I’ve always been somebody who’s keen to share the latest ideas about how squash can gain new followers. So here’s one from 1959, courtesy of British Pathé News.
‘Smash’ was an indoor game invented by David Petrie which combined elements of table tennis and squash. Played with table tennis rackets and ball, the game featured the use of a sloped table to which two angled surfaces were fixed. Together, these surfaces functioned as a squash-style front wall with the table surface acting as the floor of the Smash ‘court.’
The Pathé News video shows Petrie demonstrating his new invention by playing Diane Rowe, twice World Doubles table tennis champion (in 1951 and 1954) with her twin sister, Rosalind.
In the video, Petrie hands over mid-rally to another celebrated British table tennis player of the 1950s, Johnny Leach. Leach won the World Men’s table tennis title in 1949 and 1951, elevating him to the same iconic status as Britain’s other men’s racket sports star, Fred Perry.
Table tennis was massively popular in 1950s and early 1960s Britain, tournaments being regularly televised by the BBC. In contrast, squash was neither widely known about – and certainly never televised – even though English players reached the men’s final of the British Open four times between 1947 and 1953.
And Smash? Well, with both players hitting against a front wall, there were definitely some similarities with squash. What’s more, the table could certainly be used for solo drills to improve hand-eye co-ordination and foot-work.
On the other hand, it’s not at all clear from the video whether the rules of Smash really did allow players to take over from each other mid-rally, either for a breather or for a smoke.
One for the governing bodies to consider, I suspect.
Thanks to British Pathé for publishing the Pathé News clip. Johnny Leach died in 2014 aged 91; you can read his obituary here. The Rowe twins celebrated their 80th birthday in 2013; you can read a celebration of their achievements on the European Table Tennis Union’s website here.
Ah’ve nae really thought aboot it; Just played it, ye knaw, since Ah was a bairn. Ah still do too whin some fucker rings me up wanting a fix.
Yeah, that’s it; a fucking fix.
Ah dunno. Maybe it kinday makes things seem mair real tae some people, ye knaw? Ah mean, basically, we live a short, disappointing, fucking life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi’ shite, things like careers and relationships, tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally fucking pointless. Wi’ squash, whin ye feel good, ye feel immortal. Whin ye feel bad, it intensifies the shite that’s already thair. It doesnae alter yir consciousness. It just gies ye a hit and a sense ay well-being. Eftir that, ye see the misery ay the world as it really fucking is, and ye can’t anaesthetise yirsel against it.
Maybe that’s whit Ah’m saying. Maybe it’s nae different frae smack tae some people. Fir me, though, it’s different.
Squash is the only really honest fucking drug there is.
OH MY GOD, WHERE THE FUCK AM I?
Where the fuck…Ah dinnae recognise this room at aw…ah can’t swallow…can’t… generate enough saliva tae free mah tongue frae the roof ay mah mouth…Ah can’t see! Whit the fuck…?
There’s something flickering over in the corner, something black and white. The telly’s oan. Ah move my heid…just a wee bit before the jackhammers start. Then, ah can jist see…thank fuck fir that…ah’m lying oan the carpet in the living room…in the shitehole ah call home…feeling… fucking freezing!
Ah start tae move, then…shite, I’m fucking soaked! Ah’m fucking freezing and ah’ve pissed myself. Mah guts feel like they’re bein’ beaten wi’ a fucking egg whisk…churning around like…aw, fuck! Ah slam the anchors oan and scrabble aboot trying tae make it tae the bog before…
Ah try and piece together the last twenty-four hours. It’s Sunday. Yesterday was Saturday. The match, at Hampden. Fucking stuffed, ah imagine. Ah don’t even want tae think aboot the day. Ah can’t fucking remember whither or not ah even made it tae the game. Ah remember ah met Swanney, Sicko and Begs. Yeah, that’s right. Fucking headbangers, all ay them. Then…
Ah can remember fuck all after that pub in…Rutherglen; the space-cake, the speed, the dope, the tab ay acid. Not tae mention the bottle o’ vodka ah put away before we met in…in the previous pub…before we got the bus tae…
It’s all getting too fucking complicated. Ah decide it’s time fae action. Ah need the old slowburn, something soft tae warm me up and ease me back intae the flow.
The ‘phone kicks in and blows the back off mah heid. Ah make a vague attempt tae remember who the fuck ah dinnae want tae hear from, then give up whin the list gets too big tae store in mah short-term memory. Ah lift the receiver.
It’s Spud, sounding full ay fucking beans, sounding like someone who hasnae just woken up lying in his own urine.
Ah’m non-committal. The last time ah went oan a recreational outing wi’ Spud, ah woke up in Leith lying in a lot mair thin mah ain piss.
“Ah got a court at three doon the sports.”
“Three o’clock, chum. Squash. We agreed, remember?’
Ah’m trying tae get a handle on when the fuck ah was in any fit state tae agree anything. The previous pub? Oan the bus tae…? Ah decide tae go wi’ the flow.
“Yeah, yeah, I knaw. Tomorrow at three. I’ll…”
“Today at three. Monday at three, that’s whit we…”
Whit the fuck happened tae Sunday?
“Yeah, yeah. See you there then.”
Ah’ve got tae get a fucking grip.
Ten-thirty. Ah’ve still got time tae get over tae…where? I review mah slowburn procurement options. Swanney? Yeah, yeah, he’s mah main man, mah Mister Reliable, always…aw, fuck!
Ah remember whit happened tae curtail mah socialising at the previous pub, wherever the fuck it was. Swanney’ll still be helping the local constabulary wi’ their enquiries, nae fucking doot.
Strike fucking one.
Ah resume mah procurement review. Seeker’s services are awready temporarily unavailable tae me due tae his, in mah ain personal view, unfair detention at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Ah still owe Franco fir mah last major excursion intae white powder land, which leaves…Raymie. Ah dial his number. A lassie answers.
“Hello?” she sniffs. Either she’s got a cold or she’s on the skag. Promising.
“Is Raymie there? It’s Mark Renton here.”
“Raymie’s away,” she says. “London.”
“London? Fuck…whin’s he due back?”
“He didnae leave anything fir us, did he?” Chance wid be a fine thing, the cunt.
Ah shakily put the ‘phone down, feeling cold. Only one choice now and ah’ve still got tae get tae the sports by three.
Nothing fir it. Ah ring that cunt Mikey Forrester. Fifteen minutes later, ah’m oan the thirty-two bus tae Muirhoose wi’ mah sports bag and squash racket. Ah knaw ah’m going tae get fucked aboot and ripped off wi’ some crap gear. But, any port in a fucking storm.
And mah guts are starting up again.
Forrester’s maisonette is in a block five stories high wi’ a lift. It disnae work. Tae conserve energy, ah slide along the wall oan mah journey up the stairs. Christ knaws whit state ah’ll be in whin I get on court wi’ Spud, even after a chemical pick-me-up.
Ah try and pull mahsel together at Forrester’s door, but he’ll knaw ah’m suffering. An ex-skag merchant always knaws whin someone’s sick. Ah just don’t want the bastard tae knaw how fucking desperate ah feel.
Ah knock oan the door. Forrester can obviously see mah ginger hair through the wired, dimpled glass door. He takes a fucking age tae answer, fucking me aboot before ah even set foot in the place. The door opens.
He looks doon, sees mah gear then looks at me suspiciously.
“Whit the fuck’s that?”
“Mah squash gear. Got a match after ah leave here. League match doon the sports.”
His jaw drops. Ah’ve got him on the fucking run.
There’s a pause. Ah can see him trying tae figure oot why someone who’s just off tae play squash is looking tae ingest something that’ll impair his ability to remain fucking conscious. He shrugs his shoulders. Ah dutifully follow him in.
Ah sit oan the couch, beside but a bit away frae a gross bitch wi’ a broken leg. Her greasy peroxide locks have an inch o’ insipid grey-broon at their roots. She’s watching a panel o’ middle-aged boilers gossiping on the telly. Forrester sits opposite me in a worn-oot armchair, beefy-faced but thin-bodied, almost bald at twenty-five.
“This is mah sister, Megan,” he nods at the bleached whale.
“Pleased tae meet you,” I lie. She ignores me, leaving the field open fir me tae keep her brother off-balance. I lean towards Forrester and lower my voice conspiratorially.
“How’s it going wi’ Gail?” I ask innocently. His relatively recent girl-friend.
“No joy yet,” he responds. He doesnae look happy.
“How long is it now then?” I enquire.
“Six weeks! My, that is a long time. It must be quite frustrating fir a man ay yir…” Ah pause fir maximum effect. He disnae let me finish mah impartial observation, stands up and gestures fir me tae follow him tae the kitchen. He closes the door.
“It’s a fucking nightmare, Rents. She told me she didnae want oor relationship tae start oan a physical basis as that’s how it’d principally be defined from then oan in.” He soonds like he’s reading from a fucking script…and it’s no his.
“Where did she come up wi’ that?”
“She read it in Cosmopolitan.”
Ah look concerned, thin shake mah heid in disbelief, tutting
“So six weeks and nae sex then?” Ah let my incredulity segué effortlessly intae sympathy imbued wi’ a soupcon ay male cameraderie. All very fucking Gallic.
“Ah’m telling ye, Rents, ah’ve got balls like fucking watermelons.” He looks like he’s going tae cry.
“Hang in there, Mikey.” Ah pat him oan the back.
We share a brief moment. Time tae dae a deal and head tae the sports.
He digs aroond in a cupboard and produces two white capsules frae a tea caddy. Ah’ve nivver seen the likes ay them before. They’re hard, bomb-shaped things wi’ a waxy coat oan them. I stare at them and, suddenly, a powerful rage grabs hold of me frae fucking nowhere.
“Whit the fuck is this shite?” Ah scream at him.
Mikey looks at me wi’ a hurt expression.
“Opium, Rents. Opium suppositories. Ideal fir whit ye want. Slow release. Bring ye doon gradual like. Custom fucking designed fir ye needs. Ye’ll be moving ‘roond that court like a fucking whippet.””
His tone’s changed. It’s cagey, almost apologetic. Mah ootburst has shattered oor sick symbiosis.
“Whit the fuck dae ah dae wi’ these?” Ah says, then break intae a smile as it dawns oan us. Ah’ve let Mikey off the hook.
“Dae ye really want me tae tell ye?” he sneers, regaining some ay the power he’d relinquished during oor previous dialogue.
“Look, Rents. Listen tae the voice ay experience,” he smiles. “These things’ll melt through yir system, the charge’ll build up, and then it’ll slowly fade away. That’s the cunts they use in hospital, fir fuck’s sake.”
Ah dae the deal then retire tae the toilet and insert the suppositories, wi’ great diligence, up mah arse. It’s the first time ah’ve ever stuck mah finger up mah arse and a vaguely nauseous feeling hits me.
There’s nae time tae waste. Ten past two. Just enough time tae get tae the sports. Ah head fir the door.
“Cheers, Mikey, Ah’m off.”
There’s nae attempt tae acknowledge the departure ay a valued customer, but Mikey’s sister suddenly lets oot an embarrassing donkey-like laugh at some inane remark. Whither it’s frae her brother or the boilers oan the telly, ah decide tae ignore it.
After aw, ah’m heading fir mah next fix.
Ah make it tae the sports wi’ ten minutes tae spare and head fir the changing room. Ah unzip mah bag and stand back as the stench escapes and begins tae invade mah nostrils. Fuck knaws how long it’s been since I washed any o’ mah kit but ah’m half expecting it tae climb oot and head fir the nearest laundrette.
Ah climb intae my shorts ignoring the broon skidmarks ingrained in the briefs. The shirt’s nae better although it’s original colour scheme has changed wi’ the cumulative absorption, over time, ay a range o’ bodily excretions, not necessarily all mine.
Spud’s warming up ootside court two, performing a range ay stretching and lunging exercises which are frightening the bairns waiting tae start their mini-squash session oan court one. A couple o’ them are trying tae hide behind their mums. The coach, a fat guy wearing a navy track-suit, is glowering at Spud who doesnae even notice his presence.
He notices me though.
“Awright, Rents?” he says, predictably. He’s wearing a luminous green shirt which sets mah guts off again just looking at it as he jumps aroond.
He stops and puts oan a yellow headband tae complete his hideous ensemble.
“So, fifty quid then is it?”
“Fifty quid each. Winner takes all. We agreed, remember?”
Ah’m just aboot tae disagree wi’ Spud’s version ay whitever we did or didnae agree, whin ah feel the suppositories begin tae kick in. Suddenly, ah’m feeling surprisingly mellow and well-disposed towards mah old squash buddy, untrustworthy cunt though he is.
“Yeah, yeah, fifty quid.”
A moment ay weakness. Too fucking late tae back oot now.
We knock off the occupants ay court two and start tae warm up the ball. Spud is beating twelve shades ay fucking broon oot ay it, drilling it back tae himself so ah barely get a look-in. Ah try a few drives, drops and volleys tae get a feel fir the court and try tae spot Spud’s strengths and weaknesses as he hurls himself aboot. Based oan his recent attempts tae seek gainful employment, deception probably falls intae the second category.
Interviewer: Mr. Murphy, do you mean that you lied on your application form?
Spud: No! Uh. well yes. But only tae get mah foot in the door, sir. Showing initiative and that, like.
Interviewer: But you were referred here by the Department of Employment, Mr. Murphy; there was no need for you to get your “foot in the door,” as you put it.
Spud: Ehhh… cool. Whitever ye say, boss. I’m sorry. You’re the man, sir. The dude in the chair.
Ah win the spin and serve the first ball oot. Love one and Spud’s not even had tae play a fucking shot. Ah stick his first serve intae the tin, then play a fucking air shot oan his next. Love three and ah start tae imagine mah fifty quid being flushed doon the bog despite the fact that ah’ve nae got fifty quid anyway.
Ah manage tae return Spud’s next serve and a rally develops, me fending the ball ontae the front wall, Spud running aroond like he’s got a fucking firecracker up his arse, thrashing it tae the back ay the court. The sweat’s pouring off him giving his shirt a two-tone appearance which sets off mah guts again as he zips in and oot ay mah field ay view. Ah manage tae stay in a few rallies but Spud takes the first 15-3. Wanker.
In the interval, Spud drinks aboot two fucking gallons ay water frae the cooler, rushes back oan court and starts whacking the ball aroond before ah’ve had time tae catch mah breath. Ah’m still feeling mellow but then it fucking dawns oan me.
Whit the fuck is Spud oan?
A list o’ banned substances flashes before mah eyes…morphine, diamorphine, cyclizine, codeine, temazepam, nitrazepam, phenobarbitone, sodium amytal, dextropropoxyphene, methadone, nalbuphine, pethidine, pentazocine, buprenorphine, dextromoramide, chlormethiazole…
Now ah’m starting tae get mad. Here ah am trying tae come doon safely frae a two-day drugs and alcohol-induced high, and whit dae ah find? The so-called squash buddy who’s kindly arranged fir me tae share some enjoyable sporting activity wi’ him is trying tae cheat me oot ay fifty quid by taking illegal fucking substances!
Ah’m livid. Ye cannae fucking trust anybody nowadays!
Ah storm back ontae court intending tae up mah game and blow the cunt away. Ah hang in there but wi’ a growing realisation, metamorphosing intae horror, that all isnae well in the vicinity o’ mah bowels. Spud wins the second 11-7 but looks fucked and staggers in the general direction o’ the door like a blind zombie. Ah beat him tae it, exit the court like a greyhoond oot ay a fucking trap and sprint tae the bog.
Ah blunder intae a vacant cubicle, drop mah shorts and drop ontae the cold porcelain shunky. Thin, ah empty mah guts, feeling as though everything: bowels, stomach, intestines, spleen, liver, kidneys, heart, lungs and fucking brains are aw falling oot ay mah arsehole intae the bowl.
Ah’m just aboot tae clean up and flush the bowl whin ah’m struck wi’ the realisation ay mah situation. Ah sit frozen fir a moment, but only a moment. Ah’ve only got aboot twenty seconds tae get back oan court before Spud claims the fucking game, the match and the fifty quid. Conflicting wi’ this requirement is the urgent need tae retrieve mah suppositories frae the pan and return them whence they’ve just beenejected.
Ah make an executive decision, paper mah posterior and fall off the pan onto mah knees. Thin, ah plunge mah hands and forearms intae the broon water. Ah rummage aroond fastidiously and get one ay mah bombs back straight away. Ah rub off some ay the shite that’s attached tae it and stick it oan top ay the cistern. Then, ah go back in and locate the other after several long dredges through the mess and panhandling ay the shite. A quick rinse under the cauld tap and, Bob’s yer uncle, they’re ready fir re-insertion. Ah slip them intae the pocket ay mah shorts and head fir court two at speed.
By now, ah’m guessing that Spud’s finished rehearsing his argument as tae why ah should forfeit the game, the match and the fifty quid. “Sorry, Rents, but them’s the rules. Ninety seconds between games. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”
Whin ah get tae the court, the door’s ajar and Spud’s bag is lying ootside. There’s nae sign ay him and and nae soond coming frae inside. Where the fuck is he? There’s naebody sitting ootside the courts, the mini-squash mums having gone up tae the balcony tae watch their off-spring terrorise the fucking coach.
Ah shrug mah shoulders and shove the court door which, surprisingly, meets wi’ some resistance. Ah poke mah heid aroond it tae be greeted wi’ the sight ay Spud lying flat oot wi’ his heid resting in a pool ay whit ah assume tae be the recent contents ay his stomach. He’s nae moving although ah can see his chest moving up and doon, and a slight ripple effect as his breath wafts across the surface ay his vomit.
Ah wait a couple o’ minutes before summoning the first-aiders frae the front desk tae scrape Spud off the floor. Just enough time tae extract mah winnings frae the wallet in Spud’s bag. “Sorry, Spud, ah thought it was best tae leave ye in capable hands. Pity ye had tae forfeit the match, but them’s the rules. Nothing ah can dae aboot it, pal.”
After they’ve mopped up, ah wander back oan court fir a moment tae contemplate the grand scheme ay things. Life, death, drugs, squash and the wonder that is the human fucking body.
As ah hear the sound of balls smacking against the walls ay the neighbouring courts, ah walk over tae the ‘T’, smile…and put mah hand slowly intae mah pocket.
End of fucking story.
This story is based on scenes taken from the first part of Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel, ‘Trainspotting’, and dialogue from the 1996 film adaptation directed by Danny Boyle. In the film version, Renton was played by Ewan McGregor and Spud by Ewen Bremner. Thanks to the International Movie Database for its collection of quotes from the film version.
The late-1990s. Somewhere in South East England. A squash club bar. It is a Thursday evening in late October. Outside, it is dark. The bar is furnished with a selection of tables and chairs, and a solitary pool table. The floor is covered with a carpet bearing a geometrical pattern consisting of interlocking orange, blue and cream figures. The walls are hung with framed photographs and posters. A trophy cabinet containing engraved silver cups and shields stands against the far wall. A jumble of sports bags and racket covers is piled by a coat-stand next to the bar entrance. Music can be heard emanating faintly from the tannoy.
Behind the bar, Ange Whittaker, a blonde-haired woman in her fifties is filling the sink with hot water. She is wearing a black-and-white print dress. Four men are seated around one of the tables drinking beer from straight glasses.
Jack Sugden, a white-haired man in his early seventies, is the Club Secretary and has been for over twenty years; he still plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
Graham Adams is the League Organiser. A policeman in his mid-forties, he is tall, has cropped fair hair and plays for the Club’s Men’s First Team in the county leagues.
Ron Tetlow is a member of the Squash Club Committee and helps to organise competitions and social events. He is in his mid-sixties and has retired from playing but is a marker at team fixtures. He is of medium build, balding and wears black-rimmed spectacles.
Andrew McGrath is a club member. He is tall and has receding ginger hair, pale skin and freckles. He plays in the Club’s internal leagues.
The men are sitting in silence.
RON: Makes you think, doesn’t it?
He stares directly ahead of him, then takes a sip from his glass.
JACK: It certainly does, Ron. It certainly does.
There’s no doubt about that.
RON: There but for the grace of God and so on.
JACK: True, true.
RON: In the midst of life…
I mean it was only last week he got a game off Terry.
GRAHAM: Did he? What, Terry Jackson?
RON: In the handicap.
Terry must have been giving him a few points then.
RON: Twenty-seven, I think.
GRAHAM: Right, right. Twenty-seven.
Well he’d have to, wouldn’t he.
RON: Still, he must have played out of his skin to get a game off Terry.
I mean how old is Terry? Forty-ish?
GRAHAM: I would have thought so.
RON: And Ernie must have been…
RON: No. Sixty-two? Was he?
I thought he was older than that.
Behind the bar, ANGE is washing some glasses.
RON: He was looking forward to going on holiday.
JACK: Who? Terry?
RON: No, Ernie. With…you know…his missus…er…
RON: Is it?
JACK: Anywhere nice?
RON: Sounded Spanish I think…or it could have been Portuguese. I’m not that well up on place names, foreign countries, that sort of thing.
I’ve been to France mind you.
JACK: Have you? What part?
RON: Now there’s a question. I’d have to ask the missus. She books everything, see.
Or was it Belgium?
The group sits in silence.
Suddenly, the door swings open and GARETH Prosser enters. He is in his mid-forties, thick-set with black hair and sideburns. He is wearing a tweed cap, a light-coloured parka and a tartan scarf. He looks at the group, then at the bar, then back at the group.
GARETH: Christ! What’s wrong with you lot? It’s like a bloody morgue in here.
The members of the group turn around. ANGE starts crying.
JACK: You haven’t heard then?
GARETH: Heard what?
JACK: Ernie died last night.
GARETH: No! Ernie?
He takes his cap off. ANDREW stands up and walks to the bar, looking at GARETH. He lifts up the counter, goes behind the bar and puts his arm around ANGE.
We had a court booked for Tuesday.
GARETH walks over to the bar where ANGE is wiping her eyes with a handkerchief.
GARETH: Sorry, Ange, I didn’t realise.
He leans over the bar and touches her on the arm.
Very insensitive of me.
Pint of bitter when you’re ready, love. No hurry.
He takes off his parka and hangs it on the coat-stand with his scarf and cap.
Accident was it?
He walks over to the group and sits down in Andrew’s chair.
RON: He dropped dead on court last night.
Behind the bar, ANGE starts crying again. She rests her head onANDREW’s shoulder.
RON: Two. I was watching, wasn’t I. Dropped in to book a court, heard someone playing, went up to the balcony. Bob’s your uncle. There’s Ernie playing young Alan.
GARETH: League match, was it?
RON: Hell of a ding-dong. Ernie keeping it tight, lobbing. Alan running around like a blue-arsed fly, getting everything back. You know Alan.
GARETH: Only we’re…well we were all in the same league, like.
RON: Alan gets the first. Ernie levels it. Slows things down, you know, like he does…
GARETH: Finishes a week on Sunday, doesn’t it Graham?
GRAHAM: What does?
GARETH: The league.
GRAHAM: That’s right. I’ll take the sheets down at six o’clock.
GARETH: Only I haven’t played all my matches yet.
RON looks at GARETH.
RON: Do you want to know what happened or not?
GARETH: Sorry, Ron. Go on.
RON: Alan gets the third. Ernie squares it at two-all. It’s nip and tuck in the fifth. Alan’s up, Ernie pegs him back, then Ernie’s up, then Alan squares it at nine all and Ernie calls ‘set one’!
He leans back in his chair, exhausted.
JACK: He must have been tired.
RON: They both looked buggered, Jack. Absolutely buggered. That’s when it happened.
RON looks towards the bar where ANDREW is chatting with ANGE. He is helping her with the washing up. He lowers his voice and leans forward in his chair.
Alan only goes and serves out, doesn’t he, so Ernie’s got match ball. He puts up one of his lob serves and moves to the T. Alan volleys it back cross-court. It whistles past Ernie on the forehand and bounces up onto the back wall. Ernie turns round and dives towards it, swinging through with his racket.
Then he hits the floor and doesn’t move.
He leans back in his chair.
GARETH: So Alan won then?
GARETH: Well it’s a walk-over isn’t it? Ernie can’t play on.
RON: No, no, no. Ernie won the match.
GARETH: How do you work that out then?
RON: You didn’t let me finish, did you?
He leans forward again.
On his way down, Ernie gets his racket to the ball and lifts it hard onto the back wall. It loops up towards the front wall, drops, brushes it and bounces twice. Dead.
Alan doesn’t get anywhere near it.
RON leans back in his chair.
GARETH: A back wall boast you mean?
RON: Ernie’s signature shot. I’ve seen it get him out of trouble more times than I care to remember.
JACK: What a way to go, eh?
RON: You couldn’t make it up.
GARETH: So you’re telling me that somebody who’s dead can win a rally?
RON: Well obviously he was alive when he hit the ball.
GARETH: Yes, but…
GRAHAM: The point is, Gareth, it wouldn’t have made any difference whether Ernie was dead before or after the ball was. Alan couldn’t get to it and Ernie wasn’t obstructing him.
RON: Neither of them was bleeding or injured either…
GRAHAM: …so there wasn’t any reason for them to stop playing, was there, let alone agree a walk-over.
GRAHAM: Look, there’s nothing in the rules that says that a player has to be alive when they win a rally, or a point. They don’t even say that matches have to be between two players who are actually alive…
RON: …or that they have to remain alive for the entire duration of the match.
GRAHAM: I’ve checked.
The group sits in silence. ANDREW comes out from behind the bar and walks over to the coat-stand.
GARETH: Anyway, nobody’s put the score down.
GARETH: On the score-sheet. I had a look just now.
JACK: I suppose Alan was too upset.
GRAHAM: I’m not surprised.
RON: His girlfriend was hysterical.
The rest of the group look at RON.
RON: His girlfriend. That redhead with the…
JACK: You mean Samantha? Ernie’s daughter? You never said.
RON: Is she? Well I didn’t know, did I. I’m no good with names.
GRAHAM: …foreign countries, places…
JACK: So she was there then?
RON: It must have slipped my mind. What with all the confusion. You know…ambulance…police…looking for the first-aid box…
GRAHAM: What’s it like being you, Ron?
RON: Anyway, Ange looked after her, didn’t you Ange?
She dries a glass and places it on a shelf behind the bar.
ANDREW puts on his coat and scarf. He picks up his sports bag and walks to the door.
ANDREW: Well, I’d best be off. ‘Night all.
He opens the door and leaves the bar.
ALL: ‘Night, Andrew.
GRAHAM: So where does that leave your league then, Gareth?
GARETH takes a pen from his inside pocket and starts writing on a beer-mat.
He mutters to himself as he calculates each player’s points.
…I’ve got eleven and Mike’s got…er…four.
GRAHAM: So you’re telling me that the promotion spots in your league are currently occupied by someone who’s dead and someone who’s lost to him?
GARETH: Well, at the moment, yes.
RON: So Ernie could go up then?
GRAHAM: Don’t be stupid, Ron.
GARETH: It could all change of course. Andrew’s still got to play Alan. Both of them could overtake Ernie.
GRAHAM: As league organiser, Gareth, I can assure you that Ernie will not be promoted. Under any circumstances.
GARETH: So that means I should go up then.
GRAHAM: How do you work that out?
GARETH: Well Andrew’s not playing in the next round of the league.
He’s withdrawn, hasn’t he.
GRAHAM: How do you know? No, don’t tell me. He’s written it on the score-sheet.
RON: I wonder why that is? He never said anything.
JACK: Probably upset about Ernie, I shouldn’t wonder. Great friends they were. He used to go round there a lot you know.
RON: Now you mention it I have seen him coming out of Ernie’s house. Yes. All hours of the day and night. While I’ve been passing, like.
GRAHAM: Yes, yes. Him and Ernie go way back.
JACK: And Maureen.
RON: Yes. That’ll be it. Maybe he feels he’d be a bit uncomfortable. You know, being around when Ernie’s not…around.
GRAHAM: And Maureen’s on her own.
RON: Yes, yes.
I could ask him, I suppose, but…
ANGE: Oh, for Christ’s sake, he’s going on holiday!
The group turns to look at ANGE who is staring at them from behind the bar.
JACK: Oh, is he? Anywhere nice?
I got the idea for ‘Back Wall Boast’ from a UK television play broadcast in 1987. It was called ‘The Clinger’ and was set in a squash club somewhere in England. The play was one of a series of dramas entitled Love and Marriage. 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).
Running through The Clinger were a number of humorous story-lines 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
Believe it or not, like all animals, we humans (and I’m including squash lovers here) display idiosyncrasies and quirks that clearly set us apart as a species. In fact, anthropologists have identified hundreds of so-called human universals, characteristics shared by all people everywhere which make up a sort of parts list for our species.
A visiting alien, of course, wouldn’t have any trouble categorising us as a kind of clever, talkative, upright ape with a love of material possessions (or ‘stuff’ as it’s more commonly known.) But being human ourselves, it’s tricky for us to try and pin down the essence of our own ‘humanness.’ What is it that really sets us apart?
Now, scientists have used our human universals to look at the human animal in much the same way as they would study any other. What’s emerged is a unique suite of characteristics that encapsulates our nature. And a rather peculiar one it is. If you thought you knew what humans were like, then think again.
The suite is made up of six characteristics which together offer a surprising insight not just into what we all do, but into the underlying nature of squash.
Being Playful – Squash Skills
Humans aren’t nature’s only fun-lovers. All mammals play, as do some birds and a few other animals. But no other species pursues such a wide variety of entertainment or spends so much time enjoying themselves. The list of universals includes such diverse pleasures as music, games, jokes, hospitality, hairdressing, dancing, art, tickling and, last but not least, sports.
“What sets us apart is the fact that we play both with objects and with language,” says Clive Wynne from the University of Florida. And we can go beyond the literal. “What revolutionises human play is imagination,” says Francis Steen from the University of California.
“We’re a playful species,” says primatologist Frans de Waal from Emory University in Atlanta, “and we retain our juvenile sense of fun right into adulthood. Human society is also relatively relaxed,” notes de Waal, “and we’ll happily congregate with unrelated individuals, a situation that would leave chimpanzees and bonobos tearing strips off each other.”
“Play isn’t simply for fun,” states Marc Bekoff at the University of Colorado. He identifies four primary purposes: physical development, cognitive development (“eye / paw co-ordination” as he calls it), social development and training for the unexpected. “Playing is an evolutionary adaptation for learning,” agrees Steen. “Mammals are born inept but can adapt, and playing helps us do that.” Noting that human social and physical environments are particularly complex, he sees playing as a sort of simulator that allows us to imagine and try out different scenarios with little risk. “In play we are most fully human,” he says.
Bekoff believes that social development is the most important purpose of play for humans, not least because it underpins morality. “Young children will not become properly socialised without it,” he says. For Robin Dunbar at the University of Oxford, playfulness is a mainstay of social cohesion. “Play often involves laughter, which is a very good bonding mechanism,” he says. “And physical play, especially coordinated team sports, produces feel-good endorphins.” “Sports also provide a release for competitive urges,” says de Waal. “If people watch others playing, that actually improves their own skills,” adds Steen. Even entertainment for sheer pleasure has benefits. “It’s fun, so it’s really good for mental health,” says Bekoff.
So, perhaps not surprisingly, squash seems to be a typical expression of human nature. It’s certainly a vehicle for human play, allowing us to use and interact with objects and to use our imagination; think visioning, strategy and tactics. It also helps us to develop physically and socially in a low risk way. And it’s helps us to meet and bond with others in situations which are good for our physical and mental health.
But what about its learning effect on our cognitive development? The answer, at least to a scientist like me, is unexpected.
Being Scientific – Squash Knowledge
From earliest infancy, humans are constantly sorting the world into categories, predicting how things work, and testing those predictions. This kind of thinking is the essence of science and shows up in a range of human universals from time, calendars and cosmology to family names and measurement.
“Science is basically working at understanding the world around us,” says Edward Wasserman at the University of Iowa. But it’s not just confined to humans. All animals need scientific thinking to survive although no other animal ‘does’ science to quite the extent that we do. So what sets us apart?
One likely candidate, as any parent will tell you, is our drive to ask “Why?” Daniel Povinelli at the University of Louisiana taught both children and chimpanzees to stand an L-shaped block on its end, then secretly substituted an apparently identical block that would not stand up. “The chimps just kept trying,” he says, “but the kids would stop and turn the block upside down and feel the bottom of it. They’d shake the block, try to figure out what was inside it. They would do all kinds of things in an attempt to diagnose why it wouldn’t stand up”
Another unique feature of humans is our ability to grasp abstract concepts. Chimps struggle with this. For example, while they quickly learn that heavy rocks are better for smashing nuts, when it comes to grasping the concept of weight, they falter. “If they hear two objects drop and one goes ‘bam!’ and the other goes ‘click’ they can’t infer that one of those objects will be good for cracking a nut and the other won’t,” says Povinelli, “whereas we can.”
Crucially, this kind of understanding allows us to use what we have learned in one domain to make causal predictions in another. So, for example, we can predict that something that goes “bam!” will sink, whereas something that goes “click” may well float. Our nimbleness at abstract causal reasoning is tied up with our facility with language and probably underlies many of our other social skills, such as rituals and rules of behaviour too. Povinelli believes that this is what really sets humans apart from even the brightest apes.
But there’s one more trait that distinguishes us from less-scientific animals: an eagerness to share what we’ve discovered. Once we figure something out, we announce it to the world, which is why all scientifically minded humans, not just Isaac Newton, are able to “Stand on the Shoulders of Giants.”
So maybe the science of squash, or the science insquash, shouldn’t be that unexpected. Categorising, predicting and testing are part and parcel of learning the game. “If I stand on the ‘T’, I should be able to reach all four corners of the court it a few strides. Let’s check it out. If I hit the ball down the middle of the court, my opponent will be able to intercept it and maybe play a winning shot. Oops! He just did.” Do’s and don’ts are learned quickly. Experiments are carried out (sometimes repeatedly), experiences gained and habits formed, whether good or bad!
But there’s a third characteristic which certainly shouldn’t be surprise to any follower of squash. And it’s all to do with our behaviour, on court and off.
Being Legislative – Squash Behaviour
The question of whether every human society has formal laws is far from settled, but they do all have rules. This is a peculiarly human trait. Our closest relatives, the chimps, may stick to simple behavioural rules governing things like territories and dominance hierarchies, but we humans, with our language skills and greater brainpower, have developed much more elaborate systems of rules, taboos and etiquette to codify behaviour. Though every society has different rules, they always involve regulating activity in three key areas, a sure sign that these are fundamental to human nature.
For a start, we are all obsessed with kinship, which brings rights, in particular to inheritance of goods and status. “There are always rules about who counts as kin, and what obligations you have to kinfolk,” says Robin Fox at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The rules may favour maternal or paternal links, or treat both equally. Every society recognises the uniquely human concept of kinship by marriage, as well as believing that kinship entails duties to family members – for which there are rules. And all have incest taboos, usually prohibiting sexual intercourse between immediate family (though royalty are sometimes exempted).
After who’s who, everyone worries about safety, so every culture also has rules aboutwhen one person can kill another. “I don’t know of any society that doesn’t condemn murder,” says Sally Engle Merry at New York University. “However, what constitutes an illegitimate killing is complicated.” In some societies, any stranger is fair game. Others allow killing to avenge the murder of kin, and many allow the group to kill someone who violates its norms. But every group draws the line somewhere.
Every society also has rules governing the use of objects. The notion of private property is by no means universal but people everywhere do have rules that stipulate who is entitled to use certain things at particular times. These vary widely from a simple ‘first come, first served’ to the elaborate system of private ownership in industrialised societies.
Kinship, safety, stuff. Across the whole range of human cultures this is what our rules say we care about. But perhaps there is a deeper part of human nature that underlies all these concerns: a desire for rules themselves. “Rules help us navigate the hazardous waters of interpersonal relationships and provide a framework for knowing how to act,” says Justin Richland at the University of Chicago. That makes them an essential part of us. “It’s the most basic feature of human nature,” agrees Fox. “We’re the rule-making animal.”
So there we have it. Rules about what constitutes acceptable and ethical behaviour both on and off court. Arriving for matches on time. Wearing appropriate clothing, eye protection and footwear. Warming up. Keeping score. Rules for playing squash matches in leagues or tournaments. Asking for lets or strokes. Squash club membership rules. The list goes on. No rules about favouring kin, killing people, incest or other sexual activities, of course, but that’s typically where formal laws come in.
And, besides, we’re only halfway through our exploration of squash and human nature. Somewhere in the third game I’m guessing.
I hope you’re keeping score…
In the second part of “Squash and Human Nature” we investigate the final three characteristics which encapsulate our human nature as we look at food, sex and a uniquely human form of communication. Now I’m not one to talk, but…
Thanks to Bob Holmes and Kate Douglas for their series of articles on “Six Things We All Do” in New Scientist magazine.
Today, military strategists resort to the mathematics of decision theory in developing war games. So perhaps it’s not surprising that mathematics or, to be exact, the mathematical theory of probability, can be applied to the game of squash.
Mathematical modelling can describe the main features of the game pretty well and, at a practical level, can reveal the best strategies available to the squash player. In fact, it’s also proved useful over recent years in deciding whether the scoring rules of squash should be changed; first for professional tournaments, then for national and regional competitions and, finally, at club level.
And it’s all due to a 19th Century Russian mathematician.
Squash and the Markov Chain
Believe it or not, squash offers a simple example of a mathematical structure called a Markov chain. The theory of these non-deterministic random structures was first developed at the end of the 19th Century by Russian mathematician Andrei Markov (1856 – 1922). According to fellow mathematician, Hungarian Lajas Takacs, Markov got the idea for his chain by studying the occurrence of vowels and consonants in the poetry of his compatriot Alexander Pushkin. But, despite its unlikely beginnings, the theory is now used in a wide range of contexts, from telecommunications to genetics and even sociological modelling.
A Markov Chain identifies a system that can occupy a ‘countably finite’ number of states, and which can make a transition from one state to another after a unit interval of time. The likelihood of a transition depends only on the system’s present state and not on its previous history.
So, let’s take a single game of squash as an example of a rule-based system. Starting at ‘love all’ (and omitting rallies which end in lets), the game moves from one state to another as points are scored. With each rally, one of two outcome states will be reached corresponding to whether the server wins or loses the rally. That outcome state becomes the ‘new’ present state for the game.
Whether a player wins a particular rally will obviously depend on a range of factors such as their skill, fitness, judgement and (not that I ever need it myself) luck. Whether a player serves or receives will also be a factor, so we can reasonably state that ‘Player A’ should win a certain fraction of rallies when serving and a certain fraction when receiving. In other words, the probability that A wins a rally when serving is pA and when receiving it’s qA. If we calculate the corresponding definitions for Player B, then (because the total probability of any rally being won is always 1) it’s evident that pB = 1 – qA and qB = 1 –pA because when A serves, B receives and vice versa. With me so far? Good.
The Probability of Serving and Receiving
The simplest possible game to imagine is one in which pA = ½ and pB = ½. In other words, both players can expect to win 50 out every 100 rallies when serving and when receiving. Clearly, in such a match, A and B are equally balanced.
But now, let’s denote the probability that A wins the current rally (and a point) when serving by the character PA and when receiving by QA. Subscript B will denote the corresponding probabilities for B, in other words PB = 1 –QA and QB = 1 – PA. The probability that A wins the current point, however, depends on whether A or B is serving.
In the example, where pA = ½ and pB = ½, the probability of A winning the point when serving, PA, is 2/3 but when receiving it is only 1/3. To understand this surprising statistic, we need to realise that the probability of winning the point is equal to the sum of each winning sequence of rallies possible in the game. In other words:
pA = ½ + ½4 + ½8 + ½16 +…
This is a geometric series which, when added up, approaches (but never quite equals) 2/3. So the probability of A losing the point must therefore be 1/3.
And how many winning sequences can there be in a game? Well, that’s what the superscripts are in the above equation. Just consider the possible sequences for the first 2 points (A win – A win, A win – B win, B win – A win or B win – B win). Four possible sequences.
Or, what about the possible sequences for the first 3 points:
A wins – A wins – A wins
A wins – A wins – B wins
A wins – B wins – A wins
A wins – B wins – B wins
B wins – A wins – B wins
B wins – A wins – A wins
B wins – B wins – A wins
B wins – B wins – B wins
That’s eight possible sequences, rising to sixteen for the first 4 points. Complicated, eh? Well, not really if you understand probability which I’m sure the gamblers amongst you do.
We can use this approach to analyse squash games between any two players of arbitrary standard; that is for any values of pA and qA and the simple expressions derived for PA and QA in terms of these. For example, a player with a pA of 2/3 and a qA of 3/5 may be expected to win two out of three service rallies and three out of five returns of serve.
But what can mathematical studies of the game of squash tell us about how to play the game? For that, we need to skip the difficult stuff and look at the results of a scientific study.
Squash Studies and Player Tactics
Scientists at the University of Glasgow and the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxford created a mathematical model of squash in the late 1980s. They tested the model in true scientific spirit with two of them playing an experimental series of 29 squash matches including 105 squash games over a 3 month period. Just think of two guys wearing white lab coats running around carrying squash rackets and you’ll get the picture.
As both of them had no idea whether their theory was accurate or not, there was no chance of them ‘cooking the books’. Nevertheless, the recorded frequency of the scientists’ game and match scores – and the point scores predicted by the model – were remarkably good with pA = 0.59 and qA = 0.56.
The scientists also came up with some interesting findings.
For example, a player receiving should always choose to set two. If A were to choose no set, A would need to win the next point and, as we’ve seen above, the probability of doing this is QA. On the other hand, if A chooses set two, the winning sequences for the next two rallies are:
A wins – A wins
A wins – B wins
B wins – A wins
B wins – B wins
Three out of the four sequences will involve A regaining the serve meaning that A’s PA is more favourable to winning a point. Player A should, in fact, choose no set only if A’s pA is less than about 0.38, a situation which would place them in the company of higher performing squash players.
Minding Your P’s and Q’s
Obviously, players (even scientists) can have off-days or may tire at different rates during a match. However, the model reproduced the broad features of squash: the clear advantage of the first server, the setting choice, and the frequency with which a player wins a game without their opponent scoring. It also shows that the probability of winning a point is much greater for the player who won the last point. And, perhaps more than anything else, this is the factor that gives squash its reputation of being such a highly competitive game; players need to fiercely contest every point.
So what tips does the mathematical model offer? The first is for players to estimate their p and q coefficients by assessing their performance against similar standard players. They can then choose set two or no set in a tie-breaker with some confidence.
Next, a player may attempt to vary their p and q. For example, they may choose to expend a lot of energy returning serve in the hope of increasing q even though a possible consequence may be a decrease in p. Whatever they choose, the model found that one result is almost always true: it is to the advantage of the stronger player to concentrate on service returns and, conversely, for the weaker player to concentrate on service by adopting, for example, hit and run tactics.
Last, but not least, the model allowed for a comparison of the European (hand in) and American (point a rally) scoring systems. Supposing that the most probable game scores for three pairs of players under British rules are 9-6 9-3 9-1. A calculation using the model showed that, when converted to American scoring, these translated into 15-13 15-11 15-5. Generally speaking, American rules were far kinder to the weakersquash player, in the sense that the likelihood of an ignominious defeat was small. Matches appeared to be much more closely contested although, in fact, the probability of a win for either player would not be much altered.
So the next time you play squash, be sure to insist on American scoring and try and get your opponent to assess their p and q during the match.
With any luck, they’ll lose concentration.
Squash, Mathematics and Fun
For an explanation of probability in squash scoring – including tree diagrams (!) – see Toni Beardon’s “Playing Squash” article on the excellent NRICH website. You can also test your probability knowledge by answering, or at least trying to answer, a question on the same site. Have fun!
The article “Calculating to Win” by David Alexander, Ken McClements and John Simmons originally appeared in the New Scientist on December 10th, 1988. It was subtitled, “If losing at squash dents your ego, don’t resort to feeble excuses such as tiredness or lack of concentration. Blame the mathematics of probability underlying the game.”
In 2008, three years after being awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, British playwright Harold Pinter died following a six-year battle with cancer of the oesophagus. In its tribute to his work, The Swedish Academy said:
“Pinter restored theatre to its basic elements: an enclosed space and unpredictable dialogue, where people are at the mercy of each other and pretence crumbles. With a minimum of plot, drama emerges from the power struggle….”
“In his plays,” it went on, “(he) uncovers the precipice under everyday prattle and forces entry into oppression’s closed rooms.”
And nowhere did Pinter’s art resonate more effectively with the Academy’s description of his work than in his 1978 play, Betrayal, the story of a classic love triangle, in which Emma betrays her husband, Robert, a publisher, by conducting a seven-year affair with his best friend, Jerry, a literary agent. A play in which the game of squash serves as an icon for a whole set of male social games that evolve around its leading characters.
A game played in an enclosed space, a closed room, where drama emerges from the power struggle.
The Rules of the Game
The relationship between Emma and Jerry in Betrayal is basically a game with an elaborate system of rules set up by both sides. These are especially necessary as there is in fact a double system of relationships between them, as clandestine lovers and as, respectively, wife and best friend of Robert. There are external rules, about how to keep the affair secret, and internal rules, about what is permitted within. Even after the affair is over, Jerry corrects Emma when she asks about his son: “You remember the form. I ask about your husband, you ask about my wife.”
In fact, all the relations in the play assume the amusing shape of sophisticated social games and rituals, making the game logically precede the particular instance of its playing and disqualifying any originality in the behaviour of the characters.
The bitter twist is that the action moves backwards in time, beginning with the end of the affair and working remorselessly back to the first snatched kiss.
Pinter never reveals his point of view, but lets the audience draw its own conclusions, offering scenes of the affair alternating with scenes of the two male friends meeting, Robert baiting Jerry(who doesn’t think that his best friend suspects), always suggesting a game of squash, symbolic of male companionship, and Jerry always backing away from the direct competition.
In one scene Robert proposes a game at a social event with Emma present. She urges them to play together again and suggests she meet them after for lunch. Robert quickly says no:
“I mean a game of squash isn’t simply a game of squash, it’s rather more than that. You see, first there’s the game. And then there’s the shower. And then there’s the pint. And then there’s lunch […]. You don’t actually want a woman within a mile of the place, any of the places, really.”
Robert’s outburst reveals the nature of the series of male rituals he is describing. They are clearly meant to exclude women from what is perceived as exclusive male terrain. At the same time, the attack discloses a defensive attitude, an attempt to distance women so as to get rid of their sexually threatening presence. It’s implied that Robert and Jerry have not played squash for a long time because Jerry has engaged instead in the betrayal game, and Robert’s rather fierce speech is meant to win him back as a partner in the male game.
The same disjunction between affair-with-wife and squash-with-husband appears in Robert’s disclosure about another character, Casey: “I believe he’s having an affair with my wife. We haven’t played squash for years, Casey and me. We used to have a damn good game.”
The Seeds of Betrayal
There’s no evidence that Pinter had any particular interest in squash before writing Betrayal. In fact, he was an enthusiastic cricket player and approved of the “urban and exacting idea of cricket as a bold theatre of aggression.” But squash would certainly have been played by some of his friends and acquaintances.
One such was the British actor Robert Shaw, a close friend of Pinter who in 1962 appeared on stage as Aston in Pinter’s first major theatrical success, The Caretaker, and again in its film version two years later. As a boy he attended school in Cornwall and was an all-around athlete, competing in rugby, squash and track events.
Unfortunately, at the age of 18, Shaw was misdiagnosed with a chronic inflammatory arthritis and autoimmune disease which, perhaps not surprisingly, led him to curtail his involvement in sport. The disease was supposed to affect joints in the spine and it’s a measure of Pinter’s artistic approach that Shaw’s character in The Caretaker has a speech in which he expresses his fear of breaking his spine during a stay in a mental institution.
But around the time of London premiere of The Caretaker, another event occurred which was to directly influence the writing of Betrayal. Pinter, then married to his first wife Vivien Merchant began a seven-year clandestine affair with a married BBC-TV presenter and journalist, Joan Bakewell.
Throughout his career, many of Pinter’s plays were to feature characters trapped in an enclosed space menaced by some force they can’t understand.
In his first play, The Room, the main character, Rose, is menaced by Riley who invades her safe space, though the actual source of menace remains a mystery. Pinter later confirmed that his visit, in the summer of 1955, to the ‘broken-down room’ of the English writer, Quentin Crisp, in Beaufort Street, London inspired him to write The Room, “set in a snug, stuffy rather down-at-heel bedsit with a gas fire and cooking facilities.”
The first performances of The Room were staged in 1957 at the University of Bristol.
In a converted squash court .
Many thanks to Hanna Scolnicov whose article ‘Pinter’s Game of Betrayal’ provided much of the source material for this post. Her article was originally published in Cycnos, Volume 14 No 1 on June 11th, 2008.
Nine days after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the US, President George W. Bush launched an international military campaign. During a televised address to a joint session of the US Congress he said, “Our war on terror begins with al Qaeda, but it does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated”.
Almost 10 years after Bush’s speech, the war – since re-branded by the administration of President Obama as the rather less gung-ho Overseas Contingency Operation– is regarded by many as justifying unilateral preventive war, human rights abuses and other violations of international law.
But whatever its purpose or even its name, the war on terror has given rise to many stories, many of them tragic, and some of them sinister.
And, perhaps surprisingly, some of them interwoven with the game of squash.
Squash at the Pentagon
The Pentagon, located in Arlington County, Virginia is the headquarters of the US Department of Defense. On September 11th, 2001 – 60 years to the day after the building’s ground-breaking ceremony was held – hijacked American Airlines Flight 77 was deliberately crashed into the western side of the Pentagon, killing 189 people, including 5 hijackers, 59 others aboard the plane, and 125 working in the building.
When it was originally built in the 1940s, The Pentagon’s sports complex included eight hardball squash courts. When new facilities were built in 2002, one hardball court was kept for use by those Pentagon employees who still played the version of squash that was most popular in the US until the mid-1990s. Since that time, the hardball game has largely died out with, most US squash enthusiasts now playing the international softball game.
But, in 2002, one of The Pentagon’s remaining hardball squash players was someone who was to play a major role in the war on terror. The US Secretary of State, Donald Rumsfeld.
Squash and the Invasion of Iraq
Rumsfeld took up squash in the 1980s when he was a business executive working in the pharmaceutical industry. As a former wrestler at Princeton University and a tennis enthusiast, Rumsfeld was obviously no stranger to sporting competition. But taking up such a physically and mentally demanding game as squash in his 50s could be seen as providing a unique insight into his complex psyche.
In fact, during his time at The Pentagon, officials and employees were said to have described Rumsfeld’s approach to playing squash as closely resembling the way he attempting to run the Defense Department – where he was trying to gain acceptance for breaking the accepted norms of military operation.
Rumsfeld himself later suggested that his ideas about transforming the military into a smaller, more agile force, like the one he pushed for in invading Iraq, were influenced by his squash playing. In a 2005 interview with the military writer Thomas P. M. Barnett, he said, gesturing towards his squash partner Lawrence Di Rita, “I play squash with him. When I passed him with a shot, and it’s a well-played hard shot, I saw speed kills. And it does. If you can do something very fast you can get your job done and save a lot of lives.”
Rumsfeld’s enthusiasm for speed was reflected in his irritation with the US’s contingency plan in the event of a war with Iraq. For him, the plan required too many troops and supplies and would take far too long to execute. It was, he declared, the “product of old thinking and the embodiment of everything that was wrong with the military.”
Rumsfeld subsequently won his argument with the US military, the 2003 invasion going ahead with a force of 200,000 rather than the 500,000 proposed in the original contingency plan.
Donald Rumsfeld and Fair Play
Two years after the invasion, Donald Rumsfeld acknowledged that his almost daily squash matches had helped preserve his “sanity’’ at a time when he and theBush administration were coming under increasing political attack for their handling of the deteriorating situation in the country.
A year later, Rumsfeld’s own deteriorating relationship with the US military was to play a part in the emergence of allegations of him cheating at squash. “He hits the ball well, but he doesn’t play by the rules,” said Chris Zimmerman, a devoted squash player working in The Pentagon’s office of program analysis and evaluation and is sometimes in the Pentagon athletic complex when Mr. Rumsfeld is on the court.
Mr. Zimmerman has never actually played his boss. But he says he has noticed that Mr. Rumsfeld, 74, often wins points because, after hitting a shot, he does not get out of the way so his opponent has a chance to return the ball, a practice known in squash as “clearing.”
“When you try a shot and miss, he’ll say, ‘You don’t have that shot,’ ” said Lawrence Di Rita, a close aide who used to played against Rumsfeld regularly. Di Rita, a former US Naval Academy squash player more than 25 years younger than Rumsfeld, said that he’d won his share of games and had never gone easy on his boss. By tradition, the loser would post the score on Rumsfeld’s office door, so his staff would know when he’d beaten Di Rita or his other main partner, his military assistant, Vice AdmiralJames G. Stavridis, who was also on the Naval Academy squash team.
Di Rita conceded that Rumsfeld rarely offered or asked for lets – requests to replay points when one player feels that they have been obstructed by the other.
Whatever the truth in the cheating allegations, Rumsfeld’s tenure as Secretary of State came to an end when he resigned his position in late 2006. In an unprecedented move in modern US history, eight retired generals and admirals had called for his resignation in what was called the Generals Revolt, accusing him of “abysmal” military planning and a lack of strategic competence.
Rumsfeld’s squash matches at The Pentagon were at an end.
In an article for The New York Times, Michael Aggar wrote:
“While Rumsfeld’s military strategy was sold as revolutionary, his squash game was an anachronism. To put it crudely, hardball squash is mostly played by a bunch of old white guys who don’t want to adapt to the new style. Rumsfeld is one of them. In a further parallel, the last time Americans dominated squash championships was in the hardball era. Once the sport changed to softball, the Europeans and—gasp!—the Pakistanis took over. So you might say that Rumsfeld plays the most patriotic version of squash, that he indulges in a nostalgic relic of American might.”
In Part 2 of “Squash and the War on Terror”, the story moves to Munich where a chance encounter with a squash coach leads to a squash playing President, the sinister ghost planes, and a surprising connection to the Arab Spring.
Sitting in a pink bubble in West London on a wet Friday night in January may not seem like everybody’s idea of fun. But when the bubble contains another 250 people, a see-through squash court and some of the world’s top squash players, you may think that it’s not such a bad idea after all. And, particularly if you’re a squash lover, you’d be right.
The Queen’s Club
The recently re-launched World Series Squash Finals are being held right now at The Queen’s Club in London. Not just any old Queen’s Club, mind you, but The Queen’s Club. Although I’m guessing that she doesn’t actually play there. On a regular basis anyway. But that’s where the aforementioned inflatable pink squash venue has been standing for the last week or so. And I went to the semi-finals there last night to have a look.
To say that The Queen’s Club is a suitable location for a racket sport competition is probably an understatement. It maintains courts for tennis, real tennis, rackets and squash, at least two of which I don’t know the rules for, or anybody who plays them. And when the squash court in the pink bubble is scheduled to be dismantled tomorrow, the club’s members will just have to make do with the 45 remaining courts available to them.
The Finals Experience
Whatever the target audience for the Finals, you couldn’t fault the staging. Clear announcements, great time management, comfy seats, instant video replays, post-match interviews, on-court entertainment between matches (UK hip-hop dance group ZooNation), live commentary and expert analysis (from Jonah Barrington amongst others) via a personal Wi-Fi earpiece, and excellent catering. In fact, had the four semi-final matches scheduled all been walkovers, I suspect that an impromptu tournament and entertainment involving audience members could have been organised on the spot. Health and safety issues permitting of course.
On a social level, I met some fellow squash coaches, one of whom offered an entertaining critique of the performance of the team cleaning the court between games. “Look!” he observed. They’re all cleaning the back wall in the right hand corner even though there are just as many marks in the left hand corner.” I even joined in at one point having become fixated with the team’s cleaning strategy. All this, of course, is why going to squash tournaments is so much fun!
The semi-finals of the women’s invitation event included former World No 1, Vanessa Atkinson, and current World No 2, Jenny Duncalf. France’s Camille Serme took Duncalf to a third game in the best-of three match before running out of steam. “I wasn’t expecting to win the second game” she said. As I never expect to win any games, I had some sympathy for her.
In the other semi, Vanessa Atkinson lost 2-0 to England’s Laura Massaro. By the way, the women’s matches were played using a 17 inch tin rather than the 19 inch tin normally used on the women’s tour.
In the World Series semis, England’s Nick Matthew again beat his fellow Yorkshireman, James Willstrop, in straight games. In this afternoon’s final, he’ll meet Egypt’s Amr Shabana who beat Ramy Ashour, also of Egypt, and also in straight games. Ashour, still recovering from a hamstring injury, said in his post-match interview, “Amr’s so quick with his hands you feel he could put the ball in his pocket during a rally without you seeing him do it.”
I must try that in my next league match.
Postscript: The Bubble Bursts
Sadly, during the early hours of the morning after the semi-finals, the inflatable venue for the World Series tournament was seriously damaged by high winds. A tear in the fabric of the building led to it being declared unsafe, then to the postponement of the finals and eventually to their cancellation. At the time of writing, no decision has been made as to where, when or whether they will be played.
Never mind, here’s a funky video which should give you some idea of the Pink Bubble experience. Enjoy!
Brigadier Oscar Jameson (b 1905 – d1989)had the remarkable distinction of winning the British Army’s Squash Racquets andLawn Tennis championships four times each. At squash, he first became champion in 1931, retaining his title the following year. Further successes came in 1936 and, after several demanding military postings abroad, in 1946. He was once ranked as high as No 2 in the world and, in 1933, was runner-up in the Amateur Squash Championships to the legendary Egyptian player and diplomat Amr Bey, then the reigning British Open squash champion. His tennis achievements, which included competing at Wimbledon six times, are equally impressive given the fact that he regarded his army career as being by far the most important part of his life.
But it’s his skills as a writer that set him apart from most of his sporting contemporaries. And, in particular, a short guide to squash that he wrote in the 1950s.
A Short Guide to Squash Rackets
Jameson wrote his guide after playing squash for over a quarter of a century. During that time, he developed a reputation both as an elegant stroke-player and as a resourceful opponent possessing incredible stamina. This is reflected in the first chapter in his book where he says, “Squash should be an easy game. All one needs to become reasonably good is to be able to run hard for a long time and to be able to hit the ball somehow – not necessarily with the strings”. That’s myemboldening of the text, by the way, for reasons which will become obvious!
The guide’s coverage and description both of the rules of squash and its basic strokes is not only comprehensive but could easily have been written today given its clarity and accuracy. The text is supplemented with hand-drawn diagrams showing the court positions from which certain strokes may be played during a rally, the angles at which to hit the ball, and the resulting path of the ball via the front or side walls.
The text also includes some wry humour which adds to the enjoyment of the book in a historical context.
For example, “The Strokes – Miscellaneous” chapter includes the following entry:
“Apart from the corner [of the court], the other main difficulty one is likely to encounter is the ball which clings to the wall. The intrinsic difficulty of this shot is added to by one’s natural disinclination to break one’s racket.”
Or, try this entry in the “Tactics and Positioning” chapter:
“If you are trying to win, and not just out for exercise, the pleasantest way of playing squash is to stand in the middle of the court while your opponent rushes in all directions after your shots.”
“Most people,” says Jameson “Have their limitations, and they can often beat someone who is reputedly a better player by intelligence – or matchplay.” He goes on to draw a clear distinction between matchplay and gamesmanship. “On the latter,” he continues, “there are excellent treatises to which the reader can refer (for instruction or amusement), so here we will confine ourselves to matchplay,as applied to playing squash, and will exclude verbal, sartorial or other ruses calculated to lower the morale of one’s opponent.”
One can only wonder what treatises Jameson is referring to and wonder how one could get one’s hands on a copy today!
Gratifyingly, one of Jameson’s matchplay tips turns out to be one of my own favourite ploys over the years. “Your opponent’s temperament, too,” says Jameson, “repays study. If he is impatient to win the point, you may upset him by persistent lobbing. Even if he is of the type that likes to go on forever you may worry him by placidly settling down to play the same game, hitting the ball more slowly and higher than he does.”
In other words, slow, steady – and high – wins the match…
“Being prostrated with exhaustion,” writes Jameson, ”is not conducive to enjoyment of the game.”
He goes on to assert that, “The best form of physical training for squash…is to play squash, provided you play it hard.” So much for an easy introduction to the game, then.
Jameson also recommends, “moderation in smoking, drinking and eating” as well as participating in other sports such as golf, skiing (another of his passions) and fishing. He follows this suggestion with, in my humble opinion, one of the best passages of the book.
“Whether you do any other form of actual physical training, such as long distance running, in order to strengthen your legs and lungs for the endurance test of a long squash match, must depend upon your own physical and mental characteristics, and probably on your geographical location. If you live in London, you probably have access to plenty of hard squash, so have little need to run around Clapham Common or Berkeley Square. If you live in the depths of the country, far from any squash courts, you may find it necessary to go for runs, provided you don’t mind being thought eccentric by your friends and can bear the undisguised interest of the passers-by you encounter en route. You can console yourself with the thought of the pleasure you are giving to any stray dogs which join you in your travels.”
Suitable Equipment and Clothing
Jameson’s observations on squash equipment and clothing are notable by their focus on value for money.
“The equipment required for squash,” he writes, “is not expensive. As the racket is not subjected, as a tennis racket is, to the hazards of damp grass, rain and the grit of a hard court, the strings should last for years. And, a squash ball being light and soft, the frame should last for many more years. That is, of course, provided you don’thit the wall or your opponent too hard with it.
And so far as expense is concerned squash has a great advantage over, say, tennis and golf, in the longevity of the ball. Admittedly, whereas a ramble on the golf course may reward the keen eyed searcher with enough balls to last several rounds, a ramble in the squash courts is unlikely to yield a rich harvest in lost squash balls. But one squash ball lasts a very long time.”
Nor is any great outlay required on clothing for squash. It might, however, here be mentioned that, though almost any clothing, such as dirty rugger shorts, is usually accepted as adequate for a friendly game, the correct wear for a match is white. This is not due to excessive dandiness on the part of the framers of the rules, but is to prevent the possibility of your opponent losing sight of the black ball against the background of your dark clothing.”
American Squash and Englishmen
At the time Jameson’s book was written, the English and American versions of squash were not only different but showed little sign of merging to create a truly globalised sport. In the last section of his book, Jameson discusses the two forms of the game, and presents a range of suggestions about how to play them.
“Many Americans are capable of playing delicate angle shots,” he writes, “but on the whole their game is dominated by the hard hitter. In my opinion the tactics and finesse which are possible in English Squash make it incomparably more interesting, and I think this opinion is shared by the majority of Englishmen who have played both games.”
Interestingly, there is no mention of what Jameson thinks the majority of American men might think about his opinion but then it’s probably safe to assume that he wrote his book for a predominantly English, male and indeed English Squash-playing audience.
Jameson certainly appears to be writing from experience when he describes a typical outcome for an English Squash player using an American Squash racket and squash ball for the first time:
“The result, in the Englishman’s first game in America, is apt to be a series of air shots, amusing for the spectators but humiliating for the Englishman.” This observation clearly relates to the heavier American Squash ball which “necessitates a heavier racket, which is not so easy to wield.”
“An English racket” writes Jameson, “would not last long with an American ball. So if you are going on a visit to the United States or Canada, and intend to play squash, get your host to lend you a racket. Or, better still, take an English ball with you and lure him into playing you with it. He will probably miss it, but at least he shouldn’t break his racket.”
Jameson goes on to describe another “slight handicap” under which, in his opinion, English players then operated in America.
“The superiority of American central heating is well known, but one is apt at first to experience some discomfort in playing in a court whose temperature (before the match) is about 80 degrees, as it sometimes is. I think this is preferable, though, to playing in an “outside” unheated court in an American or Canadian winter. At a temperature around zero the limbs are reluctant to move, and the ball still goes very fast, in this case apparently straight along the ground.”
From personal experience, I’d disagree with the Brigadier’s assertion that a squash ball “still goes very fast” on an unheated court in winter, even in the comparatively tropical (compared to North America) English climate.
But then I’ve never won the British Army’s Squash Racquets Championship. Well, not yet anyway.
Jameson revised his book in 1973 but, apart from some observations relating to a change in the squash rules relating to obstruction made few alterations. After retiring from the army, he continued to play county squash for Kent for many years, and was a member of the Jesters Club, an international racquets association. Even in his eighties he was still playing squash and tennis despite having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease.
Jameson was a born leader, who was a superb example of his own theory that success depends largely on one’s own effort and willpower. His greatest pride was not his own spectacular games career, but the achievements of the soldiers he trained.