Gandhi once said: ‘Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will.’ As all aficionados of squash will tell you, it also needs iron self-discipline.
Four members of the Dublin University Squash Club, myself included, paid a short visit to Paris just before Christmas. I started playing squash at Trinity College last summer. At one of my first drill sessions someone mentioned the prospect of a trip to Paris and I was delighted to hear a few months later it would be going ahead. While in Paris enjoying a post-match beer I gladly accepted an invitation by Tony Simpson (Dublin University Squash Club Captain) to write about the experience and have since decided to take full advantage of this opportunity by showcasing the game. I will do this by focussing on what squash means to me, drawing inspiration from, among others, Trinity’s own champion Jonah Barrington.
But first things first, what did we get up to in Paris? Our hostel was based in Montmartre – ‘mountain of the martyr’ – a name derived from the martyrdom of Saint Denis, the Bishop of Paris, who was decapitated atop a hill in 250 AD! Long known as the premier artist’s enclave in the city, Montmartre is a quaint and colourful bohemian village-like district. It is also home to our Irish Parisian/Parisian Irishman Club Captain whose warm hospitality throughout our stay was unforgettable.
After one extremely well-oiled evening, we meandered through the streets of Montmartre ending up at one of its most recognizable landmarks – the Basilica du Sacré-Coeur (Basilica of the Sacred Heart). Having returned during daylight hours on our Sunday stroll via Montmartre village and Place du Tertre, a square where artists set up their easels and tempt passers-by with their works of art – we were given a distinct reminder of the time when Montmartre was a mecca of modern art. I think it was a good job I didn’t realise L’Espace Salvador Dali was just a few steps away (that can wait until next time) though a few of us did get to savour Musée de L’Orangerie – home to Claude Monet’s Water Lilies and a wide-ranging collection of works by Paul Guillaume, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Henry Rousseau, Paul Cézanne, Henry Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Andre Derain among others. Those lilies were indeed ‘a peaceful haven’ and a timely counterbalance to our schedule.
As for the squash, matches were played against Squash Montmartre, Tony’s home club, and Société Sportive de Jeu de Paume et de Racquets. The latter is also home to a real tennis court and our group was delighted to receive a lesson of what the French refer to as jeu de paume (‘the game of the palm’ – a testament to the days when monks initially used their hands to hit the ball). Adrian Kemp (hailing from Colchester, Essex in England), the real tennis professional at the Paris court, was outstanding and we were all extremely grateful to him for his hospitable introduction to this fascinating game. The austere environment of Société Sportive (without detracting in any way from our hosts) provided an interesting contrast to Squash Montmartre. How best to describe the latter? A small, friendly club, with the lowest squash court ceilings I’ve ever encountered, containing a bar and an eclectic array of delightfully kitsch memorabilia, I think just about does it justice. Truly memorable!
Jeu de Paume!
The website of the Irish Real Tennis Association (www.irishrealtennis.ie) describes ‘the king of all racquet sports, a game where subtlety and thought are more prized than power and fitness. It is played in an asymmetrical court which contains many unusual features, sloping roofs, openings (galleries) in the walls and a main wall which has a kink in it (tambour) so the ball on hitting the sloping face moves across the court instead of continuing down the line of the main wall’.
I was infected with the real tennis bug during our Parisian adventure and look forward to playing on tour in Bristol at the beginning of February. We had the added benefit of witnessing Roland Budd demonstrate why he is the present Irish Real Tennis Champion during our visit to Société Sportive where he and Simpson also scored impressive victories against their squash opponents.
Just for the record, a real tennis racket is tightly strung, heavy and wooden; no such thing as a light, graphite real tennis racket! Another big difference is the ball. A normal tennis ball has a generous bounce and is light in contrast to the heavy, hand-made low-bouncing real tennis ball. Clearly this game presents a diverse range of additional challenges to relish and has truly captured my imagination. How could it not with its galleries and theatrically cloistered make up?
What squash means to me
I started playing competitive squash in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada in 2008 (for anyone out there emigrating to Vancouver, Vancouver Racquets Club – www.vrc.bc.ca – has my full endorsement). At fifteen years of age I made a stand against religion and openly declared to the world that I was rejecting what I perceived at that time to be the goose march of Catholic ritualistic tradition. Ever since removing myself from the Catholic Church, severing those apron springs, so to speak, my interest in competition for the sake of competition also dissipated. I’m sure these two matters are related but anyway, getting back to the point: my only motivation for playing squash in Canada was to get to know Canadians! It would have been much, much more difficult to establish a social life but for my involvement with the game. Of course, any sport can be social but why is squash any different? What does it offer that other games fail to deliver?
The speed, endurance and intensity of effort involved in squash require a lot of application and hard work over a long period. As an all-weather sport that sees marvellous and mysterious minds converge with blood (very rarely), sweat (always) and tears (occasionally), squash represents a uniquely character-building challenge. Like all sport, application, determination and the ability to think under pressure are vital requirements but if you are hungry and ambitious to succeed and adopt a common sense approach, my experience suggests your game will improve and your enjoyment will soar. The squash court places physical demands on our bodies but far less amenable to analysis, and in so many ways far more interesting, is the potential of our minds to excel in this primitive pit of passion and perseverance – a place where two players, shut up like caged animals, battle it out with one another.
I believe every one of us is inherently competitive. This is not to suggest that such instincts manifest in the same way. Of course they do not. Nor does it suggest that ‘competitive’ cannot be deconstructed into multiple layers of meaning. The great advantage of squash as a social sport is that the game is very much the focus and winning then becomes a vital ingredient, but not its essence; the ultimate reward, when a healthy approach to the sport is adopted, is one that serves therapeutic ends – mental, physical as well as spiritual.
Trinity College’s greatest ever exponent of squash is Jonah Barrington, winner of the British Open Championship (then the world championship in all but name) in 1966, 1967, 1969, 1970, 1971, 1972 and World Amateur Champion in 1966, 1967 and 1968. Although, by his own admission in Murder in the Squash Court (his analysis of the mental demands of the game: ‘Murder’) he was better known for Guinness-drinking than sport while a student, Barrington is one of the finest players ever to have graced a squash court. The enormous enjoyment he derived directly from playing the game, as expressed by this formidable competitor in Murder, was only ever exceeded at the moment of victory.
For Barrington, this moment and that of defeat are: ‘the two real moments of truth, of exhilaration on the one hand and despair on the other, when one realises that all the preparatory punishment and self-denial have or have not been enough’.
I whole-heartedly agree with his conviction that: ‘Squash is not just a game. For anyone who has the opportunity to become involved with squash, it builds independence. As with any sport approached properly and with concentration, one has to be independent in that area because it’s ruthless…..you have to stand on your own two feet entirely…basically it’s the individual down there in the pit who has to promote himself or herself, and persevere, and learn all kinds of little things that are character building’.
The coup de grace
Squash can be played your whole life. It is a life-long social sport, attracting players of all ages at different stages of their lives. Barrington, for example, didn’t pick up a racket, with the intention of excelling competitively, until he was 23! Squash represents a spring of intergenerational promise, offering a great deal to posterity, not least as a social sport with serious hobby potential. Squash inheres within friendships and friendships inhere within squash. However fond of warrior, war and murder analogies you are, respect and friendship, fun and fitness will always make squash the game it is. If you are reading this and perhaps sitting on the fence, take a leap of faith and come join us at www.squash.tcdlife.ie.
This must go to Elvy Da Costa, our coach. I have never known anyone in squash like him. We should all be in awe of his Herculean commitment and sense of duty to the game. No better man to help shape, hone and develop our quick-think, quick-feet and nimble brains. Thank you Elvy.
This article is dedicated to Ken Whelan, no longer busy ‘catching the devil by the tail’, and his memory.