One of Ian McEwan’s familiar set-piece exuberances in his acclaimed new novel Saturday — ‘undoubtedly his best’: Anita Brookner, The Spectator, 29 January — has neurosurgeon hero Perowne indulging in an intensely competitive game of squash with anaesthetist Strauss. The doc plays each desperately combative rally on the tightrope of his own mortality, as if every unsparingly venomous stroke might be his last. McEwan is spot-on: fiction as sporting verity. Forget the noisy, follow-my-leader courtesy of modern motor-racing, hectic hunting, or even madcaps’ mountaineering; I fancy that it is the sheer mental and physical ferocity of racket games played shoulder to shoulder in a cruelly intimate, confined space which, of all sports, transports its participants closest to death.
I’m talking both suicide and murder here. I once knew Jonah Barrington, the remarkable Brit who was wholly responsible for the astonishing squash boom of the 1970s and 1980s. Forty years ago this engaging obsessive was washer-up at nights in a Kensington bistro I used to frequent — 19 Mossop Street, next to the Admiral Codrington pub — and at dawn he moved down the road to wash milk bottles at the Chelsea Dairy. In between, all day long the wacky nut would practise squash and we used to snort and giggle with derision when he said his plan was to be world champion. And then one day, suddenly, he was — and every year between 1967 and 1973, with outrageous verve, he defended the title against a succession of fuming all-comers. I interviewed Jonah on the famous night he won his sixth championship. He was wrecked, all-in, but his eyes dazzled in delirium: ‘There was a fantastic and savage and unrivalled satisfaction the moment I knew I had him beaten. I looked deep into his eyes and could see his defeat, his utter humiliation, his degradation ...and, I’m telling you, there just ain’t another feeling in the world remotely like it.’
I thought of that malignantly scary night reading McEwan — and also last week when reading of the death at 85 of good Lord Aberdare. He was another rackets champ I briefly knew, but a mighty different cove from good ol’ homicidal Jonah. Or so, from his endearingly gentle manner, you might have imagined. But I bet his lordship’s plimsolls squealed with just as pitiless intent as he stalked his prey on the parquet-floored snakepit of the courts. Else he would not have won the British real-tennis singles and doubles titles four times each in the 1950s and 1960s, would he? Unlike Barrington, m’lord had been born to the perspiring intensities of the chase — his pa, the third Baron, also held national titles at rackets and real tennis, and as well as being a doughty doll at lawn tennis, mater was one of Britain’s first women’s squash champions.
I worked with Lord Aberdare, who was a junior minister in Ted Heath’s Tory government, when he helped set up the museum at Wimbledon’s All-England club. His graciousness and knowing enthusiasm were a delight. He said the two proudest moments of his life were, at age 20, reaching the final of the 1939 British doubles championship in partnership with his 54-year-old father (lost 3–14) and, at precisely the same advanced age, taking a set off world champion Howard Angus (25) in the Bathurst Cup. And now I come to think of it, just for a second or two as he told the tale, a diabolical shaft of sadistic savagery did illuminate the old man’s soft-boiled eyes.