Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Three

N.B. The first two parts of ‘Desert Places’ were published here and here on this blog.

Mrs. Stitch sipped from her cup of breakfast tea and gazed out of the dining room window. Opposite her, blocking the light, her husband sat hidden behind his morning newspaper. She felt sure that she had been meaning to ask him something for several days but couldn’t quite put her finger on whatever it was. Suddenly, she remembered.

‘What’s happening in the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch.

Algernon Stitch grunted and lowered his newspaper.

‘Nothing as far as I know.’

He took a sip of tea and looked at his watch.

‘Is that the time? I’d better get a move on.’

Stitch placed his napkin on the table and stood. Mrs. Stitch returned her cup to its saucer and remained seated.

‘You said that there was a potential crisis in Al Mussab or somewhere like that.’

‘Did I? When?’

‘A few weeks ago. Something to do with oil and foreign powers.’

‘I don’t remember that. There was a bit of a situation in El Mahreb last month but it all blew over. The ruler’s brother wanted a bigger palace and some more wives, made a bit of a fuss and got them. A few shots fired, a few camels injured, that sort of thing. I suspect the Russians put him up to it. Anyway, El Mahreb’s in Africa not Arabia. At least I think it is. I’ll check when I get to the office.’

Mrs. Stitch was momentarily confused. Perhaps she ought to ask John Boot whether she had advised him to go to El Mahreb or Al Mussab. She also had a feeling that she may have mentioned El Mahreb to someone else.

By the time she had finished her breakfast, Mrs. Stitch had quite forgotten that she had mentioned anything to anyone at all.

****

In the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, William and Corker were indulging in afternoon tea.

“Let me get this right,” said Corker. “You say that Crown Prince Hassan has agreed to keep you informed of developments in Al Mussab’s foreign affairs provided that you set up and run a national squash ladder.”

“Well, up to a point,” said William, reaching for a second cucumber sandwich. “He’ll keep me up to date with family gossip about foreign affairs. There must be a lot of it though. Apparently, all of Al Mussab’s government ministers are related. That’s a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“And he’s happy for you to report this…er…gossip…” said Corker.

“A version of this gossip,” interposed William.

“…a version of this gossip,” echoed Corker, “to The Beast?”

“Definitely,” said William, spotting a macaroon on the third tier of the cake-stand.

“Oh, and to The Unnatural.” he added. “After all, we are supposed to be co-operating.”

Corker sipped at his Darjeeling which had gone cold.

“I was thinking,” continued William, pouring himself a third cup of Earl Grey. “I’m hopeless at all that reporting stuff. I don’t suppose you could file both our reports, could you?”

Corker sensed that things were hotting up. He raised his eyebrows and made an awkward attempt at a nod of agreement.

“Besides,” continued William, “from what Hassan says, I’m going to be jolly busy working on the squash ladder. There are lots of people he thinks will be interested; family members, foreign diplomats, oil magnates, business tycoons and so on.”

Corker imagined himself and William at the centre of an international network of important news sources.

“Oh, and I expect I’ll have to spend a lot of time listening to all of the gossip,” added William, having briefly forgotten why he was in Al Mussab in the first place.

Corker had visions of promotion at Universal News.

“I don’t suppose he let you in on any gossip last night, did he?”

“Well only something about a Soviet delegation arriving tomorrow,” said William, pouring more hot water into his teapot. “His father believes it’s a cover for espionage.”

Corker felt a story coming on.

****

It was late afternoon in London. Secretaries were carrying tea to the more leisured departments. In Mr. Salter’s office there was activity and excitement.

“Russians, spies, oil. This is dynamite,” said the Managing Editor sorting through a sheaf of telegrams. “Has anyone else seen this?”

“Not so far,” said Mr. Salter. “I thought I’d see what you thought before I go to the chief.”

“And you say it came from this Boot chap?” said the First Leader Writer. “What woke him up?”

“Perhaps it was that chap Corker from Universal News,” said Mr. Salter. “The Foreign Editor did say he had a way with words.”

“Well, the Foreign Office still isn’t saying anything about Al Mussab,” said the Managing Editor. “Do you think it’s genuine? After all, this Boot’s done nothing but report on the weather and camels since he got there.”

“Yes,” said the First Leader Writer, “but our competitors are still splashing the story. Maybe they know something we don’t.”

An hour later, Mr. Salter surveyed the front page of the evening edition of The Beast.

“SOVIET SPIES PLAN ARABIAN COUP”

After a brief telephone call, his counterpart at Universal News agreed to lead with:

“RUSSIANS IN DESERT ESPIONAGE PLOT”

It didn’t pay, thought Mr. Salter, to slavishly follow the competition.

****

In the Al Mussab desert, William and Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Rashid Al Nahmi sat cross-legged beside their camp fire in the Arabian night. Their camels and those of Abdullah’s bodyguards sat hobbled and grumbling somewhere in the darkness.

“I think that the squash ladder will be very exciting,” said Abdullah, selecting a fig from the fruit platter. “Very few visitors have come to Al Mussab up to now and even fewer have used the squash court. Perhaps now that there are more…”

William, whose thoughts were currently directed towards the Al Mussab desert and its wildlife, nodded.

“How many people did you say have joined so far?” said Abdullah.

“Thirty-seven,” answered William who had discovered that his ability to persuade squash players to participate in competitions was transferrable to foreign countries.

“No, thirty-eight,” he corrected himself, “but there must be at least three more in the Soviet delegation. I saw their racquet handles sticking out of their luggage when they arrived at the Intercontinental.”

Abdullah marvelled quietly at William’s dynamism.

“Which animals do you think we’ll be able to spot?” asked William.

“We are sure to see jackals,” said Abdullah. “They will be attracted by our fire and the smell of food. Just before dawn we may see a sand cat or a fox. Then tomorrow, oryx, ibex, gazelles perhaps.”

William pinched himself. He really was on safari in the Al Mussab desert with the son of Al Mussab’s Minister for the Environment. What could be more exciting?

“Mr. William?” said Abdullah, suddenly. “Did you know that my father is a great admirer of your writing?”

“I beg your pardon?” said William.

“Oh, yes,” continued Abdullah. “He reads your weekly column in The Beast. He told me it reminds him very much of the time he spent in the English countryside while he was a student at Oxford.”

“Are you sure?” asked William.

“Definitely,” replied Abdullah. “In fact, he asked me if you would consider writing something for him.”

****

In Fleet Street, Mr. Salter was ushered into Lord Copper’s office.

“Ah, Salter,” said Lord Copper. “I see that Boot has really got to grips with the situation in…”

“Al Mussab, Lord Copper?” suggested Mr. Salter helpfully.

“Precisely,” said Lord Copper. “I always knew he was the right man for the job.”

Mr. Salter nodded in agreement. A few weeks ago, he had thought that the Chief was losing his grip. But now, Boot’s reports were dynamite: Soviet plots, desert manoeuvres, secret meetings, vital British interests. The Chief had known best all along. How on earth had he spotted Boot?

“I don’t suppose we’ve got a photograph of him, have we?” asked Lord Copper.

“Up to a point, Lord Copper,” said Mr. Salter.

“Ring up his relatives,” said Lord Copper, “See if he’s got a girl. Someone must have a photograph of him.”

“I think they took one for his visa,” said Mr. Salter, “but I’m afraid it was a very poor likeness.”

“Pity,” said Lord Copper.

****

In Boot Magna, William’s mother, his sister, his Aunt Josephine and his three uncles were sitting around the table in the dining room. They had finished eating and had remained seated, as they often did for an hour or so, doing nothing at all. William’s grandmother had retired to her armchair in the sitting room to sleep.

“Did anybody open that telegram?” said William’s mother.

“Which telegram?” asked Uncle Roderick.

“The one that arrived yesterday.”

Nobody admitted to knowing about a telegram. After a search, Uncle Theodore found it behind the chest next to the coat rack in the hall where William’s mother had dropped it. He returned to the dining room and opened it.

“It’s from William.”

“STAYING AL MUSSAB ORGANISE INTERNATIONAL SQUASH LADDER WRITE DESERT PLACES COLUMN MINISTER ENVIRONMENT WILLIAM”

“What does it mean?” asked William’s mother.

“I think he’s staying in Al Mussab to organise an international squash ladder and write a column called Desert Places for the Minister of the Environment,” said Uncle Bernard.

William’s mother and sister burst into tears and were comforted by Uncle Roderick.

“Do you think it will be in The Beast?” asked Uncle Theodore.

“I should hope so,” said Uncle Bernard. “There hasn’t been anything interesting in it since William left.”

****

In the English countryside, where he had been hiding for some months from the American girl, John Boot found, amongst his forwarded bills, an official letter which read:

“I am instructed by the Prime Minister to inform you that your name has been forwarded to H.M. the King with the recommendation for your inclusion in the Order of Knights Commanders of the Bath.”

“Gosh,” said Boot, “it must be Julia.”

Despite it being barely eleven o’clock, he telephoned her at her house near St. James’s Palace.

“What do you think, Julia? They’re making me a Knight.”

“Who are?”

“The King and the Prime Minister, I expect. Was it anything to do with you?”

“Well…I may have played a small part,” replied Mrs. Stitch who knew nothing about it. “Are you pleased?”

“Very pleased,” replied Boot. “But what on earth is it for?”

“I expect it’s for writing books about all those adventures of yours,” said Mrs. Stitch who had never read any of them. “I suppose you’ll be able to go wherever you want now.”

She thought it wise not to mention the Al Mussab affair or the American girl.

Either way, John Boot was too grateful to care.

Sources

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

London Squash: The In & Out

Dating from 1927, the oldest private squash court in London has a remarkable history. Situated on the top floor of a mews building attached to No.4 St. James’s Square, the court was built by The Army and Navy Club which had outgrown its premises on the corner of Pall Mall and George Street. After 3 years of development the new mews building provided chambers, bed-sitting-rooms, bedrooms, a ladies’ drawing-room, a dining-room and ground floor shop premises in addition to the squash court.

The Army and Navy Club

Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington

The Army and Navy Club had been founded in 1837, the year Queen Victoria acceded to the Throne. It had been formed to meet the needs of the many army officers wanting to join a Service Club, most of which were already full. Its first president was Arthur Wellesley, First Duke of Wellington, who accepted the post on condition that membership was also open to officers of the Royal Navy and the Royal Marines.

The In & Out

By 1862, London boasted three Service Clubs: the United Service Club, the Junior United Service Club and The Army and Navy Club, all of which were at full capacity. To meet demand, a fourth club, The Naval and Military Club, was founded in March 1862 by a party of officers who at that time were quartered at the Tower of London.

94 Piccadilly

After several changes of premises, The Naval and Military Club moved, in 1866, to 94 Piccadilly, also known as Cambridge House. There, it came to be known as “The In & Out” from the prominent signs on the building’s separate vehicle entrance and exit gates. In 1996, having failed to agree terms for a new lease in Piccadilly, the club purchased the freehold of 4 St. James’s Square and finally moved into its new home on 1st February, 1999.

The Squash Court

In And Out Squash Court

As part of its freehold, The In & Out gained access to the squash court formerly used by The Army and Navy Club. Now in its 90th year of use, access to the court is a key part of the club’s fitness and leisure programme.

Evidence of the historical use of the court can be seen in the form of an honours board in the clubhouse where the winners of a Squash Challenge Cup for the years 1936-56 are listed. The competition was not contested for the years 1939-47.

Squash Honours Board

The Naval and Military Club is now advertised as a St James’s private members club for ladies and gentlemen, and officers of the Armed Forces.

4 St. James’s Square History

4 St. James’s Square was built in 1726–28 during the reigns of George I and George II. Amongst its distinguished occupants were Waldorf and Nancy Astor who made it their London residence from 1912-42. American-born Nancy Astor was the first woman to sit as a United Kingdom Member of Parliament in 1919, later becoming Viscountess Astor.

In 1942, the house was requisitioned by the government and was used as the London headquarters of the Free French Forces led by General Charles de Gaulle.

In April 1984, St. James’s Square became the centre of world attention as the setting for the 11-day long Libyan Embassy siege triggered by the fatal shooting of WPC Yvonne Fletcher. The Libyan Embassy occupied 5 St. James’s Square.

Sources

The websites of The Army and Navy Club, The Naval and Military Club and British History Online. Thanks to Wikipedia as always.

Trump Loves Squash – Official!

Millionaire UK political party donor Arron Banks has been forced to apologise to squash clubs throughout the world by US President Donald J. Trump, unnamed sources have claimed.

Arron Banks Apology Tweet

Banks had complained that the UK Independence Party was “being run like a squash club committee” implying that it was dedicated to promoting social interaction, public health and personal well-being through sports participation rather than peddling fake news and alternative facts to racist, misogynistic and gullible people. As part of a well-rehearsed and finely-nuanced statement, he had also accused UKIP’s sole MP, Douglas Carswell, of treachery in not doing enough to help former leader, Brexiteer and fellow millionaire Nigel Farage, get a knighthood. Later, asked to expand on his comments, Banks threatened to set up a rival political party that would “destroy” UKIP unless he was made party chairman.

Arron Banks, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage outside The Golden Squash Court in Trump Tower, New York

However, it has since emerged that news of Banks’s crie de coeur may subsequently have appeared in the Twitter feed of the billionaire US President. Outraged at the millionaire donor’s views on squash clubs, Trump is alleged to have alerted fellow sports enthusiast and rumoured squash buddy Farage, possibly urging him to take out Banks “with extreme prejudice”.

Within hours, Banks had issued an apology to “squash clubs across the UK” for his comments about the way in which they were being run, including how they elect committee members, welcome newcomers or plot with enemy powers. At the time of writing, however, it is not known whether President Trump, rumoured to be addressed as “Sir Donald” by members of his administration, regards Banks’s apology as sufficient as it does not apply to squash clubs either in the US or in Russia.

Sources

Thanks to The Daily Telegraph, The UK Bulletin, Leave EU Official, The BBC, Wikipedia, and Twitter.

The Book Of Squash

The Dilemma of the Expert

In a western country there once lived an expert on the game of squash. After a long and successful career he decided to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He found a publisher with whom to work and dedicated himself to setting down the numerous secrets and subtleties of the game. In due course his book, a weighty tome, was published to great praise from his fellow experts.

Yet, despite his many efforts to bring his book to the wider attention of followers of the game, sales were poor. Disappointed, he decided to seek the advice of other experts from foreign lands. He travelled far and wide, listening carefully to their views and reflecting on their observations on the game. Yet for all their openness, hospitality and goodwill, he was at a loss to understand why his book continued to lie unbought and unread.

The Discovery of the Players

At long last, in a desert country, he came upon a small squash club. The club’s two courts and changing room were housed in an old building in a small town, many miles from the nearest city. Hearing the sound of play, he climbed to a small balcony overlooking the courts and looked down on the players. To his amazement, they were the best he had ever seen! Truly, he thought, they must have learnt from someone who knows all there is to know about the game.

As they finished their matches, he asked them who their teacher had been. All mentioned the name of the same man whom they called the Master. The expert asked where he could be found and they directed him to a tea-house in a nearby street. The expert thanked them and hurried to the establishment, eager to meet their teacher.

A Conversation with the Master

At the tea-house he was directed towards an old man with a white beard. The expert approached the man and introduced himself. He told him that he had visited the squash club and had been told by the players there that they owed their mastery of the game to him. That was so, said the old man, and invited the expert to join him.

The expert told the Master of his long and successful career. He had decided, he said, to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He gave the Master a copy and watched as he leafed through the pages in silent wonder.

Sensing the Master’s admiration, the expert confessed his disappointment that sales had been poor despite great praise from his fellow experts. What could he do, he asked the Master, to increase sales? None of the experts he had asked during his travels had been able to advise him.

“I too have known disappointment in seeking to teach those who love the game,” replied the Master. “When I was a young man, I attained great proficiency and joy in playing the game. As I grew older, I wanted to share my insights and secrets with my fellow players. But I was not an educated person. I lacked the means with which to teach. Then one day, in a tea-house, I met a traveller and told him of my desire and of my frustration.”

“What did he advise?” asked the expert.

“Unfortunately, he knew nothing of the game,” said the Master, “but he did tell me a story which helped to change my fortunes. Perhaps it will change yours.”

The expert listened in silence as the Master told him the traveller’s story; the story of the book.

The Story of the Book

In land far to the east, there once lived a wise man who taught his many followers from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wisdom. He attributed all he knew to a large book which he kept in his room. He would allow nobody to open it.

When he died, those who followers who regarded themselves as his heirs ran to open the book, anxious to possess what it contained. But they were surprised and disappointed when they found that there was writing on only one page. They became even more upset and then annoyed when they tried to grasp the meaning of the single sentence which met their eyes. It read: “When you realise the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.”

The Opinion of the Scholars

The wise man’s heirs took the book to the most famous scholars of the time, saying:

“Help us to understand this book. It belonged to our late master and is all he left behind. We cannot fathom its mystery.”

At first the scholars were delighted to see a work of such size, bearing the name of its former owner. They knew that he had been revered by multitudes of people and assured his heirs that they would reveal its true meaning. But they became angry when they discovered that the book was all but empty and that what words it did contain made no sense to them. Believing themselves to be the victims of a hoax, the scholars shouted at the students, driving them away in their fury.

It was a time, said the traveller, when scholars could not imagine a book which could do something, only a book which said something.

The Interpretation of the Traveller

The dispirited students went to refresh themselves in a tea-house where they came upon a traveller. He listened to their story and, seeing their distress, asked them:

“What did you learn from the scholars?

“Nothing,” answered the students. “They could tell us nothing.”

“On the contrary,” said the traveller, “they told you everything! They showed you that the book was not to be understood in the way assumed either by you or by them. You may think that they lacked insight but you in your turn lack sense. The book was teaching something through the incident itself, while you remained asleep.”

But the students found this explanation too subtle for their minds. They soon left and neither they nor the traveller knew that their conversation had been overheard by another regular visitor to the tea-house.

The Book of the Book

The visitor, a carver of precious stones, was so impressed by the story of the book that he had it written down by a scribe and bound in a large book. He kept the book in a place of honour in his house where he could reflect on its teachings. In the course of time he gained a reputation as a master of his art. He was sought out by wealthy men eager to commission his work but, despite the offer of great riches, he agreed to requests only from those he judged to be most appreciative of his art.

As his apprentice he chose Babur, the only child of a widow who had fled conflict in her native land.

Babur Saves the Book

After many years the master died, leaving no heirs. Finding the book in its place of honour, Babur thought to himself:

“Surely, this must be the source of my master’s wisdom, happiness and prosperity.”

He read the contents of the book, translating them into the words, forms and subtleties of his own native language. Marvelling at its teachings, he opened a shop where he kept copies of the book on view. Nobody was allowed to look inside until he had paid two pieces of silver. Some learned the lessons of the book and wished to study with him. Others wanted their money returned but Babur said, “I cannot give you back your money until you return me what you have learned from our transaction, as well as from the book itself.”

Some who read the contents of the book preferred mere appearance to inner content. They called Babur a deceiver but he told them, “You have always looked for deceivers, so you will always assume that you have found one in anybody.

Ahmed Transmits It

One day, a young man paid Babur two pieces of gold to look inside the book. The young man, whose name was Ahmed, was returning to his home country after completing his studies in a city far to the east. Returning the following day, he gave Babur another ten pieces of gold, saying: “What I have learned from the book is worth far more than this, but it is all I have to give.”

Returning to his native country, Ahmed wrote down the content and history of the book of the book and had it bound in a single volume of over two hundred pages.

The traveller’s story, said the Master, had been passed down by the masters of the east for over five hundred years. Then he stood, bowed to the expert and walked away.

The Story of the Expert

The expert returned to his native country. From his home he began to travel from town to town and from city to city. Whenever he could, he visited squash clubs and watched the game being played. In the course of his travels, he met others who loved the game and many more who knew nothing of it. Many of those he met shared their stories just as he shared his with them. As he travelled, he became aware of some who were regarded by many as masters of their art. Some of these he followed until such time as he felt the urge to travel to other places, meet others and share stories.

In due course, he decided to write a book.

****

Sources

Thanks are due to Idries Shah.

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

Corker looked at William sadly.

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

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

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

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

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

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

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The American girl?’

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Salter sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

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

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

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

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

William sighed.

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

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

‘Where did he get the information?’

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

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

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

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

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

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

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

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

William and Corker sat very still.

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

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

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

Influences

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

Squash Futures IV: Community / Coaches

N.B. This article is the last in a series. The first three articles, “Sense / Leaders,” “Culture / Clubs” and “Network / Probes” were published previously on this blog.

Background

The long-term future of squash in a complex, dynamically-changing world lies in the continuing emergence and vitality of multiple squash communities, many of which will prove short-lived. In this context, traditional ‘static’ methods of sport development – typically based the local provision of standardised, participation-oriented squash programmes – will increasingly need to be augmented by ‘rolling programmes’ of innovative and culturally-sensitive communication and leadership initiatives.

Without these, squash will not be able to sense and respond quickly enough to changes in the socio-economic and cultural  environments within which it’s competing for participation, with other sports and with non sports-related activities.

Dynamic leaders from different age groups and backgrounds will always be required to activate existing squash networks and inspire existing squash communities. But so too will people who can coach new squash communities into existence and squash agents into leaders.

Our understanding of what squash coaching will have to become will have to change.

Sense / Leaders

Squash communities aren’t just local populations of players, nor are they just groups of members of some squash club or institution. They’re dynamic groupings of individuals with shared ‘tribal’ identities, even though they may have their own individual (and shifting) perceptions, preferences and priorities.Active squash agents, including those who govern the sport, run squash clubs or offer squash programmes, fail to sense those shifting perceptions, preferences and priorities at their peril.

Of course, many people who are members of squash clubs may not even behave or wish to behave as squash agents, for example by offering to introduce people to the sport, running competitions, organising social events or even helping to run squash clubs. In fact, many may be happy just to ‘consume’ the occasional squash experience, e.g. by playing a friend or watching from the balcony while others play.

Yet the existence and involvement of active squash agents is essential to sustain living squash communities; and living squash communities are essential to the transmission through time of the squash life story.

Unfortunately, squash communities can’t be built to a blueprint, like machines. Nor do they spontaneously emerge from local populations, whether somebody belonging to those populations is already playing squash or not. However, their emergence can be stimulated and their vitality sustained throughout changes in the demography and interconnection of those whose participation breathes life into them. And while individuals are required to lead squash communities, others will always be needed who can catalyse squash community emergence and vitality. Otherwise, there will be no communities for leaders to lead.

This catalysis role is entrepreneurial rather than managerial or operational in nature. To perform it, individuals are needed who are explorers with a healthy scepticism of ready-made ‘expert solutions’ to squash participation ‘problems.’ The wreckage of many a failed squash development initiative sits on top of a ‘best practice’ blueprint. And the catalysts are also risk-takers who are prepared to encounter failure on the road to success.

Above all, the catalysts are curious, persistent and collaborative. People who are prepared to ask, and help others find answers to, difficult questions. To stimulate networks, generate interest and gain support. To coach communities into life and coach life into unhealthy ones.

There is more than one kind of life coaching, and more than one kind of squash coaching.

Culture / Clubs

How did you come to love squash? I don’t mean when or where did you start to learn the game or even play the game. I mean what’s the story behind how you come to realise that squash was something that you had to be – or already were – actively involved in?

Whatever your answer, it will have something to do with your introduction to and interaction with one or more squash agents, individuals who already loved squash and were happy to share their stories.

What was the context within which you came to love squash? How were your family, friends (or even enemies), work, home location and other life passions involved? What about your background and the background of those who made up the ‘supporting cast’ of squash agents in your introduction to squash?

What identity or identities do you believe that squash has helped to give you, or maybe to strengthen? Which of your values do you feel that it chimes with?

These are all important coaching questions focusing as they do on community and belonging.

Whether we realise it or not, we all play parts in the communities we find ourselves belonging to. Communities aren’t clubs or institutions. You don’t just apply, fill in a form and pay the subscription. You don’t come to love squash just by joining a club.
Squash is a culture and its transmission depends on its agents. It’s that agency that must be nurtured, directed and amplified if new squash communities are to emerge and remain vital.

Vitality must be coached into squash communities; squash agency must be coached into squash leadership.

Network / Probes

A key feature of squash community coaching is the nature of communication, not just between squash agents but between all existing and potential community members. Just because a community appears to be healthy does not mean that hidden changes are not underway.

What is the demographic profile of the community? How is it changing? What are the current perceptions, preferences and priorities of the community and how are they changing? What is the participation demography of community members in current activities and programmes and how is it changing? What new programmes and activities are you proposing to try out? How do current and proposed programmes and activities reflect changing community demographics?

What squash networks enhance the vitality of the community? How and by whom are those networks currently being used? How are they being stimulated? Even the individual members of a single squash club will typically use a number of networks each functioning via its own unique mix of messages, meetings, gatherings, visits, customs and technologies.

The ongoing health of squash communities is vital to their quality of life. Clearly, it’s sensible to give them the occasional check up. But it’s also vital to monitor their day to day well-being.

Emergency treatment is no substitute for the early detection of warning signs.

Summary

The purpose of this series of articles has been to raise awareness of new ways of thinking about the future of squash. These new ways have addressed a wide range of issues such as sense-making, leadership, culture, community, communication and innovation, all of which will affect the vitality of squash in a complex and dynamically-changing world.

The age of measuring the ‘success’ of squash and other sports solely in terms of participation now belongs to a ‘classical’ period which, in many Western cultures in particular, has now ended. We are now in a ‘post-classical’ age in which perceptions, preferences and priorities can not only change in an instant, but be largely unpredictable.

Like global finance, the future of squash will play out in an age of uncertainty.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Surprising Squash Shots

Having watched plenty of elite squash over the years, I’m beginning to get the feeling that some top players actually inhabit a parallel universe. Not in a quantum mechanical sense, of course, but more in the way of their ability to live in a constant state of possibility and surprise. So much so that, in some cases, it’s difficult if not impossible to tell whether a player has intended to make a ‘surprising’ shot, has made a ‘surprising’ shot without intending it, or has intentionally (or unintentionally) deceived their opponent in the course of doing so. If you see what I mean.

Take this shot by Ramy Ashour against Gregory Gaulter in the 2013 Tournament of Champions in New York.

Second-guessing where your opponent is going to hit the ball and positioning yourself to intercept successfully it would seem to be a ‘black art’ at best. When your guess proves to be correct and your execution is as fortunate as in this case, the effect can be joyful as demonstrated by the reaction of all present. This, in a human sense, is what surprise looks like.

Then, of course, there’s the out-and-out fake shot demonstrated in this case by James Willstrop against Ramy Ashour at the 2013 North American Open in Richmond, Virginia.

In this case, Willstrop has intentionally sought to deceive his opponent as to when he will actually hit the ball even though where he intends to direct it seems fairly obvious. Willstrop’s successful execution of his deception again leads to unbounded joy for all present, with one notable exception. Surprise, in this instance, is not universally shared.

But what about those cases where intention is graced with good fortune? Take a look at these nominations for the 2014 shot of the year.

In elite squash, the margins for error in intentionally attempting a successful shot are small. Yet, there is still room for surprise – the exhilarating effect triggered by a disconnection between the combined expectations of all those present and their subsequent shared experience of a beautiful moment.

Whether we’re playing squash or watching squash, deep down, we all want to be surprised.

Sources

Thanks to PSA Squash TV via YouTube for the video clips.

Hello and Goodbye

Fifteen years ago, I paid a flying visit to a city which has now established itself as a venue for major sporting events. At the time, Doha – the capital of Qatar – had already hosted one World Open squash final (in 1998) in which Canada’s Jonathon Power had beaten Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Just under a year later, I was working in the Gulf and attempting to follow Nicol’s 1999 Word Open progress in Cairo. In the pre-internet era, this involved the combined use of short-wave radio, occasional (and often imaginatively-censored) local newspaper reports and second-hand gossip gleaned by telephone from a number of expatriate Egyptian colleagues who were themselves in direct telephone and text contact with their squash-loving Cairo relatives.

World Open Final 1999

World Open Final 1999

As the tournament progressed, this strategy proved to be highly effective due largely to the continuing presence in the draw of Cairo-born Ahmed Barada who, like Nicol, was again challenging for the title. By the time the semi-final stage had been reached, I had started to make arrangements for following what was looking increasingly like a Nicol – Barada final when I received a call from my local agent, Fatih, another Cairo expatriate and Barada fan.

“Your visa runs out tomorrow,” he announced. “You have to go and get a new one.”
I was somewhat surprised but not immediately terrified at being thrown out of the country on World Squash Open finals day. Fatih’s efforts in managing my work contract to date had drawn on skills which could only be described as Machiavellian. So, I had no doubt that he would have a plan to rectify my imminent visa-less status.

“Where do I go?” I asked, expecting to be directed to an unidentifiable building on an unnamed street where I would experience bureaucratic torture and a limitless wait.

“Doha,” said Fatih. “I’ve booked you on a flight with Gulf Air tomorrow evening. You’ll be back by ten o’clock.” I waited for him to add his usual “Insha’Allah” but none was forthcoming.

I made a quick calculation. Gulf time was two hours on from Cairo time so, with any luck, I’d be touching down when the finalists were knocking up.

The evening was spent sitting in a hotel coffee shop following the semi-finals with two Egyptian colleagues using the telephonic component of the three-pronged strategy I had been using throughout the tournament. As I’d expected, both Nicol and Barada reached the final, Barada beating reigning champion Jonathon Power (who was forced to retire) and Nicol beating fellow Scot, Martin Heath.

The following day, a Friday, I turned up at the Hilton Hotel sports club for my weekly squash round robin session followed by a visit to the coffee shop to peruse the newspapers. As I expected, neither the Gulf News nor the Khaleej Times included any report of the semi-finals but did present selected first and second round results from Monday and Tuesday. Despite this, the letters pages of both newspapers were, as usual, full of entertaining cricket-themed correspondence from expatriate Indians working in the Gulf.

As it was getting dark, I flagged down a taxi and miraculously arrived at the airport without even once feeling that my driver was about to cause, or at least play a leading role in, a serious road accident. The return flight to Doha plus airport terminal waiting time took all of four hours during which time I read several chapters of my book, drank three coffees and acquired another 3 month entry visa.

One slightly more worrying taxi journey later I was sitting in the Forte Grand coffee shop following the 1999 World Open Final – again using the expatriate Egyptian / telephone method.

The final, won by Peter Nicol, was played on a glass court in sight of the Great Pyramids of Giza in front of a crowd consisting almost exclusively of Barada supporters. My Egyptian colleagues were naturally disappointed; no Egyptian had yet won the World Open and Barada was considered to have a great chance of winning the competition.

Since then, Egypt’s World Open fortunes have taken a dramatic upswing with seven of the thirteen tournaments played being won by Egyptian players. Coincidentally, three more World Open tournaments have been held in Doha, the latest of which saw Ramy Ashour beat fellow Egyptian Mohamed El Shorbagy.

Well, you know, one of these days I might actually get a chance to see a World Open tournament live.

But first, I’ve definitely got to leave the airport.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on “World Open (Squash)” and Ahmed Barada. Thanks also to Nashwa Abdel-Tawab for his review of the 1999 World Squash Open final: “Lucky By The Pyramids.”.

Squash Futures III: Network / Probes

N.B. This article is the third in a series. The first two articles, “Sense / Leaders” and “Culture / Clubs,” were published previously on this blog.

Introduction

What can squash agents do to contribute to the sustainable development of their squash communities?

A range of methods suited to the sustainable development of communities is now available which complements existing expert-informed approaches. These methods replicate how social relationships form, but telescope the time down to achieve this and, as a result, reduce the degrees of separation between squash community members. They do this in a novel way whilst simultaneously addressing the issues and challenges associated with squash organisation and participation.

The use of these methods results in the development of a denser social fabric within and across squash communities which can lead to significant improvements in overall connection, interactivity and participation. When someone joins a squash community, how long does it take until they are well-connected? Years? What if you could condense that time into weeks or months? At a personal level, what impact could this have on their active involvement in the community? And, at community or club level, what benefits could be realised?

Influential people in squash communities are almost always well-connected socially; and, they’re within a few connections of most people in those communities – particularly those who are critical to what they want to influence. This typically occurs as people spend time together, either in conversation or through shared involvement in activities or initiatives which can benefit the community.

The sustainable development of squash communities is a social issue.

Stimulating: Social Networks

All members of squash communities belong to social networks by virtue of their personal connection to others. This form of community membership differs from that of squash club membership or squash programme membership, both of which involve the interaction of people with formal organisational structures and their administrators.

The purpose of ‘stimulating’ social networks is not to seek agreement on the way that a ‘problem’ (such as a dying squash community) should be ‘solved,’ or even to ‘sell’ solutions conceived by committees or experts. Rather, it is to create a framework within which a network of people can itself identify and solve problems in new and unconventional ways by tapping into their combined knowledge and experience.

Social NetworkOver time, as people interact with each other and migrate from one place to another, they accumulate a collection of residual relationships. Their participation in these relationships is inherently based on trust and reciprocity. Together, these create social capital that can flow – via social networks – through and between squash communities, and be used to help their continuous development.

Exercises in stimulating social networks must be based on the understanding that a squash community needs some form of ongoing problem-solving or ‘threat / opportunity response’ capability – and that new community members (whether they play squash or not) need to be attracted in order to allow new identities and relationships to form. Once this is accepted, one or more “noble purposes” can be meaningfully identified based on the current state of each squash community. These are the purposes that everyone agrees are worthy but that no one person can spare the time or provide the resources needed to investigate.

The uncovering and stimulation of social networks is a key component in the enterprise of building sustainable squash communities.

Exploring: Social Constructs

The involvement of willing members of squash communities in exploring the nature of their communities is essential. Different groupings of individuals exist within all communities and it is important to identify them and to understand how they view the wider community and their involvement in it. Without such an understanding, it is not possible to take effective action in solving problems in ways which will contribute to the sustainable development of the community as a whole.

One method of exploring a squash community is archetype extraction which is typically carried out by a small group of community members helped by a facilitator. The method helps to collect the views of community members and re-interpret them in the form of ‘typical’ characters (‘archetypes’) which are uniformly agreed to be accepted cultural representations of the wider community. These archetypes may be complimentary in nature – or not!

Archetype SetUsing this method, archetypes may emerge which draw on age, gender, playing standard, marital status, club night attendance, parenthood, profession, team membership, ethnicity, committee membership, social reputation – or, in fact, none of these! In fact, the ‘archetype profile’ of every squash community is highly likely to be different from that of every other community and, unsurprisingly will change over time as members come and go.

Methods other than the archetypes exercise can also be used to derive useful social constructs . However, they all have one thing in common. They can be run in parallel with other problem-solving initiatives, or even as part of larger projects, such as:

  • The development of squash communities across regional areas
  • Conflict resolution between different community groups with opposing views
  • Inducting new members into a community or onto an organising body
  • Offering programmes, services and membership options tailored to members with different world-views

Taken together, social constructs provide squash communities with a much more meaningful, up to date and useful picture of themselves – something which is critical if its members want to help sustain them.

N.B. As with social network stimulation, social construct exploration methods are not only teachable, but are scalable. It’s possible to start small and grow.

Experimenting: Safe to Fail Probes

Understanding the nature of a squash community – and how it is changing – can make it easier to successfully introduce new events, new programmes and new forms of membership. But this doesn’t mean that every innovation will be successful. In fact it’s actually desirable to have a few failures (and even to plan some) so that lessons can be learned. What was being assumed that wasn’t so? What problems arose that weren’t anticipated, or that were? What proved more difficult – or easy – than we expected? What archetypes appeared that we didn’t know about?

And there’s another reason for regularly exploring squash communities. In complex societies, there are no repeating relationships between cause and effect. So, in certain circumstances, and at certain times, an initiative may succeed whereas at others the exact same initiative may fail. It may also be the case that an issue (such as falling squash club membership) may be perceived as a solvable problem, whereas it may be a natural consequence of changes in a squash community emerging from a changing combination of demographic and cultural influences.

Hence the need for experimentation – using ‘safe to fail’ probes.

Safe to Fail‘Safe to fail’ probes are small-scale experiments that approach issues from different angles in safe-to-fail ways. The intent of these probes is to approach issues in a small-scale, contained manner which will allow emergent possibilities (things that we didn’t know about) to become more visible. The emphasis is not on ensuring success or avoiding failure, but in allowing ideas that are not useful to fail in contained and tolerable ways. The ideas that do produce observable benefits can then be adopted and amplified when the complex system (i.e. the squash community) has exhibited the desired response to a probe or stimulus. Where the social environments within which squash communities (and organised squash activities) exist become increasingly complex, what is known and what can be planned for becomes less certain.

Introducing and increasing social and organisational tolerance for failure is more crucial than ever. Some squash communities may not have the social fabric, self-knowledge or creativity to survive.

N.B. A safe to fail probe may take the form of a social squash participation or squash partnering initiative. Creative experimentation is the key.

Next time…

In the next post, I’ll take a look at a new form of squash agency which can stimulate the emergence of new leaders: the coaching of squash communities.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Cognitive Edge for the descriptions of the sense-making methods described above.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.

Squash Futures II: Culture / Clubs

This article is the second in a series. The first article, “Sense / Leaders,” was published previously on this blog.

Introduction

The traditional view of squash is that of a high-intensity racket sport played in  custom-built indoor facilities. Centred on the use of these facilities are squash clubs, organised groups of people typically living within the same geographical area. Clubs are viewed as being ordered, with their members being accountable for their behaviour both to their fellow members and to those of a wider squash community.

Squash in Cairo

Squash in Cairo

Of course, at any one time, a significant proportion of that community may not be actively participating in their sport whether through injury, accident, design, advancing years or a combination thereof. Yet, participants and non-participants alike potentially share one thing, irrespective of their gender, age, sexuality or ethnicity: the identity of squash agents.

Although they may not be aware of it, each, in their own way, is capable of projecting something into the future which will continue to nurture the playing of their sport: squash culture.

Squash Culture

Squash culture can be thought of as something which endures through, and only through, the sustained interaction of its agents (players and non-players alike) and their interaction with potential future agents. As the lives of those agents play out, as they migrate from area to area, age and die, so the nature of their agency will change as, inevitably, will that of the squash culture it nurtures.

Squash culture can exist and be expressed in an almost limitless number of ways. Some forms of expression (such as a squash match) may be common to all squash cultures, whereas others may be uncommon or even unique. In fact, squash culture can vary from population to population, from group to group, and even from person to person.

Crucially, squash culture is not just a by-product of the participation of individuals in organised squash activities. It is, in essence, a shared basis for social interaction shaped by the traditions, beliefs, values and knowledge inherited and transmitted by its agents. It is also dynamic and can mutate to occupy different socio-economic niches – rather than static, requiring individuals to conform to universal norms. And it is COMPLEX, its whole being far greater than the sum of its parts.

In the context of leadership, squash culture occupies the domain of unknown unknowns, the COMPLEX world of unpredictability. It is the domain to which much of contemporary business and Western public policy has shifted.

And it is the world of emergence.

Squash Development

In many Western countries squash culture has, to some extent, been viewed in terms of knowable processes and its ‘delivery’ as a by-product of ‘sport development’ activities. However, sport development, more often than not, takes the form of bespoke initiatives targetting specific populations, club memberships or demographic groups for the purpose of bringing about desired social and economic benefits.

Squash in Hong Kong

Squash in Hong Kong

This kind of approach reflects an ordered ‘cause and effect’ worldview, a SIMPLE world of predictability. This worldview focuses on playing squash (as a teachable skill) and the associated provision of playing-centred ‘participation’ services by squash coaches. In this context, the role of sport development experts is to devise initiatives which have the ‘best chance’ of ‘delivering’ the required participation which will, in turn, (it is believed) result in the desired socio-economic outcome.

The role of the expert assumes that contextual differences will exist from one initiative to another and that an analysis of each situation is necessary before a suitable initiative can be devised. The worldview supporting expert-led sport development also assumes an ordered or ‘knowable’ world of ‘cause and effect’ whilst recognising that context is key – a worldview associated with the COMPLICATED domain of leadership.

This worldview is well-established in the West and can help to shape initiatives which contribute to increasing participation in certain sports within carefully-selected target populations. However, participation levels in squash and other sports are also naturally subject to change over time as socio-economic environments change and the cultural identities (and behaviour patterns) of individuals mutate. Nature is not ordered and people are unpredictable.

In reality, we all live within COMPLEX socio-economic environments populated by competing cultural influences – and cultural agents. In these environments, the ability to detect and act on emerging signs of self-organised squash development is critical. One such sign could be the formation of networks or small groups of individuals to share and discuss ideas for change; another could be the initiation of local ‘social development’ initiatives which incorporate or ‘resonate’ with squash participation. Different signs will inevitably emerge from different socio-economic environments, but they must be sought and, when detected, acted upon.

Sustainable squash development will new forms of squash agency – and new breeds of squash agent – to project squash culture.

Squash Emergence

Squash leadership is one of many forms of squash agency. In COMPLEX situations, others will emerge as squash cultures are explored, emerging situations identified, and opportunities for action exploited.

So what will this exploration involve, and what will these actions look like?

Squash in London

Squash in London

The characteristics of leadership in ordered contexts (SIMPLE and COMPLICATED) are well documented but in unordered, COMPLEX contexts, they are less so. As we have seen above, such contexts are characterised by dynamism and unpredictability, the lack of ‘right’ answers as to how to deal with emerging situations, and the existence of many competing ideas.

They are also characterised by the appearance of emergent instructive patterns associated with creative and innovative approaches to squash participation, and of new forms of squash agency – both arising from interactions between interconnected squash agents.

So, future squash leadership will be ‘pattern-based’ and will involve:

  • The creation of environments and the conduct of experiments that will allow patterns to emerge. These environments will be physical, digital or a combination of both; but, whatever their form, they will support social interaction between squash agents.
  • The stimulation and growth of connection, communication and collaboration activity between squash agents.
  • The opening up of discussions using methods which can help generate ideas. These methods typically work by setting up barriers (to frame discussions), stimulating attractors (ideas which resonate with squash agents), encouraging dissent and diversity, managing starting conditions (to exploit unexpected opportunities), and monitoring for emergence.

As will be obvious, leadership in COMPLEX contexts requires much more interactive communication than in any other context. In fact, many of the methods described above are commonly referred to as large group methods (LGMs) and are proven ways of initiating and hosting democratic, interactive, multi-dimensional discussions.

Using these methods, populations of squash agents will share their experiences on an ongoing basis, and contribute new ideas which feed directly into leadership awareness. This helps leaders to spot the emergence of ‘weak patterns’ which are the first sign of the effects of changing socio-economic influences. It also complements traditional ‘consultation’ exercises (used in SIMPLE and COMPLICATED situations) which, typically, seek opinions about pre-defined courses of action or ‘strategies.’.

Of course, there are dangers in COMPLEX leadership such as the temptation to fall back into habitual ‘command and control’ mode, to look for ‘facts’ rather than to allow patterns to emerge, and to crave the accelerated solution of ‘problems’ or the premature exploitation of opportunities.

COMPLEX leadership requires patience and time for reflection.

Next time…

In the next post, we’ll take a look at some of the methods used to detect the emergent patterns which signal change in squash cultures.

References

A Leader’s Framework for Decision-making” by David J. Snowden and Mary E. Boone is published in November 2007 issue of The Harvard Business Review.