Jamestown – Sky 1

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Well, the first three episodes of this have certainly been eventful. The one who used to be in Holby City‘s been wrongly accused of witchcraft.  Not to mention she and her friend being chased by a pack of wolves.  The one who used to be in Waterloo Road ‘s getting well stuck in there with all the politicking … which largely involves all the blokes plotting against each other, and getting stressed about James I’s disapproval of tobacco plantations.  Max Beesley’s character’s being killed by his own brother – except that he isn’t really dead, and is presumably about to show up again at the most inopportune moment.  And the said brother’s been wrongly accused (there’s a lot of wrongful accusation going on) of stealing arms and selling them to the Native Americans.  The only one who hasn’t really done anything is the Puritan maid, who seems to be channelling Baldrick.  Most of her lines sound as if they were written for him.

It’s a bit daft, and some of the characters are rather too caricatured, but it’s entertaining. It’s also nice to have a series which shows that “America” did not begin with the Pilgrim Fathers.  And indeed that Jamestown was not all about John Rolfe and Pocahontas.  We started off with a group of mail order brides.  There are all sorts of true stories about emigrant men sending home for brides, whether it was by advertising or by asking relatives and friends to find someone suitable and willing, and there are also true stories (this was more of a French thing!) about women just being packed off to help populate colonies.  In this case, the Virginia Company recruited a number of women who wanted to emigrate to the “New World” – the deal being that they married whichever man agreed to pay for their journey.

It was filmed in Hungary, not Virginia, but never mind. And we’ve got the governor, the company recorder, the doctor, the drunken pub owner, the former indentured servants now trying to set up their own plantations … so they’ve tried to include company.  Most of the characters have Lancashire or Yorkshire accents.  Even the posh woman who claims to be from Banbury isn’t kidding us: we know that the actress who plays her comes from Manchester 😉 .  The main characters are the posh woman (who harbours a dark secret) and two of the mail order brides (one feisty, one less feisty but determined to marry the bloke she fancies rather than whoever’s paid for her).  They do a lot of talking about sisterhood and sticking together.

It’s probably not very much of a reflection of what life in early 17th century Jamestown was actually like; but it’s not bad.  And it’s entertaining.  It’s certainly not boring!

From Morocco to Timbuktu: An Arabian Adventure – BBC 2

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At the start of this programme, I was huffing and puffing about the fact that the BBC had chosen to call it “An Arabian Adventure”. The population of Morocco is largely Berber, and the issue of Arabisation there can be quite contentious.  Mali has a mixed population, of sub-Saharan ethnic groups: it can’t be described as “Arabian” by anyone’s standards.  However, a lot of the programme (this first episode was all in Morocco, so Mali hasn’t really come into it yet) did focus specifically on Berber culture, so I forgive the choice of title.  Just about.

I suppose “An Arabian Adventure” sounds glamorous and exotic. Scheherezade of the Arabian Nights (although her name is actually Persian!).  Lawrence of Arabia.  Is North Africa thought of in Britain as being glamorous and exotic?  The area was once referred to as “the Barbary States” and linked to pirates raiding the coast of Cornwall for slaves … er, maybe better not go there!  How about Midnight at the Oasis?  And that stupid film with Rudolph Valentino as a sheikh?  Oh, and Casablanca, of course, although Moroccan culture doesn’t exactly feature very much in that.  Then there’s the French Foreign Legion, although, unfortunately, any mention of that makes me think of Carry on … Follow That Camel.

Well, whatever! Moving on from the choice of title!  I think most people do have some sort of sense of Morocco, but what about Mali?  It’s the eighth biggest country in Africa, but it’s really not at all familiar to most people in the UK.  There’s that bloke who plays for Crystal Palace … er, but what else do we know about Mali?  But everyone’s heard of the Malian city of Timbuktu.  It’s a byword for somewhere exotic and mysterious.  And, unlike Shangri La and El Dorado and other places with those sorts of connotations, it actually exists.  It’s also a byword for somewhere a very long way away.  I think the only other place name we use in that way is Outer Mongolia, but that really is a long way away.  Timbuktu isn’t, really. And the reason we know the name goes back to the days of the great empires of North West Africa, now long gone.  Timbuktu, back then, was a major trading centre.  One of the major commodities traded there was salt from the Sahara Desert, and, in this programme, Alice Morrison’s following the salt routes.

What we got in the first programme, though, was Morocco. Wonderful Morocco, where I spent a memorable holiday in November 2010.  First up, Tangier.  Tangier actually came to Charles II as part of Catherine of Braganza’s dowry, along with Mumbai/Bombay, but, whilst British involvement in India lasted almost three centuries, we gave up Tangier pretty quickly!  From Tangier, she went on to visit a number of places which showed how fascinating and diverse Morocco is.  Fes/Fez, with its tanneries … and its amazing bazaars, which I’m sorry we didn’t see more of.  Marrakech, with its wonderful Jemaa al Fna Square.  The Atlas Mountains, which look more like Switzerland than how you imagine Morocco to look.  We saw her spend time with Berber nomads.  And cook camel meatballs … er, hmm, I can’t say I was ever tempted to try those!  And then head out across the desert, visiting ruined cities with their impressive casbahs (I had that song by The Clash on the brain all the way through Morocco!).  It was obvious that Alice Morrison was very familiar with the country and very passionate about it, and she did an excellent job of explaining everything she was showing us.

Tragically, some of Mali’s historic buildings were destroyed by Al-Qaeda during clashes in 2012, and I don’t think that really got as much coverage as it might have done: we hear a lot about events in Iraq and Syria, and, to some extent, Libya and Egypt, and of course the horrific attack on tourists in Tunisia, but the problem of Islamic militancy in Mali, is not as well-known as it might be. However, this series will presumably be focusing on the many positive aspects of the history and culture of Mali.  Going back to the subject of Morocco, there are issues there too, and I think the Western image of North Africa in general has been damaged by recent political events, but I found a week and a half in Morocco to be a wonderful experience.  I’ve got very fond memories of it, and am so pleased to see it as the subject of a programme like this.  And I don’t think I’ve come across Alice Morrison before, but she’s great!  More programmes with her in them, please!

Elizabeth I – Channel 5

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This wasn’t bad, by Channel 5’s rather low standards of “docu-dramas”. The only glaring blooper in it was someone addressing Elizabeth as “Your Majesty” before she became queen.   It was also quite nice that they’d devoted an entire episode to Elizabeth’s younger years, before (in the episodes to come) moving on to all the old familiar stuff about the Armada, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Dudley et al.

It was a very contemporary take on events, with talk about Thomas Seymour “grooming” Elizabeth. That’s exactly what he was trying to do, but it was an interesting juxtaposition of a term that’s only arisen in the last few years and events going back almost half a millennium.  Do we want to put modern interpretations on things, or do we want to see them as they might have been seen at the time?  There are no right or wrong answers to that: it’s a good topic for debate!  Whatever, Thomas Seymour’s intentions at the time were every bit as wrong as those of people who groom young people today, and undoubtedly had a significant effect on young Elizabeth.

Just going off topic a bit, if we’re looking at the events of Elizabeth I’s reign through modern eyes, the issue of the welfare state is much in the news at the moment, with a General Election coming up, and I’d quite like to see a programme about the Elizabethan period mention the Poor Law system. We always get the Armada, Mary Queen of Scots, Robert Dudley, Drake, Shakespeare, and, of course, the Reformation, but the effects of the Reformation – particularly the Dissolution of the Monasteries – on the issue of poor relief, and the reforms made during Elizabeth’s reign as a result, tends to be very neglected.  Sorry, that’s got nothing to do with the Channel 5 series, which looks as if it’s going to be same old, same old from now on!

Elizabeth I is one of my great heroines. She’s one of the most important and fascinating characters in our history, and her reign is one of the most important periods in our history.  But, and I know I’m always saying this, it is same old, same old, because there’ve been so many popular books, TV series and films about the Tudors that everyone’s heard most of it a zillion times before.  This was very watchable, but I would much have preferred to see a programme about, say, Queen Anne, or Edward I, or Edward III, or Stephen and Matilda.  Or, given the worrying figures about how many people don’t bother to vote at elections, the struggle for universal suffrage.  We’ve got so much history to go at: please would one of the TV channels go at a part of it that hasn’t been done a million times before?!  Please?!

The Red Tent – Drama

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I thought this, based on the excellent novel by Anita Diamant, was great.  I believe there was some controversy when it was shown in America, because the Bible Brigade didn’t like the idea of a Bible story being soap-opera-ised, but the Bible lends itself brilliantly to soap-opera-isation.  It’s absolutely full of affairs and family feuds!  They should be glad that someone’s showing that the Bible is actually very entertaining and isn’t full of boring people in black coats preaching that the end of the world is nigh or whatever.  Oh, and apparently some people also take issue with a dramatisation of a Bible story which shows violence.  Excuse me?  The Bible is full of violence.  It’s barely kicked off before a bloke’s been murdered by his own brother!   We’re talking wars, mass slaughter of babies, people being thrown into lions’ dens and fiery furnaces, etc etc.  Even the heroic bits are violent.  I mean, I don’t suppose Goliath’s family and friends were very happy when he got killed by David.  Then there were all those Philistines who got squashed when Samson brought the roof down.  What do people think everyone does in the Bible?  Sits around drinking cups of tea?!

Anyway. So, Bible stories can make for very good TV viewing!   The idea of The Red Tent was for it to seem real, and for it to tell the story of one part of the Bible from a female point of view.  Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden wouldn’t really work in terms of seeming real (unless you’re a creationist, presumably, but let’s not go there).  Nor would Noah’s Ark.  It’d make a great cartoon, but not a TV programme for adults.  So that brings us to the patriarchs – and that’s part of the problem, that people talk about “the patriarchs” rather than “the patriarchs and the matriarchs”.

First up, Abraham. Originally Abram.  Married to Sarah.  Originally Sarai.  Sarah couldn’t have kids, so Abraham had a son by her handmaiden.  Then Sarah eventually did have a kid, Isaac.  And Abraham was going to make a human sacrifice of him.  I want to say that he was going to sacrifice him on the Stone Table, but that’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.  Was it a wooden altar with Isaac?  Anyway, whatever, the sacrifice didn’t happen, but poor Isaac probably had severe PTSD for the rest of his life.  Isaac then married Rebecca, and they had twins, Esau and Jacob – and this where we get towards the story told in The Red Tent.

Esau, who’d been hard at work all day (whilst Jacob appears to have been doing very little), came in, and joked that he was so hungry that he’d sell his birthright for a mess of pottage – his birthright being the blessing to which he, as the eldest son, was entitled.  It was a joke.  Everyone says “I’m so hungry that …”.  But Jacob, egged on and assisted by Rebecca, literally used it to steal his brother’s birthright.  And, as if conning their brother and son wasn’t bad enough, they did so by taking advantage of the fact that Isaac, by this time an elderly man, had lost his eyesight.  And no-one did anything about it.  It is so out of order!   Isaac was like, soz, can’t do anything about it now, and so Jacob and Rebecca just got away with it.  Poor Esau!  From then on, he faded into the background, and Jacob and his descendants got to play the starring roles in the rest of the Book of Genesis.

Esau was, quite rightly, thoroughly pissed off, so Jacob did a runner because he knew Esau’d make mincemeat of him if it came to a fight. Off he went to stay with his uncle, Rebecca’s brother Laban.  He wanted to marry Laban’s daughter, Rachel, but her elder sister Leah turned up to the wedding instead, and Jacob claimed he didn’t realise he’d got the wrong girl because he couldn’t tell the difference as she was wearing a veil.  Right.  Then he married Rachel as well.  But Rachel couldn’t have kids, so, channelling Abraham and Hagar, he married Rachel’s handmaiden too.  Leah realised that this was a good way of having a break from childbearing, so she got Jacob to marry her handmaiden as well!  Eventually, between them, the four woman produced twelve sons – Rachel eventually having two, Joseph and Benjamin.

You would think that, after all the business with Esau and then marrying sisters, Jacob would have realised that sibling rivalry could cause all sorts of problems, and try to steer his kids clear of it. Oh no.  He had to stir it all up by blatantly favouring Joseph and giving him an amazing technicolour dreamcoat (the Bible words it slightly differently).  So the other sons sold Joseph into slavery.  But he worked his way to the top, becoming a senior minister in Egypt.  Very 20th century.  Then nearly lost his job due to a false allegation of sexual assault.  Very 21st century.  Then his brothers turned up, and he set them up by planting stolen goods on them.  Very soap opera-ish.  And it all got sorted.

Twelve sons. And one daughter.  Dinah, the daughter of Jacob and Leah.  She went to visit the women of Shechem, the place to which they’d all moved, and was abducted and raped by a local prince.  He then fell in love with her and wanted to marry her.  Her brothers Simeon and Levi said that they’d agree if all the men of the prince’s tribe were circumcised.  The prince agreed.  Whilst the men were suffering with their sore bits, Simeon and Levi killed them all.

There’s some confusion over what’s supposed to have happened to Dinah after that. Strangely, her name resurfaced in the antebellum southern states of America as a generic name for female slaves.  But, other than that, she’s largely been ignored by … well, by cultures that involve the Bible.  It’s hard to know what term to use.  The TV series is definitely “set in the past”, but we really have no way of knowing how much, if anything, of what’s in the Bible actually happened, and there’s not really much point worrying about it.  Although pointing out that there’s no way of proving it is a pretty good way of getting rid of Jehovah’s Witnesses when they knock on your door.

 The Red Tent changes quite a few things from the original story.  Crucially, Dinah is not raped.  She falls in love with the prince of Shechem and goes off with him willingly.  We’re also shown Dinah, and her child by the prince, making a new life for themselves in Egypt.  Jacob is well aware that he’s marrying Leah rather than Rachel, and just pretends to be narked so that Laban will agree to a better dowry.  He also asks for the handmaidens right from the start. Rachel does not die in childbirth when Benjamin is born, as she does in the Bible.  There’s also quite a bit about Laban being violent and mistreating his second wife, a character invented by Anita Diamant; and the bit in the Bible in which Laban chases after them all after Rachel steals his household gods is missing.  So quite a bit is changed.  Maybe that’s partly what narked the Bible Brigade?

And then there’s “The Red Tent”. The title of the book refers to the menstrual huts/tents used in some cultures – still used today in some places, apparently.  There’s no mention in the Bible of menstrual tents.  But the tent is the place where the women come together – and there we get the theme of a network of women, all supporting one another.  It’s a very common theme in books, whether we’re talking Girls’ Own books where schoolgirls or groups of female friends and relatives form strong networks, or stories like Bridget Jones’s Diary or Steel Magnolias where women rely on the support of their female friends, or the many books about the relationships between sisters, mothers, daughters, grandmothers, aunts and other female relatives and friends.  It’s a very powerful theme, and one which the Bible doesn’t really deal with.

It’s been said about the book (The Red Tent, not the Bible!) that it appeals to women who feel that females are left out of the Bible.  Are females left out of the Bible?  There are some very important female characters in the Bible.  I would say Eve, but that opens up the whole can of worms about women getting the blame for all the troubles of mankind (personkind?).  But … well, Deborah, Ruth, Esther, Miriam (the sister of Moses), Mary, Mary Magdalene.  And, of course, Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah.  Jezebel!  The Queen of Sheba.  Hmm.  Pretty short list compared to the list of important male character.  Some women, like Noah’s wife and Lot’s wife, don’t even get their own names mentioned.  And there’s virtually nothing about relationships between female friends and relatives, other than Ruth and Naomi.  You can certainly see where Anita Diamant’s coming from.

And it’s a bloody good story! She tells it really well, in the book.  And this TV adaptation tells it really well too. Rebecca Ferguson, who played Elizabeth Woodville in the TV adaptation of Philippa Gregory’s books, does a great job as Dinah, but the real star is Minnie Driver as Leah.  She is superb!  And so is the character of Leah.  She knows that Jacob will never love her as much as he loves Rachel, but she’s the matriarch.  She’s the leader of this network of women.  My one gripe is that the actual red tent itself hasn’t been shown very much: most of the action has taken place outdoors, and a lot of the talk between the women’s been missed.  So has Dinah’s childhood: we pretty much went straight to her being a young woman.  But a four hour TV adaptation can’t show a whole book, so it’s not really fair to moan about that.  And the first part, shown last night, really was very, very good.  Very watchable.  Forget whether you’re into religion or into the Bible: it doesn’t matter when it comes to watching this.  This is a wonderful story.

Mandarin by Robert Elegant

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This is marketed as being the second in a trilogy, but it’s actually got nothing to do with Manchu, apart from the fact that they’re both written by Robert Elegant and set in China. This one covers the Taiping Rebellion, and is set mainly in the “foreign” quarter of Shanghai, where Saul Haleevie, who left Baghdad due to anti-Jewish sentiment and moved, via Bombay/Mumbai, to China, is in partnership with Aisek Lee, a Chinese man.  Most of the Haleevies’ acquaintances are from Britain, the United States, or various European countries.  The Empress Yehenala/Cixi/Orchid, many miles away in Peking/Beijing, also features prominently.

Aisek falls foul of the Chinese authorities and is unjustly sentenced to exile, after which Saul and his wife Sarah adopt Aisek’s sons, Aaron and David. Meanwhile, the Haleevies are desperate to find a suitable husband for their daughter, the oddly-named Fronah, whom they’re concerned is becoming too involved both with Chinese affairs and with the Western community, and also attracting the interest of an American, Gabriel Hyde.  They manage to pair Fronah up with Lionel Henriques, a well-to-do (so they think) and well-connected (so they hope) Englishman who conveniently happens to be Jewish.  Rather unfortunately for all concerned, it turns out that Lionel is a paedophile and an opium addict, who was packed off to China by his horrified family to avoid scandal in London.  Opium, OK, but did we have to have paedophilia in the book?  Surely some other sort of vice, one which wasn’t quite so sickening, would have sufficed for the storyline.

David becomes a prominent Mandarin, whilst Lionel and Aaron join the Taiping rebels. Lionel is killed, but no-one tells Fronah because they’re worried it’ll lead to a recurrence of the depression and anorexia from which she suffered when he first left, and then, ten years later, there’s a rather unconvincing farce in which no-one tells anyone else what they know and everyone gets the wrong idea, before Fronah and Gabriel finally get together and, hopefully, live happily ever after.

That makes it sound like a romance or a family saga, which it isn’t. There are a lot of scenes showing the utter horror of the Taiping Rebellion, as experienced by Lionel and David, the effects on everyone of the fighting in and around Shanghai, Fronah’s attempts to help the children who are suffering as a result of it, and the sacking and pillaging of Peking by Western forces.  There are also a lot of scenes showing the Empress Yehenala, presenting her in a much more positive light than she’s often been shown in historically.   It’s a big book and there’s a lot going on, with the action moving between the main characters in Shanghai, Lionel and Aaron with the rebels, and Yehenala at court.

It does get a bit confused sometimes, especially in the rather silly who-knows-what scenes leading up to the end. Also, the author gets his cuisines confused, but I suppose that doesn’t really affect the story!   But there’s a lot in it that’s well worth reading.

The Durrells – ITV 1

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This is turning into one of those very popular sitcoms that we used to have in the 1980s. I don’t think for a minute that Gerald Durrell intended his memoirs to come across as situation comedy, and I’m not sure that ITV intended their adaptation of them to do so either – which means, hooray that we’re not getting annoying canned laughter all the time, as we do in programmes that are actually marketed as sitcoms – but it’s working very well as one.  Why don’t they make ’70s and ’80s style sitcoms any more?  Everyone used to watch them, and I think we could all do with a bit of gentle comedy in our lives, with all the doom and gloom going on at the moment.

Despite the rather obvious differences in time, location and social class 🙂 , there’s a definite feeling of Bread about this.  We’ve got a group of family members who are all rather annoying, most of whom seem to think that it’s OK not to pay their way and could really do with a good slap, but who somehow form a genuinely entertaining unit.  Then there’s the location.  We didn’t really get exotic locations in ’80s sitcoms.  I don’t think the TV companies could afford them back then!  Sun, sea, sand, stone, countryside … it’s all there.  And there’s the Brits Abroad/Culture Clash element, which is always good for a laugh.

In the first episode of the new series, the Durrells had failed to pay their rent – which they didn’t seem to feel at all stressed or guilty about. Louisa Durrell seemed to think that saying “Sorry” to the nasty new landlady (who was jealous because she thought Louisa had caught the attention of her ex) would make it all OK.  Even the Boswells wouldn’t have done that.  And it didn’t seem to occur to any of the adult children that maybe they should try to earn some money. Larry was trying to write a book … but dropped his typewriter out of a tree, as you do.  Yes, we all know that Lawrence Durrell became a successful author, but at this point he was just expecting his mum to support him from her widow’s pension.  Leslie wasn’t doing anything at all, other than messing about with shotguns and accidentally injuring the family dog.  And Margo was spending all her time chasing after a monk, not realising that monks were celibate.  See what I mean about how they could do with a good slap?!  But somehow it was funny!  Meanwhile, it didn’t seem to occur to anyone that young Gerry ought to be at school, rather than wandering about looking for otter poo.

So Louisa decided to make some money by selling traditional British food at the market. In a series of scenes that could have come straight out of ‘Allo ‘Allo, she stood there being terribly polite and British, until Spiro, her Greek pal, pointed out that she needed to flirt with the male customers and call out histrionically about how her family were all going to starve unless people bought her wares.  So then she did very well … until everyone who’d bought her stuff got food poisoning, possibly because the dastardly landlady had nobbled it.

I really don’t think it’s meant to seem quite as farcical as it does. Or that we’re meant to think of Gerald’s siblings as scroungers.  But, even if it’s not meant to be a sitcom, it’s working really well as one.

And what about the historical element of it? Well, it isn’t really there – and maybe that’s part of the appeal.  This is the late 1930s, and the storm clouds are gathering.  In a few short years’ time, war is going to break out, and Corfu is going to be occupied first by Mussolini’s Italy and then by Hitler’s Germany.  Louisa, Gerry and Leslie are going to return to England and have to cope with life on the Home Front.  But no-one seems to have the slightest inkling of, or even the slightest interest in, what’s going on in the outside world.  No-one seems to own a radio, and I don’t think we’ve even seen anyone reading a newspaper.  In a world of 24/7 news coverage, much of which is enough to make anyone feel anxious and downhearted, the idea of being able to escape from it all to some sort of sunny idyll has its appeal.  OK, in reality I’d be screaming out for the internet, a TV and a 24 hour Tesco after a day, plus I really, really hate not knowing what’s going on in the world.  But it’s a nice idea.  Especially on a Sunday evening, in that gentle-Sunday-evening-viewing slot where lovely programmes like Heartbeat and Born and Bred and Where The Heart Is used to be, and which The Durrells is filling quite nicely.

 

 

 

 

Manchu by Robert Elegant

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If you’re going to write a book about the Manchu conquest of China, obviously you need a hero from Clitheroe. Well, it didn’t actually mention Clitheroe, LOL, but I’m guessing that the American author, whilst reading up on the English Catholic college at St Omer, then part of the Spanish Netherlands, noted that the college was the “ancestor” of what’s now Stonyhurst (i.e. the well-known Catholic boys’ school near Clitheroe) and decided that his hero should come from Lancashire for that reason.  Oh, and don’t use “the Duchy of Lancaster” as a synonym for “the county of Lancashire”.  It’s totally inaccurate and very annoying.  Furthermore, our hero’s family had apparently had their estates confiscated because they were Catholic.  Er, what?!!   Fines for recusancy, yes.  Estates being confiscated, no.  And apparently they held these estates because they were yeomen.  How much of an estate did your average Elizabethan yeoman hold?!

OK, that’s enough moaning about the author’s errors regarding Elizabethan England. The book actually starts in the time of James I, when our hero Francis is studying at St Omer but doesn’t fancy becoming a priest.  The next thing you know, he’s working for the Portuguese in Macao, as an expert in ammunitions.  I really want to write an essay on the Habsburgs now, because I know where I am with the Habsburgs and I really don’t know where I am with 17th century China, but suffice it to say that, at this point, Macao, because it was under Portuguese control, was under the rule of Philip IV of Spain, and linked with the Spanish Netherlands for that reason.  Well, until 1640, when Barcelona and Madrid had one of their many spats and Portugal decided to declare independence in the middle of it all.

So we are now in Macao, under Portuguese administration but Chinese sovereignty. And the Manchus are looking to overthrow the Ming dynasty and take control of China. Rather confusingly, the book keeps referring to the Manchus as Tartars, which is what Westerners would have done at the time but is, like the Duchy of Lancaster thing, totally inaccurate and very annoying.  The Portuguese are on the side of the Ming dynastyAnd there are Jesuit priests hoping to convert Chinese bigwigs to Catholicism (Francis is the lone Englishman, the other Westerners all being Portuguese or Italian, but not very much is said about that), members of the Chinese upper and middle-classes who have converted to Catholicism, and conflict’s brewing between the Manchus and the Mings … and, as the book progresses, Francis gets caught up in it all.

He’s also pushed into marriage with a Catholic Chinese woman; then, after being kidnapped, he’s pushed into taking a Manchu woman as a concubine; and then, after ending up back in Macao, he marries a Portuguese woman (his first wife having died by then). Keep up!!  There’s something a bit Boys’ Own-ish about the way he keeps being kidnapped, escaping, ending up in the thick of everything and saving the day, but it makes things exciting!  And there’s also something rather dated about the way we see everything through the eyes of the Western characters, but the book’s over 50 years old so it can’t really be criticised for that.  It really does drawn you in.  There are war scenes, there are political scenes, and there are detailed domestic scenes which describe everyone’s clothes and hairstyles.  So there’s a bit of everything.

I feel as I’m writing this in a rather confused way, but the book is a bit higgledy-piggledy, especially with the relationships with the three different women.  Also, the style in general seems quite old-fashioned now, but, as I’ve said, you can’t criticise a book that’s over 50 years old for that.  What it is is a very interesting introduction to an environment with which the reader probably isn’t going to be familiar.  And a time when, as the book points out, it took two years to travel between China and Portugal or England. It’s not an easy read, but that’s probably because it is unfamiliar territory.  But it’s worth the effort.