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.
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
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 ruthleighwrites.co.uk. 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.
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.
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.
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...
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...)