Know thyself, said the ancients, know thyself and you can't go far wrong. But the ancients knew nothing of squash.
As a kid I knew nothing of squash either. If asked, I'd have said it was a sort of tennis and I had never taken to tennis, partly because it was played at the same time of the year as cricket, but also because of the way it spread.
The only courts I ever played on were public ones, enclosed by ancient wire netting that retained the players well enough but let the balls pass through and over and under. In tennis you spent more time fetching balls than hitting them. Tennis was too wide for the world.
But then at university there was a squash court right there in college, and propitiously close to the bar. Inside it I found tennis with a wall as the net and both players on the same side of it, so that neither the ball nor the intensity could go wandering. The result was a unique form of sporting warfare.
When a game heated up, the court became a cauldron and the desire to win was intertwined with the desire not to get hurt, specifically not to get struck by the ball - which could raise a welt like Mount Fuji or split an eyeball - or by the racquet - which had a frame of hardened wood and which swung with the speed of an axe - or by 85 kilos of opponent - as he flung himself towards the front corner, collecting you en route and delivering you into the sidewall in the manner of a cartoon face plant. All of which made for great happiness. I took up squash with a will and went on to play the game wherever in the world I went after that.
But squash is tough on the body, tough on all its parts. It seeks out weaknesses. Every squash player knows of another who's stretched on the court for a ball too far, flopped, sagged and fallen to the wooden floor clutching a popped ventricle.
And every squash player has heard the ping of an Achilles tendon that just couldn't cope, that snapped and furled up the back of a leg like a butterfly's tongue. And every squash player has known the groaning ache in the knees, the ache that says your cartilage is wearing thin, bone is grinding on bone, your days of playing squash are over.
And so it was in my mid-50s that my right knee limped off the court and into the orthopaedic waiting room. The surgeon said hmm and then he said ha and then he said "squash?" and I nodded. He dug deep into the knee with his little instruments and he snipped and he patched and he said, "You realise, don't you, that that's that for you and squash?"
"Of course," I said.
It is important when you cease one activity to take up another as soon as possible. I took up gluttony. And I proved good at it. I put on 25kg. That's a half-hundredweight sack of potatoes. When I was a kid, a half-hundredweight sack of potatoes was the heaviest thing in the world. Only a father could lift one. Now I carry one everywhere.
Then a couple of years ago a photographer mentioned he'd taken up squash and would I like a game. No, screamed the surgeon in my head. No, screamed my age. No, screamed my waistline. No, screamed simple common sense. Why not? I said, and then I looked down at the ground to avoid seeing myself.
The photographer wasn't much good. I won and I loved it (and those two verbs are not entirely unrelated). But I didn't love the next morning. I had aches like a teenage lover has hormones.
I played twice more. The aches worsened. My knee screamed in the night. In a rare moment of sense I renounced squash for the second time. But by then I had got myself on an email list of casual players. Every week thereafter I saw them casually arranging games among themselves. Be still my beating heart, I said to myself.
Then this week the overseer of the emails decided to purge the list of non-participants. "You're off, Joe," he said, "unless ...
"When do we play?" I said.
I know, there's no fool like an old fool. I know myself. But what's the use of knowing yourself, if you carry on being yourself?