The Courtesan and the Samurai by Lesley Downer


  This is the last book in the Shogun Quartet, and it’s a bit different from the other three in that it’s about ordinary and fictitious people, rather than being sert in the Shogun’s palace.   When the civil war of 1868-9 breaks out, young samurai woman Hana, with her parents and parents-in-law dead and her husband away in the army, seeks help in Edo/Tokyo but is forced into becoming a courtesan.  She then meets Yozo, a samurai warrior.

The owners of the house where Hana works intend to sell her to an evil man, and Yozo rescues her.  It also turns out that Yozo knew Hana’s horrible husband.  It’s all a bit unlikely, but it’s still an interesting story because of what it tells us about Japanese culture at the time.   I’ve enjoyed reading these four books, and feel that I’ve learnt a lot from them.


Great Coastal Railway Journeys – BBC 2


  It was nice to see Michael and his bizarrely bright clothes back, and it was particularly nice that the first week of the new series was about the coast of North West England … although some episodes were more enjoyable than others.

The first episode actually wasn’t about the North West England, but about the Isle of Man.  It’s not somewhere which features on TV a lot, and it was a really interesting half-hour’s watching.   Then came the second episode, about Liverpool and Blackpool.  I was looking forward to this – but, unfortunately, the BBC woke brigade had obviously got to it.  Practically the entire time in Liverpool was spent talking about the slave trade.  I’m not saying that it shouldn’t have been mentioned, but was it really necessary to spend the whole time talking about it?  What about shipping, the waterfront, the Beatles, football?   And then, after a fascinating insight into theatre in Blackpool during the Second World War, Michael proclaimed that the generation which won the war and saved the world from Nazi tyranny were all racist and homophobic.  WTF?  Disparaging an entire generation, and especially that generation?   You expect this sort of thing from certain quarters, but you really don’t expect it from a Michael Portillo railway programme.  Not impressed.

Thankfully, it improved after that, and we were treated to some lovely views of Morecambe Bay and the beautiful gardens at Levens Hall.  Then on to my beloved Windermere, where Michael spent a lot of time talking about Swallows and Amazons, and plenty of time spent round other parts of the Lake District, including a trip on La’al Ratty, and then on to Solway Firth.  It made up for the second episode.  Just about.  Oh, my beautiful Lake District!   This week, it’s on to the coast of North East England.


The Masqueraders by Georgette Heyer


In mid-18th century London, Robin is trying to avoid exposure as a participant in the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion by pretending to be a woman, whilst his sister Prudence is pretending to be a man.  Maybe it’s just me, but wouldn’t it have been better to have kept a low profile in some quiet part of the countryside, rather than prancing about in London High Society, pretending to be a member of the opposite gender?!

Rather unconvincingly, only one person twigs what’s going on.

Meanwhile, their dad is claiming to be the long lost heir to a viscountcy, but not even they know whether he’s telling the truth or not.   It eventually transpires that he *is*, and both siblings make happy marriages with suitable partners.  And their involvement in the ’45 seems to be forgotten.  Strangely, we never learn exactly what Robin did during the ’45, nor why he was supporting the Jacobites.  But a gold star to the author for not romancitising the Jacobites as so many authors do.  Yes, the escape to Skye makes a good story, and yes, you can tie yourself in knots over social contracts and de facto/de jure and all the rest of it; but a Stuart restoration would have been a disaster, and probably wouldn’t have lasted very long.   They’d have wanted to rule like the French monarchs did, and look what happened to them.

There are various swordfights along the way, and two attempted forced elopements, and a lot of dances and card games.  It’s entertaining enough, but the plot is just bonkers.  Why didn’t they just lie low somewhere, instead of going around London in disguise?!  Bonkers!


The Shogun’s Queen by Lesley Downer



This one’s the first in The Shogun Quartet: I somehow seem to have got them all out of order!  It tells the story of Okatsu, a real historical figure, a girl from a relatively obscure samurai background who becomes the wife of the shogun, at a time when Japan’s struggling to cope with increased contact with Western powers.

There’s a fictitious subplot about her having a childhood romance with a man who becomes prominent in politics, but the main interest is in the powerplay in the Women’s Palace.  We learn that Okatsu’s mother-in-law had many of her son’s half-siblings killed at birth – she sounds like a villain from a Greek or Roman play, but she was also a real person, and this was fewer than 200 years ago!

Like so many women in history, Okatsu is a young girl used as a pawn by men, and her story’s quite sad; but it’s an interesting read.  Three books of the quartet read, one to go!

The Last Concubine by Lesley Downer


This is another of Lesley Downer’s Shogun quartet, this one set in Japan in the 1860s.  The protagonist, Sachi, is a fictional character who becomes the concubine of the young penultimate shogun shortly before his untimely death (by poison?).  Many of the characters are real people, including the shogun himself, and his wife Princess Kazu, daughter of the emperor.  The book shows how the city of Edo (Tokyo) was overrun by southern forces during the civil war which formed part of the Meiji Restoration, and how the thousands of women who lived in the palace there were turned out.

Sachi’s own life story is rather unlikely – the princess picks her up whilst travelling through her village, and it subsequently turns out that she’s actually the illegitimate daughter of a previous shogun’s concubine and her illicit lover.  However, the book’s very entertaining, and very informative about the lives of women both at the shogun’s court and in the Japanese countryside at the time.

Two books of the quartet down, two to go!

Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.


It must be over 30 years since I last read Are You There God?  It’s Me, Margaret, but I can still remember large sections of it word-for-word.  I was a bit nervous about seeing the film, because it’s such an iconic book that it would’ve been awful if they’d made a mess of it; but they’ve done a really good job.

In 1970, Margaret is 11.  She’s the daughter of a Jewish father and a Protestant mother, but isn’t being raised in either faith and instead chats away to God about her life and problems – to the horror of the censors in several American states.  The family have a close relationship with her widowed paternal grandmother, but have been cut off by her maternal grandparents.  When they move from New York City to suburban New Jersey, Margaret meets know-all Nancy Wheeler and joins her “Pre-Teen Sensations” gang (although the gang name wasn’t given in the film, for some reason), and tries to cope with worries about periods, bras, religion and boys.

The one big change from the book to the film is that the adults have been given a bigger role.  Reading the books as a kid, it never occurred to me that Herb and Barbara, Margaret’s parents, would also have found it hard to settle into a new place where they didn’t know anyone, that Sylvia, her grandma, would have been devastated that her family were moving away, or even how devastated Barbara must have been when her parents disowned her because of her choice of husband.  In the book, Margaret’s always known what happened with her maternal grandparents, but in the film we see Barbara telling her, and it’s quite a powerful moment.

I do, however, remember wondering what on earth the “Y” (again not mentioned in the film, but mentioned several times in the book) was – I’d have got “YMCA”, because of the song, but “Y” on its own completely threw me – and being confused by the term “real estate agent”, which made me wonder if the Simons had at some point been dealing with a fake estate agent.  Why I can remember this after over 35 years, when I can never remember where I put my keys down two minutes ago, is a mystery!   But I do remember it very clearly, because, as I said, it’s such an iconic book.  And the film does do it justice.  Watch and enjoy!


Ten Pound Poms – BBC 1


This is an interesting idea for a TV series, even if it’s all a bit overdone – nothing good seemed to happen to anyone, either in Britain or in Australia! A lot of fiction’s been written about emigration, but most of it’s about people from 19th century Eastern Europe or Ireland moving to New York: the subject of the million or so people who moved from post-war Britain to Australia and New Zealand’s been rather neglected.  The Assisted Passage Migration Scheme offered a new life in Australia for £10.  A lot of people who took it up were expecting sun, sand and well paid jobs; but life’s never that easy.  For some people, it worked out well.  The papers have been busily reminding us that the Ten Pound Poms included two future Prime Ministers of Australia, Tony Abbott and Julia Gillard, and the parents of Hugh Jackman and Kylie and Dannii Minogue.  For others, it didn’t.

This is written by Danny Brocklehurst, so our emigrants/immigrants, a family of four and a young single woman, are local.  I’m not sure that the depiction of Manchester/Stockport in the 1950s needed to be quite so bleak: I mean, it didn’t snow all the time!   And I was a bit bemused by their arrival in Australia only ten minutes into the first episode – surely we could have seen at least a bit about the decision-making process and the journey.

Like the bleakness of life at home, the bleakness of life on arrival in Australia was laid on with a trowel.  Our family were put up in rather grotty huts, and, within about five minutes, had been called “whinging Poms” and had to deal with a cockroach.  The dad’s Australian colleagues were all horrible to him.  The mum went shopping and found that indigenous people were sent to the back of the queue.

Half an hour in, I was wondering if anything good was ever going to happen to anyone!  Then it seemed that things were looking up for the dad … until his colleague ran over an indigenous child and said that it didn’t matter.  And there’s a mysterious sub plot involving the single woman – has she got a brother, or maybe even a child, who was sent to Australia by an unscrupulous children’s home manager?

Maybe everyone’s lives will look up as the series goes on!  The first episode was far from brilliant, but I’ll keep watching because it’s an interesting and neglected subject.


Mental Health Awareness Week – Anxiety


This is Mental Health Awareness Week, and the theme for this year is anxiety, which, like most mental health conditions, is an invisible disorder which many people find hard to understand.  As anyone who knows me well will be aware, I suffer from severe generalised anxiety disorder, together with obsessive compulsive disorder.

I’m on medication, and I’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists, and I know all the things that you’re supposed to do; but they don’t really work.  In addition to constantly being convinced that everything that can go wrong will go wrong, I do a lot of strange things.  I live in constant fear of something breaking, and lose it completely if something does break: I even get up feeling stressed, in case something’s not working.  I go around turning things on and off, even though I don’t want to use them, just to check that they’re working.  Several times a day.  I’ve been known to stop four times on the way back from somewhere, so that I can check that Facebook check-in is picking up locations correctly, and to go for a drive just to check that the car sat nav is working.  I once went for a drive in my nightie, to check that the maps app on my phone was working.  I go into cafes and pay for drinks that I don’t want, just to check that the wi-fi connects.  If the zip on my coat gets slightly stuck, I unzip and rezip it half a dozen times afterwards. Etc etc etc.

I always get everywhere way too early, because I’m so frightened of being late.  I’m constantly checking that I haven’t lost my phone, purse or keys.  I’m always worried that I’ve accidentally offended someone.  I can’t abide dogs, because the noise of barking sets my nerves on edge.  I get very stressed in queues and at traffic lights because I feel trapped and out of control, and I struggle in the office because I feel trapped and sometimes other people won’t get out of my face.  If I’ve got a lot to do, I have to make a list including even the smallest things, or else I can’t cope.  If I’m going anywhere, I have to plan it out meticulously: I can’t just get up and go.  Sometimes I feel stressed and even I don’t know what I’m worrying about.  I am basically a nightmare.  I get on my own nerves, so goodness knows how much I get on other people’s!

And a lot of people just don’t get it.  People understand physical illnesses, but not mental illnesses.  And yet one in ten people in the UK suffers with an anxiety disorder.  It’s more common in women than in men, but men can be affected too.  If you’re also someone who suffers from anxiety, you have my sympathy and my understanding, and please shout if there’s ever anything I can do to help.  If you’re not, you’re lucky, and please try to support those who do.  It’s not funny to wind an anxious person up – and it’s amazing how many people think it is – and, even if you can’t understand their anxiety, at least accept that it exists and that it’s very hard to cope with.

And, if you’ve read this, then thank you.

#anxiety #mentalhealthawarenessweek

The King and I – Palace Theatre, Manchester


This was fabulous fun.  It’s always a bit strange seeing a stage version of a musical which has been made into an iconic film – everyone thinks of Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner as Anna and King Mongkut, but that doesn’t mean that other people can’t also give brilliant performances in the roles, and they did.  Excellent supporting cast too.

Shall We Dance is my favourite part.  I’ve always wanted to wear a dress like the one Anna wears in that scene, but I’d never get into it.  All the songs were well done, though.  And it’s a great story.  All right, we all know that Anna Leonowens embroidered both her own history and the extent of her influence over King Mongkut, and that the subplot involving Tuptim and Lu Tha is probably entirely fictitious, but it was still very brave of Anna and her young son to go to a place with such a different culture, and where they didn’t know anyone, and actually right into the heart of power.

All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable evening!

The Three Musketeers: D’Artagnan


I still think of D’Artagnan as Dogtanian, but I think most people who were kids in the ’80s have that problem!   Anyway, this film, which is a) part 1 of 2 and b) in French with English subtitles, is satisfyingly full of swashbuckling swordplay and horseriding, although it could have used a few lighter moments.   It was entertaining watching on a miserably wet Bank Holiday morning.

Dashing young D’Artagnan makes his way from Gascony to Paris to try to join the Musketeers, and makea friends with The Three Musketeer pals, Porthos, Athos and Aramis.  He also falls in love with Constance, the Queen’s confidante.  There’s then a lot of plotting and fighting as Cardinal Richelieu and Milady de Winter try to bring down Queen Anne, who’s having an affair with the Duke of Buckingham, and Athos, whose brother is the leader of the Huguenots.

The plot against Queen Anne is foiled, Athos is pardoned, D’Artagnan becomes a Musketeer and it looks as if all’s going to end well … but then Constance is kidnapped and D’Artagnan is knocked unconscious, setting the scene for the start of the second instalment.

It’s all a bit mad, but, as I said, it’s very entertaining … even if it does annoyingly flip between “Your Majesty” and “Your Highness” at random, and refer to the Holy Roman Empire as just “the Holy Empire”.  Still prefer Dogtanian and the Three Muskehounds, though!