Tennis Shoes by Noel Streatfeild – Facebook group reading challenge

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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!

Second Serve by Renée Richards with John Ames

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Taking a quick break from my usual historical novels to read a tennis-related book –  the story of Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind in a family of New York doctors, who, after transitioning from male to female, won a legal battle against the US Tennis Association to be able to compete in women’s events, reached the final of the ladies’ doubles and (partnering Ilie Nastase) the mixed doubles at the US Open, and later coached Martina Navratilova.  It’s not particularly well-written, and says disappointingly little about actual tennis history, but it makes some interesting points, including about the way in which sports players from minority groups attract a lot of press attention which other players don’t have to deal with.

There isn’t actually that much tennis in the book.  A lot of it details Richard (Dick)’s female conquests and Renee’s male conquests, which the reader probably doesn’t really want to know about, especially not in quite as much detail as it gives.  It also gives the impression of someone who was rather confused, rather than that of a transgender person who knew that they were a woman in a man’s body.  Young Dick seems to have had unhealthy relationships with both his mother and his sister, and in fact all the relationships within the family seem to have been strained.

They (I’m initially using gender-neutral pronouns because they write about Dick and Renee living inside the same body and vying with each other to get out) were a top student, who went to Yale, captained the tennis team there, qualified as a doctor and became a leading ophthalmologist, and also spent time in the US Navy, and had a lot of girlfriends.   They at one point made the decision to transition, and went as far as having hormone treatment and developing female characteristics, but then decided to go back to being a man, stopped the treatment, had surgery, and married a woman and fathered a child.   It’s very unusual to hear of someone going backwards and forwards like that.  It’s very sad: they said that they suffered periods of depression and contemplated suicide, and weren’t really able to find help despite seeing a number of very prominent psychiatrists.

Eventually, they came to the decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and moved from New York to California to begin a new life as a woman.  A lot of good points are made about the practical problems of passports, driving licences, certificates showing professional qualifications, etc, being in the name of a man when the person is now a woman.  These days, people would just explain, but, in the 1970s, Renee felt unable to acknowledge her previous identity as Dick in her working life, and had to try to establish her professional reputation all over again.  She was told that, as Dick had been quite well-known in the tennis world, she would probably be recognised if she took up playing tennis again, but she did so anyway – and was indeed recognised.

She was in her forties by this time, which is very late for someone to try to begin a professional tennis career, but she felt that she was playing well and had a chance of success in the big events, but was refused permission to play because of being transgender.  After various legal battles, and with the support of some big names, notably Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman, she was allowed to compete in women’s events – although only in the US and South America, because there wasn’t a unified tour in those days and she didn’t feel that she wanted to fight any more legal battles in order to try to win the right to compete in Britain, France, etc.

The issue of transgender athletes is very much in the news now, thirty years later.  Several leading athletes have called for medical research to be done to establish whether or not a transgender woman has an advantage over a cisgender woman, but it all seems to be up in the air at the moment, and has been complicated by the separate issue of cisgender women who have naturally high testosterone levels … which seems rather an odd thing to penalise people for, as a lot of athletes have a natural advantage due to height or build, and no-one suggests that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

This book really isn’t very good, but, as I said, it does raise some good points.  One that’s very relevant at the moment, with the ongoing issues of a) racism in sport, very much in the news this week following the disgraceful scenes during England’s match in Montenegro, and b) why there are still no openly gay top level male footballers, is the amount of attention which players from any minority group attract, and how they’re expected to be spokespeople for the community concerned.  Hopefully most of that attention is positive and supportive, but many people may neither want nor be able to deal with that.  It would have been better to have heard more about that, and more about Dick/Renee’s personal issues and feelings, and less about all of Dick’s women and Renee’s men, but, hey, the book is what it is.  I wouldn’t spend too much money on it, but, if you happen to stumble across a cheap copy, it might be worth a read.

Battle of the Sexes

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Billie Jean King is an icon of tennis, the women’s rights movement and the LGBT rights movement. This film did so poorly at the box office that I assumed it hadn’t done her justice – it was only on at the pictures very briefly, which is why I missed it – but it turned out to be superb.  Very impressed. I’d love to know what Margaret Court, about whom there’ll no doubt, and with good cause, be another row come January, thought about being cast as the villain of the piece.  Bobby Riggs, meanwhile, just came across as a bit of a prat.

Sports films can be awkward. Nobody particularly wants to see actors and actresses and their body doubles pretending to play a tennis match.  If I want to watch tennis (which I do, pretty much all the time!), I’ll watch a proper match involving professional players.  But this wasn’t really a sports film, or a film just about the famous match between Billie Jean King and Bobby Riggs: it was a film about people standing up for something they believed in.

The issue of equal prize money between men and women in tennis is still ongoing. It was only in 2007 that Wimbledon and the French Open began awarding equal prize money across the board, and the question still comes up umpteen times a year.  Back in 1970, a tournament was organised in which female players were offered only one-eighth of the prize money being offered to male players.

Billie Jean King and eight other women players, championed by publisher and former player Gladys Heldman – the Heldman character in the film also made a point about the anti-Semitism prevalent in some American sports clubs at that time – set up their own tour, sponsored by Virginia Slims cigarettes. I’m so ancient that I can still remember the days of Virginia Slims tournaments (I mean in the late ’80s and ’90s, not the ’70s!)!   It eventually became what we now know as the WTA Tour.  They were banned from tournaments organised by the USLTA (now the USTA), and a lot of women’s events outside the US were also dropped.  However, they stuck to their guns, and formed the Women’s Tennis Association, and their position gradually improved.

Meanwhile, Bobby Riggs, a retired player in his mid-’50s, had got his life in a mess because of gambling. Whilst his gambling addiction wasn’t the main focus of the film, it did raise the important issue of the number of professional sports players who struggle to cope with retirement, and fall into gambling or alcoholism or other addictions.  He came up with the idea of a match against a top female player, but, although he made a lot of remarks about women belonging in the kitchen and so on, it was clear that he didn’t really mean it, and that he was desperate for money and playing up the image of himself as a male chauvinist pig because he knew it’d gain publicity.  It’s known that he and Billie Jean King kept in touch after their match, and remained friends until his death.

Margaret Court, on the other hand, was depicted as an absolute bitch. I don’t honestly think that’s accurate: there’s never been any suggestion that there was bad feeling between her and Billie Jean King when they were playing.  Billie Jean King had a husband at the time, but had begun a relationship with … I thought Marilyn Barnett was her secretary, but she was portrayed in this as her hairdresser.  Anyway, they began a relationship, which went on for around a decade.  Eventually it all ended very unpleasantly, with Barnett revealing the relationship publicly and suing her for palimony, but that was years after the period covered by the film.  The way it was shown in the film was that Margaret Court had realised about the relationship, and she was shown making homophobic remarks and saying that she hoped Billie Jean’s personal life would fall apart and cause her tennis to do likewise.

I’ve never heard anything to suggest that that actually happened. However, in recent years, Margaret Court has been very outspoken against LGBT rights, and that’s led to calls for the Margaret Court Arena, the second court at Melbourne Park, home of the Australian Open, to be renamed.  Several players, including Andy Murray, have spoken of the possibility of boycotting the court, or even the whole event. Some of her comments, especially about transgender children, are just beyond appalling, and really have disgusted players, fans and everyone else.  She didn’t attend the Australian Open last year, knowing that she wouldn’t be welcome.  So it wouldn’t surprise me if she had made comments like that, but I’ve never heard it suggested that she did.

She, then the world number one, played a “battle of the sexes” match against Bobby Riggs, and he absolutely routed her. It was hinted in the film that maybe she lost deliberately.  Again, I’m not sure that that’s ever been suggested.  There have been suggestions that Bobby Riggs lost his match against Billie Jean King deliberately, which wasn’t suggested in the film; but I don’t think that’s true either.

Teddy Tinling, the British dress designer and former player, who famously upset the powers that were at Wimbledon by designing lace pants for “Gorgeous” Gussie Moran in 1949, and designed Billie Jean’s match for her match against Riggs, was, by contrast, shown as being absolutely lovely – incredibly supportive of all the women players and, openly gay himself, supportive of Billie Jean in her personal life too. The film didn’t show too much about her family, but she’s spoken openly about how she was frightened of coming out because of the attitude of her very conservative and religious family.  It did show her being warned that the women’s tour could suffer badly if sponsorship were to be withdrawn by businesses with homophobic attitudes – and, when her relationship with Marilyn Barnett was made public, she did indeed lose millions of dollars in endorsements.

After defeating Margaret Court, Bobby Riggs challenged any other female player to play him. Billie Jean King accepted.  He might have been doing it for the publicity and the money, and she might have felt that it was all pretty stupid, but, as she’s said, if she’d lost, live on prime time TV, to a retired player 26 years older than her, the reputation of women’s tennis and the morale of all the female players would have been badly damaged. The film made the match look a lot more serious than it was in real life – there was a load of silly OTT pre-match stuff in real life, dressing up and so on – but, even in real life, it was a big thing, and attracted a huge amount of attention.

Billie Jean won the match, 6-4 6-3 6-3. How much of an effect it actually had on women’s tennis, and on women’s sport and indeed feminism in general, is a moot point, but she’d certainly never have heard the end of it had she lost.  Maybe it was a big moment.  It’d be nice to think so.

However much effect that match did or didn’t have, Billie Jean King is a heroine, both as one of the greatest tennis players of all time and as someone who’s fought for equal rights. It’s a great shame that this film didn’t do better at the box office, because it really is worth seeing – not just by tennis fans, but by everyone.