The Redeemer Of Floridablanca

I have to admit that until recently I’d never heard of the Colombian city of Floridablanca.

True, thirty years ago I probably flew over it en route to a memorable stay in the Colombian capital of Bogota. but, at the time, my attention was focussed on reaching Lima where I was due to join a group destined for Andean adventure, Amazonian exploration and, although I didn’t yet know it, severe food poisoning. Nevertheless, at 928 metres above sea level, Floridablanca had, and presumably still has, something that, at 2640  metres, Bogota noticeably lacked; namely, enough air to breathe whilst playing squash.

In March this year, Floridablanca hosted the inaugural Ciudad de Floridablanca PSA Women’s World Tour tournament, the final rounds of which were played on an open air court located in the city’s Parque el Santisimo. In the final, former World Number 1 Nicole David defeated America’s Olivia Blatchford 11-3 11-4 11-8.

All this might not sound particularly special but the location of the court certainly was, sharing an elevated plaza with the tallest “Christ the Redeemer” statue in South America. At 43 metres, the Floridablanca statue dwarfs its 30 metres tall rival in Rio de Janeiro which, as I recently discovered first-hand, shares its vantage point on top of Corcovado mountain with up to 14,000 visitors a day most of whom spend their time getting in each others’ way and taking photographs of themselves and each other with smart-phones.

The Floridablanca venue joins other iconic squash court locations, including the Great Pyramid of Giza in Cairo, the Vanderbilt Hall at Grand Central Terminal in New York and The Peninsula in Shanghai, in providing an providing an incredible setting for some of the best on-court action.

So the next time you consider visiting Rio for the holiday of a life-time, why not check out ticket availability for the next Ciudad de Floridablanca? You could even fly down to the fascinating city of Bogota for a few days.

But if you do decide to visit Floridablanca, be sure to pack your umbrella. And if you  decide to check out the capital too, you might want to consider an oxygen tank.

Sources

Thanks to Squash Site for its review of the inaugural final and to My Rio Travel Guide for its information on visitors to Rio’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue. Thanks also to Colombia Reports for its article on Floridablanca’s “Christ the Redeemer” statue.

Manchester by the Canal

With the Oscar-nominated “Manchester by the Sea” still playing in the local cinemas, a return visit to the National Squash Centre seemed appropriate. Located in the Ancoats district of Manchester (England) within spitting distance of the Ashton Canal, the Centre was hosting the finals of the 2017 British National Squash Championships.

The last time I’d been to the finals, in 2011, reigning men’s champion Nick Matthew had been denied a hat-trick of consecutive titles by Essex’s Daryl Selby in a combative five-game affair. Since then, however, top-seeded Matthew had reeled off five titles in a row and was now aiming for his ninth overall, this time against first-time finalist Joe Lee.

In the women’s final another top seed and reigning champion, Laura Massaro, was aiming for her fourth title, her opponent being another first-time finalist Sarah-Jane Perry. On my last visit to the finals, Massaro had won her first title against Jenny Duncalf in another five-game epic.

This time, there were to be no fairy-tale endings for Lee or Perry, both going down 3-0 in entertaining matches.

In the final of the men’s over-45 competition, former two-time men’s champion Peter Marshall lost 3-1 to Manchester’s Nick Taylor whom I’d seen take the over-35 title in 2011. In 1994, Marshall, with his distinctive double-fisted style, had reached the final of the World Open in Barcelona where he’d lost to eight-times winner Jansher Khan.

Before the men’s and women’s finals, I watched the winners and runners-up of the rest of the competitions taking place during the week presented with their medals. I distinctly remembered that during my last visit to the championships, the finalists of the first men’s over-75 competition had been presented with their medals; this year, it was the finalists of the first men’s over-80 competition that were added to the role-call.

I made a mental note to be around for the first men’s over-85 competition but not necessarily to take part.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for entries on the Ashton Canal, the British National Squash Championships and the World Open Championships.

New Assassin On The Block

If I had a pound – no, let’s make that a 2000 Indian rupee note – for every time I’ve heard a sporting figure described as the ‘new kid on the block’, I’d be rich. Well, richer than I already am, which is ‘not very’. Then there’s the popular soubriquet ‘baby-faced assassin’, used primarily to describe male competitors blessed with youthful features and a measure of sporting success. Again, I can hear the metaphorical cash registers ‘ker-ching’, or at least I could if any still existed.

But then along comes somebody referred to, by the media at least, using both epithets. I refer to Egyptian player Karim Abdel Gawad who recently reached a career-high ranking of World No. 3 after winning the 2016 World Championship and the Qatar Classic in the space of ten days.

Gawad’s successes were presaged two months before the World Championships when he failed to assassinate Ramy Ashour in the final of the 2016 Hong Kong Open. That match went the distance with Ashour eventually winning 3-2. But Gawad had run the former World No. 1 close and, in their next encounter, in the World Championship final, would turn the tables, Ashour retiring injured at 1-2 down. To reach the final, Gawad had beaten another fellow Egyptian, Mohamed El Shorbagy, for the first time ever in a world-ranked tournament. Their semi-final was another titanic struggle, Gawad eventually coming through in 90 minutes.

Eleven days later, in Doha, Gawad did it again, this time beating El Shorbagy 3-0 to take his first ever PSA world-ranked tournament. In the post-match interview, it transpired that they had first played each other at the age of eight.

Where his well-earned success leaves Gawad in terms of his ‘new kid’ and ‘assassin’ nicknames isn’t clear. But, at 25, the same age as his childhood rival Mohamed, it’s unlikely that he’ll hang on to at least one of his current monikers forever.

And that new 2000 Indian rupee note? Well, that’s another story.

Sources

Thanks to Squash TV and Wikipedia.

Brooklyn Nine-Squash

Maybe it’s just my imagination but there doesn’t seem to be any tailing off in the appearance of squash in TV series. In particular, the sport appears to be popular whenever characters are required to display extreme competitive behaviour bordering on psychopathy.

Take a recent (2015) episode (‘The Swedes’) of the US comedy ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ set in the fictional 99th Precinct of the New York Police Department. The programme follows a team of detectives headed by newly appointed Captain Ray Holt and including Charles Boyle, a capable but quirky detective who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

In ‘The Swedes’, Holt enlists Charles to stand in as his squash partner for an annual doubles tournament. Boyle enthusiastically agrees although he confides to a colleague that he’s afraid he’ll let his competitive side out and start eating squash balls like he did in his college days. He begins the tournament trying to keep calm but, after losing the first game of their first match, Holt reveals that he’s picked him purely because of his squash insanity; he knew about Boyle’s crazy college antics and wants that on his team.

“I need you to unleash the beast,” says Holt.

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle responds, loses his calm and proceeds to dominate the competition in his own unique, aggressive and unsettling way. He and Holt win the tournament but are then banned from entering ever again due to the trail of physical and emotional damage they have left behind them.

****

Now cast your mind back, a long long way back, to 1993 and the second ever episode (‘Space Quest’) of the long-running comedy ‘Frasier’. Over no less than eleven seasons radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane and his non-radio psychiatrist brother, Niles, would be portrayed as squash buddies of undisclosed playing ability. Yet, although they periodically appeared wearing squash kit and carrying squash racquets, not one scene was ever set on or near a squash court.

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

In the ‘Space Quest’ episode Frasier engages in conversation with a colleague Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe, a sports talk-show host at Seattle’s so-called KACL radio. The brash, womanising Bulldog is everything Frasier, a culture snob, loathes. After he tells Frasier that sports keep kids from fantasising or committing murder, Frasier mockingly agrees saying: “Yes. If only Jeffrey Dahmer had picked up a squash racquet“. At the time, Dahmer was a convicted American serial killer and sex offender who would be killed in prison thirteen months after ‘Space Quest’ first aired.

****

So, there you have it for Brooklyn, squash, Seattle and, er, psychopathy. Amazing how ideas can come together, isn’t it? That’s TV for you.

Sources

Thanks to ‘Spoiler TV’ for its review of ‘The Swedes’ and to the ‘Frasier Wiki’ for its review of ‘Space Quest.’ Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and ‘Frasier’.

Grasshopper MegaRallies 2016

I don’t know about you but I do like to watch the odd rally that either: a) involves both players hitting the ball so hard that it appears to occasionally enter (and return from) hyper-space or; b) includes phases where the initiative shifts over time from one player to another, preferably mixed with a).

Here are a couple of rallies from this year’s Grasshopper Cup in Zurich that fit the bill.

The first, involving the reliably hard-hitting Simon Rosner of Germany and Gregoire Marche of France is definitely in category a). I feel tired just watching it.

The second, involving Scotland’s Alan Clyne and Egypt’s Marwan El-Shorbagy is more of a category b) affair with an occasional sprinkling of category a). I lost concentration after counting 60 shots or so but I’m sure there were more.

Of course, I do realise that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever come across any memorable rallies that involve soft-hitting and, say, half a dozen shots.

Although if I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV for posting the clips.

High-Rise Squash (2015) – Film Review

High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley, is a 2015 British film based on J.G.Ballard’s 1975 dystopian science fiction novel. Starring Tom Hiddlestone and Jeremy Irons, it tells the story of doctor and medical school lecturer Robert Laing who moves into a new apartment on the 25th floor of a state-of-the-art high-rise building on the outskirts of London. The tower provides its well-established tenants with all the conveniences of modern life: a supermarket, a swimming pool, a school, a restaurant, high-speed lifts and, naturally, a squash court.

High-RiseHiddlestone plays the cool, detached Laing with Irons taking on the role of the even more detached Anthony Royal, the building’s architect who lives with his dissatisfied wife in a grandiose penthouse flat. Laing forms an uneasy friendship with Royal, based partly on their playing squash together (on a court with alarmingly blue walls) but also on their mutual regard of each other as being high-status gentlemen of distinction. As the story progresses, the building’s occupants gradually become disinterested in the outside world; then, as the buildings amenities degrade order breaks down leading to violence and murder. In one scene, Royal saves Laing’s life (he is about to be thrown over his own balcony into the car park) with the explanation “You can’t do that! He owes me a game of squash!”

Thankfully, in the squash scenes, both Hiddlestone and Irons do seem to have played the game before.

Although not necessarily on blue squash courts.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on J.G.Ballard and his 1975 novel ‘High-Rise.’

How To Win A Squash Rally

Most squash coaches and sport psychologists have got this one nailed down…haven’t they? Dominate the play from the ‘T’, force your opponent to chase the ball to the four corners of the court, then finish off the rally with a timely, unreachable shot. Piece of cake.

Which is just what Britain’s James Willstrop was in the process of doing during this rally with New Zealander Paul Coll at the recent Canary Wharf Classic. All except the ‘finish off the rally’ bit, that is.

Coll’s ‘never say die’ attitude, willingness to throw his body around (and onto the surface of) the court, and ability to play shots from a horizontal position resulted in Willstrop tinning his ‘winning’ shot due to what I imagine was a combination of gradually increasing incredulity and mirth.

What the response of the spectators was to Coll’s heroics you can hear mirrored in the reaction of the match commentators.

I definitely need to get hold of the Squash New Zealand coaching manual.

Source

Thanks to SquashTV for the clip.

Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Haunted In Philadelphia

I’m not a betting man, but I’m guessing that quite a few visitors to the recent 2015 US Open in Philadelphia will have taken time out to have the bejesus scared out of them.

With a schedule of events stretching from October 8th–17th, competitors and spectators alike would have had ample opportunity to visit an impressive range of ghostly local attractions in the run-up to Halloween. These included The Fright Factory, The Bates Motel and the The Valley of Fear – at least two of which offered visitors the opportunity to participate in (and, hopefully, survive) a zombie apocalypse.

As someone who finds it tough sitting through the ‘previously on’ and opening credit sequences of The Walking Dead, I must say that nothing would induce me to enter enclosed spaces populated by creatures wanting to hunt me down, and from which I am likely to emerge only as an exhausted wreck.

No, I take that back.

I just remembered I play squash.

What Happened On Finals Night

Spot the odd one out.

1.

2.

3.

Sources

Thanks to the Visit Philly website and the US Open Squash 2015 website.

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part One

At a relatively early age, John Boot had achieved an enviable reputation as a writer. His novels typically sold 15,000 copies, and even his unprofitable non-fiction works on history and travel had succeeded in furthering his literary reputation in all the right intellectual circles. His latest offering was a description of several harrowing months spent among the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, an experience only slightly ameliorated by a short period of recuperation visiting the tango salons of Buenos Aires.

In London, Boot had many influential friends. The most valued was the celebrated Mrs. Algernon Stitch to whom, like all in her circle, he habitually brought his problems for solution. It was for this reason that, on a bright Spring morning, he called at her house near St. James’s Palace en route to a squash match at his club in Pall Mall. On the doorstep he encountered Mrs. Stitch’s husband clutching a crimson royally-emblazoned dispatch case and in the act of stepping into his chauffeured ministerial Daimler.

‘She’s in the morning room,’ said Stitch hurriedly.

Boot found Mrs. Stitch dressed for the street despite it being barely eleven o’clock.

‘I want to get away from London, Julia’ he said despondently.

‘I don’t suppose it’s got anything to do with that American girl, has it?’ enquired Mrs. Stitch.

‘Well, mostly, yes.’

‘Where were you thinking of going?’

‘That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘What about the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘Algy says there’s a potential crisis out there; Al Mussab or somewhere like that. Something to do with oil and foreign powers anyway.’

‘Do you think he’d send me there as a spy?’

‘Not a chance. He’s been sacking spies left, right and centre for weeks. It’s a grossly overcrowded profession, apparently. Why don’t you go as a foreign correspondent?’

‘Could you fix it?’

‘I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve been to Patagonia. I would have thought they’d jump at you. I’ll see what I can do. I’m meeting Lord Copper at a charity luncheon in Mayfair in an hour. I’ll try and bring the subject up.’

****

Lord Copper, proprietor of The Daily Beast, knew of Mrs. Stitch. On more than one occasion he had seen her at a distance but now, as she approached him across the reception room, he wondered what she could possibly want.

‘I suppose she wants your sketch writer to lay off Algy,’ whispered his hostess, Lady Bamford, as she moved tactfully away.

To his surprise, Lord Copper found himself entranced by Mrs. Stitch’s conversation. She expressed concern about the ‘worrying situation’ in Al Mussab, of which Lord Copper was completely unaware even though he gave his opinion that civil war was inevitable. She also remarked how few famous foreign correspondents still survived, and bemoaned the dearth of young journalists who could write stylishly about the true nature of events both on the ground and behind the scenes.

Lord Copper found himself agreeing with Mrs. Stitch whole-heartedly.

‘Who are you sending to cover the story?’ she asked.

‘I am in consultation with my editors on the subject,’ replied Lord Copper. ‘We feel it to be of significant interest to the British public. Of course, we shall have a team of military experts, photographers and reporters covering the war from every angle.’

‘If I were you,’ said Mrs. Stitch, ‘I should send someone like Boot; that’s if you could persuade him to go, of course. He’s a brilliant writer. Did you know that the Prime Minister always keeps a Boot by his bed? Well his work, I mean.’

Lord Copper suddenly became Boot-aware.

‘Boot?’

‘Yes. If you could get him to go he’s very well-known in all the right circles. Very sporty too, I hear. He plays squash.’

****

Half an hour after leaving the luncheon, Mrs. Stitch telephoned Boot at his club. He was lunching with his old friend and long-term squash partner the Honourable Frederick William Charles.

‘I think it’s fixed. I suspect he’ll be in touch in a few days. Don’t take a penny less than fifty pounds a week.’

‘God bless you, Julia. You’ve saved my life.’

Boot felt as though a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He returned to the dining room with a spring in his step and shared the good news with his lunch companion.

‘All very hush-hush, of course, Freddie.’

‘Absolutely, old man. Mum’s the word, eh?’

It was turning out to be a good day after all.

****

That evening, Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Beast, was summoned to dinner at his chief’s country seat. As he drove to Lord Boot’s frightful mansion, he thought sadly of his care-free days editing the Woman’s Page. His ultimate ambition was to take charge of the Competitions Page, yet here he was, languishing as Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter’s side of the dinner conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right, he said ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, he said ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘This Al Mussab place,’ said Lord Copper. ‘It appears that the Foreign Office thinks there’s going to be a civil war there. I propose to feature it. Who were you thinking of sending?’

Mr. Salter hadn’t been thinking of sending anyone to cover a war he hadn’t, until that moment, heard of in a place which he also hadn’t heard of. He improvised.

‘Well, since we lost Richardson to The Brute we’ve tended to borrow one of the Americans from Reuters. Of course, none of them is familiar to the public.’

‘No. I tell you who I want; Boot.’

‘Boot?’

‘Yes, Boot. Brilliant writer. Very well known in all the right circles. Squash player. The Prime Minister keeps his work by his bed. Do you read him?’

‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘Well, get onto him tomorrow. Get him up to see you. Take him out to lunch. Get him at any price. Well, any reasonable price.’

‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’

****

Newsroom 1950The following day, Mr. Salter went to work at noon. He found the Managing Editor reading The Beast’s Sports Page.

‘Who’s Boot?’ asked Mr. Salter at last.

‘I know the name,’ said the Managing Editor.

‘The chief wants to send him to Al Mussab. He’s the Prime Minister’s favourite writer.’

Mr. Salter listlessly turned the pages of the morning edition of The Beast.

‘Well, I’ve got to find him. Boot, Boot. Ah! Boot – here he is. Why didn’t the chief say he was a staff man?’

He perused the newspaper’s bi-weekly column devoted to Nature.

Country Places edited by William Boot. Do you think that’s him?’

‘It must be,’ said the Managing Editor. ‘The PM’s nuts about rural England.’

‘Well, I’d better get him up here for a chat. I’ll send him a telegram. Funny the chief wanting to send him to Arabia. Still, if that’s who he wants.’

****

William Boot extracted his kit-bag from the disorganised heap in the bar of the Old Cromwellians Squash Club. The handle of his racquet (which was sticking out of his bag) banged him in the knee as he did so bringing an un-Boot like exclamation from his lips. He had spent a pleasant evening losing a league match to a local farmer before partaking of a half-pint of excellent bitter brewed locally by another club member. Now, he felt ready to drive along a series of unlit pot-holed country lanes back to Boot Magna Hall, the ancestral seat of the Boot family. He bade the other occupants of the bar goodnight, stepped into the cold night air and made for his modest Austin motor car.

English Manor House 1950As he drove, William pondered the current standings in his squash league (he was bottom), the state of the local countryside (still boggy after an untypically wet March), and the subject of his next Country Places column (a choice between the habits of the water vole and a profile of the new Master of Foxhounds for the South Wiltshire Hunt.) He had inherited his editorial position on the column from the widow of its previous holder, the Rector of Boot Magna, without even having to go through the inconvenience of meeting, or even corresponding with, anyone connected with The Beast. Having the position was of the utmost importance to him and gave him the best possible excuse for remaining in the countryside, observing its wildlife and playing squash.

On his arrival at the Hall, he carefully deposited his kit-bag beside the coat stand avoiding further injury from the handle of his squash racquet. As he did so, his Uncle Theodore emerged from the library holding a large glass of brandy. He seemed agitated.

‘Thought I heard you. A telegram’s arrived for you; from London.”

He gestured towards a small silver tray resting on a chest two feet from the coat stand beside which William was standing. William was surprised. He had never been to London and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there except…

He lifted the telegram from its resting place, opened it and read.

‘Not bad news, is it, old chap?’

William re-read the words with an increasing sense of dread.

REQUEST YOUR IMMEDIATE PRESENCE HERE URGENT LORD COPPERS PERSONAL DESIRE SALTER BEAST.

****

After an early breakfast, William left for the station. Almost all of his family stood on the steps of Boot Magna Hall to see him off. His mother and sister wept. His Aunt Josephine’s motor car waited to carry him to Boot Magna station. Uncle Theodore attempted to accompany him but was detected and stopped. His father remained in his study.

‘Going to London, eh?’ said his grandmother. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll be alive when you get back.’

At the station, he caught the eight twenty-seven slow train, arriving at Paddington at a quarter to eleven. A black cab conveyed him through the living hell of London and deposited him outside The Beast’s imposing offices at 700-850 Fleet Street. Feeling increasingly nervous, William negotiated the revolving doorway, entered the Byzantine vestibule and proceeded to the reception desk. Behind it sat a uniformed and be-medalled concierge. William handed over his heavily-perused telegram and five minutes later found himself in the office of the Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter greeted William cordially.

‘Ah, Boot, how are you? Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. I know your work, of course. I understand that the Prime Minister is an avid reader of your column.’

‘Are you sure?’ asked William.

‘Definitely.’

‘Oh.’

They sat opposite one another in Mr. Salter’s office. Between them, on the desk, lay an atlas, open at the page where Mr. Salter and the Managing Editor had successfully located Al Mussab.

‘How is the countryside?’ asked Mr. Salter, hopefully. ‘Lot of foot and mouth, I expect.’

‘None, I’m pleased to say.’

‘Oh.’

He attempted a second ice-breaker.

‘Plenty of foxes to hunt?’

‘The season’s finished.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr. Salter’s understanding of ‘the countryside’ was confined to what could be seen from the window of a train travelling between Waterloo and Woking. He attempted a non-countryside ice-breaker.

‘I hear you’re a squash man.’

‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Do you play?’

‘Er, no.’

Mr. Salter decided to take the initiative.

‘Well, I’ll get straight to the point. Lord Copper wants you to work for him in Al Mussab.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s there.’

Mr. Salter pointed triumphantly to Al Mussab’s precise location in the atlas.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Definitely,’ affirmed Mr. Salter confidently. ‘The Managing Editor and I found it yesterday.’

‘No, I mean about Lord Copper wanting me.’

‘My dear fellow. With the possible exception of the Prime Minister, you have no more ardent admirer than Lord Copper.’

‘The Prime Minister?’ said William.

‘Definitely,’ replied Mr. Salter, finding his rhythm. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the PM keeps a copy of your work by his bed?’

‘No, I didn’t,’ said William, astonished. ‘But what’s that got to do with Al Mussab?’

Mr. Salter realised that William knew nothing about Al Mussab, let alone anything about a potential civil war there. He decided not to mention it for the time being.

‘Ah, yes, I thought you might want to know more about that,’ he said.

‘Yes, please.’

Mr. Salter began to warm to his task.

‘Lord Copper wants you to do precisely what you’re best at. No more, no less.’
William had begun to look interested.

‘What does he suggest?’

‘He wants you to write about the Arabian countryside,’ announced Mr. Salter.

William raised his eyebrows.

‘The Arabian countryside?’

‘Definitely,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘Wildlife, the desert, local customs, profiles of prominent figures, current events, that sort of thing.’

‘What on earth for?’

Mr. Salter leaned forward over his desk, looked furtively around his office and lowered his voice.

‘Well, to be honest, it’s all a bit hush-hush. The PM wants closer, shall we say, cultural relations with Al Mussab. All part of his international diplomacy initiative, I expect. He’s specifically asked Lord Copper to send you out there as a sort of unofficial cultural attache.’

William’s mouth fell open. Mr. Salter leant forward again for final effect.

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I were you.’

He tapped the side of his nose with a fore-finger.

William nodded weakly, his position as editor of Country Places slipping from his grasp.

Mr. Salter pressed home his case.

‘Naturally, we’re willing to pay a very fair salary. Shall we say, fifty pounds a month?’

‘Fifty pounds a month?’ said William, goggling.

‘I meant a week,’ said Mr. Salter hastily. ‘Plus expenses, of course. That’s at least another twenty a week; and you can resume your existing position at the end of your assignment.’

William sat in stunned silence as Mr. Salter administered his coup de grace.

‘I’m sure you realise that Lord Copper expects his staff to work wherever the best interests of the paper call them. I don’t think it would be fair to expect him to employ anyone of whose loyalty he was in doubt, now would it?’

William nodded. He could see no alternative than to agree to Lord Copper’s request. He would have to consult his family of course; that would take a week or two. Then, he would need to buy new clothes suitable for working in Arabia, whatever they might look like; he would also need to find a temporary editor for his Country Places column, which could take some time; and he would have to arrange and play the final two matches in his squash league. He had much to do.

‘Excellent,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘The chief will be pleased. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience. Let’s sort everything out over lunch, shall we? I’ve sent for your passport so we can sort your visa out this afternoon. Lord Copper wants you to leave tomorrow morning.’

****

Dubai 1950sOn the squash court of the Intercontinental Hotel, Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi’s weekly match with his cousin, Abdullah, had gone to a fifth game. Abdullah had won the fourth with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner, but now Hassan’s superior court coverage was finally beginning to tell. He won the final game by nine points to four and with it the privilege of buying tea and fresh figs for his vanquished opponent.

After showering and changing, the cousins sat on the terrace in the early evening heat. Across the shimmering waters of the Gulf, the sun was setting over the Al Mussab desert

‘Is your family well?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, praise be to Allah. And yours?’

‘Yes, praise be to Allah.’

They both sipped their tea and fingered their prayer beads.

‘Have you heard from your cousin in London?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, I received a letter from him only yesterday,’ answered Abdullah. ‘He said that one of his British friends had played a man at his club who said he was coming to Al Mussab to report on the crisis.’

‘What crisis?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Oh.’

Hassan decided see whether his father mentioned a crisis at the family’s evening meal, which reminded him that he was hungry. He finished his tea and picked up his kit-bag and racquet.

‘Forgive me, cousin, but I have to get home for our evening meal.’

‘Me too.’

In the hotel’s careworn lobby they waited for their chauffeured Bentleys to arrive and convey them to their family residences.

‘Same time next week?’ said Hassan.

‘Definitely,’ said Abdullah.

They sat in contemplation, watching for headlights approaching along the coast road.

‘Do you remember the name of the man who is supposed to be coming to Al Mussab?’ said Hassan.

‘Yes, cousin,’ said Abdullah.

‘I think it was Boot.’

Next time…

Which Boot, or Boots, will arrive in Al Mussab and what will they find? Will Mr. Salter realise his mistake? Will Lord Copper discover that Mr. Salter has made a mistake? What crisis will befall Al Mussab?

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.

I’ve based John Boot’s club in London’s Pall Mall on the Royal Automobile Club whose premises have housed squash courts since the 1930s.