Taboo – BBC 1


Word PressI am really trying to like this programme, because it’s entertaining in a weird sort of way, and I’m missing Poldark and Victoria; but the historical inaccuracies are just too much to take!!  The whole premise of the series is that, in 1814, James Delaney has somehow inherited control of Nootka Sound, on the west coast of Vancouver Island, and the British government, the American government and the East India Company are all desperate to get their hands on it.  Even supposedly turning to torture to try to get what they want – er, excuse me, it’s meant to be the 1810s, not the 1530s!

The idea is that Nootka Sound is the subject of a dispute between Britain and America as part of the War of 1812.  However, that’s nonsense!  The Nootka Sound dispute was between Britain and Spain!  The United States wasn’t involved in it.  In fact, if any third country had interests in that neck of the woods at the time, it was Russia, which held Alaska and had its eye on getting stuck into the fur trade.  And it was all sorted twenty years before Taboo”s set.  Spain was reluctant to get into a fight with Britain unless France would get involved too, which France wouldn’t.  Then, once the French Revolutionary Wars broke out, Britain and Spain needed to work together and couldn’t afford to be getting into a conflict in the Pacific at the same time, so it was agreed that neither country would establish a settlement in the Nootka Sound area but that the ships of both would be able to use it.  It was all settled by 1794.

The US just wasn’t involved in it all, and it certainly had nothing to do with the War of 1812.  The programme did mention Spanish North America, but Spain had pretty much backed off from anywhere that far north by then.  And the Oregon Question, the issue of the western border between the US and Canada, which did sour Anglo-American relations and dragged on until the 1840s, didn’t kick off until well after the War of 1812.  All sorts of things did go on during the War of 1812 – the Americans invading Ontario and planning to attack Montreal as well, Britain attacking Washington and, famously, burning down the White House. the tragic defeat of the Tecumseh Confederacy and with it probably the end of any hopes of a Native American state in what’s now United States land, Francis Scott Key writing The Star-Spangled Banner, the Battle of New Orleans (which took place after peace’d been agreed, but the message didn’t get there on time!  I’ve been round that battlefield twice.) and everyone annoying everyone else’s ships, but nothing that involved the Pacific North West.  You cannot just go around picking an international incident, changing one of the parties involved, and plonking it into the wrong time period!  Gah!!

Then there’s the question of the East India Company.  According to this series, it’s some sort of terrifying organisation which is dead set on world domination.  There are a lot of those theories about.  Most of them involve either religious organisations, like the Jesuits, or secretive societies, like the Rosicrucians.  They’re all twaddle.  And there isn’t even one of those theories about the East India Company: it’s been made up for the purposes of the series!  Yes, it dominated a vast amount of world trade, but it certainly wasn’t the big bad force that it’s being presented as here.  And it was certainly never after Nootka Sound!

The East India Company was not involved in the “Pacific North West” area.  That was the North West Company’s territory.  The clues are in the names!  The theory in the series is that the East India Company wanted Nootka Sound because of the Pacific trade routes to China.  But the Pacific trade with China mainly involved furs, and the East India Company was not involved with the Pacific fur trade.  That was the domain of the North West Company and the Hudson’s Bay Company.  The North West Company and the East India Company didn’t get on, because the EIC wouldn’t let any other British company trade through Canton (Guangzhou), but the EIC didn’t get involved on the NWC’s turf.

The EIC, at this time, was busily trying to get as much Bengal opium into China as possible.  To pay for tea.  Well, OK, silks and other stuff as well, but no-one really needs silks, and everyone needs tea!  Funny to think that tea wasn’t really being grown in India until a bit later on – because “Indian tea” is what I think of as proper tea, whereas “Chinese tea” is more that stuff that smells as if someone’s put pot pourri in it.  I think Chinese tea’s supposed to be posher.  There’s a scene in an Enid Blyton book in which a very snooty character – shortly before being pushed into a swimming pool by a Naughty French Girl – complains vociferously about being given Indian tea instead of Chinese tea, and any mention of the differences between the two always makes me think of that :-).  Anyway, to get back to the point, opium had to be smuggled across the Indo-Chinese border because the Chinese authorities had banned its import.  So taking it by sea from Canada would have been impossible.  And taking opium from India to China via Canada would have made absolutely no economic sense anyway.


The programme does have a weird sort of Gothic appeal, and there’s nothing else on on a Saturday night after Casualty anyway, but the way they’ve completely distorted history to suit themselves is doing my head in!   A lot of that goes on in books, films and TV series, but most of them draw the line at moving an international incident to a period over twenty years later and changing one of the countries involved!  Not to mention the bizarre portrayal of the East India Company.  What next?!  Moving Bosworth Field into the Hundred Years’ War?  Moving the Battle of New Orleans into the Mexican War?  Gah and double gah!  Very Silly Indeed.  So there!!



Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler


Word PressThis was a rather strange combination of topics: all of them were interesting individually, but I’m not sure how well they worked as a combination. The book kicked off in Porto, during the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic Wars, with, as its main character, John Zarco Stewart, the young son of a Scottish father – there having long been a British presence in Porto, especially since the 1703 Methuen Treaty – and a Portuguese mother.

John made friends with two people a bit older than himself – Daniel, who ended up drowning, and Violeta, who was abused by her uncle and then disappeared. Not very cheerful, and poor John struggled to cope with it all. In the middle of all this, there was a lot of talk about Marranos – the “crypto-Jews” of Spain and Portugal, who were officially Catholic but practised Judaism in secret. Daniel’s family were Marranos, and there were hints that John’s mother was a Marrana as well … but it wasn’t particularly convincing because she didn’t do any Marrana stuff.   If you’re going to write about Marranos, you need someone to be lighting candles on a Friday night. It’s the Marrano thing. You can put chicken sausages in as well, if you like, but it’s very weird to do Marranos without the Friday night candles. I don’t know why the author, who is apparently an expert on the subject of Marranos, didn’t include them, but it was rather annoying.

Then John’s father went off to South Africa to look for vineyards, and came back accompanied by a Bushman called Midnight. Yes, yes, I know that we’re now supposed to use the term “San” rather than the term “Bushman”; but the book used “Bushman” throughout. There was quite a lot about San culture and beliefs, which was very interesting – sadly, the Khoi-San people tend to be the forgotten people of South African history – but the idea that a Scotsman would go off from Porto to the South African winelands and that a Bushman would move from South Africa to Porto, especially in wartime, just seemed rather far-fetched. Midnight was a healer, and had come to Europe to search for a cure for smallpox … which rather made you wonder why he hadn’t gone to somewhere with a well-known medical school, but never mind! He began working with Senhor Benjamin, a local apothecary, and was able to treat John for depression.

Next up, a hate preacher who wanted the Inquisition brought back started whipping up hatred against the Marranos, and it all came out that John’s mother was a Marrana. She suggested that John go to Senhor Benjamin – who was also a Marrano – for Torah lessons, as the only thing she knew about Jewish doctrine or practice was lighting candles on a Friday night. Hooray!! Finally, the candle thing!   But why had we never seen her lighting the candles? Oh well, never mind.

John’s dad and Midnight then went off to Britain, to meet Edward Jenner. See, I knew Midnight should have gone somewhere where there was a medical expert!   However, John’s dad came back alone, and said that Midnight had been killed in an accident.

There was an awful lot of travelling going on, considering that it was wartime!   Then the French invaded and sacked Porto. This was probably the worst moment in Porto’s history. Many of its inhabitants were murdered, raped, or died when a bridge collapsed. But it was all rather skipped over in the book. John’s father died, and two close friends, one of whom died as a result of her injuries, were raped, but somehow the horror of it all didn’t really come across … the focus was more on why John’s dad had stayed in Porto rather than fleeing as his wife and son did.

Fast forward. John’s mum moved to London, to live with her sister-in-law. Britain got an extremely good press in this book, as a nation which both took a lead in the abolition of the slave trade and which was very tolerant towards religious minorities. The “metropolitan elite”, who seem determined on insisting that everything in British history is bad, might want to read this. Although they probably wouldn’t want to read it. John got married and had two kids, but then his wife died. And then Senhor Benjamin told him that Midnight hadn’t died in an accident in Gloucestershire at all, but that John’s dad had found out that he (Midnight) and John’s mum had been having an affair, and had sold him into slavery in Virginia!

OK,that apparently explained why John’s dad had seemed so unconcerned about his own safety: he couldn’t live with the guilt. And so Midnight was, presumably, still alive. And then, re-enter Violeta, now living in New York. It transpired that poor Violeta had been people-trafficked into prostitution in London, in a story which seemed to belong more to the early 21st century than the early 19th century. This was very sad and shocking, but it was all skipped over in a few pages, when surely Violeta’s story deserved its own book. Then, it what was presumably an attempt to try to keep some sort of thread running through the book, we were told that Violeta had become a nanny to the children of a Portuguese Jewish woman living in Newcastle. What?? Were there any Portuguese Jewish women living in Newcastle in the 1820s?! Er, and then she’d ended up in New York.

John then betook himself to America. Despite the fact that Midnight was now known by a different name, and had been sold on from Virginia to South Carolina, and there must have been millions of slaves in the southern states of America at the time, he somehow managed to find the plantation where Midnight was supposed to be. At this point, we went back to the Portuguese Jewish theme, when we were told that lots of Portuguese Marranos had moved to Charleston.

Now that isn’t quite accurate. However, it was an interesting subject to bring into the book, because an often overlooked aspect of the history of the Deep South, and especially of Charleston – the ultimate Southern Rights city, the place where South Carolina declared that it was seceding from the Union, the place where the first shots of the War Between The States were fired, etc etc – is that the prejudice against Jews which, along with prejudice against Catholics, was rife in the upper echelons of Northern society, didn’t apply in the South. Judah Benjamin, the Confederate Secretary of State, was from a Charleston Jewish family. There were many prominent Jewish people in various aspects of Charleston life even before the Revolution. Charleston, in the 1820s, had the highest Jewish population of any city in the United States. And, yes, at that point they were almost all Sephardi … but from/descended from families who’d moved there from London, or London via Amsterdam, rather than actually from Portugal. But, OK, there was that link there.

The narrative then switched from being first person John to being first person Morri – Morri being Midnight’s daughter. Midnight was missing, presumed dead. It later turned out that he’d gone off with a group of Indians (the book said Indians, not Native Americans!). The family and overseer of the plantation on which Morri was living seemed to spend all their time abusing their slaves, and the master and his heir were both murdered in mysterious circumstances but no-one ever found out who’d murdered them. Things were getting rather bonkers by this stage. Morri and some of the others were planning to escape. Then John turned up at the plantation, pretending he wanted to sketch birds, and found out that the owner knew about the plan. Then most of them did manage to escape, assisted by a) John and b) a ship’s captain from Liverpool.

So John and Morri went back to join Violeta in New York, and John’s mum and daughters joined them there too. Then Midnight turned up there too, safe and well, and everyone presumably lived happily ever after.

Too many different themes, and some very tenuous links and distinctly far-fetched storylines. But I suppose you could say that there was a general theme running through it about oppression and trying to overcome it. Really, I think it would have worked better as two separate books, one about Marranos and one about slavery. Or maybe three, because there are very few novels about the Khoi-San people. There was too much going on, and it didn’t really link together that well.  But the individual themes and characters were fascinating.  And I suppose putting them all into one book was pretty ambitious.  Just maybe a bit too ambitious.




The Legacy of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park


Word PressThis really doesn’t do what it says on the tin, but it’s absolutely fascinating nonetheless. However, it’s rather didactic and at times reads more like a textbook than a novel, so don’t read it if you’re in the mood for something light and easy. It must have taken an incredibly amount of research, and that’s all the more impressive when you bear in mind that the author was 89 years old when this was published.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi was set in Renaissance Italy, so readers might well have been expecting a similar setting for the sequel. However, when this book opens, the action in this has shifted to an equally rich and glamorous but completely different setting – the court of the Sultan at Constantinople. Poor old Grazia drowned whilst trying to escape the Sack of Rome, but her husband was working as the Sultan’s chief physician and her son survived the shipwreck and was eventually reunited with his (step)father. The Sultan – Suleiman the Magnificent, a familiar figure to those of us who studied the Tudor era for A-level! – did indeed employ a European Jewish chief physician, although the real guy was Spanish rather than, like Judah del Medigo in the book, Italian.

The blurb on the back cover tells us that the book is about Danilo (Grazia’s son)’s illicit romance with a (fictional) daughter of the Sultan. That gives the impression that it’s going to be some sort of Mills and Boon type story involving every Western harem fantasy going. It isn’t! For a kick-off, as the author points out, life in the harem, certainly for a young unmarried princess, was more like being at a strict old-fashioned boarding school than the popular image of a harem as a luxurious brothel. Apart from Saida, the other women who feature prominently are Hurrem, known in the West as Roxelana, the Ukrainian slave girl who, in a story you really couldn’t make up, became the Sultana, and Hafsa Sultan, Suleiman’s powerful mother. The author presents Hurrem as being rather annoying, but she was a very canny woman who gained a lot of influence. So, if you were expecting the sort of thing you got in that awful ’80s mini-series about the Victorian American woman who was kidnapped by Art Malik and ended up on Omar Sharif’s harem, think again!

The exotic element is there, but in a different way. There are a lot of references to Scheherezade. It’s an interesting reminder of how the Middle East used to be seen, before things there got into the horrendous mess that they’re sadly in now.  Think about, for example, damask silk, damask roses and damask oil. Then think about what the word “Damascus” brings to mind now. Think about the Arabian Nights and the Caliph’s adventures in Old Baghdad … then think about what the word “Baghdad” brings to mind now. Even bookings for Istanbul itself are apparently nose-diving, because people are, understandably, anxious about going there after the recent terrorist attacks. And think about the relative tolerance shown to religious minorities in the Ottoman Empire, and then think about what goes on now.

Moving on. The star of the show is Danilo, not Saida. We follow him through his education in the Ottoman system: for people not familiar with the running of Ottoman Empire, the system of taking boys from Christian families and forming them into an elite military corps is carefully explained. The book does suggest that families sometimes saw it as an honour to have a boy taken via the “devshirme” system, which is definitely not the impression I got when I went to Greece in 2015, but anyway! Danilo becomes part of the elite gerit team … which Wikipedia describes as “a traditional Turkish equestrian team sport played outdoors on horseback in which the objective is to score points by throwing a blunt wooden javelin at opposing team’s horsemen”.  The players are the sporting superstars of their day, and, of course, Danilo excels himself in a big match!  He also makes a good impression on the Sultan by being able to translate Western works about Alexander the Great, Suleiman’s big hero.  And so he’s invited to join Suleiman on his campaign to (re)conquer Baghdad.

When those of us in Britain, and on the Continent, think about Ottoman campaigns and wars, we think about those in Europe. Oh come on, we do! The Battle of Kosovo. The Fall of Constantinople – 1453, one of those dates that “every schoolboy knows”. The Battle of Mohacs. The Battle of Lepanto – how they do go on about that in Venice and Madrid, even now! Going back to my holiday in Greece, I was so over-excited about being in Lepanto (Naupaktos, to use its Greek name rather than its Italian name), that I spent ages taking photos of the beach and the monuments and ended up right at the back of the ice cream queue. It is not like me to be the last one in the ice cream queue, but these are iconic names for historians. The 1683 Siege of Vienna, of course. They go on about that one a lot in Warsaw. And there are a lot of stories involving coffee, croissants and bagels. Lord Byron, all very “mad and bad and dangerous to know”, going off to fight the Turks for Greek independence. The Crimean War, although people sometimes seem to forget that that was actually about the Ottoman Empire and not about Britain and France having a totally unnecessary scrap with Russia. And Gladstone striding round Midlothian saying that it was time to drive the Turks “bag and baggage” out of Europe.

So. Baghdad.  No coffee, croissants or bagels.  Actually, I think coffee was mentioned, and Saida and Hurrem spent a lot of time talking about sherbet.  I presume that was the sort you drink, not sherbet dips or sherbet lemons!  Anyway, no croissants or bagels, but there was an awful lot of detail about other things.  I’m not sure that I really needed to know that there was no toilet paper and that hands were used instead, but most of the other stuff was … well, it was fascinating largely because it would just never in a million years have occurred to me to think about it!  For example, the water buffalo were leased.  Like you might rent a car these days, you could hire water buffalo if you wished to invade 16th century Iraq.  However, if you didn’t get the water buffalo back in time for the breeding season, you had to pay a penalty because the owner would be missing out on that year’s calves.   Loads and loads of stuff like that!  It is admittedly rather didactic in part, but it’s very, very interesting if you can concentrate on it.

This part of the story’s told largely by a series of letters sent by Danilo to his (step)father Judah, who’s back in Constantinople. Intertwined with it all is Danilo’s reading of accounts about Alexander the Great to the Sultan, and the Grand Vizier’s jealousy of him.  Danilo isn’t part of the army, so there aren’t any battle scenes, but then there wasn’t really that much fighting anyway.  It does come across that Suleiman was trying to emulate Alexander, and there’s possibly a bit too much emphasis on that and not enough on the realities of the 1530s, the clash between the Ottoman and Persian Empires.  It’s a clash between Sunni and Shia Islam, which sees the mainly Sunni Ottoman Empire end up in control of Mecca, Medina and, following this campaign, the historic caliphate capital of Baghdad as well.

Bearing in mind the role played by sectarianism in the current conflicts in Syria, Iraq and Yemen, that’s something we could probably all do with understanding rather more about. However, to be fair, this is a novel, so it’s not its job to educate people about the historical background to today’s political issues.  But it’s something that the reader is bound to think about.  We also see how the Kurds are caught up in the clash between the Ottomans and the Persians, something else that we could probably all do with understanding rather more about.

The book ends up, setting the scene for the third and final instalment in the trilogy, in Venice. Another gloriously rich and glamorous setting, and one which feels very safe and familiar after the journey from Constantinople to Baghdad and back.  But I really enjoyed that journey.  It’s not an easy read, and anyone who did read the back cover and was expecting a harem romance was probably thoroughly bemused to be met with water buffalo instead, but what fascinating material!  These books have been very popular in Canada, the author’s home country, but don’t seem to have met with much attention elsewhere.  That’s a shame.  They deserve to.

The Halcyon – ITV 1


Word PressThis was the only the first episode so hopefully it’ll get better, but I’m afraid I wasn’t very impressed with last night’s episode. For a kick-off, the beginning was confusing. It showed us bombs reducing everything to rubble during the Blitz, then went back several months in time. What was the point of that? Why not just start at the earlier point?!  Bad start.

But, OK, a bad start could have been forgiven if some of the characters had been appealing … but they all seemed to be either scheming or silly, pointless and stereotypical. There wasn’t even a good baddie! The poodle-haired Nazi mistress was just annoying. Why was she at the top-secret political meeting anyway? Why didn’t the other people at the meeting appear in any other scenes? Why is there this idea that the aristocracy was teeming with Nazi sympathisers, just because of the Duke of Windsor and one of the Mitford sisters? And was that comment about “itinerants” supposed to be some sort of reference to current affairs, because it wasn’t really something that anyone, Nazi sympathiser or otherwise, would have said in 1940.

Also, what exactly was the point of the tarty singer? And there were a lot of hints about scheming and secrets, but none of them were really that interesting; and some of the scenes seemed like they belonged in a Carry On film (except that they weren’t funny and Carry On films are).

I didn’t even get why a lord should have owned and been living in a hotel anyway. Maybe he was only a first or second generation lord and the title’d been a reward for providing Edward VII or Lloyd George with rooms to sneak away to with their mistresses :-). But, if so, we weren’t told. And where were the exciting guests, other than the American reporter? Incidentally, how come the American reporter was still after the hotel after he’d broadcast allegations (based on one conversation with the dozy younger son) about its owner being involved in secret moves to make peace with the Nazis? And how come whichever radio station he worked for broadcast the story based on nothing but the conversation with the said dozy younger son?

Oh well. Maybe it’ll get better!