Women’s Squash And The House Of Saud

By any account, 2018 is shaping up to be a ground-breaking year for women, sport and road transport in Saudi Arabia. In early January women were, for the first time ever, allowed to attend (men’s) professional football matches albeit accompanied by their male chaperones and confined to segregated seating areas. This revolutionary relaxation of The Kingdom’s strict laws followed last year’s announcement that, from June 2018, women would, also for the first time, be allowed to drive cars thus raising the possibility of increased female car ownership, demand for driving lessons, congestion on Saudi roads, attendances at Saudi football matches and development of sports stadiums to cater for dedicated toilet and refreshment facilities for women.

Later in January, women spectators were similarly let loose in Riyadh’s Princess Nora bint Abdul Rahman University to watch the first PSA world series squash tournament for women to be held in Saudi Arabia. And that’s not all. Not only did the tournament attract many of the world’s best players but, in a symbolic move, a last-32 wildcard entry was granted to The Kingdom’s highest-ranked player, Nada Abo Al Naja, who thus became the first Saudi woman to play in a world series PSA event. Al Naja went out of the competition, losing to number 2 seed Camille Serme of France.

Saudi PSA Women’s Squash Masters Finalists 2018

The tournament, originally scheduled to take place in November 2017, was held with Saudi Arabia in the throes of internal reforms introduced by Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman including the lifting of restrictions on the activities of women. With total prize money of US$165,000 up for grabs, the tournament was won by World number 1 Nour El Sherbini of Egypt who defeated her compatriot Raneem El Weleily 3-0.

Footnote

As a matter of interest (well, it is to me anyway) Saudi Arabia is the only country in the world in which I have a 100% record of squash success having played and won two matches there. The matches were both played on a court at the Intercontinental hotel in Riyadh (where I was staying) against fellow hotel guests, both of whom were travelling with their racquets in the hope of bumming a match with anyone they could find.

So, the next time you’re visiting Riyadh…

Sources

Thanks to Arab News, The Times of Saudia and TheSports.org.

 

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Three

N.B. The first two parts of ‘Desert Places’ were published here and here on this blog.

Mrs. Stitch sipped from her cup of breakfast tea and gazed out of the dining room window. Opposite her, blocking the light, her husband sat hidden behind his morning newspaper. She felt sure that she had been meaning to ask him something for several days but couldn’t quite put her finger on whatever it was. Suddenly, she remembered.

‘What’s happening in the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch.

Algernon Stitch grunted and lowered his newspaper.

‘Nothing as far as I know.’

He took a sip of tea and looked at his watch.

‘Is that the time? I’d better get a move on.’

Stitch placed his napkin on the table and stood. Mrs. Stitch returned her cup to its saucer and remained seated.

‘You said that there was a potential crisis in Al Mussab or somewhere like that.’

‘Did I? When?’

‘A few weeks ago. Something to do with oil and foreign powers.’

‘I don’t remember that. There was a bit of a situation in El Mahreb last month but it all blew over. The ruler’s brother wanted a bigger palace and some more wives, made a bit of a fuss and got them. A few shots fired, a few camels injured, that sort of thing. I suspect the Russians put him up to it. Anyway, El Mahreb’s in Africa not Arabia. At least I think it is. I’ll check when I get to the office.’

Mrs. Stitch was momentarily confused. Perhaps she ought to ask John Boot whether she had advised him to go to El Mahreb or Al Mussab. She also had a feeling that she may have mentioned El Mahreb to someone else.

By the time she had finished her breakfast, Mrs. Stitch had quite forgotten that she had mentioned anything to anyone at all.

****

In the lobby of the Intercontinental Hotel, William and Corker were indulging in afternoon tea.

“Let me get this right,” said Corker. “You say that Crown Prince Hassan has agreed to keep you informed of developments in Al Mussab’s foreign affairs provided that you set up and run a national squash ladder.”

“Well, up to a point,” said William, reaching for a second cucumber sandwich. “He’ll keep me up to date with family gossip about foreign affairs. There must be a lot of it though. Apparently, all of Al Mussab’s government ministers are related. That’s a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“And he’s happy for you to report this…er…gossip…” said Corker.

“A version of this gossip,” interposed William.

“…a version of this gossip,” echoed Corker, “to The Beast?”

“Definitely,” said William, spotting a macaroon on the third tier of the cake-stand.

“Oh, and to The Unnatural.” he added. “After all, we are supposed to be co-operating.”

Corker sipped at his Darjeeling which had gone cold.

“I was thinking,” continued William, pouring himself a third cup of Earl Grey. “I’m hopeless at all that reporting stuff. I don’t suppose you could file both our reports, could you?”

Corker sensed that things were hotting up. He raised his eyebrows and made an awkward attempt at a nod of agreement.

“Besides,” continued William, “from what Hassan says, I’m going to be jolly busy working on the squash ladder. There are lots of people he thinks will be interested; family members, foreign diplomats, oil magnates, business tycoons and so on.”

Corker imagined himself and William at the centre of an international network of important news sources.

“Oh, and I expect I’ll have to spend a lot of time listening to all of the gossip,” added William, having briefly forgotten why he was in Al Mussab in the first place.

Corker had visions of promotion at Universal News.

“I don’t suppose he let you in on any gossip last night, did he?”

“Well only something about a Soviet delegation arriving tomorrow,” said William, pouring more hot water into his teapot. “His father believes it’s a cover for espionage.”

Corker felt a story coming on.

****

It was late afternoon in London. Secretaries were carrying tea to the more leisured departments. In Mr. Salter’s office there was activity and excitement.

“Russians, spies, oil. This is dynamite,” said the Managing Editor sorting through a sheaf of telegrams. “Has anyone else seen this?”

“Not so far,” said Mr. Salter. “I thought I’d see what you thought before I go to the chief.”

“And you say it came from this Boot chap?” said the First Leader Writer. “What woke him up?”

“Perhaps it was that chap Corker from Universal News,” said Mr. Salter. “The Foreign Editor did say he had a way with words.”

“Well, the Foreign Office still isn’t saying anything about Al Mussab,” said the Managing Editor. “Do you think it’s genuine? After all, this Boot’s done nothing but report on the weather and camels since he got there.”

“Yes,” said the First Leader Writer, “but our competitors are still splashing the story. Maybe they know something we don’t.”

An hour later, Mr. Salter surveyed the front page of the evening edition of The Beast.

“SOVIET SPIES PLAN ARABIAN COUP”

After a brief telephone call, his counterpart at Universal News agreed to lead with:

“RUSSIANS IN DESERT ESPIONAGE PLOT”

It didn’t pay, thought Mr. Salter, to slavishly follow the competition.

****

In the Al Mussab desert, William and Crown Prince Abdullah Bin Rashid Al Nahmi sat cross-legged beside their camp fire in the Arabian night. Their camels and those of Abdullah’s bodyguards sat hobbled and grumbling somewhere in the darkness.

“I think that the squash ladder will be very exciting,” said Abdullah, selecting a fig from the fruit platter. “Very few visitors have come to Al Mussab up to now and even fewer have used the squash court. Perhaps now that there are more…”

William, whose thoughts were currently directed towards the Al Mussab desert and its wildlife, nodded.

“How many people did you say have joined so far?” said Abdullah.

“Thirty-seven,” answered William who had discovered that his ability to persuade squash players to participate in competitions was transferrable to foreign countries.

“No, thirty-eight,” he corrected himself, “but there must be at least three more in the Soviet delegation. I saw their racquet handles sticking out of their luggage when they arrived at the Intercontinental.”

Abdullah marvelled quietly at William’s dynamism.

“Which animals do you think we’ll be able to spot?” asked William.

“We are sure to see jackals,” said Abdullah. “They will be attracted by our fire and the smell of food. Just before dawn we may see a sand cat or a fox. Then tomorrow, oryx, ibex, gazelles perhaps.”

William pinched himself. He really was on safari in the Al Mussab desert with the son of Al Mussab’s Minister for the Environment. What could be more exciting?

“Mr. William?” said Abdullah, suddenly. “Did you know that my father is a great admirer of your writing?”

“I beg your pardon?” said William.

“Oh, yes,” continued Abdullah. “He reads your weekly column in The Beast. He told me it reminds him very much of the time he spent in the English countryside while he was a student at Oxford.”

“Are you sure?” asked William.

“Definitely,” replied Abdullah. “In fact, he asked me if you would consider writing something for him.”

****

In Fleet Street, Mr. Salter was ushered into Lord Copper’s office.

“Ah, Salter,” said Lord Copper. “I see that Boot has really got to grips with the situation in…”

“Al Mussab, Lord Copper?” suggested Mr. Salter helpfully.

“Precisely,” said Lord Copper. “I always knew he was the right man for the job.”

Mr. Salter nodded in agreement. A few weeks ago, he had thought that the Chief was losing his grip. But now, Boot’s reports were dynamite: Soviet plots, desert manoeuvres, secret meetings, vital British interests. The Chief had known best all along. How on earth had he spotted Boot?

“I don’t suppose we’ve got a photograph of him, have we?” asked Lord Copper.

“Up to a point, Lord Copper,” said Mr. Salter.

“Ring up his relatives,” said Lord Copper, “See if he’s got a girl. Someone must have a photograph of him.”

“I think they took one for his visa,” said Mr. Salter, “but I’m afraid it was a very poor likeness.”

“Pity,” said Lord Copper.

****

In Boot Magna, William’s mother, his sister, his Aunt Josephine and his three uncles were sitting around the table in the dining room. They had finished eating and had remained seated, as they often did for an hour or so, doing nothing at all. William’s grandmother had retired to her armchair in the sitting room to sleep.

“Did anybody open that telegram?” said William’s mother.

“Which telegram?” asked Uncle Roderick.

“The one that arrived yesterday.”

Nobody admitted to knowing about a telegram. After a search, Uncle Theodore found it behind the chest next to the coat rack in the hall where William’s mother had dropped it. He returned to the dining room and opened it.

“It’s from William.”

“STAYING AL MUSSAB ORGANISE INTERNATIONAL SQUASH LADDER WRITE DESERT PLACES COLUMN MINISTER ENVIRONMENT WILLIAM”

“What does it mean?” asked William’s mother.

“I think he’s staying in Al Mussab to organise an international squash ladder and write a column called Desert Places for the Minister of the Environment,” said Uncle Bernard.

William’s mother and sister burst into tears and were comforted by Uncle Roderick.

“Do you think it will be in The Beast?” asked Uncle Theodore.

“I should hope so,” said Uncle Bernard. “There hasn’t been anything interesting in it since William left.”

****

In the English countryside, where he had been hiding for some months from the American girl, John Boot found, amongst his forwarded bills, an official letter which read:

“I am instructed by the Prime Minister to inform you that your name has been forwarded to H.M. the King with the recommendation for your inclusion in the Order of Knights Commanders of the Bath.”

“Gosh,” said Boot, “it must be Julia.”

Despite it being barely eleven o’clock, he telephoned her at her house near St. James’s Palace.

“What do you think, Julia? They’re making me a Knight.”

“Who are?”

“The King and the Prime Minister, I expect. Was it anything to do with you?”

“Well…I may have played a small part,” replied Mrs. Stitch who knew nothing about it. “Are you pleased?”

“Very pleased,” replied Boot. “But what on earth is it for?”

“I expect it’s for writing books about all those adventures of yours,” said Mrs. Stitch who had never read any of them. “I suppose you’ll be able to go wherever you want now.”

She thought it wise not to mention the Al Mussab affair or the American girl.

Either way, John Boot was too grateful to care.

Sources

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

Squash Ω (2014) – Short Film

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

Cast

Tim Patterson as Tommy Williams
John Hill as Jon Hill

Credits

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

Crew

Gaffer – Ben King
Sound Recordist – Davis Bannister

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

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

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

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

Manchester by the Canal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources

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

Let’s Squash (2015) – Short Film

A short US film about a face-off between a squash player and a racquetball player.

Having recently played my first ever game of racquetball, I can understand the differences between it and squash, if only in relation to which of my muscles seized up afterwards.

However, the narrative of ‘Let’s Squash’ veers off into territory I’m no so comfortable with, e.g. the use of an on-court referee (clad in baseball ‘umpire’ gear), the occasional use of the side wall (by one player) to gain positional advantage during rallies, and the off-court appearance of a female player bouncing a completely different kind of ball.

Still, despite my concerns, I think I’ll give racquetball another try.

Anyone for tennis?

Credits

Produced by Michael McGovern and Chris Piepgrass (PiepGovern Productions)

Starring: Michael Schmidt, Michael Stevens and Michael McGovern

Special thanks to: The UO Rec Center, Tennis Gal, Ryan Grenier and Skye Gallagher

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.

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.

Haunted In Philadelphia

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

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

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

No, I take that back.

I just remembered I play squash.

What Happened On Finals Night

Spot the odd one out.

1.

2.

3.

Sources

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