Downton Abbey – ITV1

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WARNING – CONTAINS SPOILERS :-)!!

So, here we are! Series 5, 1924, and Britain has its first Labour government. The Big Drama of the first episode was supposed to be the fire, but not very much happened with that. However, a lot happened with various females. Miss Bunting, the schoolmistress who despises the idle rich but loves poking round their big houses, was invited to dine at the Abbey and wound everyone up at the dinner table. Daisy decided that she wanted to be better at maths. The Dowager Countess got the needle at the thought of Isobel making a grand marriage. Lady Mary decided that she wasn’t marrying Lord Gillingham unless she knew he was up to the mark in the bedroom department. Little Sybil called the Earl “Donk”. Gladys Althorpe/the woman whom High Grant didn’t marry in Four Weddings and a Funeral invited herself to stay at the Abbey and seduced a footman. And a woman from the village asked Carson, not the Earl, to be in charge of the war memorial committee. Letting the side down was the dozy woman who’s looking after Lady Edith’s daughter – she couldn’t work out that Edith was the child’s natural mother, even though it was blatantly obvious.

It seems to have got mixed reviews in the press this morning, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. There was some serious stuff (politics and social change), some humour (Molesley and his hair dye), some nastiness (Barrow, played by my cousin’s one-time housemate, trying to blackmail Miss Baxter), some romance, and the usual class system stuff. And the wonderful one-liners from the Dowager Countess. Could Lady Edith please get her act together and go back to being the person who went off to London to work as a journalist, though? And please could Anna and Bates have some happiness? And when are Carson and Mrs Hughes going to get together?!

Welcome back, Downton Abbey! We need you on autumnal Sunday nights :-).

Not Between Brothers: an epic novel of Texas by David Marion Wilkinson

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This was an excellent novel apart from one absolutely appalling historical blunder! It said that South Carolina seceded in December 1861, instead of December 1860. It wasn’t just a typo, because the year 1861 had already been covered by this point … so the author had the civil war starting a year later than it actually did. I can’t understand how someone who had obviously done so much research could get something so basic and so fundamental wrong.

Other than that, it really was very good. It covered Texan history from the 1820s to the 1860s, giving pretty much equal and unbiased attention to Anglo, Tejano and Comanche culture and featuring some of the best known figures in Texan history alongside the fictional characters. In the end, I didn’t sympathise that much with any of the men: the ones who suffered most were the women, especially the Anglo and Tejano women who were captured and horrifically abused by Comanche men. However, it did portray all three cultures very well – especially a subject often neglected in novels, the devastation wreaked on Native Americans by “white” diseases to which they had no immunity.

Strangely, at the end, the main “Anglo” (actually of half-French, half-Scottish descent) character didn’t stay in Texas. He opposed secession and headed for California. Odd choice of ending.

Interesting book. I just don’t understand how anyone, especially someone who did so much research, could get the civil war a year “out”.

El Cid (the 1961 film)

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All right, all right, this is a very romanticised version of events, and, when it comes to El Cid, even non-romanticised versions of events tend to be more myth/legend than fact. The historical details were all over the place, especially regarding his time in Valencia, and he was about 30 years too young when he died! Not to mention the repeated use of “Spain” rather than “Castile”.

Oh well! However, as entertainment, it was really very good. Old-style Hollywood at its best. Charlton Heston and Sophia Loren were both wonderfully glamorous, and the most suggestive it got was a bit of kissing and hand-holding. They don’t make films like that any more! The special effects and props were really pretty good considering that the film’s over half a century old, and I did get really into it. Well worth seeing!

Going back to the real historical facts of the time, there’s a lesson in that El Cid was able to work with and to lead both Christians and Muslims, often together, and to serve both Christian and Islamic rulers. Medieval Iberia can teach a lot of lessons in that regard.

The Alamo

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I have finally got round to watching this – the 1960 film starring and directed by John Wayne. Accepting that the special effects etc of 1960 were nothing like those of today, it’s quite a well-made film. Unfortunately, it doesn’t really explain anything about the reasons for the Texan Revolution, and rather gives the impression that it was all about Davy Crockett and his group of fellow Tennesseeans having an Awfully Big Adventure!

Also, it was amazing how the Mexican soldiers managed to keep their terribly smart uniforms quite so pristine, LOL. And, whilst the general idea was historically accurate and the main characters were all real historical figures, a lot of the detail really wasn’t accurate at all.

Having said which, it was all quite entertaining. However, people tend to assume that what’s in a historical book or film must be entirely accurate, and that makes it all the more frustrating when it’s not.

One interesting interpretation of this film is that it was strongly influenced by being made at the height of the Cold War, i.e. Santa Anna’s Mexico is in some ways meant to represent Khrushchev’s, or, more likely, Stalin’s Soviet Union. I’m not 100% sure about that, but there was certainly an awful lot of talk about freedom, liberty, dying to make people free, etc … and nary a mention of the fact that Mexico forbade slavery and a lot of Texicans wanted it legalised (the one main slave character in the film was devoted to his master in a way that seemed more Gone With The Wind than it did the 1960s). Like a lot of books and films about the Alamo, it was all about portraying it as a great act of heroism.

Question. The Texican defenders of the Alamo were undoubtedly brave. Some horrific atrocities were carried out after both the Alamo and Goliad. No question about that. However, why is the struggle by part of the Mexican province of Coahuila y Tejas for independence from Mexico presented in American historical tradition as something heroic, whereas the secession of (11 states including) that same area, by then the state of Texas, just 25 years later, from the United States, presented as something wrong. What is the real difference? Nothing to do with the film, just something that annoys me!

The Gates of the Alamo by Stephen Harrigan

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This is a very well-written book telling a familiar story from a different angle. Different angles, even! The main characters, a middle-aged American bachelor botanist and a feisty American widow who runs an inn, aren’t your typical hero and heroine; and other main characters include Mexicans and an Afro-American slave as well as Texians.

Stephen Harrigan doesn’t do the Great Heroics thing: instead, he seems to be an advocate of the cock-up theory of history, something for which there are a lot of compelling arguments! It’s not the fastest-moving or most dramatic account of the Texan Revolution that you’ll ever read, but it’s certainly a very good one.

Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid

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This is one of those films which are so well-known that you’re rather embarrassed to admit that you’ve never seen it! Well, I have seen it now. I would say that it was a bit daft, but a lot of it was based on fact – which says a lot about how crazy the Wild West really was! It’s really pretty strange that bank robbing and mass shootings are romanticised, but that’s the way it is! It’s not the best film ever, but it’s quite entertaining, and it’s interesting as an example of the romanticisation (is that a word?!) of the lawlessness in the Old West.

BTW, I just have to point out that the real Butch Cassidy (Robert Parker)’s paternal grandparents were from Preston, and lived for a while here in Manchester where his grandad worked in a mill. And his mother was from Tyneside. So there you go – the Wild West outlaw with good North of England roots!

Evangeline, A Tale of Acadie by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

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Oh dear. I’m sure that the poem’s very well-written, and the use of descriptive language is very impressive, but all that maudlin Victorian sentimentalism just did my head in!

This poem is, famously, set during the Great Upheaval/Great Expulsion, when British and New Englander forces deported the Acadian population from what’s now Nova Scotia and its surrounding areas, over concerns about their lack of loyalty to the British crown at a time (the Seven Years’ War) of war with France. Acadian, or Cajun, culture is now a very important part of the culture of southern Louisiana. It was a very shameful episode in the history of the British Empire and no-one’s denying that; but this poem just went way overboard!

For a kick-off, Acadia before the expulsions is portrayed as some sort of … well, Arcadia with an r. All these peaceful, upstanding “peasants” … it sounds like one of those awful early 20th century descriptions of Oberammergau which make it sound more like Shangri-La than Bavaria! Then we have Our Heroine trekking all over America, as you do, trying to find Our Hero, before she eventually locates him just in time for him to die in her arms. Most annoyingly, it portrays what’s now the USA as some sort of place of refuge, when in fact New England was just as much involved in the expulsions as Britain was and many of the Acadian refugees in the British North American colonies were treated appallingly. Also, the name “Evangeline” makes me think of someone in one of the Chalet School books complaining that it sounds like “vaseline”; but that, to be fair, isn’t really Longfellow’s fault :-).

What’s interesting is how very significantly this, and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s even more sentimental Uncle Tom’s Cabin (appalling as the scourge of slavery was, that book makes me want to throw up!), have influenced history. This poem, written by someone who had no Acadian connections at all, changed both the whole view of the history of Eastern Canada and the way in which people who did have Acadian ancestry viewed both their history and their own culture. It’s got to be one of the most influential poems of all time. Yet, whilst I quite accept that this sort of thing was extremely popular at the time, from a 20th or 21st century viewpoint it’s what would be referred to in Girls’ Own literature as “sentimental bosh”. Fascinating!!

Our Zoo – BBC 1

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What a lovely series this looks like being! Whilst in Thirsk, a.k.a. Darrowby of All Creatures Great and Small, over the August Bank Holiday, I was bemoaning the loss of nice, gentle, feelgood programmes like Born and Bred, Heartbeat etc, and Our Zoo is exactly the sort of thing I was on about.

It’s not 100% true to the facts, but the basic story is true. George Mottershead, originally from Sale, developed a liking for animals from visits to Belle Vue as a child. The Belle Vue Zoological Gardens are rather a legend in the Manchester area, and I feel a bit cheated 🙂 that I never got to see them because they closed down when I was only 2! George suffered from shell shock after the First World War, in which he was seriously injured and two of his brothers (although only one is mentioned in the TV programme) were killed. He and his family later moved to the Crewe area, where they ran a market garden. George had a dream of opening zoos where animals weren’t kept behind bars, and he eventually opened Chester Zoo, which soon became and has remained one of the top attractions in the North West. My two little nephews love it there (one of them is particularly obsessed with monkeys) :-).

The first episode was funny (a monkey escaping and getting into the local shop) without being OTT or farcical, gentle without being insipid (the long term effects of the Great War on George’s mental health were made clear), and poignant without being soppy. The characters – including George himself, his elder daughter who didn’t want to spend her whole life in the same place and doing the same old things, his mother who was reluctant to leave her home (the idea was that she associated it with her dead son, although in reality the family only moved there some years after the Great War) – were realistic and appealing, and the whole thing really worked very well.

My one complaint is that this really belongs at 8 o’clock on a Sunday night, rather than 9 o’clock on a weekday night. Having Our Zoo at 8, then (going over to ITV for) Downton Abbey at 9 on a cold autumn night would be perfect! Lovely programme and well worth watching.

Promised Lands by Elizabeth Crook

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This is a novel about the Texan Revolution but, rather than the same old, same old stuff about the Alamo, it concentrates on Goliad, San Jacinto and the impact of the war on civilians. It’s not a military novel by any means – there are several romances in it, none of which, sadly, end up going anywhere – but it is fairly brutal. The Texan War of Independence, like the War Between The States, does have a veil of romanticism covering it, and it’s important to remember that there really isn’t anything romantic about war, especially when the victorious side quite literally takes no prisoners.

It’s a very good read, and includes many interesting and different characters. However, I’ve got one big complaint about it, and that’s that it doesn’t really finish properly. We’re left wondering what even the immediate future holds for most of the main characters, and that’s rather annoying. However, we’re left in no doubt that all those who’ve survived are going to be scarred by the war for the rest of their lives. Never mind John Wayne films and Marty Robbins or Johnny Cash songs. I just wish I knew what happened to all the characters whose stories were left hanging!!

Call No Man Master by Tina Juárez

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This is an easy to read but fascinating novel about the movement for Mexican independence from Spain and the struggles within Mexican society about whether and, if so, how that should take place. Our Heroine is a mestizo (mestiza?) girl who becomes part of the army of Miguel Hidalgo, he of the “Cry of Dolores”; and the book takes us through to when her Anglo lover survives the Alamo.

The title of the book refers to so many different aspects of the time. Mexican independence from Spain. The struggles of the peons, many of them indigenous people or mestizos, against the dominance of the Spanish elite. The role of women. And something which is often glossed over in the presentation of the Alamo as the symbol of Texan heroism – the fact that slavery was illegal in independent Mexico, and that the reason many Texas(/Texicans/Texians) wanted either independence from Mexico or to become part of the USA wasn’t about “liberty” but about slavery.

It did get a bit Dallas-esque. People finding out that their father wasn’t actually their father. People who were supposed to have been dead for years turning up alive. And it was rather … not simplistic, but an easy read rather than a challenging one. But it was an absolutely fascinating portrayal of a subject which doesn’t get a lot of attention in English-language writing.