The White Night of St Petersburg by Prince Michael of Greece

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I don’t think that this would ever have been published without the royal connection, but then it would never have been written without the royal connection. Prince Michael of Greece is the son of Prince Christopher of Greece, the youngest son of George I of Greece (ne Prince William of Denmark) and Queen Olga (nee Grand Duchess Olga Constantinovna) by his second wife – the one who was one of the Orleanists, not the one who was a rich American whose money helped support Prince Philip’s family when they were living in Paris. Was Prince Christopher the one who supposedly had some sort of affair with his uncle, or have I got the wrong person? Anyway, none of that’s very relevant. The book is about Prince Michael’s great-uncle, Grand Duke Nikolai Constantinovich, brother of Queen Olga and of the historian Grand Duke “KR”, and nephew of Alexander II.

Grand Duke Nikolai was apparently cast out of the Romanov family (which is strange, because he definitely appears on the family trees in my Romanov family history books, but never mind), and none of his great-nieces and great-nephews and sundry other relatives had ever heard of him until one of his daughters turned up at the official burial of the Tsar, Tsarina and three of their children in 1998. Many of the late 19th/early 20th century Grand Dukes seem to have led rather colourful lives – too much money and not enough to do – but this one really excelled himself. He got involved with a wealthy American courtesan, and stole some diamonds from one of his mother’s icons, which were given to his lady friend’s other lover, who was involved with the revolutionary movement. Then he got blamed for various other thefts as well.

It’s good, this, isn’t it? You couldn’t make it up. So the rest of the family said that he was insane, and he was exiled to various different places, where he got involved with various different women and had numerous children by these various different women. In between affairs (and one more or less genuine marriage), he found time to do quite a good job of encouraging the building of canals in what’s now Uzbekistan.

Gloriously bonkers. And apparently pretty much true. The style of writing is even more bonkers. Sort of 1920s/30s Hollywood crossed with late 19th century children’s novel, but covering themes which neither of them would have dreamt of touching on. All in the present tense, all very melodramatic, sounds as if every sentence should end in several exclamation marks. Not to mention some strange tale about a nightingale which wouldn’t sing until it was given back to its original owner, which sounded more Hans Christian Andersen than royal biography. It would have sounded utterly ridiculous in a more serious biography, but this whole story was so mad that the style of writing worked quite well.

I’m not sure that the reader was meant to find it funny, but it was hard not to.  “So bad it was good” probably sums it up very well!

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Cake Bakers and Trouble Makers – BBC 2

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I’ve never had anything to do with the WI, and I’m afraid I’ve probably got exactly the image of it which its members and this programme want to dispel. You know the sort of thing – middle-aged and older women, from the middle and upper classes, in small communities in rural areas. I love jam, although I never make it (too much sugar equals too much guilt), and I know all the words to Jerusalem; but I come from the home of the dark satanic mills. When, at one point, the programme showed a book from 1940, in which WI members complained about smelly oiks being evacuated to their villages from Manchester and Liverpool, I was seething with indignation: some of those smelly oiks might have been my relations or family friends!   I think the first mentions of the WI which I ever came across were in Girls’ Own books, where the members were mothers of children who went to boarding schools and owned their own ponies, and in To The Manor Born. Not that there was anything wrong with that, but it all seemed a bit … well, fuddy-duddy-ish.

As I said, this is the sort of image which this programme wanted to dispel, even if it was presented by Lucy Worsley, who is an excellent historian but comes across in a very jolly hockey sticks sort of way which makes her seem rather like one of the characters in those Girls’ Own books. To be fair, the 1960s/70s/80s image of the WI doesn’t hold that firm any more; and that’s thanks in a large part, as Lucy said, to the famous “Calendar Girls” calendar and to that meeting at which WI members heckled Tony Blair. However, the programme went back well before that, to the founding of the WI a hundred years ago, and looked at how, in its early days, the WI campaigned for better housing, for women to be paid the same as men for doing the same work, and even had connections with the suffragette movement. Its importance as a social group, as a place where women could go to escape from the demands of everyday life and to form bonds with female friends, was also discussed. There aren’t a lot of places where it’s possible to do that these days, in a world in which no-one ever seems to have any time, although I’ve found the internet to be an absolute godsend in that respect. There were also some amusing stories about men whingeing that their wives were off at WI meetings when they should have been at home getting the tea on the table.

The role of the WI during the Second World War was discussed too. We laugh about the jam, but the scale of the jam production, and the care taken over it, was impressive. Other war work was mentioned too – and the WI did a lot of work for evacuees, even if some of its members did whinge about smelly oiks.

Most interesting, though – or, at least, I thought so – was the last part of the programme, about modern WI members. The people whom Lucy interviewed belonged to “The Shoreditch Sisters” – mostly women in their 20s, in the East End of London, the complete opposite of the sort of demographic which you’d traditionally associate with the WI. Oh, there are still the traditional WI things going on, but the WI now seems to have a far broader base than I’d ever have thought. Shows what I know, eh, LOL?   I even Googled “Manchester WI” – and, yes, there is one now! Founded in April 2012. I never knew that!

I’ve just re-read this and it sounds a bit critical; and it’s not meant to. I don’t mean that there’s anything at all wrong with groups of middle-aged and older women, from the middle and upper classes, baking cakes and making jam. There’s something rather nice about it all – something a lot more peaceful and gentle than the lives most of us lead. But this programme wanted to show that there’s more to the WI than that, and to remind us of parts of its history which have been forgotten; and I think it did a good job of it.

The Orenda by Joseph Boyden

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This is set in the 1640s, and told from the perspective of three different people – a Huron warrior, a young Iroquois girl whom he’s kidnapped as some sort of revenge for the murder of his wife and children but whom he’s now bringing up as his own daughter, and a Jesuit missionary (they seem to get into a worrying amount of Canadian historical fiction) also taken prisoner by the Huron.

There’s a lot of violence –  a lot of fighting and a lot of torture. In quite a lot of detail. And a lot of disease – the tragedy of the huge loss of life amongst the native population of the Americas, as a result of diseases brought from Europe to which they had no immunity … it wasn’t really anyone’s fault, and no-one foresaw it happening, but it’s one of the greatest tragedies of early modern history.

It’s well-written, and using three different characters to tell the same story is an interesting technique, and a pleasant change from just telling the story from the point of view of a missionary or other European immigrant. It doesn’t feel very 17th century, though. Maybe it’s just because I’m not that well up on this period in Canadian history, whereas it’s a period I know very well from a British and European viewpoint, but some of what the characters were thinking seemed rather 21st century. Or maybe the author was trying to show that some things never change. I suppose some of them – girls chasing after boys, boys chasing after girls – don’t.

It must be a very difficult subject to write about. The level of violence which was normal in the culture of the First Nations bands at the time is hard to accept now. The fact that the Jesuits thought they were doing a good thing by trying to destroy another culture and replace it with their own is hard to accept now. And we’re all trying very hard not to write anything which makes it look as if we’re too stupid to understand that things which aren’t acceptable now weren’t acceptable then. I gather that there has been some controversy about this book, but I think that the author’s tried very hard, and I think that the book’s well worth reading. Some subjects are very hard to write about because they are so sensitive, but all credit to those who try, even when they must sometimes feel that they can’t win, and especially to those who try to show things from more than one perspective.

 

Britain’s Forgotten Slave Owners – BBC 2

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This was a very interesting programme, but I’m not sure that it really did what it said on the tin. It started off by talking about the records concerning compensation paid out to British slave owners after the abolition of slavery in the British Empire in 1833. £20m – the equivalent of about £16bn today. A bit like the scale of the bank bailout of 2009 crossed with something like the PPI compensation claim with all sorts of people being involved on all sorts of different scales.

Is the fact that compensation was paid shocking? It’s horrendously shocking to us today, but, at the time, I think it was accepted by the powers that were that was the way it had to be – that people were being compensated for the loss of property, as if their houses had been bought by a compulsory purchase order. Compensation was paid to slave owners when slavery was abolished in South American countries, in the French Empire, in the Dutch colonies … pretty much everywhere apart from the former slave states of the reunited USA, and, even there, compensation was paid in the District of Columbia. It seems shocking now, but it wasn’t at the time.

It was more shocking, however, when maps popped up, showing that there were slave owners all over the country. Not just wealthy people, but some lower-middle-class people who owned a few slaves in the way that other people would have held a few stocks and shares – an investment bringing in an income. Many of the slaves had been inherited, again in the same way that other people might have inherited a few stocks and shares.

This was intriguing stuff, and I would like to have heard more about these people; but most of the rest of the programme was focused on the sugar plantations in the West Indies, and the families who made a fortunes out of slavery – their wealth and their political power. It was interesting, and it was shocking and distressing as any sort of programme about the evils of slavery always is; but I wouldn’t say that it’s something that’s been forgotten. I think many people are well aware of Britain’s involvement in the slave trade and with slavery on the sugar plantations of the West Indies. I certainly hope they are, anyway. It’s not something that’s talked about much, and it has to be said that that’s probably some sort of historical collective sweeping of a very shameful part of the past under a large carpet; but I wouldn’t say that it was something people weren’t aware of.

But we do associate it with the wealthy. I think the same can be said of America: there is much more awareness of slavery there, but most people probably still hear the word “slavery” and think of places like Tara and Twelve Oaks, not lower middle class families who “owned” a cook and a housemaid. Incidentally, this programme wasn’t about America, it was very much about Britain and a shameful part of Britain’s past but, if it cost that much to “compensate” British slaveholders, would it ever have been feasible to agree a compensated abolition of slavery in America, had abolition not come about as a result of war? To get back to the point, involvement in slavery is something that we associate with the wealthy, and I’d like to have heard a lot more about the “ordinary” people in Britain who were part of it too, because I think that they’re the forgotten slave owners.

I think we’re quite proud of the fact that Britain was the first country to abolish slavery, across its Empire. There’s a horrible irony in that, being proud of abolishing something so shameful, so evil, so horrific. All that talk during the 17th century, arguably even back to 1215, arguably right back to the Witan if you take in the Victorian Whig historian version of history, about rights and liberties, and then to become involved in something that was pure evil. It shouldn’t ever be forgotten, and everything which this programme said was valuable … but I was expecting it to talk a bit more about the small-scale slave owners, because they were the ones who showed the extent to which slave ownership pervaded British society. Still, that’s just my view, and this was a very interesting and well-presented programme. Second and final part next week.

The Outcast – BBC 1

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Oh dear, I can’t make up my mind what I thought of this! I haven’t read the book so I don’t know how faithfully the TV adaptation reflects that, but it was very well-written and well-acted … but so, so miserable and depressing! On Sunday nights I want Heartbeat and Born and Bred, or Downton Abbey. This was all rather miserable. Brilliantly done miserable, though, like a Merchant Ivory adaptation of an EM Forster novel but set in the 1950s rather than the Edwardian era. Just … well, miserable.

It started off with the father of Lewis Aldridge, the main character, returning from the Second World War. Gilbert Aldridge, the father, was your stock upper-middle-class repressed father type, unable to communicate emotionally, insistent on sending his son away to boarding school, etc … except that I didn’t think he was actually that bad. He clearly loved his wife, and he wasn’t all that bad to Lewis. He said “You’re my little boy,” when Lewis had just thrown a strop and smashed the windows, which I thought was quite sweet of him. Anyway, rather than the dad adapting to family life after being returning from war stuff, we then got these Enid Blyton-esque scenes of carefree well-to-do children bicycling down idyllic English country lanes on beautiful summer’s days when it never rained and their world was thought to be such a safe place that parents didn’t worry about their kids being out unsupervised. I was half-expecting a picnic with lashings of ginger beer; but, instead, Lewis went on a picnic with his mum. She dived into the river … and drowned.

So Lewis was deeply emotionally scarred, and things got even worse when his father remarried. He got into trouble at school, and started self-harming. Meanwhile, his stepmother was also deeply unhappy because she was unable to conceive. The neighbours all thought Lewis was weird, and, when his friend Kit tried to stick up for him, her father – another stock upper-middle-class repressed type, but far worse than Mr Aldridge –thrashed her with his belt. Then Lewis – older Lewis, incidentally, was played by George MacKay from the wonderful Sunshine on Leith – burnt down the local church, and got sent to prison.

That would definitely never have happened in an Enid Blyton book with picnics with lashings of ginger beer.

It was a brilliant portrayal of repression and constraints and inclusion and exclusion in an upper-middle-class British community in the 1950s, and of emotional damage and suffering. It really was. It was just very miserable; and most people like a bit of escapism of a Sunday evening. That’s not the programme’s fault, though. Oh well.

Walking Through History – Channel 4

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Being horribly fat and unfit, I do not generally go walking across the Pennine moors, but you can know and love the area even if you do do most of it by car. Also, to be fair, wandering across the moors on your own is fine if you aren’t actually on your own but accompanied by a TV crew, but probably not a very good idea otherwise. It’s all right if you’re in a Bronte novel and liable to be rescued from any mishaps which may befall you by three kindly people who turn out to be your long-lost cousins, but rather less so in real life :-).

This first episode of the new series saw Tony Robinson – Sir Tony Robinson, I should say! – walking around the area known as Bronte Country, and some of the surrounding places which also have Bronte connections. I was very pleased to see Wycoller, the country park and ruined mansion just on the Lancashire side of the Lancs-Yorks border, featured: it’s a gorgeous place, and hardly anyone seems to know that it’s there, or that Wycoller Hall is thought to’ve inspired Ferndean, the house where Jane Eyre and Mr Rochester end up after Thornfield Hall burns down. It’s so poorly signposted that it’s difficult to find even when you know where it is! Then again, at least it’s usually nice and quiet there, whereas Haworth can get very busy, so maybe it’s no bad thing that it’s not better known :-).

I always feel slightly guilty for preferring Jane Eyre to the raw emotions of Wuthering Heights or the very different power of The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which bravely talks about domestic violence at a time when it was a taboo subject, but Jane Eyre is wonderful, it really is. It’s so much more than a Gothic romance. I’ve got some issues with Mr Rochester – in particular, I don’t like the way he uses Blanche Ingram – but Jane herself is such a superb character. I could write about her for hours. Catherine Earnshaw, on the other hand, is a spoilt, selfish brat who wants a bloody good smack!   Maybe she needed to be put in a situation in which she could earn the reader’s respect, as Scarlett O’Hara was, but instead she just got killed off.

Oh well. Having said all that, I always want to walk up to Top Withens, which is thought to’ve been the setting for Wuthering Heights, but I always get nervous about wandering around up there on my own and head off to one of Haworth’s many lovely tea rooms instead. Or go off for a ride on the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway: Tony Robinson did do that, as well as walking up to Top Withens, but didn’t mention that the station next to Haworth is Oakworth, the setting for the film of The Railway Children. Nothing to do with the Brontes, but nice to know if you’re in the area!

He also looked into the lives of the forgotten Brontes – Charlotte, Emily and Anne’s brother, Branwell, and their father, Patrick. It was interesting to be reminded about what a cultural hotspot Halifax was back in the day, and to hear about Branwell’s time there and his success as a poet before his sad decline into depression and alcoholism, and also to hear the completely overlooked story of Patrick Bronte’s work in getting the water supply in the area cleaned up. Two such different but equally quintessentially Victorian lives.

The whole story of the Brontes is fascinating. How did the children of a vicar of a small town, living restricted, isolated lives, come up with such amazingly dramatic novels, going against so many of the norms and ideals of their times and class? To possess such imagination and such literary power … it’s incredible. And all amid the backdrop of the Pennine moors. The moors possess such power too, for the people who live amongst them and maybe even more so for those of us who live in urban/suburban areas but have the moors to escape to. It was in the Peak District rather than the Worth Valley area, but the Kinder Scout Trespass sums up so well the need to be able to roam about these areas: the “right to roam” is such a big thing in Britain, in the Scandinavian countries and in various other parts of the Continent.

Lucky Tony Robinson, getting to do these programmes! Yes, I know, I know, if I were doing them then I’d been whingeing and moaning and looking for the nearest tea room after the first couple of miles, but it’s very enjoyable watching someone else do them!

 

Red River Rising by B J Bayle

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Word Press This is a “young adult” book (why are books for older children now called “young adult books”?) about a group of emigrants who leave the Scottish Highlands during the infamous Clearances of the lands owned by the Duchess of Sutherland and settle in the Red River Colony, now Winnipeg. The title’s a bit confusing because it sounds as if the book ought to be set during the Red River Uprising of 1869-70, when it actually opens in 1813 and instead covers the “Pemmican War” between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. However, confusing title aside, it’s an interesting book which covers a lot – the situation in the Highlands at the time, the dangers of the journey across the Atlantic, the development of the settlement, the challenges posed by the climate and the terrain, the enmity between the two companies and its effect on the settlers, and the interaction of all three groups with the First Nations and the Metis in the area.

All the way through this, I had “Letter from America”, the song by wonderful Scottish group The Proclaimers, going through my head, but that’s a sad song and this is the positive side of it. In the end, the settlers prospered. And the companies merged. Then again, more issues arose – hence the Red River Uprising. There are a lot of complex issues here, and they’re still affecting both Canada and Scotland – and this book does a very good job of telling a fascinating story in a way that’s accessible to older children, and not a bad read for adults either.