The Book Of Squash

The Dilemma of the Expert

In a western country there once lived an expert on the game of squash. After a long and successful career he decided to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He found a publisher with whom to work and dedicated himself to setting down the numerous secrets and subtleties of the game. In due course his book, a weighty tome, was published to great praise from his fellow experts.

Yet, despite his many efforts to bring his book to the wider attention of followers of the game, sales were poor. Disappointed, he decided to seek the advice of other experts from foreign lands. He travelled far and wide, listening carefully to their views and reflecting on their observations on the game. Yet for all their openness, hospitality and goodwill, he was at a loss to understand why his book continued to lie unbought and unread.

The Discovery of the Players

At long last, in a desert country, he came upon a small squash club. The club’s two courts and changing room were housed in an old building in a small town, many miles from the nearest city. Hearing the sound of play, he climbed to a small balcony overlooking the courts and looked down on the players. To his amazement, they were the best he had ever seen! Truly, he thought, they must have learnt from someone who knows all there is to know about the game.

As they finished their matches, he asked them who their teacher had been. All mentioned the name of the same man whom they called the Master. The expert asked where he could be found and they directed him to a tea-house in a nearby street. The expert thanked them and hurried to the establishment, eager to meet their teacher.

A Conversation with the Master

At the tea-house he was directed towards an old man with a white beard. The expert approached the man and introduced himself. He told him that he had visited the squash club and had been told by the players there that they owed their mastery of the game to him. That was so, said the old man, and invited the expert to join him.

The expert told the Master of his long and successful career. He had decided, he said, to write a book which would reveal all there was to be known about the game. He gave the Master a copy and watched as he leafed through the pages in silent wonder.

Sensing the Master’s admiration, the expert confessed his disappointment that sales had been poor despite great praise from his fellow experts. What could he do, he asked the Master, to increase sales? None of the experts he had asked during his travels had been able to advise him.

“I too have known disappointment in seeking to teach those who love the game,” replied the Master. “When I was a young man, I attained great proficiency and joy in playing the game. As I grew older, I wanted to share my insights and secrets with my fellow players. But I was not an educated person. I lacked the means with which to teach. Then one day, in a tea-house, I met a traveller and told him of my desire and of my frustration.”

“What did he advise?” asked the expert.

“Unfortunately, he knew nothing of the game,” said the Master, “but he did tell me a story which helped to change my fortunes. Perhaps it will change yours.”

The expert listened in silence as the Master told him the traveller’s story; the story of the book.

The Story of the Book

In land far to the east, there once lived a wise man who taught his many followers from a seemingly inexhaustible supply of wisdom. He attributed all he knew to a large book which he kept in his room. He would allow nobody to open it.

When he died, those who followers who regarded themselves as his heirs ran to open the book, anxious to possess what it contained. But they were surprised and disappointed when they found that there was writing on only one page. They became even more upset and then annoyed when they tried to grasp the meaning of the single sentence which met their eyes. It read: “When you realise the difference between the container and the content, you will have knowledge.”

The Opinion of the Scholars

The wise man’s heirs took the book to the most famous scholars of the time, saying:

“Help us to understand this book. It belonged to our late master and is all he left behind. We cannot fathom its mystery.”

At first the scholars were delighted to see a work of such size, bearing the name of its former owner. They knew that he had been revered by multitudes of people and assured his heirs that they would reveal its true meaning. But they became angry when they discovered that the book was all but empty and that what words it did contain made no sense to them. Believing themselves to be the victims of a hoax, the scholars shouted at the students, driving them away in their fury.

It was a time, said the traveller, when scholars could not imagine a book which could do something, only a book which said something.

The Interpretation of the Traveller

The dispirited students went to refresh themselves in a tea-house where they came upon a traveller. He listened to their story and, seeing their distress, asked them:

“What did you learn from the scholars?

“Nothing,” answered the students. “They could tell us nothing.”

“On the contrary,” said the traveller, “they told you everything! They showed you that the book was not to be understood in the way assumed either by you or by them. You may think that they lacked insight but you in your turn lack sense. The book was teaching something through the incident itself, while you remained asleep.”

But the students found this explanation too subtle for their minds. They soon left and neither they nor the traveller knew that their conversation had been overheard by another regular visitor to the tea-house.

The Book of the Book

The visitor, a carver of precious stones, was so impressed by the story of the book that he had it written down by a scribe and bound in a large book. He kept the book in a place of honour in his house where he could reflect on its teachings. In the course of time he gained a reputation as a master of his art. He was sought out by wealthy men eager to commission his work but, despite the offer of great riches, he agreed to requests only from those he judged to be most appreciative of his art.

As his apprentice he chose Babur, the only child of a widow who had fled conflict in her native land.

Babur Saves the Book

After many years the master died, leaving no heirs. Finding the book in its place of honour, Babur thought to himself:

“Surely, this must be the source of my master’s wisdom, happiness and prosperity.”

He read the contents of the book, translating them into the words, forms and subtleties of his own native language. Marvelling at its teachings, he opened a shop where he kept copies of the book on view. Nobody was allowed to look inside until he had paid two pieces of silver. Some learned the lessons of the book and wished to study with him. Others wanted their money returned but Babur said, “I cannot give you back your money until you return me what you have learned from our transaction, as well as from the book itself.”

Some who read the contents of the book preferred mere appearance to inner content. They called Babur a deceiver but he told them, “You have always looked for deceivers, so you will always assume that you have found one in anybody.

Ahmed Transmits It

One day, a young man paid Babur two pieces of gold to look inside the book. The young man, whose name was Ahmed, was returning to his home country after completing his studies in a city far to the east. Returning the following day, he gave Babur another ten pieces of gold, saying: “What I have learned from the book is worth far more than this, but it is all I have to give.”

Returning to his native country, Ahmed wrote down the content and history of the book of the book and had it bound in a single volume of over two hundred pages.

The traveller’s story, said the Master, had been passed down by the masters of the east for over five hundred years. Then he stood, bowed to the expert and walked away.

The Story of the Expert

The expert returned to his native country. From his home he began to travel from town to town and from city to city. Whenever he could, he visited squash clubs and watched the game being played. In the course of his travels, he met others who loved the game and many more who knew nothing of it. Many of those he met shared their stories just as he shared his with them. As he travelled, he became aware of some who were regarded by many as masters of their art. Some of these he followed until such time as he felt the urge to travel to other places, meet others and share stories.

In due course, he decided to write a book.

****

Sources

Thanks are due to Idries Shah.

Brooklyn Nine-Squash

Maybe it’s just my imagination but there doesn’t seem to be any tailing off in the appearance of squash in TV series. In particular, the sport appears to be popular whenever characters are required to display extreme competitive behaviour bordering on psychopathy.

Take a recent (2015) episode (‘The Swedes’) of the US comedy ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ set in the fictional 99th Precinct of the New York Police Department. The programme follows a team of detectives headed by newly appointed Captain Ray Holt and including Charles Boyle, a capable but quirky detective who wears his emotions on his sleeve.

In ‘The Swedes’, Holt enlists Charles to stand in as his squash partner for an annual doubles tournament. Boyle enthusiastically agrees although he confides to a colleague that he’s afraid he’ll let his competitive side out and start eating squash balls like he did in his college days. He begins the tournament trying to keep calm but, after losing the first game of their first match, Holt reveals that he’s picked him purely because of his squash insanity; he knew about Boyle’s crazy college antics and wants that on his team.

“I need you to unleash the beast,” says Holt.

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle and Holt (on the T) prepare to start the match

Boyle responds, loses his calm and proceeds to dominate the competition in his own unique, aggressive and unsettling way. He and Holt win the tournament but are then banned from entering ever again due to the trail of physical and emotional damage they have left behind them.

****

Now cast your mind back, a long long way back, to 1993 and the second ever episode (‘Space Quest’) of the long-running comedy ‘Frasier’. Over no less than eleven seasons radio psychiatrist Frasier Crane and his non-radio psychiatrist brother, Niles, would be portrayed as squash buddies of undisclosed playing ability. Yet, although they periodically appeared wearing squash kit and carrying squash racquets, not one scene was ever set on or near a squash court.

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

Frazier and Bulldog at KACL

In the ‘Space Quest’ episode Frasier engages in conversation with a colleague Bob ‘Bulldog’ Briscoe, a sports talk-show host at Seattle’s so-called KACL radio. The brash, womanising Bulldog is everything Frasier, a culture snob, loathes. After he tells Frasier that sports keep kids from fantasising or committing murder, Frasier mockingly agrees saying: “Yes. If only Jeffrey Dahmer had picked up a squash racquet“. At the time, Dahmer was a convicted American serial killer and sex offender who would be killed in prison thirteen months after ‘Space Quest’ first aired.

****

So, there you have it for Brooklyn, squash, Seattle and, er, psychopathy. Amazing how ideas can come together, isn’t it? That’s TV for you.

Sources

Thanks to ‘Spoiler TV’ for its review of ‘The Swedes’ and to the ‘Frasier Wiki’ for its review of ‘Space Quest.’ Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ and ‘Frasier’.

Grasshopper MegaRallies 2016

I don’t know about you but I do like to watch the odd rally that either: a) involves both players hitting the ball so hard that it appears to occasionally enter (and return from) hyper-space or; b) includes phases where the initiative shifts over time from one player to another, preferably mixed with a).

Here are a couple of rallies from this year’s Grasshopper Cup in Zurich that fit the bill.

The first, involving the reliably hard-hitting Simon Rosner of Germany and Gregoire Marche of France is definitely in category a). I feel tired just watching it.

The second, involving Scotland’s Alan Clyne and Egypt’s Marwan El-Shorbagy is more of a category b) affair with an occasional sprinkling of category a). I lost concentration after counting 60 shots or so but I’m sure there were more.

Of course, I do realise that it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever come across any memorable rallies that involve soft-hitting and, say, half a dozen shots.

Although if I do, you’ll be the first to know.

Sources

Thanks to PSA SquashTV for posting the clips.

High-Rise Squash (2015) – Film Review

High-Rise, directed by Ben Wheatley, is a 2015 British film based on J.G.Ballard’s 1975 dystopian science fiction novel. Starring Tom Hiddlestone and Jeremy Irons, it tells the story of doctor and medical school lecturer Robert Laing who moves into a new apartment on the 25th floor of a state-of-the-art high-rise building on the outskirts of London. The tower provides its well-established tenants with all the conveniences of modern life: a supermarket, a swimming pool, a school, a restaurant, high-speed lifts and, naturally, a squash court.

High-RiseHiddlestone plays the cool, detached Laing with Irons taking on the role of the even more detached Anthony Royal, the building’s architect who lives with his dissatisfied wife in a grandiose penthouse flat. Laing forms an uneasy friendship with Royal, based partly on their playing squash together (on a court with alarmingly blue walls) but also on their mutual regard of each other as being high-status gentlemen of distinction. As the story progresses, the building’s occupants gradually become disinterested in the outside world; then, as the buildings amenities degrade order breaks down leading to violence and murder. In one scene, Royal saves Laing’s life (he is about to be thrown over his own balcony into the car park) with the explanation “You can’t do that! He owes me a game of squash!”

Thankfully, in the squash scenes, both Hiddlestone and Irons do seem to have played the game before.

Although not necessarily on blue squash courts.

Sources

Thanks to Wikipedia for its entries on J.G.Ballard and his 1975 novel ‘High-Rise.’

Rockdale ’83 (2003) – Short Film

In 1980s Sydney, Keith and Alan share their hopes and dreams as they take  themselves to the limit in the game that made them men.

A celebration of the popularity of the great game of squash in 1980s suburban Australia. Bad hair, bad clothes, big egos.

The film picked up a few prizes on the Australian festival circuit including Best Film at the Bondi Short Film Festival and the Board Shorts Film Festival.

Credits

Directed and Produced by Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Written by Mark Alston, Cameron Craig, Loosie Craig, Julia Salaverri

Starring Mark as Keith / Cameron as Alan

Edited by Cameron Craig

Camera by Loosie Craig, Mark Alston and Cameron Craig

Catering by Megan Alston

Costumes by Loosie Craig and Mark Alston

Special thanks to Campbell Barrie and Macquarie University Sports Association

Copyright 2cfilms 1984 and 2003

How To Win A Squash Rally

Most squash coaches and sport psychologists have got this one nailed down…haven’t they? Dominate the play from the ‘T’, force your opponent to chase the ball to the four corners of the court, then finish off the rally with a timely, unreachable shot. Piece of cake.

Which is just what Britain’s James Willstrop was in the process of doing during this rally with New Zealander Paul Coll at the recent Canary Wharf Classic. All except the ‘finish off the rally’ bit, that is.

Coll’s ‘never say die’ attitude, willingness to throw his body around (and onto the surface of) the court, and ability to play shots from a horizontal position resulted in Willstrop tinning his ‘winning’ shot due to what I imagine was a combination of gradually increasing incredulity and mirth.

What the response of the spectators was to Coll’s heroics you can hear mirrored in the reaction of the match commentators.

I definitely need to get hold of the Squash New Zealand coaching manual.

Source

Thanks to SquashTV for the clip.

Hanoi Lakes

I met Thin in a café on Le Thai To Street in the south of the Old Quarter. I was studying a street map, working out where I was, tracing where I’d been since leaving my hotel. It was a December Saturday afternoon in Hanoi, overcast and humid, looking like rain.

“Have you seen the turtle?” he asked.

“Not yet,” I said. I’d heard that one of Hanoi’s lakes harboured its own giant turtle but hadn’t discovered which; lake or turtle.

“I’ve never seen it,” he said, “but some of my friends have.”

Sacred Turtle

Sacred Turtle

He was in his late thirties wearing a blue open-necked shirt and camel-coloured chinos. On the table in front of him was a glass of sweet Vietnamese coffee sitting in a bowl of hot water. He jerked a thumb over his right shoulder.

“It’s over there,” he said. “Hoan Kiem Lake. It means ‘Lake of the Returned Sword.’ The turtle suns itself on the island in the middle. When it’s not underwater,” he grinned.

He was a tour guide, visiting Hanoi from his home town of Hué to pick up a group arriving from Italy.

“Not much spare time for turtle-spotting, then.”

He told me what I assumed to be the standard turtle story for visitors; the borrowing of a magic sword from a dragon king by a nationalist hero, the driving of the invading Chinese out of the country by said hero, and the return of the sword by said hero to the turtle god who lived in the lake. The incumbent turtle was a symbol of Vietnamese independence and longevity. The Vietnamese obviously didn’t like the Chinese.

Later, I walked around the lake, scanning the murky waters in the hope of spotting the turtle. It started to rain. I paused opposite the turtle-sunning island which Thin had told me about. A three-storey stone pagoda stood in the middle of it. There was no sign of the turtle.

****

Sunday morning was clear and sunny. I guessed it was going to get hot and decided to make an early start on exploring the city. My map showed more lakes to the north-west of the Old Quarter. On the the north shore of one of them stood The Hanoi Club, home to what I guessed were the only squash courts in Hanoi. I set out, sticking to the shade, avoiding stepping into the incessant motor-cycle dominated traffic which swarmed through the streets.

DSCF3512I reached Truc Bach Lake and walked along its shore in an anti-clockwise direction. It was much quieter here than in the heart of the Old Quarter, and I felt more relaxed as I strolled underneath the trees, weaving my way around the parked motor-cycles.

The concrete, glass and steel fascia of The Hanoi Club housed a five-star hotel, high-end residences, restaurants and a sports club. Uniformed staff opened the door to the hotel lobby, served me in the coffee shop and directed me to the sports club’s reception area.

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Hanoi Squash Club Rules

Mai took me to see the squash courts, two floors up and, disappointingly, unoccupied. Two glass-backed courts stood back-to-back separated by a snooker table.

“They are the only squash courts in Hanoi,” she said proudly.

She didn’t seem to know much about their use but pointed to a dark wooden board on the wall. The board included a series of parallel slots holding white cards bearing the names and telephone numbers of players. It was the Club’s squash ladder. The rules, in English and Vietnamese, were displayed beside it.

****

Three weeks later, I picked up a newspaper in a London cafe. A headline read: ‘Vietnam Mourns Death of Sacred Turtle.” The turtle, “known as Cu Rua or Great-Grandfather Turtle,” said the accompanying article, “weighed an estimated 360 pounds and was believed to have died of natural causes. Its precise age was unknown.”

The article continued: “It would be difficult to overstate Cu Rua’s spiritual and cultural significance in this deeply superstitious and Confucian country, where the news of the turtle’s demise prompted an outpouring of sadness and hand-wringing. And its timing, as a Communist Party congress opened to choose Vietnam’s top leaders for the next five years, was widely interpreted as a bad omen for both the party and the nation.”

Sources

Thanks to the Global Post for its article on the death of the sacred turtle. Details of The Hanoi Club can be found here.

Squash Never Sleeps

The Tournament of Champions, held every year in New York, originally started life in 1930 as a men’s only event named the US Professional Championships. In 1993, it acquired its current name and in 2001 added a women’s event.

In 1991, the tournament debuted at the Winter Garden in the World Financial Centre before making its home at the Vanderbilt Hall in Grand Central Terminal in 1995. It’s been held there ever since save for its temporary re-location, in 1996, to the Heights Casino in Brooklyn and, in 1996 and 1997 as the consequence of renovations to Grand Central.

In recent years, the ToC has developed into one of the most recognisable events on the PSA World Tour and has featured a multitude of famous winners during its 86-year history. The 2008 tournament, running from January 10th to the 16th, was typical in many ways. Involving 64 of squash’s highest-ranked male and female players, it drew over 4,000 paying spectators as well as thousands of commuters passing through Grand Central.

Yet, in one way, it was particularly significant. Within weeks of the end of the tournament its title sponsor, the global investment bank Bear Stearns, had collapsed.

The Big Short

Founded in 1923, Bear had become a victim of the global financial crisis and had been swallowed up by JP Morgan Chase, the ToC’s current title sponsor. Bear, and other Wall Street firms, had been heavily involved in issuing large amounts of asset-backed securities created by bundling together tranches of ‘sub-prime’ mortgages. In other words, mortgages whose holders were unlikely ever to pay back what they owed.

The asset-backed securities concerned were known as collateralized debt obligations (CDOs), a new unimproved version of which has now re-appeared in the global debt markets.

The story of several of the key players in the creation of the credit default swap market that sought to bet against the CDO bubble (and ended up profiting from the ensuing financial crisis) was told by Michael Lewis in his 2010 book ‘The Big Short’. The book highlights the eccentric nature of the type of person who bets against the market or goes against the grain.

The book has has now been turned into an Oscar-nominated film of the same name starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell and Brad Pitt.

The Game

Players in the world of global finance are nothing if not innovative. Yet herd behaviour again prevailed in the run-up to the global crisis. Banks, credit rating agencies, insurance companies and regulatory authorities alike failed to recognise that the system which they were gaming was rotten.

Since the crisis, nothing much has changed. Not even the event taking place every January in Grand Central Terminal, New York.

But, whatever the state of the global financial market, there will always be players to game the system, win, lose or just about break even. And some of them will pay for their name to be emblazoned across the front wall of a glass squash court in Vanderbilt Hall.

Sources

Thanks to the PSA for its article on the history of the Tournament of Champions and to Wikipedia for its entries on the ToC, Bear Stearns and The Big Short. Michael Lewis’s book, “The Big Short” is published by Allen Lane.

Squash And Love (2012) – Short Film

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

Credits

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

Cameraman: Bertrand Picault

Written and directed by Jean-Sébastien Bernard

Music by Eddy Benadjer and Jean-Sébastien Bernard

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

 

 

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

Corker looked at William sadly.

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

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

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

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

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

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

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The American girl?’

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Salter sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

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

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

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

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

William sighed.

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

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

‘Where did he get the information?’

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

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

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

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

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

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

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

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

William and Corker sat very still.

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

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

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

Influences

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