Summer Reading: Herewith is our second literary salon where we review the latest books about squash. Three of the four books were self-published; the fourth was privately published- all can be obtained with easy online sleuthing…
By James Zug
A Shot and a Ghost: A Year in the Brutal World of Professional Squash
(Croyden, Surrey: CPI Group, 2012)
Athletes in individual sports tend to write tell-all autobiographies only after their retirement, when they can burn bridges and reveal secrets. Think Agassi’s scorching Open which everyone was reading two years ago or McEnroe’s You Can’t Be Serious which came out in 2002 or Jack Nicklaus’ 1997 memoir.
In squash they sometimes write them while they are still playing. Jonah Barrington might be our greatest player turned author (see: Murder in a Squash Court, now, amazingly, 30 years old and still fresh). Barrington’s first book, The Book of Jonah, came out in 1973, the year he won his last British Open. Frank Satterthwaite wrote his memoir, Three-Wall Nick, in 1979, the same year he got to the quarters of the North American Open. Peter Marshall was in the midst of his comeback when he published Shattered in 2001.
And now we have Shot and a Ghost, which appeared this winter, at the same time as its author, James Willstrop, was ranked number one in the world and winning major tournaments. Like Shattered, this memoir had the help of a journalist, Rod Gilmour of the Daily Telegraph, but Willstrop wrote it himself.
Remarkably, even though Willstrop has to get on court with these guys, he pulls no punches. He details the ups-and-downs in his relationship with Nick Matthew and accuses Matthew, after their fractious 2009 British Open final, of “being pretentious and vicious on court…a person who has treated me with disdain and arrogance.”
At other times he shares at a deeply personal level. Willstrop loves Broadway plays, plays guitar in bands and still doesn’t know if he’ll marry Vanessa Atkinson, his long-time girlfriend. He greatly admires his father, Malcolm, and calls him “the foremost writer on squash,” an out-in-left-field comment that is as telling as his description of their complicated relationship. He discusses his vegetarianism (he used to put ketchup on his bacon) and how much he hates it when after a loss people suggest that he should have eaten some meat. He tells about being a mild hypochondriac and a not-so-mild obsessive-compulsive, how as a young teenager it might take him a half hour to get through his counting rituals before going to bed.
Shot and a Ghost is an unambitious book in some ways. It is a small book written in a diary form covering the 2010 calendar year. As a literary device, the diary smothers long-form narrative flow, replacing it with a numbing succession of hyper-reality, present tense, jump-cut stories. In 2011 Willstrop started writing a regular column in the Yorkshire Evening Post at the same time he was writing the book, and some of the entries here feel like newspaper pieces. Admirably, Willstrop fights this at times, bringing out flashbacks to earlier tournaments, the day he discovered the singer Morrissey and his mother’s tragic death.
Much has been made of Willstrop’s provocative comments about America in the book. He hammers at our airport security: “Fat security women shout at me for my passport.” He declares that squash “is entirely unavailable to kids on the street over here.” He complains about the World Squash Awards honoring Americans when we “are not of a world standard in squash,” that we have different terminology and we call a drive a rail. It is all pretty tame stuff and typical of most overseas players who know nothing of our own squash history, development or successes (I guess having the second-best girls’ squash team in the world doesn’t make us “of a world standard.”) But it isn’t anti-Americanism. They are ignorant about the history of squash in every country they visit. Pro squash is not necessarily populated with hordes of history buffs.
The title of Willstrop’s book comes from a line that his stepbrother, David Campion, uses in training: ghosting a shot in one corner and then Campion feeding him a ball in the other. It is an interesting, but sadly unexplored metaphor in Willstrop’s brave, absorbing but flawed memoir.
Squash and Drugs and Squash ‘n’ Roll: A Story about Squash and Much More
(Woodstock, Oxfordshire: Writersworld, 2011)
I picked up this novel with trepidation. Another self-published novel with a creepy cover and regrettable title. It didn’t look promising.
The last thriller set in the squash world was probably Boast, Miles Donald’s novel that St. Martin’s published in 1980. Boast was awfully similar to S&D&RR: English author, frightening cover, somewhat gratuitous descriptions of sex and murder, multinational settings, vicious thugs, and plenty of squash. But while Donald’s novel was constantly far-fetched, Waddy’s is realistic.
Waddy was born in London, grew up in Ghana, went to Marlborough, then Cambridge and had a career doing clinical research on high risk devices like stent grafts and vascular prostheses, as well as post-market quality assurance follow-up. He wrote a novel, The Progressive Supper, about a vascular surgeon that a small publisher brought out in 2002 (he has rewritten it and is republishing it this summer as Just Desserts). Having one novel under his belt, Waddy writes with an assured, patient style and is able to create fully-rounded characters. S&D&RR (originally Caught Off Court) is the kind of book that you think about during the day, anticipating when you can get back to it at bedtime.
The story is more typical of a first novel: a bildungsroman with a protagonist, Jolyon Jacks, who picks up squash at age fifteen and tries to become World No. 1 by age twenty-one. But Waddy sets the story not when he grew up in the fifties and sixties but today. It is astonishingly contemporary: Jacks loves mixing music for raves and the book is filled with decks and amps and copper cabling and other, less legal aspects of youth culture. Moreover, Waddy has deeply researched the pro squash tours and knows about crafty coaches, training regimens and the petty rivalries that punctuate the tours. In fact, if you want to know what it is like to a top touring pro, you would do fine choosing Waddy’s novel over Willstrop’s memoir.
Waddy is finishing his third novel, the story of a failing medical device that is earning too much money to fail.
A Celebration of 100 Years of Squash at Pall Mall
(Longon: Royal Automobile Club, 2011)
This might be a first: a legitimate, hardback book devoted solely to the history of squash at one club. A Celebration of 100 Years of Squash at Pall Mall is beautifully illustrated and designed and full of remarkable stories.
The Royal Automobile Club was founded in 1897 and in March 1911 opened a massive clubhouse on Pall Mall with three squash courts in the basement. Thereafter the RAC, a moneyed, exclusive, all-male club in the heart of London, played a central role in the development of squash in Great Britain. It helped start the Bath Club Cup, the London inter-club league; for decades it hosted the British Open and British Amateur tournaments and meetings of the Squash Rackets Association; a member founded the Drysdale Cup (the British Junior Open U19 boys tournament) and the club ran it from the start in 1926 until 1978; and it still hosts the annual Varsity Match between Oxford and Cambridge.
Some of the great players of the twentieth century—Amr Bey, Brian Phillips, Nigel Broomfield, Mike Oddy and Mike Corby— were members; three times in recent years Adrian Ezra (he of Harvard fame two decades ago) has won the club championship. The RAC has had only four pros in its century-plus of existence, including legends Oke Johnson and Jack Giles.
Hopkins was a golf correspondent for the Sunday Times and the Times of London. He is a skilled writer who benefited from the research of two RAC members (Chris Orriss and Maurice Glover) who made the hard trudge through the RAC’s archives held at Churchill College, Cambridge. He shows old scorecards, meeting minutes and the original Drysdale Cup draw from April 1926 and enlivens what could be a rather dry story (a history of an institution) with some brilliant anecdotes about RAC squash denizens. Jack Giles was such a quick and fluid player that he never conceded a stroke. James Hunt, the Formula 1 world champion in 1976, would bicycle to the club; out on the sidewalk he would discard his shorts and change into a jacket, tie and trousers to meet the RAC’s dress code before heading inside. Mike Corby disregarded the dress code entirely. Once, arriving to play in the 1970 British Amateur improperly attired, Corby dashed up and down the stairs while the hall porter, zipping up and down in the elevator, chased after him. In a wonderful denouement, the RAC banned him from playing any more of the Amateur matches at the club; when Corby was reinstated, as Hopkins writes, “he made his point rather neatly. He took to the court wearing a white silk tie.”
The clubhouse comes alive: behind some of the courts was a rifle range, which made for some loud matches. The RAC showers are as legendary as the Racquet Club of Philadelphia’s— LJ Anjema’s father Robert claims he once took a 75-minute shower there. Now that’s clean. A traditional tossing of food punctuated the annual squash dinner, so much so that at one dinner fish flew into some of the oil portraits on the wall. Dryden reports, “‘Nothing will be thrown tonight,’ Neale Stainton said at the start of the meal and was greeted by a hail of bread rolls.” Hopkins isn’t making it up: at the time he was the squash committee chairman.
Hopkins also details the origins of standardized softball doubles which has recently emerged as a challenger to hardball doubles. They have played a club championship in doubles at Pall Mall since 1981 (I was shocked to see that winner’s board when I first visited the RAC), and in 1986 RAC members took it upon themselves to standardize softball doubles, first at their rural clubhouse in Woodcote Park. In 2003 they installed a softball doubles court at Pall Mall. Today this game is played all around the world.
There are a few slip-shod errors: Hopkins describes Brian Phillips in a caption as the first amateur to reach the finals of the British Open one page after recalling Amr Bey’s many years of winning both the Open and the Amateur. He also claims that Ezra lost just one game in his four years at Harvard: Marty Clark losing to him in five, after being up 2-0, in the 1993 intercollegiate finals never happened?
Worse yet, he calls the Bath Club Cup, which began in 1922, as “the longest-running inter-club squash competition in the world.” Please. The Philadelphia SRA started an inter-club league in March 1903 and unlike the Bath Club Cup, the Philly league has run every year since.
Hopkins also fails to fully elucidate the so-called “American Court,” the 18 and 1/2 foot wide singles court that the RAC built in 1950 and only tore down in 2003. The last hardball court purposefully made outside North America, the American court was not simply a nod to Anglo-American relations (it had the Stars & Stripes and the Union Jack on the door). Hopkins claims it was built because hardball “was on the increase” and that the RAC was ahead of a trend. In fact, it was just the opposite: in the late 1940s softball squash was finally ascendant with countries all around the world standardizing their courts for softball; at the same time, hardball was shrinking to just North America.
Actually, the American court was a last gasp from the early days of squash in London, when courts were all sorts of shapes and sizes. Queen’s first court was 35 by 18 feet; Lord’s was 42 by 24; and the RAC’s original three 1911 courts were 32 by 18 and 1/2. The main reason the RAC built a brand-new hardball court in 1950 was that they had the space, and they didn’t want to anger the older members who had been playing on a court that size for nearly 40 years. If they hadn’t built it, perhaps they would have been tossing more than bread rolls and fish.
(Toronto: Hume Intermedia, 2007)
10 Simple Ways to Improve Your Squash: Win More Matches, Have More Fun
(e-book, December 2011)
Straight off: Double Up is supposed to be the first book about squash doubles. It isn’t really or rather it is but so much more. There are nearly 40 pages of drills in the appendix which are incredibly detailed, each with diagrams and notes. Hardly anyone I know—even many pro players—ever drill or take lessons in doubles, so Cooper is truly working in virgin territory. For the appendix alone, this book is worth obtaining.
Nonetheless, the other 281 pages are devoted to the psychology of squash. Cooper included dozens of full-page caricatures, brilliantly sardonic and sassy ink drawings that illustrate the thoughts that players have on and off court (they were drawn by Terra Martin, a poet and therapist in Toronto).
What Cooper says is applicable to singles as well as doubles, and really to any athlete. She advises players to be selfish, to avoid internal punishment systems—to “play detective rather than judge and jury” when you make a mistake. Eat your ego, she says. “When your ego is strong and secure with the way you use your emotions, beliefs, words, actions and objects, then it becomes independent. Egos need to grow big and fat to protect the body from insults, attacks and accusations that could hurt us emotionally.” Mistakes and losses are good as they give you experience: “You collect experience in order to sort out what it means later. Without experience, you cannot decipher what it is you do not know about a given action.”
She also gives practical advice like staying in a nice hotel room at a tournament, so you have a place you can relax between matches. To teach the idea of watching the ball, she suggests you stare at a stationary object, first for ten straight minutes, then to twenty and on up until a full hour. Then stare at a moving target, like a video game, in the same progression. Double Up is a compelling read. Of course, any squash book would be if, like this one, it has a chapter entitled “Libido.”
Barb Cooper is from England though she has lived in Canada for more than a quarter century. A tennis player growing up, she took up squash when she got married at age 19 because her husband played. Cooper reached No. 8 in the world. She has won ten world masters titles and has represented both England and Canada in team competition. As a squash coach, she has led the Canadian women’s team. She calls herself a mental training specialist— her motto is “Time to Psych Up.”
She has also made a couple of dozen web videos, “Help! My Squash Game” and recently issued a 21-page e-book, 10 Simple Ways to Improve Your Squash which is free at her website, racketdrills.com. Both books are very helpful for the neophyte player.