THE ARCHIVES: PORTRAIT OF A REVOLUTIONARY – BARRINGTON

From Squash Player Issue 1 – a look at the pioneering Jonah Barrington.

IN THE background a Mozartc oncerto created the mood. On court, relaxed by the gentle cadences, the man they have called alternatively a freak, fanatic and madman played a session of finely tuned drop shots—as subtle as the music and as skilfully executed. 

Suddenly, the accompaniment was pop; the crescendos greater; the movement faster. In turn, Jonah Barrington, OBE, at 30 the world’s greatest squash player, sped and spun about the court with the grace and aggression of a jungle animal. 

“I enjoy both kinds of music,” explained this rebel who has revolu­tionised the game, “but essentially squash is very much an animal game. It’s very primitive in its movement—crouching, jumping, stamping, lunging. That’s not like a normal human being. It’s more akin to an animal. It takes one a little bit back into the jungle, but with the disciplined patterns of our everyday life. Beat music is our answer to tribal music, which works the African up to a frenzy.” 

That’s one side of Barrington, the most magnetic, mercurial, masterful personality to grace the world’s squash courts. The long hair, the moustache, and the wild shirts are the image of the rebel he has 

been. And perhaps the revolutionary he currently is. 

He has subjected the game’s conven­tions to a searching reappraisal. He was, and is, a paradox—a practical visionary. He is perceptive in identifying barriers and imaginative in breaking through them. 

Off court you recognise him as one of those fast-talking Celts who enjoy a scrap. And you remember the first time you saw those instincts—when he won his first British open title in 1966. To get through he had to beat Abou Taleb, champion for three successive years. They fought out one of the most punishing matches ever seen. It made the blood run cold simply to watch. And when Barrington came off court, the victor, he was suffering from four bad bruises. 

He is no sporting robot, though. He is an inspiring disciple of the game whose enthusiasm inspires all around him, and he is inexhaustibly articulate. This, plus his skill, knowledge and sense of fun, cast him perfectly for the role he plays at his famous one man squash clinics. 

The sense of fun, and the feeling, come through when he talks about them . . . 

“My full clinic is a two-hour business with an exhibition at the end. I’ve spent four years working on this—after a shell shock of a start in Johannesburg in October, 1967. 

“I was there for a short exhibition tour. The South African side, who had been to Australia, had reported to their associa­tion that Jonah Barrington had verbal diarrhoea, and should give a talk on the game. I had some gall—I’d only been playing seriously for three years. 

“I fronted up at the Wanderers’ Club at 36 hours’ notice before the full committee of the South African S.R.A. and a substantial gallery—to talk and demon­strate, never having done so in my life before. 

I remember thinking, what the hell am I going to tell these people? How many ways are there to tell them to 

hit the ball down the wall? You can’t extemporise on this for an hour and a half. In detail, squash is a very boring game. But Barrington, I thought, you practise on your own to certain patterns. So show them that, tell them about the Khans and anything else that comes to mind, and see how it goes. I’d been a teacher. I’d made speeches after winning things. And squash was my subject. 

“As I talked and demonstrated and tried to be funny, I can clearly remember looking up and seeing some solemn and even hard faces. There was worry and doubt in my mind—until about 30 people came into the changing room to con­ gratulate me on an excellent performance. 

“From that moment on, I decided that I wasn’t going to spend hours coaching individually; I was going to fill a gallery with 150 people. Financially, this was obviously going to provide a far better return. It would also relieve the boredom of individual coaching. And it appealed to the extrovert side of my nature. I love putting on an act (which is why I’d like to be a fit Abou Taleb). This does give me an opportunity to capitalise on my Irish background!” 

Barrington has one great advantage these days … he is a rare winner in a nation of good losers. But things haven’t always been so much in his favour. Perhaps the motivation for his success comes from the past. 

He was born in Morwenstow, near Bude, Cornwall, which looks out across the water towards the homeland of his Irish father and his Welsh mother. 

 There was public school and university, but he didn’t just slip into squash, although he picked up the basic grammar of the game at Cheltenham College. W hen the dreams of hemming a No. 1 sportsman did begin to dominate his thinking there were the problems to overcome. An operation on his back; he started wearing contact lenses; and there was the small point of finding time to train, practise and compete for a minimum of four hours a day and still balance his budget. 

He was a schoolmaster; he was assistant secretary of the S.R.A.; he dabbled in such jobs as a milk round, selling life insurance, washing dishes in a restaurant, and posing as a life model for art students. He was, in fact, ready to try anything that would help him to dedicate his life to squash. And dedicate himself to it he did. This intense Celt made a virtue and an obsession of it. 

He worked at the game instead of playing it, and passed on the truths he learned: “There’s only room for specialists at the top these days—you can’t dabble.” O r “ Fitness means you don’t take risks to finish a rally quickly.” 

And the successes came . . . 

NOW he is reaping the rewards of the pain and personal sacrifice it took to get to the top. He has 

been a professional since 1969 and now, added to the talents he displays cruelly and crushingly on court, is the shrewdness and intelligence of the businessman. 

“I’m trying to expand my business interests in Britain,” he says. “The big problem has always been that I have never earned my bread and butter from squash in the usual way, by coaching. But there’s a substantial return from endorsements—a glove, clothing, shoes, a racket. I’m also moving into beer advertising. 

BUT I’m not utilising the greater part of the day, except for practising –  I still do about four hours on and off court—weights, running, and the court training schedule I’ve devised. In the winter I can give exhibitions and clinics.

“The thing I’m most conscious about  is my playing standard. I will not fall foul of the problem tennis players have: too intensive travel. Constant time changes eventually affect the system, and the first thing to go is the reflexes (I had this in Greece this summer). One must get rest and practice and recover from the journeys. 

“At 30 I only have a limited number of years to play at a high standard. There’s a big question mark against that. So many players are getting so much fitter at an earlier age. This puts pressure on the older players, who won’t be able to stay—not with experience alone. The degree cf training that will be involved will be frightening. And players, like athletes, won’t be able to pursue it for too long. You have to make so many sacrifices. 

“When I started, nobody trained. All the work was done on the court: basically, playing. Now it is understood that one has to do far more work, besides, if one is to become a top player. 

“I’M looking for involvement in a squash centre or squash centres. I want to develop the first squash ranch, a centre open to the people. I like the idea of anybody walking of the street and into my centre to play. I want those courts to be open mornings and afternoons for schoolchildren—this must be done throughout Britain. I want a ranch where I can bring the best young players for weekend courses—training, practice, and intensive coaching. 

“Meantime, the clinic side of it is a big development. I try to stamp with a story every serious point I put over. This year I started to move more into the American market. I went to Canada and New York in April and I’m going again in September. Exhibitions and clinics. I’ll also play in a pro-am event in Toronto. In May I went to Sweden for the first time, and I’m going again in September. It’s a bit of a first-timer year, really.” 

So Jonah Barrington is still looking round for new challenges. No one scoffs now. Watching him, the 

controlled aggression, the animal cunning, the flamboyant manner, it is difficult to imagine why they ever did. 

When I finished an article on him in those darker days in 1966, I said: “Today’s madman may be tomorrow’s realist.” Perhaps the fitting finish to this article would be: “Today’s madman was yesterday’s realist.”