A Lakeland Saga by Jeremy Collingwood

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The title of this book’s a bit of a misnomer – it’s the story of the Collingwood/Altounyan family, best known for the fact that the children of Dora, nee Collingwood, and Ernest Altounyan, were the inspiration for the Walker children in the Swallows and Amazons books.  Other members of the family were historians, philosophers, artists and archaeologists.  It isn’t really a “Lakeland Saga” – they were only at Coniston for part of the time.  But it’s still quite interesting.

It’s essentially a family history, and there are pages and pages about how X married Y, their children were A,B and C, this one had a sweet voice, that one had a moustache, etc,  which probably isn’t that interesting unless you’ve got a personal connection with the people concerned.  However, some of the stuff in it is genuinely fascinating – as well as Arthur Ransome, John Ruskin, Lawrence of Arabia and King Faisal of Iraq all feature, and the most interesting section shows the Altounyans, with their Armenian heritage, running a hospital in Aleppo and helping Armenian refugees fleeing the genocide.  Ernest Altounyan’s own uncle was a victim of the genocide.  It also gives a wonderful picture of historical, multicultural Aleppo, which has sadly suffered so much killing and destruction in the past decade.

There’s quite a bit about the Lakes too, especially Coniston, but “a Lakeland saga” it isn’t.  It’s quite interesting, though – I wouldn’t spend a fortune on it, but, if you can get a cheap copy or borrow a copy from a library, it’s worth a look through.

 

Beyond the Ghetto Gates by Michelle Cameron

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This, set in Ancona during Napoleon’s Italian campaign of 1797-99 is a fascinating book – something really different, about an important but often neglected part of European history.  Ancona was the first of several Italian cities in which Napoleon’s troops took down the ghetto gates, and ceremoniously burnt them; and we see that very powerful scene in the book, with almost all of the major characters present.

There’s an ongoing debate about Napoleon’s views on religious minorities.  Certainly he held prejudices against minority groups, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he gave civil rights to Jewish communities, and also to Protestant communities in Catholic-dominated areas where they’d been denied equality.  It’s quite strange to read a book which shows Napoleon as a hero, because that’s, obviously, really not how he’s usually seen in Britain; but he did bring about many changes for the better – and the effects of his actions are still felt today.

Napoleon does feature prominently in the book, but he’s only one of a rich cast of characters, mostly fictional, some real.  The protagonist, Mirelle, longs for more from life than marriage and motherhood behind the ghetto gates, but is being courted by the wealthy and influential widowed father of her best friend Dolce – a member of the real life Morpurgo family who played an important part in the events of the period.  Mirelle’s family run one of the world’s leading ketubah (Jewish marriage certificate) printing businesses, but, after her father and brother are murdered by a Catholic vigilante mob, the business passes to an unpleasant relative.  This is all based on the reality of the times: Ancona was the centre of the ketubah printing industry, and there were attacks on the ghetto by vigilantes.

Meanwhile, amongst the French army are their distant relative David, who takes a shine to Mirelle whilst Dolce takes a shine to him, and his Catholic best friend Christophe, with whom Mirelle embarks on a romance.  And we’ve also got the murderer, Emilio, devout wife Francesca, and their two young children.

Emilio is fictional, but Francesca and their daughter really existed – their significance being that they claimed to have seen the eyes in a painting of the Virgin Mary move. The painting plays a big part in the book.  Napoleon is strangely obsessed with it.  And then it gets stolen – which does get a bit silly, and isn’t based on fact; and the talk about the Stolen Madonna kept making me think about the Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies.  The whole plot actually gets a bit chaotic at the end, with everything happening at once and some slightly unconvincing tying up of loose ends, but no book’s perfect and it does keep you guessing about exactly how things are going to work out.

There’s a lot going on throughout the book.  We see life in the ghetto, and we see how different groups of people grow up with prejudices against each other.  And we see – OK, the idea of the spirited young woman who wants a life outside the home pretty cliched, but it works – Mirelle wanting to run the printing business, but facing prejudice, led by the local rabbi, against the idea of a woman in a workplace.  We see how the changes in France have liberated Daniel, but we also see how both he and Mirelle struggle to find their way between their old lives and the new world.

A brief summary from Wikipedia:

 In 1763, some 1290 Jews lived in Ancona. During the reign of Napoleon between 1797 and 1799, the Jews were fully emancipated. The gates of the ghetto were removed and the members of the Morpurgo family became members of the city council. In 1814, after Napoleon’s defeat and the return of the city to papal dominion, some restrictions were put once again upon the Jewish community by Pope Leo XIII. In 1843, an old decree was revived by Fra Vincenzo Soliva, Inquisitor of Ancona, forbidding Jews to reside or own a business outside the ghetto and imposing other restrictions, but public opinion had already turned in Europe by then and the edict was cancelled shortly after until the revolution of 1848 emancipated the Jews once again.

I think it’s fairly widely-known that the word “ghetto” comes from Venice, but it’s still quite strange for a reader from the Anglophone world to be reminded that this was going on in Italy as recently as the end of the 18th century – that the Jewish communities of cities such as Ancona were literally locked into the ghetto at night, and forced to wear yellow insignia when leaving it during the day.  The combination of the Enlightenment and the Code Napoleon brought about change – and that led on to the debates about secularisation and assimilation, especially in Vienna and Budapest.  France continued to be seen as the European leader in terms of rights for religious minorities right up until the Dreyfus Affair, and it was the fact that Theodore Herzl was in Paris at the height of the Dreyfus Affair which really kick-started the Zionist movement, something which has been rather misrepresented in the media in recent months.  That all goes back to the Code Napoleon, and the idea that France should have been somewhere where that wouldn’t happen.

Anyway, that’s getting somewhat off the point, but, despite the mayhem at the end, this is a very good book, and worth a read if the 99p Kindle offer’s still available.

 

The Chalet School Returns to the Alps by Lisa Townsend

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  This, the latest Chalet School “fill-in”, is a lovely book.  It covers three topics within the series which I’ve always felt merited more attention – Nancy Wilmot’s apparent personality transplant between her schooldays and her teaching days; the story of Sue Meadows, who’s in a rather Victorian position as “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob; and, albeit briefly, Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard.  The characters are true to how they appear in the “canon” books, the style is very much like Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s, yet it avoids those traits of Elinor’s which grate on people slightly – Joey Maynard is helpful rather than overbearing, nobody preaches, and there are very few references to Nancy’s weight!   My only gripe is with the rather odd cover picture.

However, this is yet another “fill-in” which, rather than filling in, runs parallel to an existing book – in this case, The Chalet School and Barbara.  Several of the scenes are those already seen, just told from a different viewpoint.  I’m not criticising the fill-in authors in any way, but wouldn’t their talents be put to better use in writing more original stories?  There’s all sorts of scope for spin-off books about a number of characters, or for sequels to the La Rochelle books.  Or, if GGBP want to stick to school stories, how about a book set at the Carnbach branch of the school?

That’s not to take anything away from this book, which is highly recommended if you are a fan of the Chalet School fill-ins.

The original series is rather prone to inconsistencies, affectionately known as “EBD-isms”, and one of the many is that Nancy Wilmot, who as a schoolgirl was described as lazy and had a particular dislike of maths, returns as a maths mistress, and is so efficient and hard-working that, by the end of the series, she looks set to become the next headmistress.  The obvious explanation is that, like so many people of her generation, she was changed by her experiences during the war, and that’s what Lisa Townsend shows here.  We also see Nancy’s close friendship with Hilary Graves, nee Burn, which, although it is mentioned in The Chalet School and Barbara, seems to be forgotten thereafter – rather like Peggy Burnett and Rosalie Dene being cousins, and Phoebe Peters being Reg Entwistle’s childhood mentor!

One of the biggest strengths of the Chalet School series is that we see the viewpoint of the staff as well as the girls, and we see Nancy having some issues fitting in, and being concerned that she’s not seen as a “proper” Old Girl because she’d been at St Scholastika’s.  The issues arising from the merger of the two schools were an issue in The New Chalet School, but the series jumped two or three years so they were never mentioned again.

There’s a vast amount of fanfic about Nancy, but most of that centres on her relationship with Kathie Ferrars.  As this book’s set long before Kathie arrived at the school, that obviously doesn’t come into it, but it’s good to see more attention being paid to someone who becomes such an important character.

The other main character in the book is Sue Meadows.  I’ve always found Sue’s story interesting – she’s in Switzerland as a “companion” to her sick cousin Leila Elstob, and her fees are being paid by Leila’s mother, who seems concerned only about Leila and not about Sue.   It’s something different, but it’s never really explored.  Also interesting is Leila’s friendship with Con Maynard, who sadly gets very few storylines.  Even with that one, we get Con being summoned to the San, and a lot of talk about how it might affect her, but  it then all seems to be forgotten, and we never hear of the two girls seeing each other again!  The friendship isn’t really gone into here, but we do see the triplets getting to know Sue and then getting to know Leila.  Sue’s story is gone into in far more detail – we learn that her parents are in America due to her dad’s job; and we see what a complex situation it is, with both Mrs Elstob and Sue genuinely frightened by Leila’s medical condition but Sue’s needs being neglected as a result.

It all fits together very well, along with a sub-plot about Mary Woodley, the girl who bullies Barbara Chester.  It really is a very good book and I thoroughly enjoyed it.  I just think that, now that most of the “missing” terms have been “filled”, it might be better for GGBP and the authors to go in the direction of writing about something new, rather than writing about events which EBD’s already written about.  But that’s in no way a criticism of either this author or this book – it really is a lovely book.

 

The Damask Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the second in Carol McGrath’s “She-Wolves” series, with the main character being Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of Edward I.  As in her previous book, we also see events through the eyes of another character, and this time that’s a herbalist, Olwen … who sounds as if she should be Welsh but is actually English.

I can’t say that I’ve ever had a negative opinion of Eleanor of Castile, probably because I’ve always found the story about her sucking poison out of Edward’s wound (yes, all right, I know that it probably isn’t true) very romantic, and I’ve always found the story of the Eleanor Crosses very romantic as well.  However, she’s seen by many as greedy/acquisitive and as a neglectful mother, and her reputation also seems to have suffered from the “Black Legend” view of Spain which developed 300 years after her time.

Carol McGrath’s tried very hard to present her positively and provide explanations for some of her less attractive traits, in what’s a very readable and enjoyable book.  She’s also shown worked in the late 13th century obsession with Arthurian legends, which is interesting (I visited Glastonbury Abbey last year, and heard all about Edward and Eleanor attending the reburial of Arthur and Guinevere’s supposed remains!).  And readers in North West England will be interested to “see” the construction of Vale Royal Abbey, which, had Edward not spent the money intended for it on invading Wales, might have been one of the biggest abbeys in the country.

The only problem is that the book’s too short to cover such an eventful life, and it does sometimes feel a bit superficial, as we skim over major events in a few pages and don’t really get into how the characters are feeling about them.  But there are far worse criticisms of a book than wishing it’d been twice the length.

This is Eleanor’s book, not Edward’s.  Having said which, we don’t see anything of Eleanor’s life before the Second Barons’ War, by which time she was in her 20s.  But the point is that we don’t see the war with William Wallace, the expulsion of the Jews, the calling of the Model Parliament or the proclaiming of the future Edward II as Prince of Wales, all of which happened after Eleanor’s death.  Nor do we get the story about the “prince born in Wales, who did not speak a word of English”, which (obviously) would have happened in Eleanor’s lifetime; but, OK, it probably never happened at all!

We start with the Second Barons’ War, and Carol McGrath’s suggestion is that Eleanor’s later concern for acquiring estates dates from her being imprisoned by Simon de Montfort’s forces and wanting to ensure that she never faced poverty as well … which makes it sound as if she was kneeling in the dirt at Twelve Oaks, crying “As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again”!  I’m not entirely convinced by that, but it’s a possibility.

Then on to the Ninth Crusade – where we get what’s probably the accurate version of the poison story, i.e. that it was a surgeon who saved Edward’s life and that Eleanor just stood around getting upset.  I like the poison-sucking version better, but never mind!

It’s certainly interesting to see Eleanor and Olwen’s time in the Middle East, and we also see them in Gascony.  And quite a lot of the book covers the wars in Wales.  We also get to see Eleanor and Edward’s close personal relationship, and court life.  And, of course, we see all the tragedies they suffered with their family.  Eleanor’s often criticised for leaving her children behind whilst she was travelling with Edward, and for leaving one of her daughters with her mother in Ponthieu, but Carol McGrath suggests that maybe she was frightened of becoming attached to her children because of all the losses she suffered.

Out of a probable sixteen pregnancies, only six children survived to adulthood.  The future Edward II was born when Eleanor, married at only 12, was 42.  They had a son called Alphonso who died when he was 10, and another son called Henry who died when he was 6, amid a tragically long list of stillbirths, miscarriages and early deaths.  Very sad.  Olwen, meanwhile, is unable to conceive at all with her first husband, but remarries, to an old sweetheart, after being widowed during the Welsh wars, and has a daughter with her second husband.

Damask roses don’t really feature, which is rather a shame because I love damask rose oil!  It smells so nice.  Oh well.

All in all, this is a very good and very well-researched book.  I just wish it’d been longer.

 

 

 

The Pull of the Stars by Emma Donoghue

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This book’s received a lot of attention, because it’s about the Spanish flu pandemic and, although the author began writing it in 2018, to mark the centenary of the pandemic, it ended up being published in early 2020, just as the Covid pandemic hit.  A book about a pandemic will be the last thing that some people want to read: others will find it intriguing.  It also seemed like a good book to review during Pride month, as it includes a same sex romance – rainbow pic instead of my usual pic to show support for Pride.  I’m afraid that I automatically assumed that this was going to be between the doctor and the nurse, but it was actually between the nurse and the orderly.  When I say “romance”, it’s only very brief, because they only know each other for a few days.  There are no happy endings in this book, but, if you can take all the misery, it’s well worth a read.

I don’t care for the style of writing – it annoys me very greatly when people write speech without using speech marks – but the intensity of it’s fascinating: the entire book only covers three days, and almost all of it’s set within one very small room.  The main character is Julia Power, a nurse in charge of a maternity/Spanish flu ward at a Dublin hospital, and the other two prominent characters are Bridie Sweeney, an orderly, and Kathleen Lynn, a doctor who was a real person and was well-known as a republican activist and suffragist as well as for her medical work.

There are a lot of talking points about the book – the Spanish flu and any parallels that readers may draw between that and the Covid pandemic are the obvious ones, but also everything that the book shows about what went on in institutions run by the Catholic Church in Ireland at the time.  It was nothing I hadn’t heard before, but it didn’t pull any punches, it portrayed nuns extremely negatively, and I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland.

During the course of the book, we’re told that the Catholic Church mistreats orphans in its care, allowing priests, nuns and lay staff to abuse them, putting them to work at an early age and taking their wages, and even sending young girls to stay with “holiday fathers” (a euphemism for paedophiles).   Disabled and illegitimate children in its institutions are neglected, and unmarried mothers are virtually imprisoned and forced to work to pay for their “care” whilst they were expecting.  And it takes adolescent daughters away from widowed fathers on the grounds that it’s immodest for girls to live with a man with no adult female present.   It’s also blamed for Ireland having a far higher rate of death in childbirth than the rest of the UK, by making the use of contraception taboo and encouraging women to have at least twelve children, and for women suffering a difficult labour being forced to undergo horrific processes such as the sawing in half of their pubic bone, as the priority is to avoid damage to the womb and never mind any other bits.

All of this is based on evidence given by people who were in the institutions concerned, so it’s not been made up, but I’d be interested to know how the book’s been received in the Republic of Ireland, because it really is very heavy on all this.

Also, those who participated in the Easter Rising are repeatedly described as terrorists who were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of people, and those who supported it but weren’t arrested as being cruel for tormenting injured Great War veterans.  I’m not saying that this isn’t a valid viewpoint, just that I wouldn’t have expected to “hear” it from Irish characters created by an Irish author.  Kathleen Lynn is presented positively, but her role in the Easter Rising – she was the chief medical officer for the “Irish Citizens’ Army” –  is rather vaguely explained away as being because she thought it might bring about improved conditions for women: she mentions her plans to set up a hospital for women and children, with her friend (and probably her partner), the gloriously named Madeleine ffrench-Mullen – something that did actually happen.  When she’s arrested, the emphasis is on the fact that men are arresting a female doctor: the fact that this is about the Easter Rising is rather skimmed over.  That’s not what I was expecting.

To get back to the Spanish flu, If you’re looking for happy endings, or just any sort of happiness, this is not the book for you!  Of the five expectant mothers admitted to Julia’s ward, three die of the Spanish flu, one survives but her baby is stillborn, and the only one who goes home with her baby has got a violent husband waiting for her.   Julia’s brother has been invalided out of the Army due to shell shock (which doesn’t actually sound right to me – shell shock wasn’t a reason for being discharged during the Great War) and refuses to speak.  Dr Lynn is arrested and imprisoned.  The only person in the book who’s ever cheerful is a hospital porter, and we eventually learn that his singing and joking are just his way of trying to cope with his grief at losing his wife and children in a typhus epidemic.

The only bit of good cheer is that Julia takes the baby of one of the women who died.  This is after the doctor says that he probably won’t survive more than a few months as he’ll be handed over to Evil Nuns, who’ll neglect him as he’s illegitimate and has a hare lip.  An Evil Nun kidnaps him whilst Julia’s briefly out of the room, but Julia manages to rescue him.  The Evil Nun tells her that people will probably assume he’s the result of an incestuous relationship between her and her brother.

Oh, and be prepared for extremely graphic descriptions of difficult childbirth.   The medical information is fascinating, though, as are the general observations about the Spanish flu, including the public notices.  There’s a lot of talk about wearing masks and avoiding close contact, and the book repeatedly makes the point that saying that people should stay at home, and rest in bed if feeling unwell, isn’t very practical when people have got to work.  Some of the blame game stuff going on is very reminiscent of the patronising comments about the “hard work” of people in areas where Covid infection rates are low – mainly rural areas with low population density, and or areas where most people are able to work from home.

Don’t read this if you’re feeling down, because it’ll make you feel a million times worse!  But, if you can cope with all the misery, it’s a very interesting read.

Anne Boleyn – Channel 5

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I’m not sure that we really needed yet another TV series about Anne Boleyn.  Her story’s been done to death (pun intended), and, consequently, most of the reaction to this has been either moaning that it’s old hat or else trying desperately to find a new angle on the story by talking about “othering”.  Obviously that’s not the fault of either the actors or the scriptwriters, but it’s hard to make a big impression when you’re covering a story than everyone’s heard a zillion times before.  There are so many neglected areas of history which Channel 5 could have chosen to cover instead.

On the plus side, this is a proper historical drama.  It’s no Versailles or The Tudors: it does actually stick to the real people and the real series of events.  Well, main events, anyway.  It’s also positive that it’s looking at things from Anne’s point of view, and that it’s showing her as a deeply intelligent woman who championed the Reformation, rather than just as a scheming tart who stole another woman’s fella.

However, the dialogue’s really rather naff.  It tries to be clever, but doesn’t always manage it.   Some of it’s overloaded with metaphors (there are a lot of metaphors, symbols and omens) – ” Ooh, Jane, if you don’t know the rules, you shouldn’t play the game” – and some of it sounds like someone trying to be Jane Austen but not succeeding.  Jodie Turner-Smith’s really doing her best with it – her delivery of some of Anne’s bitchier lines reminded me of Joan Collins in Dynasty – but it’s just not that well-written.  The Boleyns all get some good lines – George and Jane Boleyn both come across very well, George as his sister’s chief supporter and Jane as a thoroughly nasty piece of work, and Cromwell does too, but Henry’s character didn’t come across at all.  And what on earth was that scene with Anne kissing Jane Seymour supposed to be about?  Jane, incidentally, is presented as a simpering little ninny.  Oh dear.  I thought we’d got past that idea.

The costumes are great.  It’s nice to see Bolton Castle being used for most of the indoor shots: I’ve been there a couple of times.  And the series is all right: I’ve seen far worse.  But this subject’s been covered so many times before that any new series would need to be absolutely outstanding to make a really big impression, and it isn’t.

There’s been a lot of talk about the casting of a black actress to play a white historical figure.  There’s actually been a lot of talk about casting lately, and it’s getting a bit silly.  A non-Latina actress was pressurised into giving up the role of Maria in West Side Story; Russell T Davies said that straight actors shouldn’t play gay roles; the casting of British actress Cynthia Eriwo, rather than an American actress, as Harriet Tubman was criticised; people have questioned the casting of a Catholic actress as the Jewish heroine of Ridley Road; and, to cap it all, people moaned that Will Smith shouldn’t have been cast as Richard Williams because their skin isn’t exactly the same shade of black.  What next?  No-one should play a member of the Crawley family in Downton Abbey unless they’ve got a title?

Having said all that, I didn’t think it was appropriate to cast Helen Mirren, in her 70s, as Catherine the Great in her 30s, and that thing BBC 2 did with women playing male Shakespearean roles was daft.  So I suppose there are limits.  But let’s not get too hung up about “representative” casting, or we’re going to end up with roles being cast based on box-ticking rather on acting ability.  Just as long as there’s a level playing field.   If it’s OK for a black actress to play a white character or a gay actor to play a straight character, it’s OK for a white actress to play a black character or a straight actor to play a gay character, unless it’s a role where ethnicity or something else is a big part of the storyline.

What I’m not really getting is this waffle in some areas of the media about how choosing Jodie Turner-Smith because she’s a black actress, rather than just because she’s a good actress, is “identity casting” which is showing how Anne Boleyn was “othered”.  Er, what?   How long has “other” being a verb?  And no-one was “othered”.  Favourites and factions came and went at court, and, in Henry VIII’s time, that was complicated by the religious turmoil and the desire for a male heir.   When Anne lost favour, she didn’t have a party of supporters strong enough and loyal enough to stand up for her.  Nor did numerous other people who fell foul of Henry.  Joan of Navarre was accused of witchcraft, and Mary Beatrice of Modena was accused of bringing Jesuit priests to court to subvert James II.  No-one talks about them being, er, “othered”.

The problem is that so much has been said about Anne Boleyn that people end up scratching around trying to think of any new angle on her story.  It’s like some of the bizarre suggestions made in recent years about who killed the Princes in the Tower – everything there is to be said about the likely candidates has been said, so people come up with outlandish ideas just for the sake of saying something different.

Anyway, to get back to the actual programme, which has been rather overshadowed by the debate over the casting, it was, as I said, OK …  but this period in history’s been covered so many times, both in dramas and in documentaries, that it needed to be absolutely amazing to be memorable.  And it’s not bad, but amazing it isn’t.

Paris in Ruins by M K Tun

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Hopefully there will be triumph and definitely no ruin in Paris during the French Open, but it was a different story 150 years ago.  The Paris Commune, currently in the French news as the anniversary is marked – it collapsed on 28th May 1871 – has been rather romanticised over the years.  It’s even got an ’80s group named after it, which is rather confusing because my brain kept going “Baby, my heart is full of love and desire for you” whilst I was reading about shootings and arson, which was completely inappropriate 🙂 .  However, this novel, unusually, goes for the view taken by most of the international press at the time, i.e. that it was mainly about violence and anarchy, which is interesting.

We see the events of the Prussian siege of Paris and then the Paris Commune through the eyes of two young women from well-to-do families, who both become involved in war work.  The unfortunately-named Camille Noisette becomes a nurse at a hospital set up (and this hospital did really exist) at the Paris Odeon by the actress Sarah Bernhardt, and her brother’s fiancee Mariele de Crecy looks after young children at a creche set up by another of Camille’s brothers, a priest.  Other members of both families become caught up in events in various different ways, and not all of them survive.

The main message of the book is that atrocities were committed by all sides, that both the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune happened largely because of the egos of powerful men, and that it was innocent civilians who suffered as a result.  And poor Paris, which suffered terrible damage from bombing and arson. The Commune does still sharply divide opinion, but I was surprised that the book was quite so strongly against it.  It’s a bit wooden in parts, and some of the dialogue doesn’t flow very well, but it’s very well-researched and historically accurate, and a good read.

It starts with Camille being a bit of a rebel, and sneaking off to bars with her friend Andre (who she eventually marries).  I think most readers will assume that she’s secretly involved with the radicals, but, in fact, she’s working undercover and spying on them – especially on Louise Michel, one of the most famous figures of the Commune.  Like many other Communards, Michel was deported to New Caledonia.     But the spying story falls by the wayside, as Camille goes to work at the hospital.

I was a rather melodramatic little girl – you’d never have guessed that, would you 😁? – and, when I was really overdoing it, my grandad always used to say that I was being like Sarah Bernhardt.  At the time, I assumed she must have been a famous film star from the inter-war years, so I was rather bemused when I found out that she was a French stage actress whose heyday was long before Grandad was even born.  I know she did play in Northern England, more than once, so I’ve wondered if an older relative or friend – maybe my great-great-grandma, who seems to have been quite into theatricals – saw her on stage and raved about her, and that was why he had this bee in his bonnet about her, but I’ll never know now 😢,  But, because of that, I was quite interested to see her appear in this book, and to learn about the important humanitarian work she did at a very difficult time in Parisian history.

Meanwhile, Mariele and her mother attempt to escape and are captured by Prussian soldiers, in a slightly OTT bit of the book, but they make it safely back to Paris, and we see shy Mariele grow in confidence as she insists on helping out with the children.  There’s definitely a sense that both girls are rebelling against what’s expected of young ladies, but the narrative is vehemently opposed to the more radical approach taken by the Communards.  The emphasis is all on the taking of hostages, the attacks on the Church and the imprisonment of people for very little reason, and not much is said about more positive actions such as attempts to help the poor.

Certainly, the romanticisation of the Communards, like the romanticisation of the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War, is inappropriate, but I thought the book was a bit too biased against them and could have tried to give a more balanced view.   But point taken about unnecessary wars and unnecessary violence, and the same can be said about the Crimean War, the Austro-Prussian War and the Dano-Prussian War.

It’s not the best book I’ve ever read, but, as I said, it was well-researched and accurate, and really got me thinking.  Not bad at all.

 

Ridley Road by Jo Bloom

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  A TV adaptation of this will be shown later this year, and, although it doesn’t look as if it’s going to bear much resemblance to the book, I thought I’d read the book anyway.  In the early 1960s, our heroine Vivien moves from Manchester to London, where she finds that all the people she knows there, some old family friends and a young man on whom she’s very keen, are involved in the 62 Group, a militant Jewish group working to counter the threat of the neo-Nazi National Socialist Movement.  She also learns that her late father was involved in its predecessor, the 43 Group.

It’s not a particularly well-written book, but it’s well-meaning and it tells an important story.  There’ve been some deeply unpleasant incidents recently: we’ve had thugs from Bradford coming over to predominantly Jewish areas of Manchester to vandalise cars and shout abuse at people, a Labour councillor in Blackburn making comments which aren’t even fit to repeat, and even worse incidents in London and other parts of the South.  Some of the actors have spoken about the importance of the plotline, and I’m sure that Red Productions will have done it justice.

In the book, Vivien’s boyfriend Jack is a journalist who infiltrates the National Socialist Movement and helps to bring its leaders to justice, whilst Vivien works at a hairdressing salon.  Bearing in mind that this is set  in 1962 – and the book is based on real life events – that’s probably fairly realistic, but the TV series has got Vivien also being at the heart of the action and the danger, presumably because the idea of a strong female character was more appealing than one who was on the sidelines.   And there’s a lot of danger – there’s considerable violence in the book, as the two groups clash at rallies, and young Jewish men and young black men are badly beaten up.

There’s a Swinging Sixties vibe to it all as well – the salon at which Vivien works is in Soho, and there’s quite a bit of talk about hair and clothes and music.  And that does contrast sharply with everything that Jack’s finding out about what the neo-Nazis are up to.  There are an awful lot of minor characters, and a rather unconvincing plot about an aspiring musician who fancies Vivien and follows her around.

It’s not brilliant, as I’ve said, but it’s worth reading because it draws attention to the periodic rise of extremist elements in society, and their attacks on minority groups.   I’ll certainly be watching the TV series.  In the meantime, if you fancy giving the book a whirl, it’s currently on offer at £2.99 for the Kindle version.

 

The United Way – Sky Documentaries

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This felt more like a home movie than a documentary, but I mean that in the most positive of ways.  It was like catching up with old friends.  People whom I hadn’t seen for years.  Arthur Albiston.  Kevin Moran.  Norman Whiteside.  Paul Parker.  Ron Atkinson was like some embarrassing old great-uncle who always says the wrong thing and makes everyone cringe!  Some were people we still see regularly.  Bryan Robson, my childhood hero 🙂 .  David Beckham, still one of us even if he’s a world famous megastar living in America.  And, of course, Eric Cantona.  Wearing a flat cap and making cryptic comments, although at least he didn’t mention seagulls.

People were relating little anecdotes, like you do at family gatherings.  Players reminisced about Alex Ferguson making them have margarine instead of butter, and talked about feeling like part of a family, part of a tribe.  United director Mike Edelson, whose daughters were at school with my sister and me, told the bizarre tale of how, in 1986, he rang the Aberdeen FC switchboard, put on a fake Scottish accent and pretended to be Gordon Strachan’s agent, knowing that he’d never be put through to Alex Ferguson if he was known to be from United.

I was hoping that it’d tell the full story, starting in 1878, but it started with the Busby Babes and ended with That Night in Barcelona in 1999.  So it wasn’t really a history of Manchester United: as I’ve said, it was more like a home movie.  Was that really 22 years ago?  “Who put the ball in the Germans’ net?”   I’ve got a miniature troll which I bought on holiday on Norway in 2004, and he’s called Ole Gunnar, long before anyone ever dreamt that Solskjaer would one day be the manager.  Well, what else could I have called him?!   A girl in my year at school had a dog named after Kevin Moran.  Plenty of people have named babies, never mind trolls or dogs, after footballers.  This is what we do.  This is us.

The word “Glazer” was never mentioned.  Nor, for that matter, was the word “Knighton” or the word “Maxwell”.  No mention of boardroom politics.  No mention of sponsors.  No mention of TV companies.  Not even any mention of the changeover from the Football League to the Super League.  Instead, we had appearances from Shaun Ryder and Bez from Happy Mondays, and Peter Hook from New Order, all lifelong United fans.  And Andy Burnham, who, although we all know he supports Everton, was welcome because we know he loves football.  He mentioned that his dad, working in Manchester at the time, went to the first match after the Munich Air Disaster.  So did my dad, with his dad.

This is us.  This is coming out of school and learning from the Manchester Evening New billboards that Ron Atkinson had been sacked.  No mobile phones in those days.  The odd Walkman made its way into school, but I’m not sure that we had Walkmans with radios in 1986.  We certainly did by 1990/91, because I remember sneaking mine in so that I didn’t have to wait until I got home to hear the Cup Winners’ Cup draws for the next round!  This is arguing (amiably, ish!) on the school bus with kids who support City.  And this is hundreds of thousands of people packing into town to cheer the treble-winning team on their open top bus tour when they got back from That Night in Barcelona.

Let’s get back there.  It’d be very nice indeed to get back to the glory days of 1999, but, first, let’s get back to having packed stadia, and to having people crowding into the streets to cheer on teams after winning a trophy or winning promotion.  And let’s get back to everyone accepting that the clubs belong to us, to generations of loyal fans.

We got a bit of general social history.  Partly from Andy Burnham.  Partly, bizarrely, from Michael Heseltine and Neil Kinnock: I’ve got no idea how they got in on the programme!  And we got the general story.  From 1958 to 1999 only.  If you’re actually reading this, you’ll probably know it all.  The glory of the Busby Babes.  The tragedy of Munich.  Matt Busby’s incredible building of a new team.  The European Cup triumph in 1968.  The struggles after Sir Matt retired.  26 years without a league title.  Tommy Docherty running off with Laurie Brown’s wife.  The drinking culture in the Atkinson years.

And the struggles in the early Fergie years.  We didn’t appreciate quite what a mess he had to sort out.  By early 1990, there were all sorts of stupid jokes flying round.  “Alex Ferguson, OBE – out before Easter.”  “What’s red and costs £15 million?”  “An expensive tomato.”  £15 million was an awful lot of money in pre Premier League days.  And the Mark Robins goal that saved us all!   Then the nightmare of 1991/92, when we blew it.  Signing Eric.  And then the joy of 1993, and the many wonderful years that followed.  They didn’t end in 1999, but I suppose it seemed like a good place for the programme to end.

It’s 22 years to the day since That Night in Barcelona.  I’m hoping that that’s a good omen for tonight’s Europa League final in Gdansk.  In 1983, the year that my little self finally convinced my dad that I’d behave if he took me to Old Trafford, and I attended my first match (we beat Stoke 1-0), Lech Walesa, Gdansk’s most famous son, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, but he couldn’t accept it in person because he was afraid that the Polish communist government wouldn’t let him back into the country afterwards.  And in Valencia, home of Villarreal, tonight’s opponents, it was only a year since Spain had completed its transition to democracy after the death of Franco.  I feel really old now I’ve written that!

Anyway, we’ll all be watching, wherever we are.  Alex Ferguson.  Eric Cantona.  David Beckham.  Bryan Robson.  The musicians, the politicians, the journalists, and everyone else who featured in this programme.  Like Eric said, we’re a tribe.  And, whilst this won’t be winning any awards for great documentary making, it wasn’t half great viewing!

 

 

Edward VII: The Merry Monarch – Channel 5

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  The Entente Cordiale wasn’t mentioned until the 79th minute of the 90, and the to-do over the People’s Budget wasn’t mentioned at all.  But we heard an awful lot about waistcoat buttons, champagne baths, and, of course, ladies.  However, even if there was way too much gossip and not enough serious stuff, this was a really lovely, positive portrayal of someone whose father said he was useless, whom a lot of puritanical courtiers and journalists said would make a rotten king, and who actually did a superb job, left the British monarchy in a very strong position ahead of what would turn out to be a difficult time for monarchies, and was genuinely popular amongst people of all backgrounds.  Good old Teddy!

We were told that Downton Abbey typified people’s images of the time of Edward VII.  Given that we tend to use “Edwardian” to mean 1901-1914 rather than 1901-1910, I suppose the fact that the first series of Downton Abbey was set during the reign of George V can be overlooked!  Did it typify people’s images of the period?  Well, I suppose it did if you were only thinking about stately homes.  The Edwardian era’s actually seen as a very positive time for everyone – strangely so, given that a lot of people were struggling at the time.  There’s even a song about it in Mary Poppins!  The positive image is partly because, compared to the horrors of the Great War, what came before has to seen like a golden era.  And it’s partly because the Victorian era, even by the 1890s, is seen as a very puritanical era, and people get really fed up of puritanical eras.  Charles II, another slightly naughty king, is remembered fondly because he came after the nightmare of the Cromwellian era.  But a lot of it’s because of Edward/Bertie.  He really is seen as a very positive figure.

I would like to have heard more about his peacemaking/diplomatic skills, which were of crucial importance to … well, to the whole world, really, given what lay ahead.  And about how his social circle included people far removed from traditional aristocratic circles.  But, hey, the stuff about champagne baths, watching Can Can dancers, leaving his bottom waistcoat open because it strained over his tum tum, and, of course, his mistresses, was all quite entertaining.  It was also good to hear the praise for Queen Alexandra, who had a lot to put up with it and did a wonderful job as Princess of Wales and then as Queen – although I’m not sure we needed to hear quite so much about her clothes and jewellery.

But, in between the gossip, we heard all about Edward’s interest in technology – he was on the receiving end of the first wireless message sent across the Atlantic, a greeting from another much-loved Teddy, President Roosevelt – and, most of all, his understanding of the need for the Royal Family to be visible, and how he was the one who established a lot of the pageantry that we still enjoy today.  And how, when he died, there was genuine grief across the nation and beyond, from people of all backgrounds.   He got it right.  And, considering how many people thought he’d get it all wrong, that’s particularly impressive.  As I said, good old Teddy!