Snooker: First Night - Jane Holland: Paperback fighter
Clive Everton meets a snooker pioneer turned novelist trying to break the mould
Women's sport is on the up. Its new confidence and assertiveness embraces the continuing drive for parity of prize money with men in tennis; Jane Couch's hard-won right to participate in professional boxing; the rise of women's rugby; and the success of the football World Cup in the United States.
On the face of it, snooker is comparatively enlightened. Women have been allowed to enter the English Amateur Championship since 1970. It could be argued that they have achieved not only equality but preference. Women may play on the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association's world-ranking circuit but men would not be allowed on to the World Ladies Snooker and Billiards Association circuit without surgical alteration.
Nevertheless, there are still pockets of insidious prejudice against women, as Holland found in 1990. She had graduated not from Exeter University, from which she dropped out after a year, but from pub pool to snooker. She was the only woman playing on the Isle of Man. "The men's association wasn't interested so I formed our own association. Soon, we had six competitions a year with some sponsorship," she said.
In 1994, the men decided the women should be part of their association. Holland said: "I was against it but my committee thought it would put their backs up if we refused. We agreed but soon there were hardly any competitions and no sponsorship."
Relationships deteriorated. "There was physical and verbal abuse from young lads and no one ever called them to order. I went to the local paper, said there had been a lot of dirty tricks and when I refused to apologise, I was banned for life for bringing the game into disrepute by the people who were doing the accusing."
Ignoring the Isle of Man Association, she went out on the women's circuit - one weekend a month in a club venue anywhere from Stirling to Stevenage - and wrote The Brief History of a Disreputable Woman, which became the title poem of a collection which was to win her the pounds 4,000 Eric Gregory Award for poets under 30 in 1996. The London Review of Books asked for a snooker diary piece: she was taken up by Curtis Brown, the literary agents, and there was no problem in placing Kissing The Pink, which she wrote in one draft.
Last October she went to Oxford University, as a mature student to read English. She is taking a year out to write her second novel and move permanently to Oxford with her daughters,12 and nine. She was divorced five years ago, having married in the aftermath of the Exeter debacle, which she remembers as "an alcoholic haze. I was reading French and Italian but I decided it was too difficult and I just got lost. I seem to have spent most of my life pitting myself against targets I can't fully manage."
Her fictional alter ego, Zoe, is also a single parent with two young children who chances on snooker and falls in love with it. It seems to have offered an escape both into an interior world, the cocoon of concentration which shuts out the rest of life, and an alternative life beyond the familiar boundaries of small-town domesticity. "If you can't be passionate about something, even if it's only a ball game, what's life worth living for?" Zoe asks.
Holland, whose highest ranking was 26th, believes that "past a certain level, it's not about love of the game". She finds it unsurprising that "many butch women do well in sport. Most women aren't that competitive. To be a winner at top level, women are expected to exhibit what are generally recognised as male traits".
As Zoe puts it: "The game responds to mood as the tide responds to the moon, with astonishing accuracy. I often wonder whether this is the prime difference between male and female snooker players. Men are notoriously such insensitive bastards. Women are far more subject to mood swings: you argue with your best friend, your goldfish dies, you're having your period, the room's too hot, too cold, too noisy, someone laughs at your new outfit etc. It is those women players most capable of controlling their reactions to external stimuli who rise to the top of the game. It should come as no surprise then that some of those players become insensitised over time, almost masculine in their reactions... We've got the game. We've got the ambition. All we require now is the emotional constitution of a steel vault."
Kissing The Pink seems to be setting up a gay affair between Zoe and her idolised ice queen, Sylvie, No 1 among that ilk who "are like automatic gearboxes. They move up and down a gear according to the situation". But Zoe's relationship with Sylvie is mediated by her one-night stand with Sylvie's estranged husband at the World Championship in, of all places, Geneva.
The ensuing on-table collapses of Zoe and Sylvie enact how snooker cannot also be hermetically sealed from real life, its imperatives and its emotions.
And those who block it out almost all the time are a breed apart to which Zoe "could never in a million years `belong'. I'm just not made of the same stuff as them. I'm not talking about talent here. I'm not even talking about performance on the table, or how many ranking points a player has. `Belonging' is something permitted only to an elite group of players, all of whom are similar people, with similar goals, ambitions, ideas about the game. To that world I will always be an outsider."
Holland does not play any more. "I miss it but I'm all or nothing. I was practising eight hours a day. I was totally obsessed by it. Once you're out of the loop, it's not the same."
She did look in on a tournament last season and noted that the scene had stagnated. Stacey Hillyard, who electrified the Bournemouth League with a century break when she was a 15-year-old schoolgirl, is now a policewoman. Alison Fisher, by far the best player women's snooker has yet seen, departed three years ago for the women's Nine-Ball Pool circuit in America and in no time was the runaway No 1 with an annual income of more than pounds 100,000.
Hopes that the snooker circuit might be revitalised when the WPBSA took the women's game on board two years ago have not been fulfilled. Some of their finals have been played in the mornings in the main arena before televised finals but without significant impact - at Derby the finalists had to persuade the cleaners to allow them in.
Holland may dedicate her book to "the players" and hope that it "encourages more women into the sport" but for the moment the motivation must be love rather than money. Writing, Holland finds, requires snooker's essential qualities of "self-discipline, perseverance and patience". It does not offer, she agrees, the visceral excitement of a final-black finish and the intense surge of triumph or desolation which lies in wait at its resolution.
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