The Nancy Drew Mysteries by Carolyn Keene (Facebook group reading challenge)

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I was an ardent reader of the Nancy Drew books from about 1983 to 1987, and have just been revisiting them for a Facebook group reading challenge.  I found a cheap three-in-one on Amazon, but was confused by the first two, The Secret of the Old Clock and The Bungalow Mystery, as they didn’t feature Nancy’s two friends, George Fayne and Bess Marvin.  It transpired that those were two of the first four books, and that George and Bess hadn’t appeared until the fifth book.  The third one (actually the 43rd in the series), The Mystery of the 99 Steps, which did feature George and Bess, was one I read as a kid, and it was amazing how it all came back to me!

I hadn’t realised how complex the history of the series was.  As a kid in the ’80s, I’d just go into W H Smith or wherever and choose a book off the shelves.  Each mystery was self-contained, and everyone stayed the same age, so it didn’t really matter whether you read them in order or not.  I had no idea that the series dated right back to 1930, although it didn’t appear in the UK until the early 1970s, and I certainly had no idea that “Carolyn Keene” was a syndicate, not an actual person.

And I don’t remember being aware that “The Nancy Drew Files” appeared as a spin-off series in 1986.  I may have read a few of those books, as they apparently heavily featured chloroform and I remember that Nancy seemed to do a lot of “blacking out”, but they also, so Wikipedia informs me, did away with Burt Eddleton and Dave Evans, George and Bess’s boyfriends, and I definitely remember them featuring a lot, along with Nancy’s boyfriend, Ned Nickerson.   I loved the fact that Bess, the “plump” girl, not only got to be involved in the cool detective gang but also got to have a nice boyfriend – such a contrast to other “plump” girls in children’s books, such as Alma Pudden, who were basically just figures of fun.

The stories are completely bonkers, of course!  Why on earth would anyone leave their last will and testament in a safety deposit box taken out under an assumed name, and leave the details of the name and location in a miniature notebook hidden inside the back of an old clock?  Would it really be so easy to kidnap an heiress’s new guardian and impersonate him in order to steal all her money – surely someone would have accompanied a young girl to make sure that everything was OK?  Not to mention one of France’s leading financiers believing that an alchemist had found a way to turn everything into gold, and Nancy Drew and her dad somehow getting involved in it all because of a neighbour who remembered falling down some steps at a chateau as a child.

But it’s all good fun!   And the idea of a girl detective must have been pretty groundbreaking in 1930.  In the many Enid Blyton mystery/detective/adventure books I read, written much later, there were mixed gender gangs, but it wasn’t unusual for the boys to go off and do the dangerous stuff, leaving the girls behind.  And Nancy was so cool, driving around everywhere in her “convertible”.  OK, the Five Find-Outers et al were much too young to drive, but even in, say, some of the Lorna Hill books, where the main characters were in their late teens or early 20s, no-one had their own car.

A great deal of debate apparently now rages about Nancy   Not so much in the UK, where she isn’t such a cultural icon – although I was amused to hear Charity Dingle in Emmerdale mention her recently – but certainly in the US.  Does she represent feminism?  Or does she symbolise conservative Middle America, living in well-to-do River Heights?  There are even Nancy Drew conferences, and women from Hillary Clinton to the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg have cited her as an influence.  Wow!  I can’t say that I ever thought about the books that deeply – I wasn’t very old when I read them, to be fair –  but I did love all the adventures that Nancy had.  And, of course, you knew that she’d always solve the mysteries in the end.

There was even a TV series about her and The Hardy Boys, in America, in the mid-1970s – starring Pamela Sue Martin, in her pre-Fallon Carrington Colby days, and Parker Stevenson, in his pre-Billy Hazard days.  I didn’t know any of this: I’ve had a wonderful “Wiki walk” this morning!  I don’t think it ever made it over here, though.  I remember there being a film a few years back, but it didn’t sound very good and I didn’t bother seeing it.  But I did love those books, back in the day!  It’s been fun revisiting them.

The Floating Theatre by Martha Conway

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  Last week was Autism Awareness/Acceptance Week, and this is an interesting and unusual historical novel with an autistic protagonist, working on a floating theatre – think Show Boat, but on the Ohio rather than the Mississippi, and in the 1830s rather than the 1880s.  The part of the Ohio which they’re on is effectively an extension of the Mason-Dixon line, with slaveholding Kentucky to the south and the free states of Ohio and Indiana to the north, and our girl May inadvertently becomes involved in helping slaves to escape.  So it’s a fascinating combination of themes – May’s “social awkwardness”, life on a showboat, and the Underground Railroad.  It’s just a shame that it’s so short, just under 350 pages long: I think there was the potential to develop the story much more than the book actually did.

May isn’t an actress or a singer: she makes costumes.  She’s always worked alongside her cousin, but, when roles begin to dry up, the cousin accepts a job giving speeches for a wealthy Abolitionist.  There’s no place for May, but the woman gives her some money – but then, when she gets a job on a showboat, demands that she repay her by smuggling slaves to freedom on the opposite bank.

So, really, it’s all a bit cynical.  Neither cousin becomes involved out of conviction.  Both oppose slavery, but, like a lot of us with a lot of things, they haven’t actually been doing anything active about it, because they’re too busy working and getting on with their daily lives.  The boyfriend of one of the actresses is a doctor who moonlights as a slave-catcher, not because he’s got any strong feelings about slavery but because it’s a good way of making a fast buck.  Most of the other people in the theatre company just want to keep their heads down: expressing any strong views on a controversial subject risks stopping people from coming to see them.

And that’s the way most things go, isn’t it?   People don’t get involved.  But May does, because she can’t pay this woman back any other way.  And, obviously, it’s very dangerous.  This is before the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, but May is still breaking the law under the terms of the 1793 Act, and putting herself in physical danger as well.  The horrors of slavery are really brought home to her when she meets a young girl who’s recently given birth after being raped by her master’s son, and is desperate to get both herself and her baby to a free state.

It’s really getting interesting at this point … but then the book’s cut short.  The showboat goes up in flames after a curtain catches fire, and one of the men on it, Leo, himself the son of an escaped slave, is tragically killed.  May and the leader of the company, after several earlier hints of romance, get together, and plan to get a new boat and continue helping slaves to escape – this time, out of genuine conviction, rather than to pay off a debt.  So, apart from the death of poor Leo, it’s a positive ending, but I wish that the book had been longer.

May is “high functioning autistic”, for lack of a better expression, and I’ve an idea that she’s based on the author’s sister.  The book isn’t about autism: the protagonist just happens to be autistic, although obviously autism had not been recognised in the 1830s so the term “autism” is not used.  She worked brilliantly as a character.  The portrayal of life on the showboat worked well too.  May and her cousin getting involved in antislavery activities purely for financial reasons wasn’t really what I’d expected, but it wasn’t unconvincing.  This isn’t the best book I’ve ever read, but it’s worth a go because of the combination of three interesting themes.

 

The Evangelical Books by Elinor M Brent-Dyer

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I bought this three-in-one – Nesta Steps Out, Beechy of the Harbour School and Leader in Spite of Herself – for Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) completeness: I am *not* in the habit of reading any sort of evangelical books, and, having read Beechy before and found it pretty horrendous, I didn’t have high hopes of the other two books.  However, they really weren’t bad at all, and even Beechy wasn’t quite as bad as I remembered.

For the most part, they were, albeit very short, fairly standard EBD school stories – everyone looking trig and trim, accidents on expeditions, rushing around in the mornings, overly efficient matrons, et al.  It felt as if the preachy religious bits had just been shoehorned in to appeal to the Sunday School prize market, rather like Diana Barry shoehorning a reference to the Rollins Reliable Baking Powder Company into Anne Shirley’s “Averil’s Atonement” 🙂 .

Like Anne’s story, these would have been rather better with the shoehorned-in bits taken out, and I suspect that EBD may well have preferred them that way, but maybe they serve as a useful reminder that, unlike some of their heroines, most of our favourite Girls’ Own authors weren’t from wealthy families, and were writing books to pay their bills.  If that meant shoving in a few preachy comments, or, indeed, accepting that the books were going to be abridged when republished, then that was what they had to do.  Unlike fictional characters, most people do not get swept off their feet by rich doctors or conveniently inherit fortunes from hitherto unmentioned godparents or great-uncles/aunts!

The problem with Beechy of the Harbour School is that the shoehorning goes way overboard.  The basic plotline is a fairly standard story, about a girl, Beechy, whose mother has recently died, starting a new school and inadvertently making an enemy of another girl, Olive.  There’s a thunderstorm, Beechy is frightened, and Olive makes fun of her.  This is followed by what looks like it’s going to be a classic EBD scene – a showdown in which Olive bursts into tears in the Head’s study.  But then the Head gives Olive a lecture on how “your sin against Beechy is far less grievous than your sin against God … you have been dishonouring Christ throughout the term”.  On top of that, Beechy then informs the Head that “If only I had had the courage to tell you all … that I had become a Christian … I ought to have been praying … Next term, I mean to start as I intend to go on, and let everybody know that I belong to Jesus.  I don’t think I’ll ever be so afraid in a storm again”.

Er, yes.  The Head telling Olive to be a bit nicer, and Beechy being embarrassed for making such a fuss, would have done fine!  And been considerably more convincing.

In Nesta Steps Out, we’ve got a girl with a very bad temper.  Unlike Margot Maynard of Chalet School fame, she’s determined to try to control it … rather like Darrell Rivers in Malory Towers.  Also like Darrell, she’s got a bosom buddy called Sally – which is unusual for EBD, who usually prefers gangs to bosom buddies.  And there’s a nasty teacher, who falls into a river … but it turns out that she’s not that nasty, just in a bad mood because she’s being obliged to give up her job to go and keep house for a widowed brother.  Nesta does try to keep her temper, and it only gets a bit preachy, with various references to praying for help.  So this one isn’t bad.

Leader in Spite of Herself gets off to a very preachy start, with one girl bursting into tears for very little reason, like a heroine of a 19th century American religious novel, and a prefect lecturing two girls bitching about a classmate on how all their words were offered up to God so they should be more careful about what they said.  However, it does get better.  Standard plot, nasty new girl doesn’t fit in, classmates dislike her but two of them then decide to make an effort with her, encouraged by our “leader” Rosemary, one of the prefects, and all’s well that ends well.

Replace the preachy bits with simple references to trying to be nice to other people, and it would have been quite a good book.  And that’s how I felt about all of them.  But, whilst I may be wrong, I do get the feeling that, unlike the likes of Martha Finley and Susan Warner, EBD herself would probably have preferred the books to be like her other school stories, with people seeing the errors of their ways without all the overt preaching stuff.  However, these books were presumably commissioned, and, as I said, they’re an important reminder that our favourite authors were living in the real world and sometimes had to play to the market rather than just their own personal choices.

One Thousand Porches by Julie Dewey

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This is a well-meaning book centred on the Adirondack Cottage Sanatorium set up at Saranac Lake, New York, in the 1880s for the treatment of TB.  Unfortunately, much of the story makes very little sense.  There are “outbreaks” of TB, which see whole families suddenly wiped out, relatives put into quarantine, homes disinfected, the deceased’s possessions burnt, and people trying to avoid going out and about for fear of contagion.  That certainly fits with epidemics of many diseases in Victorian and Edwardian times, but not TB, which was endemic rather than epidemic.  People “test positive” for TB, as if it could be definitively diagnosed by one test.  Most bizarrely of all, a New York City doctor, circa 1905, advises a pregnant patient with a history of spinal TB to have an termination.  There’s no way that a doctor at that time would have given that advice, whatever his personal views.

The author’s clearly done a lot of research into life and treatment at the sanatorium (spelt “sanitarium” because it was more of a resort than a hospital, but that spelling annoys me for some reason, sorry!), but the rest of it is really rather odd.

And it’s told in the first person, but from the viewpoints of several different characters who all do their bits in the first person, which is even more confusing!

On the positive side, the details about life at this enormous sanatorium/sanatarium/resort is fascinating.  The title of the book comes from the porches in which patients would sit whilst resting in the open air.  We hear a lot about examinations and procedures, and a lot of detail about the food, and also about the fundraising efforts which raised money to enable poorer patients to be treated without payment.  The whole area became dominated by the sanatorium, and the site’s still there, a type of museum.

I’ve had this book on my Kindle for ages, and I can only assume that I got it because the blurb made me think about the sanatoria in the Chalet School books and Elsie Oxenham’s Swiss books!   But it’s important to remember just how rife TB was in Victorian times.  Here in Manchester and the surrounding towns, where you had a lot of people living close together, and a lot of people had lung issues anyway because of the cotton fly and the coal dust in the air, and the climate was, ahem, not the world’s driest, it was the number one killer.

There are better books about it than this, though.  It’s very odd that the author seems to have done so much research into some aspects of it, and yet others make no sense at all.

Radioactive

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This is the Marie Curie biopic which was meant to be released in cinemas last June, but ended up going straight to various “platforms” instead.  This meant that I saved the £4.99 cinema entry fee, the cost of getting to the cinema and back, and the amount I’d have spent on a cup of tea and possibly an ice cream, but I’d gladly pay if we could get to a point where cinemas could reopen.  Possibly not for this film, though: it was a bit boring.

It really shouldn’t have been, because it’s the most incredible story – how, at a time when it was incredibly difficult for women to work in science, one woman made scientific discoveries which changed the world, winning the Nobel Prize twice, once for physics (in 1903, jointly with her husband and another scientist) and once for chemistry (in 1911).  The film also showed her important work, alongside one of her daughters, in treated wounded soldiers during the First World War.  Plus we saw her marriage (although I doubt that a biopic of a male scientist would have involved people frolicking naked in a pond), the births of her two daughters, the tragic death of her husband after he was run over by a cart, and how France turned on her when it became known that she was having an affair with a younger, married man … which rather bizarrely got a bit mixed up with the fallout from the Dreyfus Affair.

But, somehow, the film just didn’t really hold my attention.  Maybe it’s because I’m not a scientist: there was quite a lot of sciency talk in it.  There was nothing particularly wrong with it, but it just wasn’t all that interesting.  Oh well!

Six Minutes To Midnight

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This film sounded very interesting, being based around the very strange but true story of the Augusta Victoria College, a German finishing school for young female relatives/associates of high-ranking Nazi officials, based not in Germany but, from 1932 to 1939 in Bexhill-on-Sea on the Sussex coast.  Unfortunately, the storyline was just stupid.  It was supposed to be a thrilling espionage drama, but it was unconvincing and verged on the farcical.

Our hero, played by Eddie Izzard, was a British spy masquerading as a teacher, although he seemed to do little teaching other than to train the girls, who were remarkably ill-disciplined by anyone’s standards, never mind Nazi standards, to sing “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  At one point, he tried to hide from the police by stealing a uniform which a brass band player had left lying on the beach whilst he went for a swim (as you do), then marching with the brass band, without an instrument, whilst the flugle player whose uniform he’d nicked marched alongside him in his underwear.  It would have been quite funny in ‘Allo ‘Allo or Dad’s Army, but this was supposed to be a serious spy film.

Meanwhile, Judi Dench did her best as the sweet little old British headmistress (the headmistress of the actual school was German, and presumably carefully chosen by the authorities) who didn’t realise that the Nazis weren’t actually very nice people, and joined in when the girls all made Nazi salutes and chanted Nazi slogans because she thought it was just a confidence boosting things; but the idea of the character made no sense.  This was the summer of 1939.  My school was offering free places to girls who’d come to the UK as refugees from Nazi persecution.  People knew jolly well what was going on.  And that would have gone for sweet little old ladies in idyllic seaside resorts as much as for anyone else.

Maybe part of the problem was that no-one seems very sure exactly what the point of the school was.  Possibly so that the girls could try to spread Nazi ideals in British society, but, seeing as they hardly ever left the school, and didn’t come into contact with anyone outside it, I don’t quite see how that was meant to work.  Were they all meant to hang around after leaving, and impress people with their ability to walk elegantly because of all the time they’d spent balancing books on their heads?

A decent scriptwriter would have come up with a plausible explanation.  Instead, all we got was that the other teacher, a young German woman, was a Nazi.  However, other than chatting to other Nazis at a music evening, there didn’t seem to be much point to her either.  Well, not until our hero went out to meet his superior officer, and she followed him and shot the said officer dead.  Presumably she was also responsible for the death of a previous teacher, whose body turned up on the beach, but that was never really explained, even though our hero was meant to be finding out about it.  A lot of things in this film were never really explained.  Anyway, the police turned up and thought our hero had shot his boss, so he went on the run … but was captured after the incident with the brass band and the underwear.

He was then visited in the local nick by two government officials, a senior one with a posh voice and a junior one with a not-posh voice.  But then, in a “thrilling” twist in the tale (it actually wasn’t that thrilling), it turned out that the posh bloke was a Nazi spy.  Our man escaped again, and was helped out by the local bus driver, who was obsessed with people not getting mud on his kitchen floor but was happy to give our man a change of clothes – thankfully, not a uniform this time.  Then our man teamed up with the junior official.

Oh, and everyone kept saying “English” where “British” would have been more appropriate, which was interesting given that the film was made by the Welsh Film Board.

Meanwhile, the Nazi teacher was arranging for the girls to be evacuated by plane, necessitating their climbing up a hill with their suitcases (in broad daylight – presumably this was OK, as no-one happening to walk past would have found this at all suspicious), hanging around until it got dark, and then waving flares to show the plane where to land. Despite the fact that it was broad daylight and the plane couldn’t land until it got dark, they didn’t have time to stop when one of the girls dropped her case and it fell down the hill, even though it was only a small hill and it would only have taken two minutes to retrieve the case, but never mind.

Mysterious planes often land in strange places in Enid Blyton books, and indeed in James Bond films, but I didn’t really get why, the UK not requiring exit visas, the girls – there were only about a dozen of them – and the teacher couldn’t have just hopped on a train to the nearest port (Google informs me that it’s only about 55 miles from Bexhill to Dover), got on a ferry, then got on a train to Germany.  There might even have been direct sailings from Harwich to Hamburg at that time.

However, our hero had managed to get through to Whitehall, the plane was intercepted, and he and the sweet little old headmistress turned up, deterred the Nazi teacher from shooting all the girls rather than risk their being interned (???), and a lot of hugging went on.  The girls were then taken back to the school, where they lined up and sang “It’s A Long Way To Tipperary”.  I think we were actually supposed to feel sorry for them, which opens up all sorts of thorny questions – OK, they wouldn’t have had much choice about being sent to the school, but they were in the late teens, so old enough to understand what was going on.  But the film never got into anything as deep as that.

I’m not even sure why it was such a big deal that the girls were leaving, and why they were so desperate to stop them.   It’s not like they were spies.  All they did was mess around in the dormitory, go swimming, and try to learn English.  Why not just let them go home?  If the idea was for them to try to spread Nazi ideals, then wouldn’t it actually’ve been better to have them out of the UK, goodbye and good riddance, rather than trying to keep them here?!

The whole thing was just silly, quite frankly – and it was a shame, because someone could have made a very good story about this school.  Maybe, one day, someone will, but this certainly wasn’t it!

 

 

 

The Shadow Women by Angela Hunt

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OK, seeing as we’re heading into Semana Santa (or Holy Week, but it sounds better in Spanish) and are already into Passover, a bit of Biblical fiction.  The Bible contains more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera’s ever done, so Biblical fiction can be very entertaining.  I was once explaining a Bible story to my little cousin whilst I was babysitting him and he had some religious studies homework to do, and he said that I made it sound like EastEnders – and that’s because a lot of it does!  This one’s the story of the Book of Exodus, told from the viewpoints of Pharoah’s daughter (identified here with Merytamon, one of the daughters and, later, wives of Ramesses II), Miriam (the sister of Moses) and Zipporah (the wife of Moses).

Angela Hunt gets a bit bogged down in practicalities at times.  How Moses managed to speak to the Hebrew slaves when, having grown up in Pharoah’s palace, he wouldn’t have spoken a word of their language, is admittedly a very good question, but I’m not entirely sure that the reader needed to see him, on arriving in the Land of Goshen, asking Miriam where the toilets were.

Incidentally, it’s weirdly relevant to today.  No panic-buying (OK, panic-gathering) of manna allowed – you can only take enough for one day at a time (or two, if it’s the Sabbath).  When Miriam’s got an illness feared to be contagious, she has to go outside the camp and quarantine herself for seven days.  And Zipporah first meets Moses whilst she and her sisters are being hassled by some Edomite men, when all they’re trying to do is get water from the well.

Anyway, to get back to the point, whilst I could have done without the bit about toilets, Angela Hunt’s obviously done a vast amount of research into the history of Ancient Egypt, and then tried to tie it into the story in the Bible.  Trying to tie up Bible stories and real history is a historian’s nightmare, because we’ve got no real idea what’s legend, what’s based on fact, and what’s a bit of both, so all credit to her for trying.  And, in some ways, she’s tried very hard to follow the Bible story, even whilst tying it into documented Egyptian history.  Obviously everyone knows that Moses looked like Charlton Heston and was only in his 30s at the time of the Exodus, but the Bible does actually say that he was 80, and that’s what this book says too.  Some bits of the story have been conveniently altered or ignored, but, to be fair, she does explain that in an afterword.

I’ve got mixed feelings about her interpretation of the three women, though.  The story of Pharoah’s daughter finding a baby, in what we still call a “Moses basket”, in the bulrushes, and, even though she knew he was the child of slaves and condemned by her father to die, taking him in and bringing him up as her own, is one of the most heartwarming stories in the Bible … but Angela Hunt’s turned her into some kind of child-snatcher, who was desperate to steal a baby to pass off as her own for fear of being set aside as a barren wife, and deliberately went out looking for one!  And Miriam’s given her proper role as a leader, but, on a personal basis, is shown as being rather bitter and grumpy most of the time.  Zipporah’s the one who comes out with the most credit.  But they all get given a voice here, which they don’t in the Bible.

Merytamon does generally come across fairly well, apart from the baby-snatching bit, to be fair.  The historical figure of Merytamon, the daughter of Ramesses II and Nefertari, and later one of the Great Royal Wives of Ramesses II, did exist.  In Islamic tradition, Pharoah’s daughter was Pharoah’s wife, and daughters of the pharaoh did often end up as wives of either their father or one of their brothers.  The idea in this book is that she actually passed Moses off as the natural son of Pharoah and somehow got away with it for years, which I’ve never heard anyone else suggest, though.

The book’s got her dying long before Moses came back from Egypt, but she’s the main figure in the early part of it, although some of the early part’s also told by Miriam – who’s given a back story here, with the reader being told that she had a stillborn child and that her husband died as a result of mistreatment by the Egyptians.  I’d like to have seen a bit more sympathy shown towards Miriam, especially with that sad back story.  Angela Hunt’s made her very stroppy!

As for Pharoah, people have tied themselves in knots trying to work out who the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was.  Other people claim that the whole thing’s just a story, because there’s no evidence that the Ancient Egyptians used slave labour.  We just don’t know.  I think I must have been told as a kid that “Pharoah” was Ramesses II, because I’ve always thought that, for no obvious historical reason.  And the Yul Brynner Pharoah who’s challenged by Charlton Heston is Ramesses II !  However, even though Ramesses is supposed to have lived into his 90s, if Moses was 80 at the time of the Exodus then it’s pretty unlikely that the Pharoah at the start of the story and the Pharoah at the time of the plagues could have been the same person, so Angela Hunt’s got Ramesses II at the start and Seti at the end.

She does seem to take the story very literally.  Some people do.  Some people don’t.  No-one really knows, so you can’t criticise anyone for what they think.  And a lot of it’s not very clear in the Book of Exodus.  Was the Cushite woman Zipporah?  Or was the Cushite woman someone else?  And what exactly was Miriam upset about?  In this book, the Cushite woman is someone else, a maid called Femi.  Zipporah is unwell and thinks she might not have long to live, so she urges Moses to take Femi as a second wife, which he does, and Miriam gets narky about it all, but doesn’t get on with Zipporah either.  But then they all kiss and make up.

Another thing that’s not clear is what Zipporah’s dad was called.  There are a lot of Bible-isms, with people’s names changing.  In this book, he starts off as Reuel, then changes his name to Jethro.  There’s an interesting suggestion that he was the one who told Moses all the stories about Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  If you’re someone who takes it all literally and believes that Moses wrote the Old Testament, then he must have got the stories from someone, and it can’t have been any of the Hebrew slaves because they were supposed to have forgotten everything.  So that idea does work.

All in all, you can drive yourself mad trying to make it make sense from a historical point of view, and probably won’t get very far, but a lot of the stories in the Bible really are entertaining. The horrible Mr Brocklehurst in Jane Eyre is not at all impressed that Jane thinks the best bits of the Bible are the bits with good stories, but Jane is surely right 🙂 .  As I said, more family feuds, affairs, murders and general drama than any soap opera!

 

 

 

 

 

Russia Vs The World – Channel 5

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What on earth was this rubbish?  I’d been looking forward to it, seeing as it promised to tell “the epic story of Russia and how a millennia [sic] of explosive drama ….” but it was just awful.

It started by jumping from Grand Prince Vladimir of Kievan Rus to Ivan The Terrible, and ignoring the five centuries in between.  Hey, let’s make a programme about “the epic story of England”, and jump from William the Conqueror to Elizabeth I.   And that was just the start.  A small sample of things which it totally failed to mention – the Mongol invasions, the Battle on the Neva, the Time of Troubles, the Schism, the Table of Ranks, the Pugachev Rebellion, the Napoleonic Wars, the Decembrists, the Crimean War, the liberation of the serfs.  It did however mention James Bond, Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, Rasputin, Vladimir Putin going scuba diving, Boris Yeltsin’s drinking habits and Roman Abramovich.

Then it concluded by saying that Russia had come full circle from Grand Prince Vladimir to Vladimir Putin.  Presumably apart from Vladimir Putin not being a Russian Orthodox saint, and Grand Prince Vladimir neither being interested in scuba diving nor having spies who went to watch Arsenal.

Seriously, Channel 5?  I thought you’d got your act together with history programmes, but what on earth was this?

I think it was just meant to be Cold War-esque propaganda making out that Russia is the Big Baddie.  I don’t want to see stuff like that.  We’re supposed to have moved on from those days, and I don’t want to see any sort of propaganda on British TV.  Out of two hours, about twenty minutes was spent on pre-revolutionary Russia.  Then even the Civil War was pretty much skipped over, and it was on to Stalin, the Cuban Missile Crisis, Chernobyl, the fall of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin sitting on a tank, and then loads and loads about Vladimir Putin.

The argument seemed to be that Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great and Catherine the Great (apart from Vladimir and Nicholas II, every other monarch was completely ignored) were dictators (Catherine would not be impressed with that at all) who paved the way for Putin.  Well, that’s logical, isn’t it?  Three monarchs in 500 years.  You might as well say that Henry VIII, George IV and Victoria are the reason that Boris Johnson could do with losing a few pounds (on which score I sympathise with them).  You could look at any country’s history and pick three monarchs in 500 years, and claim that they somehow typify the country’s leadership.  Then it completely contradicted itself, by saying that it was actually the KGB in charge, not Putin.

Not impressed.  We don’t need this sort of programme on TV.  And, if you say you’re going to talk about a millennium of Russian history, even if you don’t seem to know that the correct word is “millennium” rather than “millennia”, then please, er, do so.

Remarkable Creatures by Tracy Chevalier

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  Mary Anning, whose work as a fossil hunter and palaeontologist in Lyme Regis in the first half of the 19th century had a significant impact on the understanding of prehistoric life, is about to be commemorated on three special edition coins, and, when cinemas finally reopen, we should be able to see a film about her.  She’s the focal point of this book by Tracy Chevalier, although most of it’s written as if from the viewpoint of her friend and fellow palaeontologist, Elizabeth Philpot.

Mary, as a woman, an unmarried woman, a working-class woman and a Nonconformist, wasn’t able to become part of the scientific establishment, and her importance has been overlooked, and it’s interesting to see that come across in the book.  It’s also interesting to see how people struggled to reconcile the finds made by her and others with what we now call Creationism: explanations mentioned in the book include rocks having been created with fossils already in them, and icthyosauri missing Noah’s Ark and so being wiped out by the Flood.

It’s frustrating, though, that the book includes a fictitious tale about Mary and Elizabeth falling out over some smooth-talking bloke whom they both fancied but who wasn’t interested in either of them, and then some rather Gothic melodrama about Elizabeth rushing to London, whilst ill, to defend Mary against allegations of faking her finds, swooning away at the Geological Society and nearly dying of pneumonia.  Would anyone put something like that in a book about male scientists?  And I gather that the forthcoming film centres not on Mary’s work but on a fictitious romance between her and the geologist Charlotte Murchison.  See also “Becoming Jane [Austen]” and “Miss [Beatrix] Potter” – again, because they were women, the focus just had to be on their love lives rather than on their work!

There’s plenty to go off whilst sticking to the truth.  Elements of Elizabeth Philpot’s life actually were rather like the plot of a Jane Austen novel – and the author makes that point several times, as we see Elizabeth and two of her sisters moving to Lyme Regis because they can’t afford to continue living in a genteel, suitably ladylike style in London.  But, as the author points out, not everyone meets a handsome man and gets married.  However, Elizabeth leads an interesting life as a fossil collector, and befriends Mary Anning, then only a child and twenty years her junior.

Mary’s life is even more fascinating.  She and one of her brothers – the joint discover of their first ichthyosaur – were the only two surviving children of ten born to a working-class couple struggling for money, and her father died of TB when she was young.  Most of the fossils she collected were sold to bring in an income – and what started as a little seaside souvenir shop attracted the attention of all the leading lights of British science.  Her fame spread abroad too.   Plenty of drama, as well – she was nearly buried alive by a landslip.

Parts of the book are told from Mary’s viewpoint, with the names of the creatures shortened (which seemed a bit patronising, as if a working-class person would say “ichie” and “plesie” because they couldn’t manage “iccthyosaurus” or “plesiosaurus”), and the narrative in what’s supposed to be Dorset dialect.  It sounds like Yorkshire with a bit of Cockney thrown in to me, but I’ve never been to Lyme Regis, so I may be talking rubbish and it may be entirely accurate!

The story of Lt Colonel Birch, the bloke over whom they fall out in this book, seems to have been that he sold his collection of fossils, most of which he’d got from Mary, and donated the money to the Anning family as an act partly of recognition for their work and partly of charity.  I’m not quite sure why that’s been made into a tale of Mary and Elizabeth both being obsessed with him, Mary seducing him and a lot of gossip, but, hey, I suppose romance, seduction and girly fallings-out make for better novels than fossils do!

This is an interesting book and it’s good to see both Mary Anning and Elizabeth Philpot getting the recognition that they deserved …. but would anyone writing a book about the collaboration between two male scientists chuck in a plotline about them falling out over a girl and then one of them swooning away at a scientific society?!  It seems unlikely.

 

 

Roman Kemp: Our Silent Emergency – BBC 1

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*Trigger warning – mental health issues.*

There’s a lot of talk in the media about mental health issues these days, but, sadly, the number of suicides remains high, especially amongst young men.  Roman Kemp (and the fact that Martin Kemp and Shirlie Holliman’s son is 28 makes me feel extremely old) made this programme about mental health and suicide after his close friend, Capital Radio producer Joe Lyons, took his own life.  Roman said he lives only three minutes from Joe, and would have rushed straight round if Joe had felt able to ask him for help.  Tragically, he didn’t: neither Roman, nor anyone else in their friendship group, nor Joe’s loving family, were aware of how badly Joe was struggling.

People here in Greater Manchester may be aware of the Shining a Light on Suicide project being championed by Sir Alex Ferguson, Mark Hughes and Andy Burnham.  One of the things it suggests is making a safety plan of what to do and whom to contact if you feel that you’re at risk of harming yourself, and this was also something that was mentioned in Roman’s programme.

No-one really feels very comfortable talking about this sort of thing, but we need to be.  Roman also talked about his own struggles with depression, and the fact that he’s been on medication for it for many years – and the fact that some people, especially young males, don’t feel able to talk about it.  I think women and girls do talk about it more, but it’s still not spoken about openly in the way that physical illnesses now are.  Roman said that more than three quarters of young men feel unable to confide in their friends and relatives about their issues, and that was borne out by the discussions he had with people who’d lost a friend or relative to suicide.

One of the lads he spoke to, who’d attempted suicide himself, said that he wasn’t even sure that he wanted to end his life – he just wanted to get away from everything in his head.  He just wanted it to stop, and it wouldn’t.  A lot of people will have been there.  Everything going round and round in your head.  Maybe other people driving you mad.  Maybe feeling trapped in an uncaring workplace, or a difficult domestic situation.  But, if those safety plans are in place, maybe people’ll be able to see another way out.

It’s been said over and over again that mental health problems need to be destigmatised, but it still seems to be something that many people feel unable to talk about, and it continues to be a particular problem amongst young men.  Please, please, if you’re struggling, ask for help.