North of Ithaka by Eleni Gage

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Word PressAll right, this isn’t historical – it’s written about the author’s experiences in 2002! – but it “goes” with Eleni and A Place For Us, written by the author’s father.  This book is about the experiences of the granddaughter and namesake of the Eleni of the first book as she spends a year organising and overseeing the reconstruction of her grandparents’ house – which was also the place where her grandmother and many others were tortured during the Greek civil war of the 1940s.

Some of it’s the kind of sitcom-type stuff you’d expect as a New Yorker tries to cope with life in a remote Greek village, dealing with Albanian builders, red tape, the internet being super-slow and pretty much everything else being rather slow.  However, it’s much more about a “hyphenated American” learning about her family’s heritage, someone who’s used to life in the fast lane enjoying life in the slow lane and someone who’s used to living in a big city learning about life in a small village where everyone knows everyone else.  A lot of people find it difficult to move between two different ways of life, and a lot of people struggle to be part of one culture, but Eleni Gage seems not to, which makes this a very happy book, even given the terrible things that happened to her grandmother.

In particular, it’s about the customs and beliefs and way of life of a particular place.  Sometimes it seems that traditions are being lost.  You go to most parts of Europe and everyone’s dressed the same way as they are anywhere else in the West, there are the same shops everywhere, there are adverts in English regardless of what the language of the country is, the same music’s playing everywhere … sometimes everything seems so “samey”, and it seems as if centuries of different cultures are disappearing.  It’s wonderful when you’re reminded that, in fact, these traditions are still alive and kicking.

An amusing book which manages to be both light-hearted and thought-provoking.   Good stuff!

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Richard III: The Princes in the Tower – Channel 4

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OK, we’ve heard all the arguments about who might have killed the Princes in the Tower a million and one times, but it was inevitable that they’d be brought out again as Richard III’s reburial approached!  And this programme did rather a good job: no-one came out with any of the more bizarre theories that people, probably more for the sake of trying to say something new than because they actually believe them, come up with.  No-one suggested that Margaret Beaufort was somehow responsible for the princes’ death (a particularly silly theory, and one which always annoys me), nor did anyone suggest that Richard, the younger boy, actually escaped and that he and Perkin Warbeck really were one and the same person.

One theory which was presented was that Edward V might have died a natural death.  It’s known that he had some sort of problem with his jaw.  Mortality rates were high in the 15th century and, as was pointed out, the Tower of London is hardly the healthiest of environments.  Would that also explain why no false Edwards ever turned up, only a false Richard?  The usual explanation given is that it would have been embarrassing to have impersonated a crowned monarch, but that’s not exactly convincing.  It’s possible.  However, it’s just speculation.

It’s all speculation.  Well, perhaps a bit more than that – we can weigh up what we do know, and try to form a sensible judgement – but we don’t know for certain, and that’s why this debate has raged on and on for over half a millennium.  They had some American lawyer on, waffling about how no jury would convict Richard III of his nephews’ murder because it cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt that he was guilty … but surely that was stating the obvious.  It cannot be proven beyond reasonable doubt that anyone was guilty.  It cannot even be proven beyond reasonable doubt that the boys actually were murdered.  It’s very annoying, but it’s also fascinating.

Well, I still think, as I have always thought, that Richard was indeed behind the murder of the princes.   All right, he’d declared them illegitimate, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t still regard them as a threat.  If he thought they were no danger to his throne, why didn’t he let them out of the Tower and send them back to their mother?  They were never seen again after mid-1483.  Richard must surely have been aware that people were saying he’d murdered them: if he hadn’t murdered them, why on earth didn’t he disprove the rumours by letting them go for a wander round the Tower grounds, as they’d been doing before then.   Yes, there’s a possibility that it was Buckingham who had them murdered, but would he really have dared to do something like that?  Even if you were a leading noble and of royal blood yourself, murdering two of the king’s nephews without his permission would have been pushing your luck in … well, rather a big way, to put it mildly.

And, if they were still alive, where were they?  Shut up in the Tower and never allowed out?  If they were still alive when Henry VII took the throne, and it was Henry who murdered them, then would Henry really have been so panicky about Perkin Warbeck?  Well, I suppose he might.  And I suppose that Elizabeth Woodville and Elizabeth of York might have agreed to the younger Elizabeth becoming Henry VII’s queen even knowing that the two boys, in their eyes the rightful heirs, were still alive … but it seems a lot less likely than the traditional idea that the elder Elizabeth allied herself with the Tudors because she’d learned that Richard had murdered her sons.

Furthermore, whilst I wouldn’t put it past Henry VII to have made up the story about James Tyrrell murdering the princes on Richard’s orders, nothing that we know about the character of Thomas More, the one who wrote it all down, suggests that he would have deliberately lied about something so important.  It’s all in so much detail, as well.  The deciding factor for me is the fact that the boys disappeared in 1483, though.  That doesn’t prove that Richard had them killed, but it makes it by far the most likely explanation for what happened to them.

I was a historian from a very early age :-).  When I was a kid and thought that I was going to be brilliantly famous and successful, as kids do, LOL, there were three things, in particular, that I wanted to achieve.  One was to prove that Nicholas and Alexandra and their five children really had been murdered by the Bolsheviks.  Well, someone beat me to that!  One was to make the Turkish government acknowledge that the Armenian genocide took place … it’ll be 100 years this year, and I do very much hope that someone manages to achieve that.  And one was to prove what really happened to the Princes in the Tower.  I doubt that anyone will ever manage that, but wouldn’t it be amazing if they did?!

And, ultimately, this is a very sad story about two young boys, one only 12 years old, one only 9 years old, who lost their lives because they were born royal at a time of civil and dynastic strife.  In all the debate about whether it was Richard II, Henry VII, the Duke of Buckingham or anyone else who had them killed, the boys themselves, and the effect of their disappearance on their family and friends who genuinely cared about them, tend to be forgotten. It’s an intriguing mystery, but it’s also a great tragedy.

A Place For Us by Nicholas Gage

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Word PressThis is the sequel to Eleni, following the lives of Nicholas Gage/Nikola Gatzoyiannis and his sisters after they joined their father in Massachusetts, following the murder of their mother during the Greek Civil War.  Many aspects of it could be about any immigrant family and any immigrant community – trying to adapt to a new country, trying to find a balance between fitting in in that new country without losing all the ways of the old and the clashes between the generations that that entails, the striving for prosperity and the pride in success.  Other aspects are more specific to the experiences of Greek-Americans – which, unlike the experiences of many other “hyphenated-American” groups, haven’t been “covered” very much (except in My Big Fat Greek Wedding!).  And some, of course, are specific to the Gatzoyiannis family themselves.

Particularly interesting was the idea that it wasn’t appropriate for a Greek-born immigrant to America to marry someone who’d been born in America even if that person was of Greek heritage and they and their family were all completely respectable.  Nick Gage himself, however, eventually married a Protestant of Scandinavian and British heritage.  I hope he appreciates his wife, by the way!  He kept her hanging on for years because she wasn’t Greek, dated other people at the same time and even went to Greece on a wife-hunt, and he goes on and on in the book about how there were loads of other women he could have married instead!  And then she converted to Orthodoxy and agreed to them naming their first two children after his parents.  As I said, I hope he appreciates her!

Christos Gatzoyannis, Nick’s father, originally went to America with the intention of earning money there and then returning to Greece.  Nick and his sisters, by contrast, went there as people who were fleeing a country where terrible things had happened and wanted to make a new start.  Those two very different types of immigration are still with us today.  This book was set in the 1950s-1980s but,. thinking back to earlier times, there was a period in which the USA, and other countries, actively sought out immigrants, even offering them free land … and it’s a tragedy for the desperate people who try to make it to Lampedusa or to the northern coast of Australia that those days are gone.  Anyway, that’s rather beside the point.  I have to say that the author himself does sometimes come across as being a bit up himself, but this is a very interesting book about the experiences of a young man and a family settling into a new country.

The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller

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Word PressThis isn’t so much the Song of Achilles as the Song of Patroclus, Achilles’ closest companion whose death led him to kill Hector – Achilles’ being the Greeks’ star man and Hector the Trojans’.  Opinion is divided as to whether Achilles and Patroclus were lovers or “just good friends”: Madeline Miller’s view is that they were definitely lovers, and I’m inclined to agree with that.  Trying to write your own interpretation of arguably the greatest epic of all time, in modern-day language, is very challenging, but Madeline Miller does an excellent job of it.  Gods nymphs and centaurs wander in and out, amongst the mortals, and it all seems perfectly natural!  She also shows Achilles saying that he reckons Helen ran off with Paris rather than being kidnapped, which is definitely my preferred version of events!  The whole Trojan War legend is insulting enough towards women: let’s at least believe that Helen was a vamp who left her boring husband and ran off with her lover, rather than the victim of an abduction!

However, Achilles doesn’t really come across as being that heroic.  Maybe that was Madeline Miller’s intention: she doesn’t say.  He’s shown as being very reluctant to go to the Trojan War, then, when he gets there, he performs heroically in battle but comes across as a bit of a spoilt galactico who thinks that the team can’t play without him and refuses to play after he has a bust-up with the manager.  Then, when he dies, there’s no mention of it being because an arrow struck him on the heel … having said which, the heel story isn’t actually in the Iliad.  I’d love to know what the author actually meant us to think about her portrayal of Achilles, because the real hero of this story is Patroclus.  Whatever she meant, it’s a very entertaining read.  Books based on Greek myths/epics can be heavy going sometimes, but this one definitely is not.

Poldark – BBC 1

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Word PressWell, I think this looks like being an excellent series!  At my very advanced age, it’s not often that I get to say I’m too young to remember something, LOL, but I am too young to remember the 1970s adaptation of the Poldark novels, and I haven’t read the novels either, so I can’t make any sort of comparisons.  However, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed the first episode of this (apart from the silly mascara scar, but nothing’s perfect!).  Plenty of drama, interesting characters, glorious scenery … what’s not to like?!   All right, all right, it’s not particularly deep and meaningful, but it’s brilliant Sunday night entertainment.  Nice one, BBC :-).

Banished – BBC 2

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Word PressOK, I think we all get that a penal colony – in Australia, 1788 – wasn’t a 5 star hotel, but this really was grim … but strangely gripping too, in the way that, say, the parts of Forever Amber when Amber’s struggling with poverty are. Jimmy McGovern – who usually writes about the North of England – chose to focus on the relationships between men and women, which was an interesting approach: we saw these poor women, many of them transported for being prostitutes, being expected to sell their bodies for food and favours from the troops, yet none of them came across as being downtrodden. Even the vicar’s wife seemed pretty feisty. The main storyline in this first episode was that the male and female convicts weren’t allowed to associate, except in the case of married couples, but one couple refused to stay apart. So the governor had the woman whipped and said that the man was going to be hanged. They said they’d get married. Sorted! Er, no – each of them had a spouse back in England, so the vicar/chaplain refused to perform the wedding ceremony, on the reasonable enough grounds that it would be bigamous. So the governor said that the vicar would have to carry out the hanging. The vicar’s wife got him to change his mind, and he performed the bigamous marriage. No hanging. Sorted after all. And a lot of 21st-century-sounding swearing. Yes, it was grim, but it wasn’t all doom and gloom and misery – the convicts all stood up for themselves, and some of it was even quite funny. Period dramas can’t all be big houses and posh frocks, and this is certainly something different.

Eleni by Nicholas Gage

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Word PressThis is one of the best books I’ve read in quite a while, covering the experiences of the author’s family in the Greek village of Lia, in the remote mountainous area of Epiros, close to the Albanian border, during the Second World War and the Greek Civil War. Greece was occupied first by the Italians and then by the Germans and, even during the German occupation, right-wing and left-wing Greek forces were fighting each other. Full scale civil war then broke out, with the Greek government forces, backed by Britain and later by American too, fighting communist forces backed by the communist regimes of Bulgaria, Albania and Yugoslavia. The region where Nicholas Gage (Gatzoyiannis)’s family lived was occupied by the communist forces. Many of the men had already fled. Gage’s own father had for a long time been living and working in America, leaving his wife and children in Greece, his argument being that his four daughters might be tempted away from the straight and narrow in America. Women and girls, although not sexually abused, were forced to work – cooking, cleaning, threshing crops, etc – for the communist forces, and many young girls were conscripted as guerrillas, and everyone came close to starvation. When it became clear that the communists were going to lose the war, they began taking children from their families and sending them away to be brought up in communist countries. At this point, the author’s mother, the Eleni of the title, decided to try to escape. Nicholas and three of his sisters managed to leave, but Eleni and another of her daughters were unable to get away as they’d been taken to work in the fields. Amid an atmosphere of panic and distrust, neighbours denouncing each other, often in a desperate attempt to save themselves, many civilians were tortured and executed. Eleni and her sister-in-law Alexo were amongst them.

Many villagers were, as the government forces approached, forced by the communists over the mountains into Albania. The author’s sister, the one who’d had to remain behind, was amongst them, but managed to get back to Greece and, not long afterwards, to join her father and siblings in America. Many others, including children taken away from their families, were scattered across the Eastern Bloc and weren’t able to return to Greece for many years. The book tells the story of the atrocities committed by the communists: atrocities, including taking children away, were committed by the government side too. Years later, Gage returned to Greece to try to track down his mother’s killers. He felt that he wanted to kill the man responsible, but in the end held back from doing so. Instead, he wrote this wonderfully moving book. Not only does it tell the story of a horrific period in history, it also describes the life and culture of people in a small village in one of the most remote parts of Europe at that time – the role of women (sadly very repressed), the role of religion, the interaction between neighbours, the very traditional outlook. There were a few annoying typos/spelling mistakes in my edition of this, but I assume that they were the fault of the publishers/editors!

It’s easy to … not forget, but, as time moves on, not to think about what has happened in some parts of Europe since the Second World War. Greece, the one part of the Balkans which didn’t become part of the Eastern Bloc, has been through some very turbulent times. This book is an excellent starting point for learning about some of them.

And one final thought – it would be interesting to read an account of this period written by one of the leaders of the communist guerrillas. Whatever the supposed ideology involved – communism, fascism, Islamic fundamentalism -, what is it that drives people to commit such horrific atrocities against others? What turns people into the sort of people who do that?