Rome: the world’s first superpower – Channel 5

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I was rather surprised to see that this new series was being presented by Larry Lamb, who might have done a good job of playing Archie Mitchell in EastEnders but, AFAIK, has no history-related qualifications or training; but he did a very good job of it. He was very enthusiastic and his down-to-earth approach worked well (although he could perhaps do with finding a few synonyms for “pragmatic).

This wasn’t the usual same-old-same-old-Julius-Caesar-and-Augustus stuff. This was about how Rome first got going. Not an easy story to tell, because none of us really know how true any of the Romulus and Remus story is. It covered well-known stories/themes such as the tyranny of Tarquin and the rape of Lucretia, social clashes and the promulgation of early law codes, and the wonderful engineering feats such as the 6th century BC sewers still in use … and the tragedies of those who died building them. All without any of the silly stuff that’s sadly so prevalent in historical programmes these days, such as the BBC referring to the Gunpowder Plot as “5/11” or Lucy Worsley prancing about in Georgian costumes.

Good stuff! Bring on the next three episodes :-).

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Gunpowder 5/11 – BBC 2

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I really cannot believe that the BBC chose to call a programme on the Gunpowder Plot “Gunpowder 5/11”. In fact, I nearly switched it off when the presenter started talking about “5/11”. Not impressed! However, despite the title, the programme was actually rather good.

I do wish, though, that there didn’t seem to be this obsession with drawing parallels between historical events and current ones. I’m not even sure that parallels can be drawn between concerns about Catholicism in the 17th century and concerns about Islamic fundamentalism now. Think about “Bloody Mary”, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, Pius V’s Bull against Elizabeth I, the Spanish Armada, the plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the English throne … and then think about “9/11”, the terrorist attacks in London, the terrorist attacks in Madrid, the atrocities carried out by IS … how far can you actually compare those situations? Anyway, I didn’t really appreciate the use of “5/11” in the title. I could also have lived without the references to the low opinions amongst the English Establishment of Scots who’d moved to London with King James: they weren’t relevant to the Gunpowder Plot and were presumably only there as a nod to certain recent political events.

Having said all that, the programme was quite interesting. OK, it was same old, same old, but it was presented well. It also made two very important points, which aren’t new but are well worth repeating. One was about the very scale of the Gunpowder Plot – that it planned to take out the entire Establishment. There’ve been a lot of individual assassinations in history, but this … bloody hell, the sheer scale of the plot … it talked about “The Greatest Terror Plot” and, yes, that’s probably what it was. The other was about the restraint shown afterwards. Feelings were running high. There could have been a huge wave of anti-Catholic persecution. But there wasn’t. The plot was foiled, and the alternative horrors that could have resulted from its failure didn’t happen either.

Relevance to today? Yes, a lot. Yes, it is still well worth commemorating. It’s also one of the few purely British historical traditions remaining. So much has already been lost, and it saddens me to see Bonfire Night being increasingly overshadowed by stupid plastic skeletons, cardboard bats and “scream” eggs. This was The Greatest Terror Plot. It was foiled. We’ve been marking that for 409 years. Don’t let’s lose that tradition now. Bring on the parkin buns, the jacket potatoes, the sparklers and the fireworks! Remember, remember the Fifth of November.

Kingdom by Robyn Young

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This is the third and final book in Robyn Young’s Robert (the) Bruce trilogy, culminating in the Battle of Bannockburn, the 700th anniversary of which has been marked this year. I’m rather put out that she chose not to include the spider story, LOL, but she does mention it in the afterword, referring to it as “the now legendary arachnid” :-).

It’s a very complex period in both Scottish and English history, and the author explains in the afterword that she’s simplified events and merged events to prevent the story, which is a novel rather than a text book, from becoming too convoluted. Fair enough. I found it rather strange, though, that she chose to invent a storyline about Elizabeth de Burgh, Robert’s queen, having an affair with one of her captors, and another storyline in which it was Robert who captured Piers Gaveston and handed him over to Edward II’s English opponents. Philippa Gregory makes things like that up, but I don’t really expect Robyn Young to do so. Oh well, it was entertaining to read, and at least she explained that she’d made it up!

I like her portrayal of Robert the Bruce himself very much. She doesn’t try to show him as any sort of hero, villain or legend, but as a real human being, with good points and bad points. Edward I, on the other hand, comes across in a very negative way … but then his handling of Scottish affairs, especially his brutal decision to imprison Isabel Macduff (who came across as a very sad victim in this book – I prefer Nigel Tranter’s portrayal of her as feisty and independent) and Mary Bruce in cages, was horrific. Whatever his achievements as “the English Justinian”, it’s hard to think how anyone could portray him other than negatively when writing about Scotland. Edward II just came across as rather a prat, and it’s hard to argue with that. Robyn Young takes the view that Edward II and Piers Gaveston were lovers – I’m not sure why some people think otherwise, TBH – but whether or not they were lovers isn’t really that relevant: it’s the fact that he gave Gaveston so much power that caused the problems.

Anyway, thus endeth this excellent trilogy, the second of Robyn Young’s excellent trilogies of historical novels. I look forward to her beginning her third!

Caleb’s Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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This, set in Martha’s Vineyard and Cambridge, Massachusetts in (mainly) the 1660s, had the potential to be a very interesting book. The two main characters were Bethia, a very intelligent young woman eager to learn in a Puritanical, patriarchal society which sought to confine women to domestic roles, and (based on a real person) Caleb, son of a Wampanoag chief, who became the first Native American to graduate from Harvard. It was far more about Bethia than Caleb, incidentally, and the title was misleading in that respect, but there were so many interesting themes – the relations between the Native Americans and the English settlers, the funding sent from England to educate Native Americans at Harvard, the role of women, life in what was effectively a theocracy (don’t get me started on the evil that is organised religion), the classical education of the times … OK, it was all a bit serious and “worthy”, but, given the subject matter, it had to be.

However, the author suddenly dropped all the storylines and then jumped forward to over 50 years later, gave a brief summary of what had happened to the main characters in the meantime, and that was that. I’m not exactly sure what the author was trying to achieve with this book, but it didn’t really tell Caleb’s story because it concentrated too much on Bethia, and it didn’t really tell Bethia’s (fictional) story because it suddenly jumped from when she was 17 and struggling to make a big decision to when she was 70. It promised a lot, but it didn’t really deliver. What a shame – it could have been very good indeed.

Downton Abbey and the Odessa pogroms

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I really wish that someone would teach Julian Fellowes something about Russia. In October 12th’s episode, Downton Abbey’s characters, both Russian and British, repeatedly referred to a female Russian “off-stage” character by the masculine version of her surname. Surely Mr Fellowes should not be writing about Russians at all if he doesn’t know something as simple about Russian culture as the fact that Russian surnames take masculine and feminine forms? Not impressed.

In last night’s episode, things got even worse. Lady Rose met a handsome young man, a banker whose father had recently been given a title, who mentioned that he had Russian ancestry. It transpired that his family had been forced to leave Odessa due to the pogroms of 1859 and 1871. Odessa (or Odesa) is actually in Ukraine, but that’s not really all that relevant: many people there even now self-identify as Russians. What is relevant is the fact that the Odessa pogroms of 1859 and 1871 were, whilst shocking and inexcusable, fairly minor incidents, more about economic rivalry than anything else, and perpetrated largely by the local Greek population rather than any sort of Russian/Ukrainian authorities or organised mobs.

“Pogroms” as they are usually understood really began after the assassination of Alexander II in 1881 and the passing of the anti-Jewish May Laws in 1882. Incidentally, most of them were in Ukraine, Poland and Moldova, not, as many people seem to think, in Russia. Fiddler on the Roof’s set in Ukraine rather than Russia, but many people don’t seem to realise that either. There wasn’t a major pogrom in Odessa until 1905, at which there was a major wave of pogroms sweeping across the Russian Empire. If you want to write about pogroms in Odessa, write about what happened in 1905. It was perhaps particularly horrific because Odessa was such a “Jewish” city – it had long been so, and really it continued to be so until the 1940s.

Furthermore, Odessa, although it does perhaps get rather stereotyped, was famous for being radical, revolutionary, and a bit dodgy. In some ways it was a bit of a Wild West place in the second half of the nineteenth century, attracting all sorts of runaways and other slightly shady types. Having said which, it did have a substantial middle class as well. Some of the Jewish population of Odessa did leave in the 1880s, and I suppose some may have left after the much more minor incidents of 1859 and 1871, and some of those families may have, within two generations, got to the stage where they were naming their sons Atticus, talking in posh voices, buying stately homes and being given titles, but I don’t think Julian Fellowes really did his research very well here.

It’s very laudable that he wanted to show how much Rose’s friend’s family had achieved in so short a time, and how Lady Rose herself was pleasantly lacking in religious prejudice, but he really might have picked somewhere other than Odessa! It would have worked much better if Atticus Aldridge’s family had left Warsaw or Vilnius following the Russian crackdown on both Jews and Catholics after the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4. Historically, that would have made a far more likely tale.

The Grameid by James Philip

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Written in 1691, this is “An heroic poem descriptive of the campaign of Viscount Dundee in 1689” … written in the style of the Aeneid! What I’ve just read is actually an 1888 translation thereof by Alexander D Murdoch: I’m afraid that I wimped out of trying to read it in the original Latin. Arma et vires cano, forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit … er, I can’t actually remember much else of the Aeneid in Latin. Never mind :-).

I’m not quite sure why anyone would want to take the Aeneid as a model for a heroic epic poem, purely because Aeneas is just such a prat. As heroes go, he’s not exactly up there with Hector, Leonidas et al, is he? Not to mention being a total love rat. For that matter, I don’t know why people had such a bee in their bonnets about the idea of being descended from the Trojans anyway. They might have been hard-working, but they can’t exactly have been over-endowed with brains. Seriously, how hard would it have been to see through the Trojan Horse trick? And why did no-one have the sense to listen to Cassandra?

Anyway, I appear to have got totally off the point now :-). Back to the Grameid. In terms of being a take-off of the Aeneid, which does include some absolutely glorious language despite the utter prattishness of its eponymous hero, it works brilliantly! “And now Phoebus, borne along in his chariot, by his steeds, seeks the upper sky, and Aurora has show forth the first rays of the coming day, and was casting a glow upon the glassy waves.” (i.e. – time to get up, folks.) This “plaided race of Grampian giants”. Dundee’s wife has just “suffered the pangs of Lupina” (i.e. given birth). Great stuff :-). I think the author/poet was a bit too keen to sound like Virgil, though: there were an awful lot of references to Trojans and Tyrians, which didn’t exactly fit in all that well with a battle fought not in Troy or Carthage but just outside Pitlochry. Still, it was wonderfully purple language!

So to what the author made of the Glorious Revolution and the 1689 Jacobite uprising. He started with quite an interesting take on things – that, instead of scrapping amongst themselves, any British (he did use the term “British”) would-be soldiers would have been better off going to Hungary to join in the fight against the Turks. In the 16th century, there was a lot of talk about how European states should be concentrating on fighting the Turks rather than each other, but, apart from the huge emergency which was the Siege of Vienna in 1683, that doesn’t seem to have been the case in the 17th; and I don’t think I’ve ever heard it commented on in connection with the Glorious Revolution before. Interesting.

The poem is called “The Grameid”, so the rather over-effusive praise of John Graham of Claverhouse, Viscount Dundee, “the light and glory of the north”, is only to be expected – especially as the poet clearly had it in for Presbyterians, and therefore presumably thoroughly approved of Graham’s campaigns against the Covenanters in the 1670s and 1680s as well as his support for James II. Sorry, James VII! However, the descriptions of the royals themselves are so overboard that you can’t do anything other than laugh at them! Charles I is a “martyr and hero”. William of Orange is “the Batavian tyrant” and “the impious robber of the North”. Poor Mary II is “a Tullia well mated with a Tarquin”. And, to cap it all, James II/VII himself is “greater than the greatest of his ancestors, valiant lord of the earth, god of the ocean”. Now, James admittedly gets a very raw deal from Whiggish, generally Protestant historians, but he was a libertine, useless at politics, ignored Acts of Parliament at will, and did a bunk when William invaded. “Greater than the greatest of his ancestors”?! Oh dear, LOL :-)!

The poet does say that James’ adherence to “the Reformed Faith” was “dubious”. Well, that’s one way of putting it! Maybe he (the poet, not James!) must have had problems getting his head round the idea of supporting a monarch who belonged to “the barbarous religion of Rome” (rather a strange way for a Jacobite supporter to put things!) and was trying to persuade himself that maybe James actually wasn’t all that Catholic after all. If so, what planet was he on?! A very Episcopalian one, anyway: he rants at length about the evils of Presbyterianism and “the foul Covenant”. Whilst I quite agree that both England and Scotland were much better off without the Solemn League and Covenant, the poet went even more overboard in criticising the Covenanters than he did in his descriptions of the Stuarts!

It’s hard to take this too seriously because it’s just so incredibly biased and so incredibly melodramatic, but it’s actually very entertaining in a weird sort of way! And, of course, Bonnie Dundee was killed at Killiecrankie, and, all being well, I shall be visiting there in a fortnight’s time, when I’m up in Pitlochry for a friend’s wedding. I’ve never been that far into Scotland before, and am rather excited about it :-).

The Great Fire – ITV1

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Gold star for doing a historical drama series which actually isn’t set in either the Tudor period or the Victorian period. Reasonable marks for entertainment: I quite enjoyed it. Limited marks for historical accuracy: I think they tried a bit too hard to make it soapy and thrillerish, and rather overdid it.

There were various elements to the programme, and they did link them together quite well. For a kick-off, we had Tom, the Cockney baker (played in a very EastEnders type way by Andrew Buchan, who’s actually from Bolton). OK, the bit about him fancying his sister-in-law and dramatically rescuing his daughters from the fire was rather more soap opera than fact, but it was meant to be a drama! The spread of the fire was well done, as was the famous scene in which the Lord Mayor of London said that a woman could “piss it out”.

The scriptwriters had also got Tom having a contract for the supply of bread for the Navy, and not having been paid by the powers that be. That, AFAIK, is a product of their imaginations, but it tied in very neatly with Samuel Pepys’ role at the Navy Board. We think of Pepys as a diarist, and it’s easy to forget that he did play a very important role in naval affairs. We also got to see him cheating on his wife, which may have been soap opera-ish but is undeniably historically accurate as well!

Pepys’ role at the Navy in turn tied in with life at court – and I think the programme gave Charles II a very raw deal. The impression given was that he was too busy trying to seduce Frances Stewart to give any attention to affairs of state, and wasn’t giving a second thought to the damage being done by the expense of the Second Anglo-Dutch War. That wasn’t fair. Yes, we all know about the Restoration court, and about Charles II’s numerous affairs, and, yes, the war didn’t go well and caused a lot of financial problems; but to portray Charles as someone who was only interested in wine, women and song is very unfair and certainly not accurate. Black mark there!

Then we had the Catholic plot. The entirely fictitious Lord Denton was on the trail of the equally fictitious Duke of Hanford, who had been smuggling in Spanish Catholic extremists who were plotting to murder the king. That’s exactly the sort of thing that a lot of people at the time imagined was going on. Most people assumed that the Fire was caused by Catholics. Possibly the Dutch, but possibly Catholics. The inscription on the Monument even says as much. That shows how much concern/paranoia there was at the time about Catholic plots. However, it was largely paranoia, and I don’t see why ITV found it necessary to make up a plot about a plot (sorry!) which pretty much suggested that the concern was actually well-founded.

Maybe they just did it because there’s such an obvious parallel with the way things are today. If a major fire started in London tomorrow, it would be hard not to jump to the conclusion that it was an Islamic fundamentalist terrorist attack. Anyway, whatever the scriptwriters’ reasons were, I could have lived without that particular storyline.

Mixed marks, then, but I’ll certainly be watching the next three episodes – and, again, a gold star to ITV for making a drama series set in Stuart times rather than Tudor times!