Good Literary Length: Three New Books

Good Literary Length: Three New Books

By James Zug

Trading Secrets: Squash Greats Recall Their Toughest Duels
Rod Gilmour
(Durrington, England: Pitch Publishing, 2015)

IMG_0001(1)Oral history books are notoriously unreliable. What one person remembers might not jib with the facts, and memories tend to fade and rust over time. But oral histories also draw you, with their intimate, first-person narratives, directly into the heart of the action.

Rod Gilmour is a British sports journalist for The Daily Telegraph who covers the world of field hockey. Seven years ago he began writing about squash for the Telegraph and Squash Player Magazine and in 2012 collaborated with James Willstrop on his memoir, Shot and a Ghost. Trading Secrets comes with a foreword by James’s father, Malcolm Willstrop.

Gilmour has produced a book of remarkable historical importance. He secured and then digested and edited interviews from players in eighteen important matches, dating from nonagenarian Azam Khan talking about the 1960 British Open final to a youthful Ramy Ashour discussing last year’s World Championship final.

A major drawback to the collection is the lack of female representation. Just three of the eighteen interviewees are women and one, Heather McKay, gets only a short essay since Gilmour was unable to interview her. He laments that McKay and Susan Devoy (as well as an elusive Jansher Khan and a not-so-elusive Amr Shabana) declined to be interviewed, but there are many other women still alive who merited attention: Sheila Macintosh (who won the 1960 British Open finals 9-6 in the fifth, after being runner-up the previous two years); Vicki Cardwell (who owned the British Open in the early 1980s); and Rachael Grinham (who had an historic British Open final victory in 2007 over Nicol David, coming back from an 0-2 deficit).

Nonetheless, the stories in Trading Secrets are revelatory. Azam Khan finally admits what we all knew, that he would never beat his older brother Hashim unless Hashim gave him permission. He also bluntly criticizes his cousin Roshan Khan for his “dirty tricks” and blocking, and Jonah Barrington’s poor behavior: “He was a very bad sportsman then, always crying.” Geoff Hunt talks about urinating blood after his 1981 British Open victory. Ross Norman mentions the controversial Merco television ball used in his 1986 World Open final when he broke Jahangir Khan’s five-year unbeaten streak. Chris Dittmar speaks about being up 9-0 in the fifth (fifteen point scoring) in the 1989 World Open finals and losing. Sarah Fitz-Gerald spins the tale of her luggage not arriving with her at the 2002 World Open, so she has to borrow “Nick Taylor’s training t-shirt, Lee Beachill’s training shorts, Isabelle Stoehr’s bra and socks, Tania Bailey’s skirt”—it takes a village. Jonathon Power says he threw up after the first game of the 1998 World Open finals. Peter Nicol talks about getting death threats after he switched allegiances from Scotland to England and how some English pros resented the move.

A particularly rich vein that Gilmour quarries is about training. Jonah Barrington trained in high-altitude Kenya for three weeks before the 1972 British Open; Jahangir did the same thing at the Khyber Pass in 1981; and Thierry Lincou played squash in the Alps every summer. Rodney Eyles boxed (without a head guard). David Palmer went mountain biking and did hill sprints. Nick Matthew endured brutal physical therapy to prepare for the 2014 Commonwealth Games less than five weeks after knee surgery. Ramy Ashour did plasma injections to heal his hamstring before the 2014 World Open.

The best training story is definitely the retelling of Chris Dittmar’s legendary preparation for the 1989 World Open. In order to handle the heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur, the Aussie used a versa climber in the Adelaide fire brigade’s humidity chamber, flogging himself for hours.

Gilmour neatly supplements the interviews with eyewitness reports that help round out the perspective. It was great to see again the sparkling prose of Dicky Rutnagur: “Pick up a sandwich on the way [to the 1972 British Open finals], for you certainly won’t get away early.”

The articles, though, sometimes introduce contradictions, especially what the score was at a critical juncture in the match. (For example, Geoff Hunt’s lead in the fifth game of the 1972 British Open final when Jonah Barrington suddenly revived is pegged at 7-2 by Barrington, 6-0 by Squash Player and 7-0 by Hunt.) Besides the McKay essay, two other chapters don’t have a journalist’s eyewitness report: Azam Khan’s 1960 victory, which the Times of London surely covered and Lee Beachill’s triumph about the 2004 U.S. Open, even though a long and detailed article does exist, from this magazine’s November 2004 issue.

Another puzzling editorial decision was to use only one player’s perspective on any particular match, even though the opponent not only is still alive but Gilmour actually interviewed him for the book. This occurs a half dozen times (Peter Nicol talks about his 2006 Commonweath Games victory over David Palmer, for example, and then the next chapter is David Palmer’s memories of his 2006 World Open success).

It seems a conscious choice—until the brilliant chapter about the classic 2010 James Willstrop v. Nick Matthew semis at Canary Wharf when Gilmour not only includes his interview with the match’s loser, Willstrop, and his own article from The Daily Telegraph but also a dual interview with Willstrop and Matthew from 2012. Then the last chapter, about Ramy Ashour’s stunning win in the 2014 World Championship finals, he has not only Ashour’s fascinating tale of recovery from injury but also finalist Mohamed Elshorbagy’s thoughts in defeat.

Having both players’ recollections, side-by-side, give much more insight into the build-up to the match and what occurred on court. Nonetheless, Trading Secrets is a must for any squash fan’s bookshelf.

Casino Qaddafi: An Oliver Steele Financial Thriller
Graham Tempest
(Apopka, Fla: Brightway Publishing, 2015)

IMG(1)This is the third Oliver Steele thriller to come out from Graham Tempest. The pen name for Anglo-American squash player Jeremy Stone, Tempest tells the story of a Florida accountant who again finds himself in extremely tricky situations. Taut, fresh and sprinkled with a touch of Kipling and pigeons at Waterloo, Casino Qaddafi feels like an Ian Fleming novel updated for the twenty-first century.

The first in Tempest’s series, Casino Caribbean (see October 2011 issue of Squash Magazine) had no squash in it. I complained. So the second, Casino Excelsior, did. Ask and ye shall receive. I noted in a review of Excelsior on my blog (March 2013, that the novel included mentions of squash at Oxford (Steele got a blue there; Stone played squash at Cambridge) and in Los Angeles (Stone lived there for decades and in the 1980s was the president of the Southern California SRA).

The story in Qaddafi—about people trying to get money out of an illegitimate son of Colonel Qaddafi—bounces from Tortola in the British Virgin Islands to New York and Long Island to Libya and Niger in North Africa to Macao in China to a climatic scene in the Shard, the London skyscraper.

The accountant side, stuffed with SWIFT codes and potentate capital and quarterly operating statements, sounds real. There are also Bondian fast cars, sleek pistols and gunfights in the desert (Tempest either did a lot of traveling to research this book or has a vivid imagination.)

There is a lot of squash this time. Ask and ye shall seriously receive. David Palmer, the former world No. 1, and Terry Eagle, the California cynosure, get cameos. A main character was captain of the Yale team, another played No. 1 for Princeton. Tempest writes about one match at the Racquet & Tennis Club in New York and another on a private court in the Hamptons.

Two small quibbles: Steele, in his squash gear, strolls across a lawn as he heads to play squash: would anyone really deliberately walk on grass before getting on a court? And a Wall Street banker keeps his racquets stashed in an umbrella stand?

The Heart Code
Laura Matson Hahn
(New Hope, PA: Conversation Farm Books, 2013)

IMG_0002(1)I just came across this engaging and substantial novel by Laura Matson Hahn. It is set in the Connecticut suburbs of New York in the 1930s and has a Richard Yates feel to it, although much more positive.

The Meaden family is a squash family. The father plays with verve: “Set up the point and demand an answer.” The daughter plays at Trinity and then joins the board of the national women’s association and plays with Eleo Sears and Margaret Howe. There is a mention of the double boast and a sexy elaboration on the Atlantic Dip, the annual tradition of swimming in the ocean during the Atlantic Coast Championships in February.

The son, Ron, is even more passionate about squash. “As a pipsqueak, he’d demonstrated a natural grace and unswerving deftness in smashing an unreturnable ball.” Ron was the champion at a school very similar to St. Paul’s. He talks about Harry Cowles, the famous Harvard squash coach.

Ron is a 1930s version of Mark Talbott. He quits college to follow his dream in playing the squash circuit, where he becomes one of the greats. “It was his genuine good nature that most infuriated his foes and impressed his fans,” Hahn writes of Ron. “His easy laugh when losing a point, his genuine caring for opponents when they did not do well and his always calling ‘good shot’ even when it cost him the match.”