Great American Railroad Journeys – BBC 2


Despite currently being somewhat traumatised by hearing Donald Trump inform Piers Morgan that he was friends with Ed Glazer (there are some things you would really rather not know, and that’s one of them), I love the United States and I particularly love American history.  And I love Michael Portillo’s railway programmes.  It’s interesting how some people who are so annoying as politicians can be great in other guises – think Ed Balls in Strictly Come Dancing, as another example.   We haven’t actually had an awful lot of history from Michael in this series so far – although we have had food, rowing, fountain pens and various other things.  And we have had numerous references to the close ties between our two countries, which has been greatly appreciated – although the industrial espionage involved in Francis Cabot Lowell copying Lancastrian textile machine designs for use in Lowell, Massachusetts was rather less appreciated!  But we have had some history – and it’s said some of the best and the worst about the early days of the United States.

Massachusetts is, of course, home to Plimoth Rock, where the Mayflower landed.  The whole idea of the Pilgrim Fathers as the “founding myth” of America leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, but that’s another story.  Another American legend, and one which actually is accurate, is the “Boston Tea Party”; and we saw Michael visit the site where that took place, and enjoy a historical re-enactment involving throwing imitations chests of tea into Boston harbour.  It was a terrible waste of good tea, but point taken – no taxation without representation.  Then on to Concord.  Concord, Lexington, Paul Revere’s Ride – there’s another American story which is both accurate and a legend.

So – the Revolution.  It’s always a bit weird for British historians to get their heads round, because we’re the ones cast as the baddies; and Michael was obviously feeling that, especially with all the comments about Tory spies 🙂 .  The way round it is usually to remember that the regime they were rebelling against wasn’t exactly representative of the people of Britain either – this was over half a century before even the very limited Reform Act of 1832.  And it is all genuinely stirring and inspirational.  I even feel quite inspired every time I read that chapter in one of the Little House books about the Fourth of July party, when they make the speeches and we’re told that Laura and Carrie both know the Declaration of Independence off by heart!  When I went to the National Archives in Washington, and saw original copies (there’s something wrong with the expression “original copies”, but never mind) of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights (yes, I do know that the actual signing took place in Philadelphia, not Boston, but it’s all on the same theme), I really got quite emotional.  There’s something very special about it.  It’s very moving.  It really makes you feel something.

But then you remember that – quite apart from the lack of rights granted to women – slavery wasn’t abolished.  And that part of the reason for the discontent in Puritanical Boston was that Britain had agreed to full religious toleration for Catholics in what’s now the province of Quebec, ceded to Britain by France after the Seven Years’ War.  The Salem Witch Trials, which took place eighty years before the Boston Tea Party, are a sobering reminder of how dangerous Puritanical religious extremism can be.  Obviously it wasn’t just in Massachusetts that witch trials took place, but they were perhaps more closely linked to Puritan extremism there than they were in the Old World.  It was encouraging to see historical re-enactments teaching people about the dangers of witch hunts in Salem, though.  We could do with something like that here.  My blood boils every time I see one of the “Witch Way” buses – which is quite often, because their route, between Manchester city centre and the Pendle area, goes within a few hundred yards of my house – with silly pictures of broomsticks and pointy hats painted on them.  Ten people were executed as a result of the Pendle Witch Trials: it wasn’t a bloody fairy story.

So, that was the good, the bad … and we also got the rather weird, although it wasn’t gone into in all its glorious detail.   The visit to Concord actually missed out the battlefield, but did include the former home of Louisa M Alcott, best known as the author of Little Women … which was recently serialised (again) on TV.  Jo and Laurie were not meant for each other, OK!  Lay off Amy.  Jo turned Laurie down, so he was quite entitled to marry someone else.  OK, back to the point – the involvement of Louisa M Alcott’s dad in reform movements.  He was actually involved largely in the … fringe movements, for lack of a better way of putting it.  No eating potatoes because they grow downwards into the soil rather than bursting out of it.  No hot baths.  No tea!  No coffee and no alcohol either, but, seriously, how can you expect people to live without tea 🙂 ?   However, on a rather more mainstream level, the Alcotts were very involved with Abolitionism.  And the Reform movement in both Britain and America in the nineteenth century is, in its own way, as inspiring as the Revolution.  Abolitionism of course, but there were other aspects of it as well.  Think Josephine Butler. Think Elizabeth Fry.

And think John McEnroe.  No, he’s got nothing to do with either Michael Portillo or Bronson Alcott 🙂 , but he did make an amazing speech on Saturday, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, in response to the furore surrounding Tennys Sandgren’s social media activity.  In it, he spoke about how the likes of Gottfried von Cramm, Arthur Ashe and Billie Jean King, people who were not only great tennis players but who also fought against the injustices of the world, and how people like them stood up for what they believed in.  He made the very good point that a lot of “tweeting” and so on goes on these days, but not so much actually getting out there and getting things done.   We’re all guilty of that.  Think of the Chartists.  The Suffragettes.  And people like the Rochdale Pioneers.

OK, I have now wandered well away from New England, and back to England.  But New England is an inspirational place.  And so is wonderful Eastern Canada, where Michael will be heading next – one of my favourite parts of the world.  I am so jealous of Michael Portillo for having this job!   If he ever feels like giving it up …   .  I’d even wear those horrible brightly-coloured clothes if that was part of the deal 🙂 .


And the Violins Stopped Playing by Alexander Ramati


I’ve had this book for a while, and I didn’t particularly intend to read it just before Holocaust Memorial Day, but it was probably quite an appropriate time for it. It’s one of very few books covering the subject of the Romani genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany and its allies – often referred to as the Porajmos, although the term isn’t commonly used by Roma people themselves.

On the subject of terminology, the book was written in the 1980s, and uses the word “gypsy”, which isn’t generally used today but was in both the 1980s and the 1940s, but getting bogged down in semantics isn’t really very helpful: it’s the story which it tells which is important.   The author, Mark Ramati – also the author of The Assisi Underground – claims (and there seems no reason to doubt his claim) to have been given the script by Roman Mirga, the protagonist, a Polish Romani and an Auschwitz survivor.

The title of the book reflects the popularity of Romani music – usually referred to as Tzigane (the Hungarian word for “gypsy”) music, or Zigeuner (the German word) musik in Central and Eastern Europe (and, obviously, in Spain, although Spain doesn’t come into this).  Roman Mirga’s father, Dymitr carried his violin with him into Auschwitz.  There, he became part of a Romani orchestra which was forced to play every time that people were taken into the gas chambers.  The book says that the idea was that the music would calm them.  The book also says that Dymitr Mirga, a particularly talented violinist, was expected to play violin solos to entertain the Nazis – but that the music also heartened the prisoners.  There’s no way of knowing whether that’s true or not, but let’s hope that it is, and that the music brought some sort of comfort in a hell on earth.  When the violins stop playing, Roman knows that his father has gone to the gas chambers.

The story’s told in the first person, and opens in November of 1942, when teenage Roman’s living with his parents and younger sister in Warsaw. The children are at school, with Roman having one more year to go, and the parents are musicians in a popular nightspotThey don’t consider themselves to be at any particular risk – until a relative comes to tell them that Roma and Sinti people have been forced into the ghetto in Lodz.

Roman’s father decides that they’ve got to escape to Hungary – at this stage an ally of the Third Reich but not actually part of it. Due to the Nazis having handed part of Slovakia over to Hungary, there is at this point a border between Poland and Hungarian-controlled territory, in the Tatra mountains.  They go straight to a Roma camp at Brest-Litovsk, which is where the family are from originally and is where Roman’s grandparents are still living.

More confusion over names. And borders.  We’re now supposed to refer to Brest-Litovsk, now in Belarus, as Brest.  I do try to remember, but I’m too used to talking about the Union of Brest-Litovsk (1596) and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk (1918)!   After the First World War, Brest-Litovsk became part of Poland, and was renamed Brest-on-the-Bug.  Then it was handed over to the Soviets in 1939.  Then the Nazis took it in 1941.  And, to get to the bits of Slovakia which were ruled by Hungary, they crossed through Ukrainian Galicia, part of which was then in Ukraine but part of which was then in Poland.  Anyway.  The book says “Brest-Litovsk”.

Many of the people at the camp, including the leader of the “kumpania” (company/group), are sceptical about what’s being said, even when warned by a leading local Polish man that the Nazis intend to move against them, but eventually they decide to leave, and Roman’s father is chosen as the new leader of the kumpania. They head for the border.   The journey is harrowing.  Many people become ill: some don’t make it.  There are disputes and the group splits up, and some of them are attacked by Nazi Einsatzgruppen (death squads) and murdered.

Everyone is – hopefully – aware of the concentration camps and the atrocities committed therein, but there doesn’t always seem to be the same awareness of the mass killings carried out by the death squads, even large scale massacres such as that at Babi (Babyn) Yar. Without wishing to be too controversial, it doesn’t help that some of these took place with the assistance of local collaborators, and that the authorities in the countries concerned prefer to play that down, and to focus on other aspects of the wartime years instead.

They also pass close to the extermination camp at Sobibor, and are able to smell the burning flesh. Somehow, with the assistance of some of the local people, the survivors of the group make it to the border, and reach a Hungarian-ruled part of Slovakia.  There’s an action-packed border crossing scene, in which the Nazis are pursuing them and Roman’s best friend is gunned down and killed as the rest of the group cross the river: maybe some of them was added for dramatic effect, but it doesn’t really matter.

Despite the fact that this is essentially a Holocaust novel, some of the descriptions of the journey are very normal, and give an interesting picture of Romani customs. The style’s very simplistic, and it’s quite reminiscent of something like Little House on the Prairie, in the middle of all the horrors.  The reader’s shown a lot of Romani customs, and told about different groups of Roma and Sinti people.  There are also some very normal domestic and community scenes, such as Roman getting into a fight with another boy over a pretty girl whom they both fancy – and whom Roman eventually marries, with a lovely description of Romani marriage rites.

It’s good to read about the realities of Romani culture, because it’s something about which there are a lot of strange ideas and stereotypes. Well, there are two main sets of stereotypes.  There’s the romantic one – think Carmen, and the images of gold earrings and gorgeous brightly-painted caravans, and women selling beautiful lace, and, of course, music.  And there’s the negative one about crime and curses, which is so prevalent that it features in numerous Enid Blyton books and even in Jane Austen’s Emma. The stereotype of Romani people as criminals is one of the reasons why the Romani genocide was not recognised at the time: it was, horrifyingly, claimed that Roma and Sinti people had been targeted because of criminal activity, rather than as an ethnic/cultural group.

We don’t hear much about the group’s experiences in Hungary during 1943, but all seems to go fairly well … but then, in March 1944, with the Hungarian government looking to switch sides and align itself with the Allies, the Nazis march in. The Mirgas and the rest of their kumpania are taken to Auschwitz.

There’s quite a lot of documentary evidence about the Familienzigeunerlager (gypsy family camp) at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It doesn’t seem to be widely known, though.  I can’t actually remember it even being mentioned when I went to Auschwitz-Birkenau in 2007.  The Roma and Sinti inmates there were, as the name suggests, left together as families, and initially none of the people from there were taken to the gas chambers.  But many died in the horrific conditions.  The doctor in charge of medical treatment of the camp was Josef Mengele.  It’s chilling to come across him in a book, chatting away with characters whom the reader has got to know well.  Again, it seems likely that there’ve been exaggerations for dramatic effect, but the book relates that Mengele took a shine to both Roman Mirga, who worked for him as a translator, and Dymitr Mirga, because of his musical talents.  Roman witnesses some of Mengele’s horrific experiments, especially his attempts to change eye colour, and there are descriptions of the “kindergarten” that Mengele established for Romani children under the age of six.

On August 2nd 1944, the Zigeunerlager was “cleared”: thousands of people were sent to the gas chambers.

The book tells us that Roman was saved. Only one other member of his kumpania was also saved – none other than the boy whom he’d had a fight with over his future wife.  The two of them manage to escape, and meet up with Roman’s sister, whom their father had pushed off the train taking them to Auschwitz and who’d found refuge with a Polish peasant woman.  It doesn’t really sound very likely, but who knows?  At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter that much if the story of this particular individual is 100% factually accurate or not.  What matters is that hundreds of thousands of Roma and Sinti people were murdered by the Nazis and their allies, and that everyone needs to know that.

No-one knows how many Roma and Sinti people were murdered during the genocide. Many of the murders took place in Ustashe-ruled Croatia and in fascist Romania, in addition to the areas under direct Nazi control.  Bulgaria had, and still has, one of the largest Romani populations in the world, but, although the Bulgarian wartime government was closely allied with the Nazis, there were no killings of either Bulgarian Roma or Bulgarian Jews: that’s something else which deserves more credit than in gets.  Total estimates of those killed vary between 220,000 and 500,000.   No reparations were paid to survivors after the war, and no Roma and Sinti witnesses of the Nazi atrocities were present at the Nuremberg trials.

People in the Czech Republic are voting in a presidential run-off today and tomorrow. It’s 2018.  Tomorrow marks the 73rd anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  Sitting president Milos Zeman has, during his election campaign, made comments about Romani people being “socially unadaptable”.  If a political leader had made comments like that about any other group of people, there’d have been an international outcry.  It didn’t even make the mainstream news here.  Mind you, nor did November’s big far right march in Poland, and there’s only been limited coverage of the rise of the far right in Austria.  Maybe the media should take its eyes off America and the Middle East for a few minutes and have a closer look at some of what’s going on in parts of Europe.

West Germany recognised the Romani genocide in 1982, and a memorial to the Roma and Sinti victims of the Nazis was unveiled in Berlin in 2012. In 2011, Poland recognised August 2nd, the anniversary of the day on which, in 1944, most of the surviving Roma inmates at Auschwitz were murdered, as Roma Genocide Remembrance Day.  It’s now marked in many other countries too, but it’s not really very well-known, and the Romani genocide just isn’t very well-known generally.  It’s not like the Armenian Genocide, which most countries refuse to recognise because they don’t want to damage relations with Turkey.  There just doesn’t seem to have been as much effort as would be expected to raise awareness of it, and people who’ve studied the subject put this down to the fact that Roma and Sinti culture does not place that much emphasis on either history or the written word.  However, that does seem to be changing now, with young people wanting to raise awareness of what happened, and hopefully that’s something that can be achieved now.

This book is not going to win any prizes for literary style, but it’s one that should be read. A film version’s been made of it as well, and is available on You Tube.  It’s a story that everyone should know.



Great British Railway Journeys, Series 9 – BBC 2


I really, really want Michael Portillo’s job 🙂 .  In one of this week’s episodes, he got to have afternoon tea at Bettys in Harrogate, on the BBC!  (Note to self – go over to Bettys in Ilkley in March, to see the Easter eggs and simnel cake.)  In the forthcoming series of Great American Railroad Journeys, he gets to visit the historical sites of Massachusetts.   Later this year, we’re getting something new  – Great Indian Railway Journeys.  And presumably Great Continental Railway Journeys will be back at some point, as well.

Anyway, back to the recent series of Great British Railway Journeys.   This one was a bit different, with a theme of social change.  The Edwardian period (strictly speaking, January 1901 to May 1910, but the term “Edwardian” is generally used to cover the period from January 1901 right up until the outbreak of the Great War in August 1914) does tend to be viewed as one long, golden summer idyll, because the Great War was just so horrific that what went before it has become a “misty water-coloured memory of the way we were”.  Whilst I’m doing song lyrics, “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910” is another one that’s quite appropriate.  There is quite a romantic view of it.  Cricket on the lawn, ladies on bicycles, all that sort of thing – whereas, of course, it was a period of great inequality and great change and unrest, as was frequently pointed out during this very interesting series.  On the face of it, this programme involves a former politician, with terrible dress sense, riding around on trains … but it was actually an excellent historical documentary series.

The last two episodes saw Michael in North Wales, where much of the talk was about Lloyd George.  There’s so much talk about the establishment of the welfare state after the Second World War that the very important reforms passed by the Liberal governments of 1906 to 1914 – including the introduction of both national insurance and old age pensions – are not always given the attention that they deserve.   The (long saga over the) passing of the People’s Budget of 1909 was one of the most important events in modern British history.   It had important constitutional ramifications as well.   One of the main factors in the introduction of social reform – although I think that the nasty shock that the Establishment received when so many of those volunteering to fight in the Boer War were found to be malnourished may have been a bigger one – was the research done into poverty by Charles Booth in London and Seebohm Rowntree in York, and this was discussed in another episode of the series, in which Michael visited York.

In that same episode, he went to a tailor’s in Leeds, and talked about the large-scale immigration into Britain – which had a huge impact on the clothing industry in both Manchester and Leeds – as a result of the very bloody wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire in the years just before and after the 1905 Revolution, something that he’d also talked about whilst visiting Hull.   On the subject of port cities, architecture got a mention too, whilst he was in Liverpool.  Oh, and so did toy railway sets!  I had never, ever realised that Meccano and Hornby railway sets originally came from Maghull.  I’m afraid I didn’t do a great deal for gender equality where toys were concerned when I was a little kid: I played with Sindy dolls and read boarding school stories, pony books and ballet books, and never owned any Meccano or toy trains.  Oh, I did have Lego, though.

But gender equality in politics – now that is another thing.  Votes For Women!  That subject was mentioned several times during the series, including the horrific treatment of suffragettes – force-feeding, and the Cat and Mouse Act – by the authorities.  I’m hoping that we’re going to get a good few programmes commemorating the centenary of the Representation of the People Act – which gave the vote to all men, at last, and some women … although it was 1928 before the franchise was finally extended to include all women.

Trade unionism and the Labour movement were something else very much to the fore in Edwardian times, with all the rows over whether or not strikers should be forced to pay for loss of owners’ profits, and whether or not unions were allowed to collect levies to support the new Labour Party.  The Labour Representation Committee was founded in 1900, but the name Labour Party was only used from 1914. The railway workers’ unions and coal miners’ unions usually led the way where any developments involving unions were concerned, and Michael visited more than one mining area during his railway journeys.

And it’s easy to forget that, in the summer of 1914, Ireland was close to civil war. Michael didn’t visit Ireland in this series, but he did visit Wales, and talk about the growth of nationalism there.  If only the House of Lords hadn’t blocked Gladstone’s Home Rule bills in the 1880s and 1890s.  It had its wings clipped after refusing to pass the People’s Budget, but, by then, it was too late to grasp the opportunity that had been missed over Ireland.  But at least it wasn’t allowed to block the welfare reforms.  They were one of the main achievements of the Edwardian period.

So, not such an idyll after all.  There was a hell of a lot going on.  I was very, very impressed with the way in which all this was woven into Michael Portillo’s journeys with his Bradshaw’s (George Bradshaw was, of course, from Pendleton – somewhere just off Broughton Road, as far as I can gather, so about three miles from chez moi!) Guide.  Great series.  All Michael Portillo’s railway journeys series are great!




Britannia – Sky Atlantic


The main thing we learnt from the first episode of this much-publicised new Sky hysterical “historical” drama series (other than that King Cogidubnus appeared to have been spirited away and replaced by Zoe Wanamaker) was that it is a very bad idea to pray to Mars (or presumably any other god/goddess) whilst on the toilet, especially if one is a bloke and therefore incapable of multi-tasking.  So doing runs the risk of being taken unawares by the enemy, dragged off, tied up, tortured and then thrown over a waterfall.  Such was the unfortunate fate of a Roman legionary from Numidia who, having been advised by his general (David Morrissey, disappointingly not playing the general with a Scouse accent) that the best way of conquering a country was to relieve oneself all over its woodlands, went off to do so, decided to offer up a few words of supplication to the god of war at the same time, and was captured by a single unarmed Celt who just happened to be lurking about.  Right.

This wondrous series is set during the second Roman invasion of Britain – i.e. not the one led by Julius Caesar (covered in Carry on Cleo with a fairly similar degree of accuracy to that employed in this), but the one 87 years later, in AD 43.  Obviously the Romans didn’t realise that things had switched from BC to AD, but that’s beside the point.  It was explained that none of the Celts had realised that the Romans, led by Aulus Plautius (the aforementioned general, who’d obviously heard about the British weather, because he was wearing a fur coat) were coming, despite the fact that the Roman army had been marching north-westwards for weeks, because they were all too busy scrapping amongst themselves to take any notice of what was going on elsewhere.  Despite this, there was some talk of making an alliance with the Gauls, apparently involving a British woman, who’d already got a British husband, acquiring a French husband as well.  Obviously bigamy is a very bad thing, but it certainly sounds a lot cheaper than paying £45 million to boost security around Calais.  However, the Gauls evidently hadn’t managed to tip off the Britons than the Romans were heading their way.  So much for Entente Cordiale.

We know from all the previews that two tribes of Celts are going to band together to try to see off the Romans, but, at the moment, they’re very much separate, which all got a bit confusing. The first lot we met, the Cantii, consisted of a lot of Druids, some men who weren’t Druids, and some women with Northern and Midland accents who bossed about the men who weren’t Druids.  I was rather concerned by the unfortunate lack of woad.  They all had white stuff on their faces, but no woad.  Anyway, they were all busy with a solstice ritual when along came the Romans, who killed some of them and took the rest prisoner.  However, one young girl was rescued by an attractive outlaw.  I’m not sure whether the idea was that the Celts all spoke Latin, the Romans all spoke ancient Brythonic or both, but no-one seemed to have the slightest trouble understanding each other.  Also, there was a lot of swearing.  I thought it was supposed to be the Anglo-Saxons who swore all the time?  Never mind.  Even worse, some of the Roman soldiers split their infinitives.  I can’t stand it when people split their infinitives.

The other Celtic tribe, the Regni, led by Zoe Wanamaker, did have woad. Hooray!  Zoe plays Queen Antedia.  Regrettably, Queen Antedia never actually existed. As far as we can make out, the resistance to the Romans was led by two brothers (supposedly the sons of Cymbeline, about whom Shakespeare wrote a play), Caratacus (no relation to the dad) in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang) and Togodumnus.  Caratacus is sometimes identified with the legendary Welsh king Caradog, who is also supposed to have been connected with King Arthur, which doesn’t really work as King Arthur, if he existed, wasn’t around until several centuries later.  Togodumnus, more realistically, is sometimes identified with the King Cogidubnus, the one who appears in Stage 2 of the Cambridge Latin Course and is the intended victim of a plot in which Quintus, our old pal from Pompeii, gets tangled up.

Now, Cogidubnus was the King of the Regni/Regnenses. So where was he?  There is definitely no reference in the Cambridge Latin Course to a Queen Antedia.  I think we should be told.

Er, yes. Well, none of this makes very much sense.  Let’s face it, no-one really knows that much about what actually happened, other than Boudicca’s Revolt and that wasn’t until AD 60 or AD 61.  But I’m quite sure that Tacitus never said anything about anyone being captured whilst praying on the toilet.

The whole thing was an absolute load of rubbish. But, do you know what?  It was entertaining.  I was laughing all the way through it.  I don’t think it was meant to be funny, but it was.  It was one of those things which are just so bad that they’re good.  I am definitely watching the rest of series!  Bring it on!

Darkest Hour


There’s a scene in Shakespeare’s Henry VI in which various young noblemen are arguing in the Temple Garden and they all dramatically pluck either red roses or white roses to declare their allegiance to either Lancaster or York.  It’s a great image and it really, really should have happened … but it didn’t.  Shakespeare made it up.  That’s a great shame, because it’s a great scene.  There’s one like that towards the end of Darkest Hour.  Winston Churchill (brilliantly played by Gary Oldman), as the British Empire Stands Alone, is seriously considering entering peace talks with the Nazis.  He decides to take a trip on the Tube, where he asks various salt-of-the-earth ordinary people what they think.  Every single one of them says that we must fight on and never surrender.  That makes up Churchill’s mind.  No negotiations.  “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.”  It’s still an incredibly moving and inspirational speech, even after nearly 78 years.

Of course, Churchill did not make that trip on the Tube.   Nor, as far as I know, did the King roll up chez Churchill late at night, just before then, to assure him that he also thought that we should fight on and never surrender.  Big black mark for lack of historical accuracy.  But big gold star for drama.  It stirs the blood.  We know that the Nazis will eventually be defeated.  Churchill, George VI, and all the salt-of-the-earth ordinary British people at the end of May 1940 sure as hell didn’t.   It’s so frightening, no matter how many times you’ve thought about it, to think how close the Nazis were to victory in mid-1940.

Ed Murrow, the American journalist, came up with a wonderful line about how Churchill “mobilised the English language and sent it into battle”.  That line’s used in the film.  It’s one of two lines which, apart from the Tube scene, really sum the film up.  The other one is Clementine Churchill (Kristin Scott Thomas) telling her husband that “You are strong because you are imperfect”.  Churchill’s very much shown in this as an eccentric.  He goes from angry to soppy in a matter of seconds, drinks too much, forgets what he’s doing, wanders around in a strange-looking dressing gown, talks to his butler (Grantly from Waterloo Road) through the toilet door, doesn’t realise that V signs are very rude when made with the palm facing inwards, and doesn’t get on with the rest of the War Cabinet, most of whom are in favour of entering negotiations with the Nazis.  The other Tories don’t like him because he’s got a catalogue of disasters behind him and has crossed the floor of the Commons twice, and the King isn’t keen on him because he sided with Edward VIII during the Abdication Crisis.  That much is true enough, even if it does get exaggerated for historic effect.

And we do tend to think, because it’s what Churchill made us think, that the mood of the time was all about fighting on the beaches and never surrendering.  This film’s a sobering reminder that coming to some sort of terms with the Nazis was a real possibility at the time, because victory looked so unlikely.  And we think very disparagingly of the “appeasers”, but the film reminds us that it looked likely that the Armed Forces could be wiped out and civilians suffer horrendously as well, and that this was little more than twenty years after the end of the bloodbath that was the First World War.  You can see where Halifax, Chamberlain & co were coming from.  But thank heavens for Churchill.  If ever someone was the right person in the right place at the right time.  The film falls down on historical accuracy, but it gives a genuinely meaningful depiction of Britain’s darkest hour, the world’s darkest hour, and the man who got us through it.

Guardian of the Dawn by Richard Zimler


This is the third of Richard Zimler’s books about the Zarco family (although it’s set in the second half of the 16th century, which is nearly 250 years before the second of the books), and covers a little-known topic, the persecution carried out by the Inquisition in Portuguese-ruled Goa.  Seeing as it’s only one and a half days until the start of the Australian Open (well, two days until the first match of the night session on the RLA, which will be the most important event on Monday!), my brain really doesn’t want to go into Leyenda Negra mode, but everyone’s familiar with the activities of the Inquisition  – which we automatically refer to as “the Spanish Inquisition” – in Latin America.  Far less well-known is that Portugal introduced the Inquisition into Goa, where, over the course of two and a half centuries, it persecuted those who’d converted (whether voluntarily or under compulsion) from either Judaism or Hinduism to Catholicism but were suspected of continuing with their former religious practices, and also persecuted those identifying as and practising as Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Jains, Buddhists and Syriac Christians.

On top of that, it destroyed temples and religious objects, burnt books appertaining to other faiths – including Protestant books brought into the colony by English and Dutch traders – and tried to suppress the use of the local languages.  Many of those persecuted were executed, or treated so badly that they died in prison, and, even after the Inquisition in Goa was abolished, in 1820, Hindus and Muslims were charged an additional tax.  And the person responsible for introducing the Inquisition into Goa was St Francis Xavier, who’s generally regarded as a Spanish (he was from Navarre) and Jesuit hero.  I’m very glad that the present Pope’s made it clear that he chose the name Francis in honour of St Francis of Assisi.

A lot of what goes on in this book is about the relationship between Tiago Zarco, the main character, and his adopted cousin Wadi, and apparently this is supposed to reflect the relation between Othello (Wadi being of Moorish origin) and Iago … but I didn’t really get all that, because I’m not overly keen on Shakespeare.  There’s a complex relationship between the two branches of the family – Tiago’s branch of the family, live outside Goa and are practising Jews, whereas Wadi’s adoptive parents are Catholics, his father (Tiago’s uncle) being a convert and his mother a cradle Catholic.  Tiago’s sister, whom he adores and is very protective of, becomes involved with Wadi, there are hints that Tiago and Wadi may actually have feelings for each other, and then first Tiago’s father and then Tiago himself are arrested by the Inquisition.  Without wishing to give too much away, Tiago suspects the wrong people of having betrayed them, and ends up causing the deaths of two innocent people who get caught in the middle of it all, as well as taking his revenge on some of the priests.  He then hopes to work with the Sultan of Bijapur to drive the Portuguese out of Goa.

I’m not sure that trying to rework a Shakespearean plot, especially such a complex one, in the context of a story that’s so complex in itself, was the best of ideas, but the descriptions of India and the interaction between the different religious communities are very interesting, and, if nothing else, the book’s worth reading because this subject really isn’t very well-known.  Strangely, there’s no mention of the fact that Portugal was under Spanish rule for almost the entire period covered by the book, but we are definitely talking about the Portuguese Inquisition, not the Spanish Inquisition, so maybe it’s not that relevant.

I did wonder if Portugal had ever introduced the Inquisition into Bombay/Mumbai, but, as far as I can find out, that never happened – although it did in Brazil, and in Cape Verde.  This isn’t a particularly pleasant book, but Richard Zimler’s never are.  I got the first one because I wanted books set in Lisbon, and the second one because I wanted books set in Porto, and then this one because, having read two of the three, I thought I should read the third as well!  But it’s an important reminder of what some people will do in the name of religion.  And it’s also got some genuinely lovely descriptions of India, and of a lively trading area in the sixteenth century.  I’ve read much worse.



England’s Forgotten Queen – BBC 4


I was pleasantly surprised by this: the title of the programme – come on, surely the name “Lady Jane Grey” is familiar to most people, even if “Queen Jane” (or maybe “Lady Jane Dudley”) isn’t – made it sound as if it was going to be one of those really patronising efforts which treat the viewer as if they know nothing about anything, but Helen Castor did a very good job and looked at a familiar story from some interesting angles.

The main theme of last night’s episode – the first of three – was order, and people’s desire to stick to what they saw as the natural/God-given order of things. I would actually love to see a programme contrasting the events of 1553 with the events of 1688, because it really is fascinating how attitudes completely switched round over the course of 135 years.  Anyway, to get back to Lady Jane Grey, for whom I’ve always had a soft spot because her life was just so tragic, Helen Castor began by talking about how Edward VI, like his father, felt very strongly that his successor had to be male.  The usual angle on it is that Edward’s main concern was that his successor be Protestant, but Helen made a lot of the fact that “and her”, making Jane rather than her heirs male the heir(ess), was only added into Edward’s “Devise” for the succession when it became clear that he wasn’t going to live long enough for Jane to have children.

As she said, there’s no way of knowing how much of this was Edward’s doing and how much was Northumberland’s, but I think we can be pretty sure that Edward wanted to exclude Mary. He was very, very Protestant, so much so that it could have become problematic if he’d lived.  England, mercifully, has never been keen on religious extremism.  Would he also have excluded Elizabeth, had Jane not been married to Northumberland’s son?  That’s more problematic, but we’ll never know.  “It’s complicated”, as the Facebook term goes.   And what about Frances Grey, nee Brandon?  Beyond accepting that Frances was elbowed out of the picture by Northumberland and maybe by her own husband as well, because they thought they’d be able to rule through Jane and Guildford, not much is usually said about Frances, but Helen Castor made the interesting point that people were quite shocked to see Frances carrying Jane’s train, because it went against the natural order of things for a parent to be waiting on their child, rather than the other way round.  That’s something that’s very rarely picked up on.

We also got the standard stuff about how people hated Northumberland because he was the one who’d put down the rebellions in the 1540s. Much as I feel sorry for poor Jane, I do get quite a sense of satisfaction when I think about Northumberland & co, the arrogant elite in what we now think of as a Westminster bubble, thinking that they could impose their will on the nation and to hell with what the people wanted, and then finding out that they couldn’t.  That’s the way I usually look at it but, as the programme pointed out, it was also – equally satisfactorily! – about arrogant men thinking that they could push women around (the idea of “order” again), and then finding that they couldn’t.

Jane, once she’d been pushed into position as queen, stood up to them. I’m not sure that historians always present her as being as docile and as much of a puppet as Helen Castor suggested, but that certainly seems to be what her father-in-law and his cronies expected.  Wrong!  The Tudor women are great!   Henry VIII’s sisters both, after having arranged marriages first time round, went ahead and married the men of their choice.  Lady Jane Grey’s sisters both went their own ways, insofar as they could, as well.  Elizabeth is, of course, one of my all-time heroines 🙂 .   And then there was Mary.  The pro-Jane gang presumably expected that Mary would just fade out of the picture, but, oh no, anything but!  It’s hard to like “Bloody Mary”, but you have to admire her for the way she stood up for her rights in 1553, in such a perilous situation.

Back to the theme of “order”. I think that the popular support for Mary wasn’t just because she was the rightful heir but also because most people wouldn’t even have known who Jane was, whereas everyone would have known who Mary was, and she could emphasise the fact that she was the daughter of Henry VIII.  The same thing happened in Russia in 1741, when the fact that Elizabeth was the daughter of Peter the Great did so much to win her support.  Interesting how Henry VIII and Peter the Great, two male monarchs who didn’t half do some pretty horrible things, were and still are both so popular.  Hmm. But, yes, it was basically about order, and keeping to the rightful line of succession.

What actually was the rightful line of succession, incidentally? Primogeniture?  The will of Henry VIII?  Everything’d got so confused from 1399 to 1485, followed by even more confusion over whether Mary was illegitimate, Elizabeth was illegitimate, neither of them were illegitimate or both of them were illegitimate that it’s quite impressive that there actually was so much sense of order and rightful lines of succession!

So what about 1688? Nothing to do with this programme, but something I started wondering about.  In 1553, the country backed the rightful heir, a woman and a Catholic.  In 1688, the country was quite happy to get rid of the rightful king, and replace him with the joint rule of his daughter and someone who was a complete outsider (yes, OK, William of Orange was James II’s nephew, but that didn’t really come into it), and a foreigner at that, because they were Protestant.  The Glorious Revolution – probably one of the best things that ever happened to England (I said England, not the British Isles!) – went about as far against “order” as it could have done.  Daughter and son-in-law replaced father/father-in-law.  Rightful king overthrown.  Lady Jane Grey’s English husband never became king, but Mary Stuart’s Dutch husband became joint monarch and then sole monarch.  Before long, a whole load of other people in the upper echelons of the line of succession were excluded too.   What a turnaround!   The execution of Charles I destroyed something of the idea of order, Catholicism regrettably made itself so unpopular in England in the period between 1553 and 1688, and the Protestant Reformation really gained force in the late 16th and 17th centuries, but, even taking all that into account, what a contrast.

Er, and none of that’s really got anything to do with poor Lady Jane Grey. Two more episodes about her story to come.  We all know how it ends, but, sigh, hearing it even for the zillionth time is going to upset me 😦 .   And I do really wish Guildford Dudley had been the way he’s portrayed (by Cary Elwes) in the 1980s film Lady Jane – as a result of which he became, succeeding Perkin Warbeck, the romantic hero of our history A-level groups, to the extent that one girl named the cuddly toy dog that she got for her 18th birthday “Guildford” (I think we were all a bit weird at our school) – but sadly he wasn’t … but he didn’t deserve his fate either.  A very sad story all round 😦 .

Fates and Traitors by Jennifer Chiaverini


If the President of the United States leaves office mid-term, for whatever reason, the Vice President automatically takes over.  They may well turn out to be considerably worse.  Obviously 😉 I’m referring to the events of April 1865: this book is sub-titled “A novel of John Wilkes Booth”.

The style of writing leaves something to be desired.  It sometimes comes close to that sickly over-sentimental style that’s much more often found in American books that British books, and someone really ought to tell the editor that the plural of “beau” is “beaux”, not “beaus” (have they never read Gone With The Wind?!  Surely everyone’s read it at least a dozen times 😉 !!), but the actual story is fascinating.

Unless you go right back to Roman times, assassins are usually people not known to anyone outside their own circles, but John Wilkes Booth was quite a celebrity.  His name would have been well-known to anyone in Washington society, and to many other people too, certainly those with access to the world of theatre.  He was a bit of a pin-up, as dashing, good-looking actors always are.  And he was from arguably the greatest American theatrical dynasty of the day.  His father was a famous actor, first in Britain and then in America, his brother Junius was also an actor, and his brother Edwin – whom I first came across just over thirty years ago, as a minor character in John Jakes’s wonderful Heaven and Hell – is often described as the best American actor of the nineteenth century. Furthermore, he was involved with, and possibly secretly engaged to, Lucy Lambert Hale, who was one of Washington’s most popular belles, the daughter of a leading Republican, and had admirers (beaux, with an x!) including Robert Lincoln, the son of the president.

So not your usual sort of modern assassin.  Well, insofar is there is one.  The book concentrates mainly on various women connected with him – his mother, his sister Asia, his sweetheart Lucy, and Mary Surratt, at whose boarding house the conspirators met and who became the first women executed by the federal government.  It starts with his parents’ story, which reads like a Hollywood film script on its own.  His father, a famous London-based actor, left his wife and child and ran off to America with his mistress.   They had several children, of whom John Wilkes was one, and then it all came out that they weren’t really married and that his father had left a wife back in England!   Eventually, Booth senior and his first wife were divorced, and Booth’s parents married, but it was all a right scandal.  And there was also considerable sibling rivalry between the brothers, Edwin being by far the best actor.

From there, though, very little is said about John Wilkes Booth’s life until he got involved with Lucy Hale, and then it’s all from her viewpoint.  There’s no real effort to explain why he decided to take such a drastic step.  The original plan was actually to kidnap Lincoln and exchange him for Confederate prisoners, which would have been pretty drastic in itself, but, with the war all but over, it was decided to assassinate him instead.  The book makes references to his love of the South, but they’re all rather vague and superficial, and not at all satisfactory.  He wasn’t exactly the most obvious of assassins.  It would be far easier to understand Lincoln being assassinated by someone from the Deep South, the fire-eating South, imbued with genuine notions of the Glorious Cause, probably someone who’d lost relatives and friends, and maybe their home and money as well.  Or someone from a poor area of the upcountry, who felt that they had nothing to lose.

Why John Wilkes Booth?  He didn’t even live in the Confederacy.  He’d spent some time in Virginia, but his home was Maryland, one of the four (five, once West Virginia was admitted to the Union),Southern states within the Union.  The whole issue of the Upper South is interesting.  Virginia, Arkansas and Tennessee, and North Carolina can probably be counted as the Upper South too, seceded.  Maryland, Delaware, Kentucky and Missouri didn’t.  A lot of divided loyalties.  When you think of the Southern outlaws in the immediate post-bellum years, you think first of Frank and Jesse James – from Missouri.  Mary Surratt was from Maryland.  Washington itself was – and still is – a Southern city.  Richmond and Washington are only about 100 miles apart  It really is ridiculous that the two capitals were so close together, and both so close to the border.  I suppose they weren’t going to move the federal capital, but why not leave the Confederate capital at Montgomery, where it was before the Upper South seceded?  Very odd decision.

Anyway!  Nothing really to try to explain why Booth did what he did.  And so much else about him was missing.  Mary Surratt’s deep Catholic faith was clearly shown, but there was nothing about Booth’s own possible Catholic links.  Some people at the time tried to make out that it was some sort of Papist plot.  OK, obviously that was a load of nonsense, but the fact that people were speaking in terms which belong more to the 1680s to the 1860s says a lot about attitudes at the time – think the horrendous Elsie books! – and you’d think it would have merited a mention.  Even more strangely, nothing’s said about the other women he was supposedly involved with.  We see Lucy, after the assassination, reading in the papers that he had a mistress, and carried photos of various actresses around with him, but that’s the first we hear of it.  Lucy ends up feeling that she didn’t really know him at all.  The reader unfortunately ends up feeling exactly the same.

Having said all of that, it’s worth reading this just to get a better understanding of John Wilkes Booth’s background, because it’s so crazy that this matinee idol type, member of a leading theatrical dynasty, was the one to carry out this act that, in addition to being utterly horrific because all murder is horrific, had such a huge impact on the future of America.  We’ll never know if Reconstruction would have gone any better under Lincoln than it did under Johnson – and the idea was to assassinate Johnson as well, but it didn’t happen – and Grant, but it’s hard to think that it could have gone much worse.    Booth shouted “Sic simper tyrannis!  The South is avenged!”.  Surely the South would have fared much better if Lincoln had lived.  Some sort of economic rebuilding would have been key: there are parts of the South which still haven’t recovered economically from the war, after over 150 years.  But we’ll never know now.

And, yes, if you remove a president, you get the vice president instead.  Worrying thought, that, isn’t it?

The Greatest Showman


This was entertaining, but, as far as telling the life story of Phineas Taylor Barnum goes, it fell a very long way wide of the mark. What a shame.  It really is a fascinating story, and I wish people wouldn’t make films (or write books) about real people if they’re not going to stick to the facts.

Oh, OK, the basic idea was there – the circus, the (to use the expression of the times) “freaks”, and the opposition from sections of the public and the media. But the hoaxes were badly watered down.  There was no mention of the old lady whom he claimed was George Washington’s nurse, or of the Feejee mermaid.  Claiming that someone was heavier than they were, or that they were of a different nationality, is hardly in the same league.  Maybe they were worried that the snowflake brigade might find things like the Joice Heth story, a true story, offensive?  I don’t know, but it felt as the point was being missed.

Some of it was just plain silly. There was a farcical scene in London, with a portrayal of Queen Victoria which seemed to belong in something like Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, and Beefeaters wandering around inside Buckingham Palace!    He was given a fictional business partner.  And there was a bizarre storyline which claimed that, rather than abandoning the tour because of concerns about over-commercialisation, Jenny Lind packed it in because she fancied Barnum and had the needle because he wasn’t interested!

And, before they even got as far as him entering showbusiness, they’d invented a tale whereby he first met Charity, his future wife, when he was a tailor’s delivery boy and she was the daughter of a New York society family, and they were childhood sweethearts who ran off together, and he was always desperate to prove to her snooty parents and their friends that he was good enough for her. Oh, it was quite a romantic idea, but unfortunately it was largely the product of someone’s imagination!   And there was nothing about his involvement in politics and philanthropy, which was a shame.  Yes, all right, I appreciate that not everyone would have wanted a lecture on the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the middle of a film about a circus 🙂 (although I so would!), but that whole aspect of his life and character was missing.

It was entertaining, though.  The music was great – although I kept expecting to hear the music from the Barnum musical instead.  It is really weird watching something about Barnum without anyone singing “Join the circus like you wanted to when you were a kid”.  And the stories of the circus performers, some of whom did really exist, were genuinely touching.  Even now, you get these programmes like Embarrassing Bodies, which come uncomfortably close to treating anyone with some sort of physical difference as a “freak”.  In the mid 19th century, life didn’t offer very much to people with, say, dwarfism or hirsutism, and Barnum’s circus did offer those people an opportunity, which was certainly much better than the sort of horrific freak shows that “the Elephant Man” was made part of.  And there was a storyline about a romance between the fictional white business partner and a fictional mixed-race trapeze artist, which was very nice, but, if they’d wanted to make the point about racial attitudes at the time, they could have stuck to the actual facts and show Barnum speaking out against slavery.  It came later than the period covered by the film, but he did make a well-known and rather touching speech about how all human souls are human souls, regardless of which body they inhabit.

It’s entertainment – which Barnum would approved of. And, hey, he might well have approved of the fact that it’s all a bit of a swizz (to use an old-fashioned term!), in the name of entertainment.  But it feels as if someone’s written the story that they want and then used the name of a well-known historical figure to guarantee popular interest and therefore box office success.  It’s not uncommon for films, books and TV dramas to do that, but it isn’t half annoying 🙂 .







The Long, Long Trail by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


This is the fourth book in the “war at home” series by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles, and I think it’s the most interesting one yet: it seems to be a bit less soapy and a bit more about showing the effect of war on the nation via a particular group of characters.   It’s still not as good as her Kirov trilogy, and I still don’t understand why the publishers pulled the plug on the Morland saga; but it’s a good read.  It’s slow-moving, but there’s a lot going on, as the characters move through 1917.  The war’s raging on, in the Belgian and French mud.  The Americans come in.  The French mutiny.  Russia’s engulfed in revolution.   And, back in Blighty, food shortages are biting (there’s a lot about food in this book!).  And the south coast is bombed.

Some of it’s quite a comedy of manners.  The bossy neighbour who likes it to seem as if she’s doing more for the war effort than anyone else.  The horror at the idea of digging up flower beds, lawns and tennis courts to turn them over to fruit and vegetable production.  The horror at the idea of eating wholegrain bread rather than Proper white bread.  That always works really well in a war book.  It shouldn’t, but it does!

And a lot’s going on with our friends the Hunters, as I said.  The eldest son is struggling to recover from his physical injuries and severe shell-shock.  The elder daughter – this bit is more soapy! – is trying to cope with being a middle-class woman married to an aristocrat.  And she still doesn’t realise that her husband’s gay and has only married her because he needs a countess and an heir.   He wasn’t originally a very sympathetic character, but he becomes far more so as you see how society makes him feel guilty just for being the way he is naturally, and forces him into a life which is all wrong for him.  The younger daughter, who would normally have been leading a very boring and constricted life but, because of the war, is out there doing a job she likes … and being pursued by two different men, neither of whom are the one she really loves.  And the two younger sons, one of whom decides to leave school at 16 so that he can go straight into doing something to help the war effort.

The father’s very involved with the Ministry of Food.  The mother’s also busy with war work … but having an affair as well.  Then there’s the auntie, driving an ambulance over in Belgium, one of the many women who did go out to the Front.  And a female cousin, coping with male colleagues who don’t think that a woman should be in a managerial job.    The cook, who – another soapy bit! – has long since assumed that she’ll always be single, but meets a man because of the war.  The housemaids who leave to work in a munitions factory – although,  in the First World War, many female domestic staff did remain in their jobs.

There are really three main themes that permeate the book.  One is that, after three years of war, the war now is everyone’s life.  That’s total war.  Everything in everyone’s life is about the war.  And there’s no end in sight.  There isn’t even an inspirational leader to talk about the end of the beginning and never surrendering.  It’s just on and on and on.

One is, of course, the losses.  There’s a brilliant scene in Gone With The Wind, in which the casualty lists from Gettysburg have just reached Atlanta, which really gets that across; but I don’t think that anything has ever been quite as bad as the devastation of the Great War, especially at a time when most people lived in the same community all the lives.  Relatives, friends, sweethearts, colleagues, the boys you’d grown up with and gone to school with … all gone.

And the third is the organisation.  The idea of laissez-faire was on the way out well before the Great War, with the Factory Acts, compulsory education, and then the introduction of old age pensions and national insurance, but the state was still not really that involved in people’s lives until 1914.  The war effort at home was a combination of public and private enterprise, but the state increasingly became involved in national life.  And things got organised.  When push comes to shove, things get organised.  Why can’t we do that in peacetime?   Why can’t we pull together, and why can’t the authorities get their act together?   And why can’t the authorities do it in wartime any more?  I’m thinking particularly of the food shortages in Yemen.  Probably because most of today’s wars are civil wars.  Very different.

Random thought.  The Long, Long Trail is, of course, the name of one of the many songs from the First World War. Do kids today know the First World War songs?  Everyone my age, although we weren’t born until most of the Great War generation were gone, knows It’s A Long Way To Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles, Keep The Home Fires Burning, K-K-K-Katy, Mademoiselle from Armentieres, etc.    And Roses of Picardy, which my grandma always liked.  Are they still going?  #oldandoutoftouch 🙂 .

It does end on a hopeful note, with a happy family Christmas and two babies expected in the new year.  But, whilst we know that the war will end in 1918, the characters don’t.   Presumably the fifth book in the series will be the last, then – and presumably that will be out later this year, the year in which we’ll mark the centenary of the Armistice.