Texas by James Michener


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Finally finished this, all 1,500 pages of it! Just in time for the new series of Dallas, which starts next week – yay! (BTW, am I the only person who gets the theme tune from the 1980s cartoon going through their heads whenever the phrase “cities of gold” is used?) It’s one of those books which aims to tell the story of a particular place through the history of several different families.

It begins in the 1530s, which obviously raises questions about the ignoring of the history of the area before European settlers arrived; but that’s how he chose to write it. The actual history element of the book was pretty well done … although I’ve got no idea what the massacre of Glencoe was supposed to have to do with someone moving from Scotland to Northern Ireland and then to Texas in the 1820s! However, it was all a bit too “Anglo”. The Hispanic families faded into the background once the book got to the Reconstruction era, the German family didn’t feature that much, there was nothing from the viewpoint of Comanche characters and there was very little from the viewpoint of black characters. And there was virtually no mention of any white or black characters from a non-Christian background. This isn’t about being “politically correct”; it’s about reflecting the demographics and the history of Texas. Also, there were too many people coming and going.

Not the greatest book I’ve ever read, but an interesting read.


The Great War: The People’s Story – ITV1


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This has been a very moving series, using actors and actresses to portray real people of the Great War, reading from their surviving letters and diaries. Some of the characters are more appealing than others, but all their stories are fascinating.

Last night’s episode included what I think was the most moving story yet, that of Emily Chitticks, a 19-year-old housemaid, and her fiancé, Will Martin. They wrote to each other as often as possible, signing their letters “Your loving sweetheart”. Will was killed in action in 1917. His grave was never traced. Emily died in 1974. She’d never married, and had no surviving relatives. She’d wanted the letters which she and Will had sent to each other to be buried with her, but no-one knew that at the time. The letters were found when her house was cleared out, and given to the Imperial War Museum. Now, Joanna Lumley’s arranged for them to be buried alongside Emily.

It’s such a very sad story. The Great War has so many of them.

The series raises a couple of questions – for me, I mean, not for itself! Is it OK to broadcast and publish people’s private letters and diaries? OK, a lot of famous people’s papers have been published, but presumably that was what they intended, or they’d have wanted them destroyed when they died. When my grandma died, she still had the letters which she and my grandad had sent to each other during the Second World War and, after a lot of thinking, my mum decided to destroy them without reading them, because they were private letters between the two of them and not meant for anyone else’s eyes. Private letters and diaries are a very interesting and important historical resource, but does that make it OK for us to share other people’s private thoughts?

Then there’s the issue of private letter-writing, or even letter-writing between public figures, falling into decline. How many people keep transcripts of phone calls or text messages, or copies of e-mails or “instant messages” sent via Facebook or other applications? Everything’s recorded and reported now .. and yet, at the same time, very little is recorded and reported now. It’s strange.

The series hasn’t all been sadness. There’ve been some happy endings too. But Emily and Will didn’t get one, and I so wish that they had’ve done.

Russia’s Lost Princesses – BBC 2


Russia, July 2012 391
This sounded like it could be interesting (despite incorrectly using the term “Princesses” rather than “Grand Duchesses”), but unfortunately it was all same old, same old. Anyone with the remotest interest in Russian history has heard all about Nicky and Alix’s respective backgrounds, Alix’s health problems, the Rasputin saga, etc etc, a zillion times before, and all that this programme did was repeat it. I suppose we should at least be grateful that it didn’t start harping on about Anna Anderson.

What a missed opportunity. There are other issues which are often neglected but which could have been raised instead of all the same old stuff. Did anyone consider the possibility that a healthy son might still be born to Nicky and Alix, after Alexei’s birth.

Queen Victoria had four sons, of whom only one had haemophilia. Of Alix’s three brothers, one had haemophilia and two did not. Or was it just assumed that, after the long gap between Anastasia and Alexei and with Alix’s health declining, another pregnancy was unlikely. The issue never seems to be considered.

Then there are the visits to Russia by the Grand Duchesses’ cousins on their mother’s side, which are particularly interesting to the British viewer because of the Battenberg/Mountbatten connection. There’s this romantic story that Louis, the future Earl Mountbatten of Burma, had a teenage crush on his cousin Maria and that he always kept his picture by her bedside. The impression given by the programme was that the girls were very much isolated. Why not talk about their meetings with their cousins?

Finally, there’s the question of how the haemophilia gene might have affected their futures. It had to’ve come out at some point that the Tsarevich had haemophilia. When Alfonso of Spain wanted to marry Ena of Battenberg, Alix’s cousin, there was opposition precisely because of concerns about bringing “bad blood” into the Spanish royal family. It sounds so horrible to be talking in these terms, but there were understandable concerns about the need for a healthy heir, especially given what had happened in Russia. How would it have affected the Grand Duchesses’ chances of making “good” marriages.

OK, this is mostly speculation, but at least it’s not all the same old stuff everyone’s heard time and again. Come on, BBC, give us something a bit more original!

True Women by Janice Woods Windle


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Janice Woods Windle tells the story of Texas from the Texan Revolution up to and including the Depression through the lives of her female ancestors. They appear to have led bizarrely dramatic lives – leading parties of refugees shortly after the Alamo, outriding Native American chiefs, shooting dead Yankee generals, and meeting all the major figures of Texan history – but there seems to be no suggestion that the basic facts are untrue. She seems to have had some very adventurous ancestors! Apparently a mini-series of this was made in the mid-1990s, featuring Angelina Jolie before she was famous, BTW!

It must be quite difficult to write about your own ancestors when you’re having to tackle topics such as slavery and driving the Native Americans out of their ancestral lands, but the author manages it fairly well. Her style of writing isn’t the world’s greatest and I could live without the idea that she learnt about her ancestors through a medium who could contact the dead, rather than through research and family legends, but it’s a good book all the same.

Next up for me is James Michener’s “Texas” – all 1500 pages of it!

The Village – BBC 1


Series 2, episode 1 – featuring Julian Sands chasing people round the grounds of Lyme Park with a dog, a boxer baring his bottom, posh girls practising the Charleston, and a calf in Maxine Peake’s front room.

The BBC have obviously made a huge effort to cheer things up after everyone moaned about how miserable the first series was, and some of the characters are genuinely quite interesting. Also, there is a strong sense of the 1920s, of the political and social changes of the era. The rest of the series should be worth giving a go – and it’s rather nice seeing Quarry Bank Mill starring in The Mill at 8pm on Sundays and then Lyme Park starring in this straight afterwards :-).

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Caballero by Jovita Gonzalez and Eve Raleigh


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Caballero is sometimes described as “the Gone With The Wind of Texas”. It’s rather unfortunate that it shares its name with that goalkeeper City have just signed from Malaga. but that’s beside the point. It’s also not in the same league as GWTW, but that certainly doesn’t mean that it has no value. It tells the story of a Mexican family, of Spanish hidalgo descent, living in southern Texas at the time of the Mexican War. The “caballero” of the title is the patriarch of the family. “Caballero” means gentleman … not a word I’ve ever forgotten since I made a complete prat of myself in a GCSE Spanish lesson by confusing “caballeros” in the sense of “gents’ toilets” (our text books were ridiculously out of date) with “caballos”, which means “horses”. “Caballero”, like chevalier, cavalier, etc, did originally mean someone who rode a horse … anyway, I digress.

I first came across the Mexican War when I was 11, through John Jakes’ North and South, but that told the story from an American military viewpoint. This tells the story largely from the viewpoint of a number of Mexican-Texan women – the “cabellero”‘s two daughters, both of whom end up marrying “Anglo” Americans, his widowed sister (possibly the most fascinating character in the book) and his wife. The book covers not only the interaction between the “Anglos” and the … now, what’s the word? The idea of “Hispanics” or “Latinos” as a separate ethnic or cultural group can be quite hard for a British person to get their head round. Polish-Americans, Italian-Americans, etc, are all grouped along with “Anglo” Americans, but Hispanics are classed as a separate group, and it’s quite a complex issue. In Texas, the word “Tejano/a” is often used, and I think that’s a good word. So, we have the interaction between the “Anglos” (and that word doesn’t really work either, as many of the Americans who settled in Texas after the Mexican War were of German descent) and the Tejanos, and we also have the restrictions imposed by class and tradition on the women of this family, the Mendoza y Sorias.

The book is partly a romance, between Susanita, the “Caballero’s” youngest daughter, and Robert, an American lieutenant, but the romance isn’t the main part of it. It doesn’t even work all that well – some of it’s a bit corny and cheesy, eyes meeting across a crowded room (actually a crowded church) and that’s it kind of thing. What’s more important is the courage of Susanita in going against tradition, not just in her choice of husband but in going to the American soldiers to beg for the life of her brother, and also the advocacy of the integration of the two communities. Interestingly, the book, whilst written in the 1930s and 1940s, wasn rejected by publishers at the time, probably because of concerns about how the promotion of integration would have been received.

It’s not Gone With The Wind, but it’s still a very well-written and intriguing work, with a lot of different aspects thereof.

A Woman of the People by Benjamin Capps


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This book, set in the 1850s and 1860s, tells the story of a Texan girl kidnapped by Comanche raiders and incorporated into their band. She’s initially determined to escape, and continues to feel that she has some sort of duty to escape, even though she becomes part of the band and falls in love with and marries a man who later becomes their chief. It’s written rather simplistically, as if it’s meant as a “young adult” novel – which apparently it isn’t, although I gather that it’s sometimes been used as a set text in American schools – but it tells the story well, without either making it seem that the whites are all bad or making it seem as if the Native Americans are all bad.

It also doesn’t a big deal of the fact of a relationship between a white woman and a Native American man. The story of a female child taken captive must be easier to write than that of an adult woman taken captive, though, as adult female captives were almost always raped, whereas the child in this story was treated as if she were a daughter of the band, and married a man she genuinely liked.

She never goes back, so we never get to see if she’d have been able to settle back into life amongst white people, although it’s pretty clear that she wouldn’t have been. She stays. And the Comanche band are forced to settle for life on a “reservation”, after white hunters kill both their horses and the area’s herds of buffalo.

The author tries hard to tell a story, not just the fictional story of a character but also the story of the life of a Comanche band at the time, rather than to present a case for or against any group of people or any culture. He pretty much succeeds.

The Mill – Channel 4


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Having been away on holiday, I’ve just watched the first three episodes of the second series one after the other, and thoroughly enjoyed them all. I’m probably biased, because a) the cotton industry is a subject about which I can happily waffle for hours and hours and b) I know Quarry Bank Mill, one of my local National Trust properties, very well, but I really do think it’s good.

The new series is set in 1838, and part of its focus is the effect of the 1834 Poor Law, linked in with the effects of the Corn Laws, and also the Chartist movement. The Corn Laws, as all good Mancunians – hurrah for Free Trade! – know, were a Very Bad Thing. Quite seriously, they were, keeping the price of bread artificially high, and focusing only on the wants of landowners. The Poor Law was … well, partly what governments are still struggling with now, trying to find a balance between supporting those in need without creating a situation where it was preferable to choose not to work than to seek work, and partly the result of a Whiggish over-obsession with socio-economic theories which didn’t necessarily work in practice. One of the main authors of it was Edwin Chadwick and, given that he came from Manchester, you’d think he’d have realised that relying on workhouses as a means of poor relief wouldn’t work in industrial areas where poverty tended to be cyclical rather than absolute, but unfortunately he didn’t.

The new series sees a number of people from the South of England arrive in Styal looking for work. There seems to be this idea, going back to Georgian times, that the dark satanic mills were some sort of hell on earth, in contrast to some kind of mythical Merrie Englande which lived on in rural areas, in which everyone had rosy cheeks and skipped around in fields with little lambs. That’s nonsense, as The Mill shows. Certainly by 1860, millworkers in North West England were the highest paid in the country. One of the main aims of “poor relief” in the 1830s and 1840s was to encourage people to move from rural Southern areas to industrial Northern areas, precisely because the industrial Northern areas were better off. Good to see that point being made.

Then the Chartists. Incidentally, could someone please teach the producers a bit about the geography of the area?! Even in 1838, getting from Styal to Kersal Moor would definitely not have been “a walk in the country”! Trust me on this: I only live a mile and a bit from Kersal Moor. I’m rather proud of its association with the Chartists. We’re getting a “human interest” story with this too – Daniel Bate is becoming obsessed with promoting social and political reform, and neglecting his family as a result.

There are two other main “human interest” stories. One is that of Peter, the freed slave, and his relationship with Miriam, one of the mill girls. The other is that of Our Heroine Esther Price, the star of the first series. Esther is now old enough to have moved out of the Apprentice House and into her own home … but she’s using her new-found freedom to get drunk and sleep with a man she hardly knows, whilst the remaining female apprentices are bonding together and managing very well without her.

The first series of The Mill got some poor reviews. It didn’t deserve them: it was very good. The second series, so far, has been even better.

The Son by Philipp Meyer


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This is a very ambitious books about a Texan family. The family patriarch, kidnapped by Comanche raiders as a boy, invested in land on which oil was later found, and eliminated (as in had murdered) Hispanic families who got in his way. His grandson and great-granddaughter then had to deal in their different ways with issues of money and power. We start off in a sparsely-populated world in which “Anglos”, Tejanos and Native Americans are all struggling for their own ways of life and finish in the sort of world which we associate with JR Ewing but seen from a female perspective.

It’s a fascinating book, but it’s written in a rather confusing way … the stories of the three main characters aren’t written chronologically, but with a chapter about one followed by a chapter on another. I’m not sure that that was the best way of telling the story, but the book was well worth reading all the same. Texas is a unique mix, with the overlap of Anglo and Hispanic culture, the “Wild West” element, the “Old South” element, the oil and money-grubbing element. I’m looking forward to seeing it for myself.