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 And Love (2012) – Short Film

During a game of squash a man and a woman flirt. Their bodies brush, as they exchange a conspiring glance and smile. But will the game end as it began?

Credits

Squash And LoveCast: Carole Labouze (Joueuse) and Carl Laforêt (Jouer)

Cameraman: Bertrand Picault

Written and directed by Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Music by Eddy Benadjer and Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Produced by Les Films d’AntineA, Île-de-France, Paris, France.

 

 

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

Corker looked at William sadly.

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

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

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

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

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

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

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The American girl?’

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Salter sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

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

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

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

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

William sighed.

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

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

‘Where did he get the information?’

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

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

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

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

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

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

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

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

William and Corker sat very still.

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

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

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

Influences

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

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.

Notes From A Windy City

DSCF2031On the Red Line

Evening rush hour in downtown Chicago. It’s cold but dry. I’ve just arrived on the California Zephyr from San Francisco. Now I’m riding the metro’s red line northbound from Washington to Sheridan. Underground at first, then breaking the surface and rising above the streets. North / Clyborn, Fullerton, Belmont. I’m strap-hanging, one hand on my bag, counting off the stops. At Addison, there’s a baseball park right next to the station. Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. The next stop’s mine and I head off to find the apartment.

In the Cathedral

Cathedral Hall Stained GlassAt the apartment, my next surprise. John, my host, is a big baseball fan; his team is the St.Louis Cardinals. He’s also an improv comedian playing at The Second City club on North Wells.

John knows that the Cubs haven’t won a World Series since 1908 but doesn’t know much about squash. He also knows where the University Club of Chicago is; the venue of the Windy City Open. It’s downtown on East Monroe; I can walk there from Monroe station on the red line. During the Open, the show court is set up in the stained-glass splendour of the UCC’s Cathedral Hall, the last word in opulence.

First, though, I decide to check out Chicago’s baseball scene.

At Cellular Field

DSCF2004The Cubs aren’t playing at Wrigley during my stay but the White Sox are playing at lunch-time on Friday at U.S.Cellular Field on the South Side. I travel down to the murder capital of Chicago on the red line. It’s sunny and warm. At Sox / 35th station, there’s a holiday atmosphere and a heavy police presence. But no gun-fire or burning cars – at least en route to the ballpark.

The Sox are playing the Cleveland Indians in a match which gradually grabs my attention, partly due to a recent crash course in the rules of baseball given by a friend in San Francisco. The Indians prevail by 3 to 1 and I join the crowds heading back to the red line.

At The Second City

The Second City

The Second City

Another sunny, warm afternoon. I take in a Second City matinee with John in the cast. It’s a ‘best of’ show featuring the most popular sketches from recent productions. John shines. There are improvised sketches too, around subjects suggested by members of the audience. The relative lack of success of the Cubs is one subject, Mayor Daly (Chicago’s notorious former mayor) another, and gang-crime a third. I’m guessing that squash won’t ever be one. I chat with the regulars and discover that The Second City is the first ever on-going improvisational theatre troupe in the United States. Former members include comedians Jim Belushi, Tina Fey, Mike Myers, Dan Akroyd and Peter Boyle. John seems to be in good company.

In Union Station

A rainy day and I’m coming to the end of my visit. I’m downtown in the bowels of the majestic Union Station looking for the Amtrak lost property department. Three days after I arrived in the city, I’m hoping that some documents I left at the Amtrak office in San Francisco have turned up. As these include my passport and air ticket home, I’m keen to get hold of them. But the signage isn’t the best I’ve ever seen; plenty of instructions about what not to do but none about where to go.

Union Station, Chicago

Union Station, Chicago

Eventually, I reach a tiny office manned by two older guys in Amtrak uniforms. They listen to my request in the manner of anthropologists observing a member of a primitive tribe. They seem to understand my non-US accent. One of them beckons me to follow him further into the gloom of his subterranean domain. We reach a store room. He rummages around on a shelf and retrieves a cardboard box which is large enough to contain a bedside table. My name is on a label taped to the top of the box. Inside, we find a mountain of paper packaging and, buried beneath them, my documents. I sign a receipt, thank him and head for what I hope is the exit. After I’ve gone a few yards, he calls out.

“Hey! Give my regards to Doctor Who.”

I turn and smile. Outside, for the first time during my visit, it’s windy.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on The Second City, The Chicago Cubs, The California Zephyr, The Chicago White Sox, University Club of Chicago and Chicago Union Station.

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.