Jericho – ITV


Word PressI love this idea!  We know all about the importance of railway-building, and, before it, canal-building, in British history, but, whereas there are all sorts of books and films about the lives of navvies and their families in the US and Canada, it’s been a rather neglected subject in Britain.  But now we’ve got this new ITV drama, set around the building of the wonderful Ribblehead Viaduct.

The Viaduct is amazing!  It’s amazing when you go over it, on the Settle to Carlisle line, and it’s even more amazing when you see it from the ground.  Just don’t do what I did and wander off the path and towards a herd of cows … er, I still don’t know how I managed to do that, especially as the place was pretty busy at the time and no-one else strayed off the path, but never mind!   The engineering feats of the Georgians and the Victorians are so impressive.  And I bet they wouldn’t have taken months on end to fill in a sinkhole on the Mancunian Way, rebuild the A591 between Grasmere and Keswick or replace Tadcaster Bridge.

Obviously, as the Viaduct is there, a drama series about building it couldn’t actually be filmed at Ribblehead – which is in the Yorkshire Dales, close to the county boundaries with both Lancashire and Westmorland – but the moors near Huddersfield did a good job of doubling for it.  And most of the cast did a reasonably good job of managing a Yorkshire accent … although Jessica Raine’s attempts fell rather west of the mark and sounded distinctly more Bolton than Settle!  I’m not sure that all the people working there would have been locals, but, for the purposes of this, they are, other than the American foreman.

So, we had the navvies, we had the posh bloke with the money (and he had a Yorkshire accent as well), we had the, er, woman of ill repute, and we had the respectable schoolmaster’s widow who’d been left with no money, moved to the shanty town and set up a boarding house.  And, before long, we had attempted murder, sabotage, murder, manslaughter and the arrival of a detective.  All good stuff!  It’s all got a rather Wild West feel to it, and that’s clearly the idea.  The Wild West meets the Yorkshire Dales!  All right, I’m not sure how accurate it is – there’s been no mention of any accidents that weren’t caused by sabotage, everyone and everything looks remarkably well-kept and, as, I’ve said, I’m not sure that all the workers would have been locals, but it’s a cracking idea and it was very entertaining.  Nice one, ITV!  Looking forward to more!

Empire of the Tsars – BBC 4


Russia, July 2012 391(I took this photo at the Kremlin in July 2012.  We were lucky enough to have a gorgeous sunny day in Moscow!)  The BBC are showing this three-part series about the Romanov rulers of Russia to run alongside the first few episodes of War and Peace.  BBC 4 has, as ever, indulged in a bit of dressing up (I admit that I may once have dressed up in a sarafan myself, but I wasn’t presented a documentary programme at the time), but at least it was only a bit, and Lucy Worsley was considerably less annoying than usual, so that was all good!

This first episode covered Muscovite/Russian history from the accession of the Romanovs in 1613, following the Time of Troubles (shame that they didn’t go into the Time of Troubles and the wondrously bizarre tales of the various False Dimitriis, but, to be fair, the series is supposed to be about the Romanovs) up to the death of Peter the Great.  It was very interesting and quite well-presented, but it fell foul of the same thing that most books and programmes do when discussing the early Romanovs, which is concentrating too much on the reign of Peter the Great and not enough on the rulers who came before him.

Peter I, Peter the Great, is a giant figure.  Many countries have their “giant” monarchs – Henry VIII, Elizabeth I, Louis XIV, Philip II, Gustavus Adolphus, Jan Sobieski, Suleiman the Magnificent, Frederick the Great, etc – but I don’t think there’s anyone else who seems to dominate their country’s history in the way that Peter does.  He, an absolute monarch at the pinnacle of a feudal society, was regarded as a hero by the leaders of the Soviet communist hero: that tells us a lot!  However, the main point of Peter’s reign was the way in which he changed – Europeanised – Russia, and, in order to understand that, we need to understand what Russia(/Muscovy) was like before his time.  This programme started off promisingly, by covering the accession (the election, I should perhaps say) of Michael, the first Romanov tsar, and then talking about Alexei, but they only got 1/4 hour between them.  Fyodor wasn’t mentioned at all, and Ivan V only in passing.  There was no mention at all of the Sobornoe Ulozhenie, the Schism, or the incorporation of Left Bank Ukraine into what became the Russian Empire.  Instead, we got 3/4 hour about Peter.

Don’t get me wrong: it was a very interesting 3/4 hour.  Peter is a fascinating figure, and his reign was of the utmost importance to Russia.  We were told in some detail about the revolt of the Streltsy, the changes made to clothing, the creation of the Navy, the Great Northern War (minus that really good bit when Charles XII gets stranded in the Ottoman Empire but that, to be fair, is Swedish history rather than Russian history!) and, of course, the building of St Petersburg.  A bit more about the Orthodox Church would have been good, but, OK, they’re trying to fit over 300 years of history into three hour-long programmes, so they can only cover so much.

So, in summary, an interesting programme, but too much focus on the life and times of one monarch at the expense of those of others.  I’ve got a horrible feeling that the next episode is going to jump straight ahead to the reign of Catherine the Great, ignoring those of Catherine I, Peter II, Anna, Ivan VI, Elizabeth and Peter III.  I hope it doesn’t, because Elizabeth in particular is an intriguing character and her reign was of considerable importance to Russia, but I suspect that it will.  Oh well.  It’s always good to have Russian history on the TV, even if it does tend to cover the same old ground!  And, seeing as it’s January 7th (by the Gregorian calendar), счастливого Рождества!

Rosenheim and Windermere by Brian Lalor


Word PressAlthough this sounds as if it should be about lakeside holidays, it’s actually the author’s memoirs about his children in Cork during the Second World War.  Windermere was the name of his house and Rosenheim was the name of his grandmother’s house.  I always have mixed feelings about people writing childhood memoirs.  If there was something historically significant about your childhood, it’s understandable that you’d want to write about it – think Laura Ingalls Wilder, for example.  If not … well, even in the age of the Jeremy Kyle show et al, would you really feel comfortable writing about how your auntie was a “termagant” (Brian Lalor’s word, apparently used by his father) and the rest of the family couldn’t stand her, or how your mum didn’t actually like the neighbour who thought they were bosom buddies?  Or imagine being on the receiving end.  You hear that someone you used to know has written a book about their childhood, rush out to buy a copy, start reading, and then realise that the character whom everyone hates or whom everyone makes fun of behind their back is actually you!

I don’t know how much of this book, or any childhood memoir, is 100% accurate, or whether names have been changed, but I still find the idea of it a bit odd.  However most of the people Brian Lalor’s written about were in their 30s or 40s or older during the War, so it’s unlikely that they’re still alive, and, apart from this auntie, he isn’t really negative about anyone.  He even points out that his grandmother’s light-fingered housekeeper was poorly paid.  He was off school for part of the period he’s writing about, due to health problems, so presumably he didn’t have to deal with school bullies, and they’re the people who tend to be the baddies in most people’s childhoods.

The book’s actually pretty positive generally.  A lot of childhood memoirs are full of woe, maybe because people do tend to wait until they’re older to write them and so a lot of the ones published in the last 20 years or so have been about growing up during the Depression.  This is about a rather comfortable life in a middle-class area.  Yes, it’s set during the war, but the war doesn’t have all that much impact in a country which is staying out of it.  Brian’s family have a live-in maid, and his grandmother has both a maid and a housekeeper.  Most of the action takes place at the grandmother’s house, and involves the different maids and their foibles.  And, intentionally or no, the grandmother is the most interesting character, because she represents a generation who grew up in Ireland as part of the United Kingdom, and who were involved in the First World War and then had to cope with the war which killed so many of their friends and relatives becoming a taboo subject in the Irish Free State.  Brian says that, as a child, he himself was rather confused about whether or not he was living in part of “England” (like Elizabeth Bowen, he doesn’t seem to distinguish between England and Britain) – even though his father was involved with the IRA from his teens and his mother is also a staunch Irish nationalist.

Books like this are fascinating.  They sound as if they shouldn’t be interesting, because they just tell about everyday life, but everyday life is interesting.  It’s perhaps only recently that the importance of everyday life, as well as famous people and great events, has really been recognised.  And now there seems to be an idea that the lives of ordinary people in middle-class suburbs are boring, but, as this book shows, they don’t need to be.  This makes for very interesting reading.

Would you want to write your childhood memoirs, though – assuming that they’d be interesting enough to be published and read, which, hey, I’m sure they would be 😉 ?  Or would it feel a bit too weird to know that complete strangers were reading about you and your family, friends (or indeed foes!) and neighbours?  Hmm …


Immortal Egypt – BBC 2


Word PressThe damage done to the tourist industry is obviously hardly the greatest tragedy caused by the unrest in the Middle East, but it’s a tragedy nevertheless.  It’s particularly a tragedy in the case of Egypt, both for the Egyptians who depend on revenue from tourism and for those who would like to visit all the wonderful, amazing places which there are to see there, but wouldn’t feel safe doing so under the present circumstances.  I’m very grateful that I was able to go there in 2007, during a period of relative calm.

Egypt is fascinating.  You’re talking about a history which can be traced in some detail back to the 5th millennium BC, with the Great Pyramid thought to have been built around 2580-2560 BC and the Sphinx a century or so later.  Professor Joann Fletcher, the presenter of this new BBC 2 series on the subject, is also rather interesting.  For some reason, I tend to think of Egyptologists as being posh people from the inter-war period, dressed in white flannels and hats and gloves, so it was great to see an Egyptologist with unruly hair and a broad Barnsley accent :-); and she was so enthusiastic about it all.

The idea of this programme is to try to fit millennia of Egyptian history together, starting by going back almost 20,000 years to examples of early rock art.  We then moved forward through the development of Upper and Lower Egypt and their unification, and on to the era of the Pyramids.  She spoke about how Egyptian society prospered and there was plenty of food for the organised, employed workforce, and didn’t mention the great historiographical problem of ancient Egypt, i.e. the fact that most people are convinced that the Pyramids etc were built by slave labour because of what it says in the Book of Exodus.  You have to go with the archaeological evidence, and what written evidence remains, and what that says is very different from what the Bible says, but she was probably wise not to get into that argument.  Well, you can dispute the accuracy of many theories about Ancient Egypt, because there isn’t enough incontrovertible evidence to be absolutely certain of most things, but you can get a reasonable idea and experts can make reasonable judgements.

Ancient Egypt is not the most accessible period of history, but Joann Fletcher’s doing a pretty good job of making it so, without any of the silly dressing-up-and-dumbing-down stuff that we get on a lot of Channel 5 and BBC 4 programmes.  Really enjoyed this.


War and Peace – BBC 1


Word PressI am so ashamed of the fact that I’ve never read War and Peace – *hangs head in shame*.  I’ve owned a paper copy of it for years and years, and I’ve got a copy of it on my Kindle as well now, but I’ve never read it.  This is appalling.  Nineteenth century Russia is one of my specialist subjects, and has been since I was a kid.  But I have never read War and Peace.

Oh well.  I could still enjoy the BBC adaptation!  Real winter Sunday night stuff – all lavish costumes and grand drama!  However, I think it was a bit too BBC.  Where was Russia?  All right, as one of the characters said early on, the Russian aristocracy at the time of the Napoleonic Wars really weren’t very Russian.  And this was only 9 years after the death of the German-born Catherine the Great, and most of it was set in St Petersburg, the Window on the West.  But it was still Russia and, until the deathbed scene with the Russian Orthodox priests, this adaptation really didn’t seem very Russian.  Where were the serfs, the Orthodoxy, the prostor (space, expanse, extent)?   Why was everyone eating beautiful English afternoon teas served on cake stands?  Could we not at least have seen the actual tea itself served from samovars and with lemon?!   I understand that Orlando Figes advised the BBC on historical matters.  The stuff about the Napoleonic Wars was accurate enough, but I’m surprised that the author of Natasha’s Dance didn’t encourage them to make an adaptation of the most famous Russian book of all time more … well, Russian!  Or maybe he did, and Andrew Davies didn’t take any notice.

This is going to be very entertaining, and it’s just what we need on cold, dark, wintry Sunday nights … but … well, I was looking for Russia as well, and I didn’t really find it in this.  But, hey, it’s early days yet!  It made for good TV, as I’ve said, but I’m really hoping that the other episodes are going to have more feeling of Russia about them!

The Last September by Elizabeth Bowen


Word PressVery little happens in this book until the last few pages, but that’s the point of it.  As the Troubles rage across Ireland in 1920, life for 18-year-old Lois, a member of a wealthy Anglo-Irish family living in a large house in County Cork, and her relatives and friends carries on as normal.  For them, that means dances, tennis parties, gossiping about possible romances, and an awful lot of apparently doing not much at all.  The main impact of the political situation on their lives is that it ensures the presence of a plentiful supply of British officers to provide different partners for the girls at the aforementioned dances and parties.  Naturally, it’s only the officers with whom they mix, never the rank-and-file British soldiers.  Incidentally, the word “English” is used in pretty much every single instance in which the word “British” would have been more appropriate.  A lot of American authors do that, and that’s annoying enough, but it’s even more annoying from an Irish author, whom you’d think would have known better.

Anyway!   It ought to be incredibly annoying and frustrating that the characters do their best to act as if the Troubles aren’t happening, but it isn’t, probably because the book’s written in such a wonderfully ironic way.  Shades of Jane Austen, shades of Oscar Wilde, and shades of the Dowager Countess of Grantham!  (Apparently there was a film adaptation of it in 1999, and Maggie Smith was in it, but I don’t remember ever having come across it.)  There are some absolutely glorious lines in it!  As for Lois, she doesn’t see much beyond herself and how things and people relate to her.  She over-dramatises things, either in her own head or in letters to friends, to make them seem meaningful and exciting.  I do that, but, whilst it’s rather pathetic in someone of my advanced years (my life is far more sad and boring than hers, it should be pointed out, though), it’s quite understandable in her.   Then things nearly become very real indeed, when she nearly, sort of, becomes engaged to one of the officers … but she doesn’t really want to marry him, she just feels as if she ought to want to marry him, because it’s something to do, something you do.

Then, at the end, real life and the Troubles come crashing into the lives of everyone involved … but Lois goes off to an art school in France.  We aren’t told what happens to her, but it seems unlikely that she’ll ever return to County Cork.   The world of The Last September, a very insular world, has gone.

An interesting book, especially as much of it seems to have been semi-autobiographical.

Caravans by James A Michener


Word PressJames A Michener was fortunate enough to spend some time in Afghanistan in the 1950s … before the communist coup, before the Soviet invasion, before the rise of the Taleban, before the civil wars.  This book, written in the early 1960s, i.e. still before all those tragic events, is set in Afghanistan in 1946 – a year which isn’t particularly significant for the country, but’s significant in that it falls into the brief hiatus between the end of the Second World War and the start of the Cold War, and also just before Indian/Pakistani independence, and is told mainly through the eyes and voice of Mark Miller, a young American diplomat.

I’ve often thought that Afghanistan would be a fascinating place to visit, although not, sadly, under the present circumstances.  It sounds so exciting.  The Khyber Pass, the Hindu Kush, the North West Frontier … and, yes, all right, I know that that sounds like a very Victorian British viewpoint, but the Victorian British image of Afghanistan was a hell of a lot more interesting and positive than the image we’ve got now, after the country’s suffered so many years of turmoil.  Mark Miller also finds Afghanistan fascinating.  There are some uses in the narrative and in the blurb on the back of words like “civilising” and “barbarous”, which grate on the modern reader, but Mark Miller is an intelligent young man who speaks Pashto and is interested in Afghan culture.

It must have been an intriguing posting for all the staff at the western embassies, who, in the book, form a community in Kabul.  The diplomats are all men and the secretaries are all women, but this was the 1940s, and maybe it was particularly exciting for the women, whose lives would have been more restricted than those of the men, to be there.  They’re unable to socialise much with the local people, due to restrictions imposed by the Afghans themselves, but they are able to see and learn quite a lot about the country – a country which is on the brink of major change.  The Americans and the Soviets are jockeying for influence there, and there are mullahs eager to see an increase rather than a decrease in the role of Islam in Afghan society, but the general feeling in the book is that change is going to be a positive thing – technology which will improve people’s quality of life, and improvements to the status of women.  There are also mentions of these changes already taking place in neighbouring Persia/Iran.  You could cry when you think how things actually did turn out, but that’s not relevant to the book.

Ellen Jaspar, a young American woman who left her all-American, middle-class suburban life to marry an Afghan man, sees it differently.  In every era, you get people who want to get away from their society and find something that they see as truer, or more natural, whether through trying to get closer to nature in some way, or living in a commune, or trying to revive some sort of “folk” elements of their own society’s culture which they think has been lost.  People who do this are often presented positively in books, but Ellen’s not a very pleasant character.  She’s very scornful about the life she’s left behind, and she’s then left her Afghan husband to run off with another man, without contacting her family and friends back home, who are frantic with worry for her, for nearly a year.  When Mark Miller eventually catches up with her, he can’t even persuade her to write home: it’s left to him to contact her parents and tell them that she’s safe and well.

However, where it’s easier to empathise with Ellen is in her wish for freedom and to get away from mundanity, and indeed modernity.  Don’t we all feel like that sometimes?  She’s joined a group of nomads, and Mark Miller, for a time, joins them too.  He also feels the freedom, and the fascination of being somewhere completely different, completely foreign – something that it can be very hard to find in these days of global culture and English being the universal language, and wasn’t that easy to find even 70 years ago – and in a culture which, sadly, may be under threat.  But Ellen wants rural Afghanistan to stay as it is, with no change even if that change would bring great improvements to people’s lives, and Mark knows that change has to come, and also that he, in time, has to go home.

It’s so difficult … because it is so sad to see traditional ways of life being lost for ever, and progress, to use a very Victorian word, inevitably brings that about.  There are some wonderful heritage centres and living history museums in many places, but they can’t compensate for what’s been lost.  But would you want to stop progress?  Can you want to stop progress, if you know that it could bring great benefits?

There’s also a sub-plot involving a Nazi doctor who’s somehow got to Afghanistan from Germany and is hiding out there, but the book is mainly about Mark Miller and his experience of Afghanistan.  It’s quite dated now, but that perhaps makes it all the more interesting, because of what we know now lay ahead for Afghanistan.  Very interesting book.