No Man’s Squash (à la Harold Pinter)

ACT I

The mid-1970s. Somewhere in North London. A glass-backed squash court viewed from behind the back wall. The glass is streaked with the dried perspiration of sweaty palms. The front and side walls are pocked with the dark impact marks of squash balls and rackets. Chunks of plaster are missing from both side walls where desperate attempts have been made to dig out good-length balls from the back corners. An empty water bottle lies in the front left-hand corner of the court. Above the front right hand corner of the court, a fluorescent tube is flickering, trying to light.

Off-stage, there is the sound of a door opening, its hinges squeaking. The door bangs shut. Footsteps and voices are heard, echoing as their owners walk along a corridor. Two characters enter from stage right; MICK, a dark-haired young man wearing a black leather jacket and track-suit bottoms and carrying a holdall, and DAVIES, an older man, balding, bearded and tramp-like in appearance, wearing a moth-eaten greatcoat and a scarf.

Both are carrying squash rackets.

DAVIES fiddles with the door-catch and curses. He pushes the door open and steps onto the court.

++++

Bloody light. I’ve been meaning to get a new tube.

MICK puts down his bag, unzips it and rummages around inside.

I’ve got a new double yellow in here somewhere.

DAVIES wanders around the court bending down to pick up pieces of fluff and items of litter.

It’s like a bloody pig-sty in here. Some people have got no manners.

MICK props his racket against the back wall and begins a series of stretching exercises.

DAVIES watches him, then looks down at the floor.

Is that blood? That’ll take me ages to get out, that will. You’d think people would have some consideration.

He scuffs at the floor repeatedly with the sole of his right plimsoll.

You could pick something up from that, if you weren’t careful.

Pause.

I’ll need some bleach.

MICK picks up his racket and steps onto the court.

Bit cold in here, isn’t it? Can’t we have the heaters on?

DAVIES: I can’t be long, mind. I’ve got to go to Sidcup later and get me papers.

MICK: You’re not going anywhere…

He pushes the door shut and starts to warm up the ball, hitting it back to himself repeatedly along the left side wall on his back-hand.

DAVIES: They’ve never been any good.

MICK stops hitting and catches the ball.

What haven’t?

DAVIES: The heaters. Old as the hills, see. Can’t get the parts.

MICK drives the ball hard at the front wall on his fore-hand. It flies past DAVIES who ducks out of the way.

How long did you say you’ve been looking after this place?

DAVIES retrieves the ball from the back right-hand corner.

I don’t know…about three years.

MICK: Made a few quid out of it, have you?

Pause.

DAVIES, still wearing his greatcoat and scarf, turns and starts to drive the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand.

MICK (shouting) I said, made a few quid out of it, have you?

DAVIES glances at MICK then continues warming up the ball.

MICK walks over to DAVIES and shoves him, mid-stroke, towards the right-hand wall.

DAVIES stumbles, hits the ball into the tin and falls to the floor.

Pause.

No need for that. I heard. They let me live here, don’t they. Got a couple of rooms out the back. Near the boiler-room.

MICK stares at him, then retrieves the ball and resumes knocking up along the left side wall.

How long you been playing, then?

DAVIES gets up from the floor slowly and walks over to the right side service box.

I was in the army. Aldershot.

MICK: Oh yeah? That where you got the coat, is it?

He laughs, sarcastically, and hits the ball cross-court towards DAVIES.

DAVIES hits it onto the front wall, volleys it back to himself twice, then returns it cross-court towards MICK.

Never heard of it before I went in.

The warm-up continues, both men hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves, practising their shots.

MICK: Never heard of what?

DAVIES: Squash. Never heard of it. Big rugby man my dad was, see. Hard as nails. Drummed it into us.

MICK: Your daughter play, then?

DAVIES: My what?

MICK: Your daughter. The one you were going to stay with.

DAVIES: Oh, her.

Pause.

She lives in Walthamstow.

MICK: Walthamstow? I used to go to the dogs there. Had a little thing going with a few mates. Easy money. Then the law stepped in, so…you a gambler then, are you?

DAVIES: Throw my money away like that? Not bloody likely. Not after…

He stops to unbutton his greatcoat, then walks towards the door.

MICK stops knocking up.

Where do you think you’re going?

DAVIES: I’m warm. Taking off me coat, aren’t I.

He props his racket against the back wall and fiddles with the door latch.

Bloody thing.

They both leave the court. MICK removes his jacket; he is wearing a navy sweatshirt. DAVIES removes his greatcoat and scarf; he is wearing baggy football shorts and a  cricket jumper over a grey shirt.

MICK waits for DAVIES to step back onto the court, then follows him and closes the door.

MICK: Change sides?

DAVIES walks to the left side service box.

That’s better.

MICK: What’s better?

DAVIES: It’s a damn sight lighter on this side.

He starts to laughs, then is overcome with a fit of coughing. 

MICK starts to hit the ball up and down the right side wall on his fore-hand, then hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.

DAVIES: Looking for somewhere to stay, are you?

MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.

I might be. Just for a night or two. Need to lie low for a few days, if you get my drift. You know somewhere?

DAVIES: How about fifty quid?

MICK: What about fifty quid? I don’t want to stay at the bloody Ritz, do I.

DAVIES: On the match. How about fifty quid? Make it more interesting, won’t it?

Pause.

DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up.

MICK: You’ll make what?

DAVIES: I’ll make you a bed up. Out the back. Not much of a place but…you know.

MICK: Who did you say used to coach you?

DAVIES: There’s a kitchen just off reception. I’ve got a table and a couple of chairs. How about cheese on toast? I could knock us something up.

He resumes warming-up the ball on his back-hand. The fluorescent tube suddenly lights.

MICK: You play for the army then?

DAVIES: Mind you, the lines are no better.

MICK: What’s no better?

DAVIES points at the floor with his racket.

The lines. On this side. Can’t see the bloody half-court line.

He looks up at the front wall.

I’m buggered if I can see the service line either. Been meaning to get some paint, haven’t I. The bloke I usually get it from’s in hospital, see. Shame. Lost his marbles. Bloody good player he used to be, too. Took a game off…who was it…you know, that Pakistani lad. Or was he Australian? Anyway, he was British Open champion, whoever he was. Used to play at Wanstead.

MICK stops knocking up and picks up the ball.

How did you used to get on against him then?

DAVIES: Who, the Aussie or the Pakistani? Don’t think I ever played either of them.

MICK: The paint bloke.

Pause.

DAVIES: Oh, him. We didn’t get to play that often. I had to go away for a while, see. Never got the chance. Used to see him now and again, like, but that was…afterwards…

MICK: After what?

Pause.

DAVIES: I’ll tell you what. If you win, I’ll put you up for a couple of nights free. If I win, you pay me fifty quid and I’ll chuck in all your meals. Can’t say fairer than that, can I? No rubbish either. Cheese on toast, nice bit of bacon. You like  sausages? Can’t have any booze though. Bloke who owns the place won’t have it, see.

MICK: Your daughter ever come here, does she?

DAVIES: You can even use the telephone if you need to talk to a few people, like. What do you think?

Pause.

MICK looks at DAVIES then turns and resumes warming up the ball. He hits it cross-court towards DAVIES. Both men resume hitting the ball to each other, then to themselves.

The fluorescent tube begins to flicker again. Both men ignore it.

Lights slowly fade.

CURTAIN

Acknowledgements

To the best of my knowledge, British playwright Harold Pinter is the only person ever to used squash in a major dramatic work as a metaphor for male competition. That play, later filmed with actors Patricia Hodge, Jeremy Irons and Ben Kingsley, was Betrayal, premiered in 1978; I wrote about it in a previous post on this blog.

My own hommage to Pinter is based on two of his other plays, The Caretaker (1960) and No Man’s Land (1975). The characters of Mick and Davies appear in the first and the disconnecting and unsettling nature of the dialogue in both.

In 2005, Harold Pinter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. He died in 2008.

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

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.

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 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!

Squash and the London Olympics

The 1908 Olympic Games began on the afternoon of April 27th when Evan Noel, the eventual gold medallist, defeated Cecil Browning in the first round of the men’s singles  racquets tournament. At the time, racquets, along with the relatively recent game of squash rackets, was one of a range of racket sports played in Great Britain some of which also appeared on that year’s list of Olympic events.

Three versions of tennis were contested at the Games. Lawn tennis (nowadays abbreviated to ‘tennis’), royal tennis (played on an indoor court and now referred to as ‘real tennis’) and covered court tennis which was an indoor version of lawn tennis.

But there was no place for squash rackets at the Games and, looking back, perhaps it’s not surprising why.

Mount Vesuvius

In 1908, racquets was primarily popular in Great Britain. In fact, there were no entrants or competitors from any other nation. The Official Olympic Games Report stated, “Racquets, it may be noted, is always so expensive a game that, except at the public schools, the number of players is always so restricted and, out of the United Kingdom, India and the United States of America are the only countries where the game is played, which may be a reason for not including it in future programmes for the Olympic Games.”

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

1908 Olympics Opening Ceremony

At the time, it’s almost certain that squash was played even less than racquets, particularly in Great Britain. But it’s the background to the 1908 Games which offers another clue as to squash’s omission.

The Games had been scheduled to take place in Rome but, in 1906, Mount Vesuvius erupted near Naples. The Italian government felt that it needed the money to rebuild the area around the volcano and asked for the Rome Olympics to be relocated. In actual fact, it was widely believed at the time that the Italians had decided to make their request some time before the eruption, due to economic problems in Italy. Mount Vesuvius provided them with a convenient excuse.

Whatever the truth, London agreed to stage the Games. Rome would wait another 52 years for a second chance.

The British Empire

In the hands of the British, the 1908 schedule of events gave the Games the appearance of a European and British Empire championships. No Americans or Australian tennis players competed in London. Outside of Europe, the only other players were from Canada and South Africa. In the covered court tennis events, the representation was even more limited, with only players from Great Britain and Sweden taking part.

Vane Pennell

Vane Pennell

The racquets event drew its competitors from an even more limited gene pool, all seven  (and, unsurprisingly, all men) representing Great Britain which made a clean sweep of the (men’s) singles and doubles. The youngest competitor was Henry Brougham, aged 19, and the oldest Henry Leaf, aged 45. Leaf finished as the silver medalist in the men’s singles despite having to withdraw from the final due to an injury to his hand sustained during the men’s doubles.

Despite the British monopoly, the United States could claim some success in that John Jacob Astor, gold medalist in the men’s doubles together with Vane Pennell, had been born in New York. He was a boy of five when his family sailed for England in 1891, eventually becoming Lieutenant-Colonel John Jacob Astor V, 1st Baron Astor of Hever.

Astor also won bronze in the men’s singles.

Rules and Regulations

The non-appearance of squash in the London Olympics can also be linked to the circumstances at the time surrounding the sport’s regulation.  

It was only in April 1907, one year before the London Olympics, that Great Britain’s splendidly-named Tennis, Rackets & Fives Association had set up a sub-committee to set standards for squash. In the early years of the century, the game had increased in popularity with various schools, clubs and even private citizens building squash courts, but with no set dimensions.

Although the sub-committee managed to codify the rules of squash, it was not until 1923, five years after the end of the First World War, that the Royal Automobile Club was to host a meeting to ‘further discuss’ them. A further five years elapsed before the Squash Rackets Association was formed to set standards for squash throughout Great Britain

In direct contrast, the earliest national association of squash in the world was formed in 1904 as the United States Squash Racquets Association, (USSRA), now known as US Squash.

The 2020 Olympics

Today, squash again finds itself seeking entry to the Olympic family of sports in 2020 having undergone a series of reforms and re-organisations at the behest of the International Olympics Committee. In some ways, its circumstances appear to have changed, as have those of racquets, played in Britain by an even smaller number of people than that from which the competitors for the 1908 London Olympics were drawn.

And what about the circumstances of the IOC? Less than one year after the 2012 London Olympics, the organisation itself is seeking to add a new sport which will attract a younger audience.

Squash may well be it.

But, as in the case of racquets in 1908, it may take a natural disaster to make it happen.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to the Sports Reference website and Top End Sports for details of the 1908 London Olympics. Also thanks to Wikipedia for the biography of John Jacob Astor.

The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, one day in October. There was no sun, and there were rain−clouds over the distant hills. I was a neat, clean, shaved and sober private detective, and didn’t care who knew it.

What’s more, I was about to meet four million dollars.

I was waiting in the entrance hall of General Sternwood’s home in West Hollywood. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I got a call from Bernie Ohls at the DA’s office.

‘Whatever he wants, the General’s not saying,’ said Ohls, ‘at least he’s not saying anything to me. Seems he wants the best in the business.’

I waited for the punch-line.

‘I recommended you anyway. Don’t let me down, Marlowe.’

‘I’ll try not to.’

Through the hall window I could see a lot of smooth green grass and a white windowless building with a sloping roof and one door. Beyond it was a large greenhouse and beyond that there were trees and then the hills. There was oil in those hills and oil was where Sternwood had made his money.

I heard footsteps.

‘The General will see you now, Mr Marlowe.’

The butler was a tall, thin, silvery man of about sixty, with expressionless blue eyes. He led me out of the house and headed for the greenhouse. As we were passing the white building, the door opened and two women came out. They were both wearing white tops, shorts and sneakers. I guessed they were Sternwood’s daughters. They were both sweating. Whatever they’d been doing in there, they were hot. Very hot.

The younger one saw me and gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. A smile showing little, sharp, white teeth. Then she put her thumb in her mouth and giggled. She was about twenty, small but tough−looking. Her blonde hair was cut short and she was carrying a towel in her left hand. The other woman was tall and strong-looking with black hair, late 20s maybe. She looked at me with cold, dark eyes. I wouldn’t be asking her out on a date anytime soon.

I followed the butler to the greenhouse. He opened the door and ushered me in. It was hot, the air thick and wet and the light green. From a wheelchair in the middle of the greenhouse an old man with black eyes and a white moustache watched us. Despite the temperature, he was covered in blankets.

The butler said, `This is Mr Marlowe, General.’

The old man didn’t move or speak. He just looked at me. Then he said, `Fetch the brandy please, Norris. You’ll take a drink Mr Marlowe? I can’t join you, I’m afraid. Doctor’s orders.’

I nodded. The butler went and the old man spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.

‘Take off your coat, sir. It’s too hot in here for a healthy young man. You may smoke. I like the smell of cigarettes.’

I took off my coat and lit a cigarette. The butler brought the brandy and I drank some.

`Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe.’

`There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty−three. I used to work for the DA until I got fired for thinking for myself. I’m not married and I don’t like policemen’s wives.’

The old man smiled.

‘What do you know about my family?’

`Your wife is dead. You have two young daughters. They’re both pretty and both wild. One of them has been married three times, the last time to a bootlegger called Rusty Regan.’

The General smiled his thin smile.

`I was very fond of Rusty Regan. He was a big red−haired Irishman with sad eyes and a wide smile. He spent hours with me. He was a grand story−teller and a great drinker. Of course, he wasn’t a suitable husband for my daughter. I’m telling you our family secrets, Mr Marlowe.’

`They’ll stay secrets,’ I told him. `What happened to Regan?’

The old man looked at me sadly. `He went away a month ago. Without saying goodbye. That hurt me. I hope he’ll come back. And now someone is blackmailing me.’

He stared at me. `Look at this,’ he said. `And have some more brandy.’

He handed me a packet. The address said: General Guy Sternwood, 3765 Alta Brea Crescent, West Hollywood, California. There was a card inside it with the name Mr Arthur Gwynn Geiger, Specialist Bookseller, with a business address. There were also three notes signed by Carmen Sternwood. Each promised to pay Geiger $1,000.

`Any ideas?’ the General asked.

`Not yet. Who is Arthur Gwynn Geiger?’

`I don’t know.’

`What does Carmen say?’

`I haven’t asked her. If I did, she’d put her thumb in her mouth and giggle.’

I said, `I saw her outside. She did that to me.’

The expression on his face didn’t change.

`Do the girls spend a lot of time together?’

`Not that I know of. Vivian is intelligent but cruel. Carmen is just a selfish child. Neither of them ever worries about the difference between right and wrong. Neither do I.’

‘Do they have any money of their own?’

`Vivian has a little. I’m generous to both of them.’

I drank some brandy. Then I said, `I can take Geiger off your back, General, if you want me to.’ I told him how much money I wanted for the job.

`I see,’ he said. `That seems fair. Very well, Mr Marlowe. The problem is now in your hands. And now you must excuse me. I’m tired.’

He touched a bell, stared at me once more, and closed his eyes.

I picked up my coat and went out of that hot greenhouse full of flowers. The cool air of the garden smelled wonderful. The butler was coming towards me.

`Mrs Regan would like to see you, sir.’

`Why?’

His blue eyes looked straight into mine.

`I believe that she misunderstands the reason for your visit, sir.’

I told him it was none of his business, let alone hers. But what the hell, I thought.

‘Take me to Mrs Regan.’

++++

It was a big white room, too big, too white. Long windows looked out onto the dark hills. It was going to rain soon. I walked across the floor and looked at Mrs Regan. She was lovely. She was trouble. She was lying in a chair with her shoes off, so I stared at her legs. They were long and beautiful. She was drinking, and looked at me over her glass with her hot black Sternwood eyes.

`So you’re a private detective,’ she said. `I imagined an awful little man.’

I said nothing.

‘Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.

`How did you like Dad?’

`I liked him.’

`He liked Rusty. Do you know who Rusty is?’

`Yes.’

`Rusty was sometimes rough and noisy, but he was never dull. He was a lot of fun for Dad. Why did he just disappear like that? Dad wants you to find him. Isn’t that true, Mr Marlowe?’

`Maybe,’ I said. I sat on the edge of a deep, soft chair and lit a cigarette.

`Do you think you can find him?’

`I didn’t say I was going to try. Why don’t you go to the police?’

`Oh, Dad will never bring the police into it.’

She looked at me smoothly and drank what was left in her glass.

`You don’t make much money, do you?’ she said.

`You can’t make big money in this game if you’re honest.’

`Oh, are you honest?’ she said and lit a cigarette.

`Terribly honest.’

`So what made you become a detective?’

`What made you marry a bootlegger?’

She went red. Her hot black eyes looked angry. I just smiled at her. `Don’t play with me,’ she said. `I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’

`I’m not crazy about you either,’ I told her. `I didn’t ask to see you, you asked to see me. I don’t care if you show your legs and drink whiskey for lunch. I don’t care if you think I behave badly. You’re probably right. But don’t try to question me.’

`I hate big, dark, handsome men like you, Marlowe,’ she said. `I just hate them.’

`What are you afraid of, Mrs Regan?’ I asked.

Her expression changed. `You could find Rusty – if Dad wanted you to,’ she said.

`He told me about Mr Regan. He wanted to see me about something else. Is that what you wanted me to say?’

`I don’t care what you say!’ she shouted.

I stood up and left the room. I walked back to the entrance hall and stood on the steps outside, smoking my cigarette. In the distance I could see some old oil−wells. The Sternwoods’ money came from those oil−wells. Now they lived in their beautiful house, far from the machines and the smell of the oily water in the sump.

The sky was black when I reached my car. I heard thunder in the hills and put the top up.

She had lovely legs. They were a smooth act, General Sternwood and his daughters. `What do they really want?’ I wondered.

++++

Geiger’s bookstore was on the north side of the boulevard, near Las Palmas. As I stopped to look in the window, a man in the street gave me a knowing smile. The door closed quietly behind me and I stepped onto a soft blue carpet. A few customers were browsing the shelves. There were big comfortable blue armchairs and some expensive−looking books on small tables. In one corner a woman wearing wire-framed glasses sat at a desk.

She got up slowly and came towards me. She was wearing a short black dress, which looked good over long legs. She had brown hair and green eyes. Her fingernails were silver. You don’t often buy a book from a girl like that.

`Can I help you?’ she asked me.

I asked her for a book. It was a famous book, but she had never heard of it. I tried another name. Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her. She didn’t know about the book. She knew as much about books as I knew about painting my fingernails silver.

`I’ll have to speak to Mr Geiger,’ I told her. `Is he here?’

`I’m afraid not,’ she said. `He’ll be here later.’

‘Mind if I wait?’ I said. ‘I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon.’ I sat down in an armchair and lit a cigarette. The brunette looked unhappy.

After twenty minutes, the door to the street opened and a tall man wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Panama hat came in. He hurried past me and over to the brunette.

He took something out of his wallet and showed it to her. She touched a button and a door opened. He disappeared through it.

Minutes passed. I smoked another cigarette. The brunette was staring at me with an expression she probably would have said was thoughtful.

The door opened and the tall man came out. He was carrying a large packet. He looked quickly at me as he passed and went out into the street.

++++

I left the bookstore and followed him. Someone who looks like that is easy to follow. When he stopped to cross the street, I let him see me. He walked on quickly and turned left, between two houses surrounded by trees. I stood and waited, as rain began to fall. Minutes passed. Then he came back and walked straight past me. He didn’t have the packet any more. He was safe now.

I watched him go down the street. Then I went between the houses and found the packet behind a tree. Nobody saw me pick it up. I went back to the boulevard and found a phone booth. I looked in the book and found that Geiger lived on Laverne Terrace, a street off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Then I went to visit some other stores. In one of them I found a girl who could describe Geiger. She said he was about forty, a fat man with a fat face and a moustache. He dressed fashionably.

I ran back to my car through heavy rain. Then I opened the packet. I thought I knew what would be inside it but I thought wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time.

The packet was full of squash magazines.

I sat and looked at the glossy covers. Pictures of matches in play. Headlines trailing interviews, stories, best-buy features, tournament reports. Men and women posing with squash racquets. Wearing white.

I stared at them. I used to play the game myself when I was at the DA’s office. Now I played different games. Games where I could make my own rules.

Then I opened one. What was inside made me feel sick. The worst pornography I’d ever seen. The magazine covers were a front, just like Geiger’s bookstore was a front for distributing ugly dirt. To run that business on the boulevard he must be paying someone a lot of protection money.

I sat in my car and smoked and thought about it. Something didn’t feel right.

Then I looked again at the covers.

I found what I was looking for at the bottom of the pile. The cover showed two women on court playing a rally. The shot had been taken from low down on the front wall. One woman was a brunette with her hair in a ponytail. She was wearing a red sweatband and was lunging into the back right hand corner of the court to play a shot.

The second woman was standing on the T, her head turned towards her opponent. Her face was in left profile, her mouth slightly open, taking in a breath. It was a pretty mouth, a mouth showing little, sharp, white teeth.

The woman’s blonde hair was cut short.

She was holding her racquet in her left hand.

Coming next…

In Part Two of ‘The Big Squash’ the mystery deepens as Marlowe waits for Geiger to appear.

Acknowledgements

Set in Los Angeles, California, Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ was first published in 1939. Howard Hawks 1946 film version starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian Routledge (Vivian Regan in the novel), and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood.

For an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks movie, read Leonard Pierce’s ‘Come Into My Boudoir.’

Thanks to Rosalie Kerr for her masterly re-telling of ‘The Big Sleep’ and the ‘Good Reads’ website for its compendium of Raymond Chandler quotes. I’ve used quotes from Chandler’s  ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Farewell My Lovely’ and ‘The Little Sister’ in this story.

Brotherly Love (from the Squash Novel ‘The Club from Hell’)

The line went dead.

Weston pushed a button on the hand-set. There was a click and a low hum.

‘Did you get all that?’ asked Weston. There was a pause.

‘Loud and clear,’ came the reply. One of the workers looking after their queen, Weston thought.

‘She’s on her way.’

Weston hit the button again and swivelled towards Thorpe. The dusk was filtering into the Dubai offices of Global Trading prompting the ‘Sales Director, Middle East & North Africa’ to reach behind him for a bottle and two glasses. He poured a measure of whiskey into both and handed one to Weston.

‘So,’ said Thorpe, ‘it would appear that your efforts have generated more than a little movement on the chessboard.’

Weston glanced down and brushed a non-existent speck of dust from his slacks.

‘Well, you did ask me to find out what Grigoriev was up to,’ he responded, raising his eyes to meet Thorpe’s. ‘It turns out that he was up to quite a lot.’

Thorpe chose not to rise to the bait. Weston had form as a loose cannon. As well as a ladies’ man. But he could sniff out the opportunity for a big sale.

‘As I see it,’ continued Thorpe, employing a measured delivery which Weston sensed was tinged with disappointment mixed with curiosity, ‘not only do you seem to know rather more than you have, up to now, disclosed to your superiors, but you have now shared carefully chosen parts of it with a, shall we say, disparate group of individuals searching for a missing girl.’

Weston remained silent.

‘All this,’ continued Thorpe, ‘in the context of what would appear to be a rapidly-developing conflict of interests between two rather nasty players in the global drugs trade. Players who are not only related by marriage but who are also clearly prone to the influence of their family members – particularly in relation to the noble art of squash racquets.’

‘You could say that,’ responded Weston.

Sculpture, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Sculpture, Fairmount Park, Philadelphia

Thorpe took a sip at his malt and grunted. His analysis had given him time to appreciate what Weston had also chosen to disclose and, more importantly, not to disclose to Mr Matthew and his assembled guests. The present whereabouts of Grigoriev and the Ivanovs; the laundering record of Steve Dwyer; his surprise at hearing of the whereabouts of his old squash coach’s nephew.

‘Sense, adapt, exploit,’ mused Thorpe. ‘But don’t trouble yourself with the possible consequences.’

‘Ah, well,‘ he thought, ‘everyone’s entitled to a little white lie or two, now and again.’

++++

It was another hour before Weston left Thorpe’s office. He stepped into the warm Gulf evening and waved down a taxi. The call with London had been short. Plenty of questions but nothing in the way of instruction. Dispassionate, workmanlike, faint praise. ‘Await further instructions’ was the message. And Weston didn’t like it. No clearance to fly to Philadelphia, no  sign of calling in the cousins. What was she playing at?

++++

Thorpe re-filled his glass and settled into his chair. The return call was not long in coming.

‘Well, Thorpe?’ she enquired.

‘If I read this correctly, Ma’am,’ he began, ‘the Grigorieva woman wants to change the peripatetic yet somewhat high-risk lifestyle she currently enjoys with her brother. To achieve this, she appears to have enlisted the support of Weston, Miss Phipps and, almost certainly, her own sister, having made a big show of falling out with the latter in the past. The sister also wants to remove herself from her current, er, domestic situation and take her daughter with her. At the same time, Grigoriev wishes to, shall we say, terminate his relationship with his brother-in-law and replace him with a less conspicuous US distributor.’

He paused.

‘Go on.’

‘And then there’s Ivanov’s son, of course,’ he continued, warming to his task. ‘The boy is prone to exhibiting somewhat psychopathic behaviour which has led to him getting into trouble in the past, and is likely to do so in the future. A high profile is, as you would concede, Ma’am, not a desirable attribute for someone involved in the global drugs trade.’

‘I should have thought not, Thorpe,’ came the reply. A little frosty this time, he sensed, in direct contrast to the temperature of his office. He pressed on.

‘Finally, there’s the Smith girl. Ivanov junior has been particularly ineffective in his attempts to secure a ransom for her from her mother and Mr. Dwyer. His incompetence alone would seem to be enough to call his continued involvement in the business into some question.’

‘Which is why,’’ came the response, ‘Grigoriev has travelled to the US to make arrangements for the Ivanovs’ imminent retirement. Under the pretext of visiting a squash tournament, I understand. Very imaginative.’’

‘I believe that cover may have been suggested by his younger sister, Ma’am,’ said Thorpe. ‘She may also have advised him to invite the Ivanovs to Dubai whilst he travelled to the US to arrange their replacement unhindered.’

‘And Weston?’

‘Wants to be present at the, er, tournament,’ said Thorpe. ‘for obvious reasons, although perhaps not the ones that might occur to Mr Matthew and his friends.’

Silence. Then, just as he was about to ask…

‘Get him on the first flight, Thorpe. Let’s give him enough rope to hang himself, shall we?’

‘Yes, Ma’am.’

‘Oh, and Thorpe?’

‘Yes, Ma’am?’

‘You may want to make sure that the sales force is at full strength over the next few days. Business opportunities in your part of the world may be about to come thick and fast.’

++++

Steve Dwyer arranged himself as comfortably as he could in his seat and sipped at his drink. The lights in the cabin were dimmed as the night flight to London headed north-east across the Arabian peninsula.

After the debacle in Dubai, he and Jill had been forced to wait more than 24 hours for the next available flight, 24 hours during which her state had changed from despair to near hysteria as her hopes of being re-united with her daughter had been dashed. Now she slept soundly beside him as Steve tried to make sense of the situation they were now in.

There had been no meeting with Jessica’s kidnappers, no hand-over of ransom money, no electronic transfer of funds, no re-union. Just a voice-mail left on his ‘phone while he and Jill were still in the air heading for Dubai.

It was the same voice, the same accent, the same cocky delivery, the same menace. There had been a ‘change of plan’, it said. His journey to Dubai had been ‘a test’ to see whether he was serious about securing the girl’s release.’ He was ‘being watched’, it said. ‘I’ll be in touch.’

And the same mantra.

‘She dies.’

++++

He and Jill were in the queue in Heathrow immigration before Steve switched on his cell-phone. He scanned the SMS message and voicemail details, looking for patterns. Plenty from James Matthew, one from Angus, a few from business contacts, even one from a squash buddy. ‘Probably wants a game,’ thought Steve. ‘I could tell him a thing or two about games.’

‘Oh, my God!’

His thoughts were suddenly shattered by Jill’s cry. Their fellow supplicants in the queue turned to look. She was talking to someone on her cell. ‘When did it happen?’ then ‘Why did it take you so long to get me?’ and ‘I’m in immigration at Heathrow. I’ll ring you back later.’

She hung up and grabbed Steve’s elbow, dragging him out of the queue. Her face had turned white.

‘That was Stephanie. Frank’s been murdered at the Club,’ she said.

++++

Twenty minutes later they were making their way through the green channel. Jill appeared calm, thought Steve. Maybe Frank’s death had given her something else to focus on, for the time being at least.

He said nothing to her as they approached the exit. He glanced at his cell-phone and began to scan his message and voicemail again. Force of habit.

He was waking up now, feeling more alert. Looking for patterns.

Suddenly, he began to feel uncertain, anxious. So many issues to deal with, so many people needing his attention, so many plans to make. Just in case.

He looked up.

Less than 20 metres away, at the end of the exit channel, stood two uniformed police officers. Not airport police. With them stood a youngish man wearing a black leather jacket. Another officer Steve guessed. They seemed to be waiting for someone off a flight.

And they were looking directly at him.

++++

It was December 9th.

He stood across the street watching the blue and red flag flapping in the breeze.

It had been easy to follow the girl, to keep her in his sights as she made her way through the city to the building. He had the street-craft, the gift of noticing patterns,  the gift of remaining inconspicuous, unobtrusive. It came naturally to him. Natural after years of learning, and surviving, in a world of shifting urban landscapes.

And, he thought to himself, he was going to need it if he was going to survive. Not just today, but every day until the game had played itself out. Whatever that might mean. For him. For the girl. For the others.

Yes, he was going to need it when they began to follow him.

And in the last few minutes he knew that they were already following him.

He had thought that he’d have more time before they appeared. Before they made their presence felt.

Still, they were here now. Part of the ecosystem of the city with its steel and concrete towers, its manicured parks, its river, its history, its…brotherly love. Plying their own form of street-craft, he supposed but, surely, one more suited to different landscapes, different cultures?

He’d already spotted one of them. Across the park to his left, maybe a hundred metres away. And a second, standing on the corner with Walnut. Too easy.

There was something noticeable about them. A sense of disquiet, a sense of not quite being comfortable, a sense that maybe there were other players in the neighbourhood. In the game.

He glanced at his watch. Time to move. More people would be arriving soon for the tournament. To compete, to play the game, to watch. The endgame.

He reached inside his track suit top and felt the gun nestling in its holster under his left armpit. Just in case.

He bent down, hoisted his racquet case onto his shoulder and strode towards the building.

++++

Acknowledgement

‘Brotherly Love’ was first published as Chapter 19 of ‘The Club from Hell’, a collaborative squash-themed novel conceived by Ted Gross of The Daily Squash Report. Written in weekly installments by a team of 10 squash writers, the novel was 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, Steve Cubbins, Aubrey Waddy, Alan Thatcher, John Branston, The Squashist, Tracy Gates, Rob Dinerman, Mick Joint, Will Gens and your truly.

Despite the appearance in the above instalment of the multi-faceted (and mysterious) ‘Jim Weston’, the real hero of ‘The Club from Hell’ is Ted Gross. Without his leadership, co-ordination and support, there would have been no ‘Club from Hell.’

Check out The Daily Squash Report for the new squash novel, Breaking Glass. You know you want to!

The Small Business of Squash at Christmas

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

Trade cards first became popular at the beginning of the 17th century in London  where they were typically distributed by businessmen to clients and potential customers. Unlike visiting cards, which were exchanged in social circles, they functioned as advertising and also as maps, directing the public to merchants’ stores, as no formal street address numbering system existed at the time. The famous diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1708) is known to have been an early user of trade cards in his professional capacity as a naval administrator, and left a collection of them which is now preserved at Magdalene College, Cambridge.

Until the development of colour printing in the 1870s, few companies specialised in the bulk production of ‘stock’ trade cards, usually having an image on one side and space on the other for businesses to add their own information. Then, as production became more widespread and designs became more attractive and colourful, collecting and exchanging cards became a popular hobby. Some cards, particularly those produced by tobacco companies featuring baseball players, later developed into collectibles and gradually lost their function as business advertisements.

In the 1880s, squash was beginning to gain in popularity in England and elsewhere. So perhaps the existence of a trade card from that period featuring young lady holding a squash racquet shouldn’t come as a great surprise.

It’s possible that the card was advertising the services of the artist, Eleanor.E.Manly, an English Victorian artist specialising in children’s portraits whose most productive period was from the mid-1870s until her death in 1898. It also bears the greeting  ‘With best wishes for a Happy Christmas’ which suggests that it was produced for distribution during the festive period.

The earliest squash Christmas card? We’ll probably never know. But with Manly’s work still being bought and sold after in the top art auction rooms of the world, it’s nice to think that someone, somewhere may still have something valuable locked away in the attic.

And it’s got a squash racquet on it.

Acknowledgement

Thanks to Christine H of Portland, Oregon whose love of antique postcards shines through on her blog The Daily Postcard.

A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

“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.

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

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.

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.

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.

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.

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’.

The Squash Racquet Expert

A few years ago, I decided to find a way of making money which would, at the same time, enable me to draw on my passion for squash.

A well-connected friend of mine suggested that I invest in vintage squash racquets. They must be authentic, he told me, or you’ll waste your investment. The problem was, how could I learn to distinguish high value racquets from the inferior article?

I decided to find the acclaimed expert in the field. Everybody I asked mentioned the same highly regarded teacher and so I sought him out. I managed to get hold of his number and rang him at his home.

‘Yes, I can certainly teach you to recognise high value racquets,’ he told me. I asked him how long it would take to earn and he replied. ‘I can teach you in five days, but it will cost you £5000.’

It seemed a high price to pay, but he was reputed to be the world expert and I presumed that I’d learn a great deal in those five days. So, I agreed the contract and sent him a letter to that effect. He told me to visit his house each day between 9 and 11 a.m. starting the following Monday.

Two hours a day seemed a little on the short side for such an expensive training, but I duly turned up and was greeted by a tall, elderly man with white hair wearing a tracksuit. He ushered me into a sparsely-furnished room containing a long, wooden table. In the middle of the table, mounted by its handle on a plinth was a wood-framed squash racquet with what I assumed were gut strings. Placed on either side of the table were two chairs. The Master sat on one side and I was invited to sit on the other.

‘Look at the racquet,’ he commanded and fixed his attention on it.

I stared and stared, expecting that at any moment he would start telling me what I should be noticing. But not a word was said until the end of the hour when he announced, ‘That is the end of today’s lesson. I will see you at 9 a.m. tomorrow.’

I felt that I’d been short-changed on this first lesson, but was sure that tomorrow he’d tell me what I should have noticed.

The next day, at the same time, in the same room, I found myself sitting opposite another racquet.

‘Look at the racquet,’ the Master once again commanded.

My study was intermingled with my growing eagerness and anticipation of what I was going to be told. But not a word came from the Master’s lips until I was once again told that it was the end of the lesson and he would see me tomorrow.

The third day turned out to be the same as the first two. I rationalised my growing fury by telling myself that, this being the acclaimed expert, he was waiting for me to have studied several different racquets before giving me a lecture on how they all differed. Surely, in the rest of the week, he would tell me how the colour of the markings on the racquets differed, how to distinguish the fine-grained textures of the wood used for the head and the handle, the shape and symmetry of the frame and so on.

However, the fourth day came and went exactly as the others had done before them. Another racquet and an hour’s silent study.

I arrived at the last lesson on the Friday morning, keyed up with anticipation. Now all was going to be revealed and I was sure that I was going to have really concentrate to get my £5000-worth of learning into my head in  this one short hour.

I was shocked to find the room exactly the same, with another squash racquet and the same invitation – ‘Look at the racquet.’

I looked at the racquet with urgent anticipation of the wisdom that surely was shortly to be delivered. After ten minutes, I was getting agitated and after fifteen positively desperate. I could stand it no longer; my patience had finally run out. I turned to the Master and shouted at him:

‘I’ve spent £4000 so far and another £1000 today, and up to now you haven’t told me anything, just left me to look at different squash racquets. And what’s even worse, today you have not even had the courtesy to show me an authentic high value racquet!’

Acknowledgement

This kind of teaching story is found in the Zen Buddhist tradition. It’s based on the story ‘Learning from the Experts’ taken from ‘The Wise Fool’s Guide to Leadership’ by Peter Hawkins.

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.

“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.

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 the Art of Espionage

If you visit Central London, you can easily find the futuristic-looking headquarters of Britain’s Special Intelligence Service on the banks of the River Thames at Vauxhall Cross. The SIS, also known as MI6,  supplies the British Government with foreign intelligence and operates alongside the country’s internal security service MI5.

MI6 Headquarters in London

Since the end of the Second World War, the espionage activities of MI6 have been fictionalised (often in thrilling fashion) by many writers one of whom, David Cornwell, actually worked for the Service during the 1960s. Writing under the pseudonym John Le Carré, Cornwell’s Cold War spy novels contrast with the physical action and moral certainty of the James Bond books written by Ian Fleming. His characters are mainly un-heroic political functionaries aware of the moral ambiguity of their work, and engaged in psychological game-playing and deception rather than physical drama.

And it’s in Le Carré’s novels that psychological games occasionally manifest themselves in the shape of sport. Not just in the description of sporting encounters (such as the tennis match in his novel ‘Our Kind of Traitor’) but in the form of memories, cultural references and the discovery of artefacts.

Including those relating to the game of squash.

Squash and Special Intelligence

If you’re fortunate enough (or even cunning enough) to gain access to MI6’s archives, you’ll find – alongside a briefcase containing a document copier and a stethoscope-like ‘hushaphone’ for eavesdropping on conversations in bugged rooms – a squash racket with a secret compartment in the handle. To contain what, we can only guess.

Visit MI6’s website and you can find more up to date evidence that squash is still part of the culture of Britain’s intelligence service. Not surprisingly perhaps, MI6 offers would-be staff the opportunity to experience ‘foreign travel’ and  ‘excitement’ (possibly an understatement) as well as to design ‘hi-tech gadgets’ for its agents (think ‘Q’ in the James Bond movies). And last, but not least, staff facilities at the Service’s headquarters include squash courts as well as a gym, a restaurant and, thankfully, a bar.

John Le Carre

Back in the 1950s and 60s, when the young David Cornwell was working for MI6 (and, initially, MI5),  squash was also a part of Britain’s intelligence and broader military culture. Squash courts were installed in the basements of various Government buildings in London and were also available to staff based at Special Intelligence sites such as the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) near Cheltenham.

As for Cornwell himself, squash was one of the sports he would have encountered as a pupil at Sherborne School in Dorset which he attended during the 1940s. And it’s perhaps during this period of his life that the game and its psychological aspects first came to his attention and began to feed his imagination.

Whatever its influence on David Cornwell the pupil –and later linguist, interrogator, spy and teacher – squash was eventually to appear in the writings of John Le Carré the novelist. And on more than one occasion.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

In 1961, a year after transferring from MI5 to MI6, Cornwell published his first novel as John Le Carré, ‘Call for the Dead’. The book introduced the character of George Smiley, an MI6 intelligence officer who was to appear in a further seven of Le Carré’s novels. Three years later, Le Carré was to leave MI6 to work full-time as a novelist, after his own career as an intelligence officer career was ended by the betrayal of his British agents to the KGB by Kim Philby, a British double agent and member of the Cambridge Five.

In 1974, ten years after leaving MI6, Le Carré was to depict Philby in his novel ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ as the upper-class traitor (code-named ‘Gerald’ by the KGB) hunted by George Smiley and his assistant Peter Guillam. In the book, the ‘mole’ Gerald is simultaneously being hunted, unbeknownst to Smiley, by Jim Prideaux, a fellow agent and former lover whom he has previously betrayed. Eventually, Guillam realises who the elusive figure following Smiley’s investigations is…

“The night had its own madness after that; events ran too quickly for him to fasten on them singly. Not till days afterwards did he realise that the figure, or the shadow of it, had struck a chord of familiarity in his memory. Even then, for some time, he could not place it. Then one early morning, waking abruptly, he had it clear in his mind: a barking, military voice, a gentleness of manner heavily concealed, a squash racquet jammed behind the safe of his room in Brixton, which brought tears to the eyes of his unemotional secretary.”

A recent film adaptation of the book shows a squash match being played in the basement of a Government building between the Minister with responsibility for the ‘Circus’ (MI6) and his Under-Secretary for whom Smiley is working.

'Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy' Squash Match

While Smiley heads to Oxford to consult an old MI6 colleague, the two squash players confer in the changing room with Percy Alleline, the Head of the Circus, who wants permission to share valuable intelligence (code-named ‘Witchcraft’) with American Intelligence.

But the end result of Alleline’s intelligence sharing initiative is to prove catastrophic, both for his own career and that of the Minister…

A Perfect Spy

Twelve years after the publication of ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, Le Carré published ‘A Perfect Spy’ chronicling the moral education, from boyhood onwards, of its main character Magnus Pym, as it leads to his becoming a spy and subsequently a double agent. The book is Le Carré’s most autobiographical  espionage novel, the author himself reflecting that writing it was ‘probably what a very wise shrink would have advised’.

‘A Perfect Spy’ has references to squash woven into its fabric and into the thoughts not just of Pym but of his wife, Mary, and son Tom. In one passage, Pym reflects on the lives of middle-class professional men like himself…

“…men who see the threat to their class as synonymous with the threat to England and never wandered far enough to know the difference. Modest men, practical, filling in their expense accounts and collecting their salaries, and impressing their Joes with their quiet expertise beneath the banter. Yet still, in their secret hearts, nourishing themselves on the same illusions that in those days nourished Pym. And needing their Joes to help them do it. Worried men, touched with an odour of pub meals and club squash, and a habit of looking round them while they paid, as if wondering whether there was a better way to live.”

In another, Pym’s son prays for his school ‘house master’, Mr. Caird…

“…Tom prayed earnestly for his dead grandfather’s soul, for Mr. Caird and for victory in Wednesday’s squash match against St. Saviour’s, Newbury, away, though he feared it would be another humiliating defeat, for Mr. Caird was divided on the merits of athletic competition.”

Pym’s wife thinks about her squash dates with a friend from the Canadian Embassy while her husband remembers his con-man father, Rick, as he prepares to meet a senior spymaster…

“The same evening, glowing from the best of nine games of squash, Pym was led to the presence of a Very Senior Member of the service, in a plain, forgettable office not far from Rick’s newest Reichskanzlei.”

But the gradual unravelling of the psychological games played by Pym eventually lead to his exposure and his suicide.

Which also goes to show that deception, in life as well as on the squash court, doesn’t always pay off.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Neil Tweedie for his article “Psst! Want to join MI6?” in the Daily Telegraph. Also thanks to Wikipedia.