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 difficulties 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 you’ve been seeing, 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 Arabia?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘Algy says there’s a potential crisis out in Arabia; 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 today. 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 both 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. Apparently, he’s just returned from Patagonia. Did you know that the Prime Minister always keeps a Boot by his bed? Well his work, that is.’

Lord Copper suddenly became Boot-aware.


‘Well, of course, if you could get him, he’s a brilliant writer and very well-known in all the right circles.’


Half an hour after leaving the luncheon, Mrs. Stitch telephoned Boot at his club. He was partaking of a late lunch with his squash partner and left the table to take her call in the lobby.

‘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 squash partner. 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.’


‘Yes, Boot. Brilliant writer. Very well known in all the right circles. 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, at any reasonable price.’

‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’


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

Newsroom 1950‘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, 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 is 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 the 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.

As 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 spring flowers and the habits of the water vole.) 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.

English Manor House 1950‘Thought I heard you, old chap. 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 boy?’

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



After an early breakfast, William left for the station. Almost all of the 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 Daily Beast’s imposing offices at 700-850 Fleet Street. Feeling increasingly nervous, he 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.



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.’


Mr. Salter attempted a second ice-breaker.

‘Plenty of foxes to hunt?’

‘The season’s finished for the Summer.’

‘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 decided to stop trying to find common ground with William and pursue a more business-like approach.

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


‘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.’

‘But I’ve never been abroad,’ protested William. ‘How will it look when I start writing about sandstorms and camels or whatever they have in Al Mussab?’

Mr. Salter realised that William knew nothing about the potential crisis in Al Mussab.

‘Boot, Boot, old chap! You’ve got this all wrong. You’ll be writing about the war.’

‘War? What war?’

‘Well, apparently, the Foreign Office thinks there’s going to be a civil war there. All very hush-hush, of course. I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I were you.’

William was alarmed.

‘Mightn’t it be rather dangerous?’ he asked.

‘No more than what you’re already used to living in the countryside, I wouldn’t have thought,’ replied Mr. Salter. ‘And you’d be surprised just how far away from any actual fighting war correspondents stay. No, no, I don’t think you need worry about danger. Ha, ha.’

William appeared unconvinced. Mr. Salter decided to resume his business-like approach.

‘Listen. To be perfectly frank, Lord Copper is particularly interested in your work and insists on your going. 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 looked despondent. Mr. Salter felt sorry him but, after all, he was under orders to get his man. He pressed home his case.

‘Of course, 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 weakly. 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? Lord Copper wants you to leave tomorrow morning.’


At the Intercontinental Hotel, Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi’s weekly squash 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 desert.

Dubai 1950s‘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 brother 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 going to Al Mussab to report on the crisis.’

Hassan was puzzled. His father, Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Nahmi, was the Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab. He hadn’t mentioned anything about a crisis. Well, not that he could remember from their infrequent conversations.

‘What crisis?’

‘He didn’t say.’


Hassan decided to wait and 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 lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, they waited for their chauffeured limousines to arrive and convey them to their family residences.

‘Same time next week?’ said Hassan.

‘Definitely,’ said Abdullah. He started to laugh.

‘What’s funny?’

‘I just remembered the name of the man who said he was coming to Al Mussab.’

‘Oh? What was it?’


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?


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.


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.


Thanks to British Pathé and to Wikipedia.

City Boys

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.


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


English Gold

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.


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.


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.


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.

Monkey Business

I walked out of the apartment building into the early morning humidity of the Gulf and looked for a cab. In a city where buildings were being built (and demolished) at breakneck speed, I was lucky. Over the road was a Toyota car showroom, the only one in the city and a place whose location was probably known to every cab driver. This was important. Even with a simple grid system, many of the city’s streets were often known by more than one name; and residential buildings, all un-numbered, were rarely identified with prominent signs, whether in Arabic or English. When it came to telling cab drivers where it was you wanted to go, the names of hotels, government buildings, shopping malls and car showrooms were just about the only common language currency worth exchanging. So, even at six-forty in the morning, there were plenty of cabs dropping off 20 metres away and looking for the next fare. I was picked up within thirty seconds.

The driver, his licence complete with photograph dangling from the rear-view mirror, was wearing a brown dish-dasha and a white skullcap. I settled into the back seat, directed him to the Hilton Hotel and sat back as he swerved into the flow of traffic. I didn’t actually work at the Hilton Hotel but, after a month in the city, I’d discovered that it was the instruction most likely to land me within a hundred metres or so of my office in a non-descript office block just off the Corniche. Today, the ten minute journey was less terrifying than usual, the driver being one of the few in the city who didn’t appear to be on a personal mission to catch and overtake every vehicle ahead of him on the road.

I walked into the office just before seven. Alex, the programme director, and Fadi, one of the project managers were both sitting at their desks. Alex, a Scot who’d been working in the city for nearly ten years, was deep in conversation on the ‘phone. Fadi, a Jordanian in his late forties, was smoking and staring at his computer screen which, on past form, could take any time upwards of thirty minutes to display anything whatsoever. He smiled and, as usual, rose from his desk reaching out his hand in greeting.

“Coffee?” he enquired.

I shook his hand and nodded. He walked to the door and disappeared down the corridor in search of the tea boy.

I dumped my brief-case on the desk and started to unpack my laptop. Alex waved at me and continued with his conversation. As well as being my boss on the consultancy project I was working on, he was the captain of the company’s third squash team. Tonight was match night. I sat down, plugged in my laptop and switched it on.

“Who’s playing at two?” Alex was asking his mystery caller. Obviously a squash-themed conversation was under way.

A pause.

“Well, he should win shouldn’t he?”

Another pause.

“So if I play Marwan at four and move Alan to three, what does that look like?”
I heard footsteps in the corridor and guessed that Fadi was returning with the tea boy.

“So if you win at one, three and five where does that put you for next week?”

It suddenly struck me that that there were only two rounds of the league left. I was beginning to become intrigued. Fadi re-appeared with the tea boy, resplendent in his black waistcoat and trousers, white shirt and black bow tie. He beamed in expectation of my order, the same one that he’d taken every day for the last month.

“So they’ll have to pick up, what, at least seven points tonight if they’re going to be in a good position going into next week’s match?”

Further information which added to the intrigue. Just in time, I raised my finger to stop the tea boy asking me for my order.

“He’s Sheikh Mohamed’s what?”

This was a new theme. Alex appeared to be drawing on his notepad muttering noiselessly to himself.

After what seemed like an age, he continued his series of enquiries.

“No he hasn’t rung me yet, but what do I say if he does? And how do I know that he knows that you’ve already rung me? What if he smells a rat?”

I looked at Fadi, nodded towards Alex and mouthed silently.

“What’s that all about?”

Fadi shrugged, then walked over and whispered in my ear.

“Monkey business,” he said conspiratorially and gave a knowing wink.

I tried to look as if I’d grasped the full meaning of what he’d said and nodded, sagely. There was a further pause in the conversation accompanied by further drawing as whoever it was on the other end of the ‘phone responded to Alex’s triple whammy of questions.

“So we’ll only know after tonight whether he’s already rung Razi,” said Alex hesitantly, “and that will give us an indication of whether he’s going to ring me…which I reckon he will anyway…because he won’t want to take the risk that you’re going to have a word with…er…Gary is it?”

I noticed that my mouth had fallen open and closed it.

Suddenly, there seemed to be a consensus between the two parties involved in the conversation.

“Yes, yes, OK, yes,” said Alex. “I’ll talk to a few people and get back to you.”

He put the ‘phone down and examined his notes in silence. Fadi had returned to his desk, lit another cigarette and began to read his copy of The Gulf News. The tea boy was hovering beside my desk waiting for my order.

“Coffee, please, Raj” I said. “Black, no sugar.”

He smiled and scuttled off to do whatever it was that took him fifteen minutes to make a cup of coffee.

“So what was all that about,” I asked Alex after a respectful pause. He peered at me over the top of his computer screen then stood up, walked over to the door and closed it after first looking up and down the corridor. He returned to his desk, sat down and picked up his notepad.

“Well, just between you and me,” he began, seemingly ignoring the presence of Fadi, “I was having a chat with the captain of NIC’s third team. We’re playing them tonight at their place. He just rang up to see if everything was OK.”

I knew that NIC was the Emirate’s National Investment Company. As Alex worked for the National Oil Company he was, in local squash parlance, the NOC third team captain.

“They’re second in the league three points behind NGC with two matches left. We’re third, five points behind NIC, and have got NGC at home next week in the last match. NIC have got NWC in their last match but they’re way off the pace.”

I congratulated myself that I knew ‘G’ stood for gas and ‘W’ for water in Alex’s acronym-laden summary of the current state of affairs.

“So it could all come down to the last week,” I said. “That should be interesting.”

Alex gave me a weary look.

“Yes, well that’s what Ahmed doesn’t want.”

“Who’s Ahmed?”

“NIC’s third team captain.”

I prepared to make a comment which I suddenly sensed might be deemed inappropriate given the complex nature of life in the Emirates. This was a land of unelected rulers, family-dominated politics, opaque commercial practices and disenfranchised guest workers. To do business here, foreign companies needed local sponsorship and a flexible attitude when it came to meeting local expectations regarding almost any kind of social or financial transaction. Including, I was beginning to realise, the functioning of the city’s squash leagues.

I bit my tongue.

“He’s one of Sheikh Abdul’s cousins’ sons,” continued Alex, “Whereas NGC’s vice-captain is one of Sheikh Mohamed’s sisters’ boys. Bit of a tricky situation, you see.”

I went for a neutral question.

“So what happened last year?”

Alex’s face lit up.

“We won the league,” he beamed. “First time I’ve ever won anything to be honest. The boss was very pleased.”

I knew that Alex’s boss, Hosni, was a prominent member of NOC’s so-called ‘Egyptian mafia’ and a favourite of the Senior Administration Superintendent.

“Yes, well we had a well-balanced squad last year,” continued Alex. “I was playing at five, Ghazi was at one and Karim was at two. We were pretty lucky with injuries too. Nothing major.”

I smiled and nodded as he re-lived his success in captaining the team to sporting glory. For a brief moment I imagined him developing effective strategies for neutralising opposing teams, getting the best out of his players, moulding them into a title-winning unit, that kind of thing. A bit like Napoleon.

He leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands behind his head.

“Of course we did have one advantage,” he said.

I responded to his subtle prompt.

“Oh yes, what was that?”

“We had Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin playing at three. Nice lad. He really came on during the season. Won every match, in fact.”

Sheikh Abdullah was the President’s younger brother. Something was starting to make sense.

“Yes,” continued Alex, “although I suppose he was being coached by Sami Awad.”

I seem to remember my eyebrows raising at this point, although I can’t be sure.

“You mean the Egyptian number one?” I asked, already knowing the answer.

“And former World Open champion,” added Alex.

“But how did…”

“Well Hosni used to go to school with him in Cairo. Big chums they were. Kept in touch over the years and, well, Hosni asked him to pop over and bring Saleh up to speed. And the rest of the squad while he was here, of course.”

Saleh, I assumed, was Sheikh Abdullah’s second cousin.

“But how did he get onto your team? I thought only NOC employees were eligible.”

Something immediately told me that wouldn’t be a problem.

“He was working here two days a week for his dad.”

“Who’s his dad?”

Alex smiled.

“Sultan Al Najaf.”

The name rang a bell. The Senior Administration Superintendent! I formulated my next question carefully.

“Who is…”

“Sheikh Abdullah’s cousin,” said Alex, nodding.

I summarised.

“So last season, you, your boss, his boss, the President’s younger brother and the former World Open champion were all involved in…”

“You could put it like that.”

“And this season…”

“Well, we have to help one of the other teams win the league, don’t we? Nobody wants the same team winning every year. It’s not the way they do things around here.”

“But who’s involved with the other teams?” I asked.

Alex sighed.

“It’s far too complicated to explain, to be honest. I tried to draw a diagram showing who’s in who’s team, who works for who, who’s related to who, who used to go to school with who, blah blah blah. Pointless.”

He paused for breath.

“Anyway, last year was our turn and this year it’s someone else’s. All I’ve got to do is make sure that whoever needs to be happy after next week’s matches is happy…and that everybody else is happy that they’re happy. Simple really.”

He smiled, picked up his notepad and walked to the door.

“Not sure I’ll be back before lunch,” he said to no-one in particular. “I’ve got a lot of people to see, tea to drink, hands to shake. You know how it is.”

He opened the door and disappeared down the corridor just as Raj was arriving with my coffee.

Fadi put down his Gulf News, glanced at his still-dormant computer screen and prepared to order further refreshment before he tackled the crossword.

“So did you find out what he was talking about?” he asked.

I thought for a moment, struggling to formulate an explanation. Then, the nature of my conversation with Alex suddenly made sense. I smiled.

“Monkey business,” I said.

“Monkey business.”


This story is based on my own personal experience of living, working and playing squash in The Middle East. The names of the characters have been changed to protect whomsoever you might think is innocent or guilty…or not.

Red Sea Showdown

Both hailing from Egypt and having brothers on the World Squash Tour, Ramy Ashour and Mohamed El-Shorbagy have plenty in common. Both have also won the World junior squash championship twice, Ashour in 2004 and 2006 being the first to achieve the double with El-Shorbagy picking up the 2008 and 2009 titles.

Yet, even more remarkably, El-Shorbagy’s achievement has since been matched by his younger brother, Marwan, who in January become the first qualifier to reach the quarter-finals of the Tournament of Champions in New York for 10 years.

At the same tournament Mohamed El-Shorbagy reached the semi-finals losing to France’s Gregory Gaulter. But three months later, on the shores of the Red Sea, El-Shorbagy he was to gain revenge on Gaultier beating him in four games to reach the final of the El Gouna International…where, coincidentally, he was to meet his fellow two-time World Junior Squash Champion, Ramy Ashour.

Here are some of the highlights from the semi-finals and the final. Maybe you’d like to try some of the shots they play during your next match.

On the other hand…

Semi-Final #1 – Ramy Ashour beat Amr Shabana

11-9 11-5 11-5

Semi-Final #2 – Mohamed El-Shorbagy beat Gregory Gaultier

11-6 14-16 11-9 12-10

Final – Ramy Ashour beat Mohamed El Shorbagy

11-7 12-10 8-11 11-8


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

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.  


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

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.’