Pascali’s Island by Barry Unsworth

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Word PressI’m not really keen on Barry Unsworth’s style of writing (especially as regards this book, which had no chapters), but I decided to read this because it’s so hard to find historican fiction set in Greece, unless you want ancient Greece. However, it turned out that this was actually set in a mainly Greek island still occupied by the Ottoman Empire, in July 1908. The date is very significant because it was the time of the Young Turk uprising, and the book never actually used the term “Young Turk”, so if you hadn’t recognised the date then you might have been rather confused. Pascali is a half-Greek, half-British oddbod working as a spy for the Ottomans, and the book is written as his report to the Sultan on the latest events on this island … involving an artist whom he’s secretly in love with, a British man who wants to get a bronze statue out of the earth, a German who wants the local bauxite deposits for military purposes, and a suspicious American. Most people end up dead. Like a lot of things nominated for Booker Prizes, it’s one of those books which is probably really good if you like that sort of thing, but isn’t really for me!

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Suffragettes Forever – BBC 2

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Word PressMore programmes like this, please! This – the first in a three part series, presented by the excellent Amanda Vickery, in her lovely Lancashire accent – was excellent. This episode went back well before the suffragist/suffragette campaigns of the 19th and early 20th centuries, beginning with explaining how few rights women, especially married women, historically had in this country – apparently the last “wife sale” took place in 1928. It then moved on to the campaigns by Leveller women during the Interregnum(/Commonwealth) for better rights for women, and how sadly they achieved nothing.

Then Amanda Vickery brought in all sorts of different aspects of women’s movements during the early 19th century. The Peterloo Massacre is incredibly important in social and cultural history to us here in Manchester, and the programme showed how the authorities were particularly brutal towards the women involved in what was intended as a peaceful rally, slashing their faces and breasts. Campaigns for better conditions for women at the mills in Lancashire were also discussed. Then there was the role of middle-class women in charitable work, and in social movements such as the antislavery movement. And a group of aristocratic women barging into the House of Lords. Then came the Great Reform Act of 1832, which is supposed to have been such a landmark in British history but which completely excluded women from any involvement in “the political nation”. It’s all well-known stuff, but it’s not often brought together and looked at from the viewpoint of women’s rights, and it made for a fascinating programme, very well put together and very well-presented.

One minor gripe, though. Why does everyone, even the BBC, now spell “for ever” as one word, the American way, rather than as two words, the way it’s actually supposed to be spelt?! I blame Judy Blume! Oh well! Excellent programme. Very much looking forward to the two episodes come.

Indian Summers – Channel 4

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Word Press Two episodes in, I still cannot make up my mind what I think of this series. For one thing, there’s too much going on: that’s fine with a long-running soap in which the viewers know all the characters, but not when we’ve never “met” them before. For another thing, it’s … well, it’s trying so hard not to present its characters as stereotypes that they seem to’ve ended up as caricatures anyway. OK, we get that not everyone in the Raj was posh, but calling a character “Cynthia Coffin” and having her singing music hall songs in a Cockney accent in a club in Simla doesn’t really work either. And tell that bloke from Blackpool to stop overdoing his northern accent: it comes out as a bizarre cross between Lancashire and Yorkshire and that really does sound weird! Not to mention the way some of the Indian servants at the top guy’s house are so overly respectful that they sound more like plantation slaves than employees: if that’s supposed to be political correctness, it backfires horribly and is really rather disrespectful. And wasn’t it Kenya rather than India which had a reputation for Posh People (er, although I’m not sure that American heiresses count anyway) going around doing Naughty Things?!

Having said which, I am rather intrigued by it. At least it makes an effort to show both British and Indian points of view, and it doesn’t show everyone in either community being opposed to the other or lacking understanding of the other. And there are clearly some interesting mysteries to be solved. I don’t think this is going to be an all-time classic, but I shall be continuing to watch it.

Songs of the South – BBC 2

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Word PressWhilst roaming around the southern states of the US on various quests to visit sites associated with the Civil War (or the War Between the States), I’ve ended up visiting a fair few places associated with Southern music, which is why I’ve been looking forward to Reginald D Hunter’s three-part series on the “Songs of the South”. And I wasn’t disappointed with the first episode, which covered Tennessee and Kentucky.

It started off with “Dixie” … which isn’t a song you’d really associate with Tennessee or Kentucky but I suppose is the quintessential song of the South. I’ve got a recording of Elvis singing it, but Elvis didn’t get a mention! However, Dolly Parton got plenty of mentions. Reginald went to the wonderful Grand Old Opry in Nashville, and also to the “Dollywood” theme park. I’ve been to both those places! Dolly Parton comes across as being such a lovely person, and that style of country ‘n; western music really is very good to listen to even if you’re not particularly a country music person.

That’s the … what’s the word? Public? Marketable? Outward-looking? Glamorous, even? Anyway, that’s one side of country music. He then went more into the darker type of music, all those songs about death and murder. There is a lot of that, even in well-known songs. I don’t think he actually mentioned it, but “Billie Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahatchie Bridge” was the one which occurred to me. “Southern Gothic.” It’s – obviously! – not very cheerful, but it’s an interesting genre.

He also looked into “hillbilly” music … and there was a bit of an undertone there, “hillbilly” sometimes having the sort of unpleasant connotations than “redneck” does. However, he said that he – an Afro-American man, born in Georgia – had been made to feel very welcome there. The discussions about Appalachia and its music were very interesting, although one woman, when talking about how the term “hillbilly” might have originated from the fact that many of the early settlers in the Appalachians were supporters of William of Orange, seemed to think that they’d fled to America because they were being persecuted. No, dear – William of Orange won the Glorious Revolution (so to speak). Then there was a bit of square dancing – not something I’ve ever done much of, LOL, but which, as was pointed out, was traditionally a very good way of getting to know people in rural communities.

He also talked about the importance of railways in Southern songs – specifically, the Chattanooga Choo Choo! He got to go on a ride along the line, but the actual train to which the song refers is in a museum … I know because I’ve been there and had my photo taken with it :-). I’d never really thought about it much, but, yes, you do get a lot of rail-related songs in the South.

Then on to bluegrass music. This is a very Southern thing, but it’s also got strong roots in English, Scottish, Welsh and Irish folk music, and it’s good to see that this sort of music’s still going. “Bluegrass” is a term generally associated with Kentucky, and it was also in Kentucky that he covered the most challenging part of the programme – minstrel music.

The idea of white musicians putting on black make-up and playing stereotypes of black people is so offensive to modern eyes that it’s a difficult subject to tackle, but, as the people interviewed on the programme said, you can’t pretend that black and white minstrel shows never existed, and you can’t ignore their importance in the development of musical performance. Or how good some of the music genuinely is, especially that written by Stephen Foster, someone who does seem to have sympathised with the plight of the slaves in the South. Reginald visited the house in Bardstown, Kentucky, which is thought to have inspired “My Old Kentucky Home”, to discuss the subject with singers there.

I’ve been there too :-). I saw an outdoor evening performance of “Show Boat” there. That’s got nothing to do with this programme :-), but it was a very good evening and I’ve got fond memories of it. I’ve got a lot of fond memories associated with Songs of the South, and I’m looking forward to the next two episodes in this series. Recommended viewing!

A Place Called Armageddon by C C Humphreys

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Word PressA lot gets said and written about the fall of Constantinople, but, strangely, not much of that actually seems to be about … well, about the fall of Constantinople. It’s about the influx of Byzantine works into Central and Western Europe as a cause of the Renaissance, it’s about the effect of the loss of the tie with Greek Constantinople on Venice, or it’s about the Ottoman takeover of the Bosphorus as a cause of the Voyages of Discovery. Or it’s about the idea of Moscow as the Third Rome.

In this book, though, C C Humphreys tells the story of the siege of 1453, and the eventual fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, through the eyes of a number of different people, some Greek and some Turkish. And one Scottish! That’s something else that’s very rare – if people do tell the story, it’s almost always from one viewpoint or another, and that in a very wholesale way – the great disaster or the great triumph. It’s an interesting approach, and he succeeds in being fair to both sides. I’ve been lucky enough to visit Istanbul twice, and, much as I like Turkey – especially its wonderful food!! – I do find it quite hard to get my head round the idea of 1453 as a great triumph, because it gets stuck in your head as the date of a great disaster! C C Humphreys says much the same, but that his ideas shifted as he got more and more into the story. All credit to him for that, and all credit to him for a very interesting novel.

The Girl with the Painted Face by Gabrielle Kimm

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Word Press This was an entertaining if bizarrely far-fetched story about a young girl joining a group of travelling players in Emilia Romagna, northern Italy in 1582. I started reading this whilst I was in Venice for Carnevale, which was quite apt as the traditional costumes worn for Carnevale are closely associated with the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte – Harlequin, Columbine etc. The storyline was, as I’ve said, rather far-fetched – a girl is wrongly accused of robbery, runs away, is given money by assorted kind people, joins a group of players, one of whom is a drug addict who puts the girl in danger, whereupon she is wrongly accused of murdering an aristocratic drug dealer (who a) has impregnated a woman who’s married to someone else and b) has a gay lover as well, and the players are banished from Emilia Romagna … er, but everything turns out all right in the end! I’ve read books by Gabrielle Kimm before, and she doesn’t usually come up with quite such OTT storylines, LOL. And I do wish that people wouldn’t write whole books in the present tense. However, this was nevertheless very readable, and the scenes with the travelling players were particularly interesting. Not bad at all.

Blood and Beauty by Sarah Dunant

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The Italian peninsula in the late 15th and early 16th centuries was a fascinating place, and the Borgias were amongst the most fascinating people in it! Thanks to Sky Atlantic, I now think of Jeremy Irons every time Rodrigo Borgia/Pope Alexander VI is mentioned … although the real Rodrigo Borgia looked nothing like Jeremy Irons, LOL. Anyway, to get back to the point, Sarah Dunant writes in a gorgeously lavish way about the Italy of the time, and this book is no exception. As to the Borgias, they almost certainly were nothing like as bad as history’s tended to paint them – and it doesn’t help that, for some bizarre reason, people seem to confuse Lucrezia Borgia with Catherine de Medici. Lucrezia probably didn’t poison anyone, and there was probably no incest committed either. This is a … I’m not sure you can say positive portrayal of the Borgias, but certainly a portrayal of them as human beings, not as monsters. Sarah Dunant’s probably too kind about Cesare Borgia, whom I really do not like, but I like the way everyone else comes across. And there are some things which we really don’t know, such as which of the Borgias was a parent of the “Roman infant”. It’s not the sort of book that goes really deep, but it’s well worth reading, and I shall certainly be looking out for the planned sequel.

I used to have trouble finding books set during the Italian Wars, a pet topic of mine since covering it at A-level many moons ago, but I’m pleased to say that there seem to be loads of them about these days. Long may that continue to be the case!