Great British Railway Journeys, Series 9 – BBC 2


I really, really want Michael Portillo’s job 🙂 .  In one of this week’s episodes, he got to have afternoon tea at Bettys in Harrogate, on the BBC!  (Note to self – go over to Bettys in Ilkley in March, to see the Easter eggs and simnel cake.)  In the forthcoming series of Great American Railroad Journeys, he gets to visit the historical sites of Massachusetts.   Later this year, we’re getting something new  – Great Indian Railway Journeys.  And presumably Great Continental Railway Journeys will be back at some point, as well.

Anyway, back to the recent series of Great British Railway Journeys.   This one was a bit different, with a theme of social change.  The Edwardian period (strictly speaking, January 1901 to May 1910, but the term “Edwardian” is generally used to cover the period from January 1901 right up until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914) does tend to be viewed as one long, golden summer idyll, because the Great War was just so horrific that what went before it has become a “misty water-coloured memory of the way we were”.  Whilst I’m doing song lyrics, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” is another one that’s quite appropriate.  There is quite a romantic view of it.  Cricket on the lawn, ladies on bicycles, all that sort of thing – whereas, of course, it was a period of great inequality and great change and unrest, as was frequently pointed out during this very interesting series.  On the face of it, this programme involves a former politician, with terrible dress sense, riding around on trains … but it was actually an excellent historical documentary series.

The last two episodes saw Michael in North Wales, where much of the talk was about Lloyd George.  There’s so much talk about the establishment of the welfare state after the Second World War that the very important reforms passed by the Liberal governments of 1906 to 1914 – including the introduction of both national insurance and old age pensions – are not always given the attention that they deserve.   The (long saga over the) passing of the People’s Budget of 1909 was one of the most important events in modern British history.   It had important constitutional ramifications as well.   One of the main factors in the introduction of social reform – although I think that the nasty shock that the Establishment received when so many of those volunteering to fight in the Boer War were found to be malnourished may have been a bigger one – was the research done into poverty by Charles Booth in London and Seebohm Rowntree in York, and this was discussed in another episode of the series, in which Michael visited York.

In that same episode, he went to a tailor’s in Leeds, and talked about the large-scale immigration into Britain – which had a huge impact on the clothing industry in both Manchester and Leeds – as a result of the very bloody wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire in the years just before and after the 1905 Revolution, something that he’d also talked about whilst visiting Hull.   On the subject of port cities, architecture got a mention too, whilst he was in Liverpool.  Oh, and so did toy railway sets!  I had never, ever realised that Meccano and Hornby railway sets originally came from Maghull.  I’m afraid I didn’t do a great deal for gender equality where toys were concerned when I was a little kid: I played with Sindy dolls and read boarding school stories, pony books and ballet books, and never owned any Meccano or toy trains.  Oh, I did have Lego, though.

But gender equality in politics – now that is another thing.  Votes For Women!  That subject was mentioned several times during the series, including the horrific treatment of suffragettes – force-feeding, and the Cat and Mouse Act – by the authorities.  I’m hoping that we’re going to get a good few programmes commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act – which gave the vote to all men, at last, and some women … although it was 1928 before the franchise was finally extended to include all women.

Trade unionism and the Labour movement were something else very much to the fore in Edwardian times, with all the rows over whether or not strikers should be forced to pay for loss of owners’ profits, and whether or not unions were allowed to collect levies to support the new Labour Party.  The Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900, but the name Labour Party was only used from 1914. The railway workers’ unions and coal miners’ unions usually led the way where any developments involving unions were concerned, and Michael visited more than one mining area during his railway journeys.

And it’s easy to forget that, in the summer of 1914, Ireland was close to civil war. Michael didn’t visit Ireland in this series, but he did visit Wales, and talk about the growth of nationalism there.  If only the House of Lords hadn’t blocked Gladstone’s Home Rule bills in the 1880s and 1890s.  It had its wings clipped after refusing to pass the People’s Budget, but, by then, it was too late to grasp the opportunity that had been missed over Ireland.  But at least it wasn’t allowed to block the welfare reforms.  They were one of the main achievements of the Edwardian period.

So, not such an idyll after all.  There was a hell of a lot going on.  I was very, very impressed with the way in which all this was woven into Michael Portillo’s journeys with his Bradshaw’s (George Bradshaw was, of course, from Pendleton – somewhere just off Broughton Road, as far as I can gather, so about three miles from chez moi!) Guide.  Great series.  All Michael Portillo’s railway journeys series are great!





Britannia – Sky Atlantic


The main thing we learnt from the first episode of this much-publicised new Sky hysterical “historical” drama series (other than that King Cogidubnus appeared to have been spirited away and replaced by Zoe Wanamaker) was that it is a very bad idea to pray to Mars (or presumably any other god/goddess) whilst on the toilet, especially if one is a bloke and therefore incapable of multi-tasking.  So doing runs the risk of being taken unawares by the enemy, dragged off, tied up, tortured and then thrown over a waterfall.  Such was the unfortunate fate of a Roman legionary from Numidia who, having been advised by his general (David Morrissey, disappointingly not playing the general with a Scouse accent) that the best way of conquering a country was to relieve oneself all over its woodlands, went off to do so, decided to offer up a few words of supplication to the god of war at the same time, and was captured by a single unarmed Celt who just happened to be lurking about.  Right.

This wondrous series is set during the second Roman invasion of Britain – i.e. not the one led by Julius Caesar (covered in Carry on Cleo with a fairly similar degree of accuracy to that employed in this), but the one 87 years later, in AD 43.  Obviously the Romans didn’t realise that things had switched from BC to AD, but that’s beside the point.  It was explained that none of the Celts had realised that the Romans, led by Aulus Plautius (the aforementioned general, who’d obviously heard about the British weather, because he was wearing a fur coat) were coming, despite the fact that the Roman army had been marching north-westwards for weeks, because they were all too busy scrapping amongst themselves to take any notice of what was going on elsewhere.  Despite this, there was some talk of making an alliance with the Gauls, apparently involving a British woman, who’d already got a British husband, acquiring a French husband as well.  Obviously bigamy is a very bad thing, but it certainly sounds a lot cheaper than paying £45 million to boost security around Calais.  However, the Gauls evidently hadn’t managed to tip off the Britons than the Romans were heading their way.  So much for Entente Cordiale.

We know from all the previews that two tribes of Celts are going to band together to try to see off the Romans, but, at the moment, they’re very much separate, which all got a bit confusing. The first lot we met, the Cantii, consisted of a lot of Druids, some men who weren’t Druids, and some women with Northern and Midland accents who bossed about the men who weren’t Druids.  I was rather concerned by the unfortunate lack of woad.  They all had white stuff on their faces, but no woad.  Anyway, they were all busy with a solstice ritual when along came the Romans, who killed some of them and took the rest prisoner.  However, one young girl was rescued by an attractive outlaw.  I’m not sure whether the idea was that the Celts all spoke Latin, the Romans all spoke ancient Brythonic or both, but no-one seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding each other.  Also, there was a lot of swearing.  I thought it was supposed to be the Anglo-Saxons who swore all the time?  Never mind.  Even worse, some of the Roman soldiers split their infinitives.  I can’t stand it when people split their infinitives.

The other Celtic tribe, the Regni, led by Zoe Wanamaker, did have woad. Hooray!  Zoe plays Queen Antedia.  Regrettably, Queen Antedia never actually existed. As far as we can make out, the resistance to the Romans was led by two brothers (supposedly the sons of Cymbeline, about whom Shakespeare wrote a play), Caratacus (no relation to the dad) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Togodumnus.  Caratacus is sometimes identified with the legendary Welsh king Caradog, who is also supposed to have been connected with King Arthur, which doesn’t really work as King Arthur, if he existed, wasn’t around until several centuries later.  Togodumnus, more realistically, is sometimes identified with the King Cogidubnus, the one who appears in Stage 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course and is the intended victim of a plot in which Quintus, our old pal from Pompeii, gets tangled up.

Now, Cogidubnus was the King of the Regni/Regnenses. So where was he?  There is definitely no reference in the Cambridge Latin Course to a Queen Antedia.  I think we should be told.

Er, yes. Well, none of this makes very much sense.  Let’s face it, no-one really knows that much about what actually happened, other than Boudicca’s Revolt and that wasn’t until AD 60 or AD 61.  But I’m quite sure that Tacitus never said anything about anyone being captured whilst praying on the toilet.

The whole thing was an absolute load of rubbish. But, do you know what?  It was entertaining.  I was laughing all the way through it.  I don’t think it was meant to be funny, but it was.  It was one of those things which are just so bad that they’re good.  I am definitely watching the rest of series!  Bring it on!

Darkest Hour


There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in which various young noblemen are arguing in the Temple Garden and they all dramatically pluck either red roses or white roses to declare their allegiance to either Lancaster or York.  It’s a great image and it really, really should have happened … but it didn’t.  Shakespeare made it up.  That’s a great shame, because it’s a great scene.  There’s one like that towards the end of Darkest Hour.  Winston Churchill (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman), as the British Empire Stands Alone, is seriously considering entering peace talks with the Nazis.  He decides to take a trip on the Tube, where he asks various salt-of-the-earth ordinary people what they think.  Every single one of them says that we must fight on and never surrender.  That makes up Churchill’s mind.  No negotiations.  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”  It’s still an incredibly moving and inspirational speech, even after nearly 78 years.

Of course, Churchill did not make that trip on the Tube.   Nor, as far as I know, did the King roll up chez Churchill late at night, just before then, to assure him that he also thought that we should fight on and never surrender.  Big black mark for lack of historical accuracy.  But big gold star for drama.  It stirs the blood.  We know that the Nazis will eventually be defeated.  Churchill, George VI, and all the salt-of-the-earth ordinary British people at the end of May 1940 sure as hell didn’t.   It’s so frightening, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it, to think how close the Nazis were to victory in mid-1940.

Ed Murrow, the American journalist, came up with a wonderful line about how Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.  That line’s used in the film.  It’s one of two lines which, apart from the Tube scene, really sum the film up.  The other one is Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) telling her husband that “You are strong because you are imperfect”.  Churchill’s very much shown in this as an eccentric.  He goes from angry to soppy in a matter of seconds, drinks too much, forgets what he’s doing, wanders around in a strange-looking dressing gown, talks to his butler (Grantly from Waterloo Road) through the toilet door, doesn’t realise that V signs are very rude when made with the palm facing inwards, and doesn’t get on with the rest of the War Cabinet, most of whom are in favour of entering negotiations with the Nazis.  The other Tories don’t like him because he’s got a catalogue of disasters behind him and has crossed the floor of the Commons twice, and the King isn’t keen on him because he sided with Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis.  That much is true enough, even if it does get exaggerated for historic effect.

And we do tend to think, because it’s what Churchill made us think, that the mood of the time was all about fighting on the beaches and never surrendering.  This film’s a sobering reminder that coming to some sort of terms with the Nazis was a real possibility at the time, because victory looked so unlikely.  And we think very disparagingly of the “appeasers”, but the film reminds us that it looked likely that the Armed Forces could be wiped out and civilians suffer horrendously as well, and that this was little more than twenty years after the end of the bloodbath that was the First World War.  You can see where Halifax, Chamberlain & co were coming from.  But thank heavens for Churchill.  If ever someone was the right person in the right place at the right time.  The film falls down on historical accuracy, but it gives a genuinely meaningful depiction of Britain’s darkest hour, the world’s darkest hour, and the man who got us through it.

Guardian of the Dawn by Richard Zimler


This is the third of Richard Zimler’s books about the Zarco family (although it’s set in the second half of the 16th century, which is nearly 250 years before the second of the books), and covers a little-known topic, the persecution carried out by the Inquisition in Portuguese-ruled Goa.  Seeing as it’s only one and a half days until the start of the Australian Open (well, two days until the first match of the night session on the RLA, which will be the most important event on Monday!), my brain really doesn’t want to go into Leyenda Negra mode, but everyone’s familiar with the activities of the Inquisition  – which we automatically refer to as “the Spanish Inquisition” – in Latin America.  Far less well-known is that Portugal introduced the Inquisition into Goa, where, over the course of two and a half centuries, it persecuted those who’d converted (whether voluntarily or under compulsion) from either Judaism or Hinduism to Catholicism but were suspected of continuing with their former religious practices, and also persecuted those identifying as and practising as Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Syriac Christians.

On top of that, it destroyed temples and religious objects, burnt books appertaining to other faiths – including Protestant books brought into the colony by English and Dutch traders – and tried to suppress the use of the local languages.  Many of those persecuted were executed, or treated so badly that they died in prison, and, even after the Inquisition in Goa was abolished, in 1820, Hindus and Muslims were charged an additional tax.  And the person responsible for introducing the Inquisition into Goa was St Francis Xavier, who’s generally regarded as a Spanish (he was from Navarre) and Jesuit hero.  I’m very glad that the present Pope’s made it clear that he chose the name Francis in honour of St Francis of Assisi.

A lot of what goes on in this book is about the relationship between Tiago Zarco, the main character, and his adopted cousin Wadi, and apparently this is supposed to reflect the relation between Othello (Wadi being of Moorish origin) and Iago … but I didn’t really get all that, because I’m not overly keen on Shakespeare.  There’s a complex relationship between the two branches of the family – Tiago’s branch of the family, live outside Goa and are practising Jews, whereas Wadi’s adoptive parents are Catholics, his father (Tiago’s uncle) being a convert and his mother a cradle Catholic.  Tiago’s sister, whom he adores and is very protective of, becomes involved with Wadi, there are hints that Tiago and Wadi may actually have feelings for each other, and then first Tiago’s father and then Tiago himself are arrested by the Inquisition.  Without wishing to give too much away, Tiago suspects the wrong people of having betrayed them, and ends up causing the deaths of two innocent people who get caught in the middle of it all, as well as taking his revenge on some of the priests.  He then hopes to work with the Sultan of Bijapur to drive the Portuguese out of Goa.

I’m not sure that trying to rework a Shakespearean plot, especially such a complex one, in the context of a story that’s so complex in itself, was the best of ideas, but the descriptions of India and the interaction between the different religious communities are very interesting, and, if nothing else, the book’s worth reading because this subject really isn’t very well-known.  Strangely, there’s no mention of the fact that Portugal was under Spanish rule for almost the entire period covered by the book, but we are definitely talking about the Portuguese Inquisition, not the Spanish Inquisition, so maybe it’s not that relevant.

I did wonder if Portugal had ever introduced the Inquisition into Bombay/Mumbai, but, as far as I can find out, that never happened – although it did in Brazil, and in Cape Verde.  This isn’t a particularly pleasant book, but Richard Zimler’s never are.  I got the first one because I wanted books set in Lisbon, and the second one because I wanted books set in Porto, and then this one because, having read two of the three, I thought I should read the third as well!  But it’s an important reminder of what some people will do in the name of religion.  And it’s also got some genuinely lovely descriptions of India, and of a lively trading area in the sixteenth century.  I’ve read much worse.



England’s Forgotten Queen – BBC 4


I was pleasantly surprised by this: the title of the programme – come on, surely the name “Lady Jane Grey” is familiar to most people, even if “Queen Jane” (or maybe “Lady Jane Dudley”) isn’t – made it sound as if it was going to be one of those really patronising efforts which treat the viewer as if they know nothing about anything, but Helen Castor did a very good job and looked at a familiar story from some interesting angles.

The main theme of last night’s episode – the first of three – was order, and people’s desire to stick to what they saw as the natural/God-given order of things. I would actually love to see a programme contrasting the events of 1553 with the events of 1688, because it really is fascinating how attitudes completely switched round over the course of 135 years.  Anyway, to get back to Lady Jane Grey, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot because her life was just so tragic, Helen Castor began by talking about how Edward VI, like his father, felt very strongly that his successor had to be male.  The usual angle on it is that Edward’s main concern was that his successor be Protestant, but Helen made a lot of the fact that “and her”, making Jane rather than her heirs male the heir(ess), was only added into Edward’s “Devise” for the succession when it became clear that he wasn’t going to live long enough for Jane to have children.

As she said, there’s no way of knowing how much of this was Edward’s doing and how much was Northumberland’s, but I think we can be pretty sure that Edward wanted to exclude Mary. He was very, very Protestant, so much so that it could have become problematic if he’d lived.  England, mercifully, has never been keen on religious extremism.  Would he also have excluded Elizabeth, had Jane not been married to Northumberland’s son?  That’s more problematic, but we’ll never know.  “It’s complicated”, as the Facebook term goes.   And what about Frances Grey, nee Brandon?  Beyond accepting that Frances was elbowed out of the picture by Northumberland and maybe by her own husband as well, because they thought they’d be able to rule through Jane and Guildford, not much is usually said about Frances, but Helen Castor made the interesting point that people were quite shocked to see Frances carrying Jane’s train, because it went against the natural order of things for a parent to be waiting on their child, rather than the other way round.  That’s something that’s very rarely picked up on.

We also got the standard stuff about how people hated Northumberland because he was the one who’d put down the rebellions in the 1540s. Much as I feel sorry for poor Jane, I do get quite a sense of satisfaction when I think about Northumberland & co, the arrogant elite in what we now think of as a Westminster bubble, thinking that they could impose their will on the nation and to hell with what the people wanted, and then finding out that they couldn’t.  That’s the way I usually look at it but, as the programme pointed out, it was also – equally satisfactorily! – about arrogant men thinking that they could push women around (the idea of “order” again), and then finding that they couldn’t.

Jane, once she’d been pushed into position as queen, stood up to them. I’m not sure that historians always present her as being as docile and as much of a puppet as Helen Castor suggested, but that certainly seems to be what her father-in-law and his cronies expected.  Wrong!  The Tudor women are great!   Henry VIII’s sisters both, after having arranged marriages first time round, went ahead and married the men of their choice.  Lady Jane Grey’s sisters both went their own ways, insofar as they could, as well.  Elizabeth is, of course, one of my all-time heroines 🙂 .   And then there was Mary.  The pro-Jane gang presumably expected that Mary would just fade out of the picture, but, oh no, anything but!  It’s hard to like “Bloody Mary”, but you have to admire her for the way she stood up for her rights in 1553, in such a perilous situation.

Back to the theme of “order”. I think that the popular support for Mary wasn’t just because she was the rightful heir but also because most people wouldn’t even have known who Jane was, whereas everyone would have known who Mary was, and she could emphasise the fact that she was the daughter of Henry VIII.  The same thing happened in Russia in 1741, when the fact that Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great did so much to win her support.  Interesting how Henry VIII and Peter the Great, two male monarchs who didn’t half do some pretty horrible things, were and still are both so popular.  Hmm. But, yes, it was basically about order, and keeping to the rightful line of succession.

What actually was the rightful line of succession, incidentally? Primogeniture?  The will of Henry VIII?  Everything’d got so confused from 1399 to 1485, followed by even more confusion over whether Mary was illegitimate, Elizabeth was illegitimate, neither of them were illegitimate or both of them were illegitimate that it’s quite impressive that there actually was so much sense of order and rightful lines of succession!

So what about 1688? Nothing to do with this programme, but something I started wondering about.  In 1553, the country backed the rightful heir, a woman and a Catholic.  In 1688, the country was quite happy to get rid of the rightful king, and replace him with the joint rule of his daughter and someone who was a complete outsider (yes, OK, William of Orange was James II’s nephew, but that didn’t really come into it), and a foreigner at that, because they were Protestant.  The Glorious Revolution – probably one of the best things that ever happened to England (I said England, not the British Isles!) – went about as far against “order” as it could have done.  Daughter and son-in-law replaced father/father-in-law.  Rightful king overthrown.  Lady Jane Grey’s English husband never became king, but Mary Stuart’s Dutch husband became joint monarch and then sole monarch.  Before long, a whole load of other people in the upper echelons of the line of succession were excluded too.   What a turnaround!   The execution of Charles I destroyed something of the idea of order, Catholicism regrettably made itself so unpopular in England in the period between 1553 and 1688, and the Protestant Reformation really gained force in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but, even taking all that into account, what a contrast.

Er, and none of that’s really got anything to do with poor Lady Jane Grey. Two more episodes about her story to come.  We all know how it ends, but, sigh, hearing it even for the zillionth time is going to upset me 😦 .   And I do really wish Guildford Dudley had been the way he’s portrayed (by Cary Elwes) in the 1980s film Lady Jane – as a result of which he became, succeeding Perkin Warbeck, the romantic hero of our history A-level groups, to the extent that one girl named the cuddly toy dog that she got for her 18th birthday “Guildford” (I think we were all a bit weird at our school) – but sadly he wasn’t … but he didn’t deserve his fate either.  A very sad story all round 😦 .

Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini


If the President of the United States leaves office mid-term, for whatever reason, the Vice President automatically takes over.  They may well turn out to be considerably worse.  Obviously 😉 I’m referring to the events of April 1865: this book is sub-titled “A novel of John Wilkes Booth”.

The style of writing leaves something to be desired.  It sometimes comes close to that sickly over-sentimental style that’s much more often found in American books that British books, and someone really ought to tell the editor that the plural of “beau” is “beaux”, not “beaus” (have they never read Gone With The Wind?!  Surely everyone’s read it at least a dozen times 😉 !!), but the actual story is fascinating.

Unless you go right back to Roman times, assassins are usually people not known to anyone outside their own circles, but John Wilkes Booth was quite a celebrity.  His name would have been well-known to anyone in Washington society, and to many other people too, certainly those with access to the world of theatre.  He was a bit of a pin-up, as dashing, good-looking actors always are.  And he was from arguably the greatest American theatrical dynasty of the day.  His father was a famous actor, first in Britain and then in America, his brother Junius was also an actor, and his brother Edwin – whom I first came across just over thirty years ago, as a minor character in John Jakes’s wonderful Heaven and Hell – is often described as the best American actor of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he was involved with, and possibly secretly engaged to, Lucy Lambert Hale, who was one of Washington’s most popular belles, the daughter of a leading Republican, and had admirers (beaux, with an x!) including Robert Lincoln, the son of the president.

So not your usual sort of modern assassin.  Well, insofar is there is one.  The book concentrates mainly on various women connected with him – his mother, his sister Asia, his sweetheart Lucy, and Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met and who became the first women executed by the federal government.  It starts with his parents’ story, which reads like a Hollywood film script on its own.  His father, a famous London-based actor, left his wife and child and ran off to America with his mistress.   They had several children, of whom John Wilkes was one, and then it all came out that they weren’t really married and that his father had left a wife back in England!   Eventually, Booth senior and his first wife were divorced, and Booth’s parents married, but it was all a right scandal.  And there was also considerable sibling rivalry between the brothers, Edwin being by far the best actor.

From there, though, very little is said about John Wilkes Booth’s life until he got involved with Lucy Hale, and then it’s all from her viewpoint.  There’s no real effort to explain why he decided to take such a drastic step.  The original plan was actually to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, which would have been pretty drastic in itself, but, with the war all but over, it was decided to assassinate him instead.  The book makes references to his love of the South, but they’re all rather vague and superficial, and not at all satisfactory.  He wasn’t exactly the most obvious of assassins.  It would be far easier to understand Lincoln being assassinated by someone from the Deep South, the fire-eating South, imbued with genuine notions of the Glorious Cause, probably someone who’d lost relatives and friends, and maybe their home and money as well.  Or someone from a poor area of the upcountry, who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Why John Wilkes Booth?  He didn’t even live in the Confederacy.  He’d spent some time in Virginia, but his home was Maryland, one of the four (five, once West Virginia was admitted to the Union),Southern states within the Union.  The whole issue of the Upper South is interesting.  Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, and North Carolina can probably be counted as the Upper South too, seceded.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri didn’t.  A lot of divided loyalties.  When you think of the Southern outlaws in the immediate post-bellum years, you think first of Frank and Jesse James – from Missouri.  Mary Surratt was from Maryland.  Washington itself was – and still is – a Southern city.  Richmond and Washington are only about 100 miles apart  It really is ridiculous that the two capitals were so close together, and both so close to the border.  I suppose they weren’t going to move the federal capital, but why not leave the Confederate capital at Montgomery, where it was before the Upper South seceded?  Very odd decision.

Anyway!  Nothing really to try to explain why Booth did what he did.  And so much else about him was missing.  Mary Surratt’s deep Catholic faith was clearly shown, but there was nothing about Booth’s own possible Catholic links.  Some people at the time tried to make out that it was some sort of Papist plot.  OK, obviously that was a load of nonsense, but the fact that people were speaking in terms which belong more to the 1680s to the 1860s says a lot about attitudes at the time – think the horrendous Elsie books! – and you’d think it would have merited a mention.  Even more strangely, nothing’s said about the other women he was supposedly involved with.  We see Lucy, after the assassination, reading in the papers that he had a mistress, and carried photos of various actresses around with him, but that’s the first we hear of it.  Lucy ends up feeling that she didn’t really know him at all.  The reader unfortunately ends up feeling exactly the same.

Having said all of that, it’s worth reading this just to get a better understanding of John Wilkes Booth’s background, because it’s so crazy that this matinee idol type, member of a leading theatrical dynasty, was the one to carry out this act that, in addition to being utterly horrific because all murder is horrific, had such a huge impact on the future of America.  We’ll never know if Reconstruction would have gone any better under Lincoln than it did under Johnson – and the idea was to assassinate Johnson as well, but it didn’t happen – and Grant, but it’s hard to think that it could have gone much worse.    Booth shouted “Sic simper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!”.  Surely the South would have fared much better if Lincoln had lived.  Some sort of economic rebuilding would have been key: there are parts of the South which still haven’t recovered economically from the war, after over 150 years.  But we’ll never know now.

And, yes, if you remove a president, you get the vice president instead.  Worrying thought, that, isn’t it?

The Greatest Showman


This was entertaining, but, as far as telling the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum goes, it fell a very long way wide of the mark. What a shame.  It really is a fascinating story, and I wish people wouldn’t make films (or write books) about real people if they’re not going to stick to the facts.

Oh, OK, the basic idea was there – the circus, the (to use the expression of the times) “freaks”, and the opposition from sections of the public and the media. But the hoaxes were badly watered down.  There was no mention of the old lady whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse, or of the Feejee mermaid.  Claiming that someone was heavier than they were, or that they were of a different nationality, is hardly in the same league.  Maybe they were worried that the snowflake brigade might find things like the Joice Heth story, a true story, offensive?  I don’t know, but it felt as the point was being missed.

Some of it was just plain silly. There was a farcical scene in London, with a portrayal of Queen Victoria which seemed to belong in something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Beefeaters wandering around inside Buckingham Palace!    He was given a fictional business partner.  And there was a bizarre storyline which claimed that, rather than abandoning the tour because of concerns about over-commercialisation, Jenny Lind packed it in because she fancied Barnum and had the needle because he wasn’t interested!

And, before they even got as far as him entering showbusiness, they’d invented a tale whereby he first met Charity, his future wife, when he was a tailor’s delivery boy and she was the daughter of a New York society family, and they were childhood sweethearts who ran off together, and he was always desperate to prove to her snooty parents and their friends that he was good enough for her. Oh, it was quite a romantic idea, but unfortunately it was largely the product of someone’s imagination!   And there was nothing about his involvement in politics and philanthropy, which was a shame.  Yes, all right, I appreciate that not everyone would have wanted a lecture on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the middle of a film about a circus 🙂 (although I so would!), but that whole aspect of his life and character was missing.

It was entertaining, though.  The music was great – although I kept expecting to hear the music from the Barnum musical instead.  It is really weird watching something about Barnum without anyone singing “Join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid”.  And the stories of the circus performers, some of whom did really exist, were genuinely touching.  Even now, you get these programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, which come uncomfortably close to treating anyone with some sort of physical difference as a “freak”.  In the mid 19th century, life didn’t offer very much to people with, say, dwarfism or hirsutism, and Barnum’s circus did offer those people an opportunity, which was certainly much better than the sort of horrific freak shows that “the Elephant Man” was made part of.  And there was a storyline about a romance between the fictional white business partner and a fictional mixed-race trapeze artist, which was very nice, but, if they’d wanted to make the point about racial attitudes at the time, they could have stuck to the actual facts and show Barnum speaking out against slavery.  It came later than the period covered by the film, but he did make a well-known and rather touching speech about how all human souls are human souls, regardless of which body they inhabit.

It’s entertainment – which Barnum would approved of. And, hey, he might well have approved of the fact that it’s all a bit of a swizz (to use an old-fashioned term!), in the name of entertainment.  But it feels as if someone’s written the story that they want and then used the name of a well-known historical figure to guarantee popular interest and therefore box office success.  It’s not uncommon for films, books and TV dramas to do that, but it isn’t half annoying 🙂 .