The Order of Darkness series – Philippa Gregory

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There are three books in this series so far, Changeling, Stormbringers and Fools’ Gold, and I decided to read them mainly because the third one’s set in Venice during Carnevale. They’re set in 1453/4, and are about five people who end up travelling around Italy together. One of them is a trainee priest, who’s been recruited by a Vatican-run secret order to investigate signs of “the end of days” – this is based, to some extent, on reality, there being a lot of millennial feeling in Europe following the fall of Constantinople. Another is his assistant, a monk, and a third is his friend/servant. The other two are a young noblewoman whose fortune has been stolen by her brother, and her half-Arab friend/companion/servant.

It’s a strange series, partially aimed at “young adults” but perhaps not entirely so. It’s also not based on historical reality, which is rather annoying (well, it is to me!) – the second book revolves around a tidal wave which never actually happened, the third around a currency collapse which never actually happened. However, the author does make it clear in her afterword that they never actually happened, so fair enough. And it is very interesting how she shows how things could be interpreted by the superstitious in a world ignorant of much of the scientific knowledge we have now … until the third book when, as she did in The Wise Woman, she goes off into the world of the supernatural. Not very clearly, either. Two alchemists create a living being – but is it a “homunculus”, or is it a “golem”? It has “Emet” written on its forehead, which, AFAIK, is the sign of a golem, being the Hebrew word for truth, but she doesn’t explain that! And, quite honestly, I thought that the books worked much better without wandering off into the supernatural. I’ve read the three books now, so I daresay I’ll read the fourth when it comes out, but they’re not Philippa Gregory’s best works. She can do and has done a lot better.

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Exodus: Gods and Kings

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One of the most frustrating historical issues of all time is that of how true are the stories in the Bible, and this films begs a lot of questions about that. It’s actually been banned in Egypt, because it shows the Pyramids and the Sphinx being built by Hebrew slaves, when there is no historical evidence that slave labour was used in their construction.

The film follows the popular theory that the “Pharoah of the Exodus” was Ramesses II: it IS a theory very often put forward and, when I visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo in 2007, I paused for several moments by the mummy of Ramesses II purely for that reason. However, we don’t know – and, very annoyingly, we quite probably never will. The film, strangely, starts with the Battle of Kadesh between the Egyptians and the Hittites. That a) IS a known event, b) can be dated to a particular time and c) is definitely NOT mentioned in the Book of Exodus. The film shows Moses saving the future pharaoh’s life at the battle. The idea was to promote a theme of sibling rivalry between the two of them. Hmm. The Old Testament is pretty big on sibling rivalry – Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers – but it doesn’t hint at anything like that between Moses and Pharoah, and I think that mixing up a known battle with the book of Exodus was quite a weird decision to make.

As a film, it’s a brilliant spectacle. Big dramatic scenery and crowd shots. Plenty of action and drama. Some good performances. It’s rushed at the end – it goes along quite nicely until the crossing of the Red Sea, then rushes through getting the Ten Commandments in the space of a few seconds, but the film’s 2 1/2 hours long as it is. Also, it misses out the best bit of Exodus, LOL – when the slaves are told to go and, instead of legging it, they stop to get their food out of the oven to take with! It also deals quite nicely with the ten plagues, showing that they could have been sent by a divine force or they could just have been natural disasters … and Pharoah is shown as a loving father, absolutely devastated by the death of his first born, which is very poignant. Moses is shown as objecting to the slaying of the first born and saying that it’s not fair that ordinary people are being punished, which, whilst it’s not very Biblical, is a very good point. The burning bush incident is shown as possibly being true and possibly being a hallucination, which is fair enough. God is represented by a small child, which is a bit weird … I was just expecting a disembodied voice. It works quite well, though.

So that’s the film. Good film. But, oh, the frustration of not knowing how true any of it is! OK, I think pretty much everyone accepts that the story of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden is an allegory … but with Exodus it’s very confusing. It’s a story that has had so much resonance at various times in history – the idea of people being freed from bondage, of an inspirational leader, and of a Promised Land. It’s plausible enough. Leaving out the bits at the end of Genesis about amazing technicolour dreamcoats and strange dreams, it’s quite plausible that people could have wandered from Canaan to Egypt looking for food in time of famine and been enslaved by the local rulers, and that, many years later, a series of natural disasters occurred which were interpreted as being a punishment for keeping slaves, and that the slaves were then freed. Maybe that all got mixed up in the telling with the tides of the Red Sea being affected by an earthquake. It’s possible. But there IS no evidence that slave labour was used in the mass construction projects of Ancient Egypt, and the only clues in the Bible to any sort of particular date are the mentions of the cities of Pithom and Ramses … and it seems likely that the site thought to’ve been that of Pithom wasn’t built until about 500 years after the times of Ramesses II.

It’s very, very annoying! The Bible plays such a big part in Western culture, and yet we just don’t know when any of this is meant to’ve happened, or if indeed it happened at all. The chances are that it’s part truth and part myth/legend, and a very simplified version of events at that. But we just don’t know. And, as the banning of the film in Egypt, and I think also Morocco, shows, that’s something that still has the power to stir up feelings rather strongly. It’s an age-old debate, and it’s one which will almost certainly never be satisfactorily resolved.

That Day We Sang – BBC 2

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Manchester? Yep, that’s definitely me. Sad middle-aged people with no life? Yep, that’s me too. Having been in a children’s choir? Er, no, that is not me. I have been told by numerous people that I have the worst singing voice they’ve ever heard. Anyway! The idea of this drama/musical – which I think probably worked better on stage, although it worked OK on TV too – was that a reunion was held 40 years after a recording made by the Manchester Children’s Choir in 1929, and that two of the choir members, a man who’d spent his life living with his mother until her recent death, and a woman who was having an affair with her married boss, got together.

It was all rather sweet. It was slightly depressing seeing Michael Ball, whom I remember seeing in The Pirates of Penzance in Manchester when he was a young unknown, playing a part of a man in his 50s, and it was also rather poignant hearing the person playing the choir leader talking about the importance of the Free Trade Hall – I still can’t get over the fact that the city council let the Free Trade Hall be turned into a hotel – but it was also rather touching, in a schmaltzy kind of way. A nice thing to watch over the Christmas period.

A Venetian Affair by Andrea di Robilant

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This book tells the story of an affair in mid-18th century Venice between a nobleman (from whom the author is descended) and a woman who, whilst from the better-off classes, wasn’t considered highly enough born to be able to marry him. The term “Venetian oligarchy” is still used. His family were part of it. Hers weren’t. Incidentally, I don’t know what it was about her, but she seems to’ve attracted proposals right, left and centre – in Venice, Paris and London. And this was even though everyone knew about her affair with this man!

It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it’s fascinating because it shows how small and gossipy upper-crust society at the time was, and how the idle rich really did seem to have very little to do other than a) party and b) gossip about other people’s love lives! It’s also quite sad, as all these sorts of relationships are – two people who wanted to be together, but were prevented from being so because their society didn’t deem them suitable for each other … and, of course, because the Venetian Republic, La Serenissima, was nearing its end, even if it didn’t know it. Not the best read ever, but a good one even so.

The Monuments Men

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This had the potential to be a very interesting film. Unfortunately, it failed to fulfil it. The subject matter of the film, the efforts made to protect great works of art from being destroyed by the Nazis as the Second World War drew to a close, based on facts and with characters loosely based on real people, was fascinating. The film itself wasn’t. For a kick off, some of it was so farcical – especially all the silly accents and mistakes with the language – that I kept expecting someone to announce that The Fallen Madonna with the Big Boobies was hidden inside a knockwurst sausage. That sort of thing’s great in ‘Allo ‘Allo, which I love, but it didn’t work in this context. Far more annoyingly, the film pretty much made out that the only people who made any effort to save these works of art were the Americans. The British role was made to seem far less important than it was – which I understand that the family of Ronald Balfour, the leading Briton in the field, are very angry and distressed about – and the Soviets were just sneered at.

What a shame. I think the film’s still worth seeing, if only because it draws attention to a little-known aspect of the war, but, unfortunately, it’s yet another example of Hollywood ignoring the historical facts. Not impressed.

The Venetian Contract by Marina Fiorato

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This is so well-written that it’s hard not to get confused about what’s fact and what’s fiction! The facts are that Venice was struck by a severe outbreak of plague in 1576-7, that Palladio designed a church which was seen as a thanksgiving for the end of the epidemic, that one of the islands in the lagoon was used for treating patients in isolation and that, as was to happen in London the following century, a great fire broke out which was to have the silver lining of helping to rid the city of infection. And, of course, that, especially at this time, so soon after the Battle of Lepanto, Venice and the Ottoman Empire were bitter enemies.

According to some sources, although other sources say otherwise, the mother of the Sultan of the time was Cecilia Baffo-Venier, the cousin (although the book has her being his niece) of Sebastiano Venier, who became Doge of Venice in 1577. Feyra, the fictional heroine of this book, is a) a doctor and b) the illegitimate daughter of Cecilia and an Ottoman sea-captain. Her half-brother, the Sultan, poisons their mother, but, before her death, Cecilia’s able to tell Feyra that he plans to destroy Venice by sending a man suffering from the plague to infect the city, and that fire and war will follow death … a bit like in the Book of Revelations. Feyra’s unable to prevent the outbreak of plague, but she ends up joining the (fictional) Venetian doctor who’s set up the isolation hospital on the island … whereupon, of course, they fall in love. And her ideas about treating the patients are much more efficacious than his! She can’t prevent the fire, which the book shows as being started by the Ottomans too, either, but she is eventually able to meet the Doge and warn him of the Ottomans’ plans to invade.

Somehow, that doesn’t make the book sound nearly as good as it is! It’s not particularly long, but it is gripping. Venice and Constantinople, two incredible cities, at a fascinating point in both their histories. Plague, intrigue, romance … this is one of several books on Venice which have been sitting in my to be read pile, and it was a very good one to get going with!

The “Marjorie” series by Lorna Hill

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I didn’t come across the Marjorie and Patience books until I was, supposedly, an adult, but I grew up reading the first nine of Lorna Hill’s Wells books (I’ve read all fourteen now, and the last ones aren’t up to much but the first five are amongst my all-time favourite reads). Despite my fondness for both these and Noel Streatfeild’s Gemma books, I never harboured any ambitions to become a ballerina. I did have ballet lessons briefly, but I was worse than hopeless. And I looked considerably more like Mavis Cruet than Veronica Weston.

I did, however, long harbour a futile wish that one day I would magically shed my “puppy fat”, as Caroline Scott did in No Castanets at the Wells. In fact, when I was in my second year at secondary school, we all had to choose a passage from a favourite book to read out in front of the rest of the class, and I chose a passage in which Caroline was looking in the mirror and realising that her puppy fat had gone. It was a bit of a disaster. Not only was this at a time when Girls’ Own books were very much out of fashion, but the bell rang whilst I was in the middle of my reading. Horrified at the thought of making the whole class late for double hockey – our PE teacher was an absolute dragon – I gabbled through the rest of it as fast as I could. The teacher was not impressed. I don’t think I was destined for a career in public speaking any more than I was destined for a career in ballet.

And my “puppy fat” never did go away. I’ve got a horrible feeling that, try as I might, it never will. However, a tiny part of me still harbours the ridiculously stupid hope that one day I’ll get my other “Wells” wish, which is to be rescued from a snow-topped Scottish mountain on New Year’s Eve by Guy Charlton. This is what happens to Jane Foster in Jane Leaves The Wells. She and Guy later get married and live happily ever after. Jane, naturally, is extremely thin, but let’s try not to focus on that. Guy is caring, polite, charming, protective, a wonderful rider, a wonderful swimmer, a wonderful vet … in fact, pretty wonderful all round. So imagine my delight when, many years later, I found that Lorna Hill had written a load of earlier books which starred the teenage Guy as their undisputed hero! These I had to read.

I haven’t read all the Patience books yet (the ones I haven’t got are only available at horrifyingly steep prices), but I have just read all six Marjorie books. These involve “The Clan” – the narrator Pansy, her twin brother Peter, their friends Marjorie (the “naughty” one), Esmé (whom most Lorna Hill fans think Guy should have married) and Toby, and, of course, Guy.

Yes. Unfortunately, it has to be admitted that the wonderful Guy is actually rather a pain as a teenager. He bosses everyone about, and is always threatening to spank people. On occasion, he actually does spank people. He addresses his friends, especially Esmé, by terms such as “the kid” and “the infant”. He even picks people up and carries them off, if they won’t do what he wants. He’s also priggish and old-fashioned, and his views about girls are almost embarrassingly Victorian. I’m now going to have to re-read Jane Leaves The Wells, to remind myself about everything I’ve seen in adult Guy all these years! (To be fair, his nicer side does shine through sometimes, and I’m sure he always means well.) Also, as with all Lorna Hill’s books, and others in similar genres, it’s hard sometimes not to feel annoyed by the snobbishness, and the bleating by children who are at private boarding schools and have their own ponies about how terribly hard up they are.

But there’s such a lovely innocence about the books! No-one thinks it’s inappropriate for a mixed group of teenage boys and girls to go off camping together. Nor does anyone worry about what might happen to a group of children without an adult to protect them. There’s a glorious sense of freedom, which none of us have any more. And they’re all set in Northumberland – “beautiful, remote Northumberland” as Jane’s cousin Mariella puts it. All that wonderful, wild, romantic, open scenery. All the fun of camping. I’ve only ever been camping once, and I absolutely hated it and never intend going again, but it always sounds good in children’s books! And they always manage to eat so much, without putting on weight …

The characters are well drawn, too. Scatty, animal-loving Pansy. Spirited, selfish, naughty Marjorie. Stolid Toby and Peter. The narrator Pansy, so lacking in self-confidence … I wish I knew what became of her. And, of course, Guy. OK, OK, I promise not to start on about Guy again …

The other really interesting point about these books is that Northern Lights, the fourth book in the series, was originally turned down by the publishers and, whilst the other books were published in the late 1940s and 1950s (and one in 1962), wasn’t published until 1999 – the reason being that, written in 1941, it’s very obviously set during the Second World War. The Clan are off at a remote vicarage for their holidays, rather than going home, because the area where they live is being targeted by the Luftwaffe. There are numerous references to soldiers and rationing, and army training exercises are taking place near where they’re staying. Apparently, publishers in the late ’40s and early ’50s felt that the British reading public didn’t want to read books about the Second World War. Incidentally, I strongly suspect that that’s why the Chalet School series “jumps” misses three years (or maybe it’s only two years) between “Rosalie” and “Three Go”, to bring Chalet-land away from the war years. No Carrie’s War, Goodnight Mr Tom et al until much later.

With or without the war references, these books are very much of their time. Once you accept that, it’s hard not to love them. Well, I think so, anyway! And I still love Guy. Even if he was a very bossy teenager. Now to save up for those missing Patience books …