January 30 2010
Rick Cooper blamed the novelist Somerset Maugham for his separation. It was, he believed, the colonial writer who had provided the means to the end of his marriage and prosperity. Although, it has to be admitted that, until a furious row with his wife, Camilla, about her indulgent afternoon fix of white wine and True Movies, Rick had not heard of the early-20th-century scribbler.
After “the domestic”, Rick had slipped out to the local pub in his commuter-belt village for a consoling pint with his friend David Johnson. And his drinking chum – in an attempt to offer a crumb of comfort – quoted the author who had specialised in chronicling the dreary lives of British Empire expats: “When all else fails – sports, love, ambition – bridge remains a solace and an entertainment,” wrote Maugham.
The words inspired Rick to take lessons at his local Adult Education College, a 10-week beginner course for £96 that described the indoor sport as “a friendly, social game played by two sets of partners that is very similar to whist”. Rick took to it like a gambler to a Mississippi riverboat. He quickly mastered the art of bidding (predicting the number of tricks a partnership expects to make and scoring accordingly) and joined a bridge school that met one evening a week at The Manor House, owned by the widow Lady Jane Lowenstein.
It was the sort of “school” that is prevalent in large houses, village halls and small-town institutions up and down the country. There were, for example, half a dozen tables of four, each occupied by those who had played the game badly for much of their adult lives, and Rick found that he could enjoy a rubber (the best of three games) with any one of the players. But he played best with Lady Jane. They had an easy rapport that allowed each to know what the other was thinking and, therefore, the strength of each other’s hands.
The American Harold S Vanderbilt invented the modern game of contract bridge while on a cruise in the summer of 1925. He developed it by adjusting the scoring and making the bidding more challenging so that within a few years contract bridge – the word “contract” was soon dropped – supplanted all other forms of the game. In the 1930s it became so popular that it was covered in newspapers, magazines and on the radio, and then quickly became an integral part of idle life for the well educated, which, unfortunately, included Camilla Cooper’s mother, who subsequently taught it to her daughter.
As Rick devoted more and more time to Lady Lowenstein’s bridge school, Camilla found herself frothing with alcoholic jealousy. And so, as she had played bridge as a child and was still, she believed, something of a dab hand at the game, she announced that in future she would partner her husband.
The rapport between partners is a subtle one. The game, like golf and sailing, has myriad manners and mores, which include, according to the definitive 1928 manual Contract Developments – A Book on Bridge by Lelia Hattersley, “any untoward display of mannerisms which may prove irritating to others”; Hattersley highlights playing the “devil’s tattoo” by drumming one’s fingers impatiently on the table and “ignoring personal grooming”. Players are furthermore advised to “[avoid] giving any offence to your partner”.
The latter was not an easy achievement for Rick and Camilla, but they managed to muddle along with only the occasional snide remark until they played Jane Lowenstein and her ageing partner, the retired merchant banker John Neville. Rick’s concentration was broken by the fragrance of Lady L and Camilla’s callow play wasn’t helped by the after-effects of that afternoon’s cheap chardonnay.
When Camilla bid seven spades – in other words, she thought that she and her husband could win every single trick – Rick tapped her ankle with his foot to indicate that he didn’t have the cards to achieve such a feat. Unfortunately, the ankle in question belonged to Jane Lowenstein, who thought that John Neville was making unwanted advances towards her and kicked back, hitting Camilla’s shin. She in turn leapt up like a scalded cat, accused the aristocrat of sleeping with her husband and said that she now intended to name her in the divorce. Rick, meanwhile, opined to no one in particular that it was “all Maugham’s fault”.