The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd


Word PressThis book, set largely in antebellum Charleston, combines fact and fiction in telling the stories of Sarah Grimke, the elder of the two famous abolitionist Grimke sisters, and a fictional character, Handful, a female slave who was owned by the Grimke family and was close to Sarah when they were both young.  The blurb on the back cover, “two girls who grow up never doing as they’re told”, makes it sound like a children’s book about two naughty little kids, and I’m surprised at the publishers for degrading a story about such important issues by describing it in such a ridiculous way, but let’s try to ignore that!

Two years ago, I visited South Carolina on an organised tour.  My priority was to see Charleston, which I’d been wanting to see for many years, but it also included a tour of Magnolia Plantation, and I was rather excited when I found out that the place had once belonged to a nephew of Sarah and Angelina Grimke, because they are such important figures.  The book shows us Sarah’s struggles as an opponent of slavery in antebellum South Carolina, and as a strong-minded woman in a society in which women were expected to confine themselves to the domestic sphere.  We see how she eventually moved to Philadelphia, but, even there, was seen as being too radical, both in her Abolitionist views and in her views of women’s place in society.  We also see how Handful, forbidden to leave the Grimkes’ property without permission, threatened with being sold away from her mother, and physically abused by her owners, manages to remain unbowed, and eventually runs away.

The book also shows Handful’s mother becoming involved with Denmark Vesey, but I think that that was a wasted opportunity: Sue Monk Kidd doesn’t really show how the Vesey plot, and then the Nat Turner Uprising in Virginia nine years later, intensified the fear of a widespread slave uprising, especially in a city like Charleston where slaves formed a majority of the population.  Early in the book, we see Sarah’s father say that he knows that slavery is wrong.  By the 1850s, it was highly unlikely that a man in his social position would have said that, as the mood shifted from regarding slavery as a necessary evil to trying to convince society that it was a positive good.  Fear of slave uprisings had a lot to do with that.  So too, obviously, did the question of whether or not slavery should be permitted in new states joining the Union.  Whilst that was more of an issue in the 1840s and especially the 1850s, it was an issue earlier on too, and I’m surprised that the Missouri Compromise isn’t mentioned in this book.  The Nullification Crisis isn’t mentioned either, which you’d think it might be in a book set in Charleston.

Oh well, enough about what isn’t mentioned!  There’s plenty which is, and a lot to think about, as there always is in any book which tackles the issue of slavery.  We also see Sarah struggling to cope with the realisation that, even amongst Abolitionists, there are few people who truly believe in racial equality at that time.  Over 150 years after the end of slavery in the …. I’m going to say United States, but I do realise that that’s a controversial term when talking about 1865, but you know what I mean!  Anyway, over 150 years after the end of slavery in the United States, the subject of racism has still not been fully resolved.  This book is quite uplifting, though, because we see Sarah freeing herself from the constraints of the society in which she grew up – and there are many examples, in both the USA and Britain, of women taking the lead in reform movements – , even though she has to sacrifice a lot in the process, and we see Handful refusing to let her spirit be broken and, in the end, managing to get away.  I’m not trying to compare the position of a white upper-class Southern woman with that of a slave, obviously, but the theme of the book is that both women are trying to invent their “wings”.

Sadly, very few slaves were able to find freedom, but there was a very important “slave culture”, which was never broken and which lives on today.  The book’s title comes from an African-American folk tale about people having wings.  It’s a very fitting title for a very interesting book.



Daughter of Catalonia by Jane MacKenzie


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Most of this book’s set in Northern Catalunya, i.e. the part that’s legally part of France, rather than part of Spain, in the 1950s, and tells the story of a young woman from a well-to-do background in England going to the village in Northern Catalunya where she spent the first few years of her life with her father, a Republican refugee and Resistance fighter from “Spanish” Catalunya, and her half-English, half-French mother, and what she finds out there about events during the Second World War.

The main character does sometimes sound as if she belongs in some sort of Girls’ Own novel – nasty strict grandparents, posh family home – rather than a novel about the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, the Second World War and what they did to the people of a small (fictional) fishing village – but, especially if you overlook that, it’s quite a good read. This is a part of the world where the two wars overlapped and intertwined, and that comes across very well in this book, particularly regarding the plight of the refugees who fled into France from Spain. Just wandering slightly off the point for a moment, there was something nagging in the back of my mind about Eric Cantona and Catalan refugees fleeing to France, and Wikipedia has helpfully reminded me that, yes, Cantona’s mother’s family were Republican refugees who left Spanish Catalunya for France. Not that that’s got anything to do with this book, but it’s a point about the plight of those forced to flee Spain after Franco’s victory, and more of them were from Catalunya than from any other part of Spain.

In addition to the political elements, the book involves, inevitably a romance, and also the discovery of dark secrets. There must have been so many secrets after the Second World War ended … personal secrets – an affair, a child whose father wasn’t his mother’s husband – and darker secrets about treachery and betrayal, sometimes amongst friends and neighbours. It’s not the best book ever written, maybe a bit too light for the subject matter, but it’s an interesting read about a region and a time in history not often covered in novels in English.

Blood and Gold, episode 2 -BBC 2


Word PressI said last week that the title of this series sounded very “1492 and all that”-ish, and this was the “1492 and all that episode”.  There ought to be more than three episodes in this series, really: the final episode’s got to cover everything from the Golden Age/Philip II/the Armada right up to the present day, all in the space of an hour!

So.  1492 and all that.  The completion of the Reconquista (with the fall of Granada) and the expulsion of the Muslims (the Moriscos, descendants of Islamic converts to Christianity, were expelled in 1609), the expulsion of the Jews, and Christopher Columbus’ first voyage to the Americas.  Strangely little attention was given to the unification of Aragon and Castile, which was a lot more complex than just the marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella, and was a process which took many years … and is rather topical at the moment, with all this talk of Catalan independence.  And a lot of emphasis was put on the religious aspects of Columbus’ voyage, and perhaps too little on the power politics and commercial aspects – although there’ll probably be more talk next week about the Spanish Empire.  And the very valid point was made that El Cid was a mercenary who fought for both Christians and Muslims, depending on what suited, rather than being some sort of crusading Christian hero!

The real focus of this episode was the destruction of so much Jewish and Islamic culture, and the horrific persecution which followed for many years afterwards.  Even now, we tend to talk about “the Spanish Inquisition” rather than “the Inquisition”.  The attempts at hunting down those suspected of being crypto-Jews and, to a lesser extent, those suspected of being crypto-Muslims.  It’s one of the great Terrors of history, and can probably be spoken of in the same breath as Stalin’s reign of terror, Pol Pot’s reign of terror, and the Reign of Terror in revolutionary France.

Religious cleansing, for lack of a better expression, is something which, shockingly, we are now seeing again.  Across many parts of the Middle East and North Africa, and in other places, such as Chechnya, most of the Jews have left and many of the Christians are now leaving.  Sometimes it’s largely just because of a feeling of unease, as with the Jewish community of Morocco.  Sometimes it’s because of a growing sense of persecution, and sometimes acts of violence, as with both the Christian and Jewish communities of Egypt.  And now we’re getting very disturbing reports of the rape, torture and murder of Syrian and Iraqi Christians in areas controlled by Daesh/IS.  Over half a millennium on from the expulsion of the Jews and Moors of Castile and Aragon.

On a more cheerful note, the story of the crypto-Jews of Spain and the Spanish Empire – Simon Sebag Montefiore discovered that some members of his own family had gone to Mexico, although, tragically, at least two of them were hunted down there by the Inquisition and murdered in an auto-da -fe (burning at the stake) is quite fascinating: there are stories of Jewish practices being passed down through families for hundreds of years, whilst those practising them were outwardly practising Catholics.  But the destruction of the great Jewish and Islamic cultures of what we now know as Spain, and the persecution and murder of so many people, was a great tragedy.

Those were dark times.  There are reasons for the Black Legend.  But next week’s episode will take us up to the present day, and a Spain that’s a long way removed from 1492 and all that.




Keep The Home Fires Burning by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


Word PressThis is the second book in Cynthia Harrod-Eagles’ “war at home” series about the First World War … and plenty of loose ends were left untied to ensure that the reader buys the third one when it comes out.  In the space of a relatively short novel (only around 400 pages in paperback), she covers an enormous range of issues – bereavement, tragically and inevitably, the agonising waiting for news, the mixed emotions when a loved one joined up, the eagerness of the early volunteers, their frustration at spending so much time training in Britain rather than going to the Front, the pressure put on those who were eligible to volunteer but didn’t immediately do so, the difficulties faced by those with life-changing injuries, the conversion of buildings into war hospitals, the role of animals in the war, class issues, the way in which the war offered new opportunities to women, the coming of Belgian refugees to Britain, the opportunities, however unlooked-for, brought by the war to some businesses, the Zeppelin raids, the fear of bombing and invasion, differences of opinion over possible conscription, differences of opinion over whether or not things like professional sport and musical hall shows should continue in wartime … there’s an awful lot in this book.

However – partly, to be fair, because there is so much in it – it never goes very deep, and that’s disappointing from the author of the wonderful Kirov saga.  Some of it’s almost frivolous, but then there are lighter elements even to something so horrific – local busybodies, Boy Scouts determined to save their communities from highly unlikely attacks, unlikely spy scares, etc – so the frivolous bits aren’t really objectionable; but it only really seems to skim the surface of things, even when a character is killed.  That doesn’t make it a bad book, but it does make it disappointing when Cynthia Harrod-Eagles can do so much better.  Some of it was strangely class-ridden and patronising as well, more the sort of thing you’d expect from someone writing in 1915 than in 2015 – all the hysterics and silly remarks came from the servants, and never from the middle and upper-classes.

It’s still a good read, though.  Maybe the main thing that comes across is the voluntary nature of the war effort at home, the voluntary, locally-led mobilisation of civilians into committees organising all sorts of relief efforts, the conversion of all sorts of buildings into war hospitals (as many of us in North West England will have seen reconstructed at Dunham Massey over the past couple of years, and many people will be familiar with in fictional terms from Downton Abbey, and so on.  We’re so used now to expecting the state to organise everything.  Having said which, most of those involved in the committees were young and middle-aged women from better-off backgrounds, who didn’t go out to work, had domestic staff to do their housework, and therefore had the time to give.  Few people have that time these days, and many voluntary organisations are suffering because of it … but there just isn’t that time to give any more.

It’s hard to believe that this was taking place a full century ago.  Yes, it’s another world, in terms of class divisions, gender issues, technology and so much else, but the Great War still seems quite close.  It’s still a big part of our culture.  The songs from it are still so familiar.  It’s a long way to Tipperary, Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, K-K-K-Katie, Hello Hello who’s your lady friend, Over there.  Keep the home fires burning, of course.  Roses of Picardy, which (for some reason!) one of my grandmas used to love.  And the poetry, of course – there are so many poems from the First World War.  And, of course, the poppies.  Also, the availability of resources on the internet now has made it easier for people to look into their family history.

Anyway.  Cynthia Harrod-Eagles can do, and in the past certainly has done, better, but this is still worth reading, and I’ll also be reading the next book in the series when it comes out .

Blood and Gold: The Making of Spain – BBC 2


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The title of this programme sounded very “1492 and all that”, but that’s next week: this first episode, focusing on the southern part of what we now know about Spain, was about the earlier stuff. It was very interesting – despite the distraction caused by Simon Sebag Montefiore’s silly hat – but I found some of a little bit negative. Oh well.

It started off with the Carthaginians. Now, we all know all about the Carthaginians in Spain, don’t we? Hamilcar Barca, father of Hannibal (he of elephants fame), founded the city of Barcelona, and that’s why FC Barcelona are known as Barca. Er, actually, no. It’s a nice story, but it isn’t true. The Carthaginians in Spain hung around in Cartagena (“New Carthage”) and Cadiz, and Barcelona gets its name from an Iberian settlement called Barkeno. Simon Sebag Montefiore stuck to the facts and didn’t even mention the Barca story, which was probably a sensible approach but was rather boring of him!

Anyway, he spoke about the Carthaginians in Cadiz, spent a worrying amount of time going on about castration, and then moved on to the Romans, showing us some very nice shots of the remains of Italica, just outside Seville, which I was fortunate enough to visit a couple of years ago, and making the important point that several of Rome’s most successful emperors came from Hispania. Then on through the Vandals, the Byzantines and the Visigoths, reminding us just how complex the history of southern Spain is, and then on to the coming of the Umayyads.

Talk of caliphates centred on Syria has unfortunate connotations at the moment, but obviously none of what’s going on at the moment has or had anything to do with Spain. And the general view of the Caliphate of Cordoba is quite a positive one, but I found Simon’s presentation of it to be rather negative. All right, he showed us the wonderful Mezquita, one of my favourite buildings anywhere in the world, and he spoke about what a beautiful city Cordoba is, and went on at rather considerable length about the development of toilet hygiene, but I was expecting him to talk about the “Golden Age” of Cordoba, how Muslims, Jews and Christians all lived together in relative peace and how culture flourished there as a result … but he didn’t, really. Instead, he emphasised how some of the rulers were tyrannical, how many concubines they had, the slave trade and the resentment of some Christians about Islamic rule. None of it was untrue, but I was disappointed that he chose to focus on the negative aspects of the period and give so little attention to the more positive aspects.

He then moved on to Granada, where, to be fair, he spoke a lot more about the flourishing of Jewish culture under Islamic rule, and how there were two Jewish Grand Viziers there … before ending with the 1066 Granada Massacre.

Next week, I assume he’ll be focusing on the north and the Reconquista, and then all the many aspects of “1492 and all that”, and then the establishment of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, the war in the Netherlands and the sending of the Armada against England. That is where I would have expected negativity.  The Black Legend casts a long shadow, and there is a fair amount of truth in it, but I did think he might have been more positive about the Caliphate of Cordoba.    Oh well, we all have our own views on things.  The programme was interesting, as I’ve said … it just didn’t show things quite as I’d expected, but maybe that’s just me.

What a performance! – BBC 4


Word PressThis three-part series about “pioneers of popular entertainment” is presented by Frank Skinner and Suzy Klein, and started off with the precursors of the music hall – “penny gaffes”, “song and supper clubs” and “saloon theatres”, before moving on to the more familiar world of music halls, with particular focus on the comedian Dan Leno and the singer Marie Lloyd.  I can remember knowing some of Marie Lloyd’s songs, in particular “Oh Mr Porter”, from an early age, but back then I didn’t get all the innuendo … of which there was a lot!

It was entertaining, and some of the social history aspects of it were genuinely informative – I’d never really stopped before to think what a difference gas lights made to people’s lives –  but, like a lot of BBC 4’s historical programmes, it all felt a bit dumbed down.  Like that series on dancing which Len Goodman and Lucy Worsley did, a lot of this involved the presenters dressing up and pretending to be the people of the time.  That’s fine for a primary school trip, but it’s a bit daft for a BBC documentary shown at 9pm.

Still, it was entertaining enough.  I’m just rather disappointed that they didn’t mention ventriloquists, because I had a great-great-great-uncle who was a music hall ventriloquist.  Seriously, I did!  He’s mentioned on, and there are even a couple of pictures of him on there, so I think he must have been quite well-known in his day!

Anyway, all the dressing up and pretending to be Dan Leno and Marie Lloyd was a bit daft, but, as I said, it was entertaining enough.  And the music halls deserve to be remembered.  It’s rather a shame that we don’t still have them … and I bet most of us know all the best-known music hall songs, even if we don’t know that they are music hall songs.  They’ve lasted, and that says a lot … even if this TV programme didn’t say all that much!