Double Fault

I’ve often asked myself the question “What is writing for?” Why do we do it? To entertain? To educate? To inspire? Perhaps all of those things. My writing falls into two areas. The first is freelance, where I write content for others, interview people who are selling their houses and write up a lifestyle piece for the brochure, write blogs for several charities, help people with content for their websites and so on. The second is my budding literary career, where I sit here in my dining room making stuff up, which is great fun.

 But being a writer is more than that. Sometimes the words build up and you can’t rest until they’re out. This is one of those pieces. 

Back in July 1975, I was nine years old, living in a village in Epping Forest in Essex, on the London borders. Nothing much happened in our excitingly named settlement (Theydon Bois – feel free to look it up). I walked to the village primary school, learned things then walked home again. We had freedom to walk, roller skate and cycle around the village and forest and play outside. A few lucky friends had colour televisions (the height of luxury) but my viewing was entirely conducted in my grandmother’s living room in the flats at the bottom of the road. She had a large, imposing set which made a faint whining noise as it warmed up. 

It would have been the first Saturday of July in 1975 when, for some reason (and I genuinely don’t know what that reason was) I sat down with Nana to watch the Wimbledon Men’s Final. That year, Arthur Ashe was playing Jimmy Connors and although I knew absolutely nothing about tennis, I was hooked. One of the players was black and the other white, but this was not a big deal or in fact any kind of deal to me. I’d heard people referring to my friend Anna and her sister as black which confused me. I didn’t see a colour, just people who were kind and who I liked playing with. 

Now I know the huge weight that sat on Ashe’s shoulders as he walked on to Centre Court. He was nearly thirty-two to Connors’ twenty-two, coming to the end of his playing career and his opponent was the runaway favourite. He’d battled racial prejudice growing up and pursuing his sport. Connors had issued a lawsuit against him a couple of weeks earlier. I was gripped. By the end of the match, watching as the crowd erupted into applause as the underdog won, I had become a tennis fan. And I’ve never missed a final since. 

I watched the match again the other day on YouTube. Everything has changed but nothing has changed. There were a lot of sideburns and man-made fibres and the court looked like a desert with only the occasional patch of green (they came up to the net a lot more back then) but the cheering, the sense of occasion and the high quality of play was exactly the same. There was no Hawkeye, the umpire spoke in clipped English tones and all the officials appeared to be chaps. That’s changed too which is a good thing. 

Settling down for the Djokovic-Berrettini match on Sunday, I was ready for some great tennis and I wasn’t disappointed. However, this is not a piece about tennis. It’s about the creeping loss of respect and humanity in our public arenas. If I wrong-footed you there, after serving up a nice easy first set, I apologise. But this, I think, it one of the things writing is for. Shining a light on the dark places and illuminating what seeks to hide there. 

Berrettini is tall, athletic and handsome. He was the underdog on Sunday and even though he had knocked out Federer (the scamp!) 95% of the crowd appeared to have forgiven him, to such an extent that some sections began applauding his opponent’s mistakes and shouting out so much that the umpire had to do some serious high-level umpiring. It felt more like a football match than a game of tennis at the All-England Club. There was something in the air I’d never come across before, in forty-five years of watching. It was a crackle, a buzz and it wasn’t something I felt comfortable with. I’m not Djokovic’s biggest fan, but seeing the minority booing, hissing and shouting uncomplimentary things, unease crept over me. 

My Pimm’s drained, Berrettini’s first foray into the final ended and Djokovic raised the trophy. I needed a little rest before the next sporting event that day. 

You don’t need me to tell you what happened. The Italian national anthem was booed, every time they got possession or tried to get a goal in, they were booed. That is not sportsmanship. What made my blood boil and inspired this piece, however, was the outburst of racial hatred on social media afterwards. 

Reading the vile slurs posted about three remarkable young men who have given back to their communities and our country in a way which is wholly admirable, I felt my fingers twitch and my brain seethe with words. I don’t really do Twitter, but I jolly well did today. I shared, I posted, I retweeted, I liked, I even found myself following Rashford, Saka and Sancho and posting encouraging messages on their Twitter feeds. 

Words. Some of the ones I read today made me feel sick. The people who wrote them were sitting in offices, making coffee for their colleagues, writing emails, having lunch then coming home to their families. If you passed them in the street, you wouldn’t know. And yet with their words, they created a pool of noxious, stagnant sludge which spread across what should have been a place of congratulations and safety and positivity. I want there to be more words of hope and inspiration than there are of hate and small-mindedness. I want this to be the beginning of the end of hateful slurs on colour. 

I’m a writer. The pen is mightier than the sword as Bulwer-Lytton once said. We can make a difference. Words are so powerful and have the ability to wound, to soothe, to heal. 

I came across some letters written to Marcus Rashford by primary school children in the aftermath. Here’s one from a nine-year old: 

“Dear Marcus Rashford

 I hope you won’t be sad for too long today because you are such a good person.

 Last year you inspired me to help people less fortunate. Then last night you inspired me again, to always be brave.

 I’m proud of you, you will always be a hero.”

 Let me end with a quote from Hamza Yusuf. “Don’t ever diminish the power of words. Words move hearts and hearts move limbs.”

 And that’s the truth.

Images by Pixabay

Ruth is a novelist and freelance writer. She is married with three children, one husband, two budgies, two quail, eight chickens and a kitten. Her first novel, “The Diary of Isabella M Smugge”, came out in February this year and she is writing the sequel, “The Trials of Isabella M Smugge.” She writes for a number of small businesses and charities and blogs at She has abnormally narrow sinuses and a morbid fear of raw tomatoes, but has decided not to let this get in the way of a meaningful life. You can find her on Instagram and Twitter at ruthleighwrites.


Fran Hill said…
A really heartfelt post, Ruth, and I actually loved the way you built up to it with nostalgia and pleasant memories because that in itself illustrates the changes you are writing about. I agree with you about the tennis - I found myself wondering so many times, 'Was it always this noisy? Did people always yell out like this when players were serving?' You've confirmed my suspicions. As for the football and the aftermath - really shocking and depressing.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you so much, Fran! I couldn't rest until I'd written it.
Peter Leyland said…
That's a great post Ruth. The virtues of tolerance are really well expressed and like Fran I like the way you built up the piece. I was just sitting in the coffee bar reading it at the turn of my morning walk to town and back.

And yet there is another reason I responded to the piece. I went to Theydon Bois on a residential staff training session, must have been about 1975 too when I was teaching in Tilbury. There I cemented a great friendship which I still have. So another reason for writing I think is to share. Thanks.
Anne Rogers said…
An excellent post, very well written. Thanks Ruth.

I too am depressed about the way in which following sport seems to be changing, and (very) angry about the racist activities which took place during and after Sunday's match. Not just the vile words aimed at Rashford, Sancho and Saka, but also physical attacks on Italian fans, and on Italian restaurants in English towns.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you very much, Peter! I appreciate that. That must have been up at the old Preceptors' College up the hill next to St Mary's Church. Small world! I would probably have been roller skating around as you were there.
Ruth Leigh said…
Same here, Anne. A friend just sent me these stats: 8% of the population are active in racism, violence, social media abuse etc. That equals just over 5,280,000. In a country of over 66 million. Such a small minority but so vocal and so dangerous.
Bill Kirton said…
Just echoing what the others have said, Ruth. Congratulations on a timely, unfortunately much-needed reminder of values so sadly lacking of late - at all levels.
Ruth Leigh said…
thank you, Bill, much appreciated.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Ruth. Excellent and much needed.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you Sandra
Allison Symes said…
Great post, Ruth. We, the decent, the wouldn't dream of being racist, the generally well meaning and honourable, need to make our voices heard more clearly.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thanks Allison! We do
Aggie C said…
I totally agree, Ruth. I was horrified by the booing and even more by the racist comments. Sport should be a unifier, a force for good. I watched the football, which is not usual, and I thought the English team behaved well and played magnificently. No amount of nastiness should be allowed to taint that.
I am also no watcher of tennis, but I remember the Arthur Ashe match, partly because Jimmy Connors was such a mouthy spoilt brat, but also because Mr Ashe had such beautiful legs...
Ruth Leigh said…
Me too, Sue. I thought the England side were magnificent, particularly considering their young age. That's how football should be. Loathed Connors and yes Ashe did have a lovely pair of pins. Over the years, I've found myself gazing at suntanned, lithe limbs and manly arms on the court - I mean admiring their forehand!
Deborah Jenkins said…
A An excellent post explaining very eloquently how so many of us feel. Thank you xx
Ruth Leigh said…
I had to write it - the words just came tumbling out xx
SC Skillman said…
People being black or white is no kind of deal to me either. I don't usually watch football but did watch on Sunday. I didn't even notice the colour of the penalty shoot out players' skin as any kind of issue at all. I just noticed how young they were. They were brilliant. I found the moment when Gareth comforted his young player so moving and the supreme moment of the night.
Wendy H. Jones said…
Ruth, this is perfect. I, too, am appalled and disgusted by the way in which many members of society are changing and the way in which they feel they have an inbuilt right to tear people down. Behaviour such as this should never be tolerated. I am also given hope by the way in which many people in society rallied round and showed just how remarkable they think these young men are.
Ruth Leigh said…
Same here Sheila. So young and so talented. And not a sniff of scandal about any of them, quite the reverse. Very touching to see Gareth being so kind and supportive.
Ruth Leigh said…
My children were horrified by the racist abuse and the reaction of so many on social media against these people is heartening. I just wish the platforms themselves would act, as they surely can.
Just read this Ruth: wonderfully put - but also, I'm so happy someone has approached this topic of the change to violence (and vulgarity) over the past decades. Sometimes I get so mad when people ignore it, and moan only about Covid19, as if that's all which has gone wrong - it isn't, and we are aware! "Thanks for your honesty" is totally relevant to your piece here. I also like it because although you say it like it is, you say it calmly. That's a great talent. Just as, in your Issy Smugge novel, you don't tear her down or poke fun/derision at Issy, you've created a character we can enjoy, feel drawn to, respect, and want to come out of where she is having learned but also having been healed (from her childhood bruises).
I am horrified at the changes in public behaviour (including of the Government) and certainly at the booing and the racism. In 1975 - well, I was married and we were living in graduate accomodation, - our first child was born in 1977 - and the experience of today's young mums is nothing like the lovely care we all received from our own GP, our regular midwife, etc. No more to say, except that life today has become unrecognisable from life then. (Although some things have changed for the good... some things...)
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you Clare. I really appreciate your feedback and kind words. Things have changed massively, some things certainly for the better, but many not. I don't see the point of tearing people down - calmness and rational behaviour achieves more than anger and ranting. Although I did feel fairly ranty when I wrote this, I must confess!
Veronica Bright said…
So many of us agree wholeheartedly with you. Does hate stem from insecurity? The inability to empathise? Some damaged people can't wait to put others down, to make them feel small, to wield power over them. I loved the comment from SC Skillman - 'I found the moment when Gareth comforted his young player so moving and the supreme moment of the night.'
Ruth Leigh said…
I think it must do. From fear and the urge to make oneself feel better. Me too - so moving
What a very interesting and well-thought-out post. I too am old enough to remember watching tennis in those days (probably quite a bit before that, in fact) and I agree we could do with finding a better way of interacting (or not, maybe) with people in the public eye, whether we like them or agree with them or not. And with other people generally, I suppose. I am sure the way people interact on social media has something to do with this.
Ruth Leigh said…
Thank you Cecilia. I think you're right. Respect and compassion seem to take a back seat when people are let loose on keyboards. Not all of them, obviously, but enough to make an appreciable difference.

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