Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild – Facebook group reading challenge


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!

Novels That Shaped Our World – BBC 2


This featured a bloke from Prestwich as the choice of guest to talk about social mores in Jane Austen novels, which might rather suggest that North Manchester should be full of Mr Darcys, Captain Wentworths and Henry Tilneys. Sadly, it is not, but, hey, that’s life.  It was a surprisingly interesting hour’s TV, though: it didn’t look that good from the trailers, but I decided to give it a go anyway, and I’m glad I did.

Not many of the books on the BBC’s “100 novels that changed our world” list would have been my choices, there are a lot of omissions I find surprising, and, quite frankly, I’ve never even heard of some of the ones they’ve included; but I think that people sometimes get too worked up over 100 most influential/must-read/must-watch/must-see lists. We’ve all got our own likes and dislikes, and no-one’s saying that anyone else’s are right or wrong. Most of the novels discussed in the first episode weren’t even chosen from the list, which was rather strange, and a little disappointing – I’d been looking forward to seeing how they were going to get Pride and Prejudice, Ballet Shoes, Forever, Riders and Adrian Mole all in there together! – but some very good points were made about the history of the novel, and how that ties in with the history of women’s role in society.

When it started off by talking about The Handmaid’s Tale, I had an awful feeling that the impression I’d got from the trailers had been right, and it was just going to be an hour of women slagging off men and saying that everything written more than a few years ago was anti-feminist, but it wasn’t. It soon moved on to female characters in early novels – first of all by noting that Robinson Crusoe, the 300th anniversary of which was the reason for the series, virtually ignores women, and then by discussing Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, published in 1740, in which the heroine’s employer tries to sexually assault her, only stops when she faints, and she then falls in love with him and marries him! This was apparently considered very romantic at the time – to the extent that the book’s considered to have had a huge effect on the development of novels, and it was one of the first books to generate associated memorabilia.

Then it moved on to how novel-reading itself came to be seen as a women’s thing – something which my class at school discussed at length whilst we were studying Northanger Abbey – and how Gothic novels became popular, and also more realistic novels such as those of Jane Austen. It mentioned the sarcasm about Gothic novels in Northanger Abbey: perhaps, if there’d been time, have mentioned the sarcasm about “sentimental” novels in Sense and Sensibility. I love Jane Austen, and Pride and Prejudice is definitely in my top 5 all-time favourite books but I do sometimes wonder why she found it necessary to be so sarky about other people’s choice of reading matter! As I’ve just said, we’ve all got our own likes and dislikes. But most things about Jane Austen’s books are wonderful 🙂 , and that was made clear … not least by Howard Jacobson, who used to be my grandparents’ next door neighbour.

The emphasis then shifted to the authors themselves, and what attitudes towards them in the 19th century said about attitudes towards women – notably people’s surprise at finding that Frankenstein had been written by a woman, and the use of male or gender-neutral pseudonyms by George Eliot and the Bronte sisters. I could have lived without some of the “drama” stuff – what did someone driving a taxi have to do with Frankenstein?! – but I appreciate that the modern idea seems to be that people don’t like just watching a lot of discussion in a studio.

From there, it moved on to politics, and the importance of suffragette novels, which was extremely interesting – it’s an aspect of the suffragette movement which is often overlooked. I didn’t find the talk about Virginia Woolf’s Orlando so interesting, partly because I’ve never read it, but some good points were made about how ideas about gender fluidity are certainly not a recent thing.

I was about to say that it came bang up to date with a discussion about Bridget Jones’s Diary, but, hard as it is to believe, that book is now nearly 25 years old! I believe that the BBC have commissioned a documentary for its silver anniversary next year. 25 years of big pants and “singletons”! It’s such an honest book. OK, it annoys the hell out of me that Bridget is so stressed about her weight when she never weighs more than 9 1/2 stone – I would give almost anything to be 9 1/2 stone – but it does say so much about modern women in the real world. Then it finished by talking about novels written for and or about black women.

It was great, because it managed to include discussion about the role of women, about transgender identity, and of issues particularly affecting black women, without anyone making insulting comments about men, or howling that Robinson Crusoe and practically every other novel ever written should be banned for being racist, sexist and everything else-ist. It was just a very interesting discussion by people who clearly loved books, and whose lives had been significantly influenced by them.

Of the 100 books on the list produced to accompany this series, there are only 8 which I’d say were favourites of mine. I haven’t read most of them, and I’ve never even heard of a few of them. There are plenty which I am extremely surprised haven’t been included. But it doesn’t matter. No-one’s saying that you’ve “got” to have read all or most of the novels on this list. No-one’s insulting your faves by not including them. And, sadly, no-one’s saying that Mr Darcy, Captain Wentworth and Henry Tilney are about to come wandering along my street. But what’s important is that people are talking about books. The BBC’s selection of novels may not have shaped your world, but some books probably have done. A lot of novels have shaped my world. Hooray for novels!!!


I Carried a Watermelon: Dirty Dancing and Me by Katy Brand


Don’t change yourself: change the world.  Compare the character of Baby in Dirty Dancing with the character of Sandy in Grease.  Sandy changes everything about herself to be what Danny wants and the rest of the cool kids expect.  Baby, without being either super-cool or super-glamorous, always remains true to herself, whatever the cost, and the film gets a happy ending thanks to her personality and her principles.  You can get quite profound over romantic musicals, and that’s what Katy Brand does here. A lot of what she says is fascinating.  Unfortunately, some of the other things she says are intensely irritating.  I’d love to go on a Dirty Dancing-themed weekend, at the place where the film was made, as she describes in one of the chapters in the book.  But I don’t think I’d want to go there with her.

I’ve never actually said “I carried a watermelon” in any context other than that of Dirty Dancing.  I do, however, say, or at least think, “I’m scared of everything” and “I’m balancing on shit” pretty frequently, and am usually to be found in the corner.  I have even said “I don’t just got to do anything,” to rude people at work … although I wish I hadn’t, because Lisa’s grammar is appalling!  And I know all the words to all the songs.  I first saw this wonderful film with my then best friend, when we were in the third year of secondary school, and we were both already obsessed with Patrick Swayze because of North and South.  I’ve seen it dozens of times since then, and I hope to see it many times more.

I love everything about this film. I love Johnny, obviously.  And, whilst I’m way too much of a wimp ever to have contemplated going into anything like the Peace Corps, I love Baby too.  And there’s the music, there’s the romance, there’s the whole coming of age storyline, there’s the fact that the main character is a girl – bearing in mind that this was made in the days of Top Gun, Back To The Future, Lethal Weapon etc – and, yes, there’s the social message.   It’s one of my all-time favourites.  So, what has Katy Brand got to say about it?

Well, a lot of it is about the social messages.  Think about the botched backstreet abortion – a storyline which, in Ronald Reagan’s socially conservative America, meant that some of the sponsors pulled out.  And the entertainments staff, who are living hand to mouth and can be fired, by jumped up little brats like the awful Neil, on the basis of a false allegation made by a “bungalow bunny”.  Penny and Lisa both being taken in by smooth-talking Robbie – there’s a warning to all young girls, and indeed young lads.  The end of an era, as well – the sense that the days of the Catskill Mountains holiday camps are numbered … and let’s not forget the historical social importance of those camps, set up back in the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” days when most of the people who went there would have been refused accommodation at many resorts elsewhere in New York state. And, most of all, Baby putting herself on the line to save Penny and get justice for Johnny.  Dirty Dancing makes you think, in a way that other iconic films of the ’80s, however great they are in their own way, just don’t.

This all sounds terribly serious, doesn’t it 🙂 ?   The book’s not all serious at all.  It mentions the theme weekend I referred to earlier.  I had no idea that you could actually go to the place where the film was made.  Wow!  I’ve been to all sorts of places associated with favourite books, films and TV programmes, and I love the fact that other people do this too. She also goes on about how she taped the film off the TV and then watched it so many times the tape broke, drove her sister and best friend mad with her obsession with it all, and wanted to go to dance classes because she thought they’d be like the ones in the film. These bits are great. And she also mentions Dirty Dancing on-line fandoms.  I love on-line fandoms.  I love the fact that I can have deep and meaningful discussions with hundreds of people about fictional characters, and that we all think this is a totally normal thing to do.  It’s so cool.  It’s so uncool!!

However, some of it is serious.  Katy Brand does, to be fair, stress that it would be inappropriate to make out that the film’s some sort of political statement.  It’s essentially a romantic coming-of-age musical.  She does suggest that Eleanor Bergstein, the film’s writer and co-producer is now trying to make out that it actually was primarily about making political points.  I don’t know whether or not that’s true, but, if so, then, with all due respect to Eleanor Bergstein, maybe she’s taking it all a bit too seriously.

Baby does take herself very seriously at the start of the film, but that’s part of it.  She’s 17.  She’s idealistic.  She plans to take “economics of under-developed countries” as her minor subject.  But she’s led a very sheltered life and has very little experience of the world.  She doesn’t get that none of the other entertainment staff can fill in for Penny, because they’re all too busy working.  She tells Penny that she envies her, when Penny’s just told her that she’s had to support herself since she was 16.  It’s a pretty silly thing to say.  But that’s the point.  She’s about to learn an awful lot in a very short space of time.

However, and this is a point I’d never really thought of before, she’s actually pretty mature.  And the whole film’s pretty mature.  No-one’s looking for a fairytale.   When Johnny leaves, Baby doesn’t burst into tears and beg him to take her with him.  It ends with “I’ve had the time of my life”.  Not with a wedding.  Maybe Baby and Johnny do live happily ever after, but, as Katy Brand says, it’s more likely that they drift apart once she’s at university and he’s on his next job, but that, as they both move on, they both continue to think that “I’ll never be sorry”.  That’s different.  Most romantic films aren’t like that.

She’s also super-confident. She isn’t cool.  She’s not unattractive, but she certainly isn’t a raving beauty.  Unlike Lisa, she isn’t even all that bothered about her appearance.  And she goes after Johnny.She goes to Johnny’s cabin. This isn’t an older man seducing a 17-year-old girl: if anything, it’s the other way round. Hands up, the first time I saw the film I wasn’t that keen. It took me a couple of viewings! That was partly because I’d got it firmly fixed in my head that Patrick Swayze lived in South Carolina in the 1850s, so I couldn’t quite handle the idea of him being in New York state in the 1960s, but it was also because I couldn’t get my head round the fact that Baby actually was that confident. It was something I just couldn’t relate to. Katy Brand says it makes her a role model. I suppose it does. And then we get Lisa offering to do her hair, but then saying that she’s pretty in her own way. That is great. Katy Brand really picks up on that. Everyone is attractive in their own way. Hooray! Heroine whose attraction is her personality, not her looks, anyway. Hooray!

Lisa is great there. She and Baby clearly aren’t that close, but, when push comes to shove, when everything’s going wrong for Baby, her sister is there to support her. And, when Baby finds out what Robbie’s really like, she’s desperate to save Lisa from him. And there’s also female solidarity between Baby and Penny, after the initial “Go back to your playpen,” scene. When Penny’s scared about the abortion, Baby comforts her. She’s completely out of her own comfort zone, but she’s there for Penny.

In fact, everyone’s there for Penny, apart from Robbie. Abortion is not the political issue in the UK (except perhaps in Northern Ireland) that it is in the US, but it’s still an issue. And this is set in the 1960s. Eleanor Bergstein was really saying something with this storyline. Not even Dr Houseman criticises Penny: he only criticises Johnny who (he thinks) was the one who got her into trouble, and the “butcher” who botched the abortion. And there’s quite a telling scene in which Penny says to Baby that she only slept with Robbie because she thought he loved her and “it was something special”. I hadn’t realised that sponsors actually pulled out because of the abortion storyline. Eleanor Bergstein was very brave with it.

So, there’s a lot to think about here. I’m not going to write it all out, but obviously we’ve got the huge moment in which Baby tells everyone that Johnny couldn’t have stolen anything because he was with her all night. We’ve got the showdown between her and her dad, when she says that she’s sorry she let him down but that he let her down too. We’ve got his eventual acceptance of what’s happened. We’ve got the unmasking of the Schumachers as the thieves and Robbie as the one who got Penny in trouble.

And, as Katy Brand says, wouldn’t you love to know more about the minor characters? What exactly goes on in the Pressmans’ marriage? And why on earth doesn’t Marge Houseman ask why Baby needs to borrow $250, in an all-inclusive resort miles from any shops, or where Jake has been with his medical bag in the middle of the night? Does it honestly not occur to her that something very untoward is going on?

So there’s a lot in this book which makes for very interesting reading.  But there were other bits which marred it for me.  I don’t know Katy Brand, and I don’t even know much about her, so I can’t really comment on what she’s like.  But there are a lot of people around these days who are full of some kind of sense of middle-class guilt, or uncoolness, or something, and deal with it by abusing upper-class people (usually in contexts which aren’t even relevant) and sneering at other middle-class people. They also, although to be fair this doesn’t actually happen in this book, usually sneer at working-class people and say that they’re stupid, know nothing about politics and shouldn’t be entitled to an opinion. So they actually snipe about everyone. And Katy Brand does come across, in this book, as being one of those people.

It must be very wearying to go around sniping about everyone. Isn’t that the complete opposite of what Dirty Dancing‘s about? It’s telling us that you can love anyone, and be friends with everyone. Not that you should make sarcastic remarks about people in a theatre queue having bought their sandwiches from Waitrose. Who even worries about where people in a theatre queue have bought their sandwiches from, anyway? Who even notices?!

And, in the middle of the book, she starts slagging off the Bullingdon Club. What on earth has the Bullingdon Club got to do with Dirty Dancing? Are there a load of Old Etonians staying at Kellerman’s? Are we to assume that Robbie and Neil are members of some sort of American equivalent of the Bullingdon Club?  No. Of course not. It’s got nothing whatsoever to do with it. So why bring it up? I just do not get these people at all.  What do they think they’re proving by having a go at everyone?  Especially when it’s not even relevant?

I get the impression, though, that Katy Brand would have preferred it if Robbie and Neil had been members of the Bullingdon Club. She keeps going on about “class war”. She’s clearly desperate to make out that the film’s all about a clash between the most privileged and the least privileged. And it isn’t. Robbie may be at Yale Medical School, but he still has to spend his holidays working as a waiter. We’re told that it’s the Houseman family’s first proper holiday for six years. Max Kellerman reminisces about his family’s struggles during the Depression, when they had nothing. And about when his Bubba and Zaida (that’s Bobbie and Zaidie to people who pronounce Yiddish the Northern English way, BTW!) ran the place.

I’ve never been to the Catskills. However, last month, I stayed at Lake Placid, in the nearby Adirondacks. There’s an interesting story there, about Melvil Dewey, the man who invented the Dewey Decimal System. He ran a hotel in Lake Placid. No Jews. No blacks. No-one else he considered socially undesirable. He was forced to resign as New York State Librarian as a result – which is pretty impressive, considering that this was in 1905. But the exclusion policy stayed. That would probably have been in Max’s grandparents’ time.

OK, I wouldn’t expect Katy Brand to know that. She’s not a historian. And, to be fair, she does acknowledge that the Housemans, the Kellermans and the Goulds are actually not from a Bullingdon Club type background. But she’s determined to push forward her class war theory, and she ties herself in knots over it. She quotes another author’s claims that Robbie’s trying to “out-WASP the WASPs”. What, because he’s a git and he treats Penny and Johnny like dirt? Gits come from all sorts of different backgrounds, love. It’s nothing to do with what colour you are, what religion you are, or what socio-economic class you belong to. Get over it.

She also claims that she’d seen the film about a hundred times before she realised that the Housemans were Jewish. I find that quite hard to believe, but then she also claims that, the first time she saw the film, she didn’t know what “knocked up” meant, and thought Penny was ill rather than pregnant. That seems rather odd, for a 12-year-old, but I do actually believe that, so maybe I should believe her about the Housemans as well. But then she goes on and on about “affluential Jewish families” and she quotes the out-WASPing commenty author as also saying how hypocritical it is for self-made Jews to look down on anyone else.

Why is she quoting someone else?  We’re not talking about the causes of the Civil War: we’re talking about a romantic musical film.  It’s a bit … strange.  And what is going on here anyway?  What is she getting at?  In the current political climate, it made me feel quite uncomfortable that someone should have written this. It actually had me wondering what Jeremy Corbyn makes of Dirty Dancing, a thought which I am trying very hard to banish. To be fair, I don’t think for a minute that she has a problem with the fact that the Kellermans and the Housemans, and probably the Goulds too, are self-made Jewish families.  I think it’s more that she can’t cope with the fact that they’re not part of some sort of privileged, country club, social elite, because that scuppers her class war theory.  Yes, I know I’m overthinking this, but I’m not the one who’s judging people on their socio-economic status and religion whilst criticising them for doing the same!

Then, after all this class war stuff and “affluential Jewish families” stuff, she jumps back to the fun stuff, and this was where the weekend at the place where the film was made came in.  I’d love to go there.  I’d love to go over every teensy little bit of the film with other people who’ve also seen it a million times.  I’d genuinely like to have serious discussions about the social message of the films: I accept that some people say that we should just enjoy books and films and not analyse them, but I love to analyse them, and I love to discuss them.  But maybe not with Katy Brand.  Which is a shame, because there was so much in this book that I loved reading and so much that I could relate to.  But there were some bits I just wasn’t comfortable with at all.  But, hey, that’s life.  You can’t be everything to everyone.  Just, like Baby, be true to yourself!


On Your Feet (the Gloria Estefan musical) – Palace Theatre, Manchester


This was wonderful.  It was mostly music from 1988 to 1991, which is just my era, so it was a brilliant nostalgia-fest!  But it was more than that.  It was the story of two immigrants who overcame adversity to live the American Dream.  It was their love story.  It was the story of how a  courageous woman fought back from terrible injuries.  It was full of emotion, like a 1980s musical, but also full of dance and colour, like a 1950s musical.  And how come I can remember all the words to all those songs from thirty years ago, yet I can never remember where I put my keys five minutes ago?!

Gloria Estefan (and the Miami Sound Machine – she didn’t use her name alone until 1989) didn’t become popular in the UK until 1988, when I was thirteen.  We’d just got our first CD player.  Cutting edge technology!   But we were taping music off the radio as well.  I quite liked the upbeat songs, like 1-2-3, Get On Your Feet, Oye Me Canto and Rhythm’s Gonna Get You, but, being hopeless at dancing, not to mention going through an extremely soppy phase starting in mid-1989, I preferred the ballads.  They were all in there!   Can’t Stay Away From You, Don’t Wanna Lose You Now, Cuts Both Ways, Anything For You, Here We Are …  and I still know all the words to them all.  And there was quite a bit of her earlier music too.  All those Cuban rhythms and dancing, all those colourful clothes!

It finished with Coming Out Of The Dark, her comeback song.  That didn’t do very well here.  I don’t know why not.  We were all so upset about the accident, which happened in March 1990.  She’d had one hit after the other, and she was so popular.  Such a lovely person.  I remember reading an interview with her, in Smash Hits or Just Seventeen or something like that, and thinking how terribly romantic it was that she’d married her first boyfriend.  It was such a positive time, as well.  That brief interlude.  The Berlin Wall was down, Nelson Mandela had been released from prison, everything seemed possible.  It only lasted until the summer, when Iraq invaded Kuwait, but that short period was a really special time.  I’ve got completely off the point now, haven’t I?  She had to learn to walk again.  The musical showed some of what she went through, the rehab, how difficult it was.  To come back from that, to get back to performing at the highest level … incredible.

To get back to 1988, Gloria was in her thirties, with an eight-year-old son.  She and the band had had success in the US earlier, but only a few years earlier.  The likes of Tiffany, Debbie Gibson and Kylie Minogue were having hits in their teens, and Janet Jackson and Whitney Houston were only in their mid-twenties.  Madonna was about the same age as Gloria, but she’d already been around for years.  The Miami Sound Machine (to add to the confusion, originally it was the band’s name alone, without the then Gloria Fajardo’s!) had released its first album in 1977.  So what on earth took so long?

Well, OK, sometimes it does take a while.  But what this musical showed was the specific issues faced by a Cuban-American group, performing Cuban-influenced music, trying to break into the English language mainstream market.  It wasn’t that the English-speaking public didn’t like their music.  It was that producers wouldn’t take a chance on it.  They’d been touring Latin America, but producers in the US were urging them to stick to the Latin market, and not even to sing in English.  I don’t know how accurate the musical was, but the way it showed it was that they were handing out copies of their singles in the street, offering to perform at clubs for free, and even playing at weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Partly a marketing thing, but partly also general prejudice.  There were some fairly hard-hitting scenes with Emilio Estefan saying “This is what an American looks like” and talking about how, in his early days in Miami, he’d been faced with signs on apartments saying “No pets, no Cubans”.  It’s not an uncommon story.  “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish.”  No-one bleating about “wokeness”, or claiming that singing Cuban-influenced music in English was “cultural appropriation” or saying that someone should lose their job because of a comment they made twenty years ago.  Just someone talking about the difficulties which they personally had had to overcome.  And being proud to be an American, a Cuban-American.

And the musical showed how they went from being faced with signs like those to playing in Washington DC, with the Stars and Stripes as the backdrop to Gloria’s performance, to meeting President George Bush at the White House.  It was so positive.  People don’t talk much about “the American Dream” any more.  Is that due to modern negativity, or is just seen as an old-fashioned term?  Anyway.  They made it!  And how ironic it was that it was whilst returning from the White House that their bus was involved in that horrific accident.

I was going to say “two Latinos” or “two Hispanic people”, but I think that that’d perhaps mask the fact that the Cuban-American experience has been very different from, say, the Mexican-American experience or the Puerto Rican American experience.  It happens here too: the term “British Asian” perhaps masks the fact that the British Indian experience has been very different from the British Pakistani experience and British Bangladeshi experience.

Emilio Estefan left Cuba with his dad, initially for Madrid and then for Miami, as a teenager in 1967.  His mum remained behind to care for her elderly parents, and they were separated for four years.  Gloria’s family, the Fajardos left Cuba, where her dad had been a soldier with close ties to the Batistas, in 1959, when Gloria was only two.

Gloria’s mum had been a singer in Cuba, and had an offer from Hollywood but was stopped from going by her father.  The musical showed how she initially wasn’t happy about Gloria going into the music business, and being on tour when she had a young child, and how they became estranged for a time.  She’d later got a PhD in education, but, because the Cuban authorities destroyed all her certificates, she had to retrain from scratch when she got to Miami – where she was the family breadwinner, because Gloria’s dad became severely disabled.

It wasn’t mentioned in the musical, but he took part in the Bay of Pigs invasion, and was captured by his own cousin and imprisoned.  He was eventually released, but then served in Vietnam.  The musical showed him in Vietnam, but, presumably to avoid controversy, didn’t spell out the fact that his medical condition was probably caused by Agent Orange poisoning.  Gloria cared for her father and her younger sister, aided by her beloved maternal grandma whilst her mum was retraining and then working, but still got a university degree.

Gloria Fajardo and Emilio Estefan – they had it tough, they struggled to get their music into the mainstream market, and then, at the peak of Gloria’s success, she suffered that horrific accident.  And they overcame it all.  What an inspirational story.  This is a wonderful nostalgia fest for those of us whose music collections have never really got past 1988 to 1991, but it’s so much more than that.  Great story.  Great music. Very, very impressed.


Who Are You Calling Fat? – BBC 2


Hopefully, the message people will get from this programme is the damage that society’s attitude towards obesity has on people’s self-esteem and mental health, and the need to be kinder.  Society thinks that it’s OK to abuse people because of their weight.  It really isn’t OK to abuse people for any reason.  It was all a bit OTT, as reality TV programmes always are; but it was very interesting to see the different views, from the people who said they’d always been made to feel that being overweight meant that they weren’t good enough (yes, Babs, I felt every word you said) to the “body positivity evangelists” who wore bikinis in the street and asked people to draw hearts on their midriffs.

Some of the previews for this programme were talking about people “identifying” as being fat. No. You don’t “identify” as being fat. Other people identify you as being fat. It’s the kid who sneers “Yeah, well, you’re fat,” when you object to their pushing in in front of you in the schools drink queue. Or who writes “Lose weight” in your primary school autograph album, instead of a nice comment or a funny joke like the other kids put. Or who tells you that, if you were a cat, you’d be called Flabby instead of Tabby. It’s the complete stranger who winds down their car window and yells “Oi, fatty,” as you’re walking down the street. It’s the school nurse who puts you on the infamous school Fat List. It’s everyone who tells you that you shouldn’t eat this or you shouldn’t wear that. Because you’re fat.  It’s OK, the whole post isn’t going to sound this self-pitying!  In case anyone actually reads it.  It’s just starting off like that because I find the idea of self-identifying as fat, if we’re taking “fat” to be an insulting term rather than just a descriptive term like tall, blonde, etc, really weird.

All that negativity, and all that abuse.  That’s why there are now “body acceptance coaches”, “body confidence groups” and “fat positivity activists”, like Victoria, the rather bossy woman who dominated this programme.  According to them, the word “fat” can be “reclaimed” as being positive: otherwise, it should be replaced by terms like “larger-bodied”, “plus-sized” or “living with obesity”. Part of me was thinking “Bloody hellfire, the snowflakes have really taken over the asylum here,” but part of me was thinking “Why was there none of this when I was growing up?” and, as Babs kept saying, wishing that it was that easy to think like that.  But Victoria in particular was so aggressive, shouting down everyone who tried to say that there could be physical health problems associated with obesity, even a man who’d had to have his leg amputated.

It was hard to know what to think.  But I hope that the programme did make viewers think.  And maybe think twice before the next time they have a go at someone because of their weight.

Some people don’t actually mean to be unkind.  The school nurse probably thought she was being helpful.  Sally Davies the so-called health expert probably thinks she’s being helpful when she goes on and on about “the war on obesity” – which makes it sound as if she classes overweight people in the same category as terrorists.  Maybe Sadiq Khan thinks he’s being helpful when he goes on about how food adverts should be banned from the Tube because fat kids cost the NHS money.  What are they both going to do next, insist that overweight kids wear torn clothes like medieval lepers?  I take their points, but the language they use is appalling.

A lovely lady I met on holiday once told me that I reminded her of her daughter. It sounded like a compliment, because presumably she loved her daughter. Then she added “She’s a big girl, as well”. If she’d said “She’s got brown hair, as well,” I wouldn’t have thought anything of it, I suppose; but everyone makes it clear to you from an early age that Fat is Bad.

Fat is lazy, dishonourable Billy Bunter. Fat is the ridiculously named Alma Pudden, who’s humiliated in Enid Blyton’s St Clare’s books. How I loved Fatty in the Five Find-Outers books – a fat kid who actually got to be a hero! He’s been renamed Freddie in modern reprints.  Because “Fatty” is seen as an insulting term.  Another rare positive portrayal of a fat person in children’s books was Bess, one of Nancy Drew’s friends.  But I gather that Bess has now been rewritten as slim. That really annoys me.  Even the Chalet School girls, who were supposed to be nice to everyone, poked fun at fat classmates like Nancy Wilmot and Hilda Jukes.  Even Jane Austen did it.  She made a nasty crack in Persuasion about it being funny for fat people to feel the same emotions as anyone else does.

In Julie Welch’s Too Marvellous For Words, she mentioned that her best friend always stayed out of class disputes because she was fat, and knew that anyone she disagreed with would just fling that at her. That’s very typical. If you’re a fat kid, someone will always throw “You’re fat,” at you. So you feel that you’re automatically at a disadvantage. You don’t get involved. You’re nervous that new kids will dislike you because you’re fat. You’re reluctant to go to out of school clubs where there’ll be kids from other schools, because you’re fat.  And then Cancer Research spend a load of money donated in order to fund research into cures for cancer on adverts telling everyone that, hey, if a fat person gets ill, it’s their own fault.

And the praise if you actually lose weight!  OK, fair enough, that’s acknowledging how difficult losing weight is, but it’s also making you feel, all over again, that Fat is Bad.  I got more compliments for losing weight than I ever did for getting a first-class degree.  What does that say?

If anyone’s read this far, yes, I know this probably sounds like a whingefest.  It isn’t meant to.  I’m just trying to make the point about the effect that all this has on people’s self-confidence.  No-one should be made to feel that they’re a bad person because of their weight.  But they are.

Like most reality TV programmes, this one, in which various overweight people/people living in larger bodies/people living with obesity were put in a house together and expected to discuss weight-related issues, got rather annoying as people burst into tears and went on about their “journeys”.  But it was very interesting to hear what they had to say.  As I said, I felt every word that Babs, the woman who said that she couldn’t look in mirrors and would only go swimming at times of day when she knew that the pool would be virtually empty, said.  I could sit here all day writing boring anecdotes about that.  Let’s just say that the only mirrors in my house are the hand mirror in the bathroom and the door of the bathroom cabinet. I also got everything that the stand-up comedian whose act consisted of poking fun at himself said.  Get in there first with the fat jokes, before someone else makes them.

I found it much harder to relate to the people talking about themselves as “evangelicals” in terms of “fat positivity”, but I think that was largely because some of them were just so aggressive. When someone who’d been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes tried to make some valid points about the health risks associated with being very overweight, they cried down everything he said as fearmongering, fat-shaming, internalised fat-hating or food-shaming.  Refusing to acknowledge that someone else may have a point isn’t helpful.  But I do think that that was attack coming from defence – because overweight people are always being attacked.

Most programmes about weight issues involve people trying to lose weight. This one was much more helpful in that it was actually discussing the impact that being “larger-bodied” had on people’s lives. As several of the housemates pointed out, and, oh, how I sympathise with this, it’s all very well saying that you should eat less and exercise more, but it really isn’t that easy. Believe me, I know. I have spent most of my life trying to lose weight, since I was 7 or 8. I even managed to make myself ill: I had dangerously low iron levels at one point, because I was only looking at the calorific value of food, not the nutritional value. I can go away for a weekend and put on four pounds, and then, try as I might, I cannot shift it – and, believe me, I try.

Look at the enormous diet industry. Would that really exist if losing weight was all that easy? It’s such a horrible cycle of trying and failing and self-loathing, and taking into account that, and all the bullying and negativity which most overweight people have to endure, I can see where the “fat positivity” brigade are coming from. But it simply is not true to say that there are no health issues associated with being significantly overweight.

I don’t know what the answer is.  I know how damaging the negativity around weight issues is.  Ironically, I can’t take anti-depressants/anti-anxiety medication, because, when I did, it made me put on weight – it’s a common side-effect – and so I ended up feeling worse instead of better.  It has to be better for people to feel positive about their bodies than to hate themselves because of their bodies.  But dismissing the issue of physical health problems caused by being significantly overweight is inappropriate, and even dangerous.

There was a lot to think about here.  I just hope that viewers *are* thinking about it.  Because the crux of it was the nasty remarks, the nasty attitudes, and how people react to them.  It’s not considered acceptable to abuse people for any other reason.  So why do so many people still think it’s OK to abuse people for being overweight?  The second episode made it clear that weight problems are almost always at least partly genetic.  It also discussed the fact that many people turn to food because of problems in their life.  And it discussed the lack of support in health services for people who want to lose weight.  They even got politicians involved.

The group weren’t able to reach a consensus.  Some felt that more help was needed for people wanting to lose weight, and that children should be better educated about nutrition.  It actually really annoys me when people come out with the “better educated” line.  It’s so bloody patronising – it’s that whole attitude that being overweight is somehow synonymous with being thick.  More help, yes, but lose the patronising stuff.  But, again, as some of the group said, it’s about time, and money … and about the fact that diet and exercise doesn’t always work.  I go to the gym twice a week.  I walk at least two miles a day, sometimes double that.  Shouldn’t I be as thin as a rake?!  I’m anything but.  Whereas I know plenty of people who never walk further than from their front door to their car, eat biscuits at their desks all day, and are stick-thin!

The “fat positivity” element felt that this was some sort of social cleansing, trying to eradicate fat people from society.  I think that was a bit melodramatic, but, the more you go on about the need to lose weight, the more it makes overweight people seem bad.   Schools giving lessons about trying to maintain a “healthy” weight – imagine the grief that overweight kids are going to get in the playground after that?  As if they don’t get enough grief already.

About the most sensible comment came from Baroness Walmsley, one of the politicians called in.  She said that the most important thing is to end the stigma about being overweight.  Why’s that stigma even there?  “Living in a bigger body” was seen as a positive thing at one time, and still is in some cultures, as an indicator of being able to afford food.

Anyway, whyever it is, it is.  But please don’t be cruel.  It’s an Elvis song, “Don’t be cruel”, but “cruel” is also the word that a very sweet girl in my class at primary school used when she overheard someone else calling me names for being fat: she told them that they were being cruel.  It’s not a word that little kids usually use – we must only have been about nine – but it was the right one.  Whatever anyone’s views about the health issues associated with weight, nothing makes it OK to abuse someone and make them feel inferior.  Hopefully this programme, if it did nothing else, made that crystal clear.



Great Australian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.

Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.

The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.

Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied.  Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.

Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin.  As I said, this is about much more than railways.

All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one.  These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!

The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan (Facebook group reading challenge)


It’s the final ball of the cricket World Cup final. Can our hero score the winning runs and take India to victory? Of course he can … oh, hang on, it’s gone to VAR. *Please* tell me that this is not going to become a thing in books?! Imagine all those school story scenes in which our hero/our heroine/a hitherto much-maligned character about to win acceptance at last scores the winning goal/try/run in the final seconds, and is triumphantly carried off the pitch on their team-mates’ shoulders, to be mobbed by cheering friends/wannabe friends, being reduced to everyone standing around waiting for a VAR decision. No. Just no!

I don’t usually read books set in the present day, but the October reading challenge was to read a book set in 21st century India, and, having an anxious-obsessive brain, I have to complete challenges or else I get stressed and feel like a failure. And I like reading books about India. I just wasn’t quite bargaining for the big moment being decided by VAR.

Our hero is Nikhil Khoda, the fictional captain of the Indian cricket team, but the main character is our heroine, Zoya Solanki, a young woman who inadvertently becomes seen as the team’s lucky mascot. She lives with her widowed father and their maid, in New Delhi, and she’s a bit of a young Bridget Jones, with neither her career nor her love life going very well, and constant worries about her weight and her hair. As part of her job at an advertising agency, she has to work with the underperforming Indian cricket team. After she’s had breakfast with them, they win a match. She was born on the day that India won the 1983 cricket World Cup, and her dad and brother have always been convinced that this was some sort of lucky omen. The media get hold of this, and it all becomes a big story. More breakfasts, more matches, more wins.

Along comes the 2011 World Cup. This was actually played in India, but, for the purposes of the book – in which all the players are fictional, incidentally – it’s played in Australia and New Zealand. The Indian cricket board offer Zoya an all expenses paid trip (for herself and a chaperone, an older, married lady from the agency), along with a substantial salary, to go to the World Cup and bring the team luck. There’s a suggestion of politics being involved – is the chairman of the selectors, who doesn’t get on with Khoda, trying to ensure that it’s only Zoya who gets the credit for any success? – but, by now, the Zoya Factor story is all over the news. And, as the team’s World Cup campaign gets off to a winning start, the talk intensifies.

Sports fans are superstitious. People have lucky pants, lucky socks, pre-match rituals, and so on. I solemnly waved my hand over a picture of David Beckham’s foot in order to help his broken metatarsals heal before the 2002 World Cup. I have been known to sit in ridiculously uncomfortable positions for ages whilst watching tennis matches, in case moving them is bad luck for “my” player. Remember when Oxford United had their stadium exorcised?!  And I wrote about the curse of Benfica only last week – The Greatest Comeback . So it’s actually not hard to imagine this happening anywhere, but it’s something that would probably particularly strike a chord in India.

I’ve got an Indian lucky charm in my car, which I brought back from India last year. It’s supposed to protect you on the roads. I’m not sure that I particularly believe it will, but, hey, it’s worth a try. Belief in the supernatural is particularly strong in India, as the author makes clear. Before long, Zoya’s being referred to as Zoya Devi (goddess), and a huge debate has broken out between people who believe wholeheartedly in her powers and people who say that India needs to move away from putting so much emphasis on spirituality – and even that it’s all a marketing ploy and she’s only in it for the money. Unfortunately, there have been cases of people taking advantage of other people’s beliefs – and sometimes it’s resulted in something a lot worse than organisations being ripped off financially.  But poor old Zoya’s just been cast into the spotlight completely unintentionally, and now the situation’s running away with itself.

All of a sudden, this ordinary young woman is at the centre of a very emotive national debate. It gets so far out of hand that her supernatural powers are blamed for a pizza delivery boy being knocked over, and even for skirmishes on the border between India and Pakistan.  It’s a particularly Indian take on the modern phenomenon of someone suddenly becoming famous for being famous, and how everyone then has an opinion about this person whom they’ve never even met.  It then goes even further, becoming, an international debate, with TV talk shows in other cricketing nations asking whether people believe in the Zoya Factor, and whether, if there is indeed something in it, it’s cheating and Zoya should be banned from contact with the Indian team.

Also, needless to say, a romance develops between Zoya and Nikhil, but the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. The tabloids keep publishing stories linking him to a string of Bollywood babes, and claiming that he’s fathered an actress’s baby, and linking her with other members of the team. And she gets it into her head that he’s only after her because he thinks she’s lucky. However, he’s in fact very upset about the whole Zoya Factor story, because it means that the team’s success is being put down to her, rather than to their own talent, hard work and application.

Eventually, it all gets too much, and Zoya returns home before the final. She’s offered a big money advertising deal, based on the idea of herself as a goddess, and, unwilling to turn down a chance to make more money than she could ever have dreamed of, she takes it. And everyone turns on her. This is so typical of what happens – the media build someone up, and then knock then right back down again. She’s let down the team. She’s let down her country. She was only ever interested in the money. She’s conned everyone. From being seen as a national heroine, and indeed a goddess, she’s now being vilified everywhere.  One minute you’re the nation’s sweetheart, the next minute everyone’s slagging you off.  How often do we see this sort of thing happen?

Of course, it all ends happily, with India winning the World Cup, after Nikhil scores the winning runs off the final ball (complete with VAR) and then he and Zoya getting together.  But it wasn’t just a common or garden romance, or a common or garden sporting novel – it did make some very interesting points about Indian culture, about the conflict between traditional ideas and new ideas, and about the cult of celebrity in general. It wasn’t the greatest book ever, but I did rather enjoy it.