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PING PONG OFF TO THE MOON

The biggest change in modern sport is that everyone now wants to play defence. My mum showed me how its done.
Edward Hopkins

My mother, Marie Hopkins (nee Krelle) 1913 – 1981, had a distinctive, yet effective way of playing table tennis. Her exploits became a local legend. Those who carefully watched her in action, or were at the losing end of the table marveled how she played. She was tubby and not tall. But she did have a sharp eye and her movements were lithe. For many of her frustrated and defeated challengers she offered a comforting message – always bend the knees.

Her opponents and the onlookers were always confronted by a unique spectacle. They saw a squat frame standing close to the table edge. She held the bat right-handed with a backhand grip – her left arm raised for counterbalance. Her body leant slightly forward and her eyes constantly peered over the top of the bat. During play, the position of her trunk, head or bat, rarely moved and if there was any movement, it was merely a flinch. Despite this unusual technique, she was able to adjust her body so that the bat faced squarely in line with the oncoming ball.

This was not easy to do.

Part of her trick was reading the play. This is something elite athletes are exceptionally good at. They are better at recognizing the patterns that form within a series of plays. They look for posture cues before an opponent makes their move. Through this pre-flight information, they are able to make better decisions about what the next act of play will be for instance, where the ball is going, or where it isn’t.

Another of her tricks was to restrict movement to one area. The upper body and arms would remain fixed so she could maximize the effect in other areas. All the action was happening in the knees, obscured to her opponents at the opposite end of the table. She could glide from side to side as though she were moving on slick rails, while also bobbing up and down, and adjusting backwards and forwards in single steps, quickly adopting a position so that the oncoming ball invariably middled her bat.

My mother’s return of shot seldom had spin and deception. She applied simple principles of physics; the faster the ball was hit in her direction the faster it was likely to return to the other end. The more angled the ball was hit in her direction, the greater the angle of her return. Her strengths were bafflement and long rallies. Most vulnerable to her strategy were the power hitters, particularly men. Fatally, in fits of frustration, they were tempted into smashing the ball at her harder and harder, creating more problems for themselves than they could ever anticipate.

Her defensive resolution was garnered as fastidiously as Phil Sprectre’s Wall Of Sound. The composition of movement was arranged to block out further loss. The period she played competition table tennis was also the time she had frequent mental breakdowns. She felt exposed and could not afford the luxury of taking too many risks. Scorn is such awful fuel. Her compacted stance worked in her favour, but it could only get her so far. While solid defence is essential in elite competition, the better teams and players take calculated risks. They burn fuel. They make mistakes, often far more than is generally recognized. Not everything pays a dividend. They do, however, recover better. Sound defence is coupled with striking power. In contrast, the lesser opponent finds it harder to capitalize on opportunities presented to them on a plate. This helps explain a common optical illusion that occurs in sporting contests. Opinion is often convinced that the loser has made more mistakes. Yet a tally at the end of the match often shows the winner has made about equal or even more mistakes. In reality it is not the mistake per se that counts. Rather, it is the seriousness of a mistake of the punishment the mistake receives that is amplified.

During an illustrious tennis-playing career, Michael Chang consistently ranked in the top ten international players. However, major title wins were relatively scarce and he prevailed in only two grand slam titles – the French Open, twice. Notably, Chang was credited with making the least number of unforced errors and mistakes. Possibly, making more mistakes, he could have won more Grand Slam titles.

Opponents who did best against my mother were those who had solid defence and could also add variety to their shots or launch a surprise attack. She accepted loss with grace. Her explanation was simple: not enough knees.

The local table tennis competition was played weekly during the winter months in the classrooms of Moe High School. Before the competition could start, groups of players and volunteers moved the desks to one side and stacked them on top of each other, almost to the ceiling. Meanwhile, another group was assigned to fetch the stored table tennis tables and trestles from the school storeroom. As the tables were being set up, a competition draw produced on the school’s Gestetner copying machine was posted on noticeboards along the corridors. It listed the room numbers and the two opposing teams. The draw included blank spaces, each underlined, where the team captain was required to list the names of players. When games concluded, the matched player’s names and results were written in, from left to right, across the rest of the draw sheet. While the competition fixture, draw, scorecard and ladder can seem rather humble (originating in its modern form mid-Ninetieth Century, Britain), without these foundations, modern-day sport could not exist locally or at an elite level. Modern-day sport is a fuel driving then entire modern endeavour.

Both are contingent upon measurement, repetition, and ratings.

Teams in the local competition played under banners such as St.Kieren’s, Church of England, Purvis Stores, Westbury, Moe High, and South Street. Sometimes, a letter of the alphabet was added to nominate a grade, such as Moe High A, Moe High B, Moe High C. Colours were also popular to nominate grades, such as Church of England Gold. Red, Maroon, Mauve. The teams formed mostly around affiliations where people worked, prayed, lived, recreated and studied. Teams were not demarcated between male and female, young or old. The first rule for eligibility was a desire to play competition table tennis. The second rule was ability.  My mother and sister played in an A grade team. I made it to C grade. On Wednesday during the competition season, my mother’s ritual included the preparation of early dinners for her children who had rushed home from school, eager to return with her for the evening matches. If she had fallen ill and could not play, my sister prepared the early evening meal.

My father had no interest in table tennis or in joining us.

It is remarkable in how many places table tennis resides. It has followed in the path of 20th century modernism. Played for fun and higher stakes, it has a homely presence with tables in converted lounge rooms, spare bedrooms, rumpus rooms, sheds, garages, on outdoor decking, under shady backyard trees, along verandas, under weather awnings. Its communal footprint encompasses church and public halls, schools, universities, hotels, holiday guesthouses, parlours, indoor sporting venues, along with a vast number of club rooms for just about anything from football to bowling. Large stadiums host a multitude of competitions and practice sessions. Today, table tennis vies with football [soccer] as the most played sport in the world. The materials of a treated timber table top cut to a standard size, coated green or blue with white ruled lines, supported by wood or tubular steel trestles, and played with a celluloid ball that is hit with a bat over a nylon net, conform to the modernist ideal of standardization and portability. A plain wooden table tennis bat is possibly the simplest, most accessible form of sports equipment ever devised.

The game sprang from a craze that swept the UK and the USA between 1900 and 1904. Initially, the game was sold in kit form under the trademark of Ping Pong.However, it was the invention of the white celluloid ball that was instrumental in sparking the craze. It was an object that fulfilled the criteria of modernism. It fitted comfortably with domestic and public furniture. It was light and agile, portable, standardized, and made from a plastic compound. The new white celluloid Ping Pong ball looked like a small moon that had dropped from the corner of a night-time painting and accelerated into motion.

At first, it encapsulated a ‘white spirited fuel’, and much latter appeared as yellow and orange.

The Hopkins family played table tennis for the Moe High School teams. The music and words for the school song was composed by Marianne Madden, an inaugural student and daughter of the School’s first headmaster Mr. Ivan Madden:

We began you’ll agree in the year 53.

In the bush on the verge of Moe,

In a manner small, not great at all,

We were not the least bit showy.

But we worked with a will for culture and skill,

And the growth of our inborn powers,

And the best school of all is ours.

Of all the school songs ever written, it is unlikely you will hear such clear tones for the energetic optimism, led by a secular, educational vanguard that followed in the heels of the second World War. Madden’s compositional daring also ventures a faint warning of the modernist paradox of energetic optimism tempered by prosperous disillusionment in the conceit of the rhyming couplet showy and Moe. Madden’s anthem, Moe modernism, is saying: Work hard at educating yourself. Be alert to your origins. Don’t get too big for your boots. While these attributes are now endemic, the brand names of Moe Modernism and Madden’s anthem are yet to gain widespread recognition.

Because of the township’s circumstances, Moe High differed to other secondary schools that had expanded or were newly established as a result of the post-War recovery and boom. Moe’s selection by planning authorities as the main dormitory accommodation for workers in the nearby power stations and open cut mines meant that within a handful of years, it went from a village population in the low hundreds to a changing population of around 15,000. Most of the new residents had never lived in the area. There were a high proportion of families and single men who had recently migrated from Europe, and nearly all town folk were working class. The building activity, which was necessary to accommodate this influx, was frantic. The area had many timber mills harvesting the abundant nearby forests and a small number of local builders, who could not meet demand, so that nearly all of Moe’s housing stock was erected from pre-fabricated materials and timber frames, imported from as far as the United Kingdom and Canada. The builders also had to be imported. Following the manufacturer’s design and patterns, a crew of these builders bragged they could start and complete a house and have it ready for occupation within a working week. At the time of this housing development, authorities also embarked on a rapid program, building infrastructure. Quickly, a host of public hospitals and schools and recreational services appeared throughout the district. Moe High, like many other government schools catering for a burgeoning demand for education, was built on the pillars of standardized, pre-fabricated building construction and portable classrooms, plonked in a setting of quickly laid asphalt courts and sports fields. At Moe High the classrooms and even the staffroom were constructed so they could be easily converted for table tennis.

Mr. Madden was devoted to the dissemination of secular education for all. He spoke so well. Never shouted. He had gained a professional status in the district equal, if not greater than the town’s local bank manager, or doctor, or chief engineer at the SEC. Even the most loutish boys in the school, on account of their bad behaviour, who were sent by despairing teachers to the headmasters office would return, sheepish, uttering in disbelief, ‘He didn’t even use the strap’.

Nevertheless, Moe High was the least requested and least preferred teaching appointment in the State of Victoria. Consequently, the Education Department seized upon the opportunity to dump onto Moe High the bonded teachers, whom the Department considered to be the ratbags and misfits of the recently graduated crop.

The mix of evangelical and misfit teachers suited me as a young teenage student. Despite my having no interest whatsoever in high school studies and classroom activities, and my total absorption in sport, there were those teachers who were sufficiently dedicated and persistent in the cause of educating me, irrespective of the obstacles. And while these misfit teachers may have seemed erratic, there is no doubt they attracted around them the most interesting characters. These teachers and their acolytes fascinated me.

I was the best at sport in the school so it was relatively easy to be popular. I had no concept of what the writer, David Malouf has described as standing, ‘day after day, waiting to be called as the possible ninth, the tenth man of a team, in an agony of humiliation you feel may never end.’ But this did not mean that I was liked, or understood.  I began to feel unease, isolation, between the two worlds of sporting popularity and seeking to be liked and understood. I imagined the misfit teachers and students also existed in a world that was different to others. I began to think more about my mother’s gifts and her breakdowns.

It was in my final year of high school that I decided to take study seriously. An English teacher had spoken to me and gave me the encouragement. He said to begin; I should try reading a book from start to finish, which is something I had never accomplished before. He recommended Great Expectations by Charles Dickens.

This was not so easy to do.

In my book, The Moon And The Bistro Bar Are Full, first published in 1988, a considerable portion is devoted to my mother’s recovery and late blossoming, following her bouts of mental illness. It presents tales of her Pavlova making business, philosophy, wit, and resilience and the circumstances of her painful death. The section, MUM’S PAVS, goes:

After my father’s death in 1974, my mother began a Pavlova making business in her kitchen at 38 Bayley Street, Moe. She called the business MUM’S PAVS. MUM’S PAVS and Marie Hopkins took off in the Latrobe Valley.

She was then 60 years of age. Her hands shook severely, partly due to her history of lithium intake and the smoking. There was always a cigarette in her hand or mouth. As the trembling spatula she held was smoothing the meringue pie-crust, ash balanced precariously on the end of the cigarette in her mouth. The meringue bases she made were always craggy and broken and looked more like scenes from Disney’s Wonderland. On top of the pie-crust she layered thick slabs of cream and fruit. The results were delicious. Each Pavlova was inspired, and appreciated by her growing number of admirers.

My mother also enjoyed writing copy for MUM’S PAVS classified advertisements appearing in the local newspaper. Her readership expanded. Once, when she had to stop making Pavlovas for seven days because of a minor operation she underwent in the Moe Hospital, the notice she placed in the newspaper read:

MUM’S PAVS

Off To The Moon.

Back soon.

Bigger And Better Than Ever.

…..

Whenever I feel stumbling blocks during an evening alone, I go outside to see if the moon is still there. At Lake Moodymere, on a touring holiday, I was restless and walked from the guest bedroom to the edge of a shining lagoon. What I saw in the moonlight was the image of a Blackwood Tree. Wimmera plains filled with wheat. I thought about the crushing economic depression, dust and war my parents had endured. My father, when he was a teenage boy traumatized by his parents’ divorce and sent to recover alone with distant relatives at Boinka in the Mallee desert. The times my family water-skied together. Flickering fluorescent tubes lighting classrooms at night with shadows of men, women, and children playing table tennis at a place on the verge of both bush land and industrial valley.

Fuel driving modernism

Marie Hopkins liked sitting in her favourite black vinyl chair with one foot tucked up under the thigh of her opposite leg.  Her muffled farts were heard but not heard by her companions. She loved watching daytime television and any game of Australian Football that I played in. She loved telling stories and was obsessed with the colours of mauves and greys. When the local supermarket discounted a large stock of toilet rolls, all with mauve shading, she bought the lot in one shopping spree. Hundreds of mauve toilet rolls were stored in the bathroom. When visitors to the house used the bathroom and returned, Marie greeted them with the words, ‘better to be safe than sorry.’ She had a knack for unraveling pretentiousness. She told me about a recent train trip she had made to Melbourne.

As a pensioner, once a year she was entitled to a free return rail journey anywhere in Victoria. She was excited about going to the Yallourn Football Club Annual Ball and had a taffeta dress in charcoal grey made up for the occasion by a Moe dressmaker. She then decided the dress needed to be embellished with a red rose. She decided on the exact red that was required. She searched all the district shops in vain for the required shade of red. The day before the ball she then decided to use her yearly rail concession and travel to Melbourne and shop for the rose she wanted. For lunch she went to the Ball and Welch Department Store, a place that was fashionable when she was a young woman. Moe had only a few wealthy families and two of the wealthiest women from these families were sitting at a table near where my mother had sat. My mother was familiar with both women because they had all played together in the same tennis team and my father had worked for their husbands. They acknowledged Marie, but did not condescend inviting her to join them. As they were leaving they stopped at her table to say hello and then one of the women bragged; “We have just come back from overseas and are on our way back to Moe.” The woman asked Marie what she was doing in Melbourne. My mother replied, “I’ve just come down for the day to buy a rose.”

Mum’s Pavs along with tales of what she did and said became referred to by people who knew her as ‘Marie’s gems. A fond memory was the time I had a group of friends with me while visiting Bayley Street. We were all in the kitchen talking. My mother was cleaning the kitchen bench with her back to us, turning occasionally to join in the general conversation. We then noticed she had become absorbed with something outside the kitchen window. She continued gazing through the window into the valley scene in front of her. Our conversation paused and without prompting or moving, she said, “You know, you’re never lonely when you’ve got wind.”

Ping Pong

The original name for table tennis fell from favour once the first Ping Pong craze that had started in 1900, subsided after 1904. At the time, enthusiasts began to believe that the trademark name was unconvincing and too closely associated with a commercial parlour game, which halted its progress. A sportier brand name expressing the game’s athletic features was needed and in 1926 the International Table Tennis Federation was officially formed. Had my mother known the circumstances surrounding the origins of the names, I suspect she would have liked to keep Ping Pong. I can imagine her mulling over the onomatopoeic possibilities. A game designed for domestic spaces. Modern. Rhythmical. Like the modern waltzes or the church hymns she loved so much and hummed constantly.

References as to what inspired the original name are unclear. The Shorter O.E.D claims the name Ping Pong is based on the distinctive sound of the ball hitting the bat and table. The Complete O.E.D suggests otherwise, claiming its etymology derives from the ding dong sound of church bells ringing to and fro.

Who coined the name is less certain. Most likely sources include the makers of the original kits, Jaques and Sons, or the trademark distributors in the UK, Hamley Brothers, or USA distributors, the Parker Brothers. There are also scattered references, including the Complete O.E.D, crediting Mr James Gibbs, a retired Cambridge athlete and resident of Croydon, London, as ‘the inventor of the game Ping Pong in 1896.’ Claims that he was a neighbour of Jaques senior and both collaborated on the invention are not properly verified, and none of the statements crediting Gibbs, say that he actually coined the name.

Following a request for clarification from Chuck Hoey, the curator of the Switzerland based International Table Tennis Federation Museum, he responded by email:

Hello Edward,

I shall try to clarify some of the issues raised by discussions of the game’s history, though I must state beforehand that I can only reply based on actual evidence, and not the oft repeated and unsubstantiated stories from the early books.

For example, it is often repeated in books that the name Ping Pong was coined from the sound of the ball hitting the vellum drum rackets (“battledores”) and the opposing sound of the ball hitting the table.

This is speculation, and in my humble opinion, easily refuted.  Each of the vellum drum rackets/battledores had a slightly different pitch to the sound. A simple demonstration is to bounce a ball back and forth using two vellum drum battledores.  The sound on the table is a mere click; the sound of the ball bouncing off the two different battledores makes a clear Ping … Pong sound, with Pong being the lower pitched “drum”.  The sound of the ball hitting the table was not at all a component of the name Ping Pong

Given this demonstration, I find it interesting to imagine those sounds replicated by say a dozen games in a clubroom – what a noisy game this was back then!  I wonder if that noisiness may have driven players to switch to the wood bat, and not just for technical reasons.

As to precisely who coined the name, it was neither Parker nor Jaques, and we have no firm evidence except for the actual Trademark, by Hamley Brothers in 1900.  Parker Brothers could not have been involved in coining this name, as George S Parker was a shrewd businessman and surely he would have protected the name with an official Trademark.  The fact that Parker purchased the American rights to the name indicates he did not coin the name.

Similarly, Jaques was a respected game company, established in 1795, so they would not have missed filing for the Trademark had they coined the term.

So Hamley had the original Trademark, clearly suggesting that it was Hamley or someone connected with Hamley’s who coined the name Ping Pong.  Hamley’s then entered into a “jointly concerned” arrangement with Jaques [note the spelling, no c], as stated on the boxed sets.  The sets were not named Ping Pong, rather first “Gossima or Ping Pong” (Jaques including the name they used in their unsuccessful 1891 game, Gossima, failed because of the unsuitable 50mm webbed cork ball), then quickly changed to “Ping Pong or Gossima” when it became so evident that the name Ping Pong was catching on.

Sets produced with the latter name were sold in huge numbers during the Ping Pong craze, and these sets are commonly found even today in antique circles. Finally they dropped the name Gossima altogether and the sets were then named simply Ping Pong, though by that time, around 1904, the craze had waned.

Good luck,

Chuck Hoey

Table tennis appeals to global sports theorists because of the geo-political distribution of nations devoted to the game. The Chinese are good at it. Japanese. Koreans. Most other nations of Asia are enthusiasts and can play. Scandinavia. France. Eastern Europe. Russia. All give it serious attention and can play. At least three quarters of the world’s total population play. Curiously, in countries where the game first took off such as the UK, USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, table tennis is still ubiquitous, but at an elite level of competition it struggles for attention alongside football codes, tennis, golf, basketball, baseball and cricket, swimming and athletics. The first Americans invited to officially set foot into China since the communist takeover in 1949 were members of a USA table tennis team that toured the country in 1971.

Richard Nixon, soon followed.

The term Ping Pong Diplomacy suddenly became a world trademark.

In China, table tennis is also referred to as Ping Pang. While there is dispute over what is the most appropriate name to use – Ping Pong, Table Tennis or Ping Pang – there is no doubt each is all the one game. Around the world, Nixon’s visit was hailed as an example of Ping Pong Diplomacy that gave hope for future peace on earth between east and west. It became associated with the ideals of recovering lost ground and rebuilding. A round, small white object moving like a flag waving to and fro was in the corner of everyone’s eye.

So far, only Americans and MUM’S PAVS have gone to the moon.

Mum adored the sublime name Pavlova given to the rounded meringue base splattered with fresh fruit and cream. The name was inspired by the great Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova, who had popularized ballet throughout the world and had visited Australia in 1929. Australians became infatuated with the dancer’s exquisite lightness and whiteness of being. Regrettably, at the time the dancer and her namesake – the meringue pie – rose to prominence, the name Ping Pong fell on hard times. Even among enthusiasts for the game, descriptions such as ‘hated and insulting words’ had become commonplace. In Australia ‘Pong’ was slang meaning a bad smell or derogatory word for a Chinese person.

Mum frowned upon derogatory insults on the field of play and off-field. She adored kind and colourful words found in the aesthetic gestures, patterns, and colours of sport. At the table tennis table her defence techniques were as tight as the best opponents she faced. Why sport matters, is because within a civil framework, it is excellent at offering opportunities for recovery. Even during times when she was incarcerated in bleak mental institutions she recovered. She could say: It is always in the wind, all in the bending of the knees.

Ping Pong was the name of her game.

Comments

Max Thomas

Max Thomas

Honest and entertaining stories within a story. Understandable, especially to another old player of football, table tennis and all those other pursuits which are, after all, only a part of the main game.

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