The Hairy Bikers’ Pubs That Built Britain – BBC 2

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Word PressThis has attracted some criticism for being lacking in content, but I’m quite enjoying it.  All right, the style of presentation is a bit too … er, Children’s BBC crossed with 1980s quiz show is about the best I can describe it as!  And we’re not seeing any cooking, or any bikes for that matter.  But it’s quite interesting.  The idea is to visit a pub, or pubs, in a particular area, and discuss its/their links with a particular aspect of that area’s history.  So far we’ve had pubs in York which were visited by soldiers before the Battle of Marston Moor, pubs in the Lake District which were visited by the Romantic poets, pubs in the great and wonderful city of Manchester (er, actually more in Middleton, one of the suburbs) visited by Samuel Bamford & co before Peterloo, pubs in Cornwall which were involved in smuggling and, rather poignantly, pubs in Lincolnshire which were popular with RAF bombers during the Second World War.  That fifth episode was really rather moving, especially when Dave and Si were joined by a 96-year-old veteran who shared his memories of his experiences of those times with them.

We’re not getting deep and meaningful explorations of these times in history, but they aren’t historians, and they’ve only got 30 minute slots this time anyway.  Give them a break!  This is a hell of a lot better than low budget quiz shows and “reality TV” and some of the other drivel used to fill in schedules.  It’s not the greatest series ever, but I quite like it.

 

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Jerusalem: the making of a holy city – BBC 4

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Word PressJerusalem has been captured/recaptured 44 times.  That’s rather a lot.  It just about sums up religion: it claims to be a positive force, but it generally ends up in bloodshed.  Jerusalem the Golden ought to be one of the most visited places on earth, but it continues to be torn apart by the different religious groups who all claim it and never seem to be capable of … well, sharing nicely, for lack of a better way of putting it!

This series was first shown in 2011, but I can’t remember whether or not I watched it then.  Anyway, we’ve got a three part series, presented by Simon Sebag Montefiore.  The first episode was mainly about Biblical times, and the second episode took us up to the 13th century.  The final episode, to be shown next week, will take us up to the present day.  An awful lot of rubbish gets spouted about the history of Jerusalem, by people – and it’s usually Westerners ranting on the internet, rather than the people who actually live there – who are only interested in using it to support their own political views, so it’s very nice to see a respected historian presenting an accurate and impartial picture of what – as far as we know, as it’s hard to be sure of exactly what was going on in Biblical times – actually happened.

Unfortunately, however well-presented the history of Jerusalem may be, there’s no getting away from the fact that it’s a history of violence.  Attacks.  Sieges.  Capture by first one side, then another.  Destruction.  Massacres.  What a tragedy, and what a travesty.  The name “Jerusalem” is supposed to symbolise everything to which people should aspire.  “Till we have built Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.”  And it’s an incredible city.  There’s nowhere like it.  I remember stopping for a tea break in the Old City and just being mesmerised by all the different people in the different types of traditional dress walking along.  Whatever your own personal views on religion, the sense of history and of so many different cultures that you feel there is almost indescribable.  One lady who was in my tour group on my last visit there was actually overcome with emotion and burst into tears.  It’s some experience, visiting Jerusalem.

But there is no peace there, and, at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be much prospect of it.  It’s arguably the most controversial subject in world politics, and the most ironic.  It’s supposed to be a Holy City, a City of Peace, but the thread that runs through its history, and therefore through this series, is violence.

A very well-presented and interesting series, but one which inevitably makes the viewer rather sad.

 

With Cochrane the Dauntless by G A Henty

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Word PressIt really is amazing how one heroic young British naval officer could find himself involved in quite so many shipwrecks and kidnappings in such a short space of time. Naturally, he displayed fortitude and honour throughout. It’s also quite interesting to be told that South American independence was won not so much by the libertadores as by a few British sailors who went over there to help. Get the Copa Libertadores renamed the Copa Cochrane!   Furthermore, the indigenous people of Peru would apparently have preferred it had Britain taken over Peru and ruled it with the same peerless justice and fairness with which she ruled India (er, even though Britain wasn’t even officially ruling India at this time, over 30 years before the Mutiny!). All right, you have to take G A Henty’s books with a large pinch of sodium chloride! However, they really are genuinely entertaining … ripping reads, in fact.

Our hero is Lieutenant Stephen Embleton, whose first experience of naval life is on a voyage to the Far East, where he’s involved in a shipwreck, finds some gold, heroically saves his friend from the clutches of local tribesmen, behaves with true honour towards a man who tries to kill him, and is eventually rescued. He then goes off to South America, with Admiral Lord Cochrane, the “Cochrane the Dauntless” of the title.

Cochrane’s a little-known figure these days, but he was a big hero in the 19th century, and is thought to’ve been the inspiration for the likes of Horatio Hornblower. He was drummed out of the Royal Navy after being, quite possibly wrongly, convicted of involvement in a Stock Exchange fraud (dodgy goings-on in the City are nothing new!) towards the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and he then became Vice Admiral of the Chilean Navy during Chile (spelt “Chili” in this book)’s War of Independence against Spain. He then took command of the Brazilian Navy, playing an important role in Brazil’s successful War of Independence against Portugal. Then, for good measure, he was one of the British naval officers involved in the fight for Greek independence against the Ottoman Empire, winning the crucial victory at Navarino. Victorian heroes: you’ve got to love them! They don’t seem to make ’em like that any more …

However, it’s Stephen Embleton, not Cochrane, who’s the hero of the book; and he actually spends much of his time in South America being involved in more shipwrecks, finding more gold, and being stranded in Peru, where he falls into the hands of the authorities. This is bad news: G A Henty was clearly not at all keen on the (white) Peruvians!  (Note to self – need to try to find out if that was a common attitude in Victorian Britain.) The Chileans meet with his approval; the Spanish are tolerated; but the (white) Peruvians are a definite no-no. The Black Legend has crossed the Atlantic all right! The expression “priestly tyranny” is used, and the Inquisition are everywhere! Poor Stephen is about to be handed over to them but, luckily, his upright and honourable behaviour has won him the friendship of a gallant Spanish officer, who helps him to escape.

However, he then has to try to get back to Admiral Cochrane. He daren’t risk making for the Peruvian-Chilean border as that would look suspicious, so he has to head right across Brazil!   To do this, he needs the help of two Indian (it doesn’t seem to be considered offensive to use the word “Indian” with respect to the indigenous peoples of South America) guides. These are our chaps who say that they wish Britain would take over Peru, as obviously Britain would treat the indigenous peoples there far better than either the Spanish or the white Peruvians! The ideals of the guides are pretty much the same as Stephen’s True British ideals of honour and comradeship and all the usual Victorian schoolboy hero stuff, in complete contrast to all the Black Legend stuff attributed to the white Peruvians. It’s not done in a patronising noble savage way: it’s done in a way that shows Henty’s genuine respect for and admiration for the indigenous peoples of Peru. Well, some of them, anyway, because some of the others kidnap Our Hero. However, he’s then rescued by his guides, who thus repay the debt they feel they owe from when he rescued one of them from a jaguar.  As you do.

Stephen then learns than Admiral Cochrane is now in Brazil, and joins up with him again. Fortunately, that’s the end of the shipwrecks and the kidnappings, and Stephen returns to England (with his gold), is reunited with his dad, finds a wife and lives happily ever after!

Teachers would probably have forty fits if they found schoolkids reading something like this these days. Definitely not very politically correct – although the race and class prejudice in G A Henty’s books, written in Victorian times, is nothing like as objectionable as it is in, say, some of Enid Blyton’s books. And girls don’t get to do any of the heroic stuff at all!  But there’s something about the heroism and the dramatic adventures and that idea of the sense of honour, of standing by your friends, or never lying or cheating, which is very attractive, and doesn’t deserve to be sneered at, or dismissed as being all sorts of wrong, in the way that it often is these days. As for Cochrane, what a shame that he’s largely forgotten in Britain now.

This sort of tale of derring-do isn’t very fashionable these days … but that, IMHO, is rather a shame.

 

 

Henry VIII and his Six Wives – Channel 5

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Word PressThere was nothing really wrong with the first episode of this new series – other than referring to Catherine of Aragon as “Princess Catherine” rather than “the Infanta Catherine” – but why will the TV companies not get over their obsession with Henry VIII and give us some programmes on the many other interesting monarchs in English/British history?

Dan Snow and Suzannah Lipscomb are clearly very conscious that everyone’s heard the story of “Henry VIII and his Six Wives” a zillion times before, and are trying to their best to make it sound as if they’re not just retelling a very familiar tale; but there really isn’t anything new to say.  It’s the best-known episode in our entire history.  Even people who have no interest in history whatsoever are familiar with it.  We do not need yet another series going over and over the same ground, when there are so many other stories to tell instead.  Give us a series about Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine and their “Devil’s Brood”!  Or James II and how he was overthrown by his son-in-law.  Or the civil war between Stephen and Matilda.  Or the deposition of Richard II.  Go Shakespearean and talk about Henry V.   What about the Regency?  Or let’s have Prime Ministers for a change – the Gladstone/Disraeli rivalry always makes a good talking point.  Or the coffee house politics of earlier times.  There are so many areas of our history which never even get a mention on TV.  We just do not need yet another series on Henry VIII!  There was nothing wrong with this programme, but it was telling a story that everyone already knows inside out, upside down and back to front.  Let’s have something different, please!

 

Lizzie: a Victorian Lady’s Amazon Adventure by Tony Morrison, Ann Brown and Anne Rose

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Word PressThis was something different!  Lizzie Hessel, nee Mathys, and her husband, a young couple from genteel middle-class families in late Victorian London, went off to the Bolivian Amazon to make their fortune amid the rubber boom of the times.  Lizzie wrote many letters to her close family back home, and this book is made up of those letters with a few explanatory comments.  Sadly, they failed to make their fortunes, and Lizzie died, probably of yellow fever, after a few years there.

It’s an interesting story for many reasons.  There are many tales of intrepid Victorian travellers, but the majority of those were men.  And, of course, the Hessels weren’t explorers or archaeologists or just adventurers: they were there on business.  Business isn’t the most glamorous of topics, but it’s the reason that most of the 18th and 19th century Britons who ended up in far-flung places were there: all the idea of the ideology and glamour of Empire came long after the East India Company and so on got going, and many of the people involved in business abroad were working in places that never were British colonies.  Hey, we brought football to Brazil!  The person credited with bringing football to Brazil was … the son of a British railway engineer, if I recall correctly.  And we know the songs from Evita in which the Perons try to drum up popular support by talking about reclaiming their industries from the British.  We probably killed the Amazon rubber boom, by getting a rubber industry going in what was then Malaya, but that’s beside the point!

So, we’ve got these intrepid Victorians, going off to the Bolivian Amazon.  This is an area that’s very difficult to travel to and through even now, and, in this book, we’ve got a middle-class Victorian lady, used to polite afternoons in drawing rooms, coping with the heat and the insects and the difficult travelling conditions – and coping very well.  It’s so sad that middle-class and upper-class Victorian women were often seen as being fragile, and encouraged to think of themselves as such.  Lizzie Hessel coped admirably with conditions that most of us would struggle with pretty badly, and her letters contain very little in the way of complaints.  She took it all in her stride, and even made a joke of things that you’d expect to have had a Victorian lady reaching for the smelling salts.

OK, that’s the Anglocentric stuff!  Of course, there’s a lot else to this book.  There are the border disputes between Bolivia and Brazil, in which poor Bolivia invariably came off worse.  There are fascinating descriptions of wildlife.  There’s the development of the use of rubber – think how many things we use it in!  And, most importantly of all, there’s the absolutely appalling treatment of the indigenous peoples of the Amazon, treated effectively as slaves, and the victims of horrendous treatment which resulted in vast numbers of deaths.  The abuses against them were chronicled by the British consul in Peru in 1910-11.  It wasn’t just in Peru: it was all over the area.   Lizzie mentions something of what was going on.  Other people wrote far more about it, and the international outcry which resulted was one of the reasons why the rubber boom collapsed.

This is an area of history which doesn’t get a lot of attention, and this first-hand account of it is well worth reading.

Beatrix Potter with Patricia Routledge – Channel 4

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Word PressWhat a nice programme this, marking the 150th anniversary of the birth of Beatrix Potter, was!  It was particularly fascinating to hear how savvy/canny Beatrix Potter was.  Her family might have tried to make out that they were very posh, but they were only one generation removed, on both sides, from hard-working middle-class Tamesiders, and that definitely came out in Beatrix :-).   She was well up there with all the merchandising and commercialisation of her characters, in a way we really don’t associate with late Victorian and Edwardian ladies, and she went around buying up land and farms all over the Lake District.  And then it turned out that her well-respected publishers were on the fiddle … and Beatrix’s softer side really came out there, when she stuck with them, because they were owned by the family of her late fiancé, and one of her books saved them from bankruptcy.  We also heard about Beatrix’s studies in mycology, and how she might well have become a scientist had it not been so difficult for women to do so at the time.  Interesting stuff, and very well put across by Hyacinth Bucket Patricia Routledge.

The real star of the show, though, was neither Beatrix Potter nor Peter Rabbit, but the wonderful Lake District!  We got to see Patricia Routledge going over to Hill Top, Beatrix Potter’s home in beautiful, peaceful (well, it is except when there are coachloads of tourists there!) Near Sawrey, in the Mountain Goat (that nice little minibus which picks you up after you’ve got the ferry across Windermere from Bowness), and visiting nearby Hawkshead (where Beatrix’s husband’s law firm’s office is now the Beatrix Potter Gallery – entry free for National Trust members, and they even give you a free sample of Kendal mint cake in the shop!), and Wray Castle where Beatrix once spent a holiday.  She even interviewed a National Trust representative on board Gondola, the National Trust owned steam yacht which sails on Coniston Water … although I was rather put out that Channel 4 didn’t mention its name!  And lots of shots of fells and … er, sheep!  I was up at Coniston, Hawkshead, Hill Top and Wray Castle on Saturday, and they’re such wonderful places.  The National Trust does a superb job in the Lake District, and Beatrix Potter was one of the people who really got that association going.

We did get to hear about the books too, of course!    And to hear that a previously unpublished book of hers is to be published, although unfortunately she only left one illustration for it.   It’s about a cat with a gun!

The flags are out outside “The World of Beatrix Potter” in beautiful Bowness-on-Windermere, to mark the sesquicentennial (I like that word!  It was used a lot between 2011 and 2015, in connection with the American Civil War!) of her birth, and the National Trust’s got various special events and exhibitions going on during the course of this year.  It’s really lovely, special, English stuff … go and see it, and enjoy!


 

The Vikings Uncovered – BBC 1

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Word PressThis programme featured a bloke in a red dicky bow waving around a large piece of fake poo over afternoon tea at Bettys.  Seriously, it did.  Dan Snow then explained that the wearer of the dicky bow was a “scatologist”, and the said scatologist then proceeded to declare that the city of York lay on top of, amongst other things, about ten feet of “excrement”.  Whilst he was doing this, the cameras focused in on all the delicious cakes which Dan and the poo bloke were about to eat.  Thank you for that, BBC.  I need to obliterate that entire scene from my memory before the next time I go anywhere near a branch of Bettys.

The point of programme was (presumably) not, in fact, to put you off your afternoon tea, but to discuss whether or not the Vikings reached North America … which was a bit odd, really, because surely everyone is by now well aware that they did.  Anyway, they tried to find evidence of Viking settlements (other than the one in Newfoundland which everyone already knows about) by using satellite photography taken from space, a technique which has already been used to identify archaeological sites in Egypt and which, since this programme was filmed, has been suggested as a way of helping to try to rebuild Palmyra.  The team concerned identified a possible site, and started digging.

Whilst they were digging, Dan Snow went off on a tour of various other Viking sites.  He went to Copenhagen.  He went to the Shetland Islands.  He went to York … as already mentioned.  He then went to Iceland.  Cue some glorious scenery, some shots of the site of the world’s oldest parliament, and the obligatory pictures of the Northern Lights.  He also discussed the recent work which has found that many of the “Viking” settlers in Iceland may in fact have been from the British Isles, something which the press got very excited about … last year, I think.  I could have done without the incredibly rude bloke who said that he hated having to admit that Icelanders might have British connections and that the Vikings must have taken all the pretty women away from the British Isles – I wish Dan had given him a good slap – but it was still quite interesting.  Then on to Greenland, where Dan got to do a load of Boys’ Own stuff – sailing around icebergs, mainly.

By the time he’d done all that, the team in Newfoundland had finished doing their digging, and had found various things which they thought were evidence of Viking settlements.  Most of them proved to be red herrings but, in true Boys’ Owen fashion, the last lot did indeed prove to be evidence (although I gather that some experts aren’t 100% convinced) that the Vikings reached Point Rosee in South West Newfoundland.  Hooray!  Dan and the “space archaeologist” Sarah Parcak carried on as if they’d just rewritten history.  They hadn’t, really, because everyone already knew that the Vikings had reached North America; but this site was around 370 miles from the only other Viking settlement found in Newfoundland so far, and so it does now seem that the Vikings got a fair bit further west than previously proven, and it also seems likely that there may be other sites waiting to be unearthed.

So it was quite exciting, really, even if probably not quite as exciting as they made out.  And the Boys’ own iceberg stuff was quite exciting as well.  But fake poo at Bettys … please!  That was taking the schoolboy thing a bit too far 🙂 !!