Victoria – ITV (repost)

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Word PressThis wasn’t bad, but it had been very Sunday-night-costume-drama-fied, and it’s always quite frustrating when that happens to real historical events!   On the plus side, it was well acted and well choreographed. And all the main characters and main events were there – the sinister Lord Conroy, the difficult relationship between Victoria and her mother, the young Victoria’s reliance on Lord Melbourne, and the sad tale of Lady Flora Hastings. They’d even included Dash the dog.

On the down side … well, it was annoying to hear people address 18-year-old Victoria as “Drina”, the name used only when she was a baby, and the Tsarevich introduced without his patronymic, but those were only minor irritations. More annoying was Victoria reeling around drunk at the Coronation Ball, telling Lord Melbourne that she wanted to dance with him – she certainly developed an emotional dependence on him, but ITV over-romanticised it – and the Duke of Cumberland bizarrely insisting that Victoria was mentally unstable and he should be made regent. There were rumours at various times about Victoria’s mental health, but they were generally later on; and Cumberland – who became King of Hanover, as they had the Salic Law there – certainly never tried to get himself made regent for his niece. I really could have done without those scenes!

I wasn’t convinced about the “downstairs” scenes either. I accept that there’d have been criticism about elitism if the scenes had all focused on the royal family and senior courtiers and politicians, and I suppose the inclusion of scenes involving servants was a nod to the Downton Abbey audience, but did we really need a sub-plot about flogging second-hand gloves?   And Baroness Lehzen was so busy worrying about the gloves that Victoria’s over-reliance on her didn’t really come across at all.

However, it was good Sunday night entertainment, and that’s probably what ITV were aiming for. And it didn’t score too badly on historical accuracy, unlike such utter twaddle as The Tudors and Versailles. And, hey, anything that gets people talking about history has got to be a good thing, and hopefully this will do exactly that!

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Victoria – ITV

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Word PressThis wasn’t bad, but it had been very Sunday-night-costume-drama-fied, and it’s always quite frustrating when that happens to real historical events!   On the plus side, it was well acted and well choreographed. And all the main characters and main events were there – the sinister Lord Conroy, the difficult relationship between Victoria and her mother, the young Victoria’s reliance on Lord Melbourne, and the sad tale of Lady Flora Hastings. They’d even included Dash the dog.

On the down side … well, it was annoying to hear people address 18-year-old Victoria as “Drina”, the name used only when she was a baby, and the Tsarevich introduced without his patronymic, but those were only minor irritations. More annoying was Victoria reeling around drunk at the Coronation Ball, telling Lord Melbourne that she wanted to dance with him – she certainly developed an emotional dependence on him, but ITV over-romanticised it – and the Duke of Cumberland bizarrely insisting that Victoria was mentally unstable and he should be made regent. There were rumours at various times about Victoria’s mental health, but they were generally later on; and Cumberland – who became King of Hanover, as they had the Salic Law there – certainly never tried to get himself made regent for his niece. I really could have done without those scenes!

I wasn’t convinced about the “downstairs” scenes either. I accept that there’d have been criticism about elitism if the scenes had all focused on the royal family and senior courtiers and politicians, and I suppose the inclusion of scenes involving servants was a nod to the Downton Abbey audience, but did we really need a sub-plot about flogging second-hand gloves?   And Baroness Lehzen was so busy worrying about the gloves that Victoria’s over-reliance on her didn’t really come across at all.

However, it was good Sunday night entertainment, and that’s probably what ITV were aiming for. And it didn’t score too badly on historical accuracy, unlike such utter twaddle as The Tudors and Versailles. And, hey, anything that gets people talking about history has got to be a good thing, and hopefully this will do exactly that!

The Incas by Daniel Peters

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Word PressTHE INCAS BY DANIEL PETERS

I’ve been reading up on the Inca Empire this year, but it’s hardly my specialist subject so I can’t honestly judge how accurate this book is in terms of depicting Inca life; but it’s obviously been very well-researched, and it’s fascinating. Well over 1,000 pages, and that’s in hardback, so it takes some reading; but it’s worth it.

It covers the two decades before the arrival of the conquistadors: the book ends with their arrival and the knowledge that the Inca Empire is about to fall. I suppose it had to end like that, but was it really all so inevitable? The Spanish were in unfamiliar territory, thousands of miles from home, and vastly outnumbered. However, they had superior weapons – and they also gained the support of many tribes seeking to throw off Inca rule. Anyway, I seem to be starting at the end here! That’s the trouble with most things that are written about the Inca Empire: they focus on the fact that the Empire is ultimately destroyed. The historiography of it is messy, especially in English, because we get the conquistadors being depicted as glamorous and heroic – we still use the expression “El Dorado” (and remember Esteban and The Mysterious Cities of Gold?) – and the Indians (it seems to be generally considered OK to talk about “Indians” when referring to Latin America) as “savages”, but then we also get the Black Legend depictions of Spanish brutality. What we get very little about is the Inca Empire on its own terms, rather than as something which was destroyed by the conquistadors. This book – and bear in mind that it’s a novel not a textbook – does try to give us that.

It’s a huge undertaking to write a novel set in a society with which most readers will be unfamiliar. We’re shown life at the Inca court, the ways in which young men were trained to become warriors, the religious/spiritual beliefs of Inca society (although human sacrifice is not included), the social and political structures, the role of women as healers, and the treatment of the tribes conquered by the Incas. We see this through the lives of two young people who, as the book progresses, marry and have children. He is an Inca of royal descent. She is a Chachapoya, member of one of the tribes conquered by the Incas, and was taken away from her family as a young girl. We see everyday life – family issues, friendships, romances – and we also see the sweep of history – the effect of smallpox, which came to the Americas with the conquistadors, and the many wars and conflicts taking place during this period.

It’s such a huge book, such a huge canvas, that it’s difficult to sum it up in a few paragraphs, and I feel as if I’m not doing a very good job of it!   Assuming that the reader is’’t very familiar with the Incas, what will he or she learn from this? That the Incas were only a small group of people, a tribe who conquered many other tribes and established a vast empire in which they were the ruling caste but members of other tribes also had opportunities to advance. I don’t want to sound as if I’m putting European interpretations on a pre-Columbian American society, but there are obvious parallels with the Romans.  That the Inca Empire was a very sophisticated and highly-developed society, even more so that you might have thought. That terrible destruction was wrought by the diseases brought from Europe, although presumably most people already know about that. That internecine struggles and civil war had rendered the Inca Empire internally weak just at that the point at which Pizarro, Almagro & co arrived. The importance of holy sites – not just cities or buildings, but rocks and lakes and islands too. And just so much about this very rich culture.

The Inca Empire didn’t actually last very long. The Inca state, based in Cusco, emerged in the twelfth century AD, and only began expanding in the 1430s. It very rapidly established a huge empire, but, less than a century later, the conquistadors arrived. Who knows what would have happened if they hadn’t? We’ll never know, but what they achieved is all the more impressive for the fact that it did happen so quickly. And, whilst there’s always something very tragic about a civilisation that was destroyed, the main Inca language – Quechua – is still widely spoken in parts of Peru, Bolivia and other South American countries today, and what remains of the major Inca administrative and religious centres are major tourist attractions.

I suppose that the book has to end with the arrival of the conquistadors, but I’m glad that it ends there, and doesn’t go on to depict the conquest and the destruction of Inca society, because it’s about the Inca Empire as it was, not about its destruction. It’s a long read and requires a lot of concentration, but it really is worth it.

 

Swallows and Amazons (2016 film)

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The Lakes, April 2016 031I’m going to hold my hands up and say that I’m not all that into the Swallows and Amazons books.  However, I am really into the Lake District, so I’ve been eagerly anticipating seeing this film because I knew that a lot of it was filmed on and around Coniston Water, which is where the book on which it was based was set. The photo I’ve put with this review was taken when I was at Coniston in April.

It’s a shame that the weather seems to’ve been cloudy for most of the time they were filming, but never mind. We’ve got some glorious shots of Coniston!   There’s a lot of Swallows and Amazons-based tourism there already, and hopefully this film’ll give that a boost. I think that the area where they moor the boat at “Rio” is on Derwentwater, though. And the scenes in “Rio” itself were filmed in Heptonstall, near Hebden Bridge. I originally thought it was Haworth, because the railway scenes at the beginning were definitely filmed on the Keighley & Worth Valley Railway, and it’s a similar-looking place with the stone buildings and the steep main street with setts, so my apologies to Heptonstall for getting that wrong :-). It’s a very pretty village, and I understand that they needed somewhere that didn’t look modern, but it’s a very Pennine look and there aren’t any villages in the Lake District which look anything like that! Oh well.

Oh, and, whilst I’m having a bit of a moan, the map at the beginning made it look as if Coniston Water was in Cumberland. It’s in Lancashire! Close to the border with Westmorland. Definitely not in Cumberland! OK, moan over. Just one more comment about locations – a lot of the island scenes were filmed at Plumpton Rocks, near Harrogate, presumably because it was easier to film there than on an island in a lake. I must go there some time … but the next time I’m likely to be in that neck of the woods is for the Harrogate Book Fair in mid-November, and that’s probably not the greatest time of year to be wandering around rocks :-).

Back to the film. It must be quite challenging making a film where the main characters are all children, but the young actors and actresses in this did a sterling job. The four playing the Walker children were excellent, and the two playing the Blackett children were fairly good too. The two playing Titty/Tatty and Roger were very young, and I think both making their acting debuts. Very impressive performances.

The name change from Titty to Tatty will upset the purists, but I think film-makers are in a difficult position with that sort of thing ;-). I can remember some kids in my class at primary school sniggering their heads off over Dick and (Aunt) Fanny in the Famous Five books, and that was over thirty years ago!  I don’t think anyone really need get too upset over it. There’s been some de-poshing (have I just made that word up?) as well – Mrs Walker speaks with a strong Scottish accent, not RP, there’s no nursemaid, and the scene in which the policeman is intimidated by the Blackett girls because his mum used to work for their family’s been removed – but I think that works quite well.

The spy story that’s been put in, on the other hand, really does distort the storyline. The burglary plot in the book isn’t particularly convincing – what exactly did the burglars think that Jim Turner had on his boat that was worth stealing? – but I think I could have lived without people chasing each other along the roof of a train, having a fight on a seaplane in mid-air and threatening each other with guns. That sort of thing is great in a James Bond film, but it doesn’t really fit into the world of Swallows and Amazons. It wasn’t even concluded properly: we never did find out why Jim Turner had been going to Leningrad. Everyone seems to be too obsessed with action these days! We’ve had our gentle, nostalgic Sunday evening TV dramas – Heartbeat, Born and Bred, Where The Heart Is, Home Fires, etc – taken away, and now they have to put James Bond scenes into Swallows and Amazons!

The main storylines are there, though, and, most importantly, the main themes are there. It’s that wonderful world of childhood adventure. No-one would dream of letting four children, two of them only of primary school age, go sailing off and camping by themselves now, and I doubt that they would have done even in the inter-war years, but the idea of is very special. Didn’t we all read books by Enid Blyton, or Arthur Ransome or Lorna Hill or whoever else, when we were young kids, and imagine ourselves spending our summer holidays with our siblings or cousins or friends, no adults allowed?

And, even now, there’s a wonderful sense of freedom in the Lake District that you just don’t get in urban or suburban areas.   It takes me about an hour and twenty minutes to get from home to Windermere, on a weekend morning when there isn’t much traffic. Getting to Coniston takes longer, because you can’t go very quickly on that twisty-turny road between Ambleside and Coniston, but it’s still not that far. But it’s a different world, especially in the quieter areas. And the book, and the film, show aspects of Lakeland life at that time which would have been completely unfamiliar to those coming from elsewhere, notably the scene with the charcoal-burners.

The Lake District’s there. The sense of freedom and adventure’s there. Those are the main things. Purists won’t like the spy story, and doubtless there will be people whingeing that it’s all too white and too middle-class, but this is a lovely film.   I really want to jump in my car and head for the Lakes now!   So many children’s books are set there. That’s no coincidence.

Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography by Laura Ingalls Wilder, edited by Pamela Smith Hill

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Word PressI’ve read the Little House books more times than I remember, over a period of nearly 35 years, and I wasn’t at all sure how I was going to feel about Pioneer Girl; but I’m really glad that I’ve read it. As everyone probably knows by now, this is the version of events that Laura wrote first, but which failed to find a publisher. It was then transformed into a series of books, with two crucial differences. The original book was aimed at adults, whereas the books that we all know and love were aimed at children, and fairly young children at that; and the original book was based largely on real life events, whereas the children’s books were a fictionalised version of them.

This – “the annotated autobiography” – is really three books, and two of them are on the same pages, which I have to say doesn’t make for a particularly easy reading experience. The introduction and conclusion, which perhaps can be said to form a third book – the introduction is very long – are separate from the rest of the text, and are mainly a historiography of how Pioneer Girl and the Little House books came to be written. It’s quite a sad story, really, much of it about how the Wilder family lost their savings in the Wall Street Crash and how Rose, already a published author, battled with depression as the publishing houses cut down drastically on the number of new books they were printing. It also discusses the process of fictionalisation – and the conclusion makes an interesting point about how, because the Little House books are seen as memoirs, Laura Ingalls Wilder isn’t given the same credit as writers like Louisa M Alcott, who are seen as having created all their own characters and storylines, and how that’s really rather unfair when you stop and think how much work Laura put into the books. That had never really occurred to me before, but it’s a very good point.

It also covers the difficulties of trying to remember things that happened sixty years earlier, especially when some of them happened when Laura was so young, and without easily available back-up sources to refer to. I’m glad that Pamela Smith Hill, the editor, mentioned that Laura herself got confused about where the family home in Little House on the Prairie was: it was actually in Kansas, but adult Laura assumed that it must have been in Oklahoma because it was referred to as “Indian Territory”, because I’d always assumed that it was in Oklahoma for exactly the same reason!

Then – sharing pages with Laura’s manuscript – there are the notes. And there are an awful lot of them! Far more of the book as a whole is taken up by the notes than by Laura’s text, and it does make reading it quite … disjointed, for lack of a better word. I think Pamela Smith Hill’s gone a bit OTT with the notes, to be honest. No-one is more pedantic about dates and chronology and historical accuracy than I am, and the amount of research that Pamela Smith Hill and others have done is very impressive, but – given the “disjointed” issue – was it really necessary to include a whole paragraph on whether the first church service in De Smet took place on February 2nd 1880 or February 29th 1880, and to include details from census reports on minor characters who are only mentioned once or twice?

Having said which, a lot of the information in the notes was fascinating, both from a historical point of view and from what it told us about familiar, well-loved characters. I was very sad to read that Cap Garland died in an accident when he was only in his twenties.   It was also fascinating to see the sort of thing reported in the De Smet Leader, the newspaper of what was then a very small town: it seems to have mentioned every event that took place within the small community, even things like Laura’s uncle visiting from out of town. Annoyingly, there’s no mention in the notes of one thing I’ve always wondered about – how Almanzo’s side of the family reacted to Laura’s very negative portrayal of her sister-in-law Eliza Jane! However, there’s an awful lot about a myriad of other things!

Incidentally, whilst I know that it’s the correct way of doing things, I couldn’t help wishing that the editor hadn’t referred to the author and her daughter as “Wilder” and “Lane”. Surely everyone thinks of them as “Laura” and “Rose”!   Using their surnames seemed so impersonal … and, yes, I know it’s correct, but I still wish she’d put “Laura” and “Rose” instead!

So, finally, there’s the most important bit – the actual Pioneer Girl text! What’s been reprinted is what Laura actually wrote (and Rose typed), complete with spelling mistakes, punctuation errors, etc, so it doesn’t feel like a published book … but then maybe that’s the whole point, because it wasn’t a published book. When you know the Little House books so well, it’s well nigh impossible just to think of this as a book on its own. All the way through, I kept thinking that that bit wasn’t in the books, or that there were bits in the books that weren’t in this. The maple sugar bit from Little House in the Big Woods wasn’t there! I love that bit: I got so excited when I was in Quebec last year and was able to visit a real “sugar shack”! Nor were various other things – Laura and Carrie deciding to clean the entire house whilst Ma and Pa were away, for example. Ma’s china shepherdess was only mentioned in the notes, and Ma’s delaine dress with the buttons that looked like berries, another motif of the books, wasn’t there at all. All right, I’m not going to write a whole list of these, just to say that the original manuscript went through everything very quickly, and that I’m glad that we did get those extra details in the books … even if it’s not clear whether the famous china shepherdess ever actually existed or not.

Then there are all the scenes/sections which are in Pioneer Girl but aren’t in the Little House books – and these are what have grabbed the media attention. The media coverage of this book has given the impression that this book is full of violence, illegal acts and financial hardship, whereas the books (and I think some of the people who’ve reviewed this in the media have got the books mixed up with the TV series) give some sort of saccharine-sweet, idealised picture of pioneer life.

Well, for a kick off, the books do not give a saccharine-sweet depiction of anything: they make it quite clear that life on the frontier is very hard. However, there are certainly things here that don’t appear in the books. Young Laura, rather than staying safely at home with Ma and Pa, is sent off several times to act as a paid companion/babysitter and, in one instance, the man of the house where she’s working comes into her bedroom at night and tells her to “lie down and be still” … before, thankfully, going away when she had threatens to scream and wake his wife. There are also various Wild West tales of murder in saloons, and the domestic violence scenes involving the Brewsters are gone into in more detail than they are in the books. There are also a lot more references to people being killed by harsh weather conditions. Then there’s the period missed out of the books – although covered in a recent novel, Old Town in the Green Groves – in which the Ingalls family, struggling financially, run a hotel for a time, and end up doing a moonlight flit away from their creditors. It’s a period that also includes the birth and then the death in infancy of Laura’s brother Freddie, who isn’t mentioned in the books.

It really isn’t as hard-hitting and shocking as the reviews have made out, though, and the contrast between it and the books isn’t anything like as severe as people have said.

There are other things, too. In the books, Almanzo is the only bloke on the scene – whereas, in this, we learn that Laura had quite a number of admirers. There were bound to be far more young single men than young single women in a frontier town, so I suppose that’s no surprise, but we hear that Laura was quite keen on more than one of them over the years (and remember that she was only 18 when she married), and that she particularly fancied Cap Garland!  Other people in general feature far more in this than they do in the books: the Ingalls family have other people living with them at various points and, rather than life being centred on the home, De Smet has quite an active social life, with dances, singing schools and roller skating rinks!   And Pa acts as a justice of the peace for a time, earlier on.

So … is it possible to think of this as a book on its own merits, rather than comparing and contrasting it with the Little House books? Well, it wouldn’t have been published like this: it would have needed a lot of tidying up, polishing and revising, so that makes it difficult to judge. But the themes are there, and these are the same themes as those in the books. There’s the question of Pa’s itchy feet. Pa isn’t quite the Big Hero in this book in the same way as he is in the Little House books; but, even in this, Laura doesn’t really criticise him. Pioneering life was hard, and many people struggled, and you can’t blame Pa or anyone else for severe weather conditions or plagues of grasshoppers. But there’s always this tension between Ma wanting to settle town and Pa wanting to keep moving on. Reading the books as a young child, I suppose I felt that Pa was the exciting one and Ma was boring: now, my sympathies are all with Ma, and I feel strongly that Pa was really pretty selfish and might perhaps have been better suited to life as a single man. I never think of them as Mr and Mrs Ingalls, or as Charles and Caroline, only ever as “Ma” and “Pa”! Interestingly, Pioneer Girl ends with Laura, on her wedding day, thinking how happy she is to have a home of her own … does that suggest that she wasn’t quite as keen on keeping moving on as the books suggest?

Then there’s the other big issue – the question of white settlers moving into “”Indian Territory”.

Just one very anachronistic point first. In the areas where the US government allows settlement, you file a claim and you get your land. The American Dream. Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants series covers this from a different viewpoint, that of people coming from Sweden to settle in Minnesota in the 1850s. I could write a long list of examples from the 17th, 18th, 19th and 20th centuries of governments and private companies inviting people to settle on lands that they were keen to develop/colonise. Sometimes they advertised, either by way of agents or in the press. Sometimes people were pretty much shipped off there, like it or not. Now, we’ve got a lot of people who want somewhere to go, and nowhere for them to go. All right, times are different now, and you couldn’t really tell people that they could have a piece of land in a sparsely-populated area part of the American Mid West, with no running water, electricity, gas, telecommunications, hospitals, schools, etc, and they probably wouldn’t accept even if you did, but … OK, this is irrelevant, but it’s something to think about.

Getting back to the point, in Little House on the Prairie, we’re given the impression that Pa doesn’t really realise that he’s accidentally built his family’s home just into “Indian Territory”. In Pioneer Girl, it’s quite clear that they’re well inside “Indian Territory”, and that he knows that jolly well. We also learn that Laura’s uncle, Tom Quiner, was one of a group of white men who moved into the Black Hills, when that entire area was supposed to be permanently exempt from white settlement under the Laramie Treaty of 1868. Tom and his companions were booted out, but, as we all know, before long there was a gold rush, and white settlers moved in.

Can you criticise individuals for being part of a wider movement that broke treaties and tragically destroyed the culture of the Great Plains? Well, yes, you can, because without individuals there would be no wider movement. Discussing the Little House books without discussing the treatment of Native Americans would be like discussing Gone With the Wind without discussing slavery. These issues don’t mean that we shouldn’t read the books, but we do have to be aware of them.

So, did I enjoy this? Well, yes, I did. If you’re worried that reading this will somehow destroy your feeling for the Little House books, then don’t. It won’t. It’ll just make you appreciate Laura all the more. The only problem you’re likely to have is the confusion of going backwards and forwards between the text and the notes!

 

The 1980s with Dominic Sandbrook – BBC 2

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Word PressThe fact that someone calling himself a historian is presenting a series about the 1980s (Britain in the 1980s, to be more precise) is possibly one of the most depressing things that has ever happened in the entire history of the universe. I mean, how can the 1980s possibly be classed as history? My head’s still in the 1980s half the time, and my music collection will never get out of the 1980s.   Oh well, time for a nostalgia fest, I thought. Unfortunately, this was rather disappointing. Maybe it was because this episode covered the years from 1980 to 1983 and “my” era’s the late 1980s, but I just thought it could have been a lot better, and that Dominic Sandbrook’s arguments didn’t really work. Hands up everyone who thinks that the two greatest icons of the 1980s were Delia Smith and Steve Davis? Er, no, me neither, with all due respect to them both

The programme started off by saying that the 1980s weren’t created by Margaret Thatcher but by the British people, and that Margaret Thatcher just responded to the forces of society. That was an interesting and a reasonable argument, but I’m really not convinced that breakfast TV had more to do with the result of the 1983 General Election than the Falklands War did! It was fun to look back on how exciting breakfast TV was when it first started, though. And all the fuss when Channel 4 got going. It was a Tuesday night, at about ¼ to 5, IIRC – what a stupid time to pick!

Its main themes were then supposed to be how the ’80s were all about domesticity, as epitomised by Delia Smith, and aspiration, as epitomised by Steve Davis. Er, what?! Like most people, I used to watch a lot of snooker in the 1980s, but I can’t say that I ever thought of Steve Davis as the symbol of aspiration, or snooker as symbolising the new emphasis on individualism rather than community. I think that argument was pushing it more than a bit!   And do you really associate the ’80s with domesticity?   He went on a lot about microwaves. Do not ask me why I remember this, but we got our first microwave during the British Open. I’ve always vaguely associated microwaves with Tom Watson (the golfer, not the Labour politician) because of that! But surely microwaves were about spending less time in the kitchen, not more?

Then he claimed that there was a load of political controversy over the New Romantics. Was there?! I’m actually being earwormed by a New Romantic song today – Rio, by Duran Duran. Yes, yes, I know that it’s not actually about Rio de Janeiro and has no relevance to the Olympics, but it’s stuck in my head!   And the video that went with it is supposed to epitomise all the excess of the ’80s, but I still can’t say that I really associate the New Romantics with politics. Maybe it’s just me. A better point was the one about how many of the top ’80s bands came from areas affected by deindustrialisation. This was about the early ’80s so it didn’t get on to the whole “Madchester” thing, but you had the Human League from Sheffield, Duran Duran from Birmingham, etc … although a lot of the top groups of the early ’80s were from London, so maybe that argument didn’t really hold water either!  And a bit more talk about deindustrialisation and a bit less about shopping centres would have been welcome.

What else did we get? The importance of image and advertising. OK, fair enough. I’m not sure that the opening of Next shops was really the greatest symbol of the changing image of women in the 1980s, but anyway! Football hooliganism. Yes, all right, it happened, but was there any need to be so negative? Could he not also have mentioned how successful English clubs were in Europe in the decade before the ban? And Austin Metros. And Brookside.

He talked a lot about Brookside. The argument was that it reflected the ’80s because it was about people who’d all rather randomly ended up living in Brookside Close and all came from somewhere else, rather than Coronation Street which was about a cosy community with roots, and how it covered so many of the social problems of the early ’80s. Those were all valid points, but they seemed to contradict rather than support what he’d said about domesticity and aspiration.

And where, in the middle of all this, was the most iconic moment of the early 1980s? All right, it didn’t have much to do with the lives of ordinary people, and sadly we all know how it ended, but how can you do a programme about Britain in the early 1980s and not talk about Charles and Diana’s wedding?  That was definitely rather weird. Oh well.

The main argument of this was probably that the 1980s weren’t all about Margaret Thatcher. But I never thought they were.  But I’m really not convinced that they were about Delia Smith either!   A bit less emphasis on arguments and themes and a bit more emphasis on events and this could have been a lot better. But, hey, a nostalgia fest is always welcome, and bring on the rest of the ’80s!

 

Celestial Harmonies by Peter Esterhazy

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Word PressThis was one of the most disappointing books I’ve ever read. It claimed to be (according to the back cover) “a national epic” and “a work of profundity and invention”.  It was just a load of drivel.   Apart from the last 200 or so pages – and I waded through 650 pages before I got to there – it wasn’t about anything or anyone or anywhere: it was just waffle.  It also contained one of the worst translation errors I’ve ever seen – although that, to be fair, wasn’t the author’s fault.  Peter Esterhazy passed away very recently, so I feel a bit awful about slagging off his best-known book; but it was just dire.

I was expecting Hungarian history, as witnessed by the Esterhazys, a leading Hungarian aristocratic family. I was expecting, if perhaps not as far back as St Stephen, then certainly Matthias Corvinus, war against the Turks, the Habsburg-Jagellon marriage alliance, the Reformation, the Treaty of Carlowitz, the Rakoczy Uprising, Kossuth and the 1848 Revolution, the Ausgleich, the dissolution of the Empire, the coming of communism, the 1956 Uprising … oh, and Ferenc Puskas and co beating England in 1953.  There aren’t a lot of books available in English about Hungary, and I was really looking forward to reading this one.  Instead, all I got was … drivel.

The book was in two parts. The second part at least made some vague sort of sense – or, at least, the later part of it, covering the aftermath of the end of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and then the aristocratic Esterhazys having to adapt to communism after the Second World War, did.  But the first part, and a large section of the second part, was just waffle.  I have no idea what it was supposed to be about.

I feel as if I’m missing something, and showing that I’m really uncultured and can’t appreciate post-modernism or whatever the hell it was supposed to be!  It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you’re in an expensive restaurant and, in the name of nouvelle cuisine or something, they give you a tidgy little spoonful of food in the middle of a huge plate and you’re sat there thinking that you’d have got a far more satisfying meal at McDonald’s!   But I really don’t know what the reader was supposed to appreciate in this.  It was a load of disjointed waffle.  It jumped backwards and forwards across the centuries, from one sentence to the next, and half the time you couldn’t even tell what century it was talking about because it was just generalised waffle.  A lot of it was about arguments between spouses or potential spouses.  And then there was one bit in which someone inadvertently opened the bathroom door whilst their distant cousin was on the toilet.  What exactly is supposed to be profound, inventive and epic about someone opening the bathroom door whilst someone else is on the toilet?!

The jumping about between centuries from one sentence to another was bad enough in that it was confusing, but some of it was deliberately wrong. There was one bit which mentioned an ancestor who’d gone into exile with Rakoczy, but then it said that this person was born in 1741, i.e. thirty years after the Rakoczy uprising!  I mean … what was that about?!  Then there was a reference to the Dreyfus affair (and I don’t see what that really had to do with Hungary anyway), followed by a reference to the French Revolution which made it sound as if the Revolution happened after the Dreyfus affair.  Maybe that was meant to be really witty and amusing in some sort of strange way, but I don’t see how!

Then there were the inadvertent errors. At least, I assume that saying that the Battle of Mohacs took place in 1562, when it actually took place in 1526, was a typo, and not another bizarre deliberate mistake!   All right, we all make typos, but couldn’t the editors have checked the text?  That’s a pretty significant date to get wrong.  And, sadly, it was only a brief reference to Mohacs anyway, before the drivel started again.

Typos can just about be excused, but some things can’t, and saying that the First Duke of Marlborough’s name was Victor von Hochstedt is one of them! The Battle of Blenheim is often referred to in Central Europe as the (Second) Battle of Hochstedt, so I assume that the Hungarian text referred to “the Duke of Marlborough, the victor of Hochstedt” and that somehow got translated as “the Duke of Marlborough, Victor von Hochstedt”.  Seriously, does no-one check these scripts before they’re published?!  That is horrendous!   Incidentally, the reference to the Duke of Marlborough was not in connection with the Rakoczy uprising but in connection with … er, nothing.

Why “von” should have come into a translation from Hungarian into English is a mystery as well, but quite a few sentences in the book, especially in the first section, were in German. I can only assume that they’d been in German rather than Hungarian in the original text, and left like that to make a point, but some of them were long and convoluted sentences and my German’s very limited!  And there were odd words of Yiddish thrown in as well, which was fine in areas where Yiddish was appropriate but rather odd in areas where it wasn’t.   Would a Hungarian aristocrat really refer to his relatives by the Yiddish word for family?

OK … let’s try to think of something positive to say. One thing that did come across quite well was how closely the Hungarian aristocracy were bound up with the Austrian aristocracy and the Bohemian aristocracy. My generation grew up without the concept of Mitteleuropa.   For us, there was Western Europe and Eastern Europe, with the Iron Curtain between the two.   That’s all changed now: Mitteleuropa is back.  Maybe it never really went, but we felt as if it had.

Then there was some reasonable coverage of the aftermath of the end of the Great War. The brief existence of a communist state in Hungary in 1919 is something that tends to be forgotten about now.  A lot of what happened in 1918-1920 – the war between Poland and Russia’s another thing – tends to be forgotten about now, at least in the West.  And there’s the question of borders.  The post Great War border decisions were bloody ridiculous, really.  Don’t get me started on the South Tyrol question!  After the Berlin Wall fell, there was some speculation in some areas of the press that there might be calls for borders to be withdrawn.    But it never happened.

For everything that happened in the former Yugoslavia, there never seemed to be any calls for Vojvodina to become independent, or to become part of Hungary, but there weren’t. That’s a bit strange, really.  Having said which, Vojvodina as a whole is about two-thirds ethnically Serbian these days, so it’s a totally different ball game to Kosovo where the vast majority of the population’s ethnically Albanian, although the situation in 1920 was very different.  And Transylvania had a Romanian majority even in 1920.  There are issues, though.  There were protests in 2009 by ethnic Hungarians who weren’t happy about the language laws in Slovakia.  And CFR Cluj, who were in the same Champions League group as United a few years back, are supported mainly by ethnic Hungarians, whereas their neighbours Universitatea Cluj are supported mainly by ethnic Romanians.  Is any of this an issue in Hungary?  I don’t really know, and I’d like to have been given some sense of it.  But I didn’t really get a sense of anything very much from this book.  Except not to barge into the bathroom unless you’re sure that no-one else is in there.

Then there was a lot about the Esterhazys adapting to life under communism. That was the only bit of the book that really came across well.  A lot’s been written about the fate of the Russian aristocracy after the Russian Revolution, but the effect of communism on the formerly privileged classes of other Eastern European states isn’t something that’s ever discussed very much.  I’m glad that I stuck with the book because I’d have missed that part otherwise.  But the rest of it was just so disappointing!   Maybe it’s me, because this book has won a lot of plaudits, and I think an award as well.  But a burger and chips at McDonald’s is a lot more filling, and certainly much better value, than a small dollop of fancily-presented food at an expensive restaurant, and a book which actually tells you something is a lot better than a book which just waffles about things that don’t even follow.  This book was nearly 850 pages long.  That was a lot of waffle.