Squash and the Art of Betrayal

In 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter died following a six-year battle with cancer of the oesophagus. In its tribute to  his work, The Swedish Academy said:

“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle….”

“In his plays,” it went on, “(he) uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”

Harold Pinter

Harold Pinter

And nowhere did Pinter’s art resonate more effectively with the Academy’s description of his work than in his 1978 play, Betrayal, the story of a classic love triangle, in which Emma betrays her husband, Robert, a publisher, by conducting a seven-year affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent. A play in which the game of squash serves as an icon for a whole set of male social games that evolve around its leading characters.

A game played in an enclosed space, a closed room, where drama emerges from the power struggle.

The Rules of the Game

The relationship between Emma and Jerry in Betrayal is basically a game with an elaborate system of rules set up by both sides. These are especially necessary as there is in fact a double system of relationships between them, as clandestine lovers and as, respectively, wife and best friend of Robert. There are external rules, about how to keep the affair secret, and internal rules, about what is permitted within. Even after the affair is over, Jerry corrects Emma when she asks about his son: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”

In fact, all the relations in the play assume the amusing shape of sophisticated social games and rituals, making the game logically precede the particular instance of its playing and disqualifying any originality in the behaviour of the characters.

The bitter twist is that the action moves backwards in time, beginning with the end of the affair and working remorselessly back to the first snatched kiss.

Pinter never reveals his point of view, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions, offering scenes of the affair alternating with scenes of the two male friends meeting, Robert baiting Jerry(who doesn’t think that his best friend suspects), always suggesting a game of squash, symbolic of male companionship, and Jerry always backing away from the direct competition.

In one scene Robert proposes a game at a social event with Emma present.  She urges them to play together again and suggests she meet them after for lunch. Robert quickly says no:

“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that. You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch […]. You don’t actually want a woman within a mile of the place, any of the places, really.”

Robert’s outburst reveals the nature of the series of male rituals he is describing. They are clearly meant to exclude women from what is perceived as exclusive male terrain. At the same time, the attack discloses a defensive attitude, an attempt to distance women so as to get rid of their sexually threatening presence. It’s implied that Robert and Jerry have not played squash for a long time because Jerry has engaged instead in the betrayal game, and Robert’s rather fierce speech is meant to win him back as a partner in the male game.

The same disjunction between affair-with-wife and squash-with-husband appears in Robert’s disclosure about another character, Casey: “I believe he’s having an affair with my wife. We haven’t played squash for years, Casey and me. We used to have a damn good game.”

The Seeds of Betrayal

There’s no evidence that Pinter had any particular interest in squash before writing Betrayal. In fact, he was an enthusiastic cricket player and approved of the “urban and exacting idea of cricket as a bold theatre of aggression.” But squash would certainly have been played by some of his friends and acquaintances.

One such was the British actor Robert Shaw, a close friend of Pinter who in 1962 appeared on stage as Aston in Pinter’s first major theatrical success, The Caretaker, and again in its film version two years later. As a boy he attended school in Cornwall and was an all-around athlete, competing in rugby, squash and track events.

Robert Shaw

Robert Shaw

Unfortunately, at the age of 18, Shaw was misdiagnosed with a chronic inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease which, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to curtail his involvement in sport. The disease was supposed to affect joints in the spine and it’s a measure of Pinter’s artistic approach that Shaw’s character in The Caretaker has a speech in which he expresses his fear of breaking his spine during a stay in a mental institution.

But around the time of London premiere of The Caretaker, another event occurred which was to directly influence the writing of Betrayal. Pinter, then married to his first wife Vivien Merchant began a seven-year clandestine affair with a married BBC-TV presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell.

Closed Rooms

Throughout his career, many of Pinter’s plays were to feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force they can’t understand.

In his first play, The Room, the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space, though the actual source of menace remains a mystery. Pinter later confirmed that his visit, in the summer of 1955, to the ‘broken-down room’ of the English writer,  Quentin Crisp, in Beaufort Street, London inspired him to write The Room, “set in a snug, stuffy rather down-at-heel bedsit with a gas fire and cooking facilities.”

The First Production of The Room 1957

The First Production of The Room 1957

The first performances of The Room were staged in 1957 at the University of Bristol.

In a converted squash court .

Acknowledgements

Many thanks to Hanna Scolnicov whose article ‘Pinter’s Game of Betrayal’ provided much of the source material for this post. Her article was originally published in Cycnos, Volume 14 No 1 on June 11th, 2008.

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 2 – Ghost Planes

In February 2006, six months before his resignation as US Defense Secretary, Donald Rumsfeld attended a military conference in Munich. As a keen squash player, and a very wealthy man, he paid for exclusive use of the city’s Parkclub Nymphenburg racquet club  where he could indulge his passion for the game during his stay.

Turning up for what he assumed would be a routine day’s work, the club’s head squash coach found that the club had been closed to the public. “There were security guys all over the street” Mohamed Awad later told the local press. “I thought they were making a James Bond film or something.”

But, having been let into the club, Egyptian-born Awad was then asked to spend a session hitting with the Defense Secretary, which he gladly did. And, had he been aware at the time, it wasn’t the first occasion on which he’d played squash with a politician so closely associated with the war on terror.

Awad’s previous squash partners had included the Egyptian president, Hosni Mubarak.

The Squash Coach and the President

That Awad would know a decent squash player when he saw one is perhaps an understatement.  Once ranked as high as number 9 in the world, he was the older brother of Gamal Awad, Egypt’s national squash champion in 1976. Now, having spent half an hour hitting with the 74-year-old Donald Rumsfeld, he had some good words for the Defense Secretary’s on-court performance.

Mohamed Awad

Mohamed Awad

“He has got great reflexes for a man of his age” Awad told a BBC correspondent. “He is still playing a hard game,” he continued. “I think if he comes up against someone of his own age, he will crush them easily.” But, when asked whether he thought that Rumsfeld could outplay 78-year-old Egyptian president and keen squash player Hosni Mubarak, Awad was somewhat less diplomatic. “I told him (Mr. Rumsfeld) that ‘I have played with Mubarak, and he is much better than you are.’”

In fact, Mubarak had built himself a reputation as a fit man who led a healthy life. In his younger days, close associates often complained of the president’s daily schedule, which began with a workout in the gym or a game of squash. Not  surprisingly, people around Mubarak regularly confirmed that his  health and vigour belied his age.

But whatever the Egyptian president’s squash prowess, by 2006 his country’s role in the war on terror was coming under increasing scrutiny by human rights groups. And amongst their  their main focuses of attention were the ghost planes.

Ghost Planes

Hosni Mubarak in 1987

Hosni Mubarak in 1987

In December 2005, Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State, assured the world that the flights of CIA private jets which had criss-crossed Europe since the 9/11 attacks had no role in the transportation of prisoners to be tortured. “The United States has not transported anyone, and will not transport anyone, to a country when we believe he will be tortured,” she said. Prime Minister Tony Blair assured the British Parliament: “I have absolutely no evidence to suggest that anything illegal has been happening here at all.”

But as journalist Stephen Grey revealed in his 2006 book “Ghost Plane”, Rice’s claims were a falsehood, and Britain’s government had also turned a blind eye to a CIA programme that had systematically out-sourced the torture of its prisoners in the war on terror. That programme was known as extraordinary rendition and one of the countries with which the US had a secret agreement to send its prisoners for interrogation was Egypt.

Omar Suleiman

Omar Suleiman

In fact, the “CIA’s ‘point man’ in Egypt for rendition” was Hosni Mubarak’s Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman wrote Jane Mayer (author of ‘The Dark Side’) on the New Yorker’s website. As part of its agreement with the CIA, Suleiman’s Egyptian Intelligence was reportedly required to provide “assurances” that prisoners handed over through this program would not be subjected to torture.

But the definition of what constituted torture was itself crafted by lawyers from the US Department of Justice and Department of Defense. And one of them, John Yoo, is said to have given his legal blessing for the use of specific torture techniques to his colleague Jim Haynes as they were playing squash.

Squash and the Arab Spring

In March 2010, Hosni Mubarak travelled to Germany for gall bladder surgery. In Egypt, rumours about his deteriorating health spread every time he missed a key gathering or disappeared from the media spotlight for any conspicuous length of time.

By the summer, jokes about the 82-year old president were circulating widely, including this one reported by British journalist Robert Fisk:

“The president, a keen squash player – how else could he keep his jet-black hair? – calls up the Sheikh of Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni Muslim cleric in the land, to ask if there are squash courts in heaven. The Sheikh asks for a couple of days to consult the Almighty. Two days later, he calls Mr. Mubarak back. “There’s good news and bad news,” he says. Give me the good news, snaps Mr. Mubarak. “Well,” says the Sheikh, “there are lots of squash courts in heaven.” And the bad news, asks the president? “You have a match there in two weeks’ time.”

In January 2011, an unprecedented wave of protests against Mubarak swept Egypt. With his rule in jeopardy, Mubarak appointed the country’s first ever vice president in a bid to defuse the crisis. The vice president immediately offered wide ranging talks with opposition leaders, an initiative that would shortly leading to Mubarak resigning the presidency.

Egypt’s vice president and long-time ally of the US in the war on terror was Omar Suleiman.

Coming next….

In Part 3 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, we discover another squash playing President, explore the legacy of a 19th century British general, and encounter the world’s most wanted terrorist.

Acknowledgements

You can find more about the CIA’s extraordinary rendition programme in:

For a fascinating prequel to the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt, read Robert Fisk‘s article, ‘Egypt Prepares for Life After Mubarak.’

Squash and the War on Terror: Part 1 – Rummy’s Rules

Nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W. Bush launched an international military campaign. During a televised address to a joint session of the US Congress he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.

Almost 10 years after Bush’s speech, the war – since re-branded by the administration of President Obama as the rather less gung-ho Overseas Contingency Operation– is regarded by many as justifying unilateral preventive war, human rights abuses and other violations of international law.

But whatever its purpose or even its name, the war on terror has given rise to many stories, many of them tragic, and some of them sinister.

And, perhaps surprisingly, some of them interwoven with the game of squash.

Squash at the Pentagon

 

The Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. On September 11th, 2001 – 60 years to the day after the building’s ground-breaking ceremony was held – hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 189 people, including 5 hijackers, 59 others aboard the plane, and 125 working in the building.

When it was originally built in the 1940s, The Pentagon’s sports complex included eight hardball squash  courts. When new facilities were built in 2002, one hardball court was kept  for use by those Pentagon employees who still played the version of squash that was most popular in the US until the mid-1990s. Since that time, the hardball game has largely died out with, most US squash enthusiasts now playing the international softball game.

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

Hardball and Softball Squash Courts

But, in 2002, one of The Pentagon’s remaining hardball squash players was someone who was to play a major role in the war on terror. The US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld.

 

Squash and the Invasion of Iraq

 

Rumsfeld took up squash in the 1980s when he was a business executive working in the pharmaceutical industry. As a former wrestler at Princeton University and a tennis enthusiast, Rumsfeld was obviously no stranger to sporting competition. But taking up such a physically and mentally demanding game as squash in his 50s could be seen as providing a unique insight into his complex psyche.

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

Donald Rumsfeld on the White House Tennis Court 1975

In fact, during his time at The Pentagon, officials and employees were said to have described  Rumsfeld’s approach to playing squash as closely resembling the way he attempting to run  the Defense Department – where he was trying to gain acceptance for breaking the accepted norms of military operation.

Rumsfeld himself later suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing. In a 2005 interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett, he said, gesturing towards his squash partner Lawrence Di Rita, “I play squash with him. When I passed him with a shot, and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”

 

Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for speed was reflected in his irritation with the US’s contingency plan in the event of a war with Iraq. For him, the plan required too many troops and supplies and would take far too long to execute. It was, he declared, the “product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.”

Rumsfeld subsequently won his argument with the US military, the 2003 invasion going ahead with a force of 200,000 rather than the 500,000 proposed in the original contingency plan.

Donald Rumsfeld and Fair Play

Two years after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his almost daily squash matches had helped preserve his “sanity’’ at a time when he and the Bush administration were coming under increasing political attack for their handling of the deteriorating situation in the country.

A year later, Rumsfeld’s own deteriorating relationship with the US military was to play a part in the emergence of allegations of him cheating at squash. “He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” said Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player working in The Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.

Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”

 

“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who used to played against Rumsfeld regularly. Di Rita, a former US Naval Academy squash player more than 25 years younger than Rumsfeld, said that he’d won his share of games and had never gone easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser would post the score on Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he’d beaten Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice Admiral James G. Stavridis, who was also on the Naval Academy squash team.

 

Di Rita conceded that Rumsfeld rarely offered or asked for lets – requests to replay points  when one player feels that they have been obstructed by the other.

Whatever the truth in the cheating allegations, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end when he resigned his position in late 2006. In an unprecedented move in modern US history, eight retired generals and admirals had called for his resignation in what was called the Generals Revolt, accusing him of “abysmal” military planning and a lack of strategic competence.

Rumsfeld’s squash matches at The Pentagon were at an end.

In an article for The New York Times, Michael Aggar wrote:

“While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game was an anachronism. To put it crudely, hardball squash is mostly played by a bunch of old white guys who don’t want to adapt to the new style. Rumsfeld is one of them. In a further parallel, the last time Americans dominated squash championships was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.”

 

Coming next….

 

In Part 2 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, the story moves to Munich where a chance encounter with a squash coach leads to a squash playing President, the sinister ghost planes, and a surprising connection to the Arab Spring.

 

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of Donald Rumsfeld’s squash game, read David S. Cloud’s New York Times article “Rumsfeld Also Plays Hardball on Squash Courts.”

 

In his article in The Slate, “Does Donald Rumsfeld Cheat at Squash?”, Michael Agger entertainingly explores the squash / war metaphor.

Many thanks to them both.

Canary Wharf to Redbridge

A couple of weeks ago I attended the quarter-finals of the 2011 Canary Wharf Squash Classic in London’s Docklands. Not a particularly adventurous outing, I suppose, when you consider that I live within easy commuting distance of Canary Wharf where I used to work for a well-known investment bank. Which, of course, had its own squash courts. You get the picture.

But, as usual, turning up at locations where members of the squash community gather to share their passion can sometimes lead to chance encounters as well as new perspectives on the game and the people who play it.

And this occasion was no different.

Canary Wharf

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Canary Wharf, think glass, marble, corporate statement, Lego™, shopping and money. Lots of money. In fact, come to think of it, lots of glass, marble etc. too.

The Classic event has been held here for the last eight years and has become well established as London’s premier annual squash tournament. In doing so, it’s succeeded the SuperSeries event which used to take place in a shopping centre near London’s Liverpool Street railway station. Going even further back, the Superseries itself used to be held outside London in another shopping centre, The Galleria, located on, or in fact over, the A1(M) motorway at Hatfield, north of the capital.

East Wintergardens & Canary Wharf TowerBut now, the Classic is held in a glass and marble hall in the East Wintergardens district of Canary Wharf. And, with Europe’s tallest building, the Canary Wharf Tower, visible through the venue’s glass roof and soaring majestically upwards, it’s an impressive setting.

Just when you thought it was safe….

With some of the world’s top players on court, and over 3 hours of competitive squash, the quarter-finals certainly offered  good value. And, for a full house of squash enthusiasts, it also provided an opportunity to experience the latest  technology-driven feature of world-class squash – the video review.

This was the first time I’d come into contact with the review which gives players the right to request a video replay to support their personal appeal against a refereeing decision. Each player is allowed one appeal per game with an additional appeal being made available to each player should the score reach 10-10. Having seen a replay of the incident – also visible to the audience on monitors around the court – the referee may choose to change their decision.

During the session, video reviews were requested during all four matches – with varying reactions, and verbal advice, from the audience. But the feature of the review which provided the most entertainment was undoubtedly the accompanying music beamed into the hall while the review was going on.

Here’s the first musical theme. Ring a bell?

Subsequent themes included two pieces of music familiar to most UK listeners: the James Bond theme and the clock-ticking music used during the daytime television wordplay show Countdown. Entering into the spirit of the evening, the tournament’s No. 2 seed James Willstrop, in his post-match interview, suggested the theme to The Pink Panther as being one for future consideration by the organisers.

I think he was joking.

Redbridge

Between matches at Canary Wharf, I ran into one of my fellow squash coaches whom I’d last seen on the day we’d both qualified, four months previously. That memorable event had taken place at Redbridge in Essex. And, coincidentally, it was just three days after our chat that I re-visited Redbridge where the UK Inter-County Squash Finals were being held.

There was no video review technology or accompanying music on show here, just semi-final action in three competitions: the Men’s Over-35, Women’s Over-50 and Women’s League  team knockout tournaments. In other words, squash competition and squash passion. And plenty of it.

Played over two days, the Finals involved 60 players, 60 individual matches and an enormous amount of organisation by the unsung heroes of the squash community. For my part, I just dropped in, watched some of the action, talked to some of the players and organisers, and generally just soaked in the atmosphere. It was like breathing squash.

Alistair Coker of Herts plays Guy Olby of MiddlesexAnd, for the record, Norfolk won the Men’s Over-35 title for the first time in 42 years, South East Wales retaining their Women’s Over 50 title, and Berkshire taking the Women’s League title for the first time. You can find a full report of the Finals on the England Squash and Racketball website.

Postscript

Well I don’t know about you, but I regard pretty much any event organised by or on behalf of squash enthusiasts as being an opportunity to connect to others who share my passion for squash. And it’s not playing or even watching others play that really counts.

It’s just about turning up.

The Haunted Squash Court

In 1916, during the First World War, an airfield was established at Bircham Newton, eight miles west of the town of Fakenham in the west of the county of Norfolk in England. The site was a base for the largest British bomber of the time, a warplane which would have carried out bombing missions against Berlin had the Armistice not intervened.

Bircham Newton

Bircham Newton

The airfield was equipped with an aircraft repair shed and three double bay general service sheds. By 1937, just two years before the start of the Second World War, these had been demolished. But, as the need to prepare for hostilities increased, the re-development of the airfield began under the control of the Royal Air Force’s No 16 Group. Two satellite airfields were also opened at nearby Docking and Langham to accommodate RAF Coastal Command aircraft and their pilots who were to carry out maritime patrol duties. For more details of the Bircham Newton, the expansion of the airfield’s facilities included the construction of two  squash courts.

206 Squadron RAF

One of the squadrons based at Bircham Newton was 206 Squadron RAF. It had been re-formed in 1936 with Avro Ansons as part of the new RAF Coastal Command, initially as a training squadron. In the early years of World War II, the Squadron managed to shoot down a Heinkel He 115 floatplane and attack a German submarine before being re-equipped with the Lockheed Hudson in March 1940.

Lockheed Hudson

Lockheed Hudson

These American-built light bombers used to fly over the North Sea carrying wooden lifeboats to be dropped to RAF pilots and flight crew who’d ditched their planes. But some time during 1940, one particular flight ended in tragedy, when a Lockheed Hudson plane crashed on the landing strip at Bircham Newton killing three of its crew members. During their off-duty hours, one of the favourite pastimes  of the three colleagues, and close friends, was playing  squash.

Things That Go Bump on Court

Not only are these three man suspected of haunting the squash courts, the girlfriend of one of them is also thought by local residents and visitors to the site as contributing to the  ghostly presence felt there by many. As for her identity, she is rumoured to be a Women’s RAF officer who had been smuggled on board by her lover to enjoy the ill-fated flight. The three crew members, so it’s said, often return to the squash courts at the old base to play their favourite sport. The sounds of a squash match in play have been heard echoing around the completely empty building, and an apparition sighted of one of the missing men,  dressed in an officer’s uniform.

Ghost Hunters

When these ghostly occurrences were first experienced is unclear. The base itself closed in 1966 and the site was then occupied by the UK Construction Industry Training Board. The runways were decommissioned, but the majority of the buildings on the site, including some hangars and the control tower, remained in use. As did the squash courts. But what is known is the story of what occurred when a Japanese TV crew  was filming a documentary at the old air base over 30 years later. During filming at the squash courts, members of the crew not only saw one of the court doors slam shut when there was no breeze, but also recorded a woman’s voice, speaking softly. Accompanied by members of the Anglia Society for Paranormal Research, the crew was also involved in capturing an image of what appeared to be of a man in RAF uniform embracing a woman. Other evidence collected included a recording of the sounds of a squash match on an empty court.

The Haunting of Bircham Newton

Other strange occurrences have been reported by people driving along the main road passing through Bircham Newton. When passing through the centre of the base, a loud echo can be heard which appears to come from underneath the road. It’s thought that the echo originates from a lost underground tunnel used for shelter by air crew and airfield workers  during raids on the base itself. Another haunting stems from the story of a drunk driver. It is believed that during World War II a car full of drunken pilots crashed into a large aeroplane hangar, killing the driver and his passengers. It is said that the ghosts of these men, who died during the Second World War, but not on active duty, still roam the base today.

Acknowledgement

For more information on the RAF Bircham Newton hauntings, you can go to The Ghost Database. If you dare…

Suggested Reading

For an informative and entertaining exploration of the psychology of the paranormal, read Professor Richard Wiseman’sParanormality: Why we see what isn’t there

Squash in a Rainy City

On a Sunday morning, less than 24 hours after the football player affectionately known as
Shrek
had scored a memorable winning goal in the Manchester Derby, I parked my car outside the east stand of Manchester City’s Eastlands stadium – in pouring rain.

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

Wayne Rooney goal versus Manchester City

As a Manchester United follower – and, what’s more, one of the relatively few born in Salford where their Old Trafford stadium is located – a visit to ‘the neighbours’ is:

a) Not undertaken often – or lightly.

b) Fraught with anxiety in case the team loses, thus providing City followers with bragging rights until the next encounter.

But, as I unfurled my umbrella in readiness to fend off the familiar Manchester downpour, I wasn’t feeling anxious at all. In fact, I was feeling rather excited as I started the short walk to the National Squash Centre. It was finals day in the 2011 National Squash Championships.

Squash in Manchester

Over the next seven hours or so, fifteen finals were contested in the Centre, six of them – including that of the England Deaf Squash Association’s Rebecca Macree Trophy – on the Championship showcourt. For me, it was the first time I’d ever watched squash played in, or rather relatively near to, my home town.

I first watched a squash match when I moved to the South East of England after graduating from university and immediately caught the squash bug. I can’t honestly remember even having heard of the game throughout my formative years in the North West, let alone seen it played. But, eventually, all it took was one experience as a spectator to get me interested, and then hooked.

Today, returning to Manchester is like entering a squash heartland. The National Squash Centre was opened here in 2002 as part of the Sportcity complex constructed for the 2002 Commonwealth Games. Since then, it’s hosted 9 National Squash Championships as well as a range of international tournaments including the World Squash Championships of 2008. In September this year, another major tournament, The British Grand Prix, will be contested here by many of the world’s top men players.

But as well as its success in hosting major squash tournaments, Manchester has  established a pattern of running legacy projects alongside every one of them. And it’s the establishment of this pattern which has had a major impact on the development of squash communities in the region.

So, with that in mind, what’s been happening with squash at grass roots level in the rainy city?

The Journey of Manchester Squash

For the last few years, one of the aims of Manchester City Council has been to develop squash opportunities for its residents with the purpose of ensuring that every young person can realise their potential by taking part in a squash development programme. As a result, Manchester now boasts the largest squash coaching programme in the United Kingdom. The city has its own Squash Development Officer, charged with engaging local schools, squash clubs, leisure centres and businesses, and gaining their support to form new partnerships, set up new competitions, and form new clubs.

During the past year alone, 5 new partnerships have been formed to create school to club links, over 2000 students across the city have been introduced to squash, and the Manchester Junior Open tournament has been revived. The Manchester Schools competition has also been resurrected with up to 20 teams, and a new squash club has been formed in the Moss Side area of the city, previously the location of Manchester City’s Maine Road stadium.

During my visit to the Championships I did manage to grab a few brief words with Manchester’s Head Squash Coach, Chris Lengthorn, some of whose juniors had just demonstrated their impressive racket skills on the showcourt between finals. Not surprisingly, Chris and other local squash coaches have played a major part in the ongoing success story that is Manchester Squash, and it’s easy to see why he sounded so enthusiastic about the future.

But if he appeared excited when I chatted to him, Chris Lengthorn was about to get a whole lot more excited. His sister was about to contest the 2011 Women’s Championship Final.

Family Fortunes

On the tournament showcourt, Laura Massaro (née Lengthorn) from Preston was up against World No 2, and tournament top seed, Jenny Duncalf from Yorkshire. It had been just over a week since Massaro had beaten World No 1 Nicol David in the US state of Ohio to win the Cleveland Classic. But having lost on her only previous appearance in the National Final in 2008, Massaro made no mistake this time, beating Duncalf 3-2 in a tight match. In doing so, she became the first Lancastrian woman to take the National title, as she proudly pointed out during her post-match interview.

Laura Massaro's post-match interview

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

Daryl Selby with the men's trophy

In the Men’s Final, there was another upset with World No 1 Nick Matthew from Sheffield losing 3-2 to Harlow’s Daryl Selby in an 84-minute match featuring some astonishing retrieval by both players. In a gesture of sportsmanship rarely seen in many other sports, Matthew called his own shot down on match ball leaving Selby to savour the moment. In losing, Matthew failed in his attempt to make it 3 National titles in a row.

A Personal Note

On a personal note, I was rather pleased with my choice of souvenir supporters’ facemasks offered free to visitors to the England Squash and Racketball stand in the tournament exhibition. I picked the masks of the eventual champions – mainly because I play squash at Harlow (Selby) and am a Lancastrian (Massaro) – although I have to confess that I didn’t actually wave, or hide behind either of them. Sorry.

Laura Massaro Facemask

Laura Massaro Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

Daryl Selby Facemask

I was also heartened by the inclusion in the Championships, for the first time, of a Men’s Over-75 competition. I’ve now added this to my list of squash goals on the sole basis that the first winner, Lance Kidner of Hampshire, will be well into his nineties before I’m eligible to qualify as a competitor. By which time, I reckon I’ll be able to take him.

And, finally, I was extremely impressed with the National Squash Centre and the helpfulness and professionalism of the staff, stewards and volunteers. But then, coming from the North West of England,  I would be, wouldn’t I?

When I finally walked out of the main entrance to the Centre, over seven hours after I’d entered it, it was still raining.

Connections

If you’d like to find out more about squash in Manchester, visit Manchester City Council’s “Squash Development” website.

It doesn’t mention rain anywhere.

Singapore Squash

Whatever the difficulties involved in developing squash in Singapore nowadays, there can be little doubt of the country’s success in promoting the game throughout the whole of South-East Asia. Indeed, Singapore still has a reputation in the region for punching above its weight, not least in the global financial services industry where it provides employment for over a quarter of a million people.

But, as in so many countries, the story of squash in Singapore really begins in its colonial past when squash courts began to appear in many of the camps occupied by British military personnel. And with the appearance of the courts came a passion for the game which still survives today.

Squash and the Military

After the Second World War, squash courts sprouted up in various British military camps such as the Army’s Gillman Barracks and the Royal Air Force’s base in Changi. The location of the oldest squash court in Singapore isn’t clear, largely because so many have either been demolished or incorporated into other facilities.

Squash at Gillman Barracks

Squash at Gillman Barracks

It’s rumoured that there was a squash court in the iconic Cathay Building on Handy Road – opened in 1939 to house the British Malaya Broadcasting Corporation – although nobody knows for sure.  The Building itself was mainly known for it’s air-conditioned theatre, then a technological marvel and the first to be built in Singapore

The Cathay Building

The Cathay Building

The British passion for squash gradually expanded to the Singapore Armed Forces and the Singapore Police Force during the transition to self-government in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Not surprisingly, many of the first local exponents of the game emerged from these uniformed groups.

In the late 1960s, squash (together with canoeing and, later, rugby) was promoted by the country’s Ministry of the Interior and Defence as part of a platform for building a rugged society. Singapore’s Defence Minister at the time, Dr Goh Keng Swee, believed strongly in squash as a physically demanding game ideally suited to improving the mental discipline and development of military personnel. Pioneer trainee air force pilots took up the game in droves.

Dr Goh Keng Swee

Dr Goh Keng Swee

The first Director General of Staff, Mr Tan Teck Khim also played a pivotal role in promoting squash in the Singapore Armed Forces after independence in 1965. He later became the Commissioner of Police and was instrumental in the development of squash in the Singapore Police Force.

Private Clubs and Public Courts

Tanglin Club and Singapore Cricket Club were the earliest private clubs to introduce squash, largely because of the influence of the British members at these clubs.

The earliest public courts were built by the National Sports Promotion Board, the forerunner of the Singapore Sports Council. These archaic courts had low ceilings with poor ventilation and dim lighting. Unsurprisingly, playing squash in extremely humid conditions with small-headed wooden rackets provided a major challenge to enthusiasts. However, the interest in  playing squash was so great amongst the members of the public that players were obliged to queue in person at the court booking offices one week in advance just to make sure that they could play during their preferred time slot. Phone bookings were unthinkable.

The rush to book squash courts eased tremendously with the proliferation of new squash courts all over the island from the 1970s to the 1990s. Almost every new apartment block or condominium incorporated a squash court in their facilities and playing the game at any time of the day or night did not pose a problem anymore. The Singapore Armed Forces Sports Association, The Singapore Armed Forces Reservists Association, The Police Sports Association and many social clubs contributed to the rapid increase of squash courts in the country as the sport was regarded as being the “in” thing.

National and International Competition

The Singapore Squash Rackets Association was founded in 1970, the majority of its early office holders  being drawn from the Army, the Police, returning overseas students  and the expatriate community. In the same year, the first Singapore Open was held with a women’s title being  introduced two years later. As the competition became more established, its winners began to include the top world ranked squash players of the day such as Pakistan’s Qamar Zaman and Gogi Alaudin

In 1973, the first national squash championships were held and, in the late 1970s, Singapore also played host to the PIA World Series featuring the top 20 squash players of the world including 8-time British Open champion Geoff Hunt of Australia.

By the end of the decade, the level of participation squash had risen to such a level that it was perhaps inevitable that a word class local hero would emerge from the island’s squash playing community.

Local Heroes

Zainal Abidin ruled the squash courts of Singapore for 10 years and was Singapore’s undisputed squash champion from 1977 to 1986. He  not only put Singapore squash on the Asian map, his extraordinary skills also extended the republic’s reputation on the world squash map as well.

Abidin started playing squash in 1977 when, as a 19 year-old, he was serving his national service with the Police Force. It was a considerably late age to begin but his natural talent, instinct and abilities for the game soon ensured his meteoric rise.  His triumphs and achievements also helped develop a large following and participation in the game throughout Singapore. Squash was being played at all levels, from pre-teens to young adults to senior citizens. Such was the appeal of squash in the 1980s, a development made possible due to the exploits of the games local heroes, Abidin, Peter Hill and Jeremy Yeo.

Zainal Abidin

Zainal Abidin

In the women’s game, it was to take a little longer before the emergence of a local hero.  Lim Seok Hui started playing squash just before her 11th birthday with the encouragement of her avid squash enthusiast parents. She was only 13 years old when she represented Singapore at the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship in Hong Kong – making her amongst the youngest competitors in the history of squash in Singapore and East Asia.

Lim Seok Hui

Lim Seok Hui

In 1983, the 16 year-old became the youngest champion in the history of Singapore squash when she won the Singapore Open title. The following year, she became the youngest ever female player to win the East Asian Women’s Squash Championship overcoming Hong Kong’s  Julie Hawkes.

Abidin and Hui are still Singapore’s most famous squash players. But over a quarter of a century after their heyday, what is the state of Singapore squash today?

Squash in Challenging Times

In March 2010, the Straits Times reported that bookings for squash courts had risen steadily over the previous few years according to figures released by the Singapore Sports Council. But statistics can be misleading. Although a huge number of squash courts were built in the 1980s and 1990s, many were either under-used or were converted to alternative uses, such as gymnasiums, children’s play areas, table tennis halls and even karaoke lounges! So, it’s likely  that participation in the game in Singapore has declined over the last couple of decades.

Despite this, live television coverage of international squash tournaments such as the Singapore Women’s Masters has recently re-commenced. And although there’s more to reviving the game than just getting greater publicity, Singapore’s continuing financial success, and its financial services community, may still prove to be a useful source of investment in the sport – as well as attracting a new crop of competitive individuals to the island’s squash courts.

Time to re-visit the Wall Street model, perhaps?

Acknowledgements

For a detailed description of the development of squash in Singapore, read Munir Shah’s excellent article “Squash in Singapore – The Early Years”.

You can also read Lam Chun See’s personal reminiscences of his squash playing life on his “Good Morning Yesterday” blog.

Squash on Wall Street

A couple of weeks ago, I posted from the World Series Squash Finals in South West London which had reached the semi-final stage.

Sadly, the final – between England’s Nick Matthew and Amr Shabana of Egypt – was never played, overnight storm damage rendering the venue unsafe. But two weeks later, Matthew and Shabana did meet – in the semi-final of the Tournament of Champions in New York.

And the tournament, staged in the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Station, was sponsored, in true American style, by one of the largest investment banks in the world.

Rescue on Wall Street

In March 2008, at the height of the global financial crisis, the US investment bank J P Morgan Chase took over one of its rivals, Bear Stearns, at a startlingly low price. The share price of Bear Stearns, which had until recently been the fifth largest bank on Wall Street, had all but collapsed as a result of its over-exposure to  the mortgage-backed assets that were central to the subprime mortgage crisis.

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall 2008

Tournament of Champions in Vanderbilt Hall 2008

As part of the takeover deal, J P Morgan not only acquired Bear Stearns’ assets – including its glittering Madison Avenue skyscraper headquarters – but also its sponsorship of a squash tournament. The Tournament of Champions.

The founder of J P Morgan was the eponymous John Pierpoint Morgan (b1837 –d 1913), the  American financier, banker and art collector who dominated the world of corporate finance and industrial consolidation.

John Pierpoint Morgan

John Pierpoint Morgan

Morgan was the leading financier of the so-called Progressive Era, a period of social activism and reform that flourished from the 1890s to the 1920s. His dedication to efficiency and modernisation helped transform American business. Morgan also redefined conservatism in terms of financial prowess coupled with strong commitments to religion and high culture.

Money Never Sleeps

What Morgan would have made of his bank’s sponsorship of a squash tournament is a matter of speculation. But there’s no doubt that the 2011 event has been a money-spinner for its sponsors.

And who knows, perhaps the squash match scene with Gordon Gekko (played by Michael Douglas) and Bud Fox (Charlie Sheen)in the 1987 movie Wall Street
really was a metaphor for bleeding edge capitalism and the survival of the fittest….and bending the rules….

Well, if so, Nick Matthew – who meets Rami Ashour in the final – is going to have a really challenging time later this evening.

And possibly a very lucrative one.

But I suspect he knows that already.

A Squash Match on the Titanic

On the 14th of April, 1912 RMS Titanic, the largest passenger steamship in the world, was four days into her maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City.  At 2340hrs, 640km south of the Great Banks of Newfoundland, she struck an iceberg and sank at 0220hrs the following morning with the loss of 1,517 lives. The sinking of the Titanic is one of the most famous disasters in maritime history, if not world history. But what’s less well-known is that down in the ship’s lower deck, there was a squash court.

The Squash Racquets Court

The Titanic’s squash racquets court was available for use by first class passengers only. Players were charged two shillings each (50 US cents in those days) for the use of the court and playing sessions were limited to one hour if others were waiting.

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The Squash Court on the Titanic

The court was 30ft long and 20ft wide compared to 32ft and 21ft respectively for a modern court. This was due to the structural design of the Titanic which also restricted the height of the court to 15ft 8inches as opposed to today’s 18ft 6inches. Use of the lob was therefore limited. The door into the court was positioned in the left side of the back wall. The floor of the court was on G deck, with the upper part of the court occupying the space between F and E deck. The court’s viewing gallery was located on F deck. The court and its position in the ship were to play an important part in the disaster that was to engulf the Titanic.

The Players

The court was under the supervision of Mr Frederick Wright of Great Billing, Northamptonshire in England. Wright was the Titanic’s squash racquet professional. For a wage of £1 per week, Wright not only cleaned the court and ran the booking system but also supplied passengers with squash racquets and balls. He was also available to play as an opponent if required.

Frederick Wright

Frederick Wright

One of the passengers who used the court during the voyage was Colonel Archibald Gracie, a 53-year-old amateur historian from Mobile, Alabama in the US, who was travelling alone. During his previous transatlantic trips, it had been Gracie’s custom to take as much exercise as possible to stay in prime physical condition. But, on this trip, he had spent much of his time enjoying  the social (and gastronomic) opportunities  on offer, and reading books from the well-stocked ship’s library.

The Squash Match

On the evening of Saturday, April 13th Gracie decided it was time to cut back on the socialising and start his fitness regimen again. He arranged with his room steward, Charles Cullen, to wake him early on Sunday morning in order to play squash with Frederick Wright, work in the gymnasium with Mr T W McCawley, and swim in the Titanic’s heated swimming pool. All before breakfast. But twenty minutes before midnight, the collision which was to result in the sinking of the Titanic put an end to Gracie’s arrangements. Shortly after midnight, while looking for his friends, Gracie met the racquet professional, Wright, in the stairway of C deck. “Perhaps we had better cancel our match for tomorrow morning, Mr Wright!” he said half jokingly.  Wright concurred but seemed rather concerned, probably because he knew that the court was already filling with water. The match between Gracie and Wright would never be played.

The Viewing Gallery

The watertight bulkheads of the Titanic projected from its keel up to F deck where the squash court’s viewing gallery was located. When the watertight doors were closed, these bulkheads had been designed to contain any water that might get into the Titanic’s hull compartments. The Titanic’s builders, Harland and Wolff of Belfast, Northern Ireland had calculated that, even if four compartments were flooded, the ship could still continue. However, as a result of the collision, five were initially flooded. It was known very soon after hitting the iceberg that the ship was doomed. The weight of water in the compartments would gradually tilt the ship and cause it to sink.

RMS Titanic

RMS Titanic

As it was located below the Titanic’s bridge, the squash court was a convenient place from which to monitor the rise of the water. These periodic observations were made from the viewing gallery and  duly entered in the ship’s log. At 0220hrs on Sunday, April 15th the Titanic sank.

Survival

As the ship went down, Archibald Gracie was still clinging to the rail of the topmost deck after the wave had passed over him that swept the Titanic before her final plunge. “When the ship plunged down,” he said in one of his first accounts of the tragedy, “I was forced to let go, and I was swirled around and around for what seemed an interminable time. Eventually I came to the surface to find the sea a mass of tangled wreckage. “Luckily, I was unhurt, and, casting about, managed to seize a wooden grating floating nearby. When I had recovered my breath, I discovered a large canvas and cork life-raft which had floated up. A man, whose name I did not learn, was struggling toward it from some wreckage to which he had clung. I cast off and helped him to get onto the raft, and we then began the work of rescuing those who had jumped into the sea and were floundering in the water. “When dawn broke there were thirty of us on the raft, standing knee deep in the icy water and afraid to move lest the cranky craft be overturned. Several unfortunates, benumbed and half dead, besought us to save them and one or two made an effort to reach us, but we had to warn them away. “The hours that elapsed before we were picked up by the Carpathia were the longest and most terrible that I ever spent.”

Epilogue

Gracie wrote an account of the tragedy that was originally published in 1913 as “The Truth About The Titanic”. He never finished proofing his original manuscript. Gracie died on December 4th 1912 at his ancestral home in New York, having never fully recovered from the trauma of that night. Nearly a century after the event, a revised version of his book is still in print under the title, “Titanic”: A Survivor’s Story. Gracie appeared as a character played by actor Bernard Fox in the 1997 motion picture Titanic
.
Frederick Wright went down with the ship which employed him as a squash professional. His body was never found.

Squash in the Pink Bubble

Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.

The Queen’s Club

The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

The Pink Bubble at The Queen's Club, January 14th, 2011

To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.

The Finals Experience

Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.

On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!

The Squash

The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.

In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.

In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”

I must try that in my next league match.

Postscript: The Bubble Bursts

Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.

Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!