It is 1975 and I’ve left my sleepy New Forest home for the bright lights and persistent rain that was Bristol University to study law and life. I had a lot to learn.
My university sporting life didn’t just involve rugby and some sweaty gym work. I also discovered squash. I’d heard about it but back in rural Hampshire, box shaped buildings with no windows were called barns and home to bulls not balls. Yet in the grounds of Churchill Hall were two squash courts that were exclusively for our use. A simple form in the lobby let you book a time to play. There were even a few old rackets for use by beginners, though you’d need your own ball. My new best friend, Dave, had played and said he’d teach me.
I knew full well that, even before we stepped onto the slatted Swedish pine floor, two things would quickly emerge. One, while Dave would teach me the rudiments, there was no way any session wouldn’t end with my defeat and probable humiliation. And two I would do everything in my power, stretch every tenuous sinew to beat him.
I’d played a fair few sports by then but few, if any, created the same sense of satisfaction that timing a full on smash in squash achieved. There was something raw and visceral and animalistic in the crack as you connected with that little puddingy black ball. I wanted to do that more and more.
I also quickly learnt another lesson about squash. If your opponent is behind you and connects as above, and if you intercept the ball before it reaches the front wall, using some fleshy part of your anatomy, it felt something akin to having a biopsy undertaken with a pastry cutter. Over time I became something of a connoisseur of those perfectly symmetrical cat’s anus shaped bruises as they dotted my hindmost parts. The back and legs were painful, the ears and back of the neck, excruciatingly so. But the one time I made the mistake of being slightly airborne as the ball bisected my thighs and defected off my hitherto mollycoddled left testicle was on a different scale entirely.
I vividly recall the confusion I experienced aged 11 and just starting at my new grammar school, when we boys were all lined up to see the school doctor. We were to have a medical but for reasons I didn’t understand, those nearer the head of the line were trying and failing to contain a smutty giggle. Eventually I arrived at the front and the by now less than enthusiastic medic. He looked into my eyes, ears and mouth, used his stethoscope to check for TB and then, with not so much as an excuse me, or other customary foreplay, unclipped my shorts, stuck three warm and uncomfortably moist fingers inside and under my penis and told me to cough. Frankly given the surprise I’d have had trouble remembering All Things Bright And Beautiful at that moment so conjuring up a cough wasn’t on the agenda. The exasperated medicine man repeated the exhortation and told me I needed to cough to see if they’d dropped. What, I wondered, was he referring to?
In those fleeting moments of utter agony, when scenes from the exhibition of one’s life flash before one, this came to my mind. Was this the moment when the fumbling doctor’s discovery of some three dimensional manifestation of incipient puberty on my part would be reversed? If so then I think I experienced a second puberty which might have explained the pain.
I improved my serve, found ways to retrieve the ball as it died a death on the back wall and, eventually defeated David. He sulked, but he was far too competitive and we played many more games as we sought to perforate the other on the way to a comprehensive win.
I thought I was pretty good.
Then, in my last year I met the Textiliste. She was modest – ‘I played a little, just messing about’- and being smaller and lighter of frame posed no real threat.
Yeah right. She trounced me. I fought back until I was merely badly beaten. She’s lovely and generous and kind and thoughtful and never once let me win. It took months for me to adapt to her technique. She’s not competitive – it really never mattered who won to her – but it bloody did to me. I began to even things up but until time, tide and life took us away from the squash courts in our thirties and despite me working assiduously at my fitness, I was never more than a couple of games from defeat.
The one thing I never did play at University was, oddly, cricket which had dominated my summers for years. There was one reason. Exams. On returning after Easter, I sweated buckets by way of revision. Law exams seemed to be taken early, when compared to other degrees, so the idea of nets and long languorous matches in the lowering sun was put on hold. And then, once the exams were over, there were more parties than an overhyped election. So my cricket playing occurred when I returned to Hampshire to earn some money, try and stay away from my parents and brother and (in those pre Textiliste days) explore the opportunities for engaging the opposite sex in amateur gymnastics. Now that is a sport for the ages….