crying again. She rests her head onANDREW’s shoulder.
RON: Two. I was watching, wasn’t I. Dropped in to book a court, heard someone playing, went up to the balcony. Bob’s your uncle. There’s Ernie playing young Alan.
GARETH: League match, was it?
RON: Hell of a ding-dong. Ernie keeping it tight, lobbing. Alan running around like a blue-arsed fly, getting everything back. You know Alan.
GARETH: Only we’re…well we were all in the same league, like.
RON: Alan gets the first. Ernie levels it. Slows things down, you know, like he does…
GARETH: Finishes a week on Sunday, doesn’t it Graham?
GRAHAM: What does?
GARETH: The league.
GRAHAM: That’s right. I’ll take the sheets down at six o’clock.
GARETH: Only I haven’t played all my matches yet.
RON looks at GARETH.
RON: Do you want to know what happened or not?
GARETH: Sorry, Ron. Go on.
RON: Alan gets the third. Ernie squares it at two-all. It’s nip and tuck in the fifth. Alan’s up, Ernie pegs him back, then Ernie’s up, then Alan squares it at nine all and Ernie calls ‘set one’!
He leans back in his chair, exhausted.
JACK: He must have been tired.
RON: They both looked buggered, Jack. Absolutely buggered. That’s when it happened.
RON looks towards the bar where ANDREW is chatting with ANGE. He is helping her with the washing up. He lowers his voice and leans forward in his chair.
Alan only goes and serves out, doesn’t he, so Ernie’s got match ball. He puts up one of his lob serves and moves to the T. Alan volleys it back cross-court. It whistles past Ernie on the forehand and bounces up onto the back wall. Ernie turns round and dives towards it, swinging through with his racket.
Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.
He leans back in his chair.
GARETH: So Alan won then?
GARETH: Well it’s a walk-over isn’t it? Ernie can’t play on.
RON: No, no, no. Ernie won the match.
GARETH: How do you work that out then?
RON: You didn’t let me finish, did you?
He leans forward again.
On his way down, Ernie gets his racket to the ball and lifts it hard onto the back wall. It loops up towards the front wall, drops, brushes it and bounces twice. Dead.
Alan doesn’t get anywhere near it.
RON leans back in his chair.
GARETH: A back wall boast you mean?
RON: Ernie’s signature shot. I’ve seen it get him out of trouble more times than I care to remember.
JACK: What a way to go, eh?
RON: You couldn’t make it up.
GARETH: So you’re telling me that somebody who’s dead can win a rally?
RON: Well obviously he was alive when he hit the ball.
GARETH: Yes, but…
GRAHAM: The point is, Gareth, it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Ernie was dead before or after the ball was. Alan couldn’t get to it and Ernie wasn’t obstructing him.
RON: Neither of them was bleeding or injured either…
GRAHAM: …so there wasn’t any reason for them to stop playing, was there, let alone agree a walk-over.
GRAHAM: Look, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a player has to be alive when they win a rally, or a point. They don’t even say that matches have to be between two players who are actually alive…
RON: …or that they have to remain alive for the entire duration of the match.
GRAHAM: I’ve checked.
The group sits in silence. ANDREW comes out from behind the bar and walks over to the coat-stand.
GARETH: Anyway, nobody’s put the score down.
GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.
JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.
GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.
RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.
The rest of the group look at RON.
RON: His girlfriend. That redhead with the…
JACK: You mean Samantha? Ernie’s daughter? You never said.
RON: Is she? Well I didn’t know, did I. I’m no good with names.
GRAHAM: …foreign countries, places…
JACK: So she was there then?
RON: It must have slipped my mind. What with all the confusion. You know…ambulance…police…looking for the first-aid box…
GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?
RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?
She dries a glass and places it on a shelf behind the bar.
ANDREW puts on his coat and scarf. He picks up his sports bag and walks to the door.
ANDREW: Well, I’d best be off. ‘Night all.
He opens the door and leaves the bar.
ALL: ‘Night, Andrew.
GRAHAM: So where does that leave your league then, Gareth?
GARETH takes a pen from his inside pocket and starts writing on a beer-mat.
He mutters to himself as he calculates each player’s points.
…I’ve got eleven and Mike’s got…er…four.
GRAHAM: So you’re telling me that the promotion spots in your league are currently occupied by someone who’s dead and someone who’s lost to him?
GARETH: Well, at the moment, yes.
RON: So Ernie could go up then?
GRAHAM: Don’t be stupid, Ron.
GARETH: It could all change of course. Andrew’s still got to play Alan. Both of them could overtake Ernie.
GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.
GARETH: So that means I should go up then.
GRAHAM: How do you work that out?
GARETH: Well Andrew’s not playing in the next round of the league.
He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.
GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.
RON: I wonder why that is? He never said anything.
JACK: Probably upset about Ernie, I shouldn’t wonder. Great friends they were. He used to go round there a lot you know.
RON: Now you mention it I have seen him coming out of Ernie’s house. Yes. All hours of the day and night. While I’ve been passing, like.
GRAHAM: Yes, yes. Him and Ernie go way back.
JACK: And Maureen.
RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.
GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.
RON: Yes, yes.
I could ask him, I suppose, but…
ANGE: Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’s going on holiday!
The group turns to look at ANGE who is staring at them from behind the bar.
JACK: Oh, is he? Anywhere nice?
I got the idea for ‘Back Wall Boast’ from a UK television play broadcast in 1987. It was called ‘The Clinger’ and was set in a squash club somewhere in England. The play was one of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).
Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous story-lines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.
Whatever qualities he might previously have attributed to his coach, one leading squash player must have sensed that he shared at least some characteristics with another famous Yorkshire-born sports coach. “Dad’s the Brian Clough of squash,” said World Number 1, James Willstrop just before the London Olympics.
Whether this disclosure came as a surprise to Malcolm Willstrop is unknown. When Clough was in his heyday as a manager in the 1970s, Willstrop junior had not even been born. But Willstrop senior would certainly have been aware of Clough’s achievements, not just as a manager but as a player whose career was tragically cut short by injury. He would also have been aware of his outspokenness, arrogance and lack of respect for authority.
And, although it was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media of the time, he may even have been aware of Clough’s attachment to something which embodied another of his sporting passions.
His squash racket.
Clough the Footballer
“Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair.” (Brian Clough)
The sixth of nine children, Clough was born in 1935 in Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Following national service in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his home town club, Middlesbrough, scoring 204 goals in 222 league matches including 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. However, he was also prone to submitting transfer requests on a regular basis and had a tense relationship with some of his fellow players. He was especially irked by Boro’s leaky defence, which conceded goals as regularly as he scored them. After a 6–6 draw against Charlton Athletic, Clough sarcastically asked his team mates how many goals he would have to score in order for them to win a match.
While playing for Boro, Clough was capped twice for the England national team,failing to score on either occasion. Eventually, in July 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he moved to Boro’s local rivals Sunderland where he scored 63 goals in 74 matches. Clough’s goal-scoring powers were showing no signs of declining.
But on Boxing Day 1962, disaster struck. Clough tore the medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee in a match against Bury, an injury which, in that era, usually ended a player’s career. Despite an attempted comeback two years later, Clough was forced to retire at the age of 29.
Even today, for players scoring over 200 goals in the English leagues, Clough holds the record for the highest number of goals scored per game (0.916).
But, with his playing career ended, Clough was not prepared to turn his back on football, or controversy.
Clough the Manager
“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” (Brian Clough)
The story of Clough’s career in football management is an epic story punctuated not only with successful domestic and European campaigns, but also with controversies, clashes andfallings out on a heroic scale.
That career started in 1965 with Hartlepool United and finally ended in 1993 with the relegation of his club, Nottingham Forest, from the English Premier League. Clough had won consecutive European Cups with Forest and League Championships with both Forest and Derby County.
But it was in the 1970s that Clough’s managerial career was in the ascendancy, first with Derby County and then, after a tempestuous 44-day reign at Leeds United, with Nottingham Forest.
Clough and the Racket
“We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” (Brian Clough on dealing with a player who disagrees with him.)
It was during his time with Forest that Clough’s squash racket began to appear in an increasing variety of contexts.
Following his forced retirement as a player, Clough had kept himself fit, taking part in five-a-side games during training sessions and, until the early 1980s, playing squash. During his 18 year stint at Nottingham Forest, he played on the courts at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, a short walk from Forest’s stadium at the City Ground. His squash partners included Forest players, notably striker Garry Birtles, and members of the local press who routinely covered Forest’s home and away matches.
But his attachment to his squash racket was not limited to his use of it on the squash court.
Intimidating Football Agents
Having been approached to join Nottingham Forest, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton recalls:
“I discovered how unconventional Clough was when my agents Jon Holmes, Jeff Pointon and I went to see him in his office at the City Ground in September 1977, after Forest had made an official approach to Stoke City for me. We hung outside his office for 10 minutes or so before someone informed us, ‘Mr Clough is ready to see you now.’ Jon and Jeff went in first and I was slack-jawed to see them both go sprawling across the floor. Clough had been hiding to one side of the door and as they entered he had angled a squash racket across their path and tripped them both up. I have no idea if he did this to gain some sort of psychological advantage in the negotiations or whether it was just a prank. It certainly threw Jon and Jeff.”
Orchestrating the Unveiling of England’s First £1M Footballer
Joining Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, striker Trevor Francis found himself waiting in Clough’s office well after the appointed time for his unveiling to the press. “It turned out that he had another engagement,” said Francis later. “He was playing squash over the road at Trent Bridge.” When Clough finally arrived, he was wearing a tracksuit and carrying his squash racket.
During the ensuing press conference, Francis was asked, “When will you be making your debut for Nottingham Forest?” Gesturing at himself with his racket, Clough replied, “When I pick him.”
Supervising Youth Team Training with his Dog
Nottingham Forest Youth Team player Sean Dyche recalls:
“The boss used to travel on the coach for FA Youth Cup games and loved the reserves, but on the training ground he let the coaches coach. He’d come down with his dog and his squash racket and his squash ball. He’d whack that around for the dog and stand at a distance, but every now and then, he’d notice something and you’d hear his voice across the training ground.”
Over the years, the racket clearly acquired a life of its own.
Touting for Squash Matches in Europe
Former Nottingham Evening Post Sports Editor Trevor Frecknall travelled throughout Europe with Forest reporting on their European Cup ties. He recalls that Clough always took his squash racket abroad on the off-chance that he could get a game should there be a court in the vicinity. The racket would also make regular appearances in the club’s hotel, at training sessions and even in the dug-out during matches.
And it also had another function…
Signalling the Need for Tactical Changes
Watching one first team training session before a European Cup away tie, Frecknall observed another use of the racket:
“On the third or maybe fourth occasion the fluency of the kick-about was interrupted by the ball disappearing into a mass of hardy shrubs, Clough raised his squash racket as the signal for the on-field trainer to blow his whistle and halt play.
Each time the ball had left the pitch, it was because Archie Gemmill’s passes were just too far in front of John Robertson on the left wing.
“Mr Gemmill,” Clough beckoned.
“Yes boss,” responded the little Scotland midfield player.
“I bought you to give the ball to Mr Robertson,” drawled Clough.
“Yes boss,” agreed Gemmill.
“As you’ll have noticed, Mr Robertson is a rather corpulent young gentleman with short legs that do not move as fast as some others in the club.”
“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.
“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”
“Good, because if you can’t, we can easily leave you here and find somebody else who can give Mr Robertson the ball where he wants it.”
“So long as we’re clear…”
Clough the Legend
“When I go, God’s going to have to give up his favourite chair.” (Brian Clough)
Brian Clough died in 2004, two years before the appearance of ‘The Damned Utd’, a novel by British writer David Peace. The book, a largely fictional account of Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, re-ignited public interest in Clough’s career and his life. It was commercially successful but widely criticised by Clough’s family and former colleagues as being both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the man himself.
Three years later a film adaptation of the novel, ‘The Damned United’ appeared, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Michael Sheen as Clough. The film was generally well-received by critics but was again met with a chorus of disapproval from Clough’s family.
Yet the place of Clough in the pantheon of flawed British sports heroes remains secure, the realities of his life and times interwoven with stories of what he may, or may not, have done or represented.
So whatever James Willstrop’s may believe about his dad’s qualities, he can rest assured that one thing about Clough and his life is undisputed.
Thanks too, to The Daily Mail for its articles on Trevor Francis and Sean Dyke. You can read Trevor Frecknall’s recollections of Brian Clough in The Nottingham Post here, and find out more about playing squash at Trent Bridge Cricket Club here.
The mid-1970s. Somewhere in North London. A glass-backed squash court viewed from behind the back wall. The glass is streaked with the dried perspiration of sweaty palms. The front and side walls are pocked with the dark impact marks of squash balls and rackets. Chunks of plaster are missing from both side walls where desperate attempts have been made to dig out good-length balls from the back corners. An empty water bottle lies in the front left-hand corner of the court. Above the front right hand corner of the court, a fluorescent tube is flickering, trying to light.
Off-stage, there is the sound of a door opening, its hinges squeaking. The door bangs shut. Footsteps and voices are heard, echoing as their owners walk along a corridor. Two characters enter from stage right; MICK, a dark-haired young man wearing a black leather jacket and track-suit bottoms and carrying a holdall, and DAVIES, an older man, balding, bearded and tramp-like in appearance, wearing a moth-eaten greatcoat and a scarf.
Both are carrying squash rackets.
DAVIES fiddles with the door-catch and curses. He pushes the door open and steps onto the court.
Bloody light. I’ve been meaning to get a new tube.
MICK puts down his bag, unzips it and rummages around inside.
I’ve got a new double yellow in here somewhere.
DAVIES wanders around the court bending down to pick up pieces of fluff and items of litter.
It’s like a bloody pig-sty in here. Some people have got no manners.
MICK props his racket against the back wall and begins a series of stretching exercises.
DAVIES watches him, then looks down at the floor.
Is that blood? That’ll take me ages to get out, that will. You’d think people would have some consideration.
He scuffs at the floor repeatedly with the sole of his right plimsoll.
You could pick something up from that, if you weren’t careful.
I’ll need some bleach.
MICK picks up his racket and steps onto the court.
Bit cold in here, isn’t it? Can’t we have the heaters on?
DAVIES: I can’t be long, mind. I’ve got to go to Sidcup later and get me papers.
MICK: You’re not going anywhere…
He pushes the door shut and starts to warm up the ball, hitting it back to himself repeatedly along the left side wall on his back-hand.
DAVIES: They’ve never been any good.
MICK stops hitting and catches the ball.
DAVIES: The heaters. Old as the hills, see. Can’t get the parts.
MICK drives the ball hard at the front wall on his fore-hand. It flies past DAVIES who ducks out of the way.
How long did you say you’ve been looking after this place?
DAVIES retrieves the ball from the back right-hand corner.
I don’t know…about three years.
MICK: Made a few quid out of it, have you?
DAVIES, still wearing his greatcoat and scarf, turns and starts to drive the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand.
MICK (shouting) I said, made a few quid out of it, have you?
DAVIES glances at MICK then continues warming up the ball.
MICK walks over to DAVIES and shoves him, mid-stroke, towards the right-hand wall.
DAVIES stumbles, hits the ball into the tin and falls to the floor.
No need for that. I heard. They let me live here, don’t they. Got a couple of rooms out the back. Near the boiler-room.
MICK stares at him, then retrieves the ball and resumes knocking up along the left side wall.
How long you been playing, then?
DAVIES gets up from the floor slowly and walks over to the right side service box.
I was in the army. Aldershot.
MICK: Oh yeah? That where you got the coat, is it?
He laughs, sarcastically, and hits the ball cross-court towards DAVIES.
DAVIES hits it onto the front wall, volleys it back to himself twice, then returns it cross-court towards MICK.
Never heard of it before I went in.
The warm-up continues, both men hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves, practising their shots.
MICK: Never heard of what?
DAVIES: Squash. Never heard of it. Big rugby man my dad was, see. Hard as nails. Drummed it into us.
MICK: Your daughter play, then?
DAVIES: My what?
MICK: Your daughter. The one you were going to stay with.
DAVIES: Oh, her.
She lives in Walthamstow.
MICK: Walthamstow? I used to go to the dogs there. Had a little thing going with a few mates. Easy money. Then the law stepped in, so…you a gambler then, are you?
DAVIES: Throw my money away like that? Not bloody likely. Not after…
He stops to unbutton his greatcoat, then walks towards the door.
MICK stops knocking up.
Where do you think you’re going?
DAVIES: I’m warm. Taking off me coat, aren’t I.
He props his racket against the back wall and fiddles with the door latch.
They both leave the court. MICK removes his jacket; he is wearing a navy sweatshirt. DAVIES removes his greatcoat and scarf; he is wearing baggy football shorts and a cricket jumper over a grey shirt.
MICK waits for DAVIES to step back onto the court, then follows him and closes the door.
MICK: Change sides?
DAVIES walks to the left side service box.
MICK: What’s better?
DAVIES: It’s a damn sight lighter on this side.
He starts to laughs, then is overcome with a fit of coughing.
MICK starts to hit the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand, then hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.
DAVIES: Looking for somewhere to stay, are you?
MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.
I might be. Just for a night or two. Need to lie low for a few days, if you get my drift. You know somewhere?
DAVIES: How about fifty quid?
MICK: What about fifty quid? I don’t want to stay at the bloody Ritz, do I.
DAVIES: On the match. How about fifty quid? Make it more interesting, won’t it?
DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up.
MICK: You’ll make what?
DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up. Out the back. Not much of a place but…you know.
MICK: Who did you say used to coach you?
DAVIES: There’s a kitchen just off reception. I’ve got a table and a couple of chairs. How about cheese on toast? I could knock us something up.
He resumes warming-up the ball on his back-hand. The fluorescent tube suddenly lights.
MICK: You play for the army then?
DAVIES: Mind you, the lines are no better.
MICK: What’s no better?
DAVIES points at the floor with his racket.
The lines. On this side. Can’t see the bloody half-court line.
He looks up at the front wall.
I’m buggered if I can see the service line either. Been meaning to get some paint, haven’t I. The bloke I usually get it from’s in hospital, see. Shame. Lost his marbles. Bloody good player he used to be, too. Took a game off…who was it…you know, that Pakistani lad. Or was he Australian? Anyway, he was British Open champion, whoever he was. Used to play at Wanstead.
MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.
How did you used to get on against him then?
DAVIES: Who, the Aussie or the Pakistani? Don’t think I ever played either of them.
MICK: The paint bloke.
DAVIES: Oh, him. We didn’t get to play that often. I had to go away for a while, see. Never got the chance. Used to see him now and again, like, but that was…afterwards…
MICK: After what?
DAVIES: I’ll tell you what. If you win, I’ll put you up for a couple of nights free. If I win, you pay me fifty quid and I’ll chuck in all your meals. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? No rubbish either. Cheese on toast, nice bit of bacon. You likesausages? Can’t have any booze though. Bloke who owns the place won’t have it, see.
MICK: Your daughter ever come here, does she?
DAVIES: You can even use the telephone if you need to talk to a few people, like. What do you think?
MICK looks at DAVIES then turns and resumes warming up the ball. He hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.
The fluorescent tube begins to flicker again. Both men ignore it.
Lights slowly fade.
To the best of my knowledge, British playwright Harold Pinter is the only person ever to used squash in a major dramatic work as a metaphor for male competition. That play, later filmed with actors Patricia Hodge, Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, was Betrayal, premiered in 1978; I wrote about it in a previous post on this blog.
My own hommage to Pinter is based on two of his other plays, The Caretaker (1960) and No Man’s Land (1975). The characters of Mick and Davies appear in the first and the disconnecting and unsettling nature of the dialogue in both.
In 2005, Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2008.
It had been three days before the start of the finals.
He had glanced at his watch. It was almost two fifteen in the morning. Out in the street, he could still hear the music of the milonga drifting down from the windows of the salon. The traffic on Rua do Catete had died down by then but there were still people about, in groups, in couples, walking the warm Rio sidewalks, waiting for taxis, heading to the next drink, to the next dance. Heading home.
He had walked a few yards from the entrance porch of the building and fished his cellular from the inside pocket of his dark grey tailored suit. Pushed a few buttons. Waited.
‘Federico?’ said a man’s voice, a sleepy voice, a big voice. ‘Do you know what time it is?’
‘I’m sorry, Hector,’ he had answered. ‘I had to call. I just danced with my daughter. So did Andres.’
‘You and your tango, Federico. Does he know who she is?’
‘I don’t know. No. Not from the way they were dancing.’
There had been a pause, the sound of a light switch.
‘What about you?’
‘I think she may suspect,’ he had said, then hesitated. ‘I tried to warn her not to play tonight, Hector, to stop her being picked on by those jackals.’
He had felt himself getting angry. Then he had taken a deep breath, inhaling the night, catching the melody of a tango vals drifting down from above.
‘She knows what to expect, Federico. You knew this could happen eventually. Perhaps it’s time.’
‘I’m scared, Hector. They’re both so young, so passionate.’
He had heard a chuckle and felt annoyance. Had taken another deep breath.
‘There was never going to be a good time to tell them about each other, Federico. You know that.’
Then he had been the one to chuckle. A brief smile had flickered across his lips.
‘And then I suppose there’s the small matter of their mothers,’ his brother had observed.
He had grunted. ‘Now you’re just being cruel, Hector.’
A throaty laugh this time.
‘What do you expect at this hour? Never mind. I will see you tomorrow…or later today, that is. Buenas noches, hermano mio.’
The line had gone dead. He had lowered his cellulare from his ear and turned to walk to the kerb and hail a taxi.
His son, the Colombian boy, had been standing in front of him, hands in the trouser pockets of his cream linen suit, long brown hair moving gently in the night breeze.
‘Hello, Papa,’ he had said calmly, unsmiling, fixing him with his dark eyes.
‘I think we need to talk.’
It was the morning of the finals.
Renato Bulsara pushed open the door of the Café Leblon on Rua Dias Ferreira and removed his sunglasses. Today would be a busy day, a very busy day. But perhaps not so busy that he could not find the time to enjoy a morning coffee sitting at his favourite table.
He saw that it was free, as it always seemed to be when he visited his favourite café just behind the Copa Trade Tower. Senhor Ventura’s admirable establishment might not be the trendiest or even the quietest in the area, but he felt comfortable here. It was a traditional place occupying the ground floor of what had previously been a bank. A place where he could meet people without feeling conspicuous
He walked past the mahogany counter, greeting Senhor Ventura who was, as usual, involved in the unceasing process of marshalling his work-force in a state of mild concern. The elderly proprietor paused temporarily in his labours to smile and nod in return.
Sitting at his table, he ordered a cafezinho and scanned the interior of the café. Business was brisk, the high ceiling and chequered floor tiles of the former banking hall echoing with the clatter of crockery and the babble of conversation. The waiting staff criss-crossed the floor heading to and from tables, taking orders, carrying trays.
His coffee arrived, delivered by a young waitress wearing a black uniform with a starched white cap and pinafore. He smiled, thanked her and, as she walked away, lifted the cup and saucer from the table. Raising the cup to his lips, he took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma drifting up towards his nostrils.
He took a sip and began to return the cup to its saucer, savouring the taste lingering on his tongue. As he replaced the cup, he looked up and across the floor of the café.
Seated at a table at the other side of the room were a man and woman whose faces were familiar to him. The man was in his mid-30s,clean-shaven with a rugged faceframed with short fair hair. He wore an open-necked shirt under a navy linen jacket. The woman, was older, perhaps, with a diamond chin and short blonde bangs.
As he watched, the man handed what looked like a photograph to the woman. He pointed to it and began talking. The woman looked at the photograph, then at her companion. Suddenly, the man paused, placing his right hand over his mouth, leaving the other resting on the table. Without hesitation, the woman reached forward and took his left hand in hers.
Bulsara felt something leap in his chest, an excitement that he could not name. He quickly finished his cafezinho, paidSenhor Ventura and left the building.
At their table in theCafé Leblon, Tyler Wolf and Erika Hoskin were still deep in conversation.
It was the afternoon of the finals.
In the Copa favela, the man and the boy sat talking in the shade on plastic seats. They gazed out onto a cleared area, here in the heart of the shanty. An area covered in deep golden sand. Children ran around, dressed in ragged clothes, ignoring the heat of the sun.They played queimada, chasing and tagging each other, the ‘living people’ and the ‘dead ones.’
The man smiled as he watched them. Shouting, running free, running barefoot across the sand, free of rubbish, free of the waste of the favela, free of the broken glass.
He remembered the time when he was a child. Clearly.
But there was something different in the favela now. In the centre of the makeshift beach stood an open-roofed structure with four walls and a single door. From within it, he could hear the sound of a ball thumping against its walls as its occupants played a different barefoot game.
‘So, Miguel,’ he said. ‘How would you like to like to show me how your game’s coming along?’
The boy sat up in his chair, looked at him and smiled, eyes twinkling from a face the colour of cafezinho. He stood up and grabbed the racket propped against his chair.
‘I’ll go and get them off court, Senhor Renato,’ he yelled, already halfway to the building.
Renato Bulsara smiled and watched the boy hammer on the court door with his racket handle. Some things never changed.
Now, young Miguel Paixao was showing promise, just like his three brothers, one of whom had made it to the preliminary round of the Rio Squash Festival.
‘Paixao,’ he said to himself, and laughed. ‘Passion.’
He picked up his racket and followed the boy across the beach towards the court.
It was the evening of the finals.
The last two matches of the tournament had sold out months before John Allenby’s woes had begun to surface. Now, as he waited to step onto the glass court, he hoped that the intrigue and crises of the last week were not about to repeat themselves. At least not until the night’s events were successfully, and safely, concluded.
If it was possible, the samba dancers, the music and the laser show leading up to the finals had eclipsed the spectacle of the opening night. The atmosphere was still electric as the spectators settled noisily into their expensive seats. The sun was setting behind the city, leaving behind its warmth as the start of the Women’s Final drew near.
Allenby scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. He found plenty of them. The President and his wife, The Mayor of Rio and his, Prince Hamza Al Omani and his entourage,Philip Sanderson, Fritz and Anne Mallinson, Hector Lopez. He started to believe that everything would be…
‘Senhors and Senhoras!’ boomed the PA, jarring him out of his reverie. ‘Please welcome the organiser of the 2014 Rio Beach Squash Classic and your host for the final competitive matches of the tournament, Senhor John Allenby!’
He picked up the microphone and began to walk towards the glass court.
It was less than ten minutes to the start of the women’s final.
Florencia Perez waited behind curtains woven with the yellow, green and blue of Brazil’s national flag. Her ravenesque black hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a light blue headband to match her dress, and white sneakers. She grasped her racket and bounced up and down on the spot just vacated by her opponent and Number 1 seed, Brigitta Krause.
‘Senhors and Senhoras!’ Allenby’s voice echoed around the stands. ‘Please welcome to the main court…Florencia Perez!’
The curtains parted, the crowd applauded. She had friends here. There was even an Argentinian flag waving in the stand opposite, the Sol de Mayo gazing down at her from the light blue and white tri-band. She entered the court and shook Allenby’s hand, then her opponent’s, ready to begin the warm-up.
Allenby closed the door behind him and walked away from the glass court.
It was less than two minutes to the start of the women’s final.
Florencia Perez sat in her chair outside the court and scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She saw Erika, sitting a few yards away in the front row behind the back wall. She saw Tyler Wolf, wearing his familiar green and gold tracksuit, sitting beside her.
And there were others.
She sensed their gaze before she met it, before she found where they were sitting. Together, high up, behind the back wall of the glass court. Their eyes filled with pride. And more.
The boy from Bogota who had danced with her three nights ago. Sitting to his right, the man they called Mr. Fino. And, to his left, the tall man with the long nose who had sent her the elegant gold watch which now adorned her left wrist.
She smiled, picked up her racket and began to walk towards the glass court.
It was less than an hour to the start of the men’s final.
Renato Bulsara was reaching the end of a busy day. A very busy day.
He picked his way slowly through the crowds milling around the arrivals hall at Galeão International Airport. At times like these he envied the natural footwork and movement of…who? Samba dancers? Squash players? He began to feel uncertain and, yes, mildly concerned. Like…like…Senhor Ventura! He chuckled to himself. A good sign.
He scanned the arrivals board. The flight he was to meet had landed. The passengers were now in baggage reclaim. Quickly, he summoned a porter and engaged his services. He glanced at his watch. It was eight forty-five.
He found a convenient spot from which to catch the eye of his employer’s guests and prepared to hold up the cardboard sign which his secretary had prepared for him. He looked again at the single surname it displayed.
Suddenly, the flight’s passengers began to emerge from the customs channel, looking for friends, relatives, hosts. He held up his sign, anxious that it should be in plain sight.
Then he saw them, both smiling broadly, both seeing his sign, both waving. He smiled back and waved, picking his way towards them, summoning the porter to follow him.
After what seemed like an age, they met.
‘Senhor Bulsara, I presume!’ said the woman, laughing. ‘I am so pleased to meet you!’ She grabbed his hand, shaking it warmly, thanking him for his welcome to Rio. He joined her laughter, looked into her eyes. Twinkling eyes, beaming from a face with high cheekbones. A face the colour of darkest ebony.
She turned, still smiling, towards her young companion.
Bulsara leaned forward and held out his hand to the child.
‘So, you must be Jeremy,’ he said.
The story focuses on characters involved in an international squash tournament in Rio de Janeiro.
Florencia Perez, 19, is an up and coming Argentinean squash player who has burst onto the international squash scene, competing on a ‘wild card’ in a tournament in Bogota. Her birthplace, parentage and even her true sexuality are a mystery. She speaks no English. Tall and broad-shouldered, her dark good looks have led many aficionados of the sport to regard her as the ‘Kournikova’ of the squash world. Unknown to her, she is the daughter of Federico Lopez, previously one of the most famous squash players in South America. She has now reached the Women’s Final of the Rio Beach Classic tournament.
Andres Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a young squash player seeking to make his mark on the international circuit. He has already won a lucrative sponsorship with a leading international soft drinks manufacturer. With his long wavy brown hair and vividly inviting dark eyes, he is a favourite with many of the female players competing on the World Squash Tour. In the past, his temper tantrums on court have led to him being banned by the authorities from playing. Unknown to Lopez, he is the half-brother of Florencia Perez.
Lopez has reached the Men’s Final of the Rio tournament where he is due to face the veteran Australian, Tyler Wolf, himself estranged from his young son, Jeremy.
Renato Bulsara is a carioca, a native of Rio and right-hand man to the powerful owner of the SombraSoft Corporation, the man known as Mr. Fino. SombraSoft is a global sponsor of squash. Fino’s real identity has been revealed as Hector Peron Lopez, brother of Federico.
In this chapter, the fates of the characters become intertwined as the tournament reaches its final stages.
‘The Man in the Café Leblon’ was first published as Chapter 21 of ‘Breaking Glass’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 11 squash writers, chapters were posted by Ted on the DSR website where the novel can be read it in its entirety.
The 1908 Olympic Games began on the afternoon of April 27th when Evan Noel, the eventual gold medallist, defeated Cecil Browning in the first round of the men’s singles racquets tournament. At the time, racquets, along with the relatively recent game of squash rackets, was one of a range of racket sports played in Great Britain some of which also appeared on that year’s list of Olympic events.
Three versions of tennis were contested at the Games. Lawn tennis (nowadays abbreviated to ‘tennis’), royal tennis (played on an indoor court and now referred to as ‘real tennis’) and covered court tennis which was an indoor version of lawn tennis.
But there was no place for squash rackets at the Games and, looking back, perhaps it’s not surprising why.
In 1908, racquets was primarily popular in Great Britain. In fact, there were no entrants or competitors from any other nation. The Official Olympic Games Report stated, “Racquets, it may be noted, is always so expensive a game that, except at the public schools, the number of players is always so restricted and, out of the United Kingdom, India and the United States of America are the only countries where the game is played, which may be a reason for not including it in future programmes for the Olympic Games.”
At the time, it’s almost certain that squash was played even less than racquets, particularly in Great Britain. But it’s the background to the 1908 Games which offers another clue as to squash’s omission.
The Games had been scheduled to take place in Rome but, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted near Naples. The Italian government felt that it needed the money to rebuild the area around the volcano and asked for the Rome Olympics to be relocated. In actual fact, it was widely believed at the time that the Italians had decided to make their request some time before the eruption, due to economic problems in Italy. Mount Vesuvius provided them with a convenient excuse.
Whatever the truth, London agreed to stage the Games. Rome would wait another 52 years for a second chance.
The British Empire
In the hands of the British, the 1908 schedule of events gave the Games the appearance of a European and British Empire championships. No Americans or Australian tennis players competed in London. Outside of Europe, the only other players were from Canada and South Africa. In the covered court tennis events, the representation was even more limited, with only players from Great Britain and Sweden taking part.
The racquets event drew its competitors from an even more limited gene pool, all seven (and, unsurprisingly, all men) representing Great Britain which made a clean sweep of the (men’s) singles and doubles. The youngest competitor was Henry Brougham, aged 19, and the oldest Henry Leaf, aged 45. Leaf finished as the silver medalist in the men’s singles despite having to withdraw from the final due to an injury to his hand sustained during the men’s doubles.
Despite the British monopoly, the United States could claim some success in that John Jacob Astor, gold medalist in the men’s doubles together with Vane Pennell, had been born in New York.He was a boy of five when his family sailed for England in 1891, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel John Jacob Astor V, 1st Baron Astor of Hever.
Astor also won bronze in the men’s singles.
Rules and Regulations
The non-appearance of squash in the London Olympics can also be linked to the circumstances at the time surrounding the sport’s regulation.
It was only in April 1907, one year before the London Olympics, that Great Britain’s splendidly-named Tennis, Rackets & Fives Association had set up a sub-committee to set standards for squash. In the early years of the century, the game had increased in popularity with various schools, clubs and even private citizens building squash courts, but with no set dimensions.
Although the sub-committee managed to codify the rules of squash, it was not until 1923, five years after the end of the First World War, that the Royal Automobile Club was to host a meeting to ‘further discuss’ them. A further five years elapsed before the Squash Rackets Association was formed to set standards for squash throughout Great Britain
In direct contrast, the earliest national association of squash in the world was formed in 1904 as the United States Squash Racquets Association, (USSRA), now known as US Squash.
The 2020 Olympics
Today, squash again finds itself seeking entry to the Olympic family of sports in 2020 having undergone a series of reforms and re-organisations at the behest of the International Olympics Committee. In some ways, its circumstances appear to have changed, as have those of racquets, played in Britain by an even smaller number of people than that from which the competitors for the 1908 London Olympics were drawn.
And what about the circumstances of the IOC? Less than one year after the 2012 London Olympics, the organisation itself is seeking to add a new sport which will attract a younger audience.
Squash may well be it.
But, as in the case of racquets in 1908, it may take a natural disaster to make it happen.