High-Rise Squash (2015) – Film Review

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

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

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

Although not necessarily on blue squash courts.

Sources

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

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part Two

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

William turned towards his fellow Briton, diner and journalist.

‘How did you know who I am?’

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

‘No.’

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

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

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

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

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

Corker looked at William sadly.

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

Five days later, William had received a telegram:

OPPOSITION SPLASHING SITUATION UNCLEAR WAIT ADEN MALAYA BEAST

He took it to Corker for translation.

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

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

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

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

Squash Court in Aden

The Squash Court in Aden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘The American girl?’

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

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

Mr. Salter sighed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

****

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

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

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

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

BEHIND COMPETITORS IMPERATIVE SEND NEW STORIES IMMEDIATELY CRISIS COOPERATE UNNATURAL BEAST

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s UNNATURAL?”

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

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

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

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

William sighed.

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

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

‘Where did he get the information?’

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

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

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

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

‘Excuse me, sir.’

William looked up. It was the steward.

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

‘Yes. Hassan and Abdullah.’

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

William and Corker sat very still.

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

William looked at Corker who looked back at him.

‘Who is…’ asked William.

‘The Minister of Foreign Affairs for Al Mussab.’

Next time…

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

Influences

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

Desert Places (à la Evelyn Waugh) – Part One

At a relatively early age, John Boot had achieved an enviable reputation as a writer. His novels typically sold 15,000 copies, and even his unprofitable non-fiction works on history and travel had succeeded in furthering his literary reputation in all the right intellectual circles. His latest offering was a description of several harrowing months spent among the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego, an experience only slightly ameliorated by a short period of recuperation visiting the tango salons of Buenos Aires.

In London, Boot had many influential friends. The most valued was the celebrated Mrs. Algernon Stitch to whom, like all in her circle, he habitually brought his problems for solution. It was for this reason that, on a bright Spring morning, he called at her house near St. James’s Palace en route to a squash match at his club in Pall Mall. On the doorstep he encountered Mrs. Stitch’s husband clutching a crimson royally-emblazoned dispatch case and in the act of stepping into his chauffeured ministerial Daimler.

‘She’s in the morning room,’ said Stitch hurriedly.

Boot found Mrs. Stitch dressed for the street despite it being barely eleven o’clock.

‘I want to get away from London, Julia’ he said despondently.

‘I don’t suppose it’s got anything to do with that American girl, has it?’ enquired Mrs. Stitch.

‘Well, mostly, yes.’

‘Where were you thinking of going?’

‘That’s just what I wanted to talk to you about.’

‘What about the Arabian peninsula?’ said Mrs. Stitch. ‘Algy says there’s a potential crisis out there; Al Mussab or somewhere like that. Something to do with oil and foreign powers anyway.’

‘Do you think he’d send me there as a spy?’

‘Not a chance. He’s been sacking spies left, right and centre for weeks. It’s a grossly overcrowded profession, apparently. Why don’t you go as a foreign correspondent?’

‘Could you fix it?’

‘I don’t see why not. After all, you’ve been to Patagonia. I would have thought they’d jump at you. I’ll see what I can do. I’m meeting Lord Copper at a charity luncheon in Mayfair in an hour. I’ll try and bring the subject up.’

****

Lord Copper, proprietor of The Daily Beast, knew of Mrs. Stitch. On more than one occasion he had seen her at a distance but now, as she approached him across the reception room, he wondered what she could possibly want.

‘I suppose she wants your sketch writer to lay off Algy,’ whispered his hostess, Lady Bamford, as she moved tactfully away.

To his surprise, Lord Copper found himself entranced by Mrs. Stitch’s conversation. She expressed concern about the ‘worrying situation’ in Al Mussab, of which Lord Copper was completely unaware even though he gave his opinion that civil war was inevitable. She also remarked how few famous foreign correspondents still survived, and bemoaned the dearth of young journalists who could write stylishly about the true nature of events both on the ground and behind the scenes.

Lord Copper found himself agreeing with Mrs. Stitch whole-heartedly.

‘Who are you sending to cover the story?’ she asked.

‘I am in consultation with my editors on the subject,’ replied Lord Copper. ‘We feel it to be of significant interest to the British public. Of course, we shall have a team of military experts, photographers and reporters covering the war from every angle.’

‘If I were you,’ said Mrs. Stitch, ‘I should send someone like Boot; that’s if you could persuade him to go, of course. He’s a brilliant writer. Did you know that the Prime Minister always keeps a Boot by his bed? Well his work, I mean.’

Lord Copper suddenly became Boot-aware.

‘Boot?’

‘Yes. If you could get him to go he’s very well-known in all the right circles. Very sporty too, I hear. He plays squash.’

****

Half an hour after leaving the luncheon, Mrs. Stitch telephoned Boot at his club. He was lunching with his old friend and long-term squash partner the Honourable Frederick William Charles.

‘I think it’s fixed. I suspect he’ll be in touch in a few days. Don’t take a penny less than fifty pounds a week.’

‘God bless you, Julia. You’ve saved my life.’

Boot felt as though a great weight had been removed from his shoulders. He returned to the dining room with a spring in his step and shared the good news with his lunch companion.

‘All very hush-hush, of course, Freddie.’

‘Absolutely, old man. Mum’s the word, eh?’

It was turning out to be a good day after all.

****

That evening, Mr. Salter, foreign editor of The Beast, was summoned to dinner at his chief’s country seat. As he drove to Lord Boot’s frightful mansion, he thought sadly of his care-free days editing the Woman’s Page. His ultimate ambition was to take charge of the Competitions Page, yet here he was, languishing as Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter’s side of the dinner conversation was limited to expressions of assent. When Lord Copper was right, he said ‘Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, he said ‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘This Al Mussab place,’ said Lord Copper. ‘It appears that the Foreign Office thinks there’s going to be a civil war there. I propose to feature it. Who were you thinking of sending?’

Mr. Salter hadn’t been thinking of sending anyone to cover a war he hadn’t, until that moment, heard of in a place which he also hadn’t heard of. He improvised.

‘Well, since we lost Richardson to The Brute we’ve tended to borrow one of the Americans from Reuters. Of course, none of them is familiar to the public.’

‘No. I tell you who I want; Boot.’

‘Boot?’

‘Yes, Boot. Brilliant writer. Very well known in all the right circles. Squash player. The Prime Minister keeps his work by his bed. Do you read him?’

‘Up to a point, Lord Copper.’

‘Well, get onto him tomorrow. Get him up to see you. Take him out to lunch. Get him at any price. Well, any reasonable price.’

‘Definitely, Lord Copper.’

****

Newsroom 1950The following day, Mr. Salter went to work at noon. He found the Managing Editor reading The Beast’s Sports Page.

‘Who’s Boot?’ asked Mr. Salter at last.

‘I know the name,’ said the Managing Editor.

‘The chief wants to send him to Al Mussab. He’s the Prime Minister’s favourite writer.’

Mr. Salter listlessly turned the pages of the morning edition of The Beast.

‘Well, I’ve got to find him. Boot, Boot. Ah! Boot – here he is. Why didn’t the chief say he was a staff man?’

He perused the newspaper’s bi-weekly column devoted to Nature.

Country Places edited by William Boot. Do you think that’s him?’

‘It must be,’ said the Managing Editor. ‘The PM’s nuts about rural England.’

‘Well, I’d better get him up here for a chat. I’ll send him a telegram. Funny the chief wanting to send him to Arabia. Still, if that’s who he wants.’

****

William Boot extracted his kit-bag from the disorganised heap in the bar of the Old Cromwellians Squash Club. The handle of his racquet (which was sticking out of his bag) banged him in the knee as he did so bringing an un-Boot like exclamation from his lips. He had spent a pleasant evening losing a league match to a local farmer before partaking of a half-pint of excellent bitter brewed locally by another club member. Now, he felt ready to drive along a series of unlit pot-holed country lanes back to Boot Magna Hall, the ancestral seat of the Boot family. He bade the other occupants of the bar goodnight, stepped into the cold night air and made for his modest Austin motor car.

English Manor House 1950As he drove, William pondered the current standings in his squash league (he was bottom), the state of the local countryside (still boggy after an untypically wet March), and the subject of his next Country Places column (a choice between the habits of the water vole and a profile of the new Master of Foxhounds for the South Wiltshire Hunt.) He had inherited his editorial position on the column from the widow of its previous holder, the Rector of Boot Magna, without even having to go through the inconvenience of meeting, or even corresponding with, anyone connected with The Beast. Having the position was of the utmost importance to him and gave him the best possible excuse for remaining in the countryside, observing its wildlife and playing squash.

On his arrival at the Hall, he carefully deposited his kit-bag beside the coat stand avoiding further injury from the handle of his squash racquet. As he did so, his Uncle Theodore emerged from the library holding a large glass of brandy. He seemed agitated.

‘Thought I heard you. A telegram’s arrived for you; from London.”

He gestured towards a small silver tray resting on a chest two feet from the coat stand beside which William was standing. William was surprised. He had never been to London and certainly didn’t know anyone who lived there except…

He lifted the telegram from its resting place, opened it and read.

‘Not bad news, is it, old chap?’

William re-read the words with an increasing sense of dread.

REQUEST YOUR IMMEDIATE PRESENCE HERE URGENT LORD COPPERS PERSONAL DESIRE SALTER BEAST.

****

After an early breakfast, William left for the station. Almost all of his family stood on the steps of Boot Magna Hall to see him off. His mother and sister wept. His Aunt Josephine’s motor car waited to carry him to Boot Magna station. Uncle Theodore attempted to accompany him but was detected and stopped. His father remained in his study.

‘Going to London, eh?’ said his grandmother. ‘I don’t suppose I’ll be alive when you get back.’

At the station, he caught the eight twenty-seven slow train, arriving at Paddington at a quarter to eleven. A black cab conveyed him through the living hell of London and deposited him outside The Beast’s imposing offices at 700-850 Fleet Street. Feeling increasingly nervous, William negotiated the revolving doorway, entered the Byzantine vestibule and proceeded to the reception desk. Behind it sat a uniformed and be-medalled concierge. William handed over his heavily-perused telegram and five minutes later found himself in the office of the Foreign Editor.

Mr. Salter greeted William cordially.

‘Ah, Boot, how are you? Don’t think I’ve had the pleasure. I know your work, of course. I understand that the Prime Minister is an avid reader of your column.’

‘Are you sure?’ asked William.

‘Definitely.’

‘Oh.’

They sat opposite one another in Mr. Salter’s office. Between them, on the desk, lay an atlas, open at the page where Mr. Salter and the Managing Editor had successfully located Al Mussab.

‘How is the countryside?’ asked Mr. Salter, hopefully. ‘Lot of foot and mouth, I expect.’

‘None, I’m pleased to say.’

‘Oh.’

He attempted a second ice-breaker.

‘Plenty of foxes to hunt?’

‘The season’s finished.’

‘Oh, I see.’

Mr. Salter’s understanding of ‘the countryside’ was confined to what could be seen from the window of a train travelling between Waterloo and Woking. He attempted a non-countryside ice-breaker.

‘I hear you’re a squash man.’

‘Yes,’ said William. ‘Do you play?’

‘Er, no.’

Mr. Salter decided to take the initiative.

‘Well, I’ll get straight to the point. Lord Copper wants you to work for him in Al Mussab.’

‘Where?’

‘It’s there.’

Mr. Salter pointed triumphantly to Al Mussab’s precise location in the atlas.

‘Are you sure?’

‘Definitely,’ affirmed Mr. Salter confidently. ‘The Managing Editor and I found it yesterday.’

‘No, I mean about Lord Copper wanting me.’

‘My dear fellow. With the possible exception of the Prime Minister, you have no more ardent admirer than Lord Copper.’

‘The Prime Minister?’ said William.

‘Definitely,’ replied Mr. Salter, finding his rhythm. ‘Don’t tell me you didn’t know that the PM keeps a copy of your work by his bed?’

‘No, I didn’t,’ said William, astonished. ‘But what’s that got to do with Al Mussab?’

Mr. Salter realised that William knew nothing about Al Mussab, let alone anything about a potential civil war there. He decided not to mention it for the time being.

‘Ah, yes, I thought you might want to know more about that,’ he said.

‘Yes, please.’

Mr. Salter began to warm to his task.

‘Lord Copper wants you to do precisely what you’re best at. No more, no less.’
William had begun to look interested.

‘What does he suggest?’

‘He wants you to write about the Arabian countryside,’ announced Mr. Salter.

William raised his eyebrows.

‘The Arabian countryside?’

‘Definitely,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘Wildlife, the desert, local customs, profiles of prominent figures, current events, that sort of thing.’

‘What on earth for?’

Mr. Salter leaned forward over his desk, looked furtively around his office and lowered his voice.

‘Well, to be honest, it’s all a bit hush-hush. The PM wants closer, shall we say, cultural relations with Al Mussab. All part of his international diplomacy initiative, I expect. He’s specifically asked Lord Copper to send you out there as a sort of unofficial cultural attache.’

William’s mouth fell open. Mr. Salter leant forward again for final effect.

‘I wouldn’t tell anyone else if I were you.’

He tapped the side of his nose with a fore-finger.

William nodded weakly, his position as editor of Country Places slipping from his grasp.

Mr. Salter pressed home his case.

‘Naturally, we’re willing to pay a very fair salary. Shall we say, fifty pounds a month?’

‘Fifty pounds a month?’ said William, goggling.

‘I meant a week,’ said Mr. Salter hastily. ‘Plus expenses, of course. That’s at least another twenty a week; and you can resume your existing position at the end of your assignment.’

William sat in stunned silence as Mr. Salter administered his coup de grace.

‘I’m sure you realise that Lord Copper expects his staff to work wherever the best interests of the paper call them. I don’t think it would be fair to expect him to employ anyone of whose loyalty he was in doubt, now would it?’

William nodded. He could see no alternative than to agree to Lord Copper’s request. He would have to consult his family of course; that would take a week or two. Then, he would need to buy new clothes suitable for working in Arabia, whatever they might look like; he would also need to find a temporary editor for his Country Places column, which could take some time; and he would have to arrange and play the final two matches in his squash league. He had much to do.

‘Excellent,’ said Mr. Salter. ‘The chief will be pleased. I’m sure you’ll enjoy the experience. Let’s sort everything out over lunch, shall we? I’ve sent for your passport so we can sort your visa out this afternoon. Lord Copper wants you to leave tomorrow morning.’

****

Dubai 1950sOn the squash court of the Intercontinental Hotel, Hassan Bin Rashid Al Nahmi’s weekly match with his cousin, Abdullah, had gone to a fifth game. Abdullah had won the fourth with his trademark forehand volley-drop into the front right-hand corner, but now Hassan’s superior court coverage was finally beginning to tell. He won the final game by nine points to four and with it the privilege of buying tea and fresh figs for his vanquished opponent.

After showering and changing, the cousins sat on the terrace in the early evening heat. Across the shimmering waters of the Gulf, the sun was setting over the Al Mussab desert

‘Is your family well?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, praise be to Allah. And yours?’

‘Yes, praise be to Allah.’

They both sipped their tea and fingered their prayer beads.

‘Have you heard from your cousin in London?’ asked Hassan.

‘Yes, I received a letter from him only yesterday,’ answered Abdullah. ‘He said that one of his British friends had played a man at his club who said he was coming to Al Mussab to report on the crisis.’

‘What crisis?’

‘He didn’t say.’

‘Oh.’

Hassan decided see whether his father mentioned a crisis at the family’s evening meal, which reminded him that he was hungry. He finished his tea and picked up his kit-bag and racquet.

‘Forgive me, cousin, but I have to get home for our evening meal.’

‘Me too.’

In the hotel’s careworn lobby they waited for their chauffeured Bentleys to arrive and convey them to their family residences.

‘Same time next week?’ said Hassan.

‘Definitely,’ said Abdullah.

They sat in contemplation, watching for headlights approaching along the coast road.

‘Do you remember the name of the man who is supposed to be coming to Al Mussab?’ said Hassan.

‘Yes, cousin,’ said Abdullah.

‘I think it was Boot.’

Next time…

Which Boot, or Boots, will arrive in Al Mussab and what will they find? Will Mr. Salter realise his mistake? Will Lord Copper discover that Mr. Salter has made a mistake? What crisis will befall Al Mussab?

Influences

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

I’ve based John Boot’s club in London’s Pall Mall on the Royal Automobile Club whose premises have housed squash courts since the 1930s.

Pathé Squash

It may surprise you to know that in the mid-1930s the soft-ball version of squash appears to have been pretty well established in the US as well as the UK. The evidence comes in the form of three video clips you can view on the website of British Pathé. Pathé News was a producer of newsreels, cine-magazines and documentaries in the UK from 1910 until 1970. Its founder, Charles Pathé, was a pioneer of moving pictures in the silent era.

The Pathé News archive is today known as “British Pathé” and, in April 2014, the company uploaded its entire collection of 85,000 historic films to its YouTube channel as part of a drive to make the archive more accessible to viewers all over the world.

Hampstead Squash Club 1936

The first video shows two men on court at a “recently opened” facility in Hampstead, North-West London. They wear similar clothing to that worn by many tennis professionals of the era.

One of the players is identified by the commentator as Mr. D.G. Butcher, a “professional champion for five years.” Mr.Butcher demonstrates the serve and plays a rally with Mr. A. Biddle, a “former junior professional champion.” The commentator describes the sport and states that there is an “estimated 50,000 players in England.”

The clip ends with two women, Mrs. Brian Wolfe and a Mrs. MacKechnie, playing a rally.

Squash 1937

The second clip, dated 1937, is somewhat of a novelty item. It shows a rally between two men, one of whom is wearing roller skates “as a handicap.” The skater is revealed as Charlie Arnold, a “famous Bath Club pro” and his opponent as Mr. Arthur Wood, the squash professional at the St. Regis Hotel Club. The whereabouts of the St. Regis Hotel is not identiified although the West Country of England may be a possible location.

The second part of the video shows woman using an exercise bicycle on a squash court. It is electrically powered, so that when she pedals, the seat rises and the handlebars go back and forth providing her with a full body workout! The less said about the commentary accompanying this sequence, the better.

US Squash Rackets Championship 1938

The final clip shows action from the 1938 US National Open Squash Racquets Championship.

The players are identified as Johnny Summers and Ben Pope (in shorts), Summers being revealed by the commentator as being the eventual winner of the title.

Sources

Thanks to British Pathé and to Wikipedia.

The Small Business of Squash at Christmas

Samuel Pepys

Samuel Pepys

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

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

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

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

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

And it’s got a squash racquet on it.

Acknowledgement

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

A Walk in the Woods: Squash in New England

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

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

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

The Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire

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

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

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

The First American Squash Court

St Paul’s School, New Hampshire

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

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

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

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

Harvard Connections

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

Concord Acton Squash Club, Massachusetts

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

Henry David Thoreau

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

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

Including sport.

Harvard Squash

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

Harry Cowles’ ‘The Art of Squash Racquets’

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

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

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

The First Women’s Squash Champion

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

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

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

Eleanora Sears in 1929

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

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

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

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

You never know what squash stories you might hear.

Acknowledgements

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

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

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

The Squash Racquet Expert

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acknowledgement

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

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

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

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

“You are mistaken, Mr. Darcy, if you suppose that the mode of your declaration affected me in any other way, than as it spared me the concern which I might have felt in refusing you, had you behaved in a more gentleman-like manner.  You could not have made me the offer of your hand in any possible way that would have tempted me to accept it.”

How those words had tortured him.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He advanced towards the party and spoke to her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes

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

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

The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket: Part 1

When I told a friend of mine that I was writing a squash blog one of his first suggestions was that I should write a post on how to buy a squash racket. Not surprisingly, this followed a series of questions including, “What is a blog?”, “Who’s going to read it?” and, my personal favourite, “What for?”

At the time, I was pretty clear in my response to the first question, less clear about the second one, but perfectly clear about the third. I had to write about something that would motivate me to explore it  from different angles and maybe discover new things about it that I didn’t already know. And, having been involved with it for most of my adult life, I felt that squash would do quite nicely. Which it has.

Nevertheless, the squash racket suggestion stuck in my mind, and stayed there until I’d qualified, both as a squash coach and as a personal development coach. By that time, I’d already come across dozens of articles and videos on ‘How to buy a squash racket’, all of which focussed on the technical aspects of the rackets themselves; racket head size, weight, grip, stringing and so on. All of them useful in their own way, but all of them fairly dispassionate. Which got me thinking.

Coaches of every denomination will tell you that people are passionate about things and that  different people are passionate about different things. They’ll also tell you that different  people are motivated to do different things in different ways and in different situations, whether it’s at work, in business, in their personal lives or, more specifically, on a squash court. And, at different stages of their lives, different people, including squash players, are motivated to achieve different things.

In fact, through psychology studies, we now know more than ever about what kind of things influence people not just to do things, but to make choices about what to do. Choices about finding a partner, choices about pursuing a career, choices about playing a sport and choices about what to buy.

Including a squash racket.

What Kind of Things Influence Us to Buy?

So what influences us to buy?

As you might guess, the factors affecting how customers make decisions are both numerous and complex in the way that they relate to each other. Buyer behaviour is deeply rooted in psychology with dashes of sociology thrown in for good measure. What’s more, since every person in the world is different, it‘s impossible to define simple rules that explain how buying decisions are made.

But researchers who’ve spent many years studying buyer behaviour have come up with some useful guidelines to describe how someone decides whether or not to make a purchase. The guidelines describe two distinct categories of influence, internal and external, how they influence buying decisions – and how they influence  marketing strategies.

And those are what we’ll look at in this article.

Inside Job

If we want to understand the first of these categories, we need to look inside ourselves to see which are the most important factors affecting how we make choices. In fact, there are seven to choose from which, together with the external factors we’ll learn about later, should give you a feel for what’s going on when you consider what to buy, or whether to buy something at all. Obviously, the number of possible combinations of factors affecting buying behaviour is astronomical. But, if we stick to a single type of purchase item (a squash racket), then at least we’ve got a fighting chance of understanding what might be driving our own buying behaviour as individuals.

So here goes.

Perception is Reality

The first internal influence is perception, the way we filter information – such as the information obtained from a conversation with a fellow squash player, from watching a squash match or from reading an advertisement for a squash racket – and then make sense of it. How we perceive, as individuals, is determined by our personal approach to learning which, in turn, affects how we act.

And we all learn in different ways. For example, some people are able to focus their attention on a specific advertisement and remember some or all of the information it contains after being exposed to it just once. Other people need to be exposed to the same advertisement many times before even recognising what it is advertising, let alone what brand of item it is advertising. Also, people are much more likely to retain information if they have a strong current interest in the stimuli associated with the information – such as the pleasure of owning and using a shiny, new squash racket.

Marketers, of course, spend huge sums of money in their attempts to get buyers to form a positive impression of their products. But, clearly, the existence of people’s widely differing  perceptual filters means that achieving this isn’t easy.

Know Your Squash Racket

Knowledge is sometimes defined as being (amongst other things) the sum of all of the  information of which an individual is aware. In other words, the facts of their world as they  know them. On the other hand, the depth of someone’s knowledge can be thought of as a function of the breadth of their worldly experience and the strength of their long-term memory. So, what exists as knowledge to an individual depends on how that person’s  perceptual filters make sense of the information they’ve been exposed to.

When it comes to selling a squash racket, marketers typically carry out research to find out what people know about their products. As we’ll see later, it’s likely that other factors influencing buyer behaviour are largely shaped by what’s known about a product or a brand. So perhaps it’s not surprising that marketers are always trying new ways of encouraging potential buyers to accept more information.

Whether it’s factual or not.

Buying with Attitude

Attitude refers to what a person feels or believes about something and may be reflected in how they act, based on their beliefs. Once they’ve been formed, attitudes can be notoriously difficult to change and, if buyers have a negative attitude toward a particular squash racket or brand, marketers have to make huge efforts to change what those buyers believe to be true.

So, marketers competing to attract  customers typically try find out why people buying rival brands feel positive towards those brands. On the basis of their research findings, they then try to meet or beat their competitors on the most important issues; for example, the range of squash rackets on offer, pricing, appearance and so on. Alternatively, marketers may try to find rival customers who feel negatively towards their competitors and then try to increase their brand awareness.

The Personality Puzzle

David Funder

David Funder

In his 2007 book The Personality Puzzle, psychologist David Funder described personality  as “an individual’s characteristic patterns of thought, emotion, and behaviour, together with the psychological mechanisms (hidden or not) behind those patterns.” So, an individual’s personality should show itself through the characteristics they typically exhibit, particularly when they’re in the presence of others. Furthermore, in most cases, the behaviours people  display in one situation are similar to thosethey display in other situations.

Last, but not least, we all have our own vision of our own personalities, called a self-concept. Which, of course, may or may not be the same as others view us.

So how does all this influence our squash racket purchasing behaviour?

Well, marketers know that buyers make purchase decisions to support their own self concepts, even if those self-concepts have little or nothing to do with the demographic category they fall into. For example, senior citizens may make purchases which help make them feel younger. So, appealing to the buyer’s self-concept rather than their age, occupation or income, can help marketers to increase the size of their target audiences.

Living Your Life

What’s your lifestyle? How do you live your life through the interests you have, the things you do, and the things you spend your money on? Put simply, our lifestyles reflect what we value in our lives.

People buy products and services to support their lifestyles. And marketers have always  tried to find how potential buyers in their target markets live their lives as this helps them to work out what kind of products to develop. It also helps them to work out what  promotional strategies are most likely to be successful in selling those products, and even how best to distribute products based on where most of their buyers live.

So how does squash support your lifestyle? Is it in a social context, a cultural context, a health and wellbeing context, a commercial context (think squash coach) and so on. It may support your lifestyle in a number of ways, some of which you may not even have thought about. Whatever your own personal involvement with squash, your values, and how you honour them, directly influence your lifestyle.

And which squash racket you’re likely to buy.

The Motivation Factor

Motivation relates to our desire to achieve things. Some of the influences we’ve already  discussed, can affect a buyer’s desire to achieve a certain goal – but there are others. For example, when it comes to deciding what to purchase, a buyer’s motivation may be affected their financial position (“Can I afford to buy this?”), time constraints (“Do I need to buy this now?”), overall value (“Am I getting my money’s worth?”), and perceived risk (“What happens if I make a bad decision?”)

From a marketing perspective, motivation is linked to the concept of involvement. And involvement is all about the amount of effort a buyer is prepared to exert in making a decision. Highly motivated buyers typically want to get mentally and physically involved in the buying process.

Obviously, not all products (milk, for example) attract highly motivated buyers. But marketers promoting products that invite a high level of buyer involvement (such as a squash racket) will typically use strategies that are attractive to this kind of buyer. So, they will tend to make it easy for buyers to learn about their product; for example, by providing information on a website or providing access to video footage of the product being used or just described. For some products, they may allow customers to use the product in a free trial before expecting them to commit to buying it.

Handling a squash racket or even taking it on court to try it out are examples of this kind of marketing involvement strategy.

Who Do You Think You Are….or Would Like to Believe You Are….

In the natural course of living our lives, we all perform multiple roles. Roles in the context of our personal lives, our professional lives, and our working lives.

Roles represent the positions we feel we hold or that others feel we should hold when interacting with other people in a group context. These positions carry certain responsibilities, some of which  may, in fact, be perceived and neither agreed or even accepted by others.

Buyers tend to make product choices that vary depending on which contextual role they are assuming. In other words, their buying decisions support their role identities. So, the captain of a squash team selecting a racket for use in competitive matches may choose a more expensive or ‘higher perceived status’ racket than they would choose for use by a member of their family.

So, marketers often show how their products will benefit buyers as they perform certain roles. Typically the underlying message of this promotional approach is to imply that using the product will help raise the buyer’s status in the eyes of others whereas using a competitor’s product may have a negative effect on status.

So, now we know about the internal influences on our buying behaviour, what else is likely to affect the way we decide which squash racket to purchase?

Next Time

In Part 2 of ‘The Psychology of Buying a Squash Racket’, we’ll look at the external influences affecting our buying behaviour. We’ll also find out about how consumers buy – and how they feel afterwards.

Acknowledgements

For a fascinating description of ‘Consumer Buying Behaviour’, go to the excellent  KnowThis.com marketing website. You’ll never look at the process of buying a squash racket in the same way again!

The Mathematics of Playing Squash

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

Andrei Markov

Andrei Markov

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 weaker squash 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!

Acknowledgements

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.”