A Guernsey Girl at the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher

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This is an excellent wartime-era Chalet School “fill-in”.  As much as I love the Chalet School books, I *am* sometimes to be found grumbling in discussion groups about the characters not really “doing their bit”.  So I’m delighted to see Amy Fletcher addressing that issue in this book, set in the spring term of 1945, in which we see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the local community and some of the adult female characters without jobs doing important voluntary work with the Red Cross.

It’s very much a Chalet School book, though, with weather-related mishaps, plans for a Sale, prefects’ meetings, and ridiculously unlikely coincidences.  Oh, and there’s a parrot, which is a bit more Blyton or Ransome than Brent-Dyer, but it’s a very cool parrot.  However, it’s specifically a wartime Chalet School book, and it’s obvious that a vast amount of research has gone into it.

The “Guernsey girl” – no, not “Jersey girl”! – is Jacqueline Le Pelley, who’s mentioned briefly in two of the “canon” books.  At one time, no-one seemed to talk much about the occupation of the Channel Islands.  It was years before I realised that a lot of children evacuated from the islands had spent the war years in our local area, especially Oldham and Stockport.  However, in recent times, it’s become the subject of a lot of attention; and, without wanting to post any major spoilers, we learn a lot about the experiences of Jacqueline’s family.

This includes her mother’s work with the Red Cross. As much as I love the Chalet School books, I do get rather irritated by aspects of the wartime ones.  In Exile and Goes to It, admittedly, people seem to be trying to do their bit for the war effort, bot not after that: why do we not see Madge getting involved with the WI or the Red Cross, or the Chalet School Guides doing any sort of war work?  And, when people are doing their bit, it doesn’t always make sense.  Why on earth have Shiena MacDonald, primary carer for her two young sisters, and Sylvia Leigh, primary carer for her niece, been directed into the Forces, rather than doing one of the many other forms of war work?  Robin even suggests that Joey, who at the point in question has three children under the age of four, could be conscripted!

It’s at least acknowledged that Sylvia Leigh wasn’t called up until Lavender was fourteen, but Bride Bettany remarks that she was able to “get off” war service until then, and the unknown Jean McKenzie suggests that Joey take in Flora and Fiona to avoid having working-class evacuees from inner city areas billeted on her. And, at one point, someone – Nell Wilson? – even moans about how inconvenient it is that young women are doing war work rather than applying for jobs as Chalet School maids!  Yes, I’m sure that there were people who thought like that, but it hardly fits with the ethos of the Chalet School.   Or, indeed, the general ethos: many women who were exempt as they had children under fourteen volunteered to do their bit anyway.  It was during the Second World War that “school dinners” became a thing, because so many mothers of school age children were out at work during the day.  I wouldn’t particularly expect the mothers of the Chalet School girls to be signing up to work in munitions factories, but I *would* expect them to be doing the sort of voluntary work which Amy shows here.  I like to think that Madge was busy doing all sorts as part of the WI, but, if she was, Elinor M Brent-Dyer never tells us about it!

Elinor’s insistence that every single Austrian and German character is anti-Nazi just isn’t realistic.  Nor is the apparent absence of food shortages.  And don’t get me started on how the main reaction to Bob Maynard being killed in action is a lot of moaning about the inconvenience of Jack inheriting Pretty Maids!

Rant over!  I love the Chalet School books to bits, and I admire Elinor M Brent-Dyer greatly for her brave writing in Exile, highlighting the way in which the Nazis were persecuting Jews such as the Goldmanns and political opponents such as Herr Marani, but aspects of the war books really do get on my nerves!   What we see here is much more how I like to think of the characters of the Chalet School world behaving

We see the Chalet School Guides helping out in the community, and hear quite a lot about the challenges posed by rationing.  There’s also a chapter devoted to the death of Hilary Burn’s fiance.  TBH, I think that EBD just forgot that she’d mentioned that Hilary was engaged: some years after the war, Hilary becomes engaged to and eventually marries Phil Graves, and what happened to the first fiance seemed to be a mystery until a reader actually asked about it!   But his loss is covered here.  We don’t actually see Hilary hearing the news, but we hear some of her thoughts later on.  The stiff upper lip, keep calm and carry on response, which sees Hilary returning to work within a few weeks, fits with the times – and also with Hilary’s character, as it’s pointed out that people deal with grief in different ways.

I was sorry not to see more of Grizel in this book, but that’s just my personal feeling.  I was also sorry not see more of Madge.  We see quite a bit of Jo, but much of that’s in the context of Charles Maynard being ill: we don’t see Jo barging into the school uninvited, or being consulted about difficult pupils with whom the staff and prefects are apparently unable to deal without her, which can get rather irritating!  Daisy; who’s one of my favourite characters, is Head Girl in this book and a friend of Jacqueline’s, so she plays a big role.

More typical Chalet School plotlines include a group of girls getting lost in the mist and, you guessed it, finding a hut to shelter in, and work being done for the Sale.  So it is very much a Chalet School book, but it’s a wartime Chalet School book.  The war permeates everything.  And that’s how it would have been.   There can’t have been any pupil who didn’t have friends and relatives on active service, living with the constant fear of hearing bad news, and this book does reflect that, as well as the general effects of was on everyday life.

There’s one other storyline which is specific to the wartime era, and that’s the introduction of Anna Steiner, a young Jewish Austrian girl who’s come to Britain on the Kindertransport.   She isn’t a pupil at the Chalet School.  Hmm, now that’d would have been an interesting storyline.  My old school, along with some others locally, made a number of places available on scholarships to Jewish girls who’d come to Britain as refugees … but I suppose that what worked for a day school in Manchester would probably not have worked quite so well for a boarding school in rural Herefordshire with a strong Christian ethos.  Anyway, Anna is staying with a family in the area, and we see some of the Chalet School girls going round to meet her and to talk to her in her native German.  However, there’s an utterly ridiculous coincidence as it turns out that Anna is from Tyrol and that her elder sister was best friends with the sister of one of the Chalet School characters.  But, hey, those sorts of coincidences happen an awful lot in the Chalet School books, so I suppose it’s authentic from that viewpoint!

Unlikely coincidence aside, the inclusion of the character of Anna Steiner is a lovely idea, and fits in very well with The Chalet School in Exile.  Some of the wartime Chalet School books just don’t: it’s hard to think how you go from the girls rushing to help a defenceless elderly man being attacked by a Nazi mob to talking about “getting off” doing war service.  But everything about this one does.  And yet, although it’s so different to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s wartime books, it always feels like a Chalet School book.  Bravo, Amy!   A very, very good book.

 

 

Royal B***ards: The Rise of the Tudors – Sky History

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  OK, this was interesting.  Kind of the Wars of the Roses meets Shameless (I need a Yorkshire equivalent of Shameless, but can’t think of one).  Apparently, nearly everyone who was involved in the Wars of the Roses spoke in a broad northern accent, spent most of their time getting into brawls in pubs, and swore their heads off.  How stereotypical is that?  They’d never have shown people with Oxford accents getting into pub brawls.  Anyway.  Richard of York, whom I kept expecting to put on a Leeds United shirt over his armour, barged around looking thuggish all the time, even when he wasn’t in the pub, and failed in his attempts to become king because people thought he was … er, too thuggish.  The future Edward IV was also a thug, but apparently he did it in a medieval kingly way, so that was OK.  And they both had the wrong colour hair, which was really annoying.

Margaret Beaufort, who looked about 8, didn’t have a pronounced northern accent and didn’t swear, but still hung around in the pub (well, at some sort of drunken gatherings, anyway).  Marguerite of Anjou did not hang around in the pub, but did swear, a lot, in an ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque French accent, calling everyone “pieces of sheet”.  The only person who sounded like an English aristocrat (OK, accents in the 15th century would have been different to today’s anyway, but we can only go off today’s) was Jasper Tudor –  which was rather odd, given that he was Welsh.

Having said all this, Richard of York and the Earl of Warwick probably *did* have pronounced northern accents.  And probably did swear a lot.

Also, there were no historians.  Instead, we had Philip Glenister, Sophie Rundle and Sheila Atim.

The whole thing was fairly bonkers – but, to be fair, the actual facts in terms of politics and battles (as opposed to Margaret Beaufort being in the pub) were pretty much spot on, and it was good to see the vastly underrated Margaret getting so much attention.  And it was certainly different!!  If we’d been shown this when we were doing history A-level, it would *definitely* have got our attention.  Possibly not quite as much as the Lady Jane film with Cary Elwes as a ridiculously romanticised Guildford Dudley did, but that’s beside the point.  It was actually quite cleverly done – it managed to put a populist twist on events without turning them into a load of nonsense.  Not what I was expecting, but I rather enjoyed it.

 

The Lost Cafe Schindler by Meriel Schindler

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  This is a different sort of family Holocaust memoir, partly because it’s got recipes at the back, and partly because it’s about Innsbruck.  Not Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Kyiv, Minsk, Vienna, Amsterdam, Thessaloniki, Berlin, Prague or a little shtetl somewhere, but Innsbruck.  And I was going to say that this is the first time I’ve come across a Holocaust book about Tyrol, but, of course, the first ever slightly Holocaust-related book I read was The Chalet School in Exile.  And, for nearly 40 years, I have tied myself in knots over Austria – land of the Chalet School (which has played and continues to play a big part in my life), The Sound of Music (which I’ve seen 85 billion times), Sachertorte (which I like to have on my birthday, and at various other times during rhe year), strudel, coffee houses, lakes, mountains, waltzes, white horses, grand palaces … and, in the not too distant past, Nazis.  I’ve got photos dotted about the house of myself in Innsbruck, Salzburg and Vienna.  Hey, I scoffed a huge piece of apple strudel from an Austrian stall at the Christmas market in Manchester last weekend.  But I still tie myself in knots over it all.

Most people probably know that, until recently, The Sound of Music had never been shown on state Austrian TV, because of Austria’s issues with itself.  And just to wander a bit off topic, Tony Warren, the late, great, creator of Coronation Street, addressed this issue in The Lights of Manchester, in which a character gets spooked during a romantic weekend in Vienna.  I even wrote a Chalet School fanfic to try to sort it all out in my head, but it really is difficult.

In this, we’ve got a British author inheriting a large amount of family papers from her Tyrolean-born father, who escaped from Innsbruck as a schoolboy in 1938, and looking into her family history – centred on the Cafe Schindler, the very popular coffee house on the Mariatheresienstrasse which was founded by her great-grandparents.  It was seized from the family after the Anschluss, but they did eventually get it back, but then sold it on in the 1950s … and it still exists.

The author seems to have started her research because she had questions about her dad and her complicated relationship with him.  I’m not sure that she needed to be so negative about him in a published book, but that was her choice.  The questions about him are never really answered, but there’s a lot in this, going back to the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in the late 19th century, and how the various members of her family came to be in Innsbruck, or elsewhere.

There’s a fact-is-stranger-than-fiction subplot about a relative by marriage, Dr Eduard Bloch, a Jewish doctor in Linz who treated both Hitler and his mother before the Great War, and got some sort of special protection in the 1930s because Hitler had always liked him.   But the main character ends up being Hugo Schindler, the author’s grandfather – a proud Tyrolean, proud Austrian, who sometimes wore lederhosen and a little green hat, fought for Austria-Hungary in the Great War … and was badly beaten by people from his own local community on Kristallnacht, and lost his mother, sister and brother-in-law in the concentration camps.

The book takes us through the break-up of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, including the awarding of South Tyrol to Italy, and shows us the Schindler family setting up their cafe and how it became very popular in a city coping with the shock of everything that had happened.  Innsbruck wasn’t Vienna: there were very few non-Catholics there, and there were no “Jewish areas” – everyone lived together, one community.  But then, and this was something I found out myself when doing some research a few years ago, the events of Kristallnacht were particularly brutal in Innsbruck … and it has to be said that Tyrol has a history of intolerance of religious minorities.

And yet, after the war, the Schindler family chose to return.  The author talks about the complexities of the post-war era and how it suited everyone to cast Austria as a victim, when in fact Austria had welcomed the Nazis in.  There’s a lot of personal stuff in this book, which is, after all, a family history – family feuds, different members of the family ending up in different places, etc, but the main focus is on the Cafe Schindler, and they did eventually get it back.   The story isn’t always set out in the clearest of ways, but there’s a moving end in which the author ensures that “steine”, memorial stones marking the place where a Holocaust victim lived – I saw quite a few of them in Budapest in 2019 – are placed for her great-grandmother, great-aunt and great-uncle.

Then there are recipes for Kaiserschmarm, apple strudel and Sachertorte.  I made sure that I had all of those when I went to the Vienna Christmas markets in 2019.  In fact, pretty much the first thing I did after leaving my luggage at the hotel was to rush off to the Cafe Sacher to have genuine Sacher Torte on its home patch.   Austria, land of coffee houses.  And Nazis.  But time moves on, and, as the author says, very few of the people who had anything to do with Nazi atrocities are still alive.  And the Cafe Schindler’s still there.  I very much hope to go back to Innsbruck one day, and, if I do, I’ll be calling in.

Malory Towers Season 2 – BBC

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I’m in two minds about this, although generally I’m feeling pretty positive about it.  It’s very entertaining – I’ve been binge-watching it! – and there are superb performances all round from a main cast of just 14 people (eight second-formers, one sixth-former, three teachers, a matron, and an odd job boy who has a very Warringtonian accent for someone supposed to be from Cornwall).   Nearly all the main storylines from Second Form at Malory Towers are in, although not all the characters are there, and it does a good job of getting across the iconic Malory Towers issues of Darrell’s battles to control her temper and the importance of honesty and standing by your friends.  It also makes some interesting points about the effects of tricks, which usually just seem funny in the books, and it’s added some depth to the characters of the staff and also the eternally-maligned Gwendoline.

On the other hand, it doesn’t do what it says on the tin – some of it’s a long way from what Enid Blyton wrote.  In the Malory Towers books, anyway – some of it seems to have been copied and pasted across from Five on a Treasure Island! The main plots from Second Form at Malory Towers are included, as I’ve said, although they’ve been altered to fit the small cast size – Belinda’s artistic talents have been transferred to Mary-Lou, and Daphne’s plot of stealing and then redemption by rescuing Mary-Lou has been transferred to Gwendoline, although sadly Mam’zelle Dupont doesn’t feature at all.  The other main plot from the book, Ellen, desperate to impress as she’s there on a scholarship, overworking, is included, with the “right” character.  But, instead of Miss Parker, we’ve got Mr Parker, whereas there were definitely no male form teachers at the “real” Malory Towers.  And a lot of extra plots have just been made up.  However, to be fair, it would have been difficult to fill 6 hours of TV time with the contents of what’s quite a short book.  They didn’t really miss anything out, apart from the feud between the two Mam’zelles,  so I can see that they had to get some extra material from somewhere.

The location is absolutely gorgeous, incidentally!  It’s the Hartland Abbey estate in Devon.  Whilst the Chalet School had lakes and mountains, and Malory Towers had a seawater swimming school, my secondary school had a “scenic” view of the busiest bus route in Europe, and, whilst I think it was a nice building once, it was destroyed during the Manchester Blitz and rebuilt rather haphazardly.  OK, there was a bit of woodland at the back, but we weren’t supposed to go there because it was a hangout for flashers.  Don’t get me wrong, it was a lovely school, but scenic it was not!  In this series, Malory Towers has not only a seawater swimming pool but extensive grounds and (er, despite being so near the sea) a stream.  I would have so loved that 🙂 .  And the room where they had the quiz – that was one of the made-up plots, but I rather liked the idea of the girls beating a team from a boys’ school in a quiz – was stunning.

But we’re told in this series that the school building is dilapidated, that Miss Grayling’s running out of money – I don’t think the books specify who owns the school, but I think most readers would assume that the school’s run by a trust and Miss Grayling is only employed as a headmistress – and then someone’s going to invest, but they’re secretly plotting to pull the building down.  It’s a classic soap opera plot – Emmerdale are currently running something very similar, and Coronation Street also did something similar fairly recently – but what on earth is it doing in a TV adaptation of Malory Towers?!  It just doesn’t fit. I don’t mind the storylines about school plays and outbreaks of measles, because they’re classic school story stuff, and, as I’ve said, I rather liked the quiz – even in my day, the boys from our brother school could be horribly chauvinistic!! –  but the school takeover plot feels out of place.   And the buried treasure plot’s straight out of Five on a Treasure Island, and seems even cornier here than it did there!

Also, what’s going on with Sally wanting to be “form representative” instead of “head of form”, because she wants to represent all the girls?   Would anyone have said that at a boarding school in the 1940s?  Sally does generally come across much as she does in the books, though, as do Darrell, Mary-Lou and Irene.  And Miss Grayling.  Matron’s got a bigger role than she has in the books, and been made into a bit more of a comedy character, but I think that’s partly because Mam’zelle Dupont’s missing and the two characters have to some extent been merged.  A back story about Gwendoline having a difficult home life was brought in in the first series and continued here, which I quite like because there’s just no sympathy either for or from Gwendoline in the books.  And Alicia, often described as “malicious” in the books, has been toned down a fair bit – although we do see her being very selfish, and how Darrell and Sally try to cope with that.  Er, and she suddenly seems to be a champion ice-skater – where on earth did that come from?!  Great performances from all the young actresses, though, and a star turn from Ashley McGuire as Matron!

The way in which Alicia’s tricks are handled is quite interesting.  We haven’t got Mam’zelle Dupont playing “treeks” back, although we do see Mam’zelle Rougier having a bit of a joke on the girls, but it does make the point that school pranks can get out of hand and aren’t always that funny.  I think a lot of us read these books at a very early age and thought that all the tricks were wonderful, and we thought that some of the pranks played at our own schools were wonderful too – unless you were the unfortunate kid who sat on chewing gum, had graffiti written on your locker or whatever.  But, when you’re a bit older and possibly a teensy bit wiser, you realise that they actually aren’t very funny for the victim!  Er, and that sounds really prissy, doesn’t it?!  But still.

Part of that is that kids sometimes forget that teachers are actually human, and this has shown more about the teachers than the books do.  Blyton’s Miss Grayling was all-wise and all serene: she’d never have had money worries!   In this adaptation, we see her struggling with problems, we already know from the first series that she lost her fiance in the Great War, and we learn about her family.  And we also see that Mr Parker (er, not that he was in the books) was given a rough time in his previous job, and the girls understanding the school’s importance to Matron.  We even see Mr Parker’s girlfriend, whereas there was never the slightest suggestion in the books that teachers might have personal lives!  It works well, but it’s very Elinor M Brent-Dyer, not very Enid Blyton.

I can see why purists have got concerns about it, but, all in all, it’s very enjoyable.  The Malory Towers books aren’t the best school stories ever written, but they’re probably the best-known.  Ask people who aren’t devotees of school stories what they know about them, and they’ll talk about Malory Towers.  Jolly hockey sticks, lacrosse (oh, and that’s another thing – as the school’s only got 9 pupils in this, we don’t see any sports matches!) and, of course, midnight feasts.  Maybe this TV adaptation and the recent stage musical’ll keep the popularity of “Girls’ Own” school stories marching on into another generation.  Let’s hope so 🙂 .

 

 

The Witches of St Petersburg by Imogen Edwards-Jones

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Well, on the plus side, it was high time that someone wrote a novel about the “Montenegrin princesses”, Stana (Anastasia) and Militsa, daughters of the King of Montenegro, wives of Russian Grand Dukes, and instrumental in introducing the Tsarina Alexandra to “Monsieur Philippe” and then to Rasputin.  On the minus side, most of this particular novel is nonsense, and that’s made worse by the fact that the author claims in an afterword that it’s largely based on fact.  As a work of fiction, it’s quite entertaining.  As a work which claims to be a relatively accurate piece of historical fiction, it’s a disgrace!   According to Ms Edwards-Jones, Nicholas and Alexandra had a fifth daughter, who was taken away and adopted; Alexandra and Militsa were having some sort of affair; and Militsa was the one who shot Rasputin.  I’ve never heard such rubbish.

She also seems to have a rather vivid and possibly rather warped imagination – some of the stuff about Rasputin’s carry-ons is admittedly probably true, but the idea that the Tsar and Tsarina indulged in public naked capers and that Stana and Militsa tried to create spells with miscarried foetuses is distasteful, to say the least.   And this silly idea that the Khlysty (a religious sect) indulged in all manner of orgies was made up back in Peter the Great’s time in order to discredit them.  Over the years, a lot of unpleasant stories have been made up about different religious groups.  It’s hardly very responsible of authors to propagate them.  And some of it was just plain bonkers.  Monsieur Philippe had a magic hat which made him invisible when he wore it?!  I thought this was meant to be a historical novel, not a children’s fantasy book.

Philippa Gregory’s claims about Woodville witchcraft are bad enough, but at least the Woodvilles, having died over half a millennium ago, aren’t likely to be hurt by them.  Stana and Militsa both died within living memory.  I really do dislike this trend of making up all sorts of rubbish about people who are either still alive or who may still have immediate relatives and friends living.   The book contains some ridiculous errors, as well.  There was no change of dynasty in Montenegro following an assassination.  That was in Serbia.  Wrong country!   Montenegro is not primarily Roman Catholic: it is primarily Montenegrin Orthodox.  And why do so many people make a mess of Russian names?

This was my book for the Facebook group reading challenge, which was to read a book about witches, but I freely admit that I wanted to read it because it was about Imperial Russia, and already had it on my TBR pile when the “challenge” about witches was posted.   I also have to admit that I’ve rather enjoyed ripping it to shreds, just because it annoyed me so much!

But what a shame.  These two women are not particularly well-known, but they should be, because they did play an important role at the court of “Nicky and Alix”, and it was partly through their influence that Alix – poor woman, desperate to produce a son and heir, and then, when he arrived, desperate to keep him safe because of his haemophilia – became involved with Rasputin.  That certainly played a part in the fall of the Romanov dynasty, and the communist takeover of Russia has had a huge influence, to put it very mildly, on world events ever since.  This could have been an excellent and very important book … but, as it was, I’m not really sure what the author was playing at with it.

 

A Man of Honour by Barbara Taylor Bradford

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This is the prequel to A Woman of Substance – which was the first “proper grown-up” book I ever read and is one of my all-time favourites –  concentrating on the early life of Blackie O’Neill, Emma Harte’s closest friend.  Don’t be expecting anything of the quality of A Woman of Substance, or you’ll be disappointed: none of Barbara Taylor Bradford’s books have ever come close to it, and this one certainly doesn’t.  But, as a one-off read, it’s not bad.  There are a few ridiculous continuity errors – you’d think that authors would know their own books! – and the mess that the author’s made with British titles beggars belief, but the character of Blackie is very much as he is in the original book.  And we meet up with other old friends, Emma, Laura and the Kallinskis, at the end – even though the scenes are copied pretty much directly out of the original books, and some of them don’t even involve Blackie!

We also get that wonderful sense of northern and national pride that we got in the original book, as we see Emma, Blackie and David set out to build up businesses from nothing.  Long before society worried about “representation” and “diversity” in fiction, Barbara Taylor Bradford showed how the industrial cities of northern England were made great by Protestants, Catholics and Jews together, and I always think that that was a very attractive feature of A Woman of Substance.  However, in this book that sense of pride is tempered with a greater sense of the poverty that many people faced at the time, partly, I think, because attitudes have changed generally – as we’ve moved further away from the Great War, that sense that the years before it were some sort of golden age has been muted.  But there’s still very much a positive spirit, as Blackie and his uncle build new lives in late Victorian/Edwardian Leeds.  Northerners will also be amused by the references to “Hettys”, the posh cafe in Harrogate founded by a Swiss confectioner.  Don’t ask me why the author hasn’t just used its proper name 🙂 !

The continuity errors are mainly in relation to the Fairleys.  Edwin is referred to as the elder son, when in fact Gerald was the elder son, and Adele Fairley is described as being dark, when she was fair.  It doesn’t really affect this book, but it’s annoying!   Blackie, as I’ve said, does very much come across as you’d expect.  There isn’t the same depth of emotion that there is in the original book, though: even Blackie’s complex feelings for both Emma and Laura aren’t really gone into that deeply.  The plots are quite shallow, too: a lot of new characters are introduced, mostly from an aristocratic family for whom some of the O’Neills work, but then they fade into the background, and you end up wondering why they were there at all.  It would have been better if she’d focused on the Fairleys instead of bringing in new people, maybe telling us more about the relationship between Adam Fairley and Elizabeth Harte, but for some reason she doesn’t seem to have wanted to do that.

I sound as if I’m moaning a lot, and I don’t mean to!   It’s quite an interesting portrayal of a young Irishman coming to Leeds to start a new life, and the plots with the random aristocratic characters are entertaining enough.  As I’ve said, just don’t be expecting anything that lives up to A Woman of Substance!  But it’s not bad as a book in its own right, and it’s nice to learn a bit more about Blackie’s life before he met Emma.  And it’s worth reading for the nostalgia factor, because A Woman of Substance will always be such a classic.

Valley of Tears – More4

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  In 1991, when I was 16, I gave my economics A-level group a lecture on the Yom Kippur War.  The teacher had been droning on about patterns of inflation and GDP, and asked if anyone could explain the problems which arose in 1973.  Excellent, thought I.   An excuse to talk about interesting things like war and politics, instead of financial stuff!   Whilst the rest of the class looked blank, I started talking.  Belated apologies to Mrs Wallace for dragging her lesson off the point (although I did get to the oil crisis eventually.)  However, apparently, most people, not being strange teenage historians, don’t talk about this period in Middle Eastern history at all; and that’s something which this fascinating TV drama series aims to change.   And I also understand that a film on the subject is in the offing, with Helen Mirren playing Golda Meir.

As we saw with the Second World War, sometimes time has to pass before people feel able to talk  about their experiences of war, and the makers of the series have spoken about how some of the veterans whom they interviewed had buried their experiences for many years.  This is essentially a war drama, and the name comes from the Battle of the Valley of Tears, when a vastly outnumbered Israeli force successfully resisted a Syrian attack; but the focus is on the human stories of the individual characters.   It doesn’t make for comfortable watching, and it’s not supposed to.  We see young men, and some young women – gender issues are tackled, as we see female officers being ordered by their male counterparts to get out of the firing line, literally – , many of them doing their national service rather than being professional soldiers, suddenly being catapulted into the nightmare reality of war.  Whilst the viewer is clearly intended to, and will, feel deep sympathy and admiration for them, the programme has little of good to say for the politicians, shown as both taking their eye off the ball in terms of the risk of attack and failing to tackle some difficult social problems.

As we head into Remembrance weekend and remember those who gave their today for our tomorrow, let’s not forget that conflict continues in many places around the world.  Filming of this drama had to be halted at one point because of the risk of rockets fired in the Syrian civil war straying across the border, and the war in Yemen’s been going on even longer, to mention but two examples.

This is an excellent series about war and its effects on the combatants and on society in general, and thank you to More4 for enabling British viewers to see it.

I think that the view in the West at the time, especially bearing in mind the pattern of Cold War alliances, was dominated by a feeling that the Egyptian/Syrian-led coalition had pulled a very dirty trick by launching an unprovoked attack on the holiest day of the Jewish calendar.  The view in Israel itself, which led to the fall of the government, was very strongly that the Israeli authorities should have been better prepared, and that’s very much what we see here.  It’s a common historical phenomenon that a country which has been successful in war becomes complacent and is then caught out – think of the Boer Wars, Vietnam, Napoleonic France’s invasion of Russia, the Russo-Japanese War or the 1683 Siege of Vienna.   The message here is that this is what happened in Israel after the Six Day War.  To be fair, that was partly because of the fear that the US would withdraw its support if Israel had launched a pre-emptive strike, but the soldiers didn’t know that.  We see the soldiers having no idea that forces were massing on the border, and a young intelligence worker who kept insisting that something was brewing being dismissed and even mocked.

We also get an interesting insight into the divisions within Israeli society at this time, with considerable resentment amongst the Sephardi/Mizrahi communities, who’d either moved to Israel from other parts of the Middle East or North Africa or whose families had lived there for generations, against the Ashkenazi Establishment.   Some of the characters belong to the “Black Panther” movement, obviously named after the one in America, calling for change to improve the lot of their often poverty-stricken communities.

The first time I came across this issue of historical social division in Israeli society, years ago, I found it quite hard to get my head round, because it’s always been the other way round in Manchester, and indeed in other parts of the UK – historically, it was the Sephardi communities who were well-to-do and in some cases reached prominent positions in society, and the Ashkenazi communities who struggled, although times have changed.  And the same’s true in the US.  So, again, this will challenge the perceptions of Western viewers.  Things have changed in Israel now, but it’s an interesting issue, and quite brave of an Israeli-made series to tackle it.

But, despite feeling that the politicians had let them down, and, in the case of some of the soldiers from Mizrahi backgrounds, feeling that they were treated badly by society in general, and despite having no warning that war was coming, the young soldiers did what they had to do – and, even by the end of the first episode, we’d seen one of the characters killed.   As I said, this doesn’t make for easy watching, but it’s worth the effort.

 

A Marriage of Lions by Elizabeth Chadwick

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 Yet another superb book from Elizabeth Chadwick, this time about Joanna de Munchensy, granddaughter of William Marshal, and her husband William de Valence, half-brother of Henry III.   I was recently fortunate enough to visit lovely Pembroke Castle, which was closely associated with them in the time of Edward I, but this book’s set during the previous reign.  As I’ve said before, Henry III’s reign tends to be strangely overlooked, and so do the de Valences, although their son Aymer’s name will be well-known to anyone familiar with the reign of Edward II – and anyone who’s read Carol McGrath’s recent The Damask Rose may recognise Joanna’s name from there.

It really is brilliantly written.  The characters just jump off the page.  It’s packed with history, but never in a didactic way; and it’s a wonderful read.

It starts off with Joanna as a young girl in the household of Eleanor of Provence (not, as the family tree at the start of the book proclaims, Eleanor of Provenance.  Very careless proof-reading there!).  Not that much is known about Joanna’s early life, but Elizabeth Chadwick explains in the afterword where she’s made assumptions.   Following the deaths of all her Marshal uncles without heirs, and then the tragic early death of her brother, Joanna unexpectedly becomes a great heiress, and is married off to William, one of the sons of Isabella of Angouleme’s marriage to Hugh de Lusignan.  The book shows the marriage as being very happy, and, as far as we know, it was.

It was one of a series of marriages of Henry’s half-siblings to wealthy heirs and heiresses, and resentment about their influence was one of the reasons why relations between Henry and many of his leading barons, notably his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort, deteriorated, resulting in war.  I think de Montfort’s much better-known these days than he used to be, because of Leicester Poly being renamed after him, but it’s still a period of history which doesn’t attract as much attention as it might.  Everyone’s heard of the Magna Carta, but how many people have heard of the Provisions of Oxford?

De Montfort’s traditionally had quite a positive press as playing a big role along the road to democracy, but I don’t like him.  And Elizabeth Chadwick clearly can’t stand him (or his dad, although de Montfort snr doesn’t appear in this book).  So we do get a fairly one-sided view of events – Henry’s mess-ups in France and Sicily are played down, the Lusignans/de Valences are very much presented as the victims of a smear campaign and xenophobia, and de Montfort comes across as a money-mad, power-hungry tyrant.   That’s an observation, not a criticism 🙂 – no reason that novels shouldn’t be one-sided, as long as they’re not factually inaccurate!   And we see William temporarily forced into exile, and Joanna very resourcefully hiding large amounts of money inside bales of wool as she travelled to join him.

And then, of course, de Montfort gets his come-uppance, and the book ends with the de Valences riding high.

It all comes across so well – the history, the personalities, the personal relationships, the descriptions of court, all of it.   Very, very good book.  Elizabeth Chadwick’s books never disappoint, and this one certainly doesn’t!

 

 

Paris Police 1900 – BBC 4

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Four episodes in, I still can’t quite decide what to make of this – but I think that we are now getting somewhere.  Bearing in mind that I’m a historian, not a crime series person, I was expecting a historical drama showing the effects of the Dreyfus Affair on Parisian society – the nasty side of the Belle Epoque.   It does do that, to some extent, but we’ve also had the police trying to contact the deceased president in a seance to ask whether or not the Dreyfusards murdered him by tampering with his Viagra equivalent, an extremist drugging the police commissioner’s wife in an attempt to take photos of his friend abusing her (fortunately, he was foiled when the dead president’s mistress recovered from a heroin-induced coma and stopped him), policemen being stabbed to death through doors, someone being murdered when his chimney was blocked up so that he was asphyxiated, a man trying to have his wife imprisoned for adultery but changing his mind when he realised that the story’d get into the papers, and an awful lot of dismembered bodies.

However, in the fourth episode, we have finally got more into the nitty-gritty of the Dreyfus Affair and everything surrounding it, and away from some of the crazier stuff.  Although we tend to associate the Belle Epoque with people doing the can-can in the Moulin Rouge, this was a troubled time in French history, with politics deeply polarised, feelings still running high about the defeat in the Franco-Prussian War, and, of course, the Dreyfus Affair and the associated riots in France and Algeria – which caused such strong feelings internationally that there were anti-French demonstrations in many countries, the entire British press united to condemn the French authorities, the Lord Chief Justice of England criticised the French courts, and Edvard Grieg cancelled a proposed tour of France.  It casts such a long shadow that it’s being dragged up in the current French election race, and a museum dedicated to it was opened only a couple of weeks ago.

Alfred Dreyfus, a French Jewish officer, was controversially convicted of passing state secrets to Germany, and exiled to Devil’s Island.  It then emerged that the real culprit was someone else, there were demands  that Dreyfus be released, and, in early 1898, the writer Emile Zola famously published the “J’Accuse letter”, addressed to President Felix Faure, pointing out that the case against Zola was full of holes and accusing the authorities of anti-Semitism and violating justice.  Zola was then convicted of libel.  Anti-Semitic riots broke out across France and Algeria.  Dreyfus was retried, with journalists and photographers all over the world crowding into the court, but again found guilty.  There was such an uproar that he was pardoned, but he wasn’t officially cleared until several years later.

In the middle of all this, President Faure died suddenly, apparently whilst enjoying the “company” of his mistress, Marguerite Steinheil.  And there was an attempted coup at his funeral.

Tangled up in all this was the Anti-Semitic League, which had begun life as a nationalistic league wanting revenge on Prussia but had then turned nasty.

In this series, Marguerite Steinheil is employed by the police to spy on the Guerins, the leaders of the Anti-Semitic League.  Running alongside this is a series of mysterious murders of women, thought to have been carried out by a butcher – hence all the dismembered bodies.

The sets are brilliant – the turn of the century Parisian streets in working-class areas, the gorgeous costumes of well-to-do women, and the Guerins’ frighteningly impressive rabble-rousing.  And there’s an awful lot going on, and a lot of interesting characters.  But some of it really is very strange!   However, what is never is is boring!    Let’s see what the next four episodes bring …

The Royal Game by Anne O’Brien

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Well, I never knew that Margery Paston and Edward Poynings were first cousins.   Not that that’s really very relevant to anything, but even so.  Anne O’Brien’s back on form with this book, but has opted for a change from writing about royal women and turned instead to the Pastons, of Paston Letters fame.

However, the book’s not only called “The Royal Game” but has pictures of white roses, crowns and sceptres on the cover, and “She does not need a crown in order to rule” emblazoned across it, giving the very strong impression that it’s a sequel to her recent book about Cecily Neville.  Which it isn’t.  Very odd.  What it *is* is a very interesting picture of the fortunes of an ambitious family in 15th century Norfolk, and how lawless things were before Henry VII sorted them out, with powerful families or those with powerful connections able to make a claim to a property and just barge in … and how much time people like the Pastons spent arguing about it all in court!

It’s not really about either lawsuits or fighting, though.  It’s told largely from the viewpoints of three women.  The main character is the heiress Margaret Mautby, who married into the Paston family, then only two or three generations removed from serfdom, and brought them estates both as part of her own dowry and through her connections with Sir John Fastolf (on whom Shakespeare’s Falstaff was based, although for some reason Anne O’Brien doesn’t mention this).  The others are her sister-in-law Eliza Paston, who married into the Poynings family and became the mother of Edward Poynings, of Poynings’ Law fame, and Elizabeth Woodville’s cousin Anne Haute, who hoped to marry Margaret’s eldest son John.

I could have done without the chapter headings being “Margaret Mautby Paston” and “Elizabeth Paston Poynings”, rather than just “Margaret Paston” and “Elizabeth Poynings”, the book being set in 15th century England rather than 20th century America, and also the the number of times that people want to “talk with” someone rather than “talk to” someone (ditto); but those are fairly minor quibbles.

This book, the first in a series, takes us from 1444 to 1469.  We do see the path of political events, as allegiances shift around, and the Pastons throw their lot in with the Yorkists but struggle for power and position even once Edward IV’s on the throne.  I haven’t actually read the Paston Letters, but Anne O’Brien is usually very good on historical accuracy, so I assume that the book does reflect what they say.  Quite a lot of it’s about personal relationships, but we also see the legal wranglings, the way in which different families all tried to claim the same properties, and how a family like the Pastons could be disbarred from holding property because of their “unfree” ancestry.  We tend to think that the feudal system in England died out with the Black Death and the Peasants’ Revolt, but there were still a few serfs until 1574, and elements of the feudalism lingered until Restoration times.  And we also see the Pastons forging a family tree which showed a free and entirely fake pedigree going back to the Norman Conquest, and getting away with it!

Pandemics can change things.  In the aftermath of the Black Death, everything was in flux, and the Pastons were able to take advantage of that.  The Paston Letters are usually associated with the Valentines sent to Margaret’s son John (confusingly, she and her husband John had two sons who were both called John, so this was not the same John who was engaged to Anne Haute!) by his future wife Margery, and Margaret’s daughter Margery’s controversial marriage to the family’s bailiff Richard Calle.   Romance is more interesting than lawsuits, after all!   But they do tell us a lot about 15th century England, and this book is a great read.

I just wish I knew what the point of the misleading front cover was …