Thursday, September 21, 2023

Squash and the royals: I still feel guilty to this day after pinching a court from Prince Philip

I cringed as my American opponent roared ‘No way, man, you’re 10 minutes late’
By GORDON KERR (Squash Mad Correspondent)

My accidental brush with royalty came from a most unlikely source: an assertive, self-assured American to whom etiquette was a distinctly foreign language.

My path towards an incident that still makes me shudder began after just under three years of working for Lloyds Bank in their graduate trainee programme. Dazzled by the prospects of the bright lights of glamorous travel offered by debt capital markets investment banking, I applied for a job at Bank of America International Ltd (BAIL).

In fact, the opportunity only arose because of my love of amateur sport. When applying I was working at Lloyds, Notting Hill Gate branch. I was close friends with Satish Dosaj, an amazingly talented hockey player who had played for the full Kenyan national men’s team at the age of 15.

He introduced me to the Spencer Club in Clapham, where the personnel director of BAIL was an enthusiastic member. It was she who encouraged me to apply. I started in June 1983 aged 23.

I was immediately captivated in our weekly meetings by one in particular of the firm’s ‘rainmaker’ stars, Michael Wellman. I was particularly charmed by the marketing successes of this American, a Vietnam veteran who was responsible for all new business generation in Italy (BAIL in London was responsible for all of Europe, the Middle East and Africa).

Michael rarely failed to win a competitive eurobond or syndicated loan mandate; in fact clients – such as state agencies in Italy and motorway building companies – were so enthralled by him that they lined up to hear how, for example, at one or other juncture he parachuted into death defying situations in the war, spraying the Vietcong with his machine gun with one hand whilst pulling the safety pin from a grenade with the other, clearing his landing space.

He was pretty fit, about 40, a ringer for Al Pacino in his heyday, and I was chuffed when he asked me to play squash, first as a one-off, then on a regular basis on Friday afternoons.

He was a no-nonsense fellow and simply told me that he had heard that I was the best squash player in BAIL, hence his invitations. (As a keen club squash player I was playing basically every day somewhere in the city either at lunchtime or after work.)

Given his seniority in the firm and the stupid hours I and the other junior staff were working, I loved the chance to get out of the office at 5-ish on a Friday.

Not only was the prospect of squash welcome enough, but Michael was a member of the utterly spectacular Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, to which he drove me most Fridays in his gull-winged Thunderbird which the bank had had flown over from California for him, and which he basically parked all the time on yellow lines both in the City and, when we arrived at RAC, right outside the main entrance to the club.

If you were American, owning a Thunderbird made you immune to London’s parking restrictions – even outside the RAC Club!

Michael was enthusiastic but not a great amateur player, and to incentivise me to play him ‘properly’ he would offer me not a bottle, but a crate of champagne every week if he could win a single game off me.

He never won a game, nor did he ever cough up the champagne, but I didn’t care; I really liked his company, and the RAC was and remains such a magnificent squash and sports venue that it was a joy to play there regularly as his guest. We played a couple of times a month for about two years, 1984 and 85.

Of course, as a mere visitor I had no idea of the club rules, other than the importance of wearing white kit which was obviously not a problem. I noticed that, prior to high-tech booking systems, there was a sheet near the pro shop in the basement representing the four court time booking slots, and a pencil.

When we arrived Michael would always scratch his initials into a booking slot. Sometimes he produced a rubber, which I considered odd, and obviously I realised he was replacing someone else’s initials with his own.

I assumed these were other members whom he knew were not showing up. I occasionally asked him why he had not pre-booked and was always told that he was too busy, never knew which country he would be in from one day to the next, and everything was fine anyway.

I think it was the spring of 1985 when, at about 18.15 one Friday evening, just as we had started knocking up, I heard a polite tapping of a wooden racket (even then that was odd – we were all using graphite) against the high back wall above the splendidly appointed Court One. I looked up and immediately recognised the tall, angular figure of the Duke of Edinburgh. We both stopped hitting.

At the SRA Golden Jubilee Dinner in 1978 at the RAC Club in London, before speaking to mark the occasion, Prince Philip was introduced to British players (from left): Jonny Leslie (behind HRH), Jonah Barrington, Mike Oddy and Nigel Broomfield (World Squash Library)

The Duke coughed politely as if to apologise for interrupting our knock-up and then said: “I’m terribly sorry but I have booked this court.”

I was about to walk off through the court door and retrieve my valuables from the quaint little personal lockers outside when Michael, in a rather strident voice, called up defiantly “No Way, Man! This is a 6 o’clock court. You are more than ten minutes late. Club Rules – you forfeit, and it’s my court now”.

I just froze. I did not know where to look. Did Michael know who we were displacing? The Duke looked at his partner (probably a member of his security detail, also a visitor) without speaking, and walked away. Michael insisted I start our ‘match’ and serve to him.

When we finished I noticed the Duke playing on Court Four. Funny, I thought, all the courts were booked when we arrived. Perhaps the RAC authorities persuaded the members booked on that court to cede it to the Duke.

I made a point of inspecting the pencil booking sheet, and there was the clear evidence, the initials “HRH” were clearly visible from the indentation in the paper.

But Michael had got his little rubber out, and his “MW” initials had now replaced the Duke’s.

Pictures courtesy of Gordon Kerr and World Squash Library 


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