Great Continental Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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I was so excited to see a new series of this – I didn’t realise that one had been recorded pre-lockdown – in the TV schedules, and found it particularly interesting that much of the first episode was spent talking about the Spanish Civil War … largely with reference to Michael Portillo’s dad, who came to Britain as a Republican exile.  Scores of men from North West England fought in the International Brigades, and Spanish relief/aid committtees were set up all over the region; but no-one ever talks about it.  I remember once getting quite excited during a mid-1990s episode of Neighbours in which Karl Kennedy’s dad gave Billy and Toadie a lecture on the International Brigades!  It’s a subject that’s rarely discussed – except in connection with George Orwell, and we saw Michael visiting a Republican trench outside Huesca with Orwell’s son.

We also saw Michael visiting Salamanca, Avila and Madrid, all of which I’ve been fortunate enough to visit, and Zaragoza, which I haven’t … yet.  And a border railway station in the Pyrenees, used as an escape route by Jews and Allied soldiers fleeing Occupied France during the war.  No-one spells Zaragoza the old English way, “Saragossa”, since Real Zaragoza had that good run in the mid-1980s.  And no-one spells Marseille with an s on the end since they got to the European Cup Final in 1991.  This is an interesting linguistic phenomenon.  It should be investigated.

Anyway.  Michael, resplendent in a yellow jacket, purple shirt and vermilion trousers – I wonder if he dresses like that when he’s not filming – started off in Salamanca, with a Bradshaw’s guidebook (everyone knows that George Bradshaw was from Salford, yes?) from 1936.  We did hear a bit about the general history of Salamanca, but this was a very personal episode and the focus was on Michael’s late dad and his time as a professor at the university there: we even saw the index cards which Franco’s government had kept on Luis Portillo Perez.  Oh, and sliced ham.  Then lovely Avila, famed for its association with St Teresa.

And then on to Madrid.  We saw quite a lot of the architecture of Salamanca and Avila, but Madrid’s too big to cover in one segment of one programme, although we did see some of its highlights.  And, again, we heard about Portillo snr.  Michael stood in front of Picasso’s “Guernica” and talked about how his parents would never have met had it not been for the bombing of Guernica.  To be fair, he did talk about the devastation it caused, as well, not just its role in his own family history!  The lady at the Museum Reina Sofia said that “Guernica” was the most important painting of the twentieth century.  There’s certainly a good case for saying that.

Then it was on to Zaragoza, capital of Aragon … and we got a mention of Ferdinand and Isabella.  Things got a bit more light-hearted here, with the requisite making-an-idiot-of-himself segment, this one involving Michael trying to join in with the Aragonese Jota dance.  But then we returned to the subject of the Civil War, with the visit to the trench at Huesca.

Finally, after a journey through some lovely countryside, Michael ended up at the Franco-Spanish border station of Canfranc, opened in 1928, at which time it was the second largest station in Europe.  It’s not used much now.  That’s rather sad.  I do love those grand old railway stations!

And I love Spain.  We’ll get back there.  One day!   I’m not sure when this was filmed, but who would have guessed that, by the time it was filmed, going to Spain and indeed travelling by train at all would have largely vanished off the menu?   Let’s just hope that this doesn’t go on for too much longer.  In the meantime, especially with so many repeats on TV due to the disruption to filming caused by the pandemic, it is wonderful to have a new series of this lovely programme!   Thoroughly enjoyed this first episode, and looking forward to the episodes to come!

A Suitable Boy – BBC 1

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I really enjoyed this. OK, it was all a bit cheesy and obvious – you just knew from the title that any boy our heroine met would be anything other than suitable – but it’s Sunday night drama, not a documentary.  Sunday night drama is meant to be entertaining, and this was.

Andrew Davies, adapting Vikram Seth’s book, appears to have rediscovered some measure of self control, so we didn’t get any bare bottoms bobbing along a beach.  Instead, we got wonderful Indian architecture, scenery and music, and an amusing if rather unoriginal storyline about Lata, a spirited young woman whose mother was determined to find her a suitable husband, and who met someone thoroughly *un*suitable instead (although I gather that more suitors will turn up in later episodes).  There was also an unsuitable woman, with whom Lata’s brother-in-law became involved.  And the background (I refuse to describe the 1950s as “history”) was very much there too, with the Hindu-Muslim tensions, this being set in Northern India only a few years after partition, much in evidence.

Northern India is the land of princes and rajas and, whilst our characters weren’t in that league, they were still from the wealthier echelons of society, and close to the powers that were, although we were told that they’d come down in the world a little.  So a lot of the scenes were rather glossy and glamorous, which always works well in the Sunday 9pm slot 🙂 .   Escapism.  I need escapism.  I definitely need escapism!

It began with the wedding of Lata’s sister.  We saw Lata chatting away to her new brother-in-law’s brother, and I did wonder if they’d get together; but, instead, he took up with a much older singer.  Lata’s mother was desperate to find her a suitable husband; but she, being a thoroughly modern miss at university, was determined that she wasn’t being pushed into an arranged marriage.  Yes, OK, it was a bit cliched, but it was a drama, and they usually are a bit cliched.  Lata duly met a handsome young chap at university … but, needless to say, it turned out that he was a Muslim, whereas she was a Hindu.

The aftermath of partition was always there, with a lot of talk about building a temple next to a mosque, and riots breaking out towards the end of the episode.  Without wanting to get political, these are issues which still haven’t been resolved – and how I wish they could be.  The juxtaposition of the tensions and the unrest with the rather soapy storylines about the meddling mother and the unsuitable romance might not have worked, but it did.

I thought it was a very good first episode.  Yes, it was kind of obvious, but Sunday night dramas are!

Just a bit of a rant, though.  You’d think that the Whinge Brigade would be pleased that the BBC were showing a drama with an entirely South Asian cast; but no, they are whingeing about everything.  It doesn’t show the lives of poor people. Well, that’s because it’s about two wealthy families.  Pride and Prejudice does not show the lives of poor people.  Coronation Street and EastEnders do not show the lives of the aristocracy.  Things are about what they’re about.  The characters are speaking English.  That’s because it’s a BBC drama.  Did the characters in the adaptation of War and Peace speak Russian?  No.  Did the characters in the adaptation of Les Miserables speak French?  No.  And, the piece de resistance, it’s “Orientalist”, because characters are wearing saris and playing sitars.  WTF?  Would they prefer characters in 1950s India to be wearing Dior’s New Look and listening to Frank Sinatra?  What is it with these people?  If you show an interest in Indian culture, in the lovely clothes and lovely music, it’s “Orientalist” and “cultural appropriation”.  If you don’t, you’re a white supremacist.  Put a sock in it, FFS!  What on earth is wrong with appreciating a different culture?  Surely it’s good that we can appreciate different cultures.  I know these people moan about anything, but what on earth is the problem with Indian characters in a series set in India wearing Indian clothes and playing Indian music?

Oh well.  Let’s ignore the moaners.  I really enjoyed this, and I’m sure that a lot of other people did too!  And we need all the enjoyable telly we can get at the moment!!

The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic

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The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.

 

#NoSafeSpaceForHate

 

REPOSTED BECAUSE FACEBOOK WOULDN’T SHARE THE ORIGINAL!!

The Plot Against America – Sky Atlantic

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The scheduling of this chillingly well-written and well-acted “alternative history” series has sadly turned out to be very timely, coinciding with the deeply unpleasant and distressing Wiley affair.  It’s reassuring that the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary, together with a number of other public figures, have been quick to speak out against Wiley; but the alternative universe depicted here, in which Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR and leads an extremist government in America, is frighteningly convincing – there’s nothing in it that makes you think, nah, this is just a story, it couldn’t really happen.

What *is* happening?  The OSCE’s comments on the Polish president’s recent election campaign were that “the incumbent’s campaign and coverage by the public broadcaster were marked by homophobic, xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric”.   The welcome news of an unreserved apology and damages over the Panorama programme about anti-Semitism in the Labour Party has worryingly been criticised in some quarters.  Without wanting to make generalisations, the feeling in this programme that some police forces in the US were failing to protect certain communities sounds more than a little familiar.  And how often do we hear governments say that they’ve “got” to do business with some very questionable regime, as this version of Lindbergh says when he pals up with Nazi Germany?   We’re a long way from this nightmare alternative history, thankfully, but there’s certainly some worrying stuff going on out there, and this series certainly struck a few chords.

I haven’t read the book, written by Philip Roth and published in 2004, but gather that the TV series, showing events through the eyes of a Jewish family in New Jersey, is based closely on it.  It’s so scarily plausible, and the writing and the acting are so good.  The kids are particularly good: it can’t be easy for children to act out such unpleasant scenarios.  I’m not normally a fan of “alternative history” series, but this one’s well worth watching.

The idea is that Charles Lindbergh stands against FDR, on an America First message tied in with a message about staying out of the Second World War, and is duly elected president.  And you can see exactly how that would have worked.  Imagine the reaction now if it were announced that American or British or Australian or French troops were being sent to East Turkestan, or Rakhine province, or Yemen, or Syria.  Yes, there are atrocities being carried out there, but no-one would want to see boots on the ground and Our Boys and Girls being killed there.  OK, that’s not quite the same as the Nazis taking over most of Europe, but still.  And this was very soon after the Great War, when so many lives were lost.  A lot of people here backed appeasement in 1938.  You can see how the anti-war message in America would have worked.  Especially with a national hero like Lindbergh putting it across.

And, from there, Lindbergh says that America has to work with Nazi Germany. You know, a bit like we have to work with Saudi Arabia.  OK, obviously I am not comparing Saudi Arabia to Nazi Germany, but it’s that same idea of “we’ve got to work” with a morally very questionable regime.

I’m not convinced that using real people in prominent roles in alternative historical universes is acceptable, I have to say.  OK, I don’t suppose anyone’d mind that much if someone wrote about an alternative universe in which King Harold won the Battle of Hastings or Henry VIII stayed married to Catherine of Aragon, but four of Charles Lindbergh’s children are still living, and I don’t suppose they’re very happy about their father being portrayed like this.  Both Charles and Anne Lindbergh are known to have had Nazi sympathies, but I don’t know if this is a step too far.  It does make it seem all the more realistic, though.

And anti-Semitic incidents rise.  We see it all through the eyes of the Levin family – mother, father, two sons, and a nephew who goes to Canada to enlist in the Canadian Army.  The family’s been written so as to encompass a range of views, which again all comes across as being very realistic.  Bess Levin wants to keep her head down and her family safe, and feels that the best option would be to leave for Canada, and let someone else put their head above the parapet.  Herman Levin, however, wants to make a stand: he insists that he’s not submitting to the anti-Semitic policies of the new government, and that he’s not being driven out of his own country.  Both characters are so convincing, and so easy to sympathise with – you can see where each of them is coming from. Philip, the sweet little younger son, just wants things to stay the way they are; but Sandy, the older son, is swept along with the views of creepy Rabbi Bengelsdorf.

Rabbi Bengelsdorf is in some ways the most interesting character  – the Jewish community leader who’s closely allied with Lindbergh, and keeps insisting that Lindbergh isn’t anti-Semitic, even though everyone else can see exactly what Lindbergh is.  Rather like certain factions of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.   Bess’s sister Evelyn becomes involved with, and eventually marries, him, and they end up attending a state dinner and ball for Joachim von Ribbentrop, where she actually dances with him.  I could live without the faint suggestion that she’s so desperate to get a man that she’s going along with anything Bengelsdorf says, but maybe that’s not how it’s meant to come across.

I was originally assuming that Bengelsdorf was only interested in power and influence, and was saying whatever he thought the president wanted to hear, but it’s actually more complex than that.  He does a lot of talking about the need to assimilate and how Jews shouldn’t all be living in closed communities – and the way he says it makes a lot of sense.  And it’s exactly what was said in 19th and early 20th century Budapest and Vienna.  I wish that that comparison’d been made, but I think it was a case of American writers only looking at America.  Instead, a big deal was made of the fact that Bengelsdorf was from South Carolina and his ancestors fought for the Confederacy.  I really could have done without that.  Can we all get past this making a big deal of the fact that there were prominent Jews in the antebellum South, please?  See Song of Slaves in the Desert .

Bengelsdorf leads a programme called “Just Folks,” as part of the “Office of American Absorption”, which temporarily places Jewish boys into rural families to make them “more American”.  This does, on the face of it, sound a little more far-fetched, but the story’s told so well that it seems to follow on naturally from everything else.  And then, the next step, Jewish families are being relocated to “America’s heartland”.  The Levins are told that they’ve got to move to Kentucky: Herman’s boss is given little choice by the government but to say that he’s being transferred there.  It’s all made to sound so attractive – away from the pollution and the crowds of the big city, property’s so much cheaper … .  They can get out of it if Herman quits his job, but the authorities’ll make sure that he never gets another one.

Radio host Walter Winchell, another real person, tries to whip up support against Lindbergh, and announces his intention to run for the presidency.  There are violent clashes at rallies.  Winchell is assassinated.  Then Lindbergh’s plane goes missing – has there been an accident or has he been assassinated as well?   We know that the British and Canadian secret services, with whom Alvin’s working, may well have been involved.  [We hope they are.  The British and the Canadians are the good guys in all this.]  Riots break out.  We’ve seen how easily that can happen. They turn into pogroms.  [This happened in South Wales, of all places, in 1911.]   Philip’s friend’s mother is murdered by the Ku Klux Klan.  Conspiracy theories abound.  Bengelsdorf is arrested.  An emergency presidential election is called, with FDR standing, but some of his supporters are stopped from voting, and we see the contents of ballot boxes being emptied on to fires.

And there it ends – which I assume the book didn’t.  Are we going to get a second series?

Just a couple of other things.  I did wonder why Lindbergh didn’t seem to have turned on any other group of people – African Americans or Native Americans, maybe – but I assume that Philip Roth wanted to focus on the Jewish community, and the fact that we saw it all through the eyes of one family did work very well.  And I also wondered how it worked for viewers not familiar with Jewish culture and religious practices.  Herman said that you probably couldn’t even get a minyan in Kentucky.  The Italian American guy moving into the Levins’ house took the mezuzah off the door and handed it to Philip.  None of this was explained – would all viewers have “got” it?    I’m never sure how much explanation should be given – it would make the dialogue unrealistic if characters explained something that they wouldn’t need to explain.  It’s a lot easier in a book, where you can put a footnote.

By the end, there were scenes of riots, shops burning, people lying shot dead in the street, cars burnt out where the Ku Klux Klan set them on fire with their drivers inside.  I can’t even say that you think this couldn’t happen, because …. can anyone actually say that they genuinely cannot imagine this sort of thing happening?  That’s why it was so good.  We didn’t see Nazis in jackboots marching along Pennsylvania Avenue: it wasn’t externalised.  Things like this happen from within.  There was nothing in this which you could not imagine happening.

I don’t usually watch alternative historical universe things – give me proper history – but this had such good reviews that I thought I’d give it a go.  I think I’m glad I did.  It was so good that it was horrific.  And so relevant that it was even more horrific.  No-one wants to be paranoid.  But nor should anyone be complacent.

 

#NoSafeSpaceForHate

 

Song of Slaves in the Desert by Alan Cheuse

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 I can’t quite decide what I thought about this book, in which Nate Pereira, a young man from New York, reluctantly visited his uncle’s plantation in South Carolina, in (the year wasn’t actually given) the late 1840s, and became involved with Liza, a young slave woman, whom he eventually helped to escape.  It tried to be a bit too clever by jumping around between too many themes; but it was certainly interesting, and different from most books about slavery.  It traced Liza’s family history forward from 16th century Timbuktu and, unlike, say, Roots, it showed how slavery was practised in Africa long before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, and that people like Liza’s ancestors were sold to European slave traders by fellow Africans.  It also covered issues about slave owners within America coming from different religious groups.  Some parts of it worked much better than others, but, overall, I think it was worth reading.

It worked best as a “house divided against itself” book, showing the reaction of a young man from a free state to spending time in a slave state.  I don’t actually think that that was the angle the author was aiming for, but that was what worked for me.  Sometimes I think about all those decades of Compromises and Provisos and talk about popular sovereignty, and wonder how the Union lasted as long as it did.

I was very sorry to learn that the author of this book was killed in a car accident a few years ago.  That’s extremely sad.

As far as the book went, there were two stories intertwined, which didn’t work too badly – it can sometimes be very confusing when there are two stories in one, but this was OK –  but I could have done without the bits that went off into mysticism and talked about goddesses and spirits.  We had the story of Liza’s female line ancestors, through several generations of slaves, first in Africa and then in America.  That was interesting, and quite unusual: there seems to be so much emphasis on white people enslaving Africans that histories of black and Arab slave traders are rather neglected.

However, every single generation had children only through rape.  Obviously this was something that happened to many women; but not one of the women was able to form a relationship with a fellow slave and have children with him, which happened as well.  Liza had a friend called Isaac who thought he was the child of a happy marriage between two slaves, but it turned out that even he was the result of the master raping his mother.  Liza herself was Nate’s uncle’s daughter, born through rape, and her own father repeatedly raped her.  It was all just too much rape.  There were happy relationships between slaves, and there were children born of those relationships.  But that didn’t happen here.  Not once.

The relationship between Liza and Nate was shown largely from Nate’s viewpoint, as the second storyline was his story of his visit to South Carolina, and was rather confused.  As far as he was concerned, they were in love … but then it turned out that her father/rapist, his uncle, had asked her to seduce him in order to try to keep him there (the uncle wanted his brother’s money), and then that she’d decided to try to seduce him so that he’d help her to run away.  In the end, she did get away … and ended up in San Francisco.

He went back to New York and his old life, married his childhood sweetheart and had children, but was killed at the First Battle of Bull Run/Manassas.  This only came out in an epilogue, but the impression given was that he’d volunteered as soon as war broke out, because he wanted to fight against the southern states because of his abhorrence of slavery.  Amid the confusion, that message was strong: the boy from New York couldn’t deal with a society based on slavery.

Another confused relationship was between the slaves and Rebecca, Nate’s cousin’s wife, who had some bizarre idea about her mission being to civilise all the slaves.  She was teaching them to read, saying that she could free them but then get more slaves to work on the plantation, and teach them to read, and then free them, and so on.  What?  Apart from anything else, it was illegal to teach slaves to read.  That bit didn’t really make sense.

And then there was the confused relationship between everyone and religion, the Pereiras all being Jewish.  The issue of Jewish slave owners also came up, albeit briefly, in “The Plot Against America” last week.  I feel uncomfortable writing about this, because there are a lot of utterly vile conspiracy theories regarding this subject – the disgusting “artist” Wiley has repeated them just within the last few days, some members of Momentum have been repeating them over the last few years, and factions in America have repeated them as well.  It’s even something that’s been linked to terrorist attacks in America.  That was not for one second what the author of this book was doing, but it’s such an awkward subject in the current climate that it’s difficult to write about.

I hate that.  I shouldn’t have to feel like that.  Slavery was practised across the antebellum South, at least amongst people who could afford to have slaves.  There were Protestant slave owners, Catholic slave owners, and a small number of Jewish slave owners.  It was not about religion, and no religious group behaved any better (other than the Quakers) or worse than another. I don’t think anyone really needs to be making a big deal of the fact that members of any one religion owned slaves, any more than that members of any other religion did.  .

However, apparently Alan Creuse wrote this book because he was surprised to learn that there were Jewish slave owners.  I’m surprised that he was surprised.  This has come up in loads of books – Belva Plain’s Crescent City and Eugenia Price’s Savannah, to name but two.  And surely he knew that Judah Benjamin was Confederate Secretary of State, although Benjamin personally didn’t own slaves until his marriage. It wasn’t about religion or culture.  Almost all well-to-do people in the South did own slaves, and there’ve been a small number of well-to-do Jewish people in the South since way back when. In the days of concern about Catholics in Florida and Louisiana, there was a kind of Protestant-Jewish alliance in the Deep South, and there was not the same degree of anti-Jewish prejudice that there was in some parts of the North.  And I’m getting off the point now.  The point is that it was a regional thing, not a religious thing.  It’s not really an issue that there were members of different religious groups amongst the slaveowners.

However, Nate seemed very troubled by how owning slaves fitted in with the Bible stories in the book of Exodus and about the Babylonian captivity.  I’m not sure that bringing Bible stories into it was all that convincing.  It might have been better to have had him talking about the 1492 expulsions instead.  I know that that would have lost the point about slavery, but it would have been more relevant.  That was presumably where Alan Creuse was coming from – he was surprised that members of one demographic group which had faced persecution throughout the ages should have been amongst those in enslaving another group.  And I understand that.  But, as I’ve said, I think we need to accept that owning slaves in the antebellum South was not about religion or culture, and that there was no religious exceptionalism over that.

I seem to be doing a lot of moaning here.  It was actually a good book!  The points about the many generations of slaves in Africa were well made, and it did a particularly good job of getting across the message about the house divided against itself.  Here was a young man from New York, going to visit another American state, another state within the union, to visit his own close relatives, and finding a way of life that was alien and abhorrent to him.  As I said, it’s perhaps surprising that the Union lasted as long as it did … the Missouri Compromise, Nullification, the Compromise of 1850, the Fugitive Slave Act, all the Kansas/Nebraska stuff … it is actually quite surprising that it didn’t all come to a head sooner.  I don’t think that was meant to be the message of the book, but it was the one which came across best.

This was a very ambitious book.  Some of it worked, some of it perhaps didn’t.  But it certainly made me think.  I like that. In this weird times, getting my head back into 1840s/1850s America, a favourite subject for nearly 35 years, is great.   I could write all day about this stuff.  And I’ve already spent ages writing about it, for a handful of people to read, so I shall shut up now!   If anyone’s reading these long waffles, thank you.  Writing them keeps my brain occupied in these strange times!

Ruth’s Journey by Donald McCaig

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Oh dear.  This was dire!  It was supposed to be a prequel to Gone With The Wind, and it sounded like such an interesting idea – a book about the early life of Mammy, and also touching on the life of Scarlett’s intriguingly scandalous grandmother Solange.  Unfortunately, the writing was poor, and the author didn’t capture the character of Mammy at all.  If you’re writing a book about an existing character, then the book needs to be true to that character.  There are probably sides to them that we don’t see, especially when, as in this case, the character exists largely in relation to other characters and we hear next to nothing of their own life; but it still needs to link in with what we do know of them. If that’s not what you want to do, create your own character and write about them instead!

Also, there were umpteen inconsistences with GWTW itself – if you’re going to try to write a prequel to the best-selling novel of all time, read it properly first, and, for heaven’s sake, at least get the names right, if nothing else – and what he wrote about the other characters was beyond stupid.  Ellen, the perfect lady, hanging around in disreputable bars?  Scarlett, whom Mammy watched like a hawk, dressing up as a male jockey and hanging around at the racecourse?   It was just dreadful.  How could anyone make such a mess of writing about some of the most interesting characters in the entire history of fiction?!

Most annoyingly of all, the second half of the book was all about the Robillards and the O’Haras.  No, no, no!  The book was meant to be about Mammy.  So it completely defeated its own point!

The author of this also wrote Rhett Butler’s People, and that wasn’t bad.  This was!  What is the one clue that we’re given to Solange Robillard’s personality?  That she wore a wet petticoat to show the shape of her legs.  Is that one thing mentioned anywhere in this book.  It is not.  There’s also a mention in GWTW of Great-Grandfather Prudhomme, who was forced out of Haiti by the Haitian Revolution.  So we know that Solange’s maiden name was Prudhomme, and that her father was a landowner in Haiti.  Well, everyone else does, but Donald McCaig apparently doesn’t, because he had Solange’s maiden name being Escarlette, and her father living in Brittany.

We’re told that Solange’s first husband (he at least gets the fact that she had three husbands right, although I don’t know why he says that Pauline and Eulalie’s father was her second husband rather than Pierre Robillard) found a small child alone after her mother and been murdered, and that he and Solange took her in and named her Ruth.  This was the child who became Mammy.  That works, at least.  They move to Savannah.  OK.  Ruth, when she’s 15, wants to marry a free black man.  Solange agrees to let him buy her, so that the two of them can be together, and they move to Charleston … where he gets involved in Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion.

OK, this could have happened, and marks for bringing Denmark Vesey’s Rebellion into it.  The actual history was pretty much accurate.  And the portrayal of young Ruth wasn’t that bad: you could see how that young woman might have become the Mammy we know from GWTW.  But we were then told that her husband was hanged by Rhett Butler’s dad.  What??  OK, Mammy does take a dislike to Rhett when she first meets him, but that’s because she can see what a bad lot he is.  The name “Butler” doesn’t mean anything to her until Rhett comes along.  An she changes her mind about him when she sees what a good father he is to Bonnie.  Would she really have done that, and lived under his roof at all – she could have said she was going back to Tara, as she did later – if his dad had hanged her husband?  The story, which also involved her child being sold and then dying, which was very poignant, might have worked without the Butler link.  As it was, it didn’t.

She then smacks her new owner over the head with a heavy object when he tries it on with her, bullies him into giving her a pass, and makes her way back to Savannah.  Come on – how likely is that to have happened?  And, from then on, the story isn’t even about her anyway.  We move on to this nonsense about Ellen hanging around in bars.  No, no, no.  Yes, Ellen wants to marry her dodgy cousin Philippe.  Her father’s supposed to have run him out of town.  He gets killed in a bar room brawl – that bit at least is sort of included accurately.  But Ellen hanging around in disreputable bars?  Hardly!  Even if she’d wanted to, Mammy wouldn’t have let her.  That’s the whole point.  Mammy keeps an eye on her.

Ellen then marries Gerald O’Hara.  There is a vague nod to her threat to go into a convent, but only in passing: there’s no big showdown with her dad, who doesn’t seen very interested.  And who’s a Baptist.  OK, at least McCaig got the fact that he was a Protestant right, but how many French Baptists are there?

Then all the familiar Clayton County crowd turn up.  Ashley Wilkes seems to be much older than he should be.  So does Cathleen Calvert.  Raif Calvert, even though we know that he and Scarlett were friendly as children, is hardly mentioned.  Suellen seems to have a lot of beaux – er, no.  And Scarlett is known as Katie until she’s about 15.  WTF?!  OK, she’s Katie Scarlett, but she’s always “Miss Scarlett”.  And there’s all this utter nonsense about Scarlett going off riding by herself, and dressing up as a jockey and hanging around racecourses.  Excuse me?  This is Scarlett, who worries about concealing “small breaches of etiquette” from her elders, hanging around racecourses in men’s clothing?!  And, again, as if the daughter of a Southern plantation owner would have been able to get away with doing that?  Mammy watched her every move!  And when was there ever the slightest suggestion that Scarlett was interested in racing anyway?!

As if all this isn’t stupid enough, Mammy has some sort of vision of Scarlett marrying Rhett and their child dying.  This is in early 1861.  Mammy didn’t even know that Rhett existed until Scarlett decided to dress up in the green curtains to go and visit him, after the war.  She never met him at the Twelve Oaks barbecue.  Or, if she did, it was only in passing.  She doesn’t know who he is when Scarlett says she’s going to get the money from “Rhett”.

And the book was meant to be about Mammy, not about the O’Haras!  On top of all this, most of the second half of the book, from Ellen’s marriage onwards, is narrated by Mammy, and it’s all in “I’se gwine …” dialect.  Now, I know that views differ as to whether or not it’s appropriate to write an African-American character as speaking or thinking in … I think the term “Ebonics” is used now.  But I personally am not keen on it.   We don’t see Solange speaking or thinking in Franglais.  I’d rather have had things in standard English.  That’s my view: other people’s may differ.  And we just lost who Mammy was … Mammy would never, ever have let either Ellen or Scarlett behave like that.  She would have known what they were up to, and stopped it.

And where was her story?  Once she was back with Solange, all she was doing was being the Robillards’/O’Haras’ Mammy.  The point of this book was meant to be to show that she was so much more than that.

It was a good idea.  But it was certainly not a good book.  Don’t bother reading this.  It’s really not worth it.

 

 

 

The Moon Field by Judith Allnatt

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This is a fairly basic (if there is such a thing) but poignant and reasonably well-written First World War novel, which I picked because much of it’s set in the Lake District, in and around Keswick.  Although it ends before the war does, the emphasis isn’t so much on the war as on the longer-term effects, particularly on the bereaved and those left with life-changing physical and mental injuries.  In particular, it addresses the effects on those with facial injuries, and makes some good points about how people who’d lost limbs were seen as heroes but people didn’t know how to react to those whose faces had been severely disfigured.

The main characters are four young people from the Derwentwater and Bassenthwaite areas – postman George, his lifelong friend Kitty, squire’s daughter Violet, and Violet’s fiancé Edmund.  The link between the two pairs is George’s crush on Violet.  Conscientious objection is addressed, with George’s father being opposed to the war on religious grounds, but George chooses to join up, and finds that Edmund is his commanding officer.  When Edmund tries to shelter him from a shell but ends up taking the full force of it himself and being killed, George blames himself for Edmund’s death and Violet’s devastation, and has to cope with that as well as with the serious facial injuries that he’s suffered.

It’s not written in a particularly deep and meaningful way, and it’s not exactly an epic love and war novel, but it is very touching, and the characters are all convincing.  Violet leans on George for support but soon accepts that she isn’t doing either of them any favours and asks him to stay away, and there’s no happy ending for her: we’re left not knowing how her life will turn out.  But George finally realises that Kitty, who’s always seen him as more than a friend, is the one for him, and they get together.

There’s often a feeling that the years leading up to the Great War were some sort of Golden Age.  Think of the song Mr Banks sings – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”.  This book doesn’t really go for that angle.  Violet’s got it good insofar as she’s got wealth and position and no need to work, but her parents’ marriage is unhappy and she doesn’t have a good relationship with either of them.  George comes from a happy home, but his family have to work hard to make ends meet.  But the lakes and the fells are there, and bring comfort to them both, and to Kitty with whom George explores them.  And, after everything else has happened, the lakes and the fells still there, as they always have been.  I stayed away from the Lake District for nearly four months from March to July this year, because first we weren’t supposed to travel due to lockdown, then they asked people not to come back yet, and then it kept pouring down at weekends.  I never want to stay away again.

And there’s something … I don’t know that “inspiring” is the word, but there’s something about war novels at the moment, reminding us that bad times have come before but that they never last for ever.  This isn’t one of the great epic war novels, but it was a good read and I enjoyed it.

The Foundling by Stacey Halls

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The idea of a book about a child left at the London Foundling Hospital, which took in thousands of babies between 1741 and 1951 and was one of the most popular charities in Georgian England, was fascinating; and I did enjoy reading it.  However, much as I’d love to say that it was brilliant, especially as it’s by a local and relatively new author, there were holes which you could have driven a double decker bus through in practically every aspect of the plot.  The characters were well-drawn, and the descriptions of Georgian London worked well, but the detail of the plot was just ridiculously improbable.  It was a shame, because the general idea, the basic plot, really was good.

The Hospital was so popular that far more women wanted to leave babies there than there was capacity for, so a lottery system was operated.  If a baby was accepted, the person leaving him/her was given a number, and could leave a token to be attached to the baby’s records, and could them reclaim them if their circumstances changed.  Otherwise, boys would be trained for apprenticeships and girls for domestic service, and the hospital governors really do seem to have done their best for them.

In this book, in the mid-1740s, an young East End woman called Bess, a shrimp seller, had become pregnant after a one night stand with a merchant called Daniel, whom she’d only met once before.  She’d then heard that Daniel had died.  She left her baby daughter at the Hospital, and returned six years later to reclaim her, only to be told that the child had been reclaimed the day after she’d been left, by a woman giving Bess’s name.

Bess found out (through a series of highly improbable events) that the woman was Daniel’s widow, Alexandra, who lived in seclusion.  I initially assumed that this was because she was frightened of going out in case people realised that the child wasn’t hers, but it turned out that she was agoraphobic because her parents had been murdered by highwaymen in front of her, and that she’d married Daniel after meeting him for two minutes whilst he was at her aunt’s house and offering him her dowry.  Bess then (through another series of highly improbable events) got a job as the child’s nursemaid … then ran off with her.  And it kind of all worked out OK for everyone in the end.

Well … as I said, the characters were well-drawn, the descriptions were good, and the basic idea of the plot, the poor woman forced to leave her child and the wealthy woman who lived in seclusion (although the highwaymen thing was a bit melodramatic) was great.  Both Bess and Alexandra were convincingly written, as were a host of minor characters, and the descriptions of the different parts of London really were good.  The scene where Bess left the baby was fascinating, especially when you think how many real women actually went through that sad procedure.

But … the detail of the plot was just ridiculous, and it came across as being very amateurish.  How did Alexandra know about the baby?  Her sister had just happened to be in the pub where Daniel and Bess had met for the second time, and had seen them go off together. As if a well-to-do upper-middle-class Georgian woman would have been in a seedy pub.  And, of all the pubs in all the world, the same one as Daniel and Bess, on one of the only two occasions on which they’d met,  When Bess had arrived at the Foundling Hospital, this sister had just happened to be there too (for reasons that weren’t even explained – it was a popular charity at the time, but there was no mention given of her being a patron, or having any other reason to be there), had recognised her from one brief glance nine months earlier, had followed her home, without Bess or anyone else wondering why a posh carriage was rolling through a poor area of the East End, had asked an apparently unsuspicious neighbour her name, and had then told Alexandra.

Then, instead of coming up with some plausible story about a widowed cousin who’d died in childbirth, Alexandra had sent her servants out on errands, and then told them that, in the hour or so that they’d been out, and having shown absolutely no signs of pregnancy, she’d given birth.

The entire book was like this.  I could go on and on, but I don’t want to sound as if I’m pulling it to pieces, because, as I said, I did enjoy it, and it is by a new and local author; but nearly everything that happened was completely implausible.  A few tweaks, and it would have been fine.  Claiming that the baby was a relative’s orphaned child.  Saying that one of Daniel’s drinking buddies had seen him with Bess, and had then seen her again and realised that she was pregnant.

And point taken about trying to be multicultural, and some good points were made about Bess’s best friend, who was black, worrying that her children would be kidnapped because of the fashion for having little black boys as pages.  However, Jews in London in the 1750s would not have been speaking Yiddish, it’s highly unlikely that there’d have been any Serbs in London in the 1750s and, if there had been, they wouldn’t have had Ukrainian surnames, and Anglican church congregations are not generally predominantly Spanish and Irish.  That really was poor.

Great idea.  Poor execution.  It was just all so implausible – when it could so easily have been so good.  I feel bad for saying that, but it was hard to take it seriously when everything that happened was so unlikely.  And it could so easily have been so good.

The Battle of Britain: 3 Days That Saved The Nation – Channel 5

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Thank you to Channel 5 for this series marking the 80th anniversary of the Battle of Britain … and reminding us how, but for the bravery of the RAF fighters and those working with them, it could so easily have gone the other way, the results of which are unthinkable.  If we were allowed to shake hands at the moment, I’d be shaking hands with everyone I could find who lived through the war.  Four months of coronavirus-related restrictions have not been easy to cope with.  They had to cope with far worse, and for six years.  Don’t want to wear a little mask over your nose and mouth for half an hour whilst you’re in Tesco?  Try lugging a great big gas mask with you everywhere you go, for fear that the Luftwaffe are about to drop poison gas on you and yours, as well as raining down bombs night after night.

Dan Snow and Kate Humble, in all the gear, flying around in wartime-era bombers did feel a bit Biggles-ish, but the stories of the ordinary people involved in the Battle of Britain were fascinating.  It was very much done from a human interest angle, with relatives of those concerned being interviewed: it was very moving when one man was reduced to tears on hearing the details of the death of the uncle he’d never known.  Most of the people we heard about were not career RAF men: they were just ordinary people, who’d been doing ordinary civilian jobs until the war happened.

And they weren’t all RAF men, either: it was fascinating to hear what was in the (somewhat illicit) diary kept by a 19-year-old girl in the WAAF, and to appreciate the crucial role that she, barely out of school, played.

Channel 5’s history programmes really have improved of late.  This – a series of three programmes – really was very good.  And anyone who thinks that we should stop remembering the Second World War might want to take a few minutes to think just what the consequences of the Battle of Britain being lost would have been.  Never forget.

Mrs America – BBC 2

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  I’m really enjoying this series about the rival campaigns over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment: it’s very well-written and very well-acted.  Cate Blanchett is deservedly getting a lot of plaudits for her performance in the lead role of Phyllis Schlafly, and anyone who grew up in Britain in the 1980s will be pleased to see Tracey Ullman as another of the stars, playing Betty Friedan.  Having said which, I cannot warm to any of the characters, and it’s quite demoralising to think that the way many people approach controversial issues is no better now than it was fifty years ago, and, if anything, it’s got worse.

As far as both sides were concerned, they were completely right and anyone who disagreed with them was wrong and stupid.  It didn’t seem to occur to any of them that other people might have had valid concerns, and that their opinions counted as well.  Wildly exaggerated claims were made about each side’s aims and motives, and unpleasant personal insults were flung at each side’s leaders.  They all claimed to want what was best for American women, but it ended up as a women versus women war – although I think the programme did underplay the role of men, who, as they formed the vast majority in each state’s legislature, were going to have a pretty big say in things.  I just kept feeling like the whole lot of them needed their heads banging together, not to mention needing to learn some manners.

Another thing which struck me was that, of the five main characters on the pre-ERA side, all of them portrayals of real people, one was black, two were Jewish, one had a Jewish father, and only one was from a “WASP” background.  On the anti-ERA side, everyone was from a “WASP” background, everyone except Phyllis Schlafly was a housewife (or “homemaker”, which seems to be the term used now), and the DAR was mentioned.  I don’t think for a minute that this accurately reflected what was going on.  Women’s groups from many different sections of society expressed concern about the ERA, with female trade union leaders being very concerned that it would override protection given specifically to female workers in labour law, and there was certainly some support for the ERA from people with DAR-type backgrounds.  But it’s certainly interesting what a high proportion of American women’s rights movements do come from groups which were historically marginalised.

Phyllis Schlafly was a fascinating character.  Incidentally, I’m never sure whether or not dramas should be made about someone who’s either still living or only died recently, and I gather that her family have been quite upset about this.  She certainly wasn’t someone who spent her time baking apple pie and home-educating her kids on Elsie books and creationism .  She was a very well-educated and professionally successful woman, and very politically involved.  And, originally, she wasn’t very interested in the ERA: she was more concerned about Cold War issues than social issues.

It wasn’t really clear why she did get so involved with the movement to stop ratification of the ERA, but it was something she seemed very convinced about.  I’d expected to find the arguments against it frustrating, but there were some very valid points made.  In 1971, many women had given up their jobs on marriage, and, concerned that the ERA would mean doing away with dependent wives’ benefits and alimony, were frightened of what might happen to them if they got divorced or were widowed young.  There were also, as I’ve already said, concerns about the removal of specific protections for women in the workplace, and about the prospect of young women being sent to fight in Vietnam.  There were also the concerns, which still exist today, that people might try to remove female-only spaces such as ladies’ toilets and girls-only youth groups.

But then there were the “family values” arguments, and, yes, they were frustrating.  There is nothing wrong with baking apple pie.  There is an awful lot wrong with saying that someone’s only become a feminist because they haven’t managed to bag a husband, and with saying that the only valid role for a woman is that of a wife and mother.  The one character for whom I actually did feel some sympathy was Phyllis Schlafly’s single sister-in-law, who was made to feel that everyone in her community looked down on her for not being married.

And so the mud-slinging got going in earnest.

The other side were no better, dismissing an extremely intelligent woman as “a nut job”, and shrugging off the concerns of housewives by saying that, whenever there was change, someone would get left behind.  Easy to say if that isn’t you.  But they made it clear that they weren’t going to abolish alimony or ban ladies-only toilets, but the anti-ERA group weren’t listening.  And we saw all sorts of examples of how unpleasantly women could be treated at the time – pretty much every male character was a sleazeball to some degree or another – and how they’d faced discrimination in the workplace, and how that had influenced their views.

And we heard a lot about Gloria Steinem’s pro-abortion stance and how her personal experiences had influenced that.  Given how controversial a subject this still is the US – and I’ve just made myself feel like Methuselah, because I was going to say that, only recently, Dirty Dancing nearly didn’t get made for that reason, and then it struck me that it’s been twice as long between Dirty Dancing and today as it was between Dirty Dancing and Congress passing the ERA, erkI think it was brave of the series to go into this.

They did a good job of showing that this was non-partisan: there were both Republicans and Democrats in both camps.  And I also think it was brave of the series to show the anti-ERA people were not monsters, and that they did have genuine concerns.  We’re now getting people being “cancelled” on social media, threatened with violence and sacked from their jobs just for expressing their genuine concerns.  This is not a good road to be going down.

Going around claiming that anyone who thinks women should be entitled to equality under the law is “un-American” is not acceptable, but saying that housewives are going to be “left behind” by change and that that’s just hard luck isn’t acceptable either.  There’s a lot to think about in this series, and it really has been very well done.