Harlots – ITV Encore

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I don’t think there’s ever been so much publicity for a series being shown only on ITV Encore before. That’ll be partly because of the impressive names amongst the cast list (Samantha Morton, Lesley Manville, Jessica Brown Findlay) and partly because of the subject matter.  In 1763, we were informed at the start, London was booming (at the end of the Seven Years’ War – four years after the Year of Miracles and all that!) and one in five women there earned a living from prostitution.  We then saw various young ladies reading their entries in “Harris’s List of Covent Garden Ladies” – a directory of all the “ladies” in question, summarising their charms and skills (or lack of).  This directory did indeed exist, from 1757 to 1795 (thank you, Wikipedia!).

I thought at first, probably influenced by the fact that one of the show’s creators is Alison Newman from Footballers’ Wives (the other is Moira Buffini, whom I have to admit I’d never heard of it but who apparently went to my mum’s old school), that it was all going to be totally OTT and sensationalist and make no attempt to tell a story, but it did improve considerably as time went on.  There are two rival houses, but most of the focus is on the one lower down the pecking order, run by Margaret Wells, Samantha Morton’s character – who, we later learnt, had been sold to a brothel by her mother when she was only 10, and made some telling comments about money being a woman’s only weapon and means of holding power.  Her elder daughter, played by Jessica Brown Findlay, was being pursued by a cross-dressing, make-up-wearing baronet who wanted her to be his exclusive courtesan, and contract negotiations (think Gigi, but without the initial innocence) were under way, but she didn’t want to give up her independence.

The baronet was a bit of a cartoon character, but even more so was the preachy puritanical type, dressed in black bombazine and a very prissy-looking bonnet, who denounced poor Margaret and got the powers that be threatening to close her “disorderly house” down. It turned out that the be-bombazined one was actually in the pay of Margaret’s dastardly rival, Lydia Quigley, who ran what she claimed was a far more upmarket house of ill repute, in which the ladies were all very well up on art and culture.  Mind you, Margaret’s girls also went to the theatre, and got their names in the social columns of the papers.  Funny, I always associate that sort of thing with the Restoration period rather than the eighteenth century, but I don’t know why.  I think we sometimes get so influenced by the Victorians that we think the past was always very prim and proper, whereas London society, certainly from the Restoration to early Victorian times, was anything but!   It’s not just about being “proper” … the setting of this series predates the Romantics, and that’s something that’s important to remember as well.

Anyway, so poor old Margaret was left facing a big fine, and the only way she had of paying it off was to take sealed bids for the deflowering of her younger daughter, and accept the highest. You wonder why she thought she’d get a better price from sealed bids rather than an open auction, but never mind.  The elder daughter’s make-up-wearing baronet, who’d got the needle that she wouldn’t sign his contract, put in the highest bid, but then he wasn’t up to the job … but was too embarrassed to ask for his refund, so Margaret got her money and the younger daughter remained un-deflowered.

It’s certainly got potential. We need to know more about the other girls, and how they came to be working in brothels, but there’s time for that.  And, although it’d looked initially as if it was going to be all sensationalism, it wasn’t.  There were some telling comments about the position of women in society, and it was hard not to warm to Margaret, who’d obviously had as difficult life but was battling her way through it and showed far more care for her girls than Lydia Quigley did.   The baronet and the be-bombazined preachy type looked as if they’d wandered in off the set of Blackadder, but the other characters were quite promising.  I’ll be sticking with this.

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Peony by Pearl Buck

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Pearl Buck, the daughter of American Presbyterian missionaries, grew up in early 20th century China and wrote many books about the country. This one focuses on the little-known Jewish community of Kaifeng, descended from – as far as anyone can tell – a small community of Persian Jews who settled in the area in around the 11th century AD. The chronology of the book is rather confused, as the afterword, written by an expert on the subject, explains. From what it says about Kaifeng, it ought to be set in the very early 19th century, but it refers to the Opium Wars of the mid-19th century and Chinese empresses from the very late 19th century, as well as making some vague remarks about persecution of Jews “over the mountains” which sound as if they refer to events in the late 19th century Russian Empire. However, the focus is on domestic rather than political events, so just accept that it’s set some time in the 19th century and try not to think about it too much!

Peony, the “eponymous heroine”, is a Han Chinese bondmaid in the home of a leading Kaifeng Jewish family; but the book isn’t really about her, more about the family. Peony loves David, the only child of the family, with whom she’s grown up, but, because she’s a servant, knows that she can’t hope to marry him. David’s marriage is going to be the turning point for the family. The Kaifeng Jews have, over the years, intermarried with their Han Chinese neighbours, and Jewish religious practices and cultural identity in the area are dying out. David’s mother wants him to marry the daughter of the town’s last rabbi, and become the leader of the Jewish community. His father thinks that a marriage with the daughter of one of his Han Chinese business partners may be a better bet. Peony, feeling that the rabbi’s daughter is suspicious of her attachment to David and may want her to leave, pushes him towards the business partner’s daughter.

Without wanting to give away too much about how it all happens, David eventually marries the Han Chinese girl, and accepts that the remaining Kaifeng Jews will become fully integrated into the Han Chinese community. According to Wikipedia, there are still about 500 people in Kaifeng, mainly of mixed heritage, who identify as Jewish. Pearl Buck, who, as the daughter of missionaries, was denounced by the Chinese authorities as being a “cultural imperialist”, something which she was very distressed by, writes very movingly about both Peony and about David and his family. Peony’s meddling in David’s life is rather annoying, but no-one ever said that main characters have to be likeable!

Peony’s own story, incidentally, takes a rather far-fetched turn, but never mind!   The book isn’t particularly about her. What the book does do is ask a lot of questions, relevant in many societies both today and in the past, about the relationships between religious or ethnic or cultural minorities and the wider communities in which they live. David is aware that, in many parts of Europe, Jews have historically been discriminated against and even persecuted, whereas, in China, that hasn’t been the case at all. He knows that his mother would prefer for the remaining Kaifeng Jews to remain distinct from the rest of the population, and that something will be lost if they do not, but he also asks himself what is to be achieved by particular groups of people keeping themselves apart.

That can be asked in all sorts of different circumstances. In the case of 19th century Kaifeng, there’s a very small minority group within the general populace. In other cases, there are groups with similar numbers, as in parts of Belfast, or where the minority group is politically dominant, as happened in colonial South America, or where there’s quite a large minority group. A few months ago, Sky News presented a report from the Glodwick area of Oldham, where the white and Asian communities live in different areas and representatives from both communities said that they preferred it that way, despite concerns that that sort of voluntary segregation is fostering ethnic tensions.   It’s a complex issue, addressed in this book within the context of a community about which little (although apparently there was a musical which completely flopped) has been written.

There are a lot of books about tensions and discrimination, but very few which look at things from this sort of angle.  It’s something different, and well worth a read.

Viceroy’s House

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What a negative film this was. It wasn’t about independence: it was about partition, and the problems that that caused. It was horrific. As many as two million people died, many were forced into refugee camps, and there was horrendous violence – something which was repeated during Bangladesh’s war of independence against 1971 – against women. But there was nothing positive in the film. Next to nothing was said about the joy of “Freedom at midnight”, independence from imperial rule, or even the campaign for independence in the years leading up to 1947. It was very, very negative.

The name of the film comes from – just to state the obvious! – the opulent house in which Lord Mountbatten and his family lived, described in the film as making “Buckingham Palace look like a bungalow”. Amongst the staff were two fictional characters, a young Hindu man and a young Muslim woman, involved in a rather soapy romance through which many of the issues were explored.   The film only covered a very short period – and that’s the whole thing: Mountbatten was only viceroy for a short period. By the time he became viceroy, it was already too late to prevent the violence. Things had already spiralled out of control. Partition was almost certainly the lesser of two evils – refusing the Muslims a separate state would probably have made things worse.

The film does rather tie itself in knots with this. I believe that it’s been criticised in some quarters for being anti-Muslim, but it really isn’t anti-Muslim: it’s anti-partition. It does, to be fair, show clearly that the vast majority of Muslims were in favour of partition, and that Jinnah and Nehru couldn’t agree on an alternative plan. Jinnah’s shown as being rather conniving, but practically all the Muslim characters in the film speak out in favour of partition. That presumably gave the film makers a problem, how to try to show partition as a negative thing when it was what those involved wanted, and so they blame the British Raj for fostering tensions between different religious communities. In addition to being rather insulting to the people of what became Pakistan, as if they couldn’t make up their own minds about wanting a separate state that really isn’t very helpful. The film’s supposed to be about what happened in 1947. What was Mountbatten supposed to do – get in a time machine and go back and do things differently? Maybe there wouldn’t be a war in Syria now if things had been done differently when the Ottoman Empire collapsed, but saying that isn’t going to help, is it?

Mountbatten does usually get a very bad press, which I don’t think is deserved. By the time he took over as viceroy, the situation was already so bad that I doubt anyone could have done any better. He’s often criticised for rushing independence and the British withdrawal, but, as is explained in the film, it wasn’t a case of cut and run: it was genuinely believed that delaying would only make things worse. He’s actually portrayed very favourably in the film: he, Edwina and Pamela are all shown to be genuinely interested in India and trying to do everything they could do help alleviate the sufferings of those affected by the violence.

I was wondering what, if anything, the film would say about the relationship between Edwina Mountbatten and Nehru … it doesn’t actually say anything, but we do see a significant glance between the two characters, which we are left to make of what we will! As for Mountbatten himself, I’m glad to see him get a good press for once, but the character in the film didn’t actually seem anything like Lord Mountbatten! He actually seemed exactly like Lord Grantham of Downton Abbey, and not just because he was played by Hugh Bonneville. Think genial and well-meaning but rather bumbling aristocrat. Like Lord Grantham. But is that really the impression anyone has of Lord Mountbatten?

But, all right, everyone interprets events and people in their own ways. And it was all reasonable enough until just before the end, when, according to the film, poor old Dickie found out that he’d been made a mug of. Apparently it had already been decided, by Winston Churchill, that India was going to be partitioned … to prevent the Soviet Union from getting its hands on the oilfields in the Gulf! The idea was that the left-leaning Indian Congress Party would get pally with Stalin’s Soviet Union, which would then use Karachi to gain access to the Gulf and grab all the oil. This is the idea put forward in The Shadow of the Great Game, a book published in 2006 by the late Narendra Singh Sarila a former aide de camp to Mountbatten.

I haven’t read the book so I can’t comment on it, but the idea is certainly not generally accepted. I gather that the author of the book does cite original documents in support of his idea, and it’s not hard to believe that there are some aspects of truth to it. Churchill and many other politicians of the time weren’t that far removed from the days of “the Great Game”, with tensions between the British Empire and Imperial Russia over Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent. We’re all only too well aware that the Soviet Union did later end up getting involved in Afghanistan. Jeffrey Archer even had it invading Pakistan towards the end of The Prodigal Daughter … er, obviously that’s fictional, but it shows that that sort of idea lingered on right into the 1980s. And Churchill does seem to have been more than a bit paranoid about the Soviet Union, and there are suggestions that there may have been American involvement, or at least pressure, as well.

But Churchill wasn’t even in power in 1947!   Even if he did feel like this, would Clement Attlee’s Labour government really have shared all this paranoia? And could anyone seriously have thought that the Indian Congress Party was going to ally itself with a genocidal tyrant like Stalin? And how exactly is this somehow supposed to have made Mountbatten a pawn? He argued in favour of early independence and partition because of the violence that had already erupted. Is that supposed to have been staged by the people who supposedly wanted partition because they were worried about Soviet influence? I just don’t get this argument, and I’m not very impressed that it was put forward in this film as undisputed fact.

Partition doesn’t have to be a tragedy. It can be the best possible solution. Look at the Czech Republic and Slovakia. If the government of Belgrade had agreed to partition in 1990, how much suffering might have been prevented?   More often, it’s a case of the lesser of two evils.  But it can still be an evil, because it’s so often accompanied by horrific violence.

You can’t draw a nice, neat line, so that everyone ends up in the new state in which they want to be. Yugoslavia consisted of six defined states, but there were large numbers of Serbs in Croatia, and a mix of ethnic groups in Bosnia-Herzegovina. There were, and still are, large numbers of Nationalists in the six counties of Ulster which remain part of the United Kingdom. It’s not just about individuals – there are families, friendship groups and communities which end up being torn apart.

What happened in 1947 was horrific. I don’t think anyone could have foreseen the extent of the violence. It’s thought that around 14 million people were displaced, over three-quarters of them from the Punjab – the area from which the Hindu character involved in the romantic plot in the film came. The number of deaths could have been as high as 2 million. Up to 100,000 women were raped, with many more committing suicide to avoid being raped.

The grandmother of the film’s director spent over a year in a refugee camp, before being reunited with her husband. Her baby daughter had died of dehydration. This came up on the screen after the film had finished. No-one moved. Several people in the cinema, me included, were quite tearful. And this was just in 1947. Gandhi was assassinated the following year. There’ve been four official wars between India and Pakistan since independence, notably in 1971 when East Pakistan became independent as Bangladesh, and numerous smaller conflicts. The issue of Kashmir remains unresolved.

But what could have been done to prevent it, in 1947? Everyone’s always very quick to criticise those in positions of political power, but, as with Syria today, sometimes situations get so far out of control that those with any sort of power can only try to do their best, and their best usually isn’t good enough. And what happened in India wasn’t about British interests in the Gulf, or the beginnings of the Cold War. And could no room have been found in this film for celebrating the independence of two proud states, including the biggest democracy in the world? Oh, we got the fireworks and the cheering crowds at the end, but it was only shown at a distance, not as part of the main plot, and the only conversation we saw taking place during the independence celebrations was Mountbatten moaning to Jinnah that partition had been a foregone conclusion.

This is an interesting, thought-provoking and well-acted film, but a definitive version of Mountbatten’s viceroyalty and Indian independence it assuredly is not.

1066: A year to conquer England – BBC 2

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Word PressOh dear, BBC 2. This was like some sort of role-play exercise used by a teacher to try to get a class of 11-year-olds involved in the lesson.  Three people each pretending to be one of the key figures involved – William of Normandy, Harold Godwinson and Harald Hardrada – and sitting round a table together, arguing about who was best in a way that just about stopped short of saying “So NER”. We even had to hear about William’s problematic childhood in a way that made him sound like a whingeing contestant going on a “journey” on The X-Factor. Not to mention some campaign maps which looked very similar to the ones in the opening sequences of episodes of Dad’s Army.  At least it didn’t involve anyone dressing up, but it was pretty puerile stuff even so.   Could we please lose all this dumbing down?   It’s embarrassing.

It’s a shame that it was done in such a silly way, because the subject matter was very interesting and important. Everyone knows that the Battle of Hastings (or the Battle of Senlac Hill, for those who moan that it didn’t take place actually in Hastings!) took place in 1066, but what’s often forgotten is that it was the third of three crucial battles for England which took place that year, and that things could so easily have turned out differently.

Edgar the Atheling, who was the rightful heir, didn’t really come into it, and only got a brief mention in the programme, but it was a close run thing between the other three. Four, if you count Harold’s brother, Tostig Godwinson, who formed an alliance with Harald Hardrada.  Tostig and Harald Hardrada defeated the great northern earls, Harold’s allies and brothers-in-law, at the Battle of Fulford, and must have fancied their chances, especially as Harold had to march his troops all the way from London to just outside York, where the two armies met at Stamford Bridge.  This bit always confuses everyone when they “do” 1066 for the first time, because you hear “Stamford Bridge” and assume that the Vikings had invaded Chelsea :-).

If Harald Hardrada and Tostig had won the Battle of Stamford Bridge, and if William had either dropped out of the race or been defeated by them in term, what would have happened? Would England have become part of a Scandinavian Empire long term?  Would the country have been split, as it had been in the days of the Danelaw?  There were already significant Scandinavian holdings in Scotland and the Isle of Man, and Scandinavian settlements in Ireland – would Hardrada have been able to link them all together?   Probably not.  As previous Viking rulers in England had found, and as the Plantagenets were to find later on, those sorts of empires don’t work and don’t last.  But England would certainly have developed very differently.  Quite possibly the Middle Ages would have been much pleasanter – no Norman feudal system, and the focus on the North.

Anyway, it didn’t happen. Harold’s army thrashed Hardrada and Tostig, both of whom were killed.  The Battle of Stamford Bridge is often called the end of the Viking era: that’s too simplistic, but Harald Hardrada’s sons didn’t go off trying to conquer other countries, and Denmark stayed out of English affairs thereafter as well.

So, Harold Godwinson was riding high. Unfortunately for him, he had to deal with the fixture pile-up from hell.  Even worse than having to play Chelsea (at the other Stamford Bridge) on Monday night, Rostov on the Thursday and Middlesbrough on the Sunday.   And, having just fought a major battle, his army had quite an injury crisis to deal with as well.

Stamford Bridge was on September 25th.  On September 27th, William of Normandy set sail for England.  Harold’s knackered army had to march all the way back down south, almost 250 miles, to face the Normans at Hastings.  The Normans won, Harold was killed (although there are a few legends which say that he escaped, but they’re highly unlikely to be true!) … the rest is, well, history.

The battle went on for nine hours. So it was a close-run thing.  Maybe the Normans would have won even if Harold’s army hadn’t just fought another battle and then had that long march.  Harold’s been criticised for heading straight for William’s army rather than stopping to gather more men, especially as he’d dismissed some of his troops in the south before the march north.  Military experts all agree that William’s tactics were superior, and that he was an even better commander than Harold.  And, once Harold has been killed, his army seems to’ve lost the plot and struggled to cope without him.

Who knows? But things could so easily have turned out differently.  They didn’t; but to think of 1066 just as the year of William of Normandy, William the Conqueror, is to miss so much of what was going on during that year, and all credit to BBC 2 for showing that.  But did they have to show it in such an infantile way?  All right, the days of AJP Taylor or David Starkey sitting behind a desk are gone, but things have gone way too far in the “livening up” direction now, and it’s just got silly.  Enough!!