Back to School with Alison Hammond – ITV


This programme, shown as part of Black History Month, was very interesting, and a much more positive approach than that shown by certain other TV channels and certain newspapers.  It was also very encouraging to see a black history programme that didn’t focus on either slavery or the US Civil Rights movement: obviously those are important, but it was good to see other subjects being raised too.  Alison Hammond is a very engaging presenter, and the stories she investigated – including one about a trumpeter and one about a footballer 🙂 – were all fascinating in their own way.

The trouble is that schools only have a very limited amount of time in which to teach history, and it would be very challenging to incorporate modules specifically on the history of all under-represented groups into that.  As far as I’m concerned, PE and art lessons should be abolished and replaced by extra history lessons, but I’m not sure that the authorities would go for that.  Shame …

She started off by looking into the story of John Blanke, a black trumpeter at the court of Henry VII and Henry VIII.  He certainly sounds like quite a character: he even asked Henry VIII for a pay rise!   However, I think it’s quite hard to argue that lessons on the Tudors should be focusing on trumpeters rather than on the Reformation, the development of the “king-in-parliament” principle, the Anglo-Scottish Wars, etc.  Nobody’s trying to exclude John Blanke from history, of course note; but trumpeters, with all due respect to them, don’t normally get that much attention.

We also heard about Ira Aldridge, a black actor in Georgian and Victorian times.  Again, he sounded very interesting, but Alison Hammond and Adrian Lester, to whom she spoke about him, questioned why they’d never learnt about him at school.  We never learnt about any actors at school, in either history lessons or English literature lessons.  His story was probably a lot more interesting than some of the stuff about medieval monks which we did have to learn about, but actors are just not usually part of a school history curriculum, and I’m not sure why we were expected to be shocked that neither of them had been taught about him.  Fascinating story, but there are so many fascinating stories about individuals, and schools just can’t fit them all in in two or three lesson periods a week.

Walter Tull, however, was someone of whom I’d certainly heard – most football fans with an interest in history will know the name of one of the first non-white footballers to play in the then First Division (for Spurs), and know that he became an officer in the British Army during the First World War but was sadly killed in action.  But – very unfortunately – footballers, regardless of ethnicity, don’t feature on the school history curriculum.  Again, it was a great story, but I wasn’t sure why we were meant to be surprised that his name wasn’t more familiar.

The two most prominent people mentioned – although, TBH, I know more about Walter Tull than I do about Septimius Severus – were Mary Seacole, the Crimean War nurse, and Septimius Severus, Roman emperor from 193 to 211 AD.  I think the name of Mary Seacole is pretty well-known now, and that most people are familiar with her brave and wonderful work during the Crimean War.  We didn’t learn about her at school.  But nor did we learn about Florence Nightingale.  We didn’t “do” the Crimean War.  I wish we had, because my great-great-great grandfather fought in it, and I have actually been to Sebastopol and Balaclava.  But we didn’t.  It’s just not usually on the school syllabus.

Nor is the period from 193 to 211 AD.  We don’t actually know whether or not Septimius Severus was black: we know that he came from Africa, but it was probably from North Africa.  No-one really knows.  We do know that he died in York, and the fact that a Roman emperor – in fact, two Roman emperors – died in York isn’t well-known at all.  But it’s just not a period that’s covered in school history – as in all these cases, it’s nothing to do with racial prejudice, any more than the relative lack of women in history books, as Catherine Morland famously moaned about in Northanger Abbey, is to do with gender prejudice.

All in all, this was a very enjoyable programme, and each of the stories in it was fascinating, and told in an extremely enthusiastic way – Alison Hammond really is great, and always seems so interested in everything she’s talking about.   And, as I said, it was wonderful to see a programme on black history which didn’t focus on slavery or the Civil Rights movement, and which reminded us that “black history” in Britain goes right back to Roman times, and probably earlier.  But the issue is how you would fit that into a school history curriculum, especially bearing in mind that there are other groups who also feel under-represented in history teaching.  Personal histories are great, as the popularity of programmes such as Who Do You Think You Are and My Grandparents’ War shows, but I do think schools have to concentrate on major events, major developments, and the movers and shakers involved in those, regardless of ethnicity, gender, religion, sexuality or anything else.  There just isn’t enough curriculum time to include everything.

That’s a great shame.

Maybe we could scrap PE and art lessons, and have more history lessons instead  …


The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton


This is a very interesting book, although the style won’t appeal to everyone, about the Kindertransport and one of the women who was most important in it.  Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, known as “Truus”, was a Dutch (Protestant) woman involved in rescuing Jewish children, initially connections of her own friends and acquaintances, from Nazi Germany, from as early as 1933, going to Germany herself and bringing them to the Netherlands, which became more and more difficult as all countries tightened immigration rules.  When the British government agreed to the establishment of the Kindertransport programme, in 1938, Truus was asked by the Refugee Children’s Movement in Britain to travel to Vienna, meet Adolf Eichmann there in person, and try to persuade him to agree to let children from Austria be evacuated.  He tried to trick her by saying that the plan could go ahead if she could arrange for exactly 600 children to leave, in a very short space of time – and she managed to do it.

In total, around 10,000 children were brought to safety in Britain.  The book ends in 1939, but Truus continued to help refugees throughout the war, despite being arrested more than once, turning down the chance to leave the occupied Netherlands for safety in Britain herself.  She was unable to have children herself, and the book shows the sadness that this caused her and her husband Joop, but became known as the “mother of 1,001 children”.

The book’s partly about Truus, and partly about three fictional characters – a teenage boy, a teenage girl, and the boy’s younger brother – who become three of the 600.  The style of writing isn’t the most readable I’ve ever come across, but it’s a fascinating story.  We see Truus in action, and also her home life, and we see how the lives of the two teenagers, misfits who’ve become close to each other,  and their families are torn apart.  There’s also a toy Peter Rabbit.  I’m not sure how big Beatrix Potter was in inter-war Austria, but rabbits seem to be a bit of a thing in books about children escaping from the Nazis.

We also see just how quickly things changed in Austria.  It wasn’t a gradual process as it was in Germany.  Schuschnigg, the Austrian Chancellor, was opposed to the Anschluss, and Austria had no equivalent to the Nuremberg Laws until it was taken over.

The title of the book refers to the last Kindertransport train, which was from Prague, to depart before war declared.  It never reached the Netherlands, and no-one knows what happened to the children on it – but, sadly, I think we can probably imagine.  It does have a link to the characters, but it’d be a spoiler to say what.

Some of the language jars slightly: no-one in 1939 said “chalkboard” rather than “blackboard”, and a British person would have said “disembark” rather than “debark”.  OK, OK, that’s nitpicking; but it’s quite a strange book, with newspaper cuttings (which I think are actually fictional, although what they say is factual) about the latest events included in between every few chapters.  I thought it worked quite well, but people might find it off-putting.

It’s also quite unusual in that not only do Hitler, Eichmann and other Nazis feature as characters but we actually see things from Eichmann’s point of view in some scenes.  He has to be included because Truus did meet him in person, but it’s quite strange when we actually “see” his thoughts.  And the book does jump about a lot, between the different characters – not just the main characters, but various minor characters as well.  However, it’s a very interesting story – both the part about Truus, largely based on fact, and the part about the children, who are fictional but who speak for so many real children who were parted from their families by horrific events, but whose lives were saved,

The Kindertransport was sanctioned by the government here in that they agreed to make an exception to the immigration laws in the case of the children concerned,  but it was all organised by private individuals.  The treasurer of the Refugee Children’s Movement went to my old school, and two of the prominent committee members name-checked in the book went to our brother school.  Sorry, I just had to say that!  I’m not just being cliquey, honestly: I’m making a point that these were ordinary people, not aristocrats or politicians or celebs.  They put in a huge amount of work to persuade the government to agree to it, to raise money and win popular support, and to find homes for the children.  We’ve rather lost that civil society thing now: governments are expected to deal with anything and everything.  The work that these people did, on a voluntary basis, was very admirable, to put it mildly.

But they, at least, were safe in Britain – it was Truus who actually went into the Third Reich, putting herself in danger, to bring the children out, and without any personal reason for doing so, only that she wanted to help.  I’ve read better books than this, but it’s an amazing story, and she was an amazing woman.





I missed this film, about Harriet Tubman, who escaped slavery and helped many others to do the same, at the pictures.  It’s really not like me to miss a film about 19th century American history; but it wasn’t on for long, and not all cinemas showed it.  So thank you to Sky for showing it, as part of Black History Month.  All the local cinemas would, however, definitely have shown the new James Bond film next month, had its release gone ahead; and I would definitely have gone to see it, as would many other people.  I’d also have gone to see The Secret Garden, but that’s now gone straight to Sky without even being shown at cinemas.   And now it looks as if Cineworld are going to mothball all their cinemas, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see Vue and Odeon follow suit.  It’s very sad.  The film distributors aren’t giving them a chance.

Anyway, back to the point.  This unfortunately isn’t very historically accurate, but it does get across the message of how brutal slave owners could be, the tragedy of families torn apart, and the bravery of those involved in the Underground Railroad – and just how much work and organisation went into it, at a time when communication systems were obviously nothing like they are now, and many of those involved hadn’t even had the chance to learn to read and write.

It’s quite an old-fashioned film, with an ’80s/’90s feel to it – glorious music, sweeping panoramas, elegant costumes for the slave owners and the free black characters, and a dramatic chase through the forest.  I know there was a bit of moaning that the lead role went to a British actress rather than an American actress, but Cynthia Erivo really does a superb job.  It must have been particularly difficult to portray Harriet’s belief that she was having religious visions – thought to have been linked to a severe head injury inflicted on her when she was young – but she does it very convincingly.

I’m surprised that this didn’t do better at the box office, but – very sadly for me! – American historical dramas just don’t seem to sell well these days.  I was sorry to see Mercy Street pulled after two series.   Oh well, I enjoyed it!  And it tells an important story.

Harriet Tubman was born Araminta “Minty” Ross, into slavery in Maryland, and married John Tubman, a freedman.  Dramas about slavery do tend to focus on the Deep South, where marriages between slaves and free people were very unusual, but they did happen in the Upper South.  And, with Maryland bordering the free state of Pennsylvania, it was easier (in relative terms) there for slaves to escape; and we see Minty escaping, being assisted by members of the Underground Railroad, and adopting her mother’s name, Harriet – the change of name, to reflect her new status, is a powerful moment.

We then see her returning to try to bring her husband and sister to slavery, only to find that her husband, thinking she was dead, had remarried, and her sister wouldn’t leave her children, but then leading many others to freedom, returning time and again to come so and becoming known as “Moses”.  She did indeed lead many people to freedom, thought to be around 70 people in 13 trips  – and she was actually even braver than the film suggests, because this was mostly after the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act meant that escaped slaves, if recaptured, would be returned to slavery, whereas the film suggests that many of her missions were earlier.

The film over-dramatises it, giving Harriet a glamorous friend who runs a boarding house where she stays, and giving Harriet’s former owners, the Brodesses, a handsome son who seems to be rather obsessed with her.  It also shows the Brodesses’ neighbours all turning up at their plantation to confront them when they realise who “Moses” is, and Harriet tying up three of the Brodesses inside their plantation house as she helps some of their slaves to escape, and culminates in a dramatic chase through a forest and a showdown in which Harriet gets the better of the handsome son and prophesies the coming of the war and his death in it.   It’s a shame that it’s not historically accurate, because the showdown really is a great scene and Cynthia Erivo plays it so well, as she does another scene in which she reminds members of the Underground Railroad who were born free just how evil slavery is, and how they can’t possibly understand it in the way that she can.

It then shows Harriet fleeing to Canada, and briefly reminds that she led the Combahee River Raid during the war, in which she actually led a military expedition which rescued over 750 former slaves, but that’s all done briefly so as not to detract from the big showdown scene preceding it.

Not too many marks for historical accuracy, but the general storyline’s there – the horrors of slavery, and this brave and rather mystical woman who escapes from it and helps many others to do the same.  It’s not at all preachy or aggressive: it gets the message across through the excellent performance of Cynthia Erivo and the big dramatic, if not accurate, key scenes.  Certainly well worth watching.


On the Basis of Sex


I’ve finally got round to watching this, following the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg.  It only covered a small part of her life and work – I’m waiting for the “RBG” biopic to become available on Amazon Prime for no extra charge – but what an inspiring story.  I hadn’t realised that, whilst she was at law school, her husband was being treated for cancer, she was attending his classes as well as her own, and they had a young child.   A lot of people would have struggled even to make it through, but she finished joint top of her class.  And, despite that, struggled to find a job at a law firm because people didn’t want to employ a woman, especially one with a child – but went on to argue successfully a number of gender discrimination cases, including the “Moritz v Commissioner” tax law case on which much of this film focuses.

She became only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court, the first Supreme Court justice to officiate at a same sex marriage ceremony, and the first woman to lie in state at the Capitol … and I’m struggling to think of any other lawyer who became such an icon, even a cult figure.  It’s an incredible story.

It’s also a wonderful American Dream story.  The film didn’t go into her background, but this woman who achieved so much was the daughter of a garment factory worker whose parents couldn’t afford to send her to college and an immigrant who came to America to escape discrimination against Jews in Odessa.  It would be nice if people would remember that America offers those opportunities, and also that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was someone who tried to build consensus and work with, not against, those with different views, and certainly wasn’t aggressive or abusive towards people with whom she disagreed.

The film showed some of her time at law school, and then her work on the “Moritz v Commissioner” case, and bits about her family life, so it didn’t really do her justice because it wasn’t intended to: it wasn’t a full biopic.  But it was very entertaining and very interesting, with strong performances from all the main cast members.  Oh, and it was also quite romantic, with Felicity Jones as Ruth and Armie Hammer as her husband Marty working really well together.   It wasn’t the greatest film ever, but I’m certainly glad that I watched it.


Freddie Flintoff: Living With Bulimia – BBC 1


Please, please be careful what you say about other people’s weight, or any other aspect of other people’s appearance: you don’t know the damage it could be doing.  And, if you’re struggling with any aspect of your mental health – unsurprisingly, given the current circumstances, mental health charities are reporting a worrying rise in the numbers of people experiencing problems – please, please ask for help.  I know that not everyone’s up for famous people baring their souls, but evidence suggests that it does encourage others to seek help, especially men who tend to be more reluctant to open up than women do.  A lot of the focus in this programme was about how many men don’t seek help, and it was brave of Andrew Flintoff to speak out, and also brave of the others who took part to do so, especially the family of a man who tragically died as a result of bulimia.  It’s estimated that 1.5 million people in the UK, of whom 25% are male, suffer from eating disorders.  Hopefully this programme will have helped people to feel that they’re not alone, and that it’s OK to talk about it.

It wasn’t quite what I was expecting.  I thought he was going to say that it was linked to coping with the pressure of fame, especially during the difficult period when he was England captain during the disastrous Ashes tour when we lost the series 5-0 and he was involved in the pedalo affair.  However, he was insistent that it was all about food and weight, and that it started when there were nasty comments in the media – notably from the Sun – about his weight and fitness levels.  The specialist whom he saw didn’t seem convinced by that, and said that it was never all about weight, but everyone’s different.

I, personally, quite genuinely can’t remember a time when I didn’t identify as “The Fat Girl”, and I don’t know what it’s like to have a normal relationship with food because I never have done.  One of the other people interviewed for the programme said that, in his case, it started in his teens, and was a form of self harm and linked to other things that had gone on in his life.  I think that’s probably more typical than what Andy/Freddie was saying and I found that easier to identify with, but we need to understand that everyone’s experience is different.  It’s very difficult with sports players, because weight can affect their performance, and, especially with a team sport where one player’s performance affects others, some fans and commentators and reporters are going to feel that they’re entitled to pass comment.

Maybe people’ll think more carefully after this.  I’ve heard Gary Barlow talking about the upset caused by “fat lad” comments in the media, as well.  It’s not really that different to calling other kids names in the school playground, which is how it started for a lot of us.   With a lot of people, it’s linked to depression and anxiety disorders, but most people’s problems are so interlinked that it’s hard to separate them.  Andy/Freddie was insistent that, with him, it’s purely about weight.  But we’re all different.

What Andy said about feeling guilty whenever he eats, and only feeling good about himself if he’s losing weight, though, is something that a lot of people will recognise, whether or not their own eating issues are linked with other things.  It was interesting that he didn’t actually know a lot about the condition, despite having battled it for over 20 years, and seemed quite surprised to be told that the amount of training he does was linked in with it.  He spoke about the pressure of trying to keep up his fitness levels during his career, and it was mentioned that sportsmen are 16 times more likely than other men to suffer from eating disorders, because of that huge pressure.  Some people do struggle more with their weight than others, and it’s very hard to deal with that.  You can read all the books and go to all the counselling sessions but, if you’re someone who puts on half a stone because of one weekend away, it makes things very difficult.  That’s hard enough for anyone.  I can’t imagine how difficult it must be if you’re under that amount of external pressure and scrutiny about your weight levels.

He also talked about how he hid it.  He told his girlfriend, now his wife, that he made himself sick after eating, but not the extent of it, and we saw him going into the toilets at Lord’s and explaining how he’d plan how he’d make himself sick during matches without anyone else knowing about it.  It was very distressing, and it just showed how someone can be struggling like this without anyone – relatives, friends, colleagues – knowing.

He also talked about feeling that he wasn’t entitled to have a problem.  There was once an episode of Casualty in which comment was passed about it being amazing that people in the West had eating disorders when so many people didn’t have enough to eat.  To some extent, eating disorders, like addictions, are seen as self-inflicted problems.  He actually seemed very reluctant to admit that he wasn’t in control of it.  And he’s happily married, with four lovely kids, and had a successful career as a top-class cricketer and is now enjoying a career as a successful TV presenter.  And, hey, he’s a big tough bloke from Preston.  But eating disorders can affect anyone.

The programme’s attracted a lot of praise, and hopefully it will help people, as well as helping Andy/Freddie himself.  There isn’t nearly as much stigma around mental health problems as there used to be, but we’ve still got a way to go.  Especially with men.  Please don’t suffer in silence xxx.




The Silken Rose by Carol McGrath


 As a  reader of historical fiction, I thoroughly enjoyed this, the first of a series of three novels about unpopular medieval queens of England, the protagonist of this one being Eleanor/Ailenor of Provence, wife of Henry III.  It was entertaining, well-written, and as historically accurate as a book about the Middle Ages can be.  Both the real and historical characters came across very well, and there were some gorgeous descriptive passages.  It was also good to see a book about the reign of Henry III, which, despite being one of the longest in English history, tends to be overlooked, Henry being overshadowed by his baddie father John and his majestic son Edward I.

However, as a historian, I had a problem with the fact that the book stopped in 1253, missing arguably the three salient moments in Ailenor (the spelling used by Carol McGrath)’s time as queen – Simon de Montfort’s rebellion, her expulsion of Jews from her lands, and the attack on her barge, showing just how much she was disliked, by the people of London.  The author said that she stopped the book there because it was when Edward became engaged to Eleanor of Castile, who’s going to be the main character in the next book.  So, although she was clearly keen to try to rehabilitate Ailenor’s reputation, I don’t think she was deliberately avoiding those controversial moments.  But I would take issue with the positive view of Ailenor presented by this book, because of them.

However, that doesn’t alter the fact that it was a very, very good historical novel.

Ailenor’s poor reputation is based largely on the fact that so many of her Provencal/Savoyard relatives were given prominent positions in England, and also on the extravagance of the court in her time.  No-one’s denying that that’s true, but the book played up other aspects of her life and personality – her intelligence, interest in culture, happy marriage and devotion to her children, and also reminded the reader that she was only around 13 at the time of her marriage.  It did hint at the alleged rift between her and Henry at one time, and covered all the machinations at court and beyond it, and the wars in Gascony, very well, without going to deeply into politics or warfare to an extent that a reader of a novel might not be looking for.

A lot of this involved Simon de Montfort, and Simon’s wife, also Eleanor, Henry’s sister, was another major character in the book, told almost entirely from female viewpoints.  There was also a sub-plot involving a fictional character, Rosalind, an embroideress, and her romance with and eventual marriage to one of Simon de Montfort’s squires.  Embroidery featured a lot, which was very interesting.  I think we tend to associate embroidery with Flanders/Burgundy, and forget the importance of medieval English embroidery.

Rosalind was at one point suspected of being a Cathar, due to rumours started by a spurned ex-suitor.  The point of the plotline was that she spent some time in a nunnery, doing church embroidery, but it was interesting to see the Cathars mentioned, which is rare in a novel set in England.  It didn’t mention the horrific persecution of Cathars in Occitania by Simon de Montfort’s father (also Simon) – we’re talking burning people alive and gouging people’s eyes out –  nor did it mention the persecution of Jews by “the” Simon himself.  The de Montforts were not exactly a very pleasant family, even bearing in mind the attitudes of the time.  People have taken issue with the fact that so many institutions in Leicester bear Simon de Montfort’s name, whatever his role in the Provisions of Oxford and the Barons’ War.  I appreciate that this wasn’t a book about religious persecution, but I felt that a book about Eleanor of Provence might have made more mention of it.

However, as I’ve said, it was a very entertaining and interesting novel, and I did enjoy it, and shall be looking out for the one about Eleanor of Castile when it’s published.






Harlots (Series 2) – BBC 2


This has been superb.  I watched the first series, on ITV Encore, but then it moved to Starzplay, which I haven’t got.  So I was very pleased when it was announced that BBC 2 would be showing both series 2 and series 3.   A series about feuding brothels in 18th century London sounds rather prurient, but it isn’t like that.  There’s an ’80s soap element to it, with the feuds and the elaborate clothes and the fancy houses, but a lot of what it shows is about the role of women in Georgian London – the susceptibility of vulnerable women to abuse, and also the way in which other women were able to take advantage of the demand for their “services”, either from a “keeper” or within a “bawdy house”.  It shows how the male Establishment would close ranks to protect their own – although, in the conclusion to this series, the women get the better of them, and it’s a big cast of strong female characters who lead all the plotlines.

We also see the diversity of Georgian London.  A lot of the women had come to London from various parts of the country, hoping to find work there.  There are a number of prominent black characters.  We see very few dwarf actors on TV, but one of the harlots is a dwarf.  We’ve got “molly boy” male prostitutes, as well as female prostitutes, and we’ve got lesbian and bisexual characters.  But none of it’s done in tokenistic way: each character is a full and natural part of what’s going on.

It’s well-written, well-acted, appeals to the senses – the costumes and hairstyles are amazing! – and is always entertaining.  Bring on series 3!

The feud between brassy but good-natured Margaret Wells and snooty, evil Lydia Quigley’s expanded in the second series to include a third bawdy house, run by Lydia’s son Charles and ambitious harlot Emily Lacey.  Without giving away the entire plot, there are murders and attempted murders.  We find out that Margaret and Lydia were once very close, and learn more about their backgrounds, and we see how Margaret’s relationship with both her daughters is affected by the situation which they’re all in.  Also in the mix are the puritanical mother and daughter preaching against prostitution, although we know that the mother was once a prostitute herself, Lady Isabella, whom Lydia Quigley knows is hiding away a secret child born as a result of abuse by her brother, and the Lord Chief Justice, who keeps ending up with either Lydia or Margaret in front of him in court but can’t do too much about either of them in case their associates reveal his own penchant for harlots.

However, away from all the feuding and the nightlife and the ’80s soap-ish stuff, there’s a “Gentleman’s Club” of vile aristocratic man who enjoy raping young virgins, procured for them by Lydia Quigley.  Everyone becomes embroiled in all sorts of intrigues as they try to expose each other: there is a definite touch of Dallas and Dynasty about it, in a very well-portrayed Georgian setting, but we don’t forget that there are many women being exploited by rich men.  Satisfyingly, at the end of this series, the goodies come out on top … but there’s another series to come, when doubtless everything will get even more tangled.  Bring it on!


The Romantics and Us with Simon Schama – BBC 2


Oh.  Well, I’d been looking forward to this.  I was expecting poems by Wordsworth, Keats et al and paintings by Turner.  Instead, we were informed that the Romantics converted medieval pilgrimages into Parisian riots, and that this was all to do with John Lennon and The Doors.  I mean, I like “Imagine” and “Light My Fire” as much as the next person does, but what do they have to do with daffodils in Grasmere or the season of mist and mellow fruitfulness?  And that William Blake wanted Superman to rescue him from John Locke and Darth Vader.  Locke’s books are extremely boring, admittedly, but I’m not quite clear about the role of Darth Vader in the late 18th century.  And apparently Shelley was a punk rocker.  Because he had a teenage bride.  I think the BBC may have got confused between Johnny Rotten and Jerry Lee Lewis there.  Not that either of them have got anything to do with Shelley.

By this point, I was beginning to wonder if Simon Schama, who is usually very interesting, had recently visited Amsterdam, never mind Paris.  And it then developed into everyone’s a racist, everything’s corrupt, all news is fake news, the entire world is horrible … why, oh why, does the BBC have to be so nasty and negative about everything?  The Romantics, and, for that matter, John Lennon, were looking for peace and beauty. How did the BBC manage to turn that into hatred and ugliness?  Thank goodness All Creatures Great and Small‘s on Channel 5, or the BBC would probably have tried to spoil that as well!  Where were the daffodils?  Where were the Lakes?  The Alps?  The Highlands?

This first episode was *slightly* redeemed by Christopher Eccleston reading “The Masque of Anarchy” and some shots of people walking round town with umbrellas to mark the 200th anniversary of Peterloo, but I still wasn’t convinced that medieval pilgrimages had anything to do with Jim Morrison.  Nor that any of it had anything to do with Darth Vader.

OK, the idea of it was that the Romantics had influenced the present day, and I suppose that some of the points made were valid, if a little far-fetched.  But the way it was presented was all about the BBC getting in little political digs.  Yes, you can make a link between the famous Delacroix “Liberty Leading The People” painting, the one associated with Les Miserables, and the 1968 Paris student uprising, although I’m still not sure where John Lennon comes into.  And I can see the link between medieval pilgrimages and modern day protests, although I’m not convinced that the Romantics were a link between them: pilgrimages were old hat well before the Romantics came along.  But did we need all the political gibes?

And I must confess that I never knew that The Doors were named after a Blake poem and was quite interested to hear that they were, and, OK, maybe some of Blake’s pictures did look a bit like superhero comics, but how do you get from there to saying that everyone’s a racist?

Things did look up when Simon started talking about Mary Wollstonecraft, but this was somehow twisted into saying that politicians do nothing but put out fake news.  He then got on to slagging off the British governments in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, whereupon my ears pricked up because I sensed a mention of Peterloo coming; but it was done in a way that was clearly intended as a dig at 21st century governments. Leave it out, BBC.  You are meant to be unbiased.  However, once he’d shut up about Shelley being a punk rocker, we did get “The Masque of Anarchy” and we did get Peterloo, so that was good.  But then he claimed that an 1818 painting of a shipwreck by an artist called Gericault had something to do with asylum seekers.  And did a lot of talking about cannibals.

I didn’t want cannibals.  I didn’t want Darth Vader.   And I didn’t want a load of political gibes and to be told that everyone’s a racist.

I wanted daffodils.  And lakes.  I wanted something romantic and beautiful, to distract me from everything that’s going on.

I’m off to sort out my holiday photos from the Lake District …


The Singapore Grip – ITV


I hope that this gets better, because, despite the attractive sets and the interesting historical context, the first episode wasn’t particularly, well, gripping.  Whilst I understand that it’s supposed to be a satire, the nasty businessman, the temptress daughter, the spoilt brat son and the nice but dim new business partner were so caricatured that it was hard to take them seriously.  That sort of thing works brilliantly in Carry On films or ’80s sitcoms (speaking of which, all the references to the rubber industry kept making me think of the Union Jack Rubber Company in You Rang M’Lord), but not in something which is supposed to be a drama.  The best character was Webb senior, played by Charles Dance, but he’s been bumped off already!   And the jumping about with the timeline was confusing.

But the sets are nice.  There were no historical/anachronistic blunders.  And maybe it’ll get better, once we get into the love triangle between Mr Nice But Dim, the temptress daughter, and the “mystery” Chinese woman played by Xin from Coronation Street.  And I assume that we are actually going to see the fall of Singapore to the Japanese – I think we’re meant to be in 1941 at the moment.  I hope it gets better, anyway.  There’s nothing else on on Sunday nights at the moment.

We’re in Singapore.  Obviously.  Charles Dance, Mr Webb senior, sadly died part-way into the episode, although not until after he’d struck a blow for the older generation by wandering around the garden topless.  Without a scythe, though. So his nice but dim son has inherited his share of the rubber company which he owns jointly with Mr Blackett/Nasty Businessman, who has two giddy daughters.  The elder daughter told her dad, to whom she’s creepily close, that of course she’d marry the nice but dim guy, and it didn’t matter what he was like, followed by lots of tittering and giggling.  However, it appears that the nice but dim guy is involved with the mysterious Chinese woman, whom the Blacketts met a few years earlier and who has now arrived in Singapore as a refugee, and is suspected of being a communist.  I’m not quite sure what the point of the other daughter and the spoilt brat son is.  Or the wife, which is a shame, because Jane Horrocks is wasted playing a character who hardly does anything.

I shall persevere.  I’m hoping that young Mr Webb is not as dim as he seems, and I’d quite like to know what’s going on with the mysterious woman.  And it might get better …


The Whicharts by Noel Streatfeild (Facebook group reading challenge)


Reading this, the adult book which Noel Streatfeild adapted to create Ballet Shoes, was a very strange experience indeed.  It was a bit like finding out that your sweet little old auntie had a disreputable past about which you’d had no idea.  Sleaze.  Grooming.  Mistresses.  Illegitimate children.  Going after married men for their money.  This is not what I’m used to from Noel Streatfeild!  And, although it was meant as an adult book, some of the writing was quite simplistic, which made it even stranger.  As a stand alone book, it’s something that you’d read once, quite enjoy, but probably never read again.  As a Hall of Mirrors version of Ballet Shoes, it’s fascinating, in a rather weird kind of way.

Well, we’ve still got the three girls, although they’re Maimie, Tania and Daisy rather than Pauline, the ridiculously-named Petrova, and Posy.  And they’re still, respectively, an actress, a would-be mechanic and pilot who dislikes the stage, and a dancer.  But, rather than being three orphans whom GUM randomly collected, they’re the three illegitimate children of a rakish brigadier (a very Edwardian type – probably had mutton chop whiskers, used sandalwood aftershave, smoked expensive cigars and played billiards), by three different mistresses.  And, rather than being his niece, their guardian, Rose, is his discarded long-term mistress, whom he dumped when he met Maimie’s mother.  Rose takes in the first two women (not simultaneously!) and, after they’ve given birth, they ride off into the sunset and she takes on the babies.  She then also takes on Daisy, whose mother died of, presumably, childbirth fever.  I’m not sure what’s more unrealistic, GUM collecting orphans or this.  Where on earth is Rose’s self-respect?!

However, Rose is a very attractive character.  Like Sylvia, she’s devoted to the children.  Unlike Sylvia, when the money runs out – in this, darker, version of events, Mr Serial Seducer dies, whereas GUM just goes missing for a while and then turns up safe and well -, she gets a job.  It’s in a wartime munitions factory: this book starts in the Edwardian period, rather than the inter-war period.   There are boarders, but they don’t feature much, whereas they’re key characters in Ballet Shoes.  There is a kindly mechanic who helps out Tania, but he doesn’t live with them.  There is, however, still a devoted Nannie, who stays on even when there’s no money to pay her full salary (Noel Streatfeild is obsessed with devoted old nannies).  And a cook.

Rose herself then also dies, so the girls – and Nannie, of course – are left to fend for themselves.  As I said, this is a much darker version of events.  Daisy doesn’t feature much, unfortunately – and surprisingly.  Posy re-emerges in a different guise as Lydia in the Gemma books, Nicky in Tennis Shoes, and arguably as other characters too: she was obviously a character of whom Streatfeild thought a lot, so I’m surprised that Daisy isn’t a stronger character here.  Tania, however, is the one whose mind we really get into – she’s fascinating.  And very little changes from Tania to Petrova.

Maimie, on the other hand, is a big shock, though.  She’s certainly nothing like Pauline.  She decides early on that what she needs is a man with money.  Not a husband, or even a keeper – that’d mean being tied to one man.  Just a lover with money.  It’s not clear whether or not she deliberately goes after married men, but her men are all married.  There’s an uncomfortable episode in which she’s groomed by a sleazy theatre manager, to whom she succumbs.  In the MeToo era, this would be seen as abuse.  In a different time, it’s not, as she is not forced, but it’s not very pleasant.  We don’t get the detail, but we see her worrying in case she’s fallen pregnant.  I really wasn’t expecting all that in a Streatfeild book.  That was a long way from Ballet Shoes.

So was Maimie’s whole attitude.  Interestingly, we hear Phyllis, a wardrobe mistress with whom Tania becomes friendly, musing about how she herself has always stuck to the straight and narrow, and all she’s got out of it is a thankless, low-paid job, and the as yet unfulfilled hope that she might strike lucky and marry a nice man, who’ll probably also have a thankless, low-paid job … whereas Maimie, by using her face and figure to ensnare married men, breaking all sorts of moral codes and without doing any work, is living the Life of Riley.  Plenty of people must have thought that at one time or another …

A small note on diversity and religion.  Maimie’s main lover, one Herbert Rosen, is Jewish.  He doesn’t bother with religion any more, but (probably?) identifies as being Jewish.  Maimie’s first crush is also Jewish, although he hardly features at all: she goes off him when she finds out that he sells socks.  That doesn’t carry across into Ballet Shoes … well, obviously not, as Pauline doesn’t have any lovers, or even any crushes!  I just picked up on it because there’s not a lot of religious diversity in Girls’ Own books.  Elinor M Brent-Dyer is unusual in having so many Catholic characters. And one agnostic, although the poor girl is forced to attend church services.  Antonia Forest has one Jewish character.  And Noel Streatfeild has the kindly Jewish uncle in Curtain Up.  But there aren’t many characters who aren’t Protestant.

Oh, and there’s, there’s a strange episode in which Maimie temporarily goes very High Church because she’s got a girl crush on a teacher who’s very High Church, and Tania, Daisy and even the narrative make fun of her.  What was that about?  The bishop’s daughter making fun of someone’s religious beliefs and practices?!

So, the three girls are very different. As are the Fossils, but there’s much more of a bond between them than there is between the Whicharts.  The name, incidentally, comes about because they misunderstand the Lord’s Prayer and think that their father’s surname must have been Whichart – “Our Father Whichart in Heaven”.  That was quite good!   There’s no “let’s make the name famous and no-one will be able to say that it was because of our grandfathers” scene.  It’s a lovely scene, that one in Ballet Shoes, but there just isn’t that bond here.  Maimie and Daisy are both reluctant to move out because it’d mean leaving Tania on her own, but that’s only because of guilt, not because they don’t want to be parted from their sisters.

And, in the end, they do go their own ways.  Daisy goes to live with her maternal grandparents, who turn up looking for her.  Tania goes off to find her mother, in a totally bonkers episode which sees her, aged 16 and without a driving licence, drive all the way from London to somewhere near Carlisle, find out that her mother’s moved down south, sleep in the car overnight, and then drive all the way to the Sussex coast … whereupon her mother whisks her off on a cruise to Java.  No, me neither!  And Maimie, we presume, is set up in a nice flat by Herbert.  It’s quite sad, really – but, then again, it looks as if they’ll all be happy, in their own ways, so maybe it isn’t.

Life isn’t always easy, in Noel Streatfeild’s children’s books.  But it’s always fairly innocent.  It isn’t here.  I haven’t read any of her other adult books, so I don’t know what they’re like, but I can’t think of any other example of an adult book, especially one with a fair bit of sleaze and seediness (by the standards of 1931, when this was published), being adapted into a book for little girls.  And it’s such a classic, as well.  It’s very strange.

This is a rather silly book, to be honest.   Rose taking in the three kids, and Tania’s mad drive up and down the country, aren’t very convincing.  But it’s quite interesting, in its way.  However, it was impossible for me to read it without comparing it to Ballet Shoes every step of the way, and, as I’ve said, it was like being in a Hall of Mirrors.   I don’t think I’ll be reading it again, but I’m glad that I have read it, just to see what it was like.