In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)

It is asserted by many connoisseurs that the popularity and comfort of any café can reliably be perceived as standing in inverse relation to each other. So it was that, on one cold March afternoon, I found myself on the Avenue des Peupliers in a small family-run salon de thé whose owners I considered to be amongst the most refined  in Paris in providing a traditional yet relaxing environment in which to imbibe the finest tea and partake of the most exquisite cakes to be found in the capital.

salon de the angelina paris In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)On this occasion, I had walked to the salon from the Grand Club de Rue Voltaire, where I had not one hour before completed a closely-contested squash match with Monsieur Charles Gommendy, a match which had, regrettably, ended with my defeat by three games to two. After a much-needed shower, during which time both I and my opponent successfully avoided commenting on each other’s competitive qualities, and on several disputed points which had punctuated the contest, I had politely declined his invitation to take liquid refreshment with him in the club bar and, citing a non-existent appointment, shouldered my squash bag and begged his leave.

Now, here in the comfortable environment of the salon, I recalled that, as I had passed by the open door to the Club bar, my nostrils had been suddenly assailed by an odour of stale beer much of it, I assumed, emanating from the facility’s carpet whither it had been conveyed via a series of spillages over an extended period of time stretching back to the 1970s when the Club had been founded. Such had been the olfactory impact of the carpet’s bouquet that I had at once determined to make for the Avenue des Peupliers in search, first, of more sophisticated refreshment and, second, of sanctuary from the sensory barbarism endemic, both to my current locale and to the immediate vicinity of the charmless building in which the Club was housed.

Leaving the confines of the club, I had proceeded towards Montmartre passing a number of cafés with whose interiors and wares I was, much to my regret, sadly familiar. Despite a feeling of fatigue brought on by my exertions on the squash court, I had found my pace quickening as I remembered the sense of despair I routinely felt during my reluctant visits to these places of researched mediocrity to confer with professional colleagues on matters unsuited to an office environment. I had reflected, with grudging  admiration, that from their headquarters in whatever characterless North American cities currently harboured them, their owners had succeeded in finding the precise combination of furnishings – brown sofas, blonde wood and red walls – which offered neither style nor comfort. Moreover, each venue’s ensemble presented the appearance of having been delivered, flat-packed, in a single container, from a culture which cared nothing of the one to which it was supplying its wares. Tea, if it was offered at all in any of these dismal establishments, I had reflected, was invariably presented to the customer contained in a perforated, plastic bag immersed in scalding water, itself contained in a mug or cardboard beaker displaying the name of the corporate entity culpable for the existence of the emporium. The bag was typically attached to a piece of string, the other end of which was fixed to a small piece of cardboard bearing the name of the blend. To the best of my recollection, the skills available to those functionaries responsible for preparing the beverages offered to me were, on no occasion, sufficient to prevent the piece of cardboard and the entire length of the string from joining the tea bag in its occupancy of the scalding water. All that remained was for the customer, should he or she choose to do so, to add milk (contained in a battered communal flask with a screw-top lid)  and to stir the concoction with a wooden stick. The removal of the tea bag from the scalding water was, in my limited experience, both logistically challenging and potentially hazardous, there being little choice but to allow it to remain in situ and further contribute to whatever flavour might be discerned as emerging from the slowly-cooling preparation.

Shortly afterwards, as I had neared the Avenue de Peupliers, I remember lamenting the fact that my age now obliged me to take notice of every ache and pain appearing in my body and not only to afford them my attention, but to seriously consider treating them with a modicum of care and rest. As I did so, I suddenly realised, with a certain degree of resentment, that my most recent squash opponent, the aforementioned Monsieur Gommendy was unlikely to be troubled with such concerns being, in my estimation, a mere youth of some sixteen or so summers.

Thus it was that, pushing open the heavy, oak-panelled door to the Café Angelina, I had been momentarily reminded of my Aunt Léonie’s parlour at Combray with its elegant furnishings, fine art and finely-woven carpet. I remembered, in my youth, visiting my aunt’s home for tea, sometimes with my parents, sometimes, when I was older, alone. Yet, stepping over the threshold of Monsieur and Madame.Le Corbusier’s salon, the memory had disappeared almost immediately with the ringing of the brass doorbell, attached by a spring to the back of the door where it was fixed with a steel shoe cap. Suddenly disconnected from my memories, I had removed my hat, sensing a momentary silence as the salon’s clientele paused in their conversation and turned to see who might be applying to join them in taking refreshment.

Louis XIV clock c64 195x300 In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)Yet, even as the sound of the doorbell was fading, it had been replaced by the chiming of a Louis XIV clock standing on the mantelpiece at the far end of the room. Instantly, my attention had been drawn to the clock with its Boulle case surmounted by a brass putto which I had often admired during my previous visits. I recalled that my eyes had sought out its handsome form complete with its glazed door, enamel plaques and ornate decorative mount, and that, even at a distance the length of a squash court, I could discern the movement of its pendulum, crafted, as I knew it to be, in the shape of Phoebus. By the time it had struck four, Madame Le Corbusier had appeared from the kitchen and joined me by the door, smiling in recognition as she walked the length of the salon towards me.

“Your usual table, Monsieur?” she had enquired, immediately upon reaching the spot where I was waiting in anticipation of my refreshment. I recall nodding in agreement, suddenly aware of the seemingly orchestrated rise in the room’s conversational ambience as the chime of the clock faded and the salon’s clientele resumed their social intercourse. In agreeing to Madame Le Corbusier’s invitation, I had immediately felt safe in the knowledge that my hostess would make every effort to ensure that my visit to her much-loved and highly-esteemed establishment would, yet again, surpass my expectations in terms both of service and comfort, let alone of the sheer joy of spending even a brief period of time in such an aesthetically pleasing and historic venue. Such indeed, I had mused, as my hostess relieved me of my overcoat, scarf and squash bag, was the feeling I had so often experienced when arriving at my aunt’s home in Combray, an imposing three-story dwelling constructed in the late 19th-century in the  Provincial Neo-Renaissance English style. The splendour of that property, I had recalled as my hostess led me to my table by one of the salon’s lead-framed windows, was reflected in the status of my uncle, a senior diplomat and one-time ambassador to The Court of St.James in London. I further remembered the house being, on many occasions, the venue of glittering receptions, sumptuous banquets and colourful garden parties, attended not just by family members, but by neighbours, local dignitaries and national figures including, on one occasion, Monsieur Pierre Messmer, President of the Fifth Republic.

My hostess having left me to peruse the menu I had, at first, allowed my gaze to wander about the room, settling, in turn, on its occupants, on its many beautiful architectural and decorative features, and on the numerous objets d’art mounted on its walls and displayed in cabinets, on shelves and on plinths throughout the salon. My eyes having   been drawn to the early 19th-century French cut-glass and ormolu chandelier and, for a few moments, to the people, and occasional motor vehicle, hurrying by outside my window, I had lowered my gaze only to find it drawn to the handsome face of a fashionably-attired young woman sitting two tables away from my own. I had been immediately in mind of someone from my past, someone who, based on the powerful feelings of admiration I was now experiencing, had held a not unimportant place in my affections. Searching my memory in an attempt to remember who might once have held such a place, I had become aware of the approach towards my table of Cécile, one of Madame Corbusier’s admirable  waitresses who, I assumed, was desirous of ascertaining what I had chosen from the  menu.

Silver Tea Set and Cup jpg srz In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)Being, as I was, a regular visitor, I had needed barely a moment to glance at the menu before swiftly making an order of tea and cake which, even at the instant of its making, had become lost to my memory, distracted, as the latter was, by my desire to identify the cause of my current feelings, which I had presumed to be hidden deep within its recesses. No sooner had Cécile written down my order on her notepad and left my table, than I had resumed my observation of my fellow customer whose presence, at such proximity, continued to affect me in a way I struggled to comprehend, my thoughts accompanied by feelings of confusion, anxiety and passion. Of whom, I had asked myself repeatedly, does she remind me? At what time in my life had I encountered someone who had aroused such emotions in me? Such had continued to be my questions to myself when, after what had seemed to be an eternity but which, in reality, was but a few minutes, Cécile had appeared bearing a silver tray upon which my order resided and towards which, in turn, my attention was thankfully diverted. I had nodded and smiled appreciatively as Cécile carefully transferred the contents of her tray to the surface of my table, arranging the individual items – silver teapot, hot water jug, tea strainer, milk jug and sugar bowl, china tea cup, saucer and plate, silver teaspoon, knife and cake fork – in a precise pattern, beautifully conceived to heighten the customer’s sense of aesthetic pleasure and ease of use. I had thanked my waitress who had then smiled and turned her attention to serving those other customers to whom she had been assigned.

Turning my own attention to the ritual in which I was about to participate, I had raised the lid of the teapot and, taking my teaspoon, stirred its contents, suddenly inhaling the intoxicating aroma of the infusion as it strengthened in front of me. After closing the lid and waiting for a few seconds, I had grasped the teapot by its silver handle, lifted the strainer from its base and simultaneously manoeuvred both towards a necessary rendezvous immediately above my teacup. I had lovingly filled the cup noting, with pleasure, the golden-brown hue of its contents before returning the teapot and strainer to their original positions on the surface of the table. Further  manoeuvres had then been performed which had added first milk and then a half-teaspoon of sugar to the contents of my cup before stirring the final mixture and returning the teaspoon to its home on the saucer. Reverentially, I had then lifted the cup to my lips and taken a few sips of what revealed itself to be a delightful infusion, refined yet subtly robust with a subtle, lingering hint of sweetness. In a state of high anticipation, I had then gazed covetously at the plate of petite madeleines placed conveniently by Cécile to the left of my cup, admiring their shell-like forms and, even now, gauging their lightness, their consistency and their promise. Slowly and tenderly, as though caressing a lover, I lifted one of the confectioneries from the plate with my left hand, dipped it quickly yet gently into the contents of my cup, and raised it to my lips.

madeleines 300x178 In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it? And suddenly the memory revealed itself. The taste was that of the little piece of madeleine which, on Sunday mornings at Combray, my Aunt Léonie used to give me, dipping it first in her own cup of tea or tisane. The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it. And all from my cup of tea.

Then, as the memory had slowly begun to fade, I had dipped what remained of the madeleine in my cup and raised it, once again, to my lips. Once more, a memory of Combray had come to me, this time of a summer’s afternoon  when,at the age of sixteen, in the garden of my aunt’s house, I had been introduced to Juliette, her body flexing like an elite squash player as she bowed in a show of mock courtesy and handed me something which, gazing into her eyes, I had taken from her without knowing or caring what it was. Was she, then, the object of the memory I had been struggling to recall, the memory invoked by my feelings on seeing the stylish young woman sitting near me in the salon? I recalled the slight dizziness I had felt in her presence as I looked at the exquisite shape of her lips and the movement of her mouth as she spoke, too dazed or perhaps too distant to hear her words. Now, even as I reflected on the questions emerging from my own consciousness, I recalled how Juliette had turned and walked away to resume her duties as a waitress at my aunt’s garden party, leaving her young admirer holding, as though it was a love letter, a plate of petite madeleines. Again the memory had faded, the warmth and fragrance of the garden giving way to the hum of conversation and the tinkling of fine tableware.

Suddenly, I had realised that what I sought, what I struggled to recall, dwelt not in heavenly infusions or confectioneries but within myself. The white-hooded elixir and the soft shell-like ambrosia were my guides down to the underworld, and would assist me in shaking free the anchor that kept these elusive memories so firmly held in the depths of my consciousness. Closing my eyes, I had leant back in my chair and breathed deeply, sinking into a state of torpor, suddenly exhausted by the effort of searching for the source of feelings experienced long ago and of desires still lying dormant in the depths of my being.

starbucks mug 150x150 In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)When I awoke, I was lying in my bed in Combray, my mother gently shaking my shoulder to wake me. At the touch of her hand I looked up. ”I’m sorry, Monsieur, but would you mind moving to a smaller table?” I found myself staring into the eyes of a young waitress and realised that my squash opponent had left the coffee shop to which we had come after our match. My empty mug, complete with spent tea bag, sat on the low table in front of me together with the cellophane wrapper from a brownie. A group of young mothers with perambulators waited in the doorway looking expectantly towards me.

I stood, picked up my squash bag, and walked out onto the busy Parisian boulevard.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Patrick McGuinness, Professor of French and Comparative Literature at Oxford for his Daily Telegraph article “Who’s Afraid of Marcel Proust?” which celebrates the publication, one hundred years ago (in 1913), of “Swann’s Way”, the first volume of Proust’s great novel “In Search of Lost Time.”

Thanks also to Mark Crick whose recipé for tiramisu (written in the style of Proust) was a major influence in writing the above story. You can find the recipe in Mark’s book “Kafka’s Soup.” I’ve used the structure of Mark’s recipé (he’s a chef) in this story.

The above story includes a short passage of text taken from “Swann’s Way” describing what is often referred to as the narrator’s famous “tea-and-cake epiphany” or “madeleine moment.”

Part comedy of manners (the book is often very funny), part quest (for love, for self, for identity), and part anatomy of desire and sexual awakening, “In Search of Lost Time” captures a world that is both universally recognisable and unique to its historical moment.

Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Genius? Eccentric? Maverick?

Whatever qualities he might previously have attributed to his coach, one leading squash player must have sensed that he shared at least some characteristics with another famous Yorkshire-born sports coach. “Dad’s the Brian Clough of squash,” said World Number 1, James Willstrop just before the London Olympics.

James and  Malcolm Willstrop Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

James and Malcolm Willstrop

Whether this disclosure came as a surprise to Malcolm Willstrop is unknown. When Clough was in his heyday as a manager in the 1970s, Willstrop junior had not even been born. But Willstrop senior would certainly have been aware of Clough’s achievements, not just as a manager but as a player whose career was tragically cut short by injury. He would also have been aware of his outspokenness, arrogance and lack of respect for authority.

And, although it was rarely mentioned in the mainstream media of the time, he may even have been aware of Clough’s attachment to something which embodied another of his sporting passions. 

His squash racket.

Clough the Footballer

“Beckham? His wife can’t sing and his barber can’t cut hair.” (Brian Clough)

The sixth of nine children, Clough was born in 1935 in Middlesbrough in the North Riding of Yorkshire. Following national service in the Royal Air Force from 1953 to 1955, he joined his home town club, Middlesbrough, scoring 204 goals in 222 league matches including 40 or more goals in four consecutive seasons. However, he was also prone to submitting transfer requests on a regular basis and had a tense relationship with some of his fellow players. He was especially irked by Boro’s leaky defence, which conceded goals as regularly as he scored them. After a 6–6 draw against Charlton Athletic, Clough sarcastically asked his team mates how many goals he would have to score in order for them to win a match.

Brian Clough and Squash Racket Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Brian Clough, Trevor Francis and Squash Racket

While playing for Boro, Clough was capped twice for the England national team,failing to score on either occasion. Eventually, in July 1961, one of his transfer requests was finally accepted and he moved to Boro’s local rivals Sunderland where he scored 63 goals in 74 matches. Clough’s goal-scoring powers were showing no signs of declining.

But on Boxing Day 1962, disaster struck. Clough tore the medial and cruciate ligaments in his knee in a match against Bury, an injury which, in that era, usually ended a player’s career. Despite an attempted comeback two years later, Clough was forced to retire at the age of 29.

Even today, for players scoring over 200 goals in the English leagues, Clough holds the record for the highest number of goals scored per game (0.916).

But, with his playing career ended, Clough was not prepared to turn his back on football, or controversy.

Clough the Manager

“I wouldn’t say I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” (Brian Clough)

The story of Clough’s career in football management is an epic story punctuated not only with successful domestic and European campaigns, but also with controversies, clashes and  fallings out on a heroic scale.

That career started in 1965 with Hartlepool United and finally ended in 1993 with the relegation of his club, Nottingham Forest, from the English Premier League. Clough had won consecutive European Cups with Forest and League Championships with both Forest and Derby County.

Brian Clough footballer Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Brian Clough Playing for Sunderland

But it was in the 1970s that Clough’s managerial career was in the ascendancy, first with Derby County and then, after a tempestuous 44-day reign at Leeds United, with Nottingham Forest.

Clough and the Racket

“We talk about it for twenty minutes and then we decide I was right.” (Brian Clough on dealing with a player who disagrees with him.)

It was during his time with Forest that Clough’s squash racket began to appear in an increasing variety of contexts.

Following his forced retirement as a player, Clough had kept himself fit, taking part in five-a-side games during training sessions and, until the early 1980s, playing squash. During his 18 year stint at Nottingham Forest, he played on the courts at Trent Bridge Cricket Ground, a short walk from Forest’s stadium at the City Ground. His squash partners included Forest players, notably striker Garry Birtles, and members of the local press who routinely covered Forest’s home and away matches.  

But his attachment to his squash racket was not limited to his use of it on the squash court.

Intimidating Football Agents

Having been approached to join Nottingham Forest, England goalkeeper Peter Shilton recalls:

“I discovered how unconventional Clough was when my agents Jon Holmes, Jeff Pointon and I went to see him in his office at the City Ground in September 1977, after Forest had made an official approach to Stoke City for me. We hung outside his office for 10 minutes or so before someone informed us, ‘Mr Clough is ready to see you now.’ Jon and Jeff went in first and I was slack-jawed to see them both go sprawling across the floor. Clough had been hiding to one side of the door and as they entered he had angled a squash racket across their path and tripped them both up. I have no idea if he did this to gain some sort of psychological advantage in the negotiations or whether it was just a prank. It certainly threw Jon and Jeff.”

Orchestrating the Unveiling of England’s First £1M Footballer

Joining Nottingham Forest from Birmingham City, striker Trevor Francis found himself waiting in Clough’s office well after the appointed time for his unveiling to the press. “It turned out that he had another engagement,” said Francis later. “He was playing squash over the road at Trent Bridge.” When Clough finally arrived, he was wearing a tracksuit and carrying his squash racket.

During the ensuing press conference, Francis was asked, “When will you be making your debut for Nottingham Forest?” Gesturing at himself with his racket, Clough replied, “When I pick him.”

Supervising Youth Team Training with his Dog

Nottingham Forest Youth Team player Sean Dyche recalls:

“The boss used to travel on the coach for FA Youth Cup games and loved the reserves, but on the training ground he let the coaches coach. He’d come down with his dog and his squash racket and his squash ball. He’d whack that around for the dog and stand at a distance, but every now and then, he’d notice something and you’d hear his voice across the training ground.”

Over the years, the racket clearly acquired a life of its own.

Touting for Squash Matches in Europe

Former Nottingham Evening Post Sports Editor Trevor Frecknall travelled throughout Europe with Forest reporting on their European Cup ties. He recalls that Clough always took his squash racket abroad on the off-chance that he could get a game should there be a court in the vicinity. The racket would also make regular appearances in the club’s hotel, at training sessions and even in the dug-out during matches.

And it also had another function…

Signalling the Need for Tactical Changes

Watching one first team training session before a European Cup away tie, Frecknall observed another use of the racket:

“On the third or maybe fourth occasion the fluency of the kick-about was interrupted by the ball disappearing into a mass of hardy shrubs, Clough raised his squash racket as the signal for the on-field trainer to blow his whistle and halt play.

ArchieGemmill Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

Archie Gemmill

Each time the ball had left the pitch, it was because Archie Gemmill’s passes were just too far in front of John Robertson on the left wing.

“Mr Gemmill,” Clough beckoned.

“Yes boss,” responded the little Scotland midfield player.

“I bought you to give the ball to Mr Robertson,” drawled Clough.

“Yes boss,” agreed Gemmill.

“As you’ll have noticed, Mr Robertson is a rather corpulent young gentleman with short legs that do not move as fast as some others in the club.”

john robertson body 200x300 Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

John Robertson

“Yes boss.”

“So your job is to pass the ball to Mr Robertson’s feet,” Clough continued.

“Yes boss.”

“You’re sure you can still do that, aren’t you?”

“Yes boss.”

“Good, because if you can’t, we can easily leave you here and find somebody else who can give Mr Robertson the ball where he wants it.”

“Yes boss.”

“So long as we’re clear…”

“Yes boss.”

Clough the Legend

“When I go, God’s going to have to give up his favourite chair.” (Brian Clough)

Brian Clough died in 2004, two years before the appearance of ‘The Damned Utd’, a novel by British writer David Peace. The book, a largely fictional account of Clough’s 44 days as manager of Leeds United, re-ignited public interest in Clough’s career and his life. It was commercially successful but widely criticised by Clough’s family and former colleagues as being both inaccurate and unrepresentative of the man himself.

The Damned United 150x150 Brian Clough’s Squash Racket

The Damned United poster

Three years later a film adaptation of the novel, ‘The Damned United’ appeared, directed by Tom Hooper and starring Michael Sheen as Clough. The film was generally well-received by critics but was again met with a chorus of disapproval from Clough’s family.

Yet the place of Clough in the pantheon of flawed British sports heroes remains secure, the realities of his life and times interwoven with stories of what he may, or may not, have done or represented.

So whatever James Willstrop’s may believe about his dad’s qualities, he can rest assured that one thing about Clough and his life is undisputed.

The man loved his squash racket.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for background information on Brian Clough, David Peace’s novel ‘The Damned Utd’ and Tom Hooper’s film ‘The Damned United.’ Also thanks to The Guardian for its article on James Willstrop, and The Daily Telegraph for its article on Peter Shilton.

Thanks too, to The Daily Mail for its articles on Trevor Francis and Sean Dyke. You can read Trevor Frecknall’s recollections of Brian Clough in The Nottingham Post here, and find out more about playing squash at Trent Bridge Cricket Club here.

The Man in the Café Leblon (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)

He remembered that night. Clearly.

It had been three days before the start of the finals.

He had glanced at his watch. It was almost two fifteen in the morning. Out in the street, he could still hear  the music of the milonga drifting down from the windows of the salon. The traffic on Rua do Catete had died down by then but there were still people about, in groups, in couples, walking the warm Rio sidewalks, waiting for taxis, heading to the next drink, to the next dance. Heading home.

He had walked a few yards from the entrance porch of the building and fished his cellular from the inside pocket of his dark grey tailored suit. Pushed a few buttons. Waited.

‘Federico?’ said a man’s voice, a sleepy voice, a big voice. ‘Do you know what time it is?’

‘I’m sorry, Hector,’ he had answered. ‘I had to call. I just danced with my daughter. So did Andres.’

‘You and your tango, Federico. Does he know who she is?’

‘I don’t know. No. Not from the way they were dancing.’

There had been a pause, the sound of a light switch.

‘What about you?’

‘I think she may suspect,’ he had said, then hesitated. ‘I tried to warn her not to play tonight, Hector, to stop her being picked on by those jackals.’

He had felt himself getting angry. Then he had taken a deep breath, inhaling the night, catching the melody of a tango vals drifting down from above.

‘She knows what to expect, Federico. You knew this could happen eventually. Perhaps it’s time.’

‘I’m scared, Hector. They’re both so young, so passionate.’

He had heard a chuckle and felt annoyance. Had taken another deep breath.

‘There was never going to be a good time to tell them about each other, Federico. You know that.’

Then he had been the one to chuckle. A brief smile had flickered across his lips.

‘And then I suppose there’s the small matter of their mothers,’ his brother had observed.

He had grunted. ‘Now you’re just being cruel, Hector.’

A throaty laugh this time.

‘What do you expect at this hour? Never mind. I will see you tomorrow…or later today, that is. Buenas noches, hermano mio.’

The line had gone dead. He had lowered his cellulare from his ear and turned to walk to the kerb and hail a taxi.  

His son, the Colombian boy, had been standing in front of him, hands in the trouser pockets of his cream linen suit, long brown hair moving gently in the night breeze.

‘Hello, Papa,’ he had said calmly, unsmiling, fixing him with his dark eyes.

‘I think we need to talk.’

++++

It was the morning of the finals.

Renato Bulsara pushed open the door of the Café Leblon on Rua Dias Ferreira and removed his sunglasses. Today would be a busy day, a very busy day. But perhaps not so busy that he could not find the time to enjoy a morning coffee sitting at his favourite table.

He saw that it was free, as it always seemed to be when he visited his favourite café just behind the Copa Trade Tower. Senhor Ventura’s admirable establishment might not be the trendiest or even the quietest in the area, but he felt comfortable here. It was a traditional place occupying the ground floor of what had previously been a bank. A place where he could meet people without feeling conspicuous

Cafe in Rio de Janeiro The Man in the Café Leblon (from the Squash Novel Breaking Glass)He walked past the mahogany counter, greeting Senhor Ventura who was, as usual, involved in the unceasing process of marshalling his work-force in a state of mild concern. The elderly proprietor paused temporarily in his labours to smile and nod in return.

Sitting at his table, he ordered a cafezinho and scanned the interior of the café. Business was brisk, the high ceiling and chequered floor tiles of the former banking hall echoing with the clatter of crockery and the babble of conversation. The waiting staff criss-crossed the floor heading to and from tables, taking orders, carrying trays.

His coffee arrived, delivered by a young waitress wearing a black uniform with a starched white cap and pinafore. He smiled, thanked her and, as she walked away, lifted the cup and saucer from the table. Raising the cup to his lips, he took a deep breath, inhaling the aroma drifting up towards his nostrils.

He took a sip and began to return the cup to its saucer, savouring the taste lingering on his tongue. As he replaced the cup, he looked up and across the floor of the café.

Seated at a table at the other side of the room were a man and woman whose faces were familiar to him. The man was in his mid-30s,clean-shaven with a rugged face  framed with short fair hair. He wore an open-necked shirt under a navy linen jacket. The woman, was older, perhaps, with a diamond chin and short blonde bangs.

As he watched, the man handed what looked like a photograph to the woman. He pointed to it and began talking. The woman looked at the photograph, then at her companion. Suddenly, the man paused, placing his right hand over his mouth, leaving the other resting on the table. Without hesitation, the woman reached forward and took his left hand in hers.

Bulsara felt something leap in his chest, an excitement that he could not name. He quickly finished his cafezinho, paid  Senhor Ventura and left the building.

At their table in the Café Leblon, Tyler Wolf and Erika Hoskin were still deep in conversation.

++++

It was the afternoon of the finals.

In the Copa favela, the man and the boy sat talking in the shade on plastic seats. They gazed out onto a cleared area, here in the heart of the shanty. An area covered in deep golden sand. Children ran around, dressed in ragged clothes, ignoring the heat of the sun.They played queimada, chasing and tagging each other, the ‘living people’ and the ‘dead ones.’

The man smiled as he watched them. Shouting, running free, running barefoot across the sand, free of rubbish, free of the waste of the favela, free of the broken glass.

He remembered the time when he was a child. Clearly.

But there was something different in the favela now. In the centre of the makeshift beach stood an open-roofed structure with four walls and a single door. From within it, he could hear the sound of a ball thumping against its walls as its occupants played a different barefoot game.

‘So, Miguel,’ he said. ‘How would you like to like to show me how your game’s coming along?’

The boy sat up in his chair, looked at him and smiled, eyes twinkling from a face the colour of cafezinho. He stood up and grabbed the racket propped against his chair.

‘I’ll go and get them off court, Senhor Renato,’ he yelled, already halfway to the building.

Favela in Rio de Janeiro The Man in the Café Leblon (from the Squash Novel Breaking Glass)Renato Bulsara smiled and watched the boy hammer on the court door with his racket handle. Some things never changed.

Now, young Miguel Paixao was showing promise, just like his three brothers, one of whom had made it to the preliminary round of the Rio Squash Festival.

Paixao,’ he said to himself, and laughed. ‘Passion.’

He picked up his racket and followed the boy across the beach towards the court.

++++

It was the evening of the finals.

The last two matches of the tournament had sold out months before John Allenby’s woes had begun to surface. Now, as he waited to step onto the glass court, he hoped that the intrigue and crises of the last week were not about to repeat themselves. At least not until the night’s events were successfully, and safely, concluded.

If it was possible, the samba dancers, the music and the laser show leading up to the finals  had eclipsed the spectacle of the opening night. The atmosphere was still electric as the spectators settled noisily into their expensive seats. The sun was setting behind the city, leaving behind its warmth as the start of the Women’s Final drew near.

Allenby scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. He found plenty of them. The President and his wife, The Mayor of Rio and his, Prince Hamza Al Omani and his entourage,Philip Sanderson, Fritz and Anne Mallinson, Hector Lopez. He started to believe that everything would be…

Senhors and Senhoras!’ boomed the PA, jarring him out of his reverie. ‘Please welcome the organiser of the 2014 Rio Beach Squash Classic and your host for the final competitive matches of the tournament, Senhor John Allenby!’

He picked up the microphone and began to walk towards the glass court.

++++

It was less than ten minutes to the start of the women’s final.

Florencia Perez waited behind curtains woven with the yellow, green and blue of Brazil’s national flag. Her ravenesque black hair was tied back in a ponytail. She was wearing a light blue headband to match her dress, and white sneakers. She grasped her racket and bounced up and down on the spot just vacated by her opponent and Number 1 seed, Brigitta Krause.

Senhors and Senhoras!’ Allenby’s voice echoed around the stands. ‘Please welcome to the main court…Florencia Perez!’

Rio de Janeiro at Night The Man in the Café Leblon (from the Squash Novel Breaking Glass)

The curtains parted, the crowd applauded. She had friends here. There was even an Argentinian flag waving in the stand opposite, the Sol de Mayo gazing down at her from the light blue and white tri-band. She entered the court and shook Allenby’s hand, then her opponent’s, ready to begin the warm-up.

Allenby closed the door behind him and walked away from the glass court.

++++

It was less than two minutes to the start of the women’s final.

Florencia Perez sat in her chair outside the court and scanned the crowd, looking for familiar faces. She saw Erika, sitting a few yards away in the front row behind the back wall. She saw Tyler Wolf, wearing his familiar green and gold tracksuit, sitting beside her.

And there were others.

She sensed their gaze before she met it, before she found where they were sitting. Together, high up, behind the back wall of the glass court. Their eyes filled with pride. And more.

The boy from Bogota who had danced with her three nights ago. Sitting to his right, the man they called Mr. Fino. And, to his left, the tall man with the long nose who had sent her the elegant gold watch which now adorned her left wrist.

She smiled, picked up her racket and began to walk towards the glass court.

++++

It was less than an hour to the start of the men’s final.

Renato Bulsara was reaching the end of a busy day. A very busy day.

He picked his way slowly through the crowds milling around the arrivals hall at Galeão International Airport. At times like these he envied the natural footwork and movement of…who? Samba dancers? Squash players? He began to feel uncertain and, yes, mildly concerned. Like…like…Senhor Ventura! He chuckled to himself. A good sign.

He scanned the arrivals board. The flight he was to meet had landed. The passengers were now in baggage reclaim. Quickly, he summoned a porter and engaged his services. He glanced at his watch. It was eight forty-five.

He found a convenient spot from which to catch the eye of his employer’s guests and prepared to hold up the cardboard sign which his secretary had prepared for him. He looked again at the single surname it displayed.

Suddenly, the flight’s passengers began to emerge from the customs channel, looking for friends, relatives, hosts. He held up his sign, anxious that it should be in plain sight.

Then he saw them, both smiling broadly, both seeing his sign, both waving. He smiled back and waved, picking his way towards them, summoning the porter to follow him.

After what seemed like an age, they met.

Senhor Bulsara, I presume!’ said the woman, laughing. ‘I am so pleased to meet you!’ She grabbed his hand, shaking it warmly, thanking him for his welcome to Rio. He joined her laughter, looked into her eyes. Twinkling eyes, beaming from a face with high cheekbones. A face the colour of darkest ebony.

She turned, still smiling, towards her young companion.

Bulsara leaned forward and held out his hand to the child.

‘So, you must be Jeremy,’ he said.

Characters

The story focuses on characters involved in an international squash tournament in Rio de Janeiro.

Florencia Perez, 19, is an up and coming Argentinean squash player who has burst onto the international squash scene, competing on a ‘wild card’ in a tournament in Bogota. Her birthplace, parentage and even her true sexuality are a mystery. She speaks no English. Tall and broad-shouldered, her dark good looks have led many aficionados of the sport to regard her as the ‘Kournikova’ of the squash world. Unknown to her, she is the daughter of Federico Lopez, previously one of the most famous squash players in South America.  She has now reached the Women’s Final of the Rio Beach Classic tournament.

Andres Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a young squash player seeking to make his mark on the international circuit. He has already won a lucrative sponsorship with a leading international soft drinks manufacturer. With his long wavy brown hair and vividly inviting dark eyes, he is a favourite with many of the female players competing on the World Squash Tour. In the past, his temper tantrums on court have led to him being banned by the authorities from playing. Unknown to Lopez, he is the half-brother of Florencia Perez.

Lopez has reached the Men’s Final of the Rio tournament where he is due to face the veteran Australian, Tyler Wolf, himself estranged from his young son, Jeremy.

Renato Bulsara is a carioca, a native of Rio and right-hand man to the powerful owner of the SombraSoft Corporation, the man known as Mr. Fino. SombraSoft is a global sponsor of squash. Fino’s real identity has been revealed as Hector Peron Lopez, brother of Federico.

In this chapter, the fates of the characters become intertwined as the tournament reaches its final stages.

Acknowledgement

‘The Man in the Café Leblon’ was first published as Chapter 21 of ‘Breaking Glass’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 11 squash writers, chapters were posted by Ted on the DSR website where the novel can be read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Alan Thatcher (who conceived the overall theme for the novel), John Nimick, Mick Joint, Georgetta Morque, Will Gens, Framboise Gommendy, Richard Millman, Pierre Bastien, Jamie Crombie, James Zug and yours truly.

Why not check out The Daily Squash Report and read the full novel? You know you want to!

The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)

She glanced at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift from an unknown admirer.

Eleven fifteen. Just over eighteen hours to the Grand Opening of the glass court. Eighteen hours to the spectacle, the excitement, the glamour. Eighteen hours to her performance in the privileged presence of Rio’s great, good…and not so good. It was time for the real challenge to begin. Tomorrow she would compete with the blonde American girl in the quarter-final. Her next step on the road to becoming the world’s number one player.

She was ready now.

Drawing her black lace shawl around her shoulders, she gazed through the window of the limousine as it picked its way through the city’s chaotic streets. Streets which she had visited many times in the past. Streets filled with traffic jostling for position, looking for an opening, poised to make a move. In a few hours, it would be quieter. It usually was by the time she returned from her night-time excursions into her special world. Nights when she indulged in her passion, when she shared moments of intimate connection. Nights when she felt the embrace of her partner’s arms as their bodies moved in unison. Special nights.

The limousine drew up outside a whitewashed three storey building on Rua do Catete. A single light shone down from above its entrance porch. She waited as the motorista climbed out of the driver’s seat, adjusted his peaked cap and opened the door for her to alight. She stepped out into the warm night, her sense of excitement beginning to mount.

“Have a good evening, senhorita.”

He smiled a knowing smile.

++++

As she entered the building, Florencia Perez could hear the music drifting from the salon on the first floor. The music born in her home town. Music from the birthplace of the father she had never known. Music from the Golden Age of tango.

She strode across the entrance hall towards the staircase, her low heels sounding on the black and white tiles. In her right hand, she held the straps of a small black sequinned purse and a black satin shoe bag. Her hair was drawn back in a simple ponytail, secured with a golden band. Gold hoops dangled from her ears. She was wearing a sheer black slit dress with a jagged hemline, adorned with fringes, swaying as she walked. Ready to join the dance, the milonga.

Ready to feel the bodies of others close to hers.

++++

In the salon, the dance floor filled with couples moving to the music played by the residente, a young DJ hunched over his sound equipment at the far end of the high-ceilinged room. From her table on the edge of the dance floor, she watched as the unattached men in the room nodded their invitations to women they wanted as their partners in the next set of dances. The next tanda.

Tango BW IMGP1020 1024x494 The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)She watched the men leading their partners around the floor to see which of them she would trust to lead her in the way she wanted to be led. To see which of them would be suitable for her to choose as a partner. She noticed too whose invitations were being ignored.

After an hour in the salon, she’d accepted two invitations to dance. One was from a young olive-skinned boy whose embrace proved to be rather too close for her liking. The other was from a tall middle-aged man with light skin and a long nose who led her elegantly in three exhilarating tango waltzes. She felt safe in his embrace, following him easily around the floor, swinging her body, moving sinuously around him, feeling like a woman. She thanked him, returned to her table and sipped her drink, suddenly feeling that the evening might just turn out to be…

She sensed his gaze before she saw it, before she’d had time to see who had arrived since she’d taken to the floor. To see who had seen her dancing, seen her feeling the passion.

She raised her eyes and met his. Dark eyes.

Eyes she had seen before.

++++

He glanced at his watch and entered the salon. It was almost one. Tonight he would meet the Australian in the glass room. A chance for him to raise his profile, to move up the world rankings in a sport he’d played and loved since he was a child.

But tonight, Andres Lopez was not thinking about the sporting challenge to come. He was thinking about someone who could be very special. Someone who had not been easy to find.

Since he had seen her compete in his home town, he had followed her progress with more than a little interest. He knew that she had begun to more than fulfil her potential in competition. But, until recently, he did not realise that her beauty had transcended both her athletic ability and her sporting success. Now, from conversations with his fellow professionals, he had also discovered that Florencia Perez shared another of his passions.

In the subdued light of the salon, he nervously ran his fingers through his long brown hair,   searching for her among the tables and the dancers moving around the crowded floor.

Tango milonga los consagrados tango dancing The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)Suddenly he saw her, dancing with a smartly-dressed middle-aged man. She moved with cat-like grace, weaving an elegant path around her partner to the music of a tango waltz. He watched her as she thanked her partner and walked across the dance floor to her table.

Moving quickly, he found a table directly opposite hers and sat down, his heart suddenly racing as he tried to relax., to let the passion in the room be his inspiration in seeking her consent to dance with him. Usually, he would watch the women as they moved around the dance floor, looking for the qualities that he valued in a partner. Then he would invite them – with his eyes, with a nod of his head, with the cabeceo – to allow him to lead them, to reward their trust, and to show his own qualities as a dancer.

But now, it was too late. He could not tear his eyes away from her as she sipped her drink.
He was in danger now. Danger of…

Suddenly, her eyes met his.

In them, he sensed surprise, yes…and something else, something warmer. Much warmer. Instantly, he relaxed. And nodded. There was a pause as he sensed her curiosity, awaited her response. And then his nod was returned, his invitation accepted.

He slipped on his dance shoes beginning to notice the other people in the room. People whose passion he shared.

He was passionate about many things in his life. His country, his sport, the dance he had been introduced to in his home town. Passion that had landed him in trouble with the authorities more than once. But now, he was calm, waiting for the cortina, the musical interlude preceding the next set of dances, when she would be his partner.

When the time arrived, he stood and walked towards her, threading his way through the other dancers leaving and joining their partners. Reaching her table he bowed and held out his hand, inviting her onto the floor. She rose and stepped towards him.

The music, a tango canyengue, began to play. Instinctively, he sought her embrace and was accepted. Leaning towards her, he moved slightly from side to side, sensing the music, breathing her perfume, feeling her body close to his. Then, without knowing, as their hearts beat together, he stepped towards her. Leading them both into the dance, into the rhythm of the music.

Into the passion.

++++

It had been easy to follow her to the salon.

He had waited until she entered the building on Rua do Catete before climbing out of the taxi and striding towards the entrance. He was dressed smartly in a dark grey tailored suit and white shirt which perfectly fitted his tall, lean frame. Like the girl, he had carried his dance shoes in a small bag which dangled on a strap circling his wrist. His greying hair was swept back from his narrow face with its long nose.

After so many years, he was nervous, but ready. Ready to meet her on a night which could change both their lives forever. Inside, he paid his entrance fee and found a table from which he could make eye contact with her. But first he invited other women to dance with him, eager to take a few turns around the floor before seeking her consent.

When the time came, it felt natural. Something he had done many times before. He met her eyes, nodded and was accepted. They danced, and after they had danced, he returned to his table and sought out other women to dance with as the room filled and the floor became a single rotating embrace.

Tango feet 4 tango The Tango Dancer (from the Squash Novel ‘Breaking Glass’)He watched her dance with other men, including the Colombian boy who returned to his table with what he sensed was more than just an air of satisfaction. The boy danced well, his dark good looks and long brown hair attracting the attention of the women, the invitations made with his dark eyes winning their consent. Using the cabeceo, following the code.

He glanced at his watch. Now, as the milonga entered its fourth hour, he made her a second invitation with his eyes. She caught his gaze and nodded with a hint of a smile. Now she trusted him.

This time he led her in three tangos, leaving her space to decorate, to hook, to tap her toes as they moved effortlessly around the busy floor. He felt a sense of pride as they paused in silence after each dance, waiting for the next to begin.

As the last chord of their final dance died away, he escorted her to her table knowing that now, after all these years, he must speak to her. He waited for her to sit, then leaned towards her and whispered into her ear.

“Listen to me, my child. You do not have much time.”

She paused, listening to his voice with surprise…and recognition. It was a soft voice, a caring voice. The voice of a porteno, a native of her home town.

“Tonight at the Grand Opening there will be great danger. You must not go there.”

She turned her head to look at him. To look into his eyes.

“How do you know this?”

“Trust me.” he replied. “Trust one who has always loved you. One who has always cared.”

He placed something on the table in front of her, touched it with his forefinger and looked into her eyes.

“I am sorry,” he said, then turned and walked quickly away.

++++
Florencia Perez looked down at the table. On its surface lay a plain, white card. Her heart racing, she reached out to pick it up, half knowing what she would find. She touched its smooth surface, closing her eyes and letting her fingers seek out the indentations she sensed would be present.

As she found them, an image formed in her mind. An image which had been with her for as long as she could remember. Since she was a child.

An image of a very tall man with a long nose. A kind man. A caring man.

She stared at the elegant gold watch adorning her left wrist. A gift she had received on her eighteenth birthday, on the eve of her first international tournament. In the home town of a Colombian boy. A gift from an unknown admirer. A gift accompanied by a plain, white card.

Embossed with the image of a stork.

Characters

The story focuses on two characters, both of whom are competing in an international squash tournament in Rio de Janeiro.

Florencia Perez, 19, is an up and coming Argentinean squash player who has burst onto the international squash scene, competing on a ‘wild card’ in a tournament in Bogota. Her birthplace, parentage and even her true sexuality are a mystery. She speaks no English. Tall and broad-shouldered, her dark good looks have led many aficionados of the sport to regard her as the ‘Kournikova’ of the squash world.

Andres Lopez, a native of Colombia, is a young squash player seeking to make his mark on the international circuit. He has already won a lucrative sponsorship with a leading international soft drinks manufacturer. With his long wavy brown hair and vividly inviting dark eyes, he is a favourite with many of the female players competing on the World Squash Tour. In the past, his temper tantrums on court have led to him being banned by the authorities from playing.

In this chapter, a third character appears whose identity and purpose in the plot are, as yet, unknown.

Acknowledgement

‘The Tango Dancer’ was first published as Chapter 11 of ‘Breaking Glass’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 11 squash writers, chapters are posted by Ted on the DSR website where you can read it in its entirety.

For the record, the writing team comprised, in no particular order, Alan Thatcher (who conceived the overall theme for the novel), John Nimick, Mick Joint, Georgetta Morque, Will Gens, Framboise Gommendy, Richard Millman, Pierre Bastien, Jamie Crombie, James Zug and yours truly.

Why not check out The Daily Squash Report and read the full novel? You know you want to!

Dark Side of the Squash Court

In 1974, I hadn’t even heard of squash, never mind coming into contact with anyone who’d actually played it. But I had heard of English rock band, Pink Floyd who, the previous year, had released what is still one of the most commercially successful rock albums of all time.

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Dark Side of the Moon Album Cover

The group’s concept album The Dark Side of the Moon was eventually to spend  seven years in the UK album chart whilst, in the US, it was to remain in the Billboard Top 100 chart for over fourteen years. Selling over 40 million copies worldwide, the album was to bring enormous wealth to the members of the group. Its monomaniacal leader, Roger Waters, and keyboard player Richard Wright would buy large English country houses whilst drummer Nick Mason would become a collector of expensive cars.

So, in 1974, the group’s followers and its record company had high expectations that an equally successful follow-up album would soon appear. The group was even rumoured to have written material for the new album and be at work in the recording studio.

But coming up with a worthy successor to The Dark Side of the Moon was proving exceptionally difficult. Relationships between the group’s members were strained and there was disagreement over the concept for their next album. What’s more, something else was about to distract some members of the group from turning up to the recording studio. Squash.

Shine On You Crazy Diamond

In the Winter of 1974, the group embarked on a tour of the UK playing a set including the entirety of The Dark Side of the Moon. The first part of each concert featured new material including Shine On You Crazy Diamond, Roger Waters’ tribute to Syd Barrett, an ex-band member whose mental breakdown had forced him to leave several years before. This, together with two other new compositions, Raving and Drooling and You’ve Got to be Crazy, seemed to be a reasonable choice as the centrepiece for a new album.

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Pink Floyd on stage 1974

But, working from Studio Three at Abbey Road in London, the group were finding it difficult to devise any new material, especially as the success of The Dark Side of the Moon had left all four physically and emotionally drained. Richard Wright described the group’s early recording sessions as “falling within a difficult period” and Roger Waters as “torturous”. Guitarist David Gilmour was more interested in improving the band’s existing material and  was becoming increasingly frustrated with Mason, whose failing marriage had brought on a general malaise and sense of apathy, both of which interfered with his drumming.

And there were technical problems. On one occasion, sound engineer Brian Humphries inadvertently spoiled the backing tracks for Shine On, which Waters and Mason had spent many hours perfecting, with echo. The entire piece had to be re-recorded.

Several weeks into recording, Waters came up with another idea. He proposed splitting Shine On You Crazy Diamond and sandwiching two new – and, as yet, unwritten – songs between its two sections. Gilmour disagreed, but was outvoted three to one, leading to yet more disharmony between the group’s members.

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Pink Floyd on court 1975

But just as it seemed that the camaraderie which had previously held the group’s members together was about to vanish, two of them found a new way of sharing their frustrations, re-energising themselves and, unknowingly, bringing the group back together.

They started playing squash.

Wish You Were Here

David Gilmour and Nick Mason became squash buddies spending so much time on court that their appearances in the Abbey Road recording studio became less frequent. Nearly forty years later, Brian Humphries was to recall how frustrating he found it to get them to agree to recording schedules which, by necessity, would oblige them to vacate the squash courts for the more mundane task of crafting a new Pink Floyd album – now provisionally entitled Wish You Were Here.

Pink Floyd 1.bmp Dark Side of the Squash Court

Pink Floyd on court 1975

But whatever scheduling difficulties were being experienced by Humphries, the concept behind the new album gradually became clearer to group leader Roger Waters. The two new songs he had proposed emerged in the shape of Welcome to the Machine and Have a Cigar, both barely-veiled attacks on the music business. The lyrics of the new songs  would work neatly with Shine On You Crazy Diamond to provide an apt summary of the rise and fall of Syd Barrett. “I wanted to get as close as possible to what I felt,” Waters was to say later. “That sort of indefinable, inevitable melancholy about the disappearance of Syd.”

The production of Wish You Were Here progressed in fits and starts, with Syd Barrett paying an impromptu visit to the studio during the recording of Shine On You Crazy Diamond. The album was eventually released in September 1975 with 250,000 advanced sales in the UK and 900,000 in the US.

Despite the many problems encountered during its production, the album was to become the firm favourite of both Richard Wright and David Gilmour. But even in 2011, Roger Waters, interviewed for a documentary about its making, still appeared to be moping about its flaws. Gilmour and Mason sounded like they’d rather be playing squash.

The Kings of the Palace

On December 9th, 1974, I attended one of the two concerts played by Pink Floyd at the Palace Theatre in Manchester. At the time, I’d never bought a Pink Floyd album although I’d heard plenty of their music. I hadn’t even sought out a ticket in advance but was offered one at short notice. So I went.

And I’m glad I did.

Because there was something about the concert that had a big effect on me, something that stayed with me, something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It wasn’t the group’s performance, the music, the light show complete with landing lights and glitter-ball, the dry ice – although I remember all of those things. It wasn’t even the concert programme which was a memorable pastiche of British ‘Boy’s Own’ comics.

It was something else. Something which took me nearly forty years to understand.

Somehow, at that concert I wasn’t just listening to a rock band. I was watching squash buddies…doing their day job.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for their entries on Pink Floyd and Wish You Were Here. Thanks also to The Arts Desk for its review of the BBC4 documentary on the making of Wish You Were Here.

Thanks to the Pink Floyd fan website A Fleeting Glimpse and to Magforum for its review of the Pink Floyd 1974 Tour Programme.

Finally, thanks to whoever recorded Pink Floyd’s December 9th, 1974 concert at Manchester’s Palace Theatre and, what’s more, uploaded it to YouTube. If you listen very  carefully, you can hear me shouting in the background!

Squash in New England: A Walk in the Woods

“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.” Henry David Thoreau

Hiking in New England during the US’s hottest summer since 1895 may not be everybody’s idea of a relaxing holiday. Whatever plans you might have had to explore the Great Outdoors tend to change daily, if not hourly, as the mercury rises, the forest shade beckons and a craving for the next ice-cold drink begins.

Well, that’s what it was like for me when I hiked the trails around Burlington, Vermont, where squash is still very much part of the varsity athletics scene. Not only that, one enterprising Burlington squash player had even built himself an outdoor court, with a slight gradient from front wall to back for drainage purposes.

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The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

Things were much the same hiking the trails of Acadia, off the coast of Maine, where I came across a fellow traveller and hiker who just happened to play in Philadelphia’s squash leagues. I even experienced déjà vu on the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire where a passing conversation with another hiker revealed yet another ex-college player and squash lover.

So, by the time I headed south towards Massachusetts, I already had a feeling that all I had to do to stay connected with squash was to keep travelling, hike trails and share stories with strangers. After all, I was wandering through a landscape which, over the years, has attracted travellers and hikers from all over the world. People who, just like me, wanted to go for a walk in the woods, whatever the temperature.

People drawn to the place where squash first took root in America.

The First American Squash Court

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St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

The first squash court in America was built at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire in 1884. Two years previously, the headmaster of St. Paul’s had seen the game played in Montreal and wrote an article about it for the school magazine. In the article he favoured squash over rackets, largely on the grounds of its lower costs. But, despite his enthusiasm, the soft ball used in the sport proved to be unsuitable for use on the unheated squash courts of New Hampshire with its cold winters. Because of this, a harder ball was developed which was more suited for use in colder temperatures and on narrower courts.

In 1924, the US hardball squash court was standardized at 18.5 feet wide with a 17 inch “tin” – the out-of-play strip of metal at the bottom of the front wall. This contrasted with the British (international) court which, four years later, was finally to be standardised at 21.5 ft. wide with a 19 inch “tin”.

But whatever progress was being made on both sides of the Atlantic in standardising squash balls and squash courts, there was one milestone in the development of squash which proved to be ‘no contest’. In 1904, twenty years after the appearance of America’s first squash court, the world’s first national squash association was formed.

It was American and was to pre-date its British equivalent by almost a quarter of a century.

Harvard Connections

From its beginnings in New Hampshire, squash began to spread further into the US through the private boys schools of New England. This initial phase of squash development is still reflected in the distribution of squash courts throughout the country, the majority still being located in private universities and athletic clubs. Today, there are over 1,000 facilities across the US which house squash courts including those at the Ivy League universities of Yale in Connecticut and Harvard in Massachusetts.

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Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

Not surprisingly, I found that Harvard featured on the fixture list of the Concord Acton squash club which I visited, and played at, between walking excursions. Before my visit to the area, I’d already discovered that Concord itself boasts a remarkably rich literary history centred in the mid-nineteenth century. So it was as a lover of traveller’s tales that I took a particular interest one of the town’s most famous natives, the author and philosopher Henry David Thoreau.

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Henry David Thoreau

Thoreau is best known for his book ‘Walden or Life in the Woods’, a reflection upon simple living in natural surroundings. Published in 1854, the book is part personal declaration of independence, part social experiment, and part manual for self reliance in what were then physically demanding times. Thoreau was also a follower of transcendentalism, a philosophical movement that developed in the 1830s and 1840s in the Eastern region of the US as a protest against the current state of culture and society and, in particular, against the state of intellectualism at Harvard University.

Thoreau himself was no great traveller or walker, but others in the local area shared and outlook on life which combined intellectualism with more physical pursuits.

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

By the time transcendentalism had run its course in the early 1850s, Harvard had begun to embrace another new movement, that of intercollegiate athletics. In 1852, the first intercollegiate sporting event, a rowing race between Harvard and Yale, took place on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. Other sports were to follow, tennis making its debut in 1880 and, eventually, squash, arguably Harvard’s most successful sport of all, in 1922. The first-ever intercollegiate squash match, Harvard versus Yale, followed in February 1923.

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Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

Harvard squash was to produce its own successful exponents including the legendary Harry Cowles who coached its men’s team for its first 16 seasons, leading it to five national titles and mentoring no less than 13 individual champions. Cowles’ book ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’ was published in 1935 and is still available if you look in the right places.

Over the years, many other notable figures were to emerge from Harvard’s squash community including one who would come to be recognised as one of the leading all-round athletes of the first half of the 20th century.

Someone who was to blaze the trail for women’s participation in sport in America.

The First Women’s Squash Champion

Eleonora R. Sears, nicknamed “Eleo,” was born in Boston in 1881. The great-great-granddaughter of the 3rd President of the US, Thomas Jefferson, Sears enjoyed all the benefits of an aristocratic upbringing. In her youth she was part of the social elite that vacationed each summer in Newport, Rhode Island, where she learned to play tennis and golf, rode horses, swam, and sailed.

In 1911, Sears began to play tennis competitively, when she and her friend Hazel Hotchkiss Wightman won the US women’s doubles championship. Over the next five years, Sears won four more doubles championships, scandalizing crowds each time with her rolled up shirt-sleeves.  In 1912, Sears nearly lost her membership to the Burlingame Country Club in Southern California, when she rode front-saddle into the all-men’s polo arena wearing pants.

But, despite receiving criticism for her unfeminine style of dress and her avid participation in athletics, Sears was unfailingly popular among the upper class circles of Boston and New York.  She was a frequent guest at the all-men’s Harvard Club, where she first learned to play squash in 1918.

Eleanor Sears 1929 Squash in New England: A Walk in the Woods

Eleanora Sears in 1929

In 1928, she helped to found the US Women’s Squash Racquets Association. In the same year, at the age of 46, she not only became its first singles champion but the first women’s squash champion in history. In 1929, she convinced Harvard’s officials to open its squash courts to women. She later served as the USWSRA’s president and was captain of the US national women’s team.

Sears frequently topped New York’s “10-best dressed” list, and the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) claimed her to be his favourite dance, squash, and tennis partner. She played and coached women’s squash into her 70s, and was also famous for her frequent marathon hikes, her favourite being from Providence, Rhode Island to Boston, a distance of 44 miles. She once walked the 73 miles from Newport to Boston in 17 hours and during her 1912 visit to California, walked the 109 miles from the Burlingame Country Club to the Hotel Del Monte in 41 hours.

Sears, nicknamed ‘The Universal Female Athlete’ died in 1968 at the age of 86.

So the next time you travel to the US, why not visit some of the places where squash is still very much part of the local culture? New England, perhaps, or maybe further south even as far as Atlanta, Georgia where the 2000-mile Appalachian Trail ends. And while you’re there, why not take a walk in the woods?

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as always, to Wikipedia for its entries on squash, Eleanora Sears, Concord Massachusetts, Henry David Thoreau, Harvard University and the Appalachian Trail.

Thanks also to Peggy Miller Franck for her article ‘The Mother of Title IX: Trailblazing Athlete Eleonora Sears’ in The Daily Beast.

And, finally, thanks to the Concord Acton Squash Club for allowing me to play in its Sunday morning ‘round robin’.

Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a broken heart, must be in want of sportive diversion.

It had been above three months since Darcy, having declared to her his most ardent affection and love, had suffered the reproofs of Miss Elizabeth Bennet. Even now, his remembrance of her words caused him inexpressible pain despite his feeling reasonable enough to allow their justice.

darcy and elizabeth 295x300 Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

In his great disappointment and frustration, he had first determined to busy himself in attending to various business matters which had long required his attention. Now, he found himself  travelling in the North Country with a party including his sister, Georgiana, his friend Bingley, and Bingley’s sisters.

During their travels, Darcy had prevailed upon the good will of Mr. W——– of Pontefract to further instruct him in the sportive art of squash racquets, a pastime in which he had long excelled. He had likewise succeeded, to the great joy of his beloved sister, in securing the services of Miss D——, a lady similarly proficient in that art, to provide her with sportive instruction. Now, as the other ladies of the party expressed their desire to return to Pemberley, he greatly wished to participate in further sportive diversion and healthful recreation as he struggled with his feelings of rejection.

On the morning before his party’s intended departure, Darcy’s spirits were lifted by the receipt of a letter from his steward, Mr. M——, begging his immediate presence to attend an urgent matter relating to his estate. He at once reasoned that his early return would also  provide him with the opportunity of engaging in a game of squash racquets with his steward, a player of not insubstantial experience and skill. However, he determined not to educate his travelling companions as to his intentions of seeking further sportive diversion and, following breakfast, begged his leave of them and set forth on his journey.

His ride being uneventful and the weather clement, Darcy’s thoughts turned towards his  arrival at Pemberley. Notwithstanding the urgency of his journey, he anticipated with pleasure the time he would be able to spend in gentleman-like competition with Mr. M——  in the squash racquets hall adjacent to the stables. Yet, even so, he reflected with regret that his sister knew no other young ladies in the area with whom she could prevail upon to play with her on her return, Miss Bingley and her sister being disinclined during their visits to partake in what they judged to be an un-ladylike manner of recreation. Neither could he, as a loving brother, find any suitable sportive companions for his sister although, as he drew closer to his destination, the person of Miss Elizabeth Bennet once more intruded upon his thoughts.

On this occasion, however, he did not hear Miss Bennet’s words but was perceptive only of her dark eyes, her lightness of movement and her healthful manner. Did she not love running? Did she not find joy in country dancing? Was she not determined to journey everywhere on foot if circumstances would allow it? At once he remembered her dancing at the ball at Netherfield, and, yes, the occasion of her walking from Longbourn to Netherfield to attend her sister! Now, as he drew near to his destination, Darcy made a firm resolve to explore every avenue which might be available to him to win the affection of the woman with whom, he now confessed to himself, he was still in love.

On his arrival at Pemberley, he rode through the woods, crossed the bridge and made directly for the stables where, as fortune would have it, he was greeted by his steward. Anticipating his master’s desire to enjoy some time in the squash racquets hall before attending to any matters of business,  Mr. M—— had prevailed upon Darcy’s valet to bring his master’s racquet and rubber-soled squash shoes to the court in advance of the latter’s arrival. Darcy declared himself pleased with his  steward’s initiative before removing his riding jacket, waistcoat and boots, putting on his shoes and taking his racquet before joining his steward on court.

Racquets Hall Eglinton Castle Ayrshire Scotland Mr Darcy’s Squash Match (à la Jane Austen)

The encounter proved to both players at once demanding and challenging, Darcy triumphing over his steward by the narrowest of margins in just under the hour. Having complimented each other on their endeavour, the two competitors agreed to meet in an  hour to discuss the issue which had caused Darcy’s early return. Darcy then put on his riding boots and began to walk along the road leading to the house where he could refresh himself and change into fresh clothing following his sportive exertions.

Carrying his clothes and racquet, he had reached the lawn when he became aware of the presence of the gardener whose expression of surprise, on beholding his master, must immediately have told it. He then spied at some yards distant, a party of two ladies and a gentleman, whom he took to be visitors, the latter of whom he overheard to be conjecturing as to the date of the house. But it was only as he approached further towards his destination that he at once found himself standing within but a few short yards of…Miss Elizabeth Bennet!

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

As she saw him, she had instinctively turned away; but stopping on his approach, received his compliments with, had he but know it, an embarrassment impossible to overcome.

Her companions stood a little aloof while he was talking to her whilst she, astonished and abashed, scarcely dared lift her eyes to his face, and seemingly knew not what answer she returned to his civil enquiries about her family.

The few minutes in which they continued together were some of the most uncomfortable of his life. Nor did she seem much more at ease; when he spoke, his own accent had none of its usual sedateness; and he repeated his enquiries as to the time of her having left Longbourn, and of her stay in Derbyshire, so often, and in so hurried a way, as plainly spoke the distraction of his thoughts.

At length, every idea seemed to fail him; and, after standing a few moments without saying a word, he suddenly recollected himself and took leave.

As he strode towards the house, Darcy at once became aware of the mode of his dress, the  dampness of his attire and the disarrangement of his hair, directly come as he was from his exertions in the squash racquets hall. Yet, as he entered the hallway, any consequent  embarrassment he had begun to experience surrendered itself to the intensity of his desire to return to the presence of Miss Bennet; and this, in its own turn, gave urgency to his thoughts as to how he could realise such a happy situation before she and her friends might  end their visit to Pemberley.

No sooner had he begun to cross the hall towards the staircase, however, than the appearance of his housekeeper, Mrs. Reynolds, gave him cause to believe that he would soon be able to re-join Miss Bennet’s party. Mrs. Reynolds’ astonishment at seeing her master  was quickly replaced by a willingness to assist him in fulfilling his earnest wish to know in which direction their visitors were going, and in having his valet attend him with all urgency. Expressing his profound gratitude for her assistance, Darcy then made to ascend to his dressing room with all speed.

Now, as he set aside his racquet and busied himself in preparing to follow Miss Bennet and her friends, Darcy at once vowed to himself that he would again begin to hope.

Notes

Extracts from Chapters XXXIV and LXIII of “Pride and Prejudice” by Jane Austen, published in 1813.

For further reading on women’s sport in the early 19th Century, see “Healthful Sports for Young Ladies” by Mademoiselle St. Sernin, published in 1822.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

In the first part of “Squash and Human Nature” we looked at three of the six characteristics that encapsulate what it is to be human: playfulness, scientific thinking and rule-making. Those characteristics, along with the three described in this article, have been identified by anthropologists as the ones that clearly set us apart from other species. Together, they offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of our relationships with each other and our shared passion for squash.

women competition squash 300x229 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Women in Competition

It’s that passion which drives us in ways that, sometimes, we’re barely conscious of as we focus on the playing aspects of squash. But there are other aspects of our relationship with squash, and those who share our passion for it, which also have their origins in human evolution and pre-date such relatively recent developments as the acquisition of language. In this context, squash is not just a game, it’s a shared expression of human nature.

Participation in the game of squash is, of course, subject to the adherence of its players to a universal codified set of rules. But participation in the story of squash comes in many forms, and is influenced by a wide range of cultural, social, political and economic factors. What’s more, it’s not confined to those who play the game.

Whatever your view, one thing is clear. Woven into the fabric of squash are behaviours  which reflect human characteristics drawing on all of those senses we share with other mammals; sight, taste, touch, smell and hearing.

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

Where other animals just eat, we make a meal of things. And the main difference is down to one of humanity’s greatest inventions: cooking. “People of every culture cook at least some of their food,” says Richard Wrangham of  Harvard University. He’s made a very persuasive case that cooked food, which delivers more calories with much less chewing than raw food, was the key innovation that enabled our ancestors to evolve big energy-hungry brains and become the smart, social creatures we are today. In fact, humans (well most of us anyway) spend less than one hour a day chewing, all of which leaves plenty of free non-feeding time for other cultural activities, squash included.

meat cars Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and Gossip

Culinary culture includes the phenomenon of ritualised, familial, food-sharing, otherwise known as mealtimes. In every human society, people naturally gather in family groups at more or less regular times of day to eat what has been cooked. And, wherever you go, these everyday meals tend to be cooked by women. We don’t really know why, but it could originally have been in exchange for men’s protection, and because childcare kept women closer to home.

Individual participation in playing squash imposes its own feeding patterns. Eating and drinking before, during and after matches is typically influenced by rules of thumb which vary from culture to culture. Muslim players, for example, will fast from dawn to dusk during Ramadan; and their family mealtimes will also be subject to change.

Then there’s feasting. From sharing the spoils of a good hunt to celebrating a special occasion, every society does it. Here’s where you’re more likely to find men cooking. We even see this in our own gardens and backyards, where they do most of the barbecuing.

There are, of course, some similarities between feasting and the post-match meals sometimes  shared by participants in team squash or social squash events. But perhaps it’s in meals celebrating significant anniversaries or the formation of new squash clubs that the true parallel lies. “In all cultures,” says anthropologist Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “food is used to form social bonds.” Mealtimes are the centre-piece of family life, feasting bonds friends, colleagues and communities, and we also use food to consolidate more intimate relationships, such as  sharing a fancy meal with someone special, whether they love squash or not!

So food draws us together, but also sets us apart. Every culture has its own food traditions and taboos, which help define the boundaries between “us” and “them. They have distinctive cuisines too. “Ethnic differences are marked by what kind of food you eat,” says Weissner. “You are what you eat.”

All very tasty! But, just to heighten the sensual aspect of our relationship with other squash lovers, let’s focus on the intimate, shall we?

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

Nothing reveals an animal’s nature quite as well as its sexual practices, and humans have some rather strange ones. Unlike other animals, women are continually sexually receptive and have concealed their ovulation; in other words, there is no external sign that they are in a position to conceive. Also, we’re the only monogamous primate to live in large mixed-sex groups. But nothing is quite as strange as our predilection for clandestine copulation. Why, across all human cultures, do we have sex in private? And what’s the connection to squash?

Sarah FG Naked Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA hint comes from Clive Wynne of the University of Florida in Gainesville. “Sneaky mating occurs in species where there is a lot of inter-male competition and males control sex by controlling females,” he says. Frans de Waal of Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia agrees: “I think the origin of privacy [in humans] has to do with competition.” And not only between males. Women have been competing with men and with each other throughout human evolution. As a result, human sexual politics has become a lot more complicated, influenced not only by the need to survive and reproduce, but also by the emergence of culture.

For a start, women won some control from men by evolving concealed ovulation and continual sexual receptivity to confuse paternity. Then our ancestors did something completely different from other great apes; males and females started sharing parental care. And monogamy was born. “Infidelity among couples living in large groups became more risky than ever, with infanticide by males the ultimate price,” says Robin Dunbar of   the University of Oxford. So there was a need to strengthen relationships. “We have this odd thing called love,” he adds, suggesting that sexual privacy may also have emerged as a way of increasing intimacy.

David Buss of the University of Texas at Austin thinks that sexual privacy could actually be a benefit. “Humans are socially monogamous, not sexually monogamous,” he says. Infidelity is widespread in all traditional cultures and private sex allows it to occur without the loss of reputation.

So, the uniquely human characteristic of sexual privacy really has its origins in a combination  of three human behaviour patterns which will be familiar to all squash lovers: competition, culture and politics.

Which leaves us with a final characteristic which, some people say, actually makes the world go ‘round.

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

Well, I’ve always said that “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.” OK, it wasn’t me, it was Oscar Wilde. But I agree with him anyway.

One of the defining characteristics of humans was once thought to be language, although nowadays we’re  more likely to regard it as part of a continuum of animal communication. Nevertheless, nobody doubts that it’s shaped our nature profoundly. Language is central to many human ‘universals’ ranging from education, folklore and prophesy to medicine, trade and insults. And, arguably, our way with words has reached its apogee in gossip.

Gossip men plus woman 5 small 300x199 Squash and Human Nature: Part 2 – Food, Sex and GossipA compulsion to talk about other people is only human. And it’s not nearly as frivolous as you’d think. Some anthropologists believe we gossip to manipulate the behaviour of others, which may help explain why gossip often takes place within earshot of the person being gossiped about. Says Polly Wiessner of the University of Utah, “A group of girls will gossip within earshot of the girl they gossip about, intending for it to be heard.”

But gossip doesn’t just serve to name and shame. When anthropologist Robin Dunbar eavesdropped on people gossiping, he found that barbed comments were relatively rare compared with innocuous ones. He believes that gossip is the human equivalent of grooming in primates. Our social relationships are too numerous to secure with time-consuming grooming, so we chat instead. “Gossip evolved for oiling the wheels of social interaction,” he says. Even the most powerful movers and shakers depend on it, though they may call it something else. After all, says Dunbar, most business could easily be carried out by phone or email, but people still prefer to meet face-to-face so that they can bond over casual conversation or a meal.

Wiessner observes that a juicy titbit of gossip is actually a gift and, co-incidentally, gift-giving is another human universal. She also goes so far as to assert that a society without gossip would simply dissolve. “People wouldn’t have any common interest to stay together.” In squash communities, as in other social groups, gossip is part of the cultural fabric which holds people together.

So it’s the human characteristics of play, scientific thinking, rule-making, sensual pleasure in  feeding, sexual privacy and gossip that uniquely encapsulate our nature and shape human culture. Underneath them all lie competition and the politics of survival.

In fact, whether we’re conscious of it or not, squash isn’t just a shared expression of human nature.

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display  idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.

A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?

Evolution of squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules

The Evolution of Squash

Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.

The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.

Being Playful – Squash Skills

Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.

“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.

Fun Squash Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the Rules“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”

“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw  co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.

Kid rowan on court 150x150 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesBekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.

So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a  vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically  and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.

But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.

Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge

From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of  science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.

“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?

Science Squash Ng Dominick2 199x300 Squash and Human Nature: Part 1 – Playing by the RulesOne likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”

Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”

Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.

But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”

So maybe the science of squash, or the science in squash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!

But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.

Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour

The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.

For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).

After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules about when one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.

Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.

Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”

So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection  and footwear.  Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.

And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.

I hope you’re keeping score…

Coming Next…

In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.

My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

The recent appearance of New Zealand-born screen actor Russell Crowe in the British tabloid headlines wasn’t that much of a surprise. Over the last fifteen years or so, Crowe has been a regular visitor to the UK not least to work on a number of Hollywood blockbusters including Gladiator and Robin Hood. Shooting on both of those films, and on the forthcoming Les Miserables, took place at Pinewood Film Studios west of London and Crowe, you’d imagine, would be more than familiar with the area.

So much so that he should find it relatively easy to locate somewhere to wind down after a hard day’s filming. And, for the famously sports-loving Crowe, where better to relax than at one of the area’s best appointed leisure centres.

Except that staff at Crowe’s chosen venue ‘rudely’ refused him entry as he wasn’t a member. Feeling somewhat miffed, Crowe resorted to Twitter,  accusing the venue of having “hoity toity staff with chav accents.” Again, given Crowe’s reputation for being somewhat ‘difficult’, his attack – delivered via cyberspace – wasn’t particularly surprising either. What was surprising was that he’d travelled to the leisure centre on a combative mission.

Russell Crowe wanted to play squash.

Russell and Sport

rcrowe cricket8 My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

Russell Crowe at Eight

Where Crowe first started to play squash isn’t a matter of public record. As a child, he played cricket and his cousins Martin and Jeff Crowe are both former captains of New Zealand’s ‘Black Caps’ Test side. In 2008, Crowe even captained an ‘Australian’ Team containing former Aussie Test captain Steve Waugh against an English side in a charity ‘Hollywood Ashes’ Cricket Match’.

Since childhood, Crowe has also been a keen supporter of the South Sydney Rabbitohs rugby league team and, in 2006, he and Australian businessman Peter Holmes á Court  bought  75% of the club, leaving 25% ownership with the members. In the US, he supports the University of Michigan Wolverines American football team and, in Canada, the Toronto Maple Leafs ice hockey team. Back in the UK, he follows English football teams Bristol City and Leeds United, both located well outside the London area.

But it’s in the relatively affluent English Home Counties that Crowe’s recent sports-related combat mission took place. And, based on his experience of filming and living in the area, you’d have thought  he’d be well aware of the options available to him to book a squash court.

Russell On Set

The filming of Russell Crowe’s latest film, Les Miserables, started in March 2012 in France and in a number of English locations including Winchester Cathedral Close, the naval base at Portsmouth, Oxford and Pinewood Film Studios.

Pinewood Studios were also used in 1999 to film Gladiator, the production for which Crowe received an Oscar nomination for his performance as Roman general Maximus Decimus Meridius. The opening battle scenes for the film, set in the thickly-wooded forests of Germania, were shot in three weeks in Bourne Woods near Farnham in Surrey. When director Ridley Scott learned that the UK Forestry Commission were planning to cut down the forest, he convinced them to allow the battle scenes to be shot there so that he could burn it down as part of the filming and save them the bother.

Gladiator russellcrowe wideweb  430x315 My Name Is Maximus Decimus Meridius…and I Will Play Squash

Russell Crowe as Maximus in 'Gladiator'

Ten years after the shoot, Scott and Crowe were back in a now rather less thickly-wooded  Bourne Woods filming scenes for Robin Hood. Following that film’s release, Crowe stormed out of a BBC radio interview at the exclusive Dorchester Hotel in London after it was suggested that his accent in the film sounded Irish.

But it wasn’t the first time in his life that Crowe had been involved in an altercation that would subsequently hit the headlines.

Russell On Court

In 1999, Crowe was involved in a ‘scuffle’ in a bar in Coffs Harbour, New South Wales in Australia which was caught on security video. Two men, including a Coffs Harbour nightclub owner, subsequently conspired to extort $200,000 from Crowe to keep the video secret. The matter went to court.

Three months earlier, Crowe was alleged to have attacked several people in a drunken rage outside a Coffs Harbour nightclub, one of whom suffered a bite to his neck and a broken thumb. The matter did not go to court.

In 2002, Crowe was alleged to have been involved in a ‘brawl’ with a businessman inside a trendy Japanese restaurant in London. The fight was broken up by a fellow actor and did not go to court.

In 2005, Crowe was arrested and charged with second-degree assault by New York City police after throwing a telephone at hotel employee who had refused to help him place a call when the system didn’t work from his room. He was charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon (the telephone). The employee, a concierge, was treated for a ‘facial laceration’.

All of which would seem to indicate that Russell has good eye-hand co-ordination occasionally, but not always, linked to an appearance in a court.

Although not necessarily a squash court.

Russell in Command

To end on a positive note, Crowe’s squash mission did come to a successful conclusion  when he gained entry to a nearby leisure centre. “A friendly spot, where regular folks hang” he later commented.

All’s well that ends well, you might say. And nobody hurt.

Sadly, I haven’t managed to find any images of Crowe actually playing squash. However, here he is dealing impressively with a large number of black balls flying towards him at enormous speed.

And he doesn’t even have his squash racket with him.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Daily Mirror for it’s article documenting Russell Crowe’s squash altercation. Also thanks to all at Maximum Crowe, a website dedicated to chronicling Russell’s ‘bad boy’ behaviour.

Plaudits as always to Wikipedia and to Gawker for its article “I Will Kill You with My Bare Hands and Other Fun Tales of Russell Crowe.’

Enjoy!