In Search of Lost Squash (à la Marcel Proust)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

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

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

He remembered that night. Clearly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘What about you?’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A throaty laugh this time.

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

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

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

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

‘I think we need to talk.’

++++

It was the morning of the finals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

It was the afternoon of the finals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

It was the evening of the finals.

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

++++

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

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

And there were others.

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

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

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

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After what seemed like an age, they met.

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

She turned, still smiling, towards her young companion.

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

‘So, you must be Jeremy,’ he said.

Characters

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

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

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

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

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

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

She was ready now.

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

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

“Have a good evening, senhorita.”

He smiled a knowing smile.

++++

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

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

Ready to feel the bodies of others close to hers.

++++

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

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

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

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

She raised her eyes and met his. Dark eyes.

Eyes she had seen before.

++++

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suddenly, her eyes met his.

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

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

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

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

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

Into the passion.

++++

It had been easy to follow her to the salon.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How do you know this?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Embossed with the image of a stork.

Characters

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How those words had tortured him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

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

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

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

Women in Competition

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

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

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

But not in the way you might think.

Being Epicurean – Squash Feeding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Being Clandestine – Squash Sex

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

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

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

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

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

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

Including the world of squash.

Being Gossipy – Squash Communication

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a matter of life and death.

Acknowledgements

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

Squash and the World of Wodehouse

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“There had been other dark moments in Freddie’s life. Once, back in London, Parker had sent him out into the heart of the West End without his spats and he had not discovered their absence till he was half-way up Bond Street. On another occasion, having taken on a stranger at squash for a quid a game, he had discovered too late that the latter was an ex-public-school champion.”

From “Jill The Reckless” by PG Wodehouse first published in the US in 1920 under the title “The Little Warrior”.
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PG Wodehouse was, and arguably still is, England’s best-loved humorist. Born in 1881, his father was a British judge who spent much of his professional career in Hong Kong, then a colony of the British Empire. In fact, Wodehouse was born, prematurely, whilst his mother was on a visit to England from Hong Kong. When he was three, he was sent back to England and placed in the care of a nanny before being sent to a succession of boarding schools. Between the ages of three and fifteen, he was to spend less than six months with his parents.

wodehouse pelham grenville1905 photo Squash and the World of Wodehouse

PG Wodehouse in 1905

Despite his unusual childhood, Wodehouse was to enjoy enormous popular success as a writer, poet, lyricist and journalist during a career that lasted more than seventy years until his death in 1975. His many writings, including the Jeeves and Wooster stories, continue to be widely read. In many of them, he pokes fun at the English aristocracy, establishment figures (including judges), and American businessmen and philanthropists. All entertainingly embellished with the use of contemporary London clubroom slang.

But it was as a pupil of Dulwich College in South London that the young Wodehouse came into his own as a sportsman, gaining his school colours as a member of the cricket First XI and the rugby First XV. Not surprisingly, both sports were to feature heavily in his writings along with golf, tennis and a relatively new game which was emerging from the shadows of an older predecessor, racquets, then played at Dulwich.

The game of squash.

Racquets, Fives and the Rise of Squash

Classed as a Minor Sport, the game of racquets was well established at Dulwich by the time Wodehouse arrived as a pupil in the mid-1890s. The sport had originated as an 18th century pastime in London’s debtors prisons at King’s Bench and Fleet where the prisoners modified the even more ancient wall game of fives by using tennis rackets to speed up the action. They played against the prison wall, sometimes at a corner to add a sidewall to the game. Racquets then became popular outside the prisons and was played in alleyways, usually  behind public houses.

Nowadays, racquets is played in an enclosed court measuring 9.14m by 18.28m) with a ceiling height of at least 9.14m (30 feet). The singles and doubles games are both played on the same court, the walls and floor being constructed from smooth stone or concrete; both walls and floor are generally dark in colour to contrast with the white ball. Players use a 77.5cm wooden racket, known as bat, to hit the hard 38mm diameter white ball which weighs 28 grams.

In Wodehouse’s time there, Dulwich College maintained courts for both racquets and fives, the latter being built in 1894 and destroyed by enemy bombs in the Second World War. The racquet courts at Dulwich are also long gone although about 20 courts still exist in England’s public schools.

So, Wodehouse would have been familiar with both games, even though he didn’t gain school colours in either of them. Squash, on the other hand, was a new, up and coming offshoot of racquets and, at the beginning of Wodehouse’s writing career, was just the kind of trendy activity sought out by the younger set of London’s upper middle-class.

Including certain members of some of the British capital’s gentlemen’s clubs.

Squash and the Drones

Located off Piccadilly in London’s Mayfair district, the fictitious Drones Club was a recurring setting in Wodehouse’s writing, with many of his stories featuring the club or its members. The Drones was meant to typify the kind of private club originally set up by British upper class men in the 18th century to provide an environment in which to carry out gambling, which was still illegal outside members-only establishments.

Wodehouse’s description of the Drones Club’s young members, precisely fitted the contemporary Edwardian idle rich stereotype. However, he was keen to point out in his writings that some of the club’s members did actually hold down prominent jobs. Reginald ‘Pongo’ Twistleton, for example, was described as studying for The Bar whereas G. D’Arcy ‘Stilton’ Cheesewright (a rival of Bertie Wooster) worked, albeit briefly, as a special constable.

Nevertheless, the Drones with its restaurant, swimming pool and squash court was typical of many of London’s gentlemen’s clubs, even down to its numerous sports competitions, from golf to tennis and squash. Competitions, of course, on which wagers could be made and around which humorous stories could be written.

And one favourite storyline of Wodehouse’s involved young men displaying, or at least attempting to display, their sporting prowess in order to impress young ladies.

Jeeves and the Squash Handicap

Perhaps the Drones Club’s most well-known member was Bertram Wilberforce Wooster.

In Wodehouse’s writing, Bertie Wooster is the young, amiable and naive man-of-leisure, whereas  the older, and considerably wiser, Jeeves is his valet and friend. Most of the Jeeves and Wooster stories involve Bertie getting into some sort of scrape with a young lady, an aunt, a representative of the Law or, in some cases, all three. Typically, the omniscient and resourceful Jeeves  comes to the rescue in his inimitably modest, no-nonsense style.

Jeeves and wooster screenshot Squash and the World of Wodehouse

Hugh Laurie as Bertie Wooster and Stephen Fry as Jeeves in ITV's "Jeeves and Wooster"

In “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit”, Bertie and Jeeves arrive at the country estate of Lady Wickham whence they’ve been invited “for the festivities”. Bertie announces that he is in love with Lady Wickham’s daughter (and accomplished tennis player) Miss Roberta ‘Bobbie’ Wickham.

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“During your stay here, Jeeves,” I said, “you will, no doubt, be thrown a good deal together with Miss Wickham’s maid. On such occasions, pitch it strong.”

“Sir?”

‘You know what I mean. Tell her I’m rather a good chap. Mention my hidden depths. These things get round. Dwell on the fact that I have a kind heart and was runner-up in the Squash Handicap at the Drones this year. A boost is never wasted, Jeeves.”

“Very good, sir.”

From “Jeeves and the Yule-Tide Spirit” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1930.
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As revealed Wodehouse’s “The Mating Season”, Bertie is actually a racquets blue, a sporting honour awarded during his time at public school. So the revelation that he’s also a squash player is not really that surprising. He also plays darts and billiards, swims, and plays tennis, all activities well-catered for at The Drones. But which sporting activity should he choose to impress the object of his affection?

A Squash Player at Blandings

The Drones Club also features in Wodehouse’s Blandings novels, written between 1915 and 1975. Blandings Castle is the fictitious seat of Lord Emsworth and home to many of his eccentric family, including his younger brother, Galahad Threepwood. Galahad is, in fact, a member of the Pelican Club, an older, more traditional version of The Drones with it’s more unruly younger membership.

Lord Emsworth is an amiable, absent-minded old chap who loves his home and gardens dearly and is never happier than when pottering about the grounds on a fine sunny day, poking at flower beds or inspecting his champion pig, The Empress of Blandings. For the Threepwood family and their friends, the castle is forever available for indefinite residence, and, in Wodehouse’s writing, is often a setting for love-struck young men and ladies to act out their personal dramas.

In ‘A Pelican at Blandings’, Galahad Threepwood, muses on the appearance of John Halliday, son of the late JD ‘Stiffy’ Halliday who had been a fellow Pelican Club member.

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“There was about him something of the air of a rising young barrister who in his leisure hours goes in a great deal for golf and squash racquets. And that, oddly enough, is what he was. His golf handicap was six, his skill at squash racquets formidable, and he had been a member of The Bar for some five years”

From “A Pelican at Blandings” by PG Wodehouse first published in 1969.
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Halliday later arrives at Blandings in the persona of a psychiatrist ostensibly hired to analyse Lord Emsworth but, in reality, hoping to press his suit with his fiancée Linda Gilpin who is visiting the castle with her uncle, Alaric, Duke of Dunstable. In fact, Galahad has been instrumental in smuggling Halliday, now his god-son, into the castle, having been called on for help after an estrangement between the man and his beloved Linda, caused by Halliday’s zealous devotion to his duty as a lawyer despite his fiancée being a witness in…

…well, you get the idea…

So, does the squash player get the girl? Well, there’s at least one way you can find out.

Acknowledgements

Thanks, as ever, to Wikipedia and it’s army of contributors to entries on rackets, PG Wodehouse and beyond. Also, thanks to the Russian Wodehouse Society and The Literature Network for various articles on the great man and his work.

Bollywood Squash

My first real taste of the exotic confection that is Hindi cinema came in the shape of a Saturday matinee at the celebrated Raj Mandir movie theatre in downtown Jaipur. The 1200-seat meringue-shaped auditorium, known as ‘The Pride of Asia’, originally opened in the mid-1970s. And, over the years, it’s hosted many Hindi film premieres attended, naturally enough, by their stars, fans, members of the Indian glitterati, and assorted media hacks.

Unfortunately, the premiere of Saudagar – a sprawling three and a half hour epic set in the Himalayas – had already taken place by the time I’d arrived in Jaipur, leaving me to settle for a star-less and media-free visit to the Raj. Nevertheless, I was treated to an enjoyable, if labyrinthine, story of love, romance, politics and violence punctuated only by the occasional high-energy dance ‘item number’ showcasing beautiful women in very revealing clothes.

Raj Mandir Jaipur Bollywood Squash
The Raj Mandir Cinema in Jaipur

But, if my visit to the Raj Mandir was memorable, my next destination was a city which had not only given its name to the Hindi film industry, but which was at the throbbing heart of Indian celebrity culture and media gossip. The place for film stars and their significant others to be seen, photographed and talked about.

And to play squash.

Celebrity Squash

At roughly the same time as the opening of the Raj Mandir, India overtook the US as the world’s largest film producer. And, as the commercial capital of the country and a source of much movie funding, the city of Bombay simultaneously found its colonial name combined with that of America’s Hollywood movie industry to create a new and distinctive Asian entertainment brand. Bollywood!

Since then, Bombay has not only become Mumbai but has strengthened its position, both as India’s commercial centre and as the heart of the Hindi movie industry. Not surprisingly, the city has also attracted more than its fair share of celebrity residents, the more athletically-inclined of whom are able (in other words, wealthy enough) to use the exclusive sporting facilities  provided by its private clubs and five star hotels. But perhaps what might be less expected in a country where cricket is the most popular sport, is the apparent popularity of squash as an activity with which many Bollywood celebrities are happy to be associated.

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Hansika Motwani

In fact, many Bollywood stars play squash, date squash players, support charity squash tournaments and generally contribute to the image of squash as a pretty cool sport to be involved with. All, of course, exhaustively reported in an astonishing number of celebrity magazines and gossip columns.

Introduced to the game by her brother, Mumbai-born film actress Hansika Motwani, plays squash regularly. “Squash is unique. It is fast, competitive, and provides an excellent workout” she says. “One hour of squash can burn up to 850 calories.  The best part is, since you are playing a sport, you don’t feel that you are working out!” Not sure that I follow the logic of that, but never mind.

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Minissha Lamba

Another actress Minissha Lamba is enthusiastic squash player as is so-called ‘bong bombshell’ Rimmi (formerly Rimi Sen). She loves the sport and, at the end of a long, tiring day, all she pines for is a good game of squash. “The game requires high concentration, power and high energy levels,” says Rimmi, “and that’s what attracts me to the most.”

But it’s not just Bollywood’s female stars who are squash lovers.

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Sanjay Suri

 

Celebrity-turned-activist Rahul Bose plays squash as does Srinagar-born actor Sanjay Suri whose his elder brother, Raj, introduced him to the game when he was a child.  Within two years, Suri was playing Sub-Junior squash for his home state of Jammu and Kashmir, and later went on to represent the state in the Indian Junior National Championships.

 

Aamir Khan 150x150 Bollywood Squash

Aamir Khan

And then there’s actor Aamir Khan, a keen squash player and former smoker who’s regularly encouraged Bollywood’s star-struck fans to quit a habit still widely regarded as cool by many of India’s younger generation. “When I smoked,’” warned Khan in one interview, “I couldn’t play squash for more than 15 minutes. Two weeks after quitting…I could play for up to an hour. Nothing is more dangerous than cigarette smoking.” Just one example, perhaps, of a Bollywood role model promoting a healthy lifestyle as well as their latest movie.

Squash Romance

Where there are squash girls and squash boys, it probably shouldn’t come as any surprise that there is a high probability of squash romance. And, in Bollywood, rumours of romance, actual romance, public displays of romance and the death of romance are endlessly played out against a backdrop of intense media scrutiny and…er…gossip.

Neha Dhupia Hot 01 300x225 Bollywood Squash

Neha Dhupia

Perhaps the most high-profile Bollywood squash romance in recent years was that involving actress and former Miss India Universe winner, Neha Dhupia, and India’s then Number 1 squash player, Ritwik Bhattaracharya. The former college classmates had known each other for at least a decade before they ‘got together’ at a time when both their careers were in the ascendant.

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Ritwik Bhattacharya

 

Unsurprisingly perhaps, the naturally-sporty Dhupia soon hired a squash coach to teach her the basics of the game and improve her racket skills. But, despite her new-found passion for squash – and for one of its most famous exponents – Dhupia’s romance with Bhattaracharya eventually came to end after three years. But not before the celebrity couple had received an inordinate amount of media coverage in the Bollywood gossip columns, and simultaneously raised the public awareness of squash as an activity which just might lead to love.

So, after the tale of a beautiful Bollywood starlet finding squash passion, how about the  story of a beautiful squash  starlet finding Bollywood? Read on….

The First Squash Item Girl

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Dipika Pallikal

“She’s a very sexy and pretty Indian squash player,” announced the Indian Cinema Blog in 2010. The blog post went on to say that there were ‘rumours’ from Southern India that Chennai-born Dipika Pallikal had ‘a good chemistry’ with the film industry and ‘liked to be a friend to all film and sports people.’ Furthermore, and possibly most important of all for millions of young Indian men, Pallikal was reported as saying that she didn’t have “any boyfriends at all.”

Away from the gossip, Pallikal (known as the Indian Sharapova) is only the second Indian woman ever to break into the World top 100 squash players. Still only 19, she’s won the German, Dutch, French, Australian and Scottish Open tournaments and is currently training under Egyptian squash coach Mohamed Essam Saleh. At the time of writing she’s reached Number 26 in the World rankings.

Dipika Pallikal Heels Bollywood Squash

Dipika Pallikal on Court

And she has indeed been offered starring roles in Tamil movies which, like their Bollywood equivalents, also have a massive audience. Pallikal has so far refused, instead focusing on becoming the Number 1 squash player in Asia. However, she has started to endorse various brands and is now appearing in a range of television advertisements. Her popularity is undoubtedly on the rise.

And Bollywood, at least for one World-class squash player, is beckoning.

Glossary

An item number in Indian cinema is a musical performance that has little to do with the film in which it appears but lends support to its marketability. The term is commonly used to describe a catchy, upbeat, often sexually provocative dance sequence or song.

A female actor, singer or dancer appearing in an item number (and especially one poised to become a star) is known as an item girl. Although the origin of the term is obscure, it’s likely that it derives its meaning from the objectification of sexually attractive women. This is because an ‘item’ in Mumbai slang is a ‘sexy woman.’

And finally, a bong babe is a girl from Bengal.

Acknowledgements

Thanks to Wikipedia for its informative, not to say exhaustive, entry on the ‘item number’ in Indian cinema. Also thanks to the Indian Cinema Blog for its feature on Dipaka Pallikal.

Squash on TV: The Clinger and The Ringer

I suppose that squash isn’t such a mainstream sport that it appears regularly in light entertainment TV programmes. Well, at least not in the UK. In fact, I can remember only two occasions where a squash club setting was used as a key feature in what’s now known as terrestrial television. Once in a comedy drama and once in a much-loved comedy sketch show.

The Clinger

Clinger n A ball running right along the side wall which is difficult to hit. A clinger may be the result of a straight drive or of a cross-court drive which squirts from the nick high up between the front and side walls.

The Clinger was a 60 minute play shown on UK television in 1986 as part of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. Set in a squash club and taking place over a single evening, it traced the fortunes of Alan (Richard Hope) in his attempts to impress fellow club member Samantha (Sallyanne Law).

Playing an internal league match against old hand Ernie (Ron Pember), Alan finds himself battling not just against his own nervousness, but also against Ernie’s superior court craft and his strongest shot, the clinger. Alan’s romantic fantasies slowly turn into a nightmare as he’s given the run-around by Ernie only to be handed a lucky break as the match moves towards its inevitable conclusion. Ernie collapses and dies of a heart attack thereby forfeiting the match!

Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous storylines dealing with the petty politics of squash club life including the point scoring rules for the internal leagues. These, of course, come sharply into focus following the dramatic conclusion of Alan and Ernie’s match.

An impromptu eulogy is given by club chairman Jack (Alan David) as Ernie is stretchered off court to a waiting ambulance. Jack pays tribute to Ernie and his clinger only to be lobbied by various club members anxious that, as a result of Ernie forfeiting his match, they will be denied promotion or  relegated from their league.

Naturally, Alan wins the match by default….and gets the girl.

I do like a happy ending.

The Ringer

Ringer n One who misrepresents his or her identity or ability in order to gain an advantage in a competition.

A couple of months ago I found myself in a queue in a London bookshop with Ronnie Corbett, the  surviving (and smaller) member of The Two Ronnies comedy partnership. It was recently Corbett’s 80th birthday, an event marked by repeat broadcasts of many of his best known TV sketches as well as a new programme involving a range of British comedians.

One such sketch with Ronnie Barker sees the two engaged in changing room banter after a squash match. Corbett plays the experienced club player with Barker, a complete novice who has apparently played his first game ever – wearing a business suit. Barker is seeking clarification of the squash scoring system from the humiliated Corbett having just beaten him 9-1, 9-0, 9-0. Corbett’s solitary point has apparently been won at the start of the match when Barker was still holding the wrong end of his racket.

I’ll leave it to you to decide whether Barker plays a ringer in this sketch but 25 years after its first broadcast, it still has the power to bring a smile to the face.