Armada: 12 days to save England – BBC 2

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Word PressI really could have wished that the BBC hadn’t chosen to show a programme about the defeat of the Spanish Armada on the first day of the French Open (are things not stressful enough?!); I’m not quite sure why they felt the need to spend licence-payers’ money on letting Dan Snow play about in his yacht; and I really could have lived without seeing Angie-Watts-dressed-up-as-Elizabeth-I talking to a pet monkey, accompanied by someone who was supposed to be playing Blanche Parry but looked as if she were trying to be Nursie from Blackadder.  Having said all this, the defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the key episodes in English history, and the programme did say some interesting things in amongst all the silly playing about.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.  1588 – a date we all know.  It’s one of the key moments in English history.  Elizabeth’s stirring speech at Tilbury, Drake finishing his game of bowls, beacons being lit across the nation.  OK, it has been rather “1066-and-all-that”-ed – England the underdog, not yet the great power she was to become, taking on Black Legend Spain … the speech, the bowls match, the derring-do of those who grabbed the gold from the Spanish galleons or singed the King of Spain’s beard, etc etc, but we’re still talking about a very important event, and something which is very important in the whole idea of England.  The BBC did a lot of talking about Philip II, but they failed to talk about the about the plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and, even more importantly, the Spanish Fury in the Netherlands and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France.  Yes, the “Black Legend” idea was exaggerated, but (it’s breaking my heart to write this during the clay court season!!) it wasn’t made up either.  Imagine knowing that Islamic State were about to mount an invasion of this country.  That’s how people at the time must have felt.

Where the BBC got it much better was in the discussions about the nitty-gritty of what actually happened.  And that was frightening.  The weather was against the English fleet: the Spanish, off the coast of Plymouth with the English trapped by the weather, could have chosen to try to land, and who knows what could have happened then?  Instead, they stuck to their plan – Philip micro-managing, the Duke of Medina Sidonia not really being the man for the job but having been chosen because of his social status – of heading for Margate, where they hoped to link up with the Spanish forces in the Netherlands.  Bad decision on their part – what a relief on England’s!  And then there was some very practical talk about blast furnaces and how they meant that England had better cannon than Spain, not the sort of crucial-but-a-bit-dull stuff that the legends of the defeat of the Armada tend to focus on.

This could all have been presented much better, but it was very, very interesting – once you waded through Elizabeth’s make-up, the pet monkey, the ridiculous accents in which the actors playing the Spanish were using (think Speedy Gonzales the Mexican Mouse) and so on, and got to what was really happening.  Two more episodes to come.  Please, BBC, don’t mess up the speech at Tilbury …

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Armada: 12 Days To Save England – BBC 2

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Word PressI really could have wished that the BBC hadn’t chosen to show a programme about the defeat of the Spanish Armada on the first day of the French Open (are things not stressful enough?!); I’m not quite sure why they felt the need to spend licence-payers’ money on letting Dan Snow play about in his yacht; and I really could have lived without seeing Angie-Watts-dressed-up-as-Elizabeth-I talking to a pet monkey, accompanied by someone who was supposed to be playing Blanche Parry but looked as if she were trying to be Nursie from Blackadder.  Having said all this, the defeat of the Spanish Armada is one of the key episodes in English history, and the programme did say some interesting things in amongst all the silly playing about.

The Defeat of the Spanish Armada.  1588 – a date we all know.  It’s one of the key moments in English history.  Elizabeth’s stirring speech at Tilbury, Drake finishing his game of bowls, beacons being lit across the nation.  OK, it has been rather “1066-and-all-that”-ed – England the underdog, not yet the great power she was to become, taking on Black Legend Spain … the speech, the bowls match, the derring-do of those who grabbed the gold from the Spanish galleons or singed the King of Spain’s beard, etc etc, but we’re still talking about a very important event, and something which is very important in the whole idea of England.  The BBC did a lot of talking about Philip II, but they failed to talk about the about the plots to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne, and, even more importantly, the Spanish Fury in the Netherlands and the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre in France.  Yes, the “Black Legend” idea was exaggerated, but (it’s breaking my heart to write this during the clay court season!!) it wasn’t made up either.  Imagine knowing that Islamic State were about to mount an invasion of this country.  That’s how people at the time must have felt.

Where the BBC got it much better was in the discussions about the nitty-gritty of what actually happened.  And that was frightening.  The weather was against the English fleet: the Spanish, off the coast of Plymouth with the English trapped by the weather, could have chosen to try to land, and who knows what could have happened then?  Instead, they stuck to their plan – Philip micro-managing, the Duke of Medina Sidonia not really being the man for the job but having been chosen because of his social status – of heading for Margate, where they hoped to link up with the Spanish forces in the Netherlands.  Bad decision on their part – what a relief on England’s!  And then there was some very practical talk about blast furnaces and how they meant that England had better cannon than Spain, not the sort of crucial-but-a-bit-dull stuff that the legends of the defeat of the Armada tend to focus on.

This could all have been presented much better, but it was very, very interesting – once you waded through Elizabeth’s make-up, the pet monkey, the ridiculous accents in which the actors playing the Spanish were using (think Speedy Gonzales the Mexican Mouse) and so on, and got to what was really happening.  Two more episodes to come.  Please, BBC, don’t mess up the speech at Tilbury …

 

 

 

 

Wellington: The Iron Duke Unmasked – BBC 2

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Word PressWe’re just over four weeks away from the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo, which made Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, a national hero.  He was probably the number one celebrity of his day – 35 years later, Queen Victoria even named one of her sons after him! – and today his name always crops up in lists/polls of the Greatest Britons Ever.  We are talking a military hero extraordinaire.  However, this programme focused almost entirely on what a rotten husband he was!

It all started so romantically.  A young gentleman and a young lady fall in love, but her family decide that he hasn’t got sufficient prospects or wherewithal, and send him packing.  Several years later, he comes back, having made his name and his fortune.  He could have his pick of nubile young women, but he marries his original sweetheart.  Aww.  Just like Captain Wentworth and Anne Elliott in Persuasion!  Unfortunately, it soon went rather pear-shaped … and he ran around with a lot of other women, whilst telling them that his poor wife was stupid and boring, whilst she (her diaries, which survive, sound like they’d make for very interesting reading) got so depressed that she even contemplated suicide, the poor woman.  So it was all very sad, really :-(.

In between discussing Wellington’s shortcomings as a husband, it discussed his time as Prime Minister.  In some countries, there’s a tradition of military leaders becoming great political leaders.  It doesn’t work here.  There was Oliver Cromwell.  Hmm.  And then there was Wellington.  Here in Manchester, where plans are already being made for the commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, which’ll be in 2019, political leaders who opposed parliamentary reform are not generally looked on very favourably :-); and Wellington was certainly up there on the list of those in favour of maintaining the status quo.  The nickname “Iron Duke” comes across now as a compliment, but it certainly wasn’t meant as one when it originated due to his staunch opposition to what became the Great Reform Act of 1832.  Having said which, he was strongly in favour of Catholic emancipation, which you wouldn’t necessarily have expected from a member of the Protestant Ascendancy aristocracy; and I thought it was rather unfair of the programme, especially given how much it talked about his arch-conservatism being the result of the trauma of the Wolfe Tone uprising, not to emphasise that.

So, all in all, it was a strangely negative programme.  What a shame.  OK, he made himself very unpopular as Prime Minister, and there’s no denying the fact that he seems to have been a bloody awful husband, but that doesn’t alter the fact that he was a military hero, one of the greatest generals of all time.  Just think of some of the words we use.  To meet one’s Waterloo.  Wellington boots!! Wellington, New Zealand, for that matter.  Nobody’s perfect and, whilst I appreciate that the BBC were trying to do something other than regurgitate the history of the Peninsular Wars and the Waterloo campaign, I’m not very impressed that they chose to focus so much on all the negative aspects of Wellington’s life and so little on the positive.  Could’ve done better, BBC.

 

 

 

The Countess and the King by Susan Holloway Scott

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Word PressNo, not Charles II and one of his many lady friends, but his brother James II, and Katherine Sedley, James’s mistress, who became Countess of Dorchester.  It’s told from the viewpoint of Katherine – the daughter of Charles Sedley, one of the “Wits” who feature prominently in Pamela Belle’s wonderful novel Alathea, and herself known for her wit rather than, as so many Stuart mistresses were, her looks.  Incidentally, her name usually seems to be spelt with a C, but in this book it’s spelt with a K … but never mind!

I can’t honestly work out what this witty and intelligent (and Protestant) woman saw in James – other than the fact that he was who he was and that genuinely doesn’t to have been the main issue – but evidently there was something!  She nearly ended up with John Churchill, the future Duke of Marlborough, but it didn’t happen: it’s usually viewed as a purely financial match with Churchill rejected in favour of a love match with Sarah Jennings, but Susan Holloway Scott presents Katherine as being genuinely keen on Churchill and distraught when he chose someone else.  Churchill’s just one of many well known characters whom we meet in the books, along with the Stuarts themselves, the mistresses of Charles II, and various other prominent figures of the time: most of the action takes place at or around the Restoration court.

And the book ends when Katherine’s relationship with James ended … was ended, by him, in early 1686, just under a year after he became king for what was to prove a reign of under four years.

It’s not the best-written book I’ve ever read, but it never lost my attention, and it’s set at a very interesting period in English history.  The one line in the book which most caught my attention actually wasn’t about Katherine’s wit, or her relationship with the king, but about how, only in her early twenties, she was looking back nostalgically to the 1660s and 1670s, to a time when everything seemed more peaceful and more certain.  In England, if not in Scotland or Ireland, we do tend to look back on the second half of the 17th century in a “1066 and all that” Whiggish kind of way – OK, Cromwell went Way, Way Too Far, but the civil war Had To Happen, and the Glorious Revolution (note the epithet “Glorious” Revolution) Had To Happen as well, so that we could move onwards and upwards and become the greatest nation in the world … etc etc etc!  Maybe we forget how bloody awful it must have been for those at the centre of it.  The Restoration was meant to bring peace and (by the standards of the times) freedom … and then, not twenty years later, the political nation (to use a 19th century term, sorry!) was caught up in Exclusion Crises and Popish Plots and everyone wondering what the hell was going to happen next.  As the Chinese curse goes, “May you live in interesting times”.

As I said, not the best-written book ever, but well worth a read.

 

 

Britain’s Greatest Generation – BBC 2

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Word PressThis four-part documentary series, made to mark the seventieth anniversary of the end of the Second World War, tells of the lives of some of the last survivors of “Britain’s Greatest Generation” – the generation who grew up in the shadow of the First World War, lived through the Depression, saved the nation – and the world – during the Second World War and have lived through all the changes that have happened since then.

Those interviewed come from a wide range of socio-economic, regional, ethnic and religious backgrounds.  They’re all in their 90s or over 100 now, and two of them have passed away since the programme was filmed.  The first episode was fascinating, but the second, about the experiences of these amazing people during the Second World War, was the crux of the series.  I’m not quite sure why, but, when I was a kid, talking about the Second World War was treated as something rather comical.  Think ‘Allo ‘Allo, Uncle Albert in Only Fools and Horses, Percy Sugden in Coronation Street, and the legendary “Don’t mention the War” episode of Fawlty Towers.  Maybe it was a way of coping.  Now, with the number of people who lived through the war dwindling, we treat their memories with the awe and respect that they deserve and, as the narrator pointed out, the evacuation from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain have become part of our national folklore.

What these people, just ordinary young men and women who’d been living ordinary lives, went through … the Battle of Britain fighter pilot, the sailors who were stranded at sea for days after their ships were torpedoed, the young girl who was buried alive for five hours after the house she was in was hit during the Blitz, the soldiers who were evacuated from Dunkirk and the woman who was there to meet them as they arrived back in Britain, the young bride who was evacuated from bomb-hit London and gave birth to her first child without knowing whether or not her husband was still alive (thankfully he survived, and they lived a long and happy life together), the grammar school girl who excelled at mathematics and worked in planning ship movements … servicemen seeing friends killed before their eyes, those at home never knowing if their loved ones were coming back to them or not … and they coped with all of it, because they had to.

What a huge debt we owe these people, ordinary people whose lives became extraordinary.  Many of them have only recently been able to talk about their wartime experiences.  Many more died before they ever really were.  If you’ve still got loved ones of “Britain’s Greatest Generation”, appreciate them whilst they’re here.

It’s just been announced that the Queen and Prince Philip, themselves both of the “Greatest Generation”, Prince Philip a wartime naval hero, are to visit Bergen-Belsen during a state visit to Germany next month.  That’ll draw everyone’s attention to what happened during the Second World War, and to what “Britain’s Greatest Generation” helped to save this country from.  A very moving and inspiring series.

 

 

Lusitania: 18 minutes that changed the world – Channel 4

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Word PressThis Channel 4 “docu-drama” marked the hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the British passenger liner Lusitania by a German U-boat, with the loss of 1,198 lives – including that of my great-great-uncle Arthur, a 16-year-old member of the crew.

Docu-dramas can sometimes seem like “dumbing down”, but I think that in this case it was an excellent choice of presentation.  The sinking of the Lusitania is so wrapped up in debates about total war and about the effect of the tragedy on public opinion in the United States, as well as in some rather bizarre conspiracy theories, that it sometimes seems as if those who died are rather overlooked.  1,198 passengers and crew, all of them individual people with hopes and dreams, all leaving behind devastated families and friends, lost their lives that day; and this programme sought to tell the story through the accounts of a small number of them.  It also told of the rescue effort.  I feel as if I want to go and thank the town of Cobh (then known as Queenstown), Ireland, for what its people did: the accounts of rescue workers carrying ashore the bodies of dead children as tenderly as if the children had still been alive were so, so moving.

So, were these “18 minutes that changed the world”?  I’m not quite sure how Channel 4 intended the viewer to take that title, but there are two ways in which the sinking of the Lusitania is usually seen as crucial in world history.  One is that it really marked the beginning of total warfare.  It is now generally accepted that the Lusitania was carrying arms – although, as the programme explained, the second explosion on the ship was almost certainly caused by a ruptured steam pipe, not, as is sometimes claimed, by munitions blowing up – but, even if the Germans were aware of that, sinking an unarmed passenger ship broke all the rules of international shipping and warfare and there can be no excuse for that.  The German Navy might perhaps have been within its rights to board and search the ship, but not to destroy it and to take almost 1,200 civilian lives.  1,198 lives … the ship was only 12 miles off the Irish coast, but 12 miles, especially in such cold temperatures, was too far to swim.  And, unlike the Titanic, it had enough lifeboats for everyone on board, but it listed so badly that very few of them only 6 out of a total of 44, could be launched.   There is still some confusion over why the ship sank so quickly, but the steam pipe explosion explanation makes a lot of sense.

There are these theories that the British government expected the Lusitania to be attacked but did nothing because it hoped that the loss of the ship would bring the United States into the war, but I don’t buy them for a moment.  I can believe that the British authorities, whom, let’s face it, wouldn’t have won any awards for their competence in conducting the war during 1915, were made aware that there could be a threat but didn’t take it seriously enough, but certainly not that they made a deliberate decision to let the ship go down in the hope that it would bring America into the war on the Allies’ side.  As for the effect on American actions … well, I think that that’s something that gets overstated, to be honest.  The loss of 128 American lives undoubtedly caused anger in the United States, but it was to be another two years before the United States actually entered the war – something which didn’t happen until a) the Tsarist regime in Russia had been overthrown, b) Germany had offered a military alliance to Mexico and c), crucially, Germany’s decision to resume unrestricted submarine warfare, which they’d suspended after the Lusitania was sunk..  Having said which, the aftermath of the sinking of the Lusitania did see the US making large-scale loans to both Britain and France after the sinking of the Lusitania, the rise of the “Preparedness” movement and, undoubtedly, the growth of negative public opinion towards Germany in the US.

Ships, even the likes of the QE2 don’t quite have the same grip on the popular imagination that they did once, but there’s still something about a huge passenger liner that’s glorious and glamorous and thrilling.  Back in the summer of 1914, a lot of people felt the same about war.  But there wasn’t anything glorious about the events of May 7th, 1915 – only the loss of 1,198 lives.  We accept now, much more easily than people did then, that civilians will die in wartime; but it’s still very hard to accept the sinking of an unarmed passenger ship.  And thank you again to the people of Cobh for what they did for the survivors and for giving the dead as much dignity as was possible, after one of the greatest tragedies in British maritime history.

In Greek Waters by G A Henty

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Word PressI do love G A Henty!  Any historical period about which you’re struggling to find an English language novel, just give him a try – he’s bound to have written one!  This one, covering the Greek War of Independence, was as good as his books always are, but did rather surprise me.  It was about a young English gentleman and his strongly Philhellene father going off to the Greek war in a schooner, which they’d bought and fitted out at their own expense, complete with a crew whom they were paying out of their own money, with the intention of aiding the Greeks.  The early years of the Greek War of Independence were rather like the Spanish Civil War in this respect, only mainly with the upper-classes (i.e. the people with the money!), most famously Lord Byron.  In an era in which Westerners going to fight in foreign wars tends to involve them joining terrorist organisations, it’s good to remember that it’s something that people used to do with the intention of fighting for freedom.

However, things didn’t proceed as I was expecting.  There were the usual G A Henry adventures with people being taken prisoner and narrowly avoiding sticky ends, rescuing young ladies whom they eventually married, etc, whilst, naturally 🙂 all the British characters behaved like perfect gentlemen and Johnny Foreigner played all sorts of rotten tricks, our heroes soon found that they were appalled by the behaviour of both Greeks and Turks alike and, rather than taking sides in the war, they concentrated their efforts on aiding the innocent civilians threatened by it, regardless of ethnicity or religion.  Philhellene feeling did wane as the war went on and, once Greece had become independent, there was a lot of anger in Britain and Western Europe about the Greek government not repaying its loans (does this sound rather familiar?!), but this was written in the early 1890s when, even though Britain was to some extent committed to preserving the territorial integrity of the Ottoman Empire because of concerns about Russian ambitions in both the Balkans and the Dardanelles, there was widespread anti-Turkish/Ottoman feeling following the Bulgarian massacres.

It really does G A Henty a lot of credit that he wrote a book which emphasised the suffering of civilians on both sides of a war, and the fact that ethnicity and religion should not matter when it comes to trying to help those in need, rather than the rights and wrongs of the politics of it all: it’s an attitude you might expect to find in a modern book, but perhaps not one written at the height of the Victorian Age of Empire.  And he does a wonderful job of blending it with all the usual Boys’ Own type stuff.  I’ve read quite a few of his books now, but I’ve still got loads to go and I’m very pleased about that!!