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.

Squash Ω (2014) – Short Film

A short film that explores the abstract narrative of an enthusiastic and passionate “squash” player.

Cast

Tim Patterson as Tommy Williams
John Hill as Jon Hill

Credits

Written and Directed by Derek Goulet and Tyler Chauncey
Director of Photography – Tyler Chauncey
Editor – Derek Goulet
Producer – Jill Bailey, Derek Goulet, and Tyler Chauncey

Crew

Gaffer – Ben King
Sound Recordist – Davis Bannister

There’s a lot to like about Goulet and Chauncey’s short film, not least the bewildering number and variety of ‘that’s not really squash‘ references, possibly referring to the ‘Ω’ of the fiilm’s title.

There was the actual squash reference, of course, namely the main character’s narrative tribute to his hero Jahangir Khan and his astonishing 555 match unbeaten run. But then the film introduced a series of images which, whilst not distracting from the story, kept this viewer at least wondering where the plot was heading. There was Tommy’s training regime which showed him roller-blading whilst playing air-shots with a  racquetball racquet. Crossed badminton racquets adorned the wall of his room above a photograph of Jahangir. When the on-court action began, Tommy and his opponent, Jon, entered a giant glass-backed court with no wall markings or tin. The court’s floor bore several sets of markings, including (possibly) badminton, whilst and on-court umpire completed the surreal scene.

Finally, having been knocked unconscious during his match, a dream sequence (Tommy’s sitting fully-clothed in a milk-filled bath being sponged down by the umpire and two assistants) is intercut with unsuccessful on-court attempts to resuscitate him.

I, for one, can’t wait for the follow-up.

An Open And Closed Case

This year’s Women’s final at the British Open Squash Championship in Hull was the first in twenty-six years to feature two English players, namely Laura Massaro – from Manchester via Great Yarmouth – and Sarah-Jane Perry from Birmingham. Coincidentally, the match was a re-run of the British National Championships final held in Manchester earlier in the year with the same outcome, namely Massaro beating Perry to take the title.

Open

But what of the 1991 final and its participants? Where are they now and what are they doing?

Lisa Opie

Held at the Wembley Conference Centre in London, Guernsey’s Lisa Opie beat Kent’s Sue Wright to take her first and only British Open title. She was the first British woman to win the title for thirty years and it wasn’t through want of trying. Opie had previously reached four finals in five years (in ’82, ’83, ’84 and ’86*), all of which she had lost to Antipodean opponents, Australia’s Vicky Cardwell winning the first two and New Zealand’s Susan Devoy the last two.

*Footage from the 1986 final between Lisa Opie and Susan Devoy is shown below.

Lisa Opie was never to reach the final again.

Nine years later, however, Sue Wright did reach the final again, losing to New Zealand’s Leilani Joyce. This time, it was to be her final appearance.

Closed

Sue Wright with 1998 National trophy

During her career, Lisa Opie also won three British National Championships (‘81, ’86 and ’87). After retiring from the sport, she was awarded an MBE in 1995 for services to squash and now works as an osteopath in West London specialising in sports injury rehabilitation.

Sue Wright also gained success in the British National Championships winning four titles (in ’92, ’97, ’98* and 2001). The latter stages of her career were plagued by viral pneumonia, which left her with ear problems preventing her from flying to tournaments held outside the United Kingdom.

*Footage from the 1998 final against Cassie Jackman is shown below.

After retiring from squash, Wright founded the Sue Wright Squash Academy establishing a National Squash League Team purely from Academy players, the first time this had been done anywhere in the UK. Amongst other commitments, she’s now a presenter, commentator and interviewer at squash tournaments for the BBC and Sky, as well as being an ambassador for the London 2012 Olympics legacy programme ‘Sport Makers’.

Serendipity

A few months ago, I got to chatting with a dance partner at a local milonga. She told me that she’d recently been having treatment for back pain from a female osteopath specialising in sports injuries.

“She used to be a squash player,” she said. “Didn’t you say you were interested in squash?”

“Yes,” I said. “What’s her name?”

“Lisa,” she said. “Lisa Opie.”

Sources

Wikipedia, YouTube and the LinkedIn profiles of Lisa Opie and Sue Wright.

Girl Unbound (2017) – Documentary Film

It was 2010 when I first wrote about Pakistani squash player Maria Toorpakay Wazir (then plain ‘Maria Toor Pakay’) for The Squash Life Blog. Now, six years later, a feature-length documentary telling her inspiring story is about to receive its UK premiere at the Human Rights Watch Film Festival in London. The documentary, ‘Girl Unbound’, received its world premiere at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival and is directed by US film-maker Erin Heidenreich.

Born in 1990, Toorpakay now lives in Toronto but remains a controversial figure in her home country. In Waziristan, her family’s home region, women are still forbidden by the Taliban from playing sports. ‘Girl Unbound’ follows Toorpakay over several months as she represents Pakistan on the national team and carves her own identity, despite threats to her family.

The film begins in Toronto, where Toorpakay practices with Canadian squash champion Jonathon Power, before moving to Pakistan, where her family is forced to relocate to Islamabad for safety. Defying fundamentalist threats, she takes a harrowing road trip with her sister Ayesha Gulalai, a local politician. We get to know Toopakay’s large family, including her father, Shamsul, and mother, Yasrab, who rejected restrictive customary gender roles when raising their sons and daughters.

In 2016, Toorpakay published a memoir, ‘A Different Kind of Daughter’. That book, together with this film, demonstrates that she is a vital voice of resistance, standing up to forces that want to dictate what a woman’s role should be.

Credits

USA, 80 minutes

Directed by Erin Heidenreich

A Blackacre Entertainment Production

Featuring Maria Toopakay Wazir, Shamsul Qayyum Wazir and Ayesha Gulalai Wazir

Producers Cassandra Sanford-Rosenthal and Jonathon Power

Music by Qasim Nakvi

Film Editing by Christina Burchard

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on Maria Toorpakay Wazir and Jonathon Power.

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.

Rockdale ’83 (2003) – Short Film

In 1980s Sydney, Keith and Alan share their hopes and dreams as they take  themselves to the limit in the game that made them men.

A celebration of the popularity of the great game of squash in 1980s suburban Australia. Bad hair, bad clothes, big egos.

The film picked up a few prizes on the Australian festival circuit including Best Film at the Bondi Short Film Festival and the Board Shorts Film Festival.

Credits

Directed and Produced by Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Written by Mark Alston, Cameron Craig, Loosie Craig, Julia Salaverri

Starring Mark as Keith / Cameron as Alan

Edited by Cameron Craig

Camera by Loosie Craig, Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Catering by Megan Alston

Costumes by Loosie Craig and Mark Alston

Special thanks to Campbell Barrie and Macquarie University Sports Association

Copyright 2cfilms 1984 and 2003

Abandoned Squash Courts

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

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

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

Ghosts of the Past

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Swannington

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

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

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Nocton

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

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

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

Abandoned Squash Court at RAF Yatesbury

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

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

The Squash Player with No Legs

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

Douglas Bader

Douglas Bader

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

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

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

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

Bader died in 1982.

Note

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

Sources

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

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

Squash Horoscopes

Capricorn (22 December – 19 January)

You will have a promising start to the year when you briefly lead your squash club’s internal leagues due to all of the top 23 players being injured, out of the country on ‘business’, or suffering from the Ebola virus contracted from the staff of the local Liberian restaurant. Later in the year you will have your racket re-strung after using it to fend off a swarm of killer bees during a knock-up with your then girlfriend.

Aquarius (20 January – 19 February)

During a session of your squash club’s weekly round-robin, you will take a hard-fought game off a 16-stone guy who once soundly beat a 9-year old Ramy Ashour back home in Egypt, leaving him in tears. That’s Ramy, not the 16-stone guy. Later in the year, you will discover that the father of the Middle Eastern-looking kid you’ve been regularly thrashing at the same round-robin is a known Taliban leader.

Pisces (20 February – 20 March)

This is the year when every single one of your gambles, both on and off the squash  court, will pay off. Actually, no, come to think of it that was last year. Sorry.

Zodiac Signs

Zodiac Signs

Aries (21 March – 19 April)

You will make a special effort to improve your personal grooming. However, you will realise that your new haircut is unsuccessful when the guys at the squash club changing room keep asking if you’ve had brain surgery. On the transport front, when you take your car in for its annual road-worthiness assessment, the only test it passes is the “Isn’t on fire” one.

Taurus (20 April – 20 May)

After you complete a gruelling programme of coaching sessions to improve your focus and hone your killer instincts, a long-term squash opponent and bitter rival suddenly begins to read something into your on-court body language. Then again, it could be the fact that you’ve tied him to a chair on Court Two and are dancing around waving a flick-knife with “Stuck In The Middle With You” playing on your portable sound system.

Gemini (21 May – 20 June)

A quiet year. You will replace your double yellow dot ball.

Cancer (21 June – 22 July)

You will decide that you want to be able to see your feet when taking a shower and start to focus exclusively on your health. You eat less, exercise more and get plenty of sleep. As you become fitter, your stamina, court coverage and reaction times improve dramatically, leading to an upswing in form. As you climb the club squash leagues, you are invited to join the second team at around the same time your sister offers to fix you up with some of the “cute girls” at her gym. You date a series of unsuitable women all of whom turn out to have convictions for assault, develop insomnia and put on two stones. You belatedly realise that your sister has always secretly hated you and will stop at nothing to ruin your life. Nothing.

Leo (23 July – 22 August)

This year all your efforts trying to write the perfect squash-themed novel will finally pay off when you find yourself signing copies in the city centre branch of Barnes & Noble from mid-day until they catch you doing it.

Virgo (23 August – 22 September)

You know that bit in rom-coms where the ridiculously hot girl ends up with the unconventional-looking guy because he really “gets her” and makes her laugh? And you know that girl down at the squash club you’ve been mooning over for the last two years? Yeah, well next year that’s not going to happen.

Libra (23 September – 23 October)

You read that surveys show that people find moving house even more stressful than attending a funeral. When your best squash buddy asks you to help him move, you will decide that there’s only really one option.

Scorpio (24 October – 21 November)

You will decide to lay off the post-match drink for a while when your hangovers move from being merely crippling to plumbing the depths of a howling, nihilistic vortex filled with pure pain and endless death. At least on Tuesdays, anyway.

Sagittarius (22 November – 21 December)

You will finally decide to follow the same principles in your squash-playing life that have helped so many people in their personal and business lives. In other words:  Prepare to fail and you’ll always…no, hang on. Don’t fail to prepare and you’ll fail to…no, that’s not right, either. Damn, I had it a minute ago.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to the “Psychic Bob” column in The Daily Mash.

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.”.

Gnomes and Grasshoppers

Culture is a funny thing, isn’t it?

Ask the British what they feel about gnomes and their opinions will centre on garden ornaments and Swiss bankers. Ask them what they feel about grasshoppers and their answers will probably relate either to insects or, for individuals of a certain age, to the TV adventures of a Shaolin monk travelling through the American Old West.

On the other hand, put the ‘gnome’ question to the citizens of Zürich and I’m willing to bet that the bankers – although not the garden ornaments – will again emerge as a key topic of conversation. This because of the appearance, in the Britain of the 1960s, of the term ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, used by the government of the day to describe Swiss bankers in their ‘secretive’ role as currency speculators against the British pound. The term became established – and has remained – in the English language largely due to the British love of ornamental ‘garden gnomes’ which originated in Germany in the 19th century and become popular in Britain in the 1930s. It also became popular amongst Swiss bankers, and many of their compatriots, as a badge of honour.

But I’m also willing to bet that the ‘grasshopper’ question put to the same citizens of Zürich will, apart from insect-related themes, stimulate responses which relate, indirectly perhaps, to the game of squash.

The Grasshopper Club of Zürich, commonly referred to simply as GC, GCZ, or Grasshoppers, is a multi-sports club whose oldest and best known membership is that of its football team. The club was founded in 1886 by Tom E. Griffith, an English student, and added a squash section in the 1970s.

In 1979, the first Grasshopper Cup competition was held, starting as an invitational tournament but soon developing to become an official World Squash Federation and then PSA World Tour event. In the 1980s and 90s the tournament was at its peak, its winners including Jahangir Khan, Jansher Khan, Rodney Martin and Chris Dittmar. After a break of just over a decade, 2012 saw the re-birth of the Cup which has since continued to grow in stature. Unlike gnomes, of course.

And so why, I hear you ask, would the citizens of Zürich fail to associate the ‘gnome’ question with garden ornaments? Well, the ornaments known in Britain as ‘garden gnomes’ are usually referred to in European languages as ‘garden dwarfs’ from the German Gartenzwerge. I suppose that ‘Dwarves of Zürich’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

That’s culture for you.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Gnomes of Zürich’, ‘Kung Fu’, ‘Garden Gnomes’ and ‘Grasshopper Club.’ Also thanks to the PSA for its article on the 2104 Grasshopper Cup.