I somehow managed to miss this one when I read most of the “shoes” books 35 years ago, but, fittingly, read it on my way to London for the ATP World Tour Finals! Most of it’s fairly typical Noel Streatfeild stuff, but I was struck by the comments about the importance of physical fitness and competitive sport in enabling the nation to keep up with what was going on elsewhere. There’s no mention of Nazi Germany, or indeed of any political issues at all, but with this book having been published in 1937, it’s not hard to imagine where Streatfeild was coming from. I hadn’t anticipated that. Otherwise, it’s as you’d expect, with the usual types of Streatfeild characters, including a devoted governess/housekeeper who knits jumpers for nurses in order to fund the kids’ tennis club subs, and a really annoying kid who refers to herself in the third person. It’s not as good as the “Gemma” books, which I love, but I quite enjoyed it.
Like many of Noel Streatfeild’s books, this one involves several children – siblings Jim, Susan, Nicky (Nicolette) and David – getting involved in something, in this case tennis, and then finding out that chasing your dreams isn’t always as easy or as enjoyable as it might have sounded. Their grandad was very into tennis in his younger days, and so was their dad until he suffered an injury, which sounds like a war wound. The boys don’t feature that much, and it’s mainly about the girls, who are almost exactly like the Robinson girls in the Gemma books – Susan is shy, self-conscious, extremely hard-working, and obsessed with house points, just like Ann Robinson, and Nicky self-possessed, self-obsessed, and annoyingly given to talking about herself in the third person, just like Lydia Robinson. We’re only talking about fairly young children here, with even the eldest not into their teens by the end of the book, so we’re only looking at junior, local and sometimes national, events, but Susan’s tennis career gets off to a promising start. Then Nicky, who’s been practising in secret, overtakes her. Most of today’s top tennis players are so lovely that I’m certainly not going to say that you need a selfish, ruthless streak to succeed, but I do wonder if that’s how Streatfeild felt!
It’s also a story about London middle-class life in the 1930s in general, and there are a few things that strike me. One is the amount of time the kids have off school due to illness and quarantine. OK, that’s a standard plot device used by authors of children’s books – think Enid Blyton, Lorna Hill and Arthur Ransome – to give their characters more time to spend pursuing their interests or having adventures, but, without wanting to write an essay on the importance of vaccinations, it’s certainly worth remembering how much of a problem things like mumps and measles were until recently. Another is the amount of freedom that children, middle-class as well as working-class, have – Jim and Susan, aged only ten, are allowed to go round London on their own, and no-one even seems to notice when David disappears for hours to hunt down the family’s missing dog, or mind when he goes off with a strange woman. Sadly, no-one could write that anything like that now.
There’s also the issue of money, which always tends to arise in Streatfeild books. I have nothing but sympathy and admiration for the Robinsons in the Gemma books: their money worries arise when the hard-working dad has to take a lower-paid job due to health problems, and they deal with it by the mum going out to work and the kids being told that they’ll have to cut back on extras. However, I get very irritated with Sylvia in Ballet Shoes: whilst I appreciate that she didn’t ask Great Uncle Matthew to leave her to bring up three kids and then disappear, I’m uncomfortable with the fact that she lets her staff go unpaid, accepts freebies from neighbours and makes no effort to try to earn any money.
The Heaths fall somewhere in between. They’re comfortably off, but the kids are supposed to save up part of their pocket money, birthday money and Christmas money to help pay for their tennis clubs subs. That’s perfectly reasonable, even laudable, but Miss Pinn, the family governess/housekeeper (not to be confused Annie, the cook/maid, a former trapeze artist), spends her limited free time knitting jumpers to sell to nurses at a nearby hospital, and gives the money to the kids’ tennis fund! What?? OK, the kids are very young, and at that age you don’t always think about things very carefully, but why on earth do the parents let them take her hard-earned money?
Another annoying money-related issue plotline arises when Nicky, who’s spent all her money and therefore hasn’t got anything to put into the tennis fund, raises the money by selling four umbrellas to a rag and bone man. OK, she has to learn that she’s supposed to save up if she wants something, and that she can’t go around flogging other people’s stuff, but her punishment is that her next two Christmas presents and next two birthday presents from her mum and dad will be umbrellas, to replace the ones she sold. That’s two whole years without presents from her parents! Couldn’t they have told her she’d have to earn the money to buy new umbrellas by doing household chores or something? Talk about going overboard! Sorry to moan, but I really did find that OTT. And poor Miss Pinn!
It was the comments about the national importance of sport and fitness, made by the dad, who’s a doctor, that really got me thinking, though. His view is that England (I’m not excluding the rest of the UK here, it’s just that he always says “England” and “English”!) has fallen behind the rest of the world in sporting terms, and that this is a major problem because it’s tied in with a decline in physical fitness generally. He blames this on doctors putting too much emphasis on pill-popping and surgery, and not enough on promoting healthy lifestyles. Streatfeild really annoys me by showing the kids making nasty comments about fat people, but I’ll try to ignore that and focus on what the dad says.
His concern about encouraging people to keep fit and lead a healthier lifestyle is the sort of thing we hear a lot about these days, and you certainly can’t disagree with it – although, only a year after the Jarrow Crusade, it would have been nice if he’d managed to acknowledge the fact that most people didn’t exactly have too many lifestyle choices. But where’s all this emphasis on keeping up with the rest of the world coming from? He seems very worried about lack of sporting success- but, if you look at the history of British tennis in the 1930s, it was in an extremely healthy position. I wondered if maybe it was the British showing at the Berlin Olympics that concerned him, but Wikipedia informs me that Britain came a very respectable tenth in the medals table.
Maybe he was one of those people Gareth Southgate was talking about the other week, the sort who expect England/Britain to win every sporting trophy going, and whinge when it doesn’t happen! What seems more likely, even though few people were anticipating war as early as 1937, that this is a resurgence of Boer War era concerns about the health of the nation with an eye to international politics … and, by extension, with an eye to what might possibly lie ahead.
I do appreciate that I’m probably completely overthinking this, but I just found it interesting. On the one hand, we’ve got this rather self-contained little world – and, to be fair, most of us live in a rather self-contained little world when we’re only 9 or 10, regardless of our socio-economic background. But, on the other hand, there’s this strange sense of something very big and not very nice going on. Streatfeild could just have said that the kids got into tennis because their dad and grandad were both into it, or because they’d seen pictures of famous players, or had even been to Wimbledon as a treat, but, instead, there’s this sense of something much bigger. You don’t normally get that in a Noel Streatfeild book.
And it is very much a Streatfeild book, and it works pretty well as a tennis book. Other than the Trebizon series, there aren’t that many children’s tennis books around. If I’d read it when I was the same sort of age as the kids in the book, as I did with Ballet Shoes, White Boots, etc, I might well not have thought twice about the “because of England” comments. But, as it is, I did.
Overall, though, it’s a fairly typical Noel Streatfeild book, about kids who are into something – be it tennis, ice-skating, singing, instrumental music, acting or ballet. And the foreword claims that this was Noel Streatfeild’s own favourite of all her books. It isn’t mine, but I’m glad I’ve read it. I just can’t understand why I’ve never read it before!