Last Train from Liguria by Christine Dwyer Hickey

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Word PressThis had the potential to be a good book, but, unfortunately, that potential wasn’t fulfilled.  The story sounded good – a woman leaves her dull life in London and moves to Mussolini’s Italy to become governess to the son of an Italian aristocrat and his Jewish, German wife.  There, she meets the boy’s music tutor, who’s living under an assumed name after fleeing Dublin because he murdered his sister.  As events progress, the governess and the tutor are forced to try to flee with the boy and his baby half-sister, but it goes horribly wrong.  Years later, the woman’s granddaughter begins to uncover the story.  So it sounded really good.  Unfortunately, the ideas just weren’t developed.  We never found out the tutor’s background history and why he committed the murder.  We never found out exactly what happened to him.  We were never actually told what happened to the boy.  We saw the granddaughter begin to try to guess/piece together what had happened, but only begin.  It felt as if about 75% of the book was missing.  On top of that, it was written in the present tense, which never works particularly well, and most of the parts involving the granddaughter read as if they’d been written by a 12-year-old boy who thought it was funny to include as many gratuitous rude words as possible.

What a waste of an interesting idea!   Not impressed, sorry!

 

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The Story of China – BBC 2

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Word PressI do like programmes presented by Michael Wood!  No dressing up in costumes as if it’s a primary school trip rather than a historical documentary, and no getting hyper (his way of showing excitement is to talk in a sort of loud whisper!).  Best of all, he’s got a lovely Manchester accent :-).  Trying to tell the history of China in six hours is obviously a lot easier said than done, so we’re only getting an overview, but it’s a fascinating overview, of a subject which not many people in the UK are particularly familiar with.

The first episode began with China’s earliest recorded history, reminding us that China – a relatively united state despite its size and diversity – has long outlasted all the other ancient civilisations, and many powerful civilisations which have come and gone in the meantime.  Michael Wood also made some very interesting points about how elements of Chinese culture which go back hundreds or even thousands of years were suppressed under the communists but are now being celebrated again.  That’s wonderful.  It really is.  Things die out so easily, whether it’s because of deliberate political/ethnic/religious/linguistic repression or whether it’s just a result of socio-economic change and urbanisation.  Even the tomb of Confucius had been damaged, but it’s been repaired now.  History is important in China.  So it should be!

I’m not sure how much we’re going to take in in what can only be a whistle-stop run through a very big subject, but Michael Wood is doing his best to make it appealing, and largely succeeding.  The main theme of the first episode was “ancestors”, and basing a programme on theme rather than chronology doesn’t always work, but for a subject as big as the history of China – in six hours! – it does seem like a good approach, because it might all seem too daunting otherwise.  Looking forward to more of this.  I know embarrassingly little about the history of China, but am keen to learn more :-).

The Young Montrose by Nigel Tranter

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There are a lot of novels about the English Civil War, but very few about the other elements of the “Wars of the Three Kingdoms”. Maybe the Bishops’ Wars and the civil war in Scotland have got an image problem. They don’t really fit into the Whig “1066 and all that” view of history, nor do they fit into the romantic Highland history image in the way that the Jacobite rebellions do. Also, it gets rather confusing when major figures change sides, which is what the Marquis of Montrose does – first he’s the leader of the Covenanters, then he’s the leader of the Scottish Royalists. And the whole thing’s messy enough in England. The king is prevented from becoming some sort of despot. This is good. Despots are what they had in places like France and Spain: we don’t do that here. Hurrah! Except that then Cromwell chops the king’s head off, and, following that, tries to turn the country into a theocracy, taking old men who won’t say their prayers by their left legs and throwing them down the stairs, banning mince pies and saying that you can’t play football on Sundays. And massacring people in Ireland. This is clearly not good. All rather head-scratching.

And it’s worse in Scotland. Jenny Geddes chucking her stool about in Edinburgh Cathedral makes an entertaining story, but the militant Covenanters are quite frightening. And then you get the Covenanters supporting Charles II against Cromwell and the Puritans, which always seems so totally arse-about-face. Very confusing.

All right, I’ll be serious now. To get back to the original point, there aren’t a lot of novels about this period in Scottish history. Most of the focus is on England. It was back then as well, and that was a big part of the problem. The Stewarts/Stuarts had been on the throne of Scotland for centuries, and then, come the death of Elizabeth I in 1603, they took themselves off to London as fast as their legs (or horses) could carry them. James I and VI managed the situation relatively well, but Charles I made a mess of it. Of all the reasons given for the English Civil War, and the Wars of the Three Kingdoms generally, surely the main one has to be that Charles was such a prize idiot! He badly mismanaged the situation in both England and Scotland, and Ireland as well, and contrived to offend just about everyone.   Ruling without Parliament. Monopolies. Ship money. And, the issue which kicked things off in Scotland, unwanted religious reforms.

I don’t know who edited this book, but “Arminians” were referred all the way through it as “Armenians”! It sounded as if Charles I and William Laud were trying to turn the Presbyterian Kirk of Scotland into a branch of Oriental Orthodoxy, which really would have been interesting. Oh well. Anyway, the so-called Bishops’ Wars broke out in Scotland, with Montrose as the leader of the Covenanters. Then, because the militant, extremist Covenanters were so frightening, Montrose ended up as leader of the Royalists.

What a horrible choice! A very silly monarch who’d put everyone’s backs up and offended nearly everyone’s ideas of what was important, or a bunch of religious extremists. Anyway, he took the Royalist side, and, as a soldier, he did an excellent job … but the war was bloody and brutal, and, as we all know, the Royalists were doomed to defeat.

Montrose eventually met a sticky end at the hands of Cromwell, but this book doesn’t go that far. What it does is present an important reminder of the fact that, for over a century, England and Scotland were part of a personal union but not an official political union, and an interesting picture of a man caught up in an impossible set of circumstances, who tried to do his best in what was really a no-win situation. It’s all very sad, really. The seventeenth century in British history was one great big mess. It’s supposed to be the defining time in British history, but it can’t have been very much fun for the people who lived through it.

 

The Madonna of the Almonds by Marina Fiorato

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Amaretto. Wondrous stuff. I’m not that keen on amaretti biscuits because I don’t like things with nuts in them, but amaretto liqueur – ah, now that’s a different story. There are various different brands of it, but I assume that, when most people think of amaretto, they think of those posh bottles (designed by a Murano craftsman, apparently) with the square tops. That’s Disaronno, so called because it comes from the Lombard town of Saronno, about 15 miles from Milan and 40 miles from Pavia.

The Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini, thought to have been a pupil of Leonardo da Vinci, painted, amongst other things, various frescoes in a church in Saronno. According to legend, whilst he was working there in 1525 (the year of the Battle of Pavia), a young widowed innkeeper acted as his model for his depictions of the Virgin Mary, and, wanting to give him a present but unable to afford to buy him anything, she steeped apricot kernels in brandy and so invented amaretto. All right, it probably isn’t true, but it’s a nice story!

This book is based on the story, but, instead of the woman being an innkeeper, Marina Fiorato’s got her being a noblewoman who was widowed by the Battle of Pavia and left in a huge amount of debt, and agreed to do the modelling because she needed the money … except that she and Luini fell in love and eventually got married and, presumably, lived happily ever after. She also invented amaretto as a way of making money.

Entwined with this is the story of her dead first husband, who didn’t actually die at Pavia but was seriously injured and lost his memory (the sort of thing that was always happening to people in Dallas and Dynasty, except that that was generally after a car crash rather than a battle), fell in love with and married the girl who rescued him, and then suddenly got his memory back on their wedding night and remembered that he was already married … whereupon he went back to Saronno, found out that his first wife had remarried, decided it would cause too much upset to make himself known, and went back to his second wife … and then they presumably lived happily ever after as well.

Mixed up in the middle of all this is the tale of a Jewish family who’d been expelled from Castile and moved to Lombardy, but then found themselves being persecuted again when the Spanish took over the Duchy of Milan – by a fictional Spanish Cardinal, that was, not by Charles V (who was actually Charles I of Aragon and Castile, but the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, just to confuse matters further). And a lot of stories about saints. And a lot of psychological stuff about Luini’s troubled childhood and issues with religion.

So it’s all rather a mish-mash. On top of that, some of it was written in a rather 18th/early 19th century style. “She privily hoped that” and that sort of thing.   That kind of works if you intend the book to be a pastiche and write like that all the way through, but not otherwise.  And some of it was rather like the Gothic/melodramatic tales from that era. Our heroine was left in so much debt that she even sold her bed and slept on the floor.  And went out hunting for squirrels for dinner, as you do when you’re a Renaissance noblewoman.  Then there were some appalling spelling mistakes. Maybe they were only in the Kindle edition, but they still shouldn’t have been there.

So I really don’t know what to say about this!   Some of it was excellent, and some of it was laughable. It’s not easy to find books which are set during the Italian Wars but don’t revolve around either the Borgias or the Medici, and the author’s attempts both to cover the issue of the persecution of Jews at the time and to draw attention to the generally overlooked Bernardino Luini are very praiseworthy, but a lot of it was just … strange!   Very mixed feelings about this one.

The Crusades – BBC 4

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Word PressOne of the great scourges of humanity is so-called “holy war”. The Crusades of the Middle Ages spanned a period of almost 400 years.  And that’s just the Crusades in the Middle East.  They’re the ones we usually mean when we use the word “Crusades”, but let’s not forget that there were also “Crusades” against “pagans” in the Baltic, “heretical” Christian groups in southern France and elsewhere, and, of course, the “Reconquista” in what’s now Spain and Portugal.  Let’s also not forget that the Crusaders massacred large numbers of Jews in the Rhineland, during the First Crusade, and that Latin Christians sacked the Greek Christian capital of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade.  I hate reading about the Fourth Crusade, because I love Venice and it always upsets me that the Venetians behaved so appallingly.

Anyway, back to the BBC 4 programme.  I think this was on, on BBC 2, a few years ago, but it’s certainly worth watching again, especially given what’s going on in the world at the moment.  In the first episode, we got, logically enough, the First Crusade.  In the third and final episode, I assume we’re going to get Baybars.  In the second episode, we got the Third Crusade.  Now, the Third Crusade is the “every schoolboy knows” bit.  Richard the Lionheart and Saladin.  I once rather shocked an Egyptian tour guide by saying that I much preferred Saladin to Richard.  I don’t think he expected to hear that from an English historian, but, as Thomas Asbridge explained in this programme, Saladin, the warrior who retook Jerusalem without civilian bloodshed, has got a far better reputation than Richard, the man who massacred 3,000 people at Acre.  Interestingly, Thomas was granted access to documents showing that maybe Saladin wasn’t quite the gentleman history’s got him down as, and maybe he wasn’t all that reluctant to spill blood when he retook Jerusalem after all … but, the fact is, it did all happen as peacefully as it could have done.

One aspect of it all which tends to be overlooked is that the Crusades all kicked off when the Byzantines appealed for Western European help against the Turks.  But, in 1453, where the hell were the Western Europeans when Constantinople was about fall?  Doing very little other than trying to persuade the Byzantine Emperor to convert to Catholicism, is the answer to that.   However, that’s rather beside the point.   So, first there were the Byzantines asking for help, but then it got turned into this idea of reconquering Jerusalem.  Some of those who went had genuine religious motives, either from genuine piety or because going on Crusade was supposed to expiate all your sins and get you a guaranteed pass into Heaven.  Others went for adventure, for financial motives, to follow their lords, maybe even because they had nothing else to do.  And then the Crusader kingdoms of “Outremer” were set up.  It’s easy to forget how long some of them lasted: I was doing some revision on the subject before going to Greece last year, and I’d half-forgotten that not only the rule of the Knights of St John in Malta but some of the other kingdoms lasted into the 15th and 16th centuries.

So, as Thomas Asbridge made clear, the Crusades went well beyond the fighting.  They had a huge effect on the culture of both Europe and the Middle East.  The term “Franks” is still in common use in the Middle East, and I found in Greece last year that some Catholic churches there are still referred to as “Frankish churches”.  And we’re still talking about them.  But, at the end of the day, they were wars, and they were about violence, and bloodshed, and religious hatred.  And that, sadly, is still going on today, and the Middle East is still the area most affected by it.  Maybe one day it’ll all come to an end and Jerusalem and the rest of the Middle East, and the rest of the world, will be free of the bloodshed caused by religion.  We can but hope.

A Thread of Grace – Mary Doria Russell

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Word PressThe Republic of Salo, the Nazi puppet state set up in Northern and Central Italy after the country’s surrender in 1943, doesn’t loom very large on the radars of most English-speaking people.  We know all about Mussolini’s initial alliance with Hitler, and we know about the Allied landings in Southern Italy, about Anzio and Monte Cassino, but the Republic of Salo never seems to get very much attention.  This books tells of the lives of a very mixed group of characters living in Liguria and Piedmont during those troubled times, as the Nazis and the bands of Italian fascists who supported them carried out horrific atrocities against civilians, groups of Italian partisans battled both the German occupiers and their Italian supporters, and the Allies bombed targets across Italy as we waged our difficult Italian Campaign.

It’s not the best prose you’ll ever read, but it’s a brave book, based on a considerable amount of research by the reader, interviewing people who lived through those times and whose numbers are now dwindling, telling stories which haven’t received the attention they deserved.  Many of the characters are Jewish, some of them Italian, some of them refugees from elsewhere in Europe.  From June 1940 until September 1943, Italy occupied part of south-eastern France, and many Jewish refugees sought shelter there, because Mussolini refused to hand over Jews in Italian-occupied areas to the Nazis.  When Italy initially pulled out of the war, a considerable number of those refugees made their way across the Alps into Italy.  It sounds like a fictional scene from The Sound of Music, but this actually happened: there are many first-hand accounts which testify to that account.  Tragically, this Nazi puppet state was then set up and the Nazis set about rounding up Jews in Italy, but many non-Jewish Italian civilians, and even officials, came to their aid, and that’s what a large part of this book is about.

This is a disputed area of Second World War history.  The way it comes across in this book is that pretty much every non-Jewish person in Italy did all they could to help their Jewish neighbours, and to help Jewish refugees from other countries as well.  It seems unlikely that it was so … so absolute for lack of a better way of putting it, and I’m not even going to start going into the very controversial and emotive issue of the Vatican’s attitude towards what the Nazis did.  However, it’s thought that between 75% and 80% of Jews in Italy survived.  That’s not as high a percentage as that for Denmark, where – an episode covered in the Leon Uris’s well-known book Exodus – people united to evacuate almost all Danish Jews over to Sweden before the Nazis could round them up, or Bulgaria, where the intervention of Bulgarian Orthodox Church leaders and others saved tens of thousands of lives, and not forgetting Morocco where the King refused point blank to hand over his Jewish subjects to Vichy France – but, compared with what happened in many parts of Europe, it’s an impressive figure.  Obviously that’s not to forget the huge tragedy of the 20-25% who didn’t survive, or the many others killed during the time of the Republic of Salo.

It’s a complex area.  There seem to have been local and regional variations, and obviously there would have been huge variations in individual experiences.  But there certainly were stories like the fictional ones told in this book.

Many other characters are not Jewish, including nuns and priests who arranged for the children of Jewish families to be hidden in their orphanages.  Some of the characters are Nazis, and spout the most evil Nazi ideology.  One of them’s a doctor, who talks about how he put physically and mentally disabled children to death at a hospital in Germany, before going to work at a concentration camp.  Putting those words into the mouth of a character whom you’ve created must be very challenging, but Maria Doria Russell doesn’t shirk from it.  And many of the characters die – some heroically, others from illness, or caught in crossfire, or randomly shot dead by a Nazi who just felt like shooting someone over some minor incident or other.  One is hanged after being mistaken for a collaborator by those who should have been thanking him.  And, in a rather detached afterword, we’re reminded that the scars of those who live through some terrible times don’t heal, and that they impact on the generations who follow as well.  And was it all down to one man?  If it hadn’t been Hitler, would it have been someone else?  I don’t actually think it would.  There had to be some comeback after the unsatisfactory settlement which followed the First World War, but not this. So, then, how can it be that one man can be responsible for so many deaths, so much devastation?

This isn’t the best-written book you’ll ever read, as I’ve said, but it’s certainly thought-provoking, and much of it is based on first-hand accounts of Italy during this time.

Leningrad and the orchestra that defied Hitler – BBC 2

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Word Press The Siege of Leningrad lasted for 872 days and resulted in the deaths of (estimates vary, but probably in the region of) one and a half million people, most of them civilians. Many of them starved to death. The power was cut off, leaving very few sources of heat during three bitterly cold winters. Homes and historic public buildings were destroyed. But Leningrad didn’t surrender. Only a Russian city (and I’m saying “Russian” rather than “Soviet” because I’m also thinking of the bravery of the burning of Moscow in 1812) could have withstood something like that. And look at the beautiful, amazing city that St Petersburg is today, after everything that the Nazis did to it … and, indeed, everything that Stalin did to it. Incredible.

On August 9th 1942, Hitler had planned to hold a victory banquet in Leningrad’s Astoria Hotel. Instead, on that day, a makeshift Leningrad Radio Orchestra, starving and suffering, conducted by Karl Eliasberg, performed Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, in what’s now the Shostakovich Philharmonic Hall. It was broadcast on loudspeakers across the city, with some of the loudspeakers turned towards the German forces as a sign of defiance.

No-one really knows whether or not Shostakovich intended the Seventh Symphony as a symbol of wartime defiance, and it’s difficult to evaluate the psychological effects of the Leningrad Premiere on either the Germans or the Soviets, but it was a unique and very special moment at a horrific period in history. The BBC, in addition to telling the story, interviewed several people who were actually at that concert. It was very moving.

I think this is something which could only have happened in Leningrad/St Petersburg. The music is very St Petersburg, the defiance uniquely Russian. I’m not quite sure why BBC 2 chose now to remind us of this story, but I’m very glad that they did.