Sufi Squash Stories

NB. Nasrudin (or Nasreddin) was a Sufi scholar and mystic who is believed to have lived and died during the 13th century in what is now Turkey. He appears in thousands of Middle Eastern “teaching stories” which combine subtle humour with learning. The following three stories re-imagine Nasrudin as a cross between a modern day consultant and a mentor; just the person to advise squash governing bodies, elite players and sport development experts alike.

The Mission Statement

Nasrudin was asked to help the leadership team of a squash governing body with their mission statement.

“What is your fundamental purpose?” he asked.

“To create constantly increasing benefits for our sponsors,” they declared.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they will continue to invest in our organisation,” they replied.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin.

“So that they receive more benefits,” they said, becoming slightly annoyed.

“To what end?” asked Nasrudin, nonchalantly.

“So that they invest further and receive even more benefits.”

Nasrudin pondered this for a while, thanked them and invited them to visit his home later in the week to do some more work on the mission statement. When they arrived, they found him in his allotment stuffing oats into his pet donkey.

“What are you doing?” they asked. “You’re giving that poor beast too much food! It will be so bloated it won’t be able to go anywhere.”

“But it isn’t meant to go anywhere,” Nasruddin replied. “Its purpose is to produce manure.”

“To what end?” they asked.

“Because without it, I can’t grow enough oats in my small allotment to feed the greedy animal.”

The Perfect Squash Coach

An elite squash player, the winner of many international tournaments, was having great difficulty looking for a new coach. After much searching, the player could find nobody suitable and, in desperation, turned to Nasrudin.

Over lunch, the player discovered that Nasrudin was not married and asked him whether he had ever come close.

“Yes,” he replied. “When I was young, I was very keen to find the perfect wife. I travelled throughout the world looking for her. In France, I met a beautiful dancer who was joyful and carefree but, alas, she had no sense of the spiritual. In Russia, I met a wealthy businesswoman who was both beautiful and wise but, sadly, we couldn’t communicate. Then finally, in India, I found her. She was beautiful, wise and joyful, and her charm captured the hearts of everybody she met. I felt that I had at last found the perfect wife.”

Nasrudin paused and let out a long sigh.

The player hesitated for a moment before asking: “So did you not marry her, Nasrudin?”

“Alas, no,” sighed Nasrudin. “She was waiting for the perfect husband.”

The Expert Consultant

One day an expert sport development consultant and author asked Nasrudin whether he would be willing to become his mentor.

“There is nothing I can teach you,” said Nasrudin.

“Don’t be so modest,” said the consultant. “I’ve been told that you’d be the perfect teacher for somebody like me who’s already an expert in their field.”

Nasruddin shrugged and invited the consultant to afternoon tea. He carefully laid the table, brought out his best china and warmed the teapot. When the tea was made, he began to pour and kept on pouring until the tea was flowing over the edge of the consultant’s cup and all over the table. Eventually the consultant jumped to his feet and said:

“Stop pouring, you fool! Can’t you see that the cup is too full to have any more tea in it?”

“Well,” said Nasrudin, “I can certainly see that I’ll have to empty the cup before I pour any more in, but cups are a lot easier to empty than expert consultants.”

Sources

These stories are based on anecdotes taken from “The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership” by Peter Hawkins is published by O Books.

Pathé Squash

It may surprise you to know that in the mid-1930s the soft-ball version of squash appears to have been pretty well established in the US as well as the UK. The evidence comes in the form of three video clips you can view on the website of British Pathé. Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cine-magazines and documentaries in the UK from 1910 until 1970. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era.

The Pathé News archive is today known as “British Pathé” and, in April 2014, the company uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 historic films to its YouTube channel as part of a drive to make the archive more accessible to viewers all over the world.

Hampstead Squash Club 1936

The first video shows two men on court at a “recently opened” facility in Hampstead, North-West London. They wear similar clothing to that worn by many tennis professionals of the era.

One of the players is identified by the commentator as Mr. D.G. Butcher, a “professional champion for five years.” Mr.Butcher demonstrates the serve and plays a rally with Mr. A. Biddle, a “former junior professional champion.” The commentator describes the sport and states that there is an “estimated 50,000 players in England.”

The clip ends with two women, Mrs. Brian Wolfe and a Mrs. MacKechnie, playing a rally.

Squash 1937

The second clip, dated 1937, is somewhat of a novelty item. It shows a rally between two men, one of whom is wearing roller skates “as a handicap.” The skater is revealed as Charlie Arnold, a “famous Bath Club pro” and his opponent as Mr. Arthur Wood, the squash professional at the St. Regis Hotel Club. The whereabouts of the St. Regis Hotel is not identiified although the West Country of England may be a possible location.

The second part of the video shows woman using an exercise bicycle on a squash court. It is electrically powered, so that when she pedals, the seat rises and the handlebars go back and forth providing her with a full body workout! The less said about the commentary accompanying this sequence, the better.

US Squash Rackets Championship 1938

The final clip shows action from the 1938 US National Open Squash Racquets Championship.

The players are identified as Johnny Summers and Ben Pope (in shorts), Summers being revealed by the commentator as being the eventual winner of the title.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé and to Wikipedia.

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 in The City

By the time I was offered my first ‘proper’ job in The City I’d already got form. There’d been a couple of years working on projects for The Giant Vampire Squid on Fleet Street, helping them clear up the mess after they’d been found guilty of aiding and abetting one of their more financially creative clients. Then there was a similar stint with The Thundering Herd, coaching some of their back office people in the creative pursuit of evidence which could help the firm show that their very own Masters of the Universe had been conducting business in a way that was entirely above board, or not. And, yes, there’d been other short-term gigs for investment banks, for retail banks, and even for brokerages. I had City form all right.

Then there was the other kind of form, the squash kind. I’d been playing for more than 25 years, during which time I’d usually managed to arrange one or two matches a week, irrespective of where in the world I was working. Of course there’d been a few squash-free periods (the time I spent working in Texas springs to mind) but, all in all, I couldn’t complain.

So, by the time I was offered the proper job, I was already primed to respond positively to any offers which would enable me to maintain a healthy work / squash balance. It just so happened that the job on offer was based in London’s Canary Wharf, then the venue for a recently announced international squash tournament. And it also just so happened that, in the basement of the building in which I would be working, were the only two squash courts in Canary Wharf.

I took the proper job.

I spent much of the next ten years or so working and studying in and around London. I played on the basement courts and at a squash club located within walking distance of where I was living at the time. Most years, I even managed to get to at least one session of the Canary Wharf Squash Classic, as my local international tournament was now called.

In 2013 it was the semi-finals – and a full house.

The first match ended in a 3-1 victory to England’s James Willstrop over Egypt’s Mohamed El Shorbagy, the knowledgeable and suitably refreshed audience showing its appreciation.

But it was the second match which saw overwhelming audience support for local boy Peter Barker in his match against reigning Canary Wharf Classic and British Open Champion Nick Matthew. Barker, born in the East London Borough of Havering had previously beaten Matthew only once in 21 attempts. But, in a physical match lasting 69 minutes, Barker ran out the eventual 3-1 winner to take his place alongside Willstrop in the final. The applause echoed round the packed arena for several minutes before Barker could begin his post-match interview.

Squash in the City may be international, but when the City boys turn up, it’s personal – and it’s always going to be local.

Sources

Thanks to World Squash for its review of the Canary Wharf Classic 2013 semi-finals.

 

Squash, Gold and the English…

In winning the squash men’s singles gold medal at the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, England’s Nick Matthew repeated the feat he had first achieved at the 2010 Games in Delhi. The Delhi final was Matthew’s first as it had been for his opponent, fellow Englishman James Willstrop, who was also destined to finish as silver medallist in Glasgow.

Yet Matthew’s achievement in reaching two consecutive finals was not exceptional. The previous three men’s singles finals had all featured another prominent Briton and erstwhile England representative.

Scotland’s Peter Nicol.

Born in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Nicol represented Scotland in the 1998 Games in Kuala Lumpur, the first in which squash made its appearance. In a tight five-game match, Nicol beat Canadian – and reigning World Open champion – Jonathon Power to the gold. By the time both players had again reached the final four years later, Nicol had switched his allegiance to England, claiming that he felt he was not receiving sufficient support from Scottish Squash, his sport’s national governing body. Unsurprisingly, many of Nicol’s compatriots resented this switch, even going so far as calling it traitorous. To the satisfaction of some, perhaps, Nicol lost 3-1 to Power in the gold medal match.

Amazingly, four years later and still representing England, Nicol reached his third consecutive men’s singles final. This time, it was in Melbourne where, once more, he met a reigning World Open Champion in the form of Australian David Palmer. In a tough four-game final, it was Nicol who outlasted the tenacious Palmer to take gold. Amongst the team-mates congratulating Nicol as he came off court in Melbourne was Nick Matthew, the newly-crowned British Open champion. Matthew was to finish outside the medals in fourth place but four years later would start his own gold collection.

Nicol himself had announced his retirement shortly after his success at the 2006 Games, a quarter-final defeat in that year’s World Open being his last competitive match.

But what of 2018 when the Games are due to be staged in and around Brisbane on the Australian Gold Coast? Well, I certainly wouldn’t bet against an Englishman reaching the men’s singles final.

After all, he might not be.

Sources

To find out more about the careers of Nick Matthew, Peter Nicol, Jonathon Power and David Palmer, see Wikipedia. Details of all Commonwealth Games squash competitors can be found at the Commonwealth Games Federation website.

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.

Jansher’s Last Title

In the 1990s I was living in a small village in Hertfordshire about 35 miles north of London. As far as my own participation in squash was concerned, I played at local clubs and helped to organise competitions at one of them on the Cambridgeshire border. It wasn’t, and still isn’t, a highly-populated area. Yet 40 minutes away by road was the Galleria Shopping Centre at Hatfield. And from 1996 to 1998, the top eight male squash players in the world gathered there to compete in the World Super Series event.

Jansher Khan
Jansher Khan

In March 1996, local boy Del Harris from Essex took the title, beating Australia’s Brett Martin 10-8 7-9 9-4 6-9 9-2. It was the second noisiest squash match I’ve ever witnessed. En route to the final, Harris had knocked out World Number 1 Jansher Khan in the noisiest. It was Khan’s first defeat on the World Tour for over two years during which he had beaten Harris in the 1995 World Open final in Nicosia.

Twelve months later, Jansher and Martin contested the final, Jansher winning 9-7 9-5, 9-2. As in the previous year, point-a-rally scoring was used with a tennis-style ‘advantage’ system coming into operation should the score reach 8-all.

In 1998, two of the world’s top eight players, Jonathon Power and Ahmed Barada, were absent through injury, their places being taken by world-ranked number 9, Del Harris, and number 10, Simon Parke. To the surprise of many, it was Parke who reached the final where he found himself up against Jansher, now ranked World Number 2.

Simon Parke
Simon Parke

To say that Parke was a popular figure at the time would be an understatement. In December 1995, he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. The following month,  he underwent surgery followed by treatment which included chemotherapy. Just four months after his surgery, he had returned to the professional squash circuit. Now, playing as well has he had ever played, he had a shot at Jansher, who was then British Open champion and had won eight titles in 1997 alone.

Despite vociferous local support, the match proved a challenge too far for Parke who lost 15-12, 13-15, 15-11, 15-10. But, unbeknownst to me and the rest of the Galleria audience that Sunday evening in March, the encounter was have a final twist in its tail.

Having won 99 tournaments during his long and illustrious career, Jansher Khan would not win another title again.  

Sources

Thanks to Squashtalk for their listing of Jansher Khan’s 99 titles.

Swedish Squash Balls

Living just outside London, I’ve managed to get to some major squash tournaments over the years both in and outside the capital. There was the British Open during its residency at Wembley, the Super Series at Hatfield (and then The City), the Canary Wharf Classic in Docklands and the World Series Finals in West Kensington. Hailing from Manchester, I’ve also combined trips back home with visits to the National Championships (and one World Series event) at the National Squash Centre. Some footage from these events can be found on the Web and, for my own amusement and gratification, I’ve decided to post it here as and when I stumble across it.

But, to start the ball rolling, here are some highlights from the recent 2014 Swedish Open held in Linköping which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to. But I wish I had.

Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana

9-11 11-2 11-8 6-11 11-7

Semi-Final #2 – Nick Matthew beat Gregory Gaultier

12-10 11-8 11-1

Final: Nick Matthew beat Ramy Ashour

11-13 11-6 11-8 6-11 11-4

Acknowledgements

You can find full details of the 2014 Swedish Open at the tournament website. Thanks to PSA Squash TV for posting the highlights.

Court 3: A Ghost Story (à la M.R.James)

Among the towns of Jutland, Viborg justly holds a high place. It is the seat of a bishopric, has a handsome although almost entirely new cathedral, a lake of great beauty, and a charming botanical garden.

Viborg Cathedral
Viborg Cathedral

The sun was setting as my cousin, Mr. John Anderson, whose experiences I have to tell you of now, walked up to the door of the Golden Lion hotel one cold Winter’s afternoon just over a year ago. He was delighted with the old-fashioned appearance of the place which, he was soon to learn, was one of the few buildings in the old town not to have been damaged or destroyed in the great fire of 1726. He was researching the Church history of Denmark and it had come to his knowledge that in the Rigsarkiv of Viborg were papers saved from the fire which related to the last days of Roman Catholicism in the country. He proposed, therefore, to spend two or three weeks in examining and copying these, hoping that the Golden Lion would be able to provide him with a room of sufficient size to serve alike as a bedroom and a study.

Upon entering the building, he explained his wishes to the landlord and, after inspecting several rooms, chose one on the first floor which looked onto the street. The pretty view, he reasoned, would more than compensate him for the additional amount of noise. What he did not know at the time, was what he was about to experience.

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On the day after his arrival, my cousin immersed himself in the Rigsarkiv library. He was, as one might expect in Denmark, kindly received and access to to all that he wished to see was made as easy for him as possible by the Archivist of Viborg, Herr Scavenius. The documents laid before him were far more numerous and interesting that he had anticipated. Besides official papers, there was a large bundle of correspondence relating to Bishop Jörgen Friis, the last Roman Catholic to hold the see. In these there cropped up many amusing and what are commonly called ‘intimate’ details of private life and individual character. There was, for example, much talk of a house owned by the Bishop in the town, but not occupied by him. The behaviour of its tenant, a Magister Nicolas Francken, was apparently somewhat of a scandal and a godsend to the Protestant opposition. He was a disgrace, they wrote, to the town; he practiced secret and wicked arts and had sold his soul to the Devil. The Bishop met these reproaches boldly, protesting his own abhorrence of all such dark arts, and challenging his opponents to bring the matter before the ‘proper court’; in other words, the spiritual court. My cousin had not much time to do more than glance at the next letter (from the Protestant leader, Rasmus Nielsen) before the library was closed for the day.

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As it was still relatively early, my cousin decided to explore the streets around the Rigsarkiv. Many of the buildings appeared to be relatively new, but he was delighted to stumble upon many which bore some of the architectural characteristics of the Golden Lion. He was also pleased to see that the medieval layout of the old town’s streets had been preserved and so determined to indulge himself in aimless wandering around the area. As the light began to fade, he found himself in a narrow passage-way near the cathedral looking at a brass plate fixed to the wall of a modern red-brick building; it bore the legend ‘Viborg Squashklub.’ Being a keen player, he entered the building and enquired as to the possibility of obtaining a visiting membership for the duration of his stay. The steward on duty was pleased to make the necessary arrangements and even offered to find some suitable opponents for my cousin to play. A tour of the modest yet well-maintained facilities – including two courts and a gentlemen’s changing room – followed, after which the steward agreed to contact him at his hotel with details of suitable court times and opponents. Satisfied with his day’s efforts, my cousin returned to the Golden Lion for his evening meal.

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The following morning brought word from the steward that he had located an opponent for my cousin who was available to play at seven o’clock that evening. My cousin sent a reply thanking him and agreeing to the match, before breakfasting and setting out for the Rigsarkiv library. On arriving at the library, he signed the visitor’s book and almost at once encountered Herr Scavenius, who had retrieved more papers for his attention. The Arkivist looked forward with great pleasure to seeing the publication in which my cousin was intending to summarise their contents, and expressed a long-held interest in identifying the house occupied by Bishop Friis’s notorious tenant almost four hundred years previously. “It is a great puzzle to me where it can have stood,” he explained. “We have the greater part of the collection of street plans from old Viborg here in the Arkiv, but the document which contained a list of town property is missing.” My cousin told him that he would endeavour to find the list and continued with his research before retiring to the Golden Lion for refreshment. In the evening, much to his satisfaction, he prevailed in his match at the Viborg Squashklub (against an accountant) before returning to his hotel and his bed.

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Over the following three days, my cousin continued with his research being, for the most part, alone in the Rigsarkiv library, sometimes to a late hour. Occasionally, he would leave the building to seek refreshment before returning to his labours, concentrated at a desk and two tables regularly replenished with documents by the Arkivist, whom he rarely encountered in the flesh. Occasionally, he would be joined in the library by other researchers, often sensing their presence as they moved amongst the labyrinthine arrangement of shelves rather than catching sight of them. On occasion, he would glimpse an indistinct figure or even just the hem of a cloak as it crossed a corridor between the shelves; at other times, he would notice the presence of an item of clothing, perhaps a scarf or a hat, hanging from the coat-stand by the library door. But the concentration he brought to his research frequently saw him lose track of time until he was obliged to accede to the audible demands of his stomach.

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On the morning of his sixth day in Viborg, a second communication arrived at the Golden Lion from the Squashklub steward, requesting my cousin’s presence that evening to play another opponent. As before, my cousin took part in a highly-enjoyable contest, this time with a physician whose stamina and accuracy rewarded him with the victory. The following day being Sunday, the Rigsarkiv was closed and my cousin took the opportunity to explore the shores of the lake before spending the afternoon and evening resting at his hotel.

Two more days in the Rigsarkiv library followed before another invitation from the steward was delivered to the Golden Lion. On his third visit to the club, however, a most unusual incident occurred. Having left the court and accompanied his opponent to the changing room, my cousin realised that he had left his towel (with which he habitually used to mop his brow between games) at the front of the court. He quickly re-traced his steps and, as he entered the corridor leading to the courts, noticed that it appeared to be longer than he had previously imagined. The far end of the corridor was shrouded in darkness although he could discern a door some distance beyond that of Court 2 on which he had just played. He retrieved his towel and, on leaving the court, determined to inspect the distant door which, he soon discovered, bore the number ‘3’. Unusually, the door was closed although it appeared to be unoccupied. No sounds, either of play or conversation, emanated from the court, nor could he see any light under the door or through the peep-hole. Although he thought this unusual, he did not investigate further and returned to the changing room, later asking his opponent whether he had ever played on Court 3. However, the reaction of his opponent left him in no doubt that his question was regarded certainly as being mischievous and possibly as disrespectful, and the two men parted without further conversation. The steward being absent from his post, my cousin was unable either to relate his experience or make further enquiries, and so returned to his hotel and his supper.

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It was several days before my cousin received another invitation to play at the Viborg Squashklub. By this time, he had forgotten the circumstances of his last visit, his attention being focussed entirely on his research at the Rigsarkiv. In the evening, he again attended the club where the steward introduced him to his opponent, a lawyer visiting Viborg from Malmö. On this occasion, he and his opponent were particularly well-matched, the score being 2-2 in games when their court time expired. The two men readily agreed to conclude their match two evenings hence and gathered their belongings in preparation for exiting the court. However, their attention was suddenly drawn to a loud and unsettling sound. It was the sound of a man laughing in a manner which could leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that he was either exceedingly drunk or raving mad. It was a high, thin voice which seemed dry, as if from long disuse. On and on it went, sailing to a surprising height before descending with a despairing moan, like a winter wind in a hollow chimney. Where the horrible sound was coming from, they could not tell, yet my cousin felt that, had he been alone, he would certainly have fled for refuge and assistance.

Instead, the two men left the court determined to discover the source of the sound. They began to discuss a course of action, but my cousin sensed that something had changed in the corridor in which they were standing. Looking over the shoulder of his companion towards the far end of the corridor, he could see a thin sliver of light shining from beneath the door to a court which he knew not to exist. He bade his companion accompany him to the door which, as before, he discovered to bear the number ‘3’. Emanating from behind it, they could hear the sound of laughter.

Being unable to see anything through the peep-hole, my cousin knocked on the door with his racket handle. However, there was no response from within and the sound continued as before. He and his companion then attempted to push open the door but it would not yield. Finally, the two climbed the staircase to the viewing gallery intending to see who the occupant or occupants of the court might be. On reaching their destination, however, they at once realised the futility of their action; the gallery looked down upon Courts 1 and 2, both unoccupied, but not upon Court 3. They descended uneasily from the gallery and, on reaching the corridor, noticed that, not only had the laughter stopped, but that the door to Court 3, together with that part of the corridor in which it had been located, had passed out of existence.

Desiring an explanation, they sought out the steward who assured them that the club possessed only two courts. He also denied having heard any previous reports describing experiences similar to their own, adding that he had worked at the club for many years. He returned with them to the corridor where the doors to Courts 1 and 2 stood ajar. Of the door to Court 3, there was no sign.

On returning to his hotel, my cousin retired to his room and gave careful consideration of everything he had had to eat or drink during the previous twenty-four hours. He concluded that nothing he had ingested could account for the nature of his experience at the Viborg Squashklub. If his sight or his brain was failing, he would have plenty of opportunities for ascertaining that fact; if not, then he was evidently being treated to a very interesting experience. In either case, the development of events would, he concluded, be well worth watching.

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The following day in the Rigsarkiv library, my cousin continued his examination of the episcopal correspondence I have already described. To his disappointment, it was incomplete and he could find only one other letter referring to the affair of Magister Nicolas Francken, it being from Bishop Friis to Rasmus Nielsen. The Bishop wrote: “Although we do not assent to your judgement concerning our court, we are prepared to contest your accusations regarding our trusted and well-loved Magister Nicolas Francken against whom you have dared to allege certain false and malicious charges. However, I would advise you that our brother has been suddenly removed from amongst us, it thus being apparent that the subject of your reproaches is now no longer able to defend either himself or his faith.” Search as he might, my cousin could find no sequel to this letter nor any clue as to the cause or manner of the “removal” of the casus belli. He could only suppose that Francken had died suddenly and, as there were only two days between the date of Nielsen’s last letter (when Francken was evidently still alive) and that of the Bishop’s letter, the death must have been completely unexpected.

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On the morning of the following day, my cousin reported his findings to the Arkivist who, while naturally disappointed, was curious as to what had become of Magister Francken. He therefore offered to retrieve whatever death certificates and other church records were held in the Rigsarkiv which might help my cousin determine the date and circumstances of  Francken’s death. My cousin thanked him and continued with his studies, leaving the library after a few hours to take some exercise on what was a clear and bright Winter’s day. On his return to the library, he returned to his place, acknowledging the presence, at another desk, of what he assumed to be a fellow researcher, and briefly glimpsing another figure wearing a black cloak disappear into the shelves. After another afternoon immersed in his studies, he left the deserted library and turned his mind to the evening’s forthcoming match at the Viborg Squashklub.

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Despite his previous experiences at the club, my cousin was in a cheerful mood. He arrived well before the agreed time, changed, and entered Court 2, which he found to be unoccupied. He could hear a match in progress on Court 1 but decided to warm up the ball in advance of his opponent’s arrival. After almost ten minutes, however, he realised that, not only was his opponent late, but the match on Court 1 had ended, there being no sound to be heard. He therefore decided to find out whether his opponent had arrived at the club and, propping his racket against the back wall, stepped outside the court. At that moment, something gave him cause to stop. To his left, he could see that Court 1 was deserted, its door ajar and the lights switched off. To his right, the door to Court 3 stood ajar, light streaming from it into the darkened corridor.

Fearing that the door would again disappear during the time it would take to fetch the steward, he walked towards it, with no little hesitancy. Upon reaching it, he found that, as before, it bore the number ‘3’. He paused, summoned up his courage and then, with his right hand, attempted to push the door further open. It proved to be heavy, however, and he was obliged to lean against it with his shoulder before it swung slowly inwards. To his astonishment, he found himself standing in the vestibule of what appeared to be a medieval library, not unlike that in which he had spent so many hours at the Rigsarkiv. The room was lit by candle-light, its dark wooden floorboards and panelling giving it a melancholy air. In the vestibule stood two large tables bearing what he assumed to be the library’s catalogues, each bound in brown leather. Several desks, each flanked by chairs, bounded the vestibule, their surfaces littered with manuscripts. The chair beside one desk appeared to have been turned sideways to allow its occupant egress. On the surface of the desk, amongst the documents, lay a black, wide-brimmed hat, typical of those he knew to be worn by clergymen in that part of Denmark. Beyond the vestibule stood the library’s shelves, rowed on either side of a central corridor and disappearing into darkness. In the shadows overhead, my cousin could discern the ceiling which was constructed from heavy timbers. With the exception of the vestibule the room was dimly lit, it being impossible for my cousin to ascertain its size.

6JK9_HIt was then that he sensed that there was something wrong with the atmosphere in the room. A musty smell, an unnaturally strong odour of dust, permeated the room emanating, as far as he could tell, from somewhere within the shelves. He took a few steps across the vestibule, his eyes fixed upon the darkened rows stretching away from him. Reaching the first, he strained to hear anything which would give him cause to determine whether he was alone in the room. At first, he could hear nothing but then, as he progressed further along the corridor, he heard first the rustling of pages being turned and then the unmistakable sound of a man at first chuckling and then laughing loudly; laughing in a high, thin voice. He reached the next row, the sounds becoming louder. There was still no sign of whoever now shared the room with him. At the next row, darker now, he stopped. To his left stood a figure – a man – wearing a black cloak, his back towards the spot where my cousin now stood, barely able to draw breath. The man had a bald head, a  head which looked dry and dusty, with white streaks of hair drawn across it. In that moment, the laughter ceased abruptly and the man turned slowly round, letting my cousin see his face. It was perfectly dry, the mouth open, its yellowed teeth grinning, the eyes deep-sunken and sightless. Over them, from the eyebrows to the cheek-bones, stretched cobwebs – thick, white cobwebs.  

My cousin stepped backwards, colliding with a shelf, staring all the time into the sightless eyes before him. He struggled momentarily to keep his balance, trying to draw in his breath but, in his panic, he felt himself sinking, drowning in an odour of dust and decay, falling towards the open mouth of a tomb. He turned and ran, stumbling along the corridor towards the vestibule, towards the refuge beyond the door, not daring to look behind him, all the while smelling the putrid smell of death and hearing again the laughter of madness echoing in his ears.

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My cousin has no knowledge of how he reached the sanctuary of the steward’s office. The steward, who was fortunately on duty, helped him to to calm himself   before arranging for him to change back into his outdoor clothes and take a cab to his hotel. My cousin did not wish to remain alone at any time whilst he remained at the club, and refused to return to Court 2 to retrieve his racket and towel. After a sleepless night spent barricaded in his room, he checked out of the hotel and caught the earliest possible train to Copenhagen, arriving in London two days later. He subsequently related his experiences to me, by which time a further development had taken place. Some two weeks after his sudden return to England, he received a letter from the Herr Scavenius, asking after his health and communicating the results of his own research. He had found no evidence of the death of Nicolas Francken despite the availability of surprisingly comprehensive records from the period. Neither had he managed to locate the long-lost property list from the same period. However, within the correspondence relating to Bishop Friis but not yet examined by my cousin, he had found a letter from Rasmus Nielsen asking for assistance in tracing the whereabouts of a member of his movement who had disappeared. The individual concerned was a scholar who was engaged in researching the occult and other aspects of Devil worship and the black arts. Some weeks before, the man had been seen entering the house occupied by Magister Nicolas Francken since when he had not been seen. The matter had been referred to the Overkonstabel of Viborg who had questioned  Magister Francken but no trace of the scholar had been found, adding to Nielsen’s suspicions regarding the Bishop’s tenant. The missing man was of English extraction.

His name was John Anderson.

Acknowledgements

This story is based on the short story ‘Number 13’ by M.R.James. It also includes a scene based on a ghostly encounter in a library taken from his story ‘The Tractate Middoth.’