Roots – BBC 4


Word PressConsidering that the original mini-series of Roots is one of the best-known and most-watched TV series of all times, I was expecting this new version to be making headlines; but it seems to be slipping under the radar. I know it’s on BBC 4, but surely the days of people only watching things that are on BBC 1 or ITV (1) are over. I’d be interested to know how much attention it received in the US when it was shown there, which I believe was last May/June.

I’ve read the book, but I’m not old enough to have watched the original series. Hooray – there’s actually something I’m too young for!!   There’s been a lot of controversy about the story since then. For one thing, it’s been admitted that some sections were copied from an earlier book about slavery. For another thing, it’s supposed to be the true story of Alex Haley’s ancestors, but it’s now known that there are a lot of inaccuracies, whether intentional, unintentional or a bit of both, in terms of genealogical records not matching what’s in the book. It’s unfortunate, because, even if the story isn’t an accurate telling of the history of one family, and even if some of it isn’t even Alex Haley’s own work, it’s still an accurate depiction of the sort of things that did happen to many people, and it really drew attention to a subject which at that time hadn’t really been explored on screen.

Obviously times have changed since then, and the new series cannot possibly have the same effect as the original because it isn’t a ground-breaker in the way that that was. There are mixed views about films and TV series which address slavery, as there are with those which address, for example, the Holocaust, or even countries which have spent many years under foreign domination. Some people feel that they’re important from an educational viewpoint and that these are subjects of which awareness needs to be maintained. Others feel that they have a negative effect and encourage views of certain sections of the population as victims: Snoop Dogg has criticised both Roots and Twelve Years A Slave for that reason. Anyway, everyone has their own opinions on the subject, and I’m inclined to go with the view that they’re educational. History is important. You can’t ignore the bad stuff.

So. On to the new series … and it’s strange, because it’s doesn’t feel like an American series at all. Well, the early scenes wouldn’t, because they were set in The Gambia, but they didn’t feel like they were set in The Gambia because most of the cast were speaking in South African accents. When we actually got to the Virginia, the plantation owners were speaking in cut-glass upper-crust English accents – surely not very likely, in the 1770s – and the overseer was speaking in an Irish accent!   The overseer on the next plantation was speaking in a Scottish accent. There are actually a whole load of British actors in the cast – including Malachi Kirby, who played Nancy Carter’s dodgy ex-fiancé in EastEnders, doing an absolutely superb job in the lead role of Kunta Kinte. That’s another reason I’d expect the series to be getting more attention here than it is doing. Oh well.

Some if it is literally very dark – I appreciate that some scenes are meant to depict night-time, or the insides of ill-lit buildings, but there are times when it’s difficult to see what was going on. That’s my only real criticism of it, though. A lot of it is figuratively speaking very dark, but it has to be. But, when people say that it’s just presenting certain sections of the population of victims, they miss one of the main points of Roots – that Kunta Kinte never forgets who he is, and never allows his mind and spirit to be shackled, despite all the horrific things that are done to him. There’s more than one message to be taken from this story.

It’s a difficult subject, and, in the current political climate, some people will seek to use any difficult subject for their own political ends – and well done to the History Channel for not doing that, for just telling the story. I can’t compare it to the original because I haven’t seen the original, and it’s difficult to compare it to the book because it’s difficult to compress a very long and complex book into six hours of television, but this series deserves a lot more attention than it’s getting. It hasn’t even been advertised on BBC 1 or BBC 2. Strange.   And rather sad, because I think a lot more people might have watched it had they known it was on. And it deserves that.

Sicily: Wonder of the Mediterranean – BBC 2


Word PressSicily has a rich and fascinating history, but it’s unfortunate that Michael Scott, especially in the second of these two episodes, seemed more interested in using it to fit his views on present-day political issues than in telling it for its own sake. Oh well. Despite that, it was a very interesting series on an island whose history probably isn’t very well-known in the UK. We started off – the indigenous inhabitants didn’t get much of a mention, but, to be fair, not that much is known about them – with Sicily being colonised by both the Greeks and the Carthaginians. I always feel as if the Carthaginian contribution to Western civilisation is overlooked. For a kick-off, we wouldn’t even have the Greek and Latin alphabets had they not developed from the Phoenician alphabet. And then there are all the trade routes. But, whilst the achievements of the Greeks and the Romans are lauded, the poor old Carthaginians only seem to be remembered for crossing the Alps with elephants!

Anyway, then along came the Romans – and a reminder that Sicily was the first Roman conquest outside the Italian peninsula. Having finished off the Carthaginians, and killed Archimedes – the Greek bloke who shouted “Eureka” in the bath – the Romans turned Sicily into a source of grain, creating large estates with absent landowners. They didn’t make much attempt to Romanise the island, which remained largely Greek culturally, and it became something of a backwater.

When the Roman Empire collapsed, it fell to the “barbarians” … but not for long, because the Byzantines took it, and used it as a base for trying to retake mainland Italy. When the Lombards took control of Milan etc, Sicily remained in Byzantine hands, and for a while Syracuse even replaced Constantinople as the Byzantine capital. But then the Byzantines fell out amongst themselves, and a rebel naval commander called in the Arabs, who took the island over.

The Arabs – well, it was a mixed group of people, but the term “Arabs” is generally used (rather than “Moors” when talking about the Iberian peninsula) – made a very important contribution to Sicilian and general European culture and economics, notably introducing sugar, citrus fruits, improved irrigation systems and, according to some reports, maybe even pasta! No-one’s denying that … but Michael Scott didn’t half go on about it! I appreciate that he was trying to promote a better understanding of the Arab world and the historic links between it and the West, but this programme was actually supposed to be about the history of Sicily, not twenty-first century attitudes!

He then ignored the Vikings and moved straight on to the Normans. OK, the Vikings and the Normans were linked, but the Vikings did deserve a separate mention and they didn’t get one. However, the Norman period, especially the reign of Roger II, under whom Sicily became a kingdom in 1130, was particularly interesting, with Sicily becoming a very wealthy and powerful state, and comparable to the Caliphate of Cordoba in terms of multiculturalism. It was also in Norman times that Sicily moved away from the Eastern influence and became Latinised and predominantly Catholic. However, again, Michael Scott seemed more interested in trying to make a point about present-day issues than in the history of Sicily.

Due to succession issues, Sicily then came under the control of the German Hohenstaufens. Who was related to whom, and how, is very complicated and confusing, and it’s understandable that the programme didn’t try to go into all, but Scott could at least have tried to say a bit more about Swabian Sicily. Maybe the repression of the Islamic population of Sicily by the Hohenstaufens didn’t fit with his political agenda. He completely missed the Angevin involvement and the whole Sicilian Vespers thing as well, and jumped straight on to “six centuries of Spanish rule”.

Er, no – not quite that simple. Things all get very confusing in the Mediterranean in the 13th and early 14th centuries, with Counts of Barcelona and Kings of Mallorca and different branches of the House of Aragon and all the rest of it, but Sicily was ruled by a separate branch of the House of Aragon – and it was Aragon, not “Spain”! – until 1409, and only then came under the direct rule of the main branch. It was strangely unaffected by the Italian Wars, but it then got handed over to Savoy when everything got divvied up after the War of the Spanish Succession. Then, in one of those bizarre territorial swaps that went on in Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries, it got swapped for Sardinia and so came under the rule of the Austrian Habsburgs … and then, whilst the Austrians were off sticking their noses into Poland, was grabbed by one of the Spanish Bourbons. But the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), as it became, was definitely not ruled directly by Spain.

Black mark for oversimplification, Scott!   There are limits. Instead of explaining all this, he went on at length about the Spanish Inquisition. And chocolate. Not that the Spanish Inquisition isn’t important. And chocolate is definitely important. But a better explanation of the actual historical events would have been nice. He did at least manage to cover the 1693 earthquake and the rebuilding after it. The Napoleonic Wars pretty much skipped over, and it was straight on to Garibaldi. Biscuits were mentioned. So was British support for Garibaldi. The Expedition of the Thousand left from Sicily, so the island did play a very important role in Italian independence and unification, and became part of the new Kingdom of Italy in 1860. Scott made it sound as if everyone in Sicily was ecstatic about this, ignoring the revolts and unrest which went on throughout the 1860s. Then he spent a lot of time talking about the mafia – but, OK, no-one’s going to make a programme about Sicily without talking about the mafia.

Then he finished the programme by going on and on about the refugee situation, and , whilst obviously this is a very important issue and one which is not being dealt with adequately, the programme was meant to be about the history of Sicily and he seemed to keep twisting that towards current political issues. The programme was supposed to be about the history of Sicily. I sound as if I’m being really critical, and I don’t mean to be – both programmes were very interesting, and there’s only so much you can cover in two hours. But I would prefer to be able to watch a historical documentary without modern politics being insinuated into it like that. It got a bit too much. But it was still a good series. Nice to have something different!


George III: the genius of the mad king – BBC 2


Word PressGeorge III is usually referred to as “the king who went mad”, or, sometimes, as “the king who lost America” (as if it was his fault!), so it made a refreshing change to see a programme about his “genius”. Even if it did have to refer to “the mad king” in the programme title.

The programme was strangely devoid of gossip. Not a single mention of the Hannah Lightfoot story. All right, it’s almost certainly a load of rubbish! Nor, although the sad tale of the doomed romance between his youngest daughter Princess Amelia and one of his equerries was discussed, was there any mention of the rumour about (her sister) Princess Sophia having an illegitimate child. But obviously this was very good, as we are Serious Historians and do not deal in gossip … no, no, we don’t. Ahem.

Poor “Mad King George”. It seems the fashion now to say that his mental health problems were caused by bipolar disorder, but I still think that the porphyria theory’s very convincing. There was an episode of Casualty (or was it Holby City?) once, in which a patient had porphyria, and it took the Holby staff the entire episode to work out what the problem was, whereas I’d diagnosed it as soon as the patient’s symptoms were mentioned, thanks to all the books about George III!   Anyway, I don’t suppose we’ll ever know for sure, and the people interviewed in the programme said that too.

The reason for the programme was that a load of George III’s papers have just been made available to the general public. And they cover some very momentous times, as the presenter (Robert Hardman) reminded us. George III was the first monarch of the United Kingdom, the last monarch of America, the first monarch of Australia, and the monarch at the time of the Battle of Waterloo. Hardman also said that George III was king at the time of the Industrial Revolution, which had me wanting to howl that the flying shuttle was invented during the early part of the reign of George II; but, OK, most of the changes took place during the reign of George III! It was also pointed out that George III was the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who was really British and thought of himself as such. No mention of the Jacobites, incidentally. He was also the first of the Hanoverian monarchs who didn’t face a threat from them. Why was that never mentioned?

They cover a lot generally. George wrote everything down. Yay!! Future historians are going to have a nightmare trying to study the 2010s. What are they going to do – try to go back through umpteen years’ worth of Twitter feeds and Facebook newsfeeds?  But George had lists, notes and essays about everything. Despotism – this being a very bad thing, existing in many European countries but not, of course, in Britain. MPs’ voting habits. All sorts of family stuff. And a lot of notes about how bloody annoying it is that politicians are always busy trying to score party political points instead of trying to work

together for the good of the country. Some things have changed very little in 250 years. In 1783 he even considered abdicating, during the political crisis following the loss of the colonies. And he had his own private spies. I bet the Queen’d love to have her own private spies, rather than having to rely on politicians for info. Maybe she has. It’d be quite nice if she did: she’s got more sense than any of them!

Anyway. Moving on. Nothing got covered in very much detail, because the programme was only an hour long and part of that time was wasted showing people getting excited over the documents being released, but George’s interest in the arts, astronomy, nature, geography, climate, music … a whole load of things, really, was obvious. We don’t really talk about people being “cultured” any more. Maybe because it’s because the word’s now seen as having snobbish overtones and suggesting someone who sits in a box at the opera and thinks that anyone who likes pop music is common, but it was only really meant to mean someone who had an interest in and knowledge of a wide range of things. I’m not sure that “genius” was exactly the right word, but he was certainly well into all sorts of things.

However, the programme then ended with the subject of George’s daughters … who, like Muscovite tsarevny in a terem, weren’t allowed to marry and weren’t allowed to do anything else very much. Well, they weren’t officially banned from marrying, but they’d have needed George to arrange marriages for them and he didn’t, except in the case of the Princess Royal. There wasn’t much else for princesses to do at the time, so their lives weren’t much fun. But that really should’ve been covered by a different programme.

So, although nothing was covered in very much detail, there was a lot to think about in this programme. But did they have to include “the mad king” in the title? Surely the whole point of it was that he was so much more than that?

The Sound of Musicals – BBC 4


Word PressThis was so much better than Tina and Bobby, which was on at the same time and got all the press attention! My one problem was that there were only three episodes, so a lot of my favourite musicals didn’t get a mention because there wasn’t time. Any chance of a follow-up series filling in some of the gaps :-)?

It started off with musical comedies, mainly in London. I associate these with the Edwardians, but they were still going strong into the 1920s. I would have expected a mention of Cole Porter, actually, but he didn’t feature in this series: I suppose only so much could be fitted in in three hours. Then on to the “integrated shows” that we know and love today, starting with Show Boat. This was on at the Lowry last year, and I must have been practically the first person to buy a ticket for it: it’s hardly ever on anywhere, and you can’t even get a decent DVD of it (the ones for sale on Amazon either don’t work on British DVD players or else have got reviews saying that the quality’s appalling). Yes, all right, it’s rather dated now, but it’s 90 years old! And it was really cutting edge at the time, tackling the issue of racism in the Southern states of the US. All right, I know I’m supposed to be thinking about it in terms of breaking the mould of musicals by integrating the songs and the story, but I’m a historian, not a musician. I am often told that I’ve got the worst singing voice in the world. Thankfully, though, the people in the series all had very good singing voices 🙂  .

Next up was Oklahoma!, with even greater focus on the characters rather than just the music and the dancing. I think that Oklahoma! was also meant to jolly people along during the Second World War – all those beautiful mornings and surreys with fringes on tops and girls who can’t say no!   I don’t really get the dream ballet sequence: it annoys me. So does that weird song about Judd Fry imagining that he’s dead. But it’s a good story. And, hey, it’s a historical story!   So too, of course, is Annie Get Your Gun, which was also discussed in quite a lot of detail. And Carousel – you know, the musical that includes that song, the one we don’t sing in Manchester 😉 – covers some quite disturbing social issues, and gets the audience very involved with the characters; and this was explored in very interesting detail.

All very American. It was interesting to hear more about the songwriters. Obviously I had a vague idea about who they were and why they came from, but I’d never really stopped to think about them as a group before, nor about just how American the musicals of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were. But then the first episode ended with a very, very British musical – My Fair Lady. It would have been nice to hear more about the music and less about how poor Julie Andrews struggled to get to grips with the role, but never mind.

I was rather put out that The Sound of Music didn’t feature, especially as the series was called The Sound of Musicals. Is it the best-known musical ever, or do I just feel like it is because I’ve seen the film ten billion times and been to Salzburg three times J? And surely it classes as ground-breaking in that earlier musicals didn’t really involve children? Oh well. No room for The King and I, another favourite, either. Nor South Pacific, although that one gets on my nerves a bit. Emile annoys me. But, hey, you can’t get everything into three hours.

Instead, the second episode opened with West Side Story. That one really is New York, New York. However, it’s not hard to imagine how, in the 1950s, a musical about gang violence wouldn’t have appealed to traditionalists, and it was a brave move to write something like that. Changing times, and a huge dose of reality. It’s one of two musicals – Phantom of the Opera being the other – which I was lucky enough to see on Broadway, incidentally.  I really want to go back to New York … preferably during the US Open …

Nor had I ever realised just how much research went into trying to make the music authentic. It was years before I realised that Edelweiss wasn’t really an Austrian folk song, LOL (er, and I actually have a pressed edelweiss which I bought in Austria, because I will always think of the edelweiss as being one of the symbols of the country!), and that the March of the Siamese Children wasn’t actually what traditional Thai music sounded like! But the music on Fiddler on the Roof is far more authentic, and the interviews with people who’d been involved in the research were fascinating.

Concluding the second series were A Chorus Line, the musical about musicals, and various minor shows. I was sorry that Grease wasn’t mentioned … but rather less sorry that the irritating Annie wasn’t mentioned either.

The third episode covered the “blockbuster” musicals of the 1980s onwards. Yes, I know that not everyone likes these, but I love them. They are amazing!   How can anyone not like Les Miserables, or Phantom of the Opera? The music is incredible. Cats isn’t as good, but I love Starlight Express; and the music in Miss Saigon and Aspects of Love is incredible too. The subject matter’s brave as well: the Vietnam War’s still a sensitive subject, and Jesus Christ Superstar … well, enough said. And I just had to caterwaul Don’t Cry For Me Argentina when I stood outside the Casa Rosada last year: Evita is amazing. The musicals where it’s all music and hardly any words are just spoken are fantastic.

I’d have been quite happy had musicals stayed like that … but, as Neil Brand pointed out, it can feel now as if everything’s getting rather Disneyfied. Don’t get me wrong, the stage show of The Lion King is absolutely superb, but it’s not in the same league as Les Miserables or Phantom of the Opera. The programme did include some interesting interviews on how producers went about translating shows from cartoon films to the stage, though. Oh, and there was The Rocky Horror Show. Two bars of The Time Warp and I feel like I’m 12 years old and at someone’s birthday disco! That song always got played as birthday discos. Well, it did in the late 1980s, anyway!

Right near the end of the final episode, there was a tantalising glimpse of Hamilton. I really want to see this! I don’t actually know what the music’s like, but I want to see it for historical reasons. I assume that a lot of it’s about the Hamilton-Burr duel, but presumably it also covers a lot of about Hamilton and Jefferson and their differing views of America’s future. That was the personification of the commerce versus agrarianism, free soil versus slaveholding and North versus South division that faced the US in its early days and really dominated American politics up until the Union broke up in 1861. It’s probably well worth remembering, in the light of current events, that the American authorities have always had to deal with some very divisive issues; and that a big part of the idea of giving so much power to the executive was in the hope that, whilst it will always be very difficult for any government to deal with are issues on which opinion is fairly evenly divided and there are very strong feelings on both sides, the president would try to encourage consensus and compromise. Neither of those words seem to be featuring very prominently in American politics at the moment.

Anyway, enough politics! Google informs me that Hamilton is due to open in London at the end of November, although unfortunately there don’t seem to be any plans at the moment to take it round the rest of the country. I suppose they’re waiting to see how things go. Actually, it also says that it’s a “hip-hop musical” and I can’t bloody stand hip-hop, but maybe it’s still worth seeing for the historical element!

It’s also being advertised as “an American musical” … which takes us neatly back to Show Boat and Oklahoma! et al. Three very interesting hours. Neil Brand took us from the 1910s right up to the 2010s so sadly I don’t suppose there are plans for any more episodes of this … but it would be great if there were 🙂 . It’s been an excellent series.  Really enjoyed it.

Taboo – BBC 1


Word PressI am really trying to like this programme, because it’s entertaining in a weird sort of way, and I’m missing Poldark and Victoria; but the historical inaccuracies are just too much to take!!  The whole premise of the series is that, in 1814, James Delaney has somehow inherited control of Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the British government, the American government and the East India Company are all desperate to get their hands on it.  Even supposedly turning to torture to try to get what they want – er, excuse me, it’s meant to be the 1810s, not the 1530s!

The idea is that Nootka Sound is the subject of a dispute between Britain and America as part of the War of 1812.  However, that’s nonsense!  The Nootka Sound dispute was between Britain and Spain!  The United States wasn’t involved in it.  In fact, if any third country had interests in that neck of the woods at the time, it was Russia, which held Alaska and had its eye on getting stuck into the fur trade.  And it was all sorted twenty years before Taboo”s set.  Spain was reluctant to get into a fight with Britain unless France would get involved too, which France wouldn’t.  Then, once the French Revolutionary Wars broke out, Britain and Spain needed to work together and couldn’t afford to be getting into a conflict in the Pacific at the same time, so it was agreed that neither country would establish a settlement in the Nootka Sound area but that the ships of both would be able to use it.  It was all settled by 1794.

The US just wasn’t involved in it all, and it certainly had nothing to do with the War of 1812.  The programme did mention Spanish North America, but Spain had pretty much backed off from anywhere that far north by then.  And the Oregon Question, the issue of the western border between the US and Canada, which did sour Anglo-American relations and dragged on until the 1840s, didn’t kick off until well after the War of 1812.  All sorts of things did go on during the War of 1812 – the Americans invading Ontario and planning to attack Montreal as well, Britain attacking Washington and, famously, burning down the White House. the tragic defeat of the Tecumseh Confederacy and with it probably the end of any hopes of a Native American state in what’s now United States land, Francis Scott Key writing The Star-Spangled Banner, the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after peace’d been agreed, but the message didn’t get there on time!  I’ve been round that battlefield twice.) and everyone annoying everyone else’s ships, but nothing that involved the Pacific North West.  You cannot just go around picking an international incident, changing one of the parties involved, and plonking it into the wrong time period!  Gah!!

Then there’s the question of the East India Company.  According to this series, it’s some sort of terrifying organisation which is dead set on world domination.  There are a lot of those theories about.  Most of them involve either religious organisations, like the Jesuits, or secretive societies, like the Rosicrucians.  They’re all twaddle.  And there isn’t even one of those theories about the East India Company: it’s been made up for the purposes of the series!  Yes, it dominated a vast amount of world trade, but it certainly wasn’t the big bad force that it’s being presented as here.  And it was certainly never after Nootka Sound!

The East India Company was not involved in the “Pacific North West” area.  That was the North West Company’s territory.  The clues are in the names!  The theory in the series is that the East India Company wanted Nootka Sound because of the Pacific trade routes to China.  But the Pacific trade with China mainly involved furs, and the East India Company was not involved with the Pacific fur trade.  That was the domain of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The North West Company and the East India Company didn’t get on, because the EIC wouldn’t let any other British company trade through Canton (Guangzhou), but the EIC didn’t get involved on the NWC’s turf.

The EIC, at this time, was busily trying to get as much Bengal opium into China as possible.  To pay for tea.  Well, OK, silks and other stuff as well, but no-one really needs silks, and everyone needs tea!  Funny to think that tea wasn’t really being grown in India until a bit later on – because “Indian tea” is what I think of as proper tea, whereas “Chinese tea” is more that stuff that smells as if someone’s put pot pourri in it.  I think Chinese tea’s supposed to be posher.  There’s a scene in an Enid Blyton book in which a very snooty character – shortly before being pushed into a swimming pool by a Naughty French Girl – complains vociferously about being given Indian tea instead of Chinese tea, and any mention of the differences between the two always makes me think of that :-).  Anyway, to get back to the point, opium had to be smuggled across the Indo-Chinese border because the Chinese authorities had banned its import.  So taking it by sea from Canada would have been impossible.  And taking opium from India to China via Canada would have made absolutely no economic sense anyway.


The programme does have a weird sort of Gothic appeal, and there’s nothing else on on a Saturday night after Casualty anyway, but the way they’ve completely distorted history to suit themselves is doing my head in!   A lot of that goes on in books, films and TV series, but most of them draw the line at moving an international incident to a period over twenty years later and changing one of the countries involved!  Not to mention the bizarre portrayal of the East India Company.  What next?!  Moving Bosworth Field into the Hundred Years’ War?  Moving the Battle of New Orleans into the Mexican War?  Gah and double gah!  Very Silly Indeed.  So there!!


Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler


Word PressThis was a rather strange combination of topics: all of them were interesting individually, but I’m not sure how well they worked as a combination. The book kicked off in Porto, during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, with, as its main character, John Zarco Stewart, the young son of a Scottish father – there having long been a British presence in Porto, especially since the 1703 Methuen Treaty – and a Portuguese mother.

John made friends with two people a bit older than himself – Daniel, who ended up drowning, and Violeta, who was abused by her uncle and then disappeared. Not very cheerful, and poor John struggled to cope with it all. In the middle of all this, there was a lot of talk about Marranos – the “crypto-Jews” of Spain and Portugal, who were officially Catholic but practised Judaism in secret. Daniel’s family were Marranos, and there were hints that John’s mother was a Marrana as well … but it wasn’t particularly convincing because she didn’t do any Marrana stuff.   If you’re going to write about Marranos, you need someone to be lighting candles on a Friday night. It’s the Marrano thing. You can put chicken sausages in as well, if you like, but it’s very weird to do Marranos without the Friday night candles. I don’t know why the author, who is apparently an expert on the subject of Marranos, didn’t include them, but it was rather annoying.

Then John’s father went off to South Africa to look for vineyards, and came back accompanied by a Bushman called Midnight. Yes, yes, I know that we’re now supposed to use the term “San” rather than the term “Bushman”; but the book used “Bushman” throughout. There was quite a lot about San culture and beliefs, which was very interesting – sadly, the Khoi-San people tend to be the forgotten people of South African history – but the idea that a Scotsman would go off from Porto to the South African winelands and that a Bushman would move from South Africa to Porto, especially in wartime, just seemed rather far-fetched. Midnight was a healer, and had come to Europe to search for a cure for smallpox … which rather made you wonder why he hadn’t gone to somewhere with a well-known medical school, but never mind! He began working with Senhor Benjamin, a local apothecary, and was able to treat John for depression.

Next up, a hate preacher who wanted the Inquisition brought back started whipping up hatred against the Marranos, and it all came out that John’s mother was a Marrana. She suggested that John go to Senhor Benjamin – who was also a Marrano – for Torah lessons, as the only thing she knew about Jewish doctrine or practice was lighting candles on a Friday night. Hooray!! Finally, the candle thing!   But why had we never seen her lighting the candles? Oh well, never mind.

John’s dad and Midnight then went off to Britain, to meet Edward Jenner. See, I knew Midnight should have gone somewhere where there was a medical expert!   However, John’s dad came back alone, and said that Midnight had been killed in an accident.

There was an awful lot of travelling going on, considering that it was wartime!   Then the French invaded and sacked Porto. This was probably the worst moment in Porto’s history. Many of its inhabitants were murdered, raped, or died when a bridge collapsed. But it was all rather skipped over in the book. John’s father died, and two close friends, one of whom died as a result of her injuries, were raped, but somehow the horror of it all didn’t really come across … the focus was more on why John’s dad had stayed in Porto rather than fleeing as his wife and son did.

Fast forward. John’s mum moved to London, to live with her sister-in-law. Britain got an extremely good press in this book, as a nation which both took a lead in the abolition of the slave trade and which was very tolerant towards religious minorities. The “metropolitan elite”, who seem determined on insisting that everything in British history is bad, might want to read this. Although they probably wouldn’t want to read it. John got married and had two kids, but then his wife died. And then Senhor Benjamin told him that Midnight hadn’t died in an accident in Gloucestershire at all, but that John’s dad had found out that he (Midnight) and John’s mum had been having an affair, and had sold him into slavery in Virginia!

OK,that apparently explained why John’s dad had seemed so unconcerned about his own safety: he couldn’t live with the guilt. And so Midnight was, presumably, still alive. And then, re-enter Violeta, now living in New York. It transpired that poor Violeta had been people-trafficked into prostitution in London, in a story which seemed to belong more to the early 21st century than the early 19th century. This was very sad and shocking, but it was all skipped over in a few pages, when surely Violeta’s story deserved its own book. Then, it what was presumably an attempt to try to keep some sort of thread running through the book, we were told that Violeta had become a nanny to the children of a Portuguese Jewish woman living in Newcastle. What?? Were there any Portuguese Jewish women living in Newcastle in the 1820s?! Er, and then she’d ended up in New York.

John then betook himself to America. Despite the fact that Midnight was now known by a different name, and had been sold on from Virginia to South Carolina, and there must have been millions of slaves in the southern states of America at the time, he somehow managed to find the plantation where Midnight was supposed to be. At this point, we went back to the Portuguese Jewish theme, when we were told that lots of Portuguese Marranos had moved to Charleston.

Now that isn’t quite accurate. However, it was an interesting subject to bring into the book, because an often overlooked aspect of the history of the Deep South, and especially of Charleston – the ultimate Southern Rights city, the place where South Carolina declared that it was seceding from the Union, the place where the first shots of the War Between The States were fired, etc etc – is that the prejudice against Jews which, along with prejudice against Catholics, was rife in the upper echelons of Northern society, didn’t apply in the South. Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was from a Charleston Jewish family. There were many prominent Jewish people in various aspects of Charleston life even before the Revolution. Charleston, in the 1820s, had the highest Jewish population of any city in the United States. And, yes, at that point they were almost all Sephardi … but from/descended from families who’d moved there from London, or London via Amsterdam, rather than actually from Portugal. But, OK, there was that link there.

The narrative then switched from being first person John to being first person Morri – Morri being Midnight’s daughter. Midnight was missing, presumed dead. It later turned out that he’d gone off with a group of Indians (the book said Indians, not Native Americans!). The family and overseer of the plantation on which Morri was living seemed to spend all their time abusing their slaves, and the master and his heir were both murdered in mysterious circumstances but no-one ever found out who’d murdered them. Things were getting rather bonkers by this stage. Morri and some of the others were planning to escape. Then John turned up at the plantation, pretending he wanted to sketch birds, and found out that the owner knew about the plan. Then most of them did manage to escape, assisted by a) John and b) a ship’s captain from Liverpool.

So John and Morri went back to join Violeta in New York, and John’s mum and daughters joined them there too. Then Midnight turned up there too, safe and well, and everyone presumably lived happily ever after.

Too many different themes, and some very tenuous links and distinctly far-fetched storylines. But I suppose you could say that there was a general theme running through it about oppression and trying to overcome it. Really, I think it would have worked better as two separate books, one about Marranos and one about slavery. Or maybe three, because there are very few novels about the Khoi-San people. There was too much going on, and it didn’t really link together that well.  But the individual themes and characters were fascinating.  And I suppose putting them all into one book was pretty ambitious.  Just maybe a bit too ambitious.




The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park


Word PressThis really doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. However, it’s rather didactic and at times reads more like a textbook than a novel, so don’t read it if you’re in the mood for something light and easy. It must have taken an incredibly amount of research, and that’s all the more impressive when you bear in mind that the author was 89 years old when this was published.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was set in Renaissance Italy, so readers might well have been expecting a similar setting for the sequel. However, when this book opens, the action in this has shifted to an equally rich and glamorous but completely different setting – the court of the Sultan at Constantinople. Poor old Grazia drowned whilst trying to escape the Sack of Rome, but her husband was working as the Sultan’s chief physician and her son survived the shipwreck and was eventually reunited with his (step)father. The Sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who studied the Tudor era for A-level! – did indeed employ a European Jewish chief physician, although the real guy was Spanish rather than, like Judah del Medigo in the book, Italian.

The blurb on the back cover tells us that the book is about Danilo (Grazia’s son)’s illicit romance with a (fictional) daughter of the Sultan. That gives the impression that it’s going to be some sort of Mills and Boon type story involving every Western harem fantasy going. It isn’t! For a kick-off, as the author points out, life in the harem, certainly for a young unmarried princess, was more like being at a strict old-fashioned boarding school than the popular image of a harem as a luxurious brothel. Apart from Saida, the other women who feature prominently are Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana, the Ukrainian slave girl who, in a story you really couldn’t make up, became the Sultana, and Hafsa Sultan, Suleiman’s powerful mother. The author presents Hurrem as being rather annoying, but she was a very canny woman who gained a lot of influence. So, if you were expecting the sort of thing you got in that awful ’80s mini-series about the Victorian American woman who was kidnapped by Art Malik and ended up on Omar Sharif’s harem, think again!

The exotic element is there, but in a different way. There are a lot of references to Scheherezade. It’s an interesting reminder of how the Middle East used to be seen, before things there got into the horrendous mess that they’re sadly in now.  Think about, for example, damask silk, damask roses and damask oil. Then think about what the word “Damascus” brings to mind now. Think about the Arabian Nights and the Caliph’s adventures in Old Baghdad … then think about what the word “Baghdad” brings to mind now. Even bookings for Istanbul itself are apparently nose-diving, because people are, understandably, anxious about going there after the recent terrorist attacks. And think about the relative tolerance shown to religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and then think about what goes on now.

Moving on. The star of the show is Danilo, not Saida. We follow him through his education in the Ottoman system: for people not familiar with the running of Ottoman Empire, the system of taking boys from Christian families and forming them into an elite military corps is carefully explained. The book does suggest that families sometimes saw it as an honour to have a boy taken via the “devshirme” system, which is definitely not the impression I got when I went to Greece in 2015, but anyway! Danilo becomes part of the elite gerit team … which Wikipedia describes as “a traditional Turkish equestrian team sport played outdoors on horseback in which the objective is to score points by throwing a blunt wooden javelin at opposing team’s horsemen”.  The players are the sporting superstars of their day, and, of course, Danilo excels himself in a big match!  He also makes a good impression on the Sultan by being able to translate Western works about Alexander the Great, Suleiman’s big hero.  And so he’s invited to join Suleiman on his campaign to (re)conquer Baghdad.

When those of us in Britain, and on the Continent, think about Ottoman campaigns and wars, we think about those in Europe. Oh come on, we do! The Battle of Kosovo. The Fall of Constantinople – 1453, one of those dates that “every schoolboy knows”. The Battle of Mohacs. The Battle of Lepanto – how they do go on about that in Venice and Madrid, even now! Going back to my holiday in Greece, I was so over-excited about being in Lepanto (Naupaktos, to use its Greek name rather than its Italian name), that I spent ages taking photos of the beach and the monuments and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue. It is not like me to be the last one in the ice cream queue, but these are iconic names for historians. The 1683 Siege of Vienna, of course. They go on about that one a lot in Warsaw. And there are a lot of stories involving coffee, croissants and bagels. Lord Byron, all very “mad and bad and dangerous to know”, going off to fight the Turks for Greek independence. The Crimean War, although people sometimes seem to forget that that was actually about the Ottoman Empire and not about Britain and France having a totally unnecessary scrap with Russia. And Gladstone striding round Midlothian saying that it was time to drive the Turks “bag and baggage” out of Europe.

So. Baghdad.  No coffee, croissants or bagels.  Actually, I think coffee was mentioned, and Saida and Hurrem spent a lot of time talking about sherbet.  I presume that was the sort you drink, not sherbet dips or sherbet lemons!  Anyway, no croissants or bagels, but there was an awful lot of detail about other things.  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that there was no toilet paper and that hands were used instead, but most of the other stuff was … well, it was fascinating largely because it would just never in a million years have occurred to me to think about it!  For example, the water buffalo were leased.  Like you might rent a car these days, you could hire water buffalo if you wished to invade 16th century Iraq.  However, if you didn’t get the water buffalo back in time for the breeding season, you had to pay a penalty because the owner would be missing out on that year’s calves.   Loads and loads of stuff like that!  It is admittedly rather didactic in part, but it’s very, very interesting if you can concentrate on it.

This part of the story’s told largely by a series of letters sent by Danilo to his (step)father Judah, who’s back in Constantinople. Intertwined with it all is Danilo’s reading of accounts about Alexander the Great to the Sultan, and the Grand Vizier’s jealousy of him.  Danilo isn’t part of the army, so there aren’t any battle scenes, but then there wasn’t really that much fighting anyway.  It does come across that Suleiman was trying to emulate Alexander, and there’s possibly a bit too much emphasis on that and not enough on the realities of the 1530s, the clash between the Ottoman and Persian Empires.  It’s a clash between Sunni and Shia Islam, which sees the mainly Sunni Ottoman Empire end up in control of Mecca, Medina and, following this campaign, the historic caliphate capital of Baghdad as well.

Bearing in mind the role played by sectarianism in the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, that’s something we could probably all do with understanding rather more about. However, to be fair, this is a novel, so it’s not its job to educate people about the historical background to today’s political issues.  But it’s something that the reader is bound to think about.  We also see how the Kurds are caught up in the clash between the Ottomans and the Persians, something else that we could probably all do with understanding rather more about.

The book ends up, setting the scene for the third and final instalment in the trilogy, in Venice. Another gloriously rich and glamorous setting, and one which feels very safe and familiar after the journey from Constantinople to Baghdad and back.  But I really enjoyed that journey.  It’s not an easy read, and anyone who did read the back cover and was expecting a harem romance was probably thoroughly bemused to be met with water buffalo instead, but what fascinating material!  These books have been very popular in Canada, the author’s home country, but don’t seem to have met with much attention elsewhere.  That’s a shame.  They deserve to.