This has received very good reviews. I’m not 100% convinced.  The last half an hour or so was good, but I didn’t feel that the film in general got across the scope of the Dunkirk evacuation; and surely that’s the thing about Dunkirk – the extent of it.   The film told a small number of individual stories, and, OK, that’s what you expect in a film – and at least they didn’t turn it into a silly romance like they did with the Pearl Harbour film.  But they needed to show just how many men were waiting to be evacuated, and how many little ships answered the call; and they didn’t.  All right, I appreciate that they couldn’t very well have hired 350,000-400,000 extras, but surely they could have used some sort of technology to do big panoramic shots showing vast numbers of men on the beaches.  Most of the time, it looked as if there were barely a few dozen there.  And there only seemed to be one destroyer in action, a handful of fighter planes on both sides, and very few little ships.  The Little Ships!    How can you make a film about Dunkirk without showing just how many little ships were involved?

The individual stories were portrayed very well, though. In Dunkirk itself, we had the commander at “the mole”, faced with a seemingly impossible situation.  There was only one site where it was possible for a large vessel to dock.  The Wehrmacht were getting closer and closer, and the men on the beaches and any ship being loaded were sitting ducks for the Luftwaffe to aim at.  In clear weather, you could see the British coast – so near, and yet so far.  Not only so near for the men to be evacuated to, if only they could get across the English Channel safely, but also so near for the Germans to reach, with everyone fully expecting an invasion of Britain to be next.  He was hoping to get around 35,000 men away.  In the end, ten times that number were evacuated, and we saw him thanking some the civilians who’d made such a dangerous journey on their little ships, and then being one of the last to leave.

We also had a group of young soldiers, hoping desperately to get away – trying to dodge the bombs at Dunkirk, seeing men being killed all around them, and then being able to board a ship only for that to be bombed as well. It did get a bit too Boys’ Own-ish, as they then decided that they were going to try to find another vessel themselves, and got on board a Dutch boat whose owner had conveniently left it sitting on the beach whilst he waited for the tide to turn.  Then there was a fight when they thought they’d found a German spy, but then it turned out that he was French, but then they got the needle about that as well.  There was a definite whiff of Enid Blyton or Arthur Ransome about some of it, but, OK, it was a film, not a documentary.

Then there were the RAF pilots. This is probably the aspect of the Dunkirk evacuation which gets overlooked.  You tend to think of it as the Army being evacuated by sea, with the RAF’s main role coming later, in the Battle of Britain – but the RAF played such a crucial role in the Dunkirk evacuation, engaging in terrifying dogfights as they tried desperately to stop the Luftwaffe from sinking the evacuation ships.  At the end, as the soldiers arrived safely back in Britain, one of the RAF men was taken prisoner by the Germans.

And there was the little ship. I remember once, it must have been in the late ’80s or early ’90s, being on a day out somewhere and going on one of those boat trips you can do, an hour or so up and down a canal in a scenic spot, and seeing a plaque on this little pleasure boat, honouring it for having taken part in the Dunkirk evacuation.  The story in the film was about that sort of ship – a little pleasure boat.  The owner of the boat, whom we later found out had lost his eldest son early on in the war, set out for Dunkirk with two young lads, his younger son and one of his younger son’s friends.  The son’s friend felt that he’d never achieved anything, and wanted to do something good.  He ended up dying (after being knocked down by a shell-shocked soldier), but he was hailed a hero in the local press.  If that sounds a bit cheesy, it isn’t – apparently there’s a true story about a young lad who felt like a failure, just wanted to do something good, died during the evacuations, and was hailed as a hero.

Again, it all got a bit Enid Blyton/Arthur Ransome-ish. In the middle of the Channel, they rescued first the shell-shocked soldier, who was sat on top of a shipwrecked boat, and then an RAF pilot who’d crashed.  And made a lot of cups of tea.  But the film did a very good job of showing the courage of people like that – civilians crossing the Channel in little ships which weren’t made for sea voyages even in ordinary times, never mind with the Luftwaffe circling overhead.  They managed to get dozens of men – mostly our friends who’d tried to get the Dutch boat – on board, and bring them home safely.

That was well done. But, for the most part, the film didn’t really get across the sense of just how many little ships were involved.  The Mersey ferry and the Kent paddle steamer, which went backwards and forwards several times.  All the other little ships, like the one in the film.  OK, it couldn’t really have shown them all, and I do appreciate that it’s hardly as if they crossed the Channel in convoy, but just a few shots of different people across the country, all answering the call and readying their ships for the voyage, could have got the message across so much better than the film actually did.

Then, with about half an hour to go, it felt like they’d finally got it. They actually showed a lot of men waiting, and the commander was looking out to sea with his telescope, and at first he couldn’t believe what he was seeing, and then the first of the flotilla of little ships hove into view, and a huge cheer went up from the men.

A lot of cups of tea were made.  I don’t know if that was historically accurate, but I really hope it was!  We then followed the little ship home, and saw the Dorset coast – the men were looking for the White Cliffs of Dover, but they actually landed in Dorset – and then we saw the men as they travelled by train through the countryside, through the green and pleasant land where little kids were playing near the track and, if you hadn’t known the danger that the country and the whole world were in, you wouldn’t have realised.

An elderly man was handing out supplies to the troops. One of them, not realising that the man was blind, thought that he wasn’t looking them in the eye because he was ashamed of them.  They all thought that they were going to be regarded as failures who’d let everyone down.  Then they saw crowds at the stations along the way, cheering them on, and realised that they’d come home to a heroes’ welcome, because, as one character said, they’d survived, and that was enough.

One of the young soldiers picked up a newspaper, and (this couldn’t actually have happened, because the speech wasn’t made until after the evacuation, but never mind, because it was an appropriate ending!) read aloud from it Churchill’s speech.   The best-known part of that speech is so familiar that maybe you sometimes forget just how incredible it was: Churchill had to acknowledge that there’d been an absolute military disaster in France and the Low Countries, and that an invasion of Britain was probably going to be next, but inspire and encourage the nation at the same time, and he managed it.  “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

 He also said that “wars are not won by evacuations”. The Allied forces had been driven right back to the Channel coast, less than a year after the war had started.  The Nazis looked unstoppable.  But they weren’t.  And, without the Dunkirk evacuation … it doesn’t bear thinking about.  We still use the term “Dunkirk spirit”.  Wars don’t generally involve little civilian boats crossing the Channel, with the enemy airforce circling overhead, to rescue the troops.

I don’t think that this film really got across the scale of what happened, and I think it could and should have tried harder to do that. Think of the panoramic scene in Gone With The Wind, showing all the men lying wounded as the Battle of Atlanta rages.  That film was made nearly 80 years ago.  Surely, with today’s technology, it would have been possible to show how many men, ships and planes were involved?  And surely they could have shown a few scenes of different people, in different parts of the country, all answering the call and heading off to Dunkirk on their little ships?  The legendary, but very real, Little Ships.  I don’t think this film really does them justice.  Maybe I’m missing something, because it has had very good reviews; but, whilst I’m glad that a film has addressed this incredible story, I think it could have done better.


When Football Banned Women – Channel 4


Last year, Sky One showed a two-part documentary about the history of football. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very good, but it did raise the fascinating issue of the ban on women playing football imposed by the FA from 1921 to 1971, following huge success enjoyed by women’s football teams, especially in Lancashire, during and immediately after the First World War.  Now, Channel 4 have made a documentary, presented by Clare Balding, purely about this part of football history, which isn’t at all well-known.

Most of the women’s football teams were set up during the First World War, as works teams at munitions factories – partly as what would now be called “team building”, partly as a way of keeping fit, and partly just for a bit of light relief at a very difficult time. Then they began organising charity matches, to raise money for wounded soldiers and families who’d lost their breadwinners.  And the best teams were – naturally! – from Lancashire, notably Dick, Kerr’s Ladies, a team of “munitionettes” who worked at the Dick, Kerr & Co factory in Preston.

It even sounds as if, after the war, women who were known to be good footballers were given jobs there so that they could get them on the team. Their two star players, Lily Parr and Alice Woods, were both from St Helens, and had previously played for St Helens Ladies.  Most of the matches were local, and they attracted huge crowds.  27,000 at Gigg Lane.  33,000 at Burnden Park.  And, on Boxing Day 1920, 53,000 at Goodison Park, with another 14,000 locked out.  Seriously impressive attendances.  And considerable press coverage as well.

Then, in December 1921, the FA banned women from playing football. Well, it tried to.  It banned them from playing on grounds belonging to Football League clubs.  So they were reduced to using public parks or dog tracks instead.  Interest dwindled.  Press coverage pretty much stopped. Presumably the ban didn’t extend to, say, rugby or cricket grounds, and the teams did keep going, but the FA ban did pretty much kill women’s football as a force, and it didn’t really revive until the late 1960s – and still doesn’t attract the sort of interest and coverage in this country that it does in some other countries.

So why was it banned? That’s the question.  There were a lot of questions being asked at this time about women’s role in society generally.  During the war, women had taken on jobs previously only done by men: now, a lot of men wanted women shoved back into a domestic role.  All those arguments about whether girls should be taught domestic science at school, whilst boys were studying academic subjects.  I’m not sure that this would actually have been that much of an issue in industrial, working-class areas of Lancashire, where women traditionally did work, but then the FA wasn’t exactly representative of grass-roots football.  One of the official excuses given was that football was unsuitable for women and could damage fertility – the sort of theory that was very much tied in with wanting to get women out of a sphere that was seen as a male-only preserve.

The other official excuse given was that the money from charity matches wasn’t going to charity, but was being appropriated in “expenses” or used for “non-charitable objects”. This was 1921.  The date’s important.  In April 1921, coal mining, which had been nationalised during the war, was privatised, and the new owners immediately started talking about wage cuts.  Strikes were called.  The idea – this being before sympathetic strikes were banned – was that members of the transport and railway unions would walk out in support of the members of the mining union.  But they didn’t.  The miners were left to go it alone.  And then they were locked out by the mines’ new owners.

A team whose two star players were from St Helens really wouldn’t appreciate being described as “near Wigan” 🙂 – but this was very much a Lancashire thing, with the biggest teams being based in areas fairly close to the big Wigan-Salford coal mining belt.  Some of the money from the matches was going to help support the miners and their families.  So was that what really pissed off the men in suits at the FA, and was that the real reason for the ban?

I don’t know. It makes a cracking story.  Women are pushed out of the national sport for half a century because the Westminster elite were trying to do down the proud (I’m talking about Preston: I’ve got to get the word “proud” in there!) working classes of our great County Palatine.  But would the Establishment really have had that much influence over the FA?  We’re talking the 1920s, not the 1870s.  Then again, I suppose it didn’t have to be the Establishment: there wasn’t too much support for the starving miners and their families in many other quarters either.  It’s certainly a very interesting theory.

I think jealousy was probably the main cause, though. The men – and they were all men, and that’s an issue even now – at the FA just couldn’t bear the fact that female teams were attracting so much interest and such huge crowds.  Part of it was financial – they didn’t like the idea that ticket receipts etc which might otherwise have gone to men’s football were going to women’s football instead – and part of it was just pure male ego.  They couldn’t bear seeing women make such a success of something they thought should be a male-only preserve.

And, of course, the FA got what they wanted. Women’s football went into decline. It’s never, in this country, got back to the level that it was at in 1920.  It’s a lot bigger now than it was even a few years ago (oh, and don’t even get me started on the fact that United still haven’t got a ladies’ team – it’s a disgrace, and I find it extremely embarrassing especially given that the City and Liverpool ladies’ teams are two of the most prominent in the country) but even the women’s Euro 2017 event, currently taking place in the Netherlands, isn’t attracting the sort of interest that Dick, Kerr Ladies did back in the day.  You can’t force it.  There are plenty of other sports – tennis, for example – in which the women’s game does attract considerable interest.  But how different could it all have been if the FA hadn’t done what they did in 1921?   They killed something that was giving a lot of people a lot of harmless pleasure, and, whatever crap they came out with about it being unhealthy, they did it largely out of spite.  Red card.  Very definitely a red card.    And give the match ball to Clare Balding and Channel 4: Channel 4’s historical documentaries aren’t always very good, but this one was excellent.  Very, very interesting.

Robert Redford’s The West – History Channel


This is a rather strange programme. It’s supposed to be about the history of the American West, but most of it is about the producers’ fanboy obsession with Jesse James.  Not that Jesse James isn’t interesting, but he was hardly the only person or even the most important person in the history of the West.  Incidentally, every time he’s mentioned (which is an awful lot), I get earwormed by that Cher song.  And it’s actually narrated by a British guy called Bert Morris, not by Robert Redford at all, although I suppose that including Robert Redford’s name in the title made it sound more glamorous.  There are a lot of interviews with actors who’ve played cowboys in films.  Mainly older people like Robert Redford and Burt Reynolds, but also Kiefer Sutherland, because of Young Guns … which set me off reminiscing about the days of the Brat Pack (and being earwormed, as an alternative to Cher, by Bon Jovi).  What happened to the Brat Pack?  You never hear of most of them these days.

The series started with the premise that President Grant wanted to encourage people to move west because he thought it would stop Jesse James from restarting the Civil War! Excuse me?  Yes, there were bands of ex-Confederate insurgents, for lack of a better word, hanging around, but I hardly think they were likely to restart the war.  The South was on its knees.  And the war’d been over for nearly four years by the time Grant became president, anyway.   And associating the focus on the West with the issues in the South – caused by the utter balls-up that Andrew Johnson’s administration made of Reconstruction, but that’s another story – doesn’t really follow.  However, the producers have obviously got a major thing about Jesse James!   We heard an awful lot about him, and about his gang and what they got up to.  We heard absolutely nothing about settlers moving West.

Anyway, eventually, they did get on to the West, and the peace treaty agreed between Grant’s government and the Lakota Sioux. And then the coming of the railroads.  Ah, this was more like it!  Er, no.  The focus then switched to Jesse James and his partners in crime attacking the railroads.   And, apparently, the Panic of 1873 and the Great Depression of the 1870s were all due to Jesse James!  Forget the Franco-Prussian War, forget all the issues over silver currency, forget the failed harvests (I was rather narked that they didn’t even mention the locust plague, the one that everyone knows all about because of Laura Ingalls Wilder): it was all to do with Jesse James.  The railroad speculation bubble and its collapse happened because the US government had got the needle with the railroad companies, and that happened because it was investigating them after the railroad bosses complained that the US government wasn’t doing enough to protect the railroads from Jesse James.  So now we know.  Still no settlers.  Except the ones who were on the trains which were attacked by Jesse James.

BTW, I’d either forgotten or never known that Jesse’s mum and Jesse’s wife (his wife was also his first cousin, and named after her auntie) were both called Zerelda. So that’s where Enid Blyton got the name from!  Well, I’ve never come across it anywhere else.

Then we moved on to the discovery of gold in the Black Hills, and the betrayal of the treaty of the Lakota Sioux by Grant’s government. This bit was good.   Crazy Horse was presented as being uber-cool, and General Custer as being an annoying idiot.  I don’t like General Custer.  Probably because John Jakes presents him as an annoying idiot in Heaven and Hell.  However, before you knew it, we were back to Jesse James.  And we still hadn’t seen anyone actually settling in the West.

Next week, we’re getting Little Big Horn.  And Buffalo Bill Cody.  I bet they won’t mention that his ancestors came from Preston, so I’ll just mention it here 🙂 . And, you guessed it, more about Jesse James.

It’s all very dramatic and exciting. Lots of reconstructions with everyone shooting each other.  Lots of shots of people galloping across the plains.  And they are making the point that the Native Americans got a horrendously raw deal out of it all.  But what is the obsession with Jesse James?!  If you want to make a series about Jesse James, call it something like … er, “Jesse James”.  And where, oh where, are the pioneers?  Where, oh where, are the cowboys?  The Gunfight at the OK Corral was 1881, so we haven’t got there yet and presumably that will come up in later episodes, if the producers can tear themselves away from Jesse James long enough, but it really would be quite nice to see some pioneers.

Oh well. It’s good entertainment.  And I really must see if Young Guns is coming up on any of the Sky Movies channels any time soon …

Kinfolk by Pearl Buck


There a lot of books about immigration (or emigration, depending on how you look at it), but there aren’t that many about return migration. Well, the standard immigration novel involves people leaving poverty, persecution or both to seek a new life in a new country, and going back to the old country afterwards wouldn’t really work well with that, either in real life or in fiction.  There is the idea of someone, usually a young man, going off to seek their fortune and then returning in triumph, but that isn’t usually associated with immigration in Anglophone culture, maybe because it tends to make a strong distinction between immigrants and expat workers.  It’s a “thing” in Southern Europe, though.  I recently went to Galicia (the one in Spain, not the one in Ukraine), where the Galician nationalist movement was given huge impetus by people who’d gone off to Argentina or Cuba and then come back.  Then there’s return migration associated with a change of regime: in recent years several return migrants have become involved in politics in former Eastern Bloc countries.

What happens in this book, though, is different to any of that. Four Chinese-Americans, two American born, two born in China but taken to the United States as very young children, move to China, shortly after the Second World War. It starts off with a really bog standard immigration plotline.  We’re in New York. In this case, the characters are the six members of a Chinese family, but the same storyline would work just as well with a family from any of the other groups of people who’ve moved to New York over the years.  The parents want the children to carry on doing things as they were done in the old country.  There are particular issues over the roles of women and girls.  The younger daughter (there are two daughters and two sons) finds a WASP boyfriend.  The parents hit the roof.

However, the eldest son, a doctor, has already decided that he wants to move back to China. And the eldest daughter wants to follow him.  They’re both full of idealistic notions about being able to do good there, in a country that’s struggling to get back on its feet after years of war with Japan.  Whilst the father has initially opposed the decision of his eldest children to move to China, he now decides that it would be a good idea for all four children to go.

The book then shifts away from the issues of immigration and assimilation in the United States, and becomes more about the conflict between new ideas and tradition in China. Having said which, we continue to see how the parents are going on in New York, and the issues within their marriage; but most of the action from then on is in China. The younger daughter finds another WASP boyfriend, an American soldier based in Beijing, marries him, and moves back to New York.  The younger son becomes involved in student protests, and is murdered by the authorities.  The elder son and daughter don’t feel that life in Beijing is what they came back for, and move back to the family’s ancestral village, where life is very far removed from what they were used to in New York.  He sets up a medical centre and she sets up a school, but there’s resistance from the people there to the changes.  There are now three strands – the traditional life of the village, the modernising ideas of the Chinese-Americans, and the Chinese Civil War … although the war is rather in the background, with the real conflict in the book being between tradition and new ideas in one small village.

It’s an unusual story. The experiences of immigrants and the conflict between tradition and modernisation are common themes, but it’s unusual to see them combined in a tale of return migration – return migration from another country with a completely different culture, rather than from a city to a village.  James and Mary reject the idea of the American Dream: they want to go back to … I was going to quote Gladys Knight and say “a simpler place and time”, but it isn’t that at all.  If anything, they’re going to a more complex place and time, because it would really have been much easier for them to have stayed in New York.  And it’s not just a personal thing, it’s because they genuinely want to do good, and feel that they can do that in China, not by trying to bring about a revolution but on a very small scale, in one small village.

This book explores some very interesting themes, and it gives the reader quite a lot to think about.

The Far Side of the Sky and Rising Sun, Falling Shadow by Daniel Kalla


These are the first two books in a trilogy – I’m waiting for a cheap copy of the third to become available on Amazon – about life in Japanese-occupied Shanghai during the Second World War. Some of the principal characters are Chinese, others are Westerners who were working in Shanghai when war broke out and became trapped there, and others, including the “hero” of the series, Dr Franz Adler are Austrian Jewish refugees who, trying to leave Vienna after Kristallnacht, found China willing to give them refuge when so many other countries were not. Franz becomes involved with, and eventually marries, the “heroine”, half-Chinese, half-American nurse Soon Yi Mah, and they both work at a refugee hospital in the face of threats from both the German and Japanese authorities.

The author is a doctor – formerly the head of emergency medicine at a hospital in Vancouver – and there’s a strong medical theme to the books … sort of historical novels crossed with Casualty.  We see the medical staff struggling to cope with both injuries due directly to the war and outbreaks of disease caused by the terrible conditions, as well as the issues caused by shortages of supplies.  We also see them facing ethical dilemmas when Nazi and Japanese officials are brought to the hospital for treatment.  It’s a side of things which isn’t often covered in historical novels, and it’s dealt with very well.

The whole subject matter is an area that isn’t often dealt with in historical novels. I think everyone is aware that the Japanese perpetrated atrocities in China, but it’s something that is perhaps overshadowed by both the horrors of the Holocaust in Europe and the appalling treatment meted out by Japan to Allied POWs.  And the arrival of thousands of Austrian, German and Polish Jewish refugees in wartime Shanghai, and the later creation of a “Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees” by the Japanese authorities there, certainly isn’t particularly well known.

These aren’t the greatest historical novels you’ll ever read, but they’ll certainly keep your attention, and they’re about something with which most people probably aren’t very familiar … and which happened well within living memory.