Rule Britannia! – BBC 4

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This documentary, the first in a three-part series, examined the idea that music played an important role in the development of British national feeling in the 18th century. It suggested that there were three main strands to this. The first was the need to form a “British” identity following the Act of Union (hmm, I’m not quite sure where Wales and Ireland featured there!). The second was the need to unite the country behind the Hanoverians and against the Jacobites. The third was a growing sense of resentment about the upper-classes’ love, promoted by the Grand Tour of Italian culture, and in particular opera. People felt that Italian opera was a) too foreign, b) too Catholic and c) un-British by virtue of being effeminate and prima-donna-ish. Apparently there was a lot of moaning about the number of overpaid foreign prima donnas in London. Hmm, that’s a familiar sounding complaint … will everyone be watching Chelsea v Paris St Germain (St Germain, incidentally, being the area of Paris where the exiled Jacobites set up their court) tonight :-).

So, along came The Beggar’s Opera, based in London and using tunes familiar from street ballads, various compositions by Handel and, of course, Rule Britannia and God Save The King . Music united Britain and formed a crucial part of British culture and identity.

Well, it’s an interesting idea, and there’s certainly something to it. However, I’m not 100% convinced. My main problem with the argument is that it’s all so London-centric. I don’t think there were ever too many Italian castrati wandering around the rest of the country. Nor do I think that the people of the 18th century Highlands would have been too chuffed about the “rebellious Scots to crush” verse of God Save The King!

Also, The Beggar’s Opera may well have used tunes from street songs but the lower-classes would not have been heading to opera houses to see it. I don’t think that the era of truly popular, in the sense of “of all the people” songs really came about until the days of the music hall. And music hall songs never made it to opera house culture. We all know Goodbye, Dolly Gray and It’s A Long Way to Tipperary and so on, but we wouldn’t expect to find songs like that, or even songs like We’ll Meet Again, featuring at The Last Night of the Proms. Nor would we expect to find the songs associated with the folk revival of the early 20th century there.

Still, the programme was well worth watching, partly for the music and partly because the 18th century gets so badly neglected by the media. It’ll be interesting to see what the next two episodes come up with.

Word Press

The Crimson Field – BBC 1

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I’ve read several novels about nurses during the First World War, notably Song of Songs by Beverley Hughesdon and I’ll Bring You Buttercups by Elizabeth Elgin, but I can’t remember there being a TV programme about it before – so gold star to the BBC for showing this six-part series as part of their First World War commemorations.

However, I can’t quite make my mind up about it. There were a lot of stereotypes. A bossy matron who went round with a ruler checking that the bedding was on the beds exactly how she liked it, apparently having nothing better to worry about in the middle of a war. A nasty posh bloke who sent men back to the front when they clearly weren’t up to it. A silly posh VAD with no clue about the real world. A silly posh doctor who kept chasing the nurses. You get the idea. Then Suranne Jones, speaking with a broad Oldham accent (as opposed to the posh accents of the various silly/nasty types) turned up on a motorbike. As you do.

On the other hand, apart from all the stereotyping, it really wasn’t bad. There are clearly lots of back stories, which hopefully we’ll hear more about as the series progresses, and this was only the first episode. I’ll be sticking with it.

Word Press

Crimea by Orlando Figes

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Ah, this was glorious! It is a complete mystery to me why Orlando Figes chooses to write fake reviews on Amazon when he must get so many good ones praising his work. It was subtitled “The Last Crusade” and it did focus a lot on the religious aspects of the war. I think people do struggle to understand the “Holy Russia/Third Rome” idea. Even in our secular age, the idea of Russia as the protector of all Orthodox Slavs lives on, as we saw during the wars in the former Yugoslavia. He also made some very good points about Russia’s sense of betrayal when Britain and France sided with the Ottomans.

The Ottomans didn’t come across very well in this book: he presented the Ottoman Empire as discriminating strongly against non-Muslims. It’s very, very sad how the tolerant, multi-cultural Empire of earlier centuries, which could have taught the Europe of the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries so much, turned into the Empire of the Bulgarian massacres and, ultimately, the Armenian genocide. The issue of the Caucasus, which tends to be neglected by British historians, was also addressed. Now there’s an issue that’s never really been resolved.

A lot was also written about the ridiculous anti-Russian prejudice in the British and French press. That unfortunately still holds true today. I can’t believe some of the nonsense I’ve read over the last few months – claims about Russia wanting to conquer the Baltic States, and even comparisons between Putin and Hitler, which are just appalling especially given how many Russians were killed in the Second World War. Some of it used to be due to paranoia about Russian designs on India, but most of it is just silly prejudice against a “different” culture.

He also covered the aggression of the French Second Empire. Personally, I always blame France for Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War! He made a lot of how the Crimean War badly damaged Russia and Austria’s standing but increased that of France. Hmm – that didn’t last very long, did it?! As for Britain, he made the point that this was the first war in which the rank and file soldiers, rather than just the well-to-do big name officers, were really seen as heroes, and he also linked the Crimean War with the rise of the idea of “muscular Christianity”. I always associate “muscular Christianity” with mountaineering in the Alps, but I think that’s due to too much time spent reading Chalet School books!

Finally, he addressed the issue of the effect of the Crimean War on population exchange – a lot of Armenians leaving Anatolia for what’s now Armenia and, of course, the emigration of large numbers of Crimean Tatars to the Ottoman Empire, leaving Crimea to be repopulated mainly by ethnic Russians, something which is of considerable significance at the moment.

Many of the issues of the time remain unresolved today. Should Crimea be part of Russia? Should the Caucasus (the Caucasian republics, as they now are) be part of (what’s now) the Russian Federation? Is Turkey part of Europe or not? To what extent should Russia be involved in the Balkans? Why is there such paranoia about Russia? Even the issue of who should control the keys to the Holy Sepulchre never really seems to’ve been sorted out. On and on and on.

British books about the Crimean War usually focus on … well, not just on Florence Nightingale and the Charge of the Light Brigade, but certainly on the British aspects of the war. Fair enough, but it was very nice to read a book which set the war more in its proper context – looking east. Excellent book