A Pony To Jump by Patricia Leitch

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  I read all Patricia Leitch’s Jinny/Shantih books in the 1980s, but I’d outgrown them by the time that the Kestrels series, of which this is the second, came out.   This is along similar lines -pony book, lower middle class families rather than the upper class/upper middle class families usually found in pony books, slight touch of mysticism.

The two main characters actually rather annoyed me.  One of them had a badly behaved dog which caused havoc everywhere.  Think Bruno Maynard in the Chalet School books.  There are few things which I dislike more than badly behaved dogs.  The other one called her grandmother “Narg” because it was “Gran” spelt backwards.  Why??!  Why not just call her “Gran”?

However, as a short pony book for a child of primary school age, it’s quite entertaining – there’s a bit about learning to jump, as the title suggests, and some drama with feuds at the riding school, a charity pageant, a famous showjumper turning up and a horse being stolen.   I won’t be bothering with the rest of the series, but, if I’d read this when I was 8 or 9, I’m sure I would have done.

 

Ariadne by Jennifer Saint

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Novels retelling Greek myths and legends from the viewpoints of some or all of the women involved seem to be all the rage at the moment.  I’m quite pleased about this- with most schools no longer teaching the classics, these ancient stories might have been at risk of dying out in the English-speaking world, which would have been a great shame.  When I was about 7, I had a book of Greek myths (I think it must have been the one by Enid Blyton), and I loved it.  I also loved the way that Colleen McCullough wove Greek myths into The Thorn Birds, but that’s beside the point.  I read this one for a Facebook group reading challenge, but I was going to read it anyway.

I may well be reading something into nothing here, but I sensed a mental health theme in this book.  There’s a *lot* of talk about the gods cursing women with “madness”, of having your mind taken over or taken away – first with Pasiphae, then with the Maenads, then with the women of Argos; and it’s strongly suggested that Ariadne’s sister Phaedra was suffering from post natal depression.   I might just be oversensitive on this issue, but this theme did seem to keep recurring.

Women generally come off badly in Greek myths and legends.  They’re rarely given a voice, and they’re treated pretty badly by gods, by mortal men, and even by jealous goddesses.  Ariadne was the daughter of the King of Crete, Minos, and half-sister of the Minotaur, who was born as a result of her father Minos disobeying Poseidon, and Poseidon taking revenge by making Minos’s wife Pasiphae fall in love with a bull.  Minos, after defeating Athens in war, demanded that Athens send seven young men and seven girls every few years (the number of years seems to vary!) to be fed to the Minotaur, who was kept in a labyrinth designed by Daedalus.  Theseus, a Greek prince,  volunteered to be one of those sacrificed, but killed the Minotaur with Ariadne’s help.  They sailed off into the sunset together … or so Ariadne thought, until Theseus abandoned her on the island of Naxos.   Theseus, of course, is known as one of the greatest Greek heroes, and his treatment of Ariadne is never counted against him. 

The book’s told in the first person, but some of that’s by Ariadne, and some of it’s by her Phaedra, who was later married off to Theseus.  The title’s a bit misleading, really, but maybe it just sounded more catchy than “Ariadne and Phaedra” or “The Princesses of Crete”.  It would have been interesting to have had Pasiphae telling her story too, but I suppose that only so much could be fitted into one book.  How women did suffer in Greek myths.

There are various versions of the various myths.  And, because most books have each myth as a separate story, you don’t always realise how they all fit together.  Medea, who ran off with Jason, was the stepmother of Theseus.  Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons, had a child by Theseus.  Daedalus and Icarus, when they escaped and Icarus flew too close to the sun, were fleeing from Minos.  Dionysus went to war with Perseus, who killed Medusa and then married Andromeda.  Most versions show Dionysus wanting to marry Ariadne and therefore forcing Theseus to abandon her, and look unfavourably on Ariadne for betraying her father, but, in this version, it’s made clear that both Minos and Theseus are bad lots – Minos in general, and Theseus in his treatment of women.  Theseus is shown as raping Hippolyta, whereas in some versions they’re in love.  And Ariadne’s sister Phaedra, usually depicted as a villainess who tried to seduce her stepson and then made false claims about him, is shown as feeling betrayed because Theseus lied to her, telling her that Ariadne was dead, and not telling her about his son Hippolytus – and the false claims element of the myth is neatly sidestepped in this book, by showing Theseus getting the wrong end of the stick.

Because the book generally follows the myths, it wasn’t possible to show either sister as having a happy ending.  Phaedra took her own life – in this version, in despair.  Ariadne married Dionysus, aka Bacchus, the god of wine, and was happy with him and their children for a while, but she also met a sorry end. 

There are various different myths about what happened to her.  Jennifer Saint, who seems determined to paint most men as baddies, has chosen the version in which Ariadne fell victim to a war between Dionysus and Perseus.  However, in this book,  she first of all made the discovery that Dionysus was whipping his female followers, the Maenads, into a frenzy, and asking for first animal sacrifices and then the sacrifices of human babies.  I’m not familiar with the story about the babies at all: I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s own invention or a rather obscure myth.  I suspect the former, as Google didn’t seem to know about it either!   And Euphrosyne, usually the goddess of joy, was brought into this as a desperate woman seeking help and sanctuary, and the Maenads as doing the same.   

The war between Dionysus and Perseus is “canon”, though.  In this book, a lot of emphasis is paid to Dionysus caring more about trying to win the women of Argos, the city ruled by Perseus, as followers, than he did about Ariadne and their children.  I think that Colleen McCullough would have approved of that: a big theme of The Thorn Birds is men being more interested in their own aggrandisement than in their families.  And, as this was the version of events chosen, it ended – very abruptly, as if the author was rushing to finish the book – with Perseus killing Ariadne with the head of Medusa, another woman who fell victim to the jealousy of the gods.

All in all, it was an interesting read, although rather rushed at the end.  But it was also a bit depressing.  In The Thorn Birds (yes, I do realise that the two books have nothing to do with each other), Justine succeeds where Meggie didn’t, in being a strong independent woman and also in finding a man who puts her first.   At the end of this, both sisters end up dead because of the actions of men who didn’t care about them enough.  But, hey, that’s Greek myths for you – they don’t tend to end happily!

This is Jennifer Saint’s first book, and, for a first book, it’s not bad at all.   Recommended.

 

 

 

The King of Warsaw – All 4

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This is something different.  It’s in Polish with English subtitles, so requires a lot of concentration, but it’s interesting.  It’s a crime drama set in Warsaw in 1937, and the protagonist is Jakub Szapiro, a Jewish boxer and member of an organised crime gang, whose aim is to become head of the gang – and therefore be the “King of Warsaw”.   It’s set against a background of clashes, some violent, some just psychological, between right-wing groups and left-wing groups, Catholics and Jews, and secular Jews and ultra-Orthodox Jews.   Meanwhile, a young lad from the ultra-Orthodox community aims to join a gang after the murder of his father.   And Jakub’s wife wants to emigrate to what was then British Mandate Palestine, but Jakub feels that Warsaw is his city and can’t bear the thought of leaving it.

The first episode was really just setting the scene, but it looks promising.  Warsaw was such a mixture of cultures and factions at the time.  And it’s the same issue as with Peaky Blinders – members of a community which is marginalised, but not isolated and set apart by religion, may well be drawn to organised crime.  And at what point do you feel that you’re actually a stranger in your own city, as well as being a stranger from the Establishment?   Without going too far into the unpleasant scenes before the Cup Final, feeling estranged from the Establishment usually leads to a stronger sense of regional identity, and that seems to be what’s happened with Jakub Szapiro – but his wife can see that they’d be safer away from Warsaw, rather than trying to rule it.

A promising start.

The Stone Rose by Carol McGrath

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This is the final book in Carol McGrath’s trilogy about unpopular medieval queens of England; and it’s about Isabella of France, who’s probably better-known than either Eleanor of Provence or Eleanor of Castile.  The title relates to a fictional character who’s the daughter of a stonemason, but it’s an odd choice.  It rather makes the reader imagine Isabella singing alongside Ian Brown, maybe about how her glorious marriage to the English heir turned out to be fools’ gold, or about telling Roger Mortimer that she wanna be adored …er, right, let’s leave it there, because “This Is The One” and “Waterfall” are both used as football songs at Old Trafford, and that’s all a bit painful at the moment and I’m just hoping that Erik ten Hag’s tenure will see The Resurrection.

OK, OK, Isabella of France.  You know the story.  The She-Wolf of France and her lover, Roger Mortimer, overthrow her gay husband, Edward II, and get someone to murder him by shoving a red hot poker up … well, you know that bit of the story without my having to spell it out.  Then they’re overthrown in turn, when her son, Edward III, takes control.  And there’s that thing about the Scottish bloke in the cave with the spider.  However, most of what we think we know about those times is what was written years later.  What actually happened?  Well, we know the basics, that Edward became unpopular because of the defeat at Bannockburn and the influence of his favourites, and that he was deposed by Isabella and Mortimer, but we don’t really know the detail.

Carol McGrath’s done a very good job of creating a novel from what did happen and what may have happened.  My one real issue with it is that it’s too short.  There’s a huge amount of English political history in the book, plus a certain amount of social history, plus some nice little titbits about fashions, the growing popularity of knitting and life at court, plus some of the history of France at the time – she doesn’t go into the dissolution of the Templars et al, but she does include the history of the Capetians, as they were Isabella’s family – and that, alongside the development of the characters and their relationships with each other, is a lot to fit into a novel of fewer than 400 pages.  But saying that you wish a book had been longer is surely a great compliment to it.

Incidentally, we don’t see Robert the Bruce, with or without his spider.  I just mentioned that story because I like it!

There’s a fairly recent theory that Edward II escaped to Italy.  We don’t actually know.  It’s not talked about very much.  The Princes in the Tower seem to have cornered the market as far as royal mysteries and conspiracy theories go.  But there is a theory.   On top of that, the term “She-Wolf” wasn’t used about Isabella until Elizabethan times, and it really isn’t clear from the sources from the time whether Isabella and Mortimer were lovers, nor whether Edward and Piers Gaveston were lovers, nor whether Edward and the younger Hugh Despenser were lovers. There’s also the fact that, whilst Edward was probably bisexual, people in the Middle Ages didn’t really identify as straight, gay, bisexual or anything else related to sexuality.  As for Bannockburn (and this book doesn’t actually show Robert the Bruce, with or without a spider), yes, it was a disaster, but Edward II’s reputation’s also suffered from being his sandwiched in between Edward I and Edward III, whose reigns both saw huge military success.  Pretty hard to compete with those two.

This book is generally very, very good.  Yes, it’s sympathetic towards Isabella, and it makes the point (perhaps a little too often) that she was a strong, independent woman,  but it’s not overly biased against Edward.  Someone once said that Charles I was “a very silly man”.  So was Edward II.  He allowed himself to be overly influenced by Gaveston and the Despensers, and, because of that, he became alienated from his wife, from other members of his family, and from the nobility in general.   He was a weak man, with very little common sense and that’s what this book shows.   Isabella is shown not as a “she-wolf” but as an intelligent woman who wasn’t willing to be dominated by men … which, unfortunately, is how some men would define a “she-wolf”.  Does any strong, independent woman risk being labelled a “She-Wolf”?  Maybe not a She-Wolf, but female politicians are inevitably labelled “bossy” and “domineering”.  Isabella’s certainly not shown as being callous and calculating, and I think that that’s fair enough.

There are also various sub-plots.  One involves Agnes, the fictional character mentioned above, and her future husband Gregory.  The main plot only covers the period from 1311 to 1330: Agnes and Gregory, in 1352, tell the reader what happens after that.  Another is the story of the Tour de Nesle affair, which saw her two sisters-in-law and their alleged lovers executed.  And another is the story of the de Clare sisters, who all played prominent roles at Edward II’s court.  And then there’s the romance between the future Edward III and Philippa of Hainault.

Overall, it’s a fascinating book.  The history’s spot on, insofar as it can be – I won’t give away which versions of events Carol McGrath chooses for her book – ,the characters come across well, and there’s a lot going on.  As I said, my one and only real criticism of it is that it needed to be a bit longer.

 

Kicking Off: the Rise and Fall of the Super League – BBC 2

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This was a rather puerile documentary.  I really didn’t need to see pictures of toilet flushes or cartoons of Popeye, and I’m not sure what Edith Piaf singing “Je ne regrette rien” was supposed to have to do with anything.   Sky’s documentary on the same subject made most of the same points, but in a rather more sensible way.

However, there were two points which neither programme made.  For one thing, there are now a lot more UEFA member states/national associations, and therefore a lot more leagues requiring places in European competitions, than there used to be.  Eleven of the former Soviet states are UEFA members, and there are now seven members in place of the former Yugoslavia and two in place of the former Czechoslovakia.  That’s seventeen extra leagues.  It’s rather a lot, really.   For another thing, people keep messing about with sports.  When I were a lass and dinosaurs roamed the earth, the rugby league season ran parallel with the football season, cricketers wore white and no-one had ever heard of T20 (and don’t get me started on the IPL), and doubles matches in tennis were the best of three full sets, five full sets for men’s doubles in Grand Slam events.  People tinker with sports.  Let’s just thank goodness that the mad idea of making football matches shorter, which was actually mentioned in this programme, has never been seriously considered.

So what did it say?  Well, pretty much what the Sky documentary said – and Sky a) got in first and b) said it all much better.  In the good old days, football clubs were owned by local business people.  Then Silvio Berlusconi got involved.   Then the Champions League came along.  Then new owners, often state-linked organisations from the Middle East, came along, and, rather like The Gilded Age, suddenly we’d got the old aristocracy (United, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, Juventus, AC Milan, Inter Milan) being challenged by the nouveaux riches (led by City and Paris St Germain).   A lot of the traditional big clubs had got into a lot of debt, and then along came Covid and made all the financial problems umpteen times worse.

As the Sky documentary did, this very much put the blame on the Spanish and Italian clubs involved, especially Real Madrid.  And added a nasty little dig suggesting that United were somehow in league with 10 Downing Street – could we just lose this silly conspiracy theory, please?!   And then made the point that it was English fans who killed the idea off … possibly with a little help from the Government, after Boris threatened to kill it off by legislation.  Well, if Parliament could abolish purgatory, as it did in Henry VIII’s time, it could certainly do away with the Super League.  But it never came to that.  The English clubs pulled out, and the idea collapsed.

One suggestion which this programme made, which I don’t think Sky’s did, was that the cack-handed way in which it was all dealt with was because the owners concerned had all inherited their money, and didn’t have a clue about how the world really worked.  This is an old, old story when it comes to old money versus nouveaux riches.  But I don’t think that the argument works here.   OK, we’re now on to the second generation of Glazers at Old Trafford, and the Agnelli family have been big shots in Turin for decades.   But the driving force behind this was Florentino Perez of Real Madrid, and he worked his way up, in Franco’s Spain.  How someone who’s made such a success in business could have made such a mess of this is an interesting question, but the BBC didn’t ask it.  Maybe he’s just too used to getting what he wants.

Is he going to get it anyway?  Remember that song by The Adventures of Stevie V?  Did they ever even record another song, BTW?!  Money talks, mmm, mmm, money talks. Dirty cash I want you, dirty cash I need you, ooh. It does look as if the idea of admitting some clubs based on their historic records, however poorly they’ve done in the season concerned, will go ahead anyway.Well, given what a bloody awful season United have had, this sounds like good news for us.  But it’s wrong.

I think what we could really do with is some more input from abroad.  Everyone in England seems to agree that this is wrong.  But what do people in Spain and Italy think?

And whose word is going to count, in the end?   Unfortunately, this story isn’t over yet.   We’ve won the battle, but have we won the war?

 

 

 

 

Shadow Girls by Carol Birch

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I’m afraid that I was rather disappointed by this book.  I was quite excited by the idea of a book set in a girls’ day school in Manchester.  From the location, I think the school’s based on the old Central High School.  It had closed down by my day, but I know people of my parents’ generation who went there, and obviously I know Manchester city centre and the other locations mentioned.  If anyone reading this *does* decide to try this book, then yes, Boggart Hole Clough is a real place, and that’s its real name!   And, yes, Lewis’s was a real shop … it was a lovely shop, and I can’t quite believe that it’s been twelve years since it closed down.

And I knew that there was a supernatural element, but I thought that that might work quite well.  A lot of teenagers are interested in the supernatural.  I know that some girls at my school did try using ouija boards, although that was possibly due more to the Morrissey song than anything else!  However, unfortunately, the style of writing in this book was rather poor, and the storyline was rather weak and didn’t really hang together.

The book’s had some good reviews, so maybe I’m missing something; but I just wasn’t very impressed by it.

It started off as a poor man’s Judy Blume book, with a lot of talk about X being friends with Y, X and Y not liking Z, parents and teachers thinking that X was a bad influence on Y, and so on.   The protagonist, Sally, was friendly with a girl called Pamela, who was seen as being a bit rough.  They didn’t get on with a girl called Sylvia, and Pamela played a nasty prank which caused Sylvia a lot of distress.  However, there was also some talk about ghosts in the toilets (why would ghosts be in school toilets, of all places?), and Sally started to think that Sylvia had a doppelganger, because she was sure that she’d seen her in two places at once.   Then, apparently under the influence of the fake Sylvia, Pamela took her own life by jumping off the school roof.  Sylvia had a nervous breakdown and left school.  It was clear that something was very wrong with both girls’ home lives, but we never really found out exactly what.

We then fast forwarded through Sally’s university years, to a time when the school had closed down and the building had been converted with flats, and Sally had reunited with Rob, her old boyfriend from her schooldays.  And, whaddaya know, he was living in one of the flats in the old school building.  Sally moved in with him, but kept thinking that she could feel a supernatural presence there.   Rob tried to help by tracking down Sylvia, and it ended up with Sally tripping down some stairs to her death, and Rob and Sylvia getting together.

Sorry, but I didn’t get it.  I think we were meant to feel that the portrayal of Sally’s terror and her uncertainty about what was real and what was her imagination were very powerful, but it just didn’t work for me.  Oh well, we can’t all like the same things!

Just William … and Richmal – BBC Sounds

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It’s the centenary of the first Just William book this year.  I can’t say that the Just William books were ever big favourites of mine in the same way that the Chalet School books, the Little House books or the Sadlers Wells books were, but I went through a phase of reading a whole load of them (aged about 12, I think), and I find Richmal Crompton very interesting because she originally came from Bury.

This was just a half hour programme, but it made some interesting points.  Although the first book was published in 1922, William first appeared in 1919 – did the idea of an eternal schoolboy appeal to a world trying to recover from a war which had taken the lives of so many young men, and the physical and or mental health of many more?   It also made the point that they were originally aimed at an adult audience, but are now seen as children’s books – I suppose because they’re about children.  And credited William with influencing all sorts of books and TV programmes.

It also pointed out that, whereas with most books about gangs of children, the reader’s effectively being invited to join the gang, in these books we’re meant to be watching them from the narrator’s viewpoint, and watching the other characters as well.   I hadn’t really thought of that before, but it’s true.  And, hooray, there wasn’t one moan during the entire half hour about the books not being “inclusive” (although I am not making any excuses for the infamous book in which the gang play at being Nazis, something which the programme didn’t mention).

But I think the most interesting point made was that a really good children’s book (with apologies to Richmal Crompton, who didn’t intend these to be children’s books) can seem even better when you read it as an adult.  Some just seem rather one-dimensional and simplistic, even though you thought they were wonderful when you read them as a primary school kid.  But others have you asking more and more questions, and appreciating things which you never thought of before.  People wonder why a supposedly intelligent adult reads children’s books.  Well, some of them are just that good.

 

The School in the Woods by Dorita Fairlie Bruce

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This is the second book in Dorita Fairlie Bruce’s “Toby” trilogy, coming in between The School on the Moor  and Toby at Tibbs Cross.  It’s a school-story-cum-spy-story published in 1940, one of several books in this genre published during the two world wars, but this one’s a bit different in that it’s set before the outbreak of the Second World War, in what I suppose is an alternative universe in which Dick Trevor (Toby Barrett’s future husband, although we don’t know that in this book) and his father develop a gas which could potentially be used to destroy entire armies, which they hope will act as a deterrent and prevent the outbreak of war with Nazi Germany, and any future wars.

The spy element comes in the form of traitors who are plotting to steal the formula, and this involves a mysterious girl at Toby’s new school.   Of course, all’s well that end’s well … but the reader, unlike the characters, knows very well that it isn’t, because this gas didn’t exist, and war is going to come.  And, in 1940, they don’t know what the outcome of that war will be.  In the next book, there isn’t actually any mention of this gas – war has come, Toby is working as a land girl, and Dick is involved in other war work.  So I’m not entirely sure where DFB was going with this book, unless maybe she wrote it before war broke out and it was wishful thinking.

There’s a lot of talk in this wartime book about the importance of the Empire and the idea of the Pax Britannica.   The “goodie” characters, and presumably DFB herself, all believe that, if this gas were in the hands of Britain/the British Empire alone, it would do nothing but good – it would bring about world peace by deterring “baddie” countries, which we presumably understand to mean Nazi Germany, from being aggressive.   Everyone firmly seems to believe that, as things stand (i.e. without the gas), war is inevitable – which seems a bit odd, given how many people genuinely bought the “peace for our time” idea.

People have all these ideas about what can bring about world peace.  One superpower.  Two rival blocs, based on ideology or, in the past, religion.  Nation states.  A federal Europe (I am adamantly opposed to this idea, but I do understand that some people genuinely think that it’s a good one).  A balance of power involving a number of different states.  And not one of them flaming well seem to work.  I suppose that DFB’s idea of some sort of very powerful fatal gas foreshadows the development of nuclear weapons, but even they don’t seem to be keeping the peace any more, because everyone seems to assume that the other side wouldn’t use them.   Maybe this fictional gas would have been better, because it wouldn’t have been as destructive or threatened civilians, so there might not have been the assumption that it wouldn’t be used.  But anyway.  It’s only a story.

In terms of the actual school element, not much happens.  Toby’s old school has been merged with another school, there are the usual issues in which the two groups of girls find it hard to combine, there’s a “them and us” feeling, and there’s a rather pointless subplot about a younger girl who keeps having hysterics. There’s also a local woman with whom Toby becomes friendly, and who eventually agrees to act as guardian to the aforementioned mysterious girl, who’s an innocent party in her elder siblings’ dastardly doings.   The main point of the book is the storyline about the gas.  And I really would love to know whether the book was actually written before or after war broke out.

 

Long Lost Family Special: Shipped to Australia – ITV

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  Political or religious authorities effectively taking ownership of children, for their own ends, is something which happened in a number of countries during the 20th century.  And we’re not talking Nazi Germany or the Stalinist Soviet Union here: we’re talking about countries such as the UK and Australia.  Examples include Native American children being removed to state boarding schools, the “Stolen Generations” of Aboriginal children removed from their families in Australia, Inuit children in Greenland being taken away to Danish-language orphanages or Denmark itself, the Magdalene Laundries in the Republic of Ireland, babies being taken away from parents deemed politically suspect in Franco’s Spain and Videla’s Argentina, and, the subject of this programme, the Child Migrant Scheme in which children were sent from British orphanages to Australia.  The idea of the programme was to prevent the children from being a drain on the British authorities, and to boost the “White Australia” policy which aimed to bring in white migrants.   So it worked for both countries – just not necessarily for the children and their families.

I’m never entirely sure about “Long Lost Family”.  There may be many painful reasons why a child was given up for adoption, and that’s not something which should necessarily be used as entertainment – although I suppose that, unless both parties agreed, the programme would never be shown.  In this case we did see children who’d been sent from Britain to Australia joyfully reunited with their families, but we also heard the harrowing tales of the abuse which some of them had suffered in religious orphanages once they’d arrived Down Under.

One man learnt that his parents had been unable to marry as his father had already had a wife, from whom he’d been separated from many years but whom he was presumably unable to divorce under the system at the time, and that his mother had been forced to give him up and his father, when seeking custody of him, had been told that he’d already compromised a young woman and that he should leave both her and their child alone.  Another man, who’d tried desperately to contact his brothers, learnt that his letters to them and them to him had been intercepted, leaving him thinking that they no longer wanted contact with him.

It was just very sad all round.  It was lovely to see those involved meeting up with relatives, but, after so many years, some of those involved had died before they could be reunited, and the abuse inflicted on children in orphanages is hardly something which can ever be undone.   Adults are supposed to take care of children, and indeed of vulnerable adults, and using children to further political or economic ends is just horrific, and physical and sexual abuse of children by those trusted to care for them is even worse.  As I’ve said, I’m not sure that people’s family issues should necessarily be used for entertainment purposes on TV, but, in this case, the programme drew attention to a very unpleasant episode in the history of the UK, Australia and other Commonwealth countries.   Interesting and sometimes heartwarming, but also deeply distressing.

 

 

 

The Player’s Boy and The Players and the Rebels by Antonia Forest

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These two books, set in the final decade of Elizabeth I’s reign, feature Nicholas Marlow, an ancestor of the Marlow family of the Kingscote books, as a young man running away from home and joining a group of theatrical players.  The final chapter shows him going away to sea, which if I recall correctly is mentioned in one of the Kingscote books, but the rest of the story shows him as one of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men – a friend of William Shakespeare, an acquaintance of Walter Raleigh, and an associate of the Earls of Essex and Southampton.

This, of course, is the period of Essex’s Rebellion.  I’m afraid that I’ll always associate it primarily with Essex barging in on Elizabeth before she’d put her make up on, but obviously the fact that he did actually plan to seize control of London and force the Queen to dismiss Cecil was rather more serious than that.  Well, probably.  I hate to be seen with no make up on.   There’s so much focus on the events of the late 1580s, the execution of Mary Queen of Scots and, of course, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, one of the defining moments in English history, that the period from 1588 to 1603 tends to be rather neglected, so it was an interesting idea to set the books at this time.   And it’s rather convenient that Christopher Marlowe’s surname was very close to that of the Marlows, and that Essex’s steward shared the surname of Merrick with the Marlow’s neighbours.

There genuinely was a link between the theatre and the rebellion, and that’s what we see in these books.  The Earl of Southampton was Shakespeare’s patron, and a performance by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men of Shakespeare’s Richard II, showing an anointed monarch being deposed, did cause a fair amount of controversy.

The GGBP editions of these two books have a number of forewords, one of which was written by the late Joy Wotton.  I was fortunate enough to know Joy via Facebook, and to meet her at the Harrogate Book Fair a few years ago.  She was a lovely person, and it was quite poignant for me to read her words.  Hilary Clare’s foreword points out that Antonia Forest got some of the historical details, notably the relations between different social classes, wrong, but that she got the actual course of events spot on.   What we don’t know is where Shakespeare actually was during the 1590s.  I go with the idea that he was at Hoghton Tower – OK, OK, spot the Lancastrian! – but we don’t know, and he may well have been with a group of players.

I can’t say that these are the greatest historical novels that I’ve ever read, and I doubt if I’d have read them had it not been for the Marlow connection, but they’re not bad at all, especially bearing in mind that they were meant for children/young adults; and, as I’ve said, this period of Elizabeth I’s reign tends to be neglected.   Nicholas came across very well, and the lives of real people and fictional people were interwoven pretty much seamlessly.   They also give a fascinating picture of theatrical life at a crucial time in the development of English theatre.  I rather enjoyed them!