The Real Vikings – History


Socks.  You do not really expect a documentary about Vikings to talk about … er, socks.  However, we did also get shield maidens, sorceresses, sagas and the sacrifice of slave girls.  And ship burials and sailcloth.  Maybe they just put the socks in for the sake of keeping up the alliteration?   Not a horned helmet (yes, all right, we all know that Vikings didn’t really wear horned helmets!) in sight, and no mention of Valhalla: this first episode was all about women in Viking society.  Technically, Vikings were the only the people who actually went off raiding ‘n’ trading, but the word’s generally used in English to mean the general society of Scandinavia during the Viking Age.

The Vikings drama series with which this documentary series has been made to tie in is largely set at “home” in Norway, and features a number of strong female characters, notably Lagertha, the shield maiden and later queen, and Aslaug, the princess and volva (sorceress).  The characters are not meant to be historically accurate, OK, but this episode of The Real Vikings focused on the role of women, and took Lagertha and Aslaug as its starting point.

First up, Lagertha.  People think of Viking warriors as all being male, right?  Wrong!  Shield maidens are not only mentioned in sagas: they really existed.  Remains from a grave in Birka in Sweden, buried alongside various accoutrements of a warrior, proved to be those of a woman, much to the delight of Kateryn Winnick, the actress who plays Lagertha.  I was quite chuffed myself 🙂 .  So, yes, there were female Viking warriors!

Then on to volvas (sorceresses), such as Aslaug, played by Alyssa Sutherland – who got to visit another Viking site, Fyrkat in Denmark, where the grave of a “magic woman” in a wagon had been found.  That wasn’t quite as exciting as the shield maiden, because magic women/wise women exist in many cultures, in many eras, but it was still interesting.  Without wishing to write an essay on The Da Vinci Code, Britannia, Troy: Fall of a City or anything else not relevant to Vikings, women played such an important role in religion in the past, and that was destroyed by most of the recognised religions of today.  But, hey, maybe the tide’s starting to turn again, with women now able to act as priests/ministers in some denominations of Christianity and Judaism.  We can live in hope!

Next, more prosaically, came the important role of the lady of the hall, who, with the men often away, would have played a crucial role in local administration and justice.  This was illustrated by … well, mainly scenes from the programme, actually, but also by a burial ship found near Tonsberg in Norway, containing the remains of two women.

This then took us on to the rather less inspiring subject of human sacrifice, which really isn’t something usually associated with the Vikings, but which was shown in one episode of the programme after the scriptwriters came across an account of it written by an Arab traveller who’d visited Scandinavia.  Around 40% of the population were slaves – a surprisingly high figure.  For every few shield maidens, sorceresses or ladies of the hall, there would have been an awful lot of slave women.  And some of them would have suffered the horrible fate of being sacrificed so that they could “accompany” their master or mistress to the afterlife.  This again was illustrated by scenes from the drama series, which didn’t do much for the gravitas of the documentary – but, to be fair, the documentary series has been made to accompany the drama series, and the drama series has worked wonders in getting people interested in the Vikings.

Lagertha and Aslaug, in the series, are both wives of Ragnar Lothbrok, and the programme then moved on to the subject of concubinage and polygamy.  This was going on in England, too: Harold Godwinsson, of Battle of Hastings fame, had a “handfast wife” – another term for handfasting being “married in the Danish tradition” – as well as the “official” wife he married later.  That was more a case of having one Christian marriage and one non-Christian marriage, though: some of the Viking men had several concubines, a practice generally associated more with Asia than Europe.  This led to the promulgating of the theory that the reason for going off a-viking in the first place was that a few blokes had so many female partners each that there weren’t enough ladies left for the others, so they were all hoping to make themselves rich and therefore more eligible!   Hmm.  I’m not entirely convinced about that as an explanation for the Viking Age, but the idea that centuries of raiding, trading and conquest were all down to lonely men trying to give themselves a boost in the marriage stakes is certainly quite … quite something, anyway.

Furthermore, not only were they apparently only going off a-viking to impress the girls, but they wouldn’t have been able to go anywhere without the girls … because it was women who made the sailcloths for the longboats.  So there!   It’s all about women.  The programme was getting slightly silly by this stage, but it is a fair point – none of the Vikings would have gone anywhere without their boats, and the boats wouldn’t have gone anywhere without their sails.

And this talk of the textile industry was where the socks came in.  Apparently, it took all the wool from one sheep to make one Viking sock.  Who on earth worked that out?  And how?  And, more to the point, why?  Incidentally, if you Google “Viking socks”, you get all sorts of answers about some sort of knitting technique called “nalebinding”, and you also find out that a famous Viking sock (yes, there is such a thing as a famous Viking sock) was found in York in 1972.  Google “Coppergate sock” and you get all sorts of answers.  Who would have thought that Viking socks attracted so much interest 🙂 ?

Anyway.  That’s enough about socks.  This is not going to be the most deep and meaningful series ever, because it’s meant to tie in with a fictional series that, entertaining as it is, doesn’t even pretend to be historically accurate, but it’s still worth watching.  And it’s great that Vikings has attracted so much interest that a documentary series to go with it has been commissioned.  And, hey, we all need socks!











A Terrible Splendor by Marshall Jon Fisher


This is the story of how the Nazis persecuted one of the greatest tennis players of the 1930s, Roland Garros champion and three-times Wimbledon finalist Gottfried von Cramm, because he was gay, his boyfriend was Jewish, and he’d refused to join the Nazi party and had courageously spoken out in protest at the treatment of his Jewish friend and doubles partner Daniel Prenn.  American spelling of “splendour”! It also tells something of the wider story of the persecution of Jewish sports players – as a result of which one German Jewish tennis player, Nelly Neppach, was driven to commit suicide – and gay people in Nazi Germany.  Members of the tennis community, including King Gustaf V of Sweden, spoke out in support of both von Cramm and Prenn.  Both men thankfully survived the horrors of the Nazi era.  So many other people didn’t.

Following the recent controversy over the Twitter account of surprise Australian Open quarter-finalist Tennys Sandgren, John McEnroe gave a magnificent speech, on the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, about the prejudices faced by some of the great players of the past, and their struggles to overcome them.  The names of Arthur Ashe, who fought against racism, and Billie Jean King, who fought against sexism, are well known.  That of Gottfried von Cramm, Fred Perry’s opponent in the 1935 and 1936 Wimbledon finals, is much less so; and I was rather pleased to find that there was a book about him.

The book itself isn’t actually that great, it has to be said.  Some of the prose is really quite poor, some of what’s included isn’t particularly relevant, and it jumps backwards and forwards across time and between different themes and settings in a rather bitty and confusing way.  But it’s worth persevering with, because it’s a very interesting story.

It intertwines the story of von Cramm, and to a lesser extent that of Prenn, with the stories of Americans Don Budge and Bill Tilden, and a present tense description of the 1937 Davis Cup semi-final deciding rubber between von Cramm and American Don Budge.  That match, staged on the Centre Court at Wimbledon in front of a packed crowd including Queen Mary, is generally regarded as the greatest Davis Cup match ever played.  Some people say that it was the greatest tennis match ever played, but, come on, that was the 2008 Wimbledon men’s singles final … not that I’m biased or anything, of course 😉 .  I was in tears at the end of that 2008 final, between the stress of it all and the happiness at the result.  Oh dear, I’m getting off the point already.  Back to 1937!

Anyway, Budge won, 8-6 in the final set.  The relevance of the match is that it was shortly after von Cramm’s defeat that he was imprisoned.  He’d lost three Wimbledon finals in a row – two to Fred Perry, the second of which, during which von Cramm was injured and unable to compete effectively, was, of course, to be the last time a British man would win the Wimbledon men’s singles until Andy Murray’s triumph in 2013, and the third, in 1937, to Budge – and Germany had failed to win the Davis Cup, and so his credit with the Nazis as a shining example of German success was weakening.  And he’d already been taken in for questioning in relation to homosexuality in April 1937, three months before the Davis Cup match, although he’d been released without charge.

Himmler, who was, to use Marshall King’s words, “a murderous homophobe”, and who also disliked the aristocracy, had probably been ready for a while to move against him, but Goring was known to be a fan of sport and the arts and reluctant to attack any of the big names in either field – as long as they were bringing glory to the Third Reich.  There’s even a story that Hitler had phoned von Cramm before the match, and that that showed what a big deal it was.  The phone call story was probably untrue, and the Nazis would probably have arrested von Cramm anyway, but the book, whether for the sake of dramatic effect or whether because the author actually believes it, takes the approach that he was literally “playing for his life”.

However, I’m not sure that the juxtaposition of the details of the match and the story of what went on off the court really works that well.  One minute you’re reading about how the Nazis arrested thousands of gay men and sent them to prisons or concentration camps, and the next minute you’re reading about how well someone was serving and volleying at break point down … it’s just a bit too much of a contrast.

However, the book’s worth reading, for the stories of Gottfried von Cramm and Daniel Prenn, and also that of Bill Tilden.  There’s a fair bit of historical background detail too.  The point’s made that, unlike in Britain, sport was not a big thing in Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries – but was promoted by the Nazis.  Something that is now such an important part of the culture of Germany and most other countries carried, at the time, some nasty connotations of building a super race and proving racial superiority.  On a completely different note, there’s a lot of description of the nightlife and social life in liberal Berlin in the 1920s and early 1930s – the Berlin we know from the musical Cabaret, the most gay-friendly city in Europe in those days.  It’s also pointed out that Germany had also been seen as a welcoming destination for refugees escaping from the Russian Revolution, including the Prenn family.

Going back to Gottfried von Cramm, Baron Gottfried von Cramm, his name might sound like it belongs to a cartoon baddie but no-one seems to have had a bad word to say about him.  He was a real Boys’ Own hero – the perfect gentleman, the perfect sportsman, a wonderfully elegant player, handsome and charming.  I’ve got a thing about tennis players: I’d probably have had a major crush on him if I’d been around in the 1930s!  He belonged to an aristocratic family who could trace their ancestry back eight centuries, were fabulously wealthy and lived in a castle.  He looked like the perfect specimen of the master race, tall and blond.  He was incredibly popular both in Germany and elsewhere, and the Nazis would have loved to have had him as a pin-up boy.  But he wanted nothing to do with them.

He and Daniel Prenn formed the backbone of a German team that had a real chance of winning the Davis Cup, but, in 1933, the “Reichssportfuhrer” (and what a horribly creepy word that is) declared that Jewish players were to be barred from representing Germany.  The ITF did nothing, but it’s quite moving to read about the efforts made by individuals.  Britain’s Fred Perry and Bunny Austin wrote a letter of protest to the Times.  King Gustaf V of Sweden, a keen tennis player who’d played with most of the sport’s leading lights, went to Germany on a state visit, had to dine with Nazi officials and then, straight afterwards, went off to play tennis with Daniel Prenn.  For the monarch of one country to have made such a public gesture about his disgust at the internal politics of another is really very something.  Sadly, neither his gesture nor Perry and Austin’s achieved anything, but Daniel Prenn was able to move to Britain, thanks to the support and sponsorship of Manchester (let’s just get the local connection in there!) businessman Simon Marks, and lived out the rest of his life in peace in London.

Gottfried von Cramm was also later to speak out against the treatment of Prenn.  Not only refusing to join the Nazi Party but publicly setting himself against its policies was particularly brave because the Nazis had something on him – his relationship with a Jewish actor called Manny Herbst.  Von Cramm was married, but had been involved with Manny Herbst for several years, until Herbst had managed to leave the country after the introduction of stringent anti-gay laws in 1935.  He’d been unable to take his money with him because of the restrictions on Jews taking money out of Germany, so had left it with von Cramm, who remained in touch with him and was sending the funds on to him in stages, which was strictly illegal under Nazi law.

From 1936, the year before this particular Davis Cup match, the persecution of gay men –gay women were not targeted to the same extent – intensified.  Many people whom Gottfried von Cramm knew “disappeared”.  This, a tennis book, says more about the witch hunt against gay men in the Third Reich than most history text books do.  As with the Spanish Inquisition, the Terror during the French Revolution, Stalin’s reign of terror in the Soviet Union, etc etc, any sort of denunciation was seized on by the authorities: people who were just living their lives in peace were at the mercy of anyone who had any sort of grudge against them and was spiteful enough to act on it.

This is an under-reported part of the Nazi terror.  Magnus Hirschfeld, a Jewish doctor who became an advocate for gay rights (and also for women’s rights) after becoming aware of the high rates of attempted suicide amongst his gay patients, and was the first person to prevent statistical evidence showing that rates of depression and suicide were higher amongst homosexual people than heterosexual people, went into exile in France: his scientific institution in Germany was closed down, and the irreplaceable works in its library destroyed.  Around 100,000 men were arrested under the Nazi anti-gay laws, of whom around 50,000 were sent to prison and up to 15,000 sent to concentration camps.

Obviously, reading about this, as with reading about anything connected to the evils of the Nazi regime, is very intense and extremely distressing.  And then, right in the middle of it, the book suddenly witches to the life and career of Don Budge.  Budge was a wonderful player, and I was interested to read that his dad had played for Rangers, but it was just a common or garden story of a middle-class all-American boy who made it to the top of his chosen sport and became pally with several leading celebrities.   I was very emotionally caught up in the stories of von Cramm and Prenn and what was going on in Germany, and suddenly to be reading long descriptions of tennis matches and Californian pool parties instead was just very strange.  Maybe the contrast was meant to be effective in some way, but it didn’t really work that well for me.

Then it was on to Bill Tilden, the number one tennis player of the 1920s, who fell out with the American tennis establishment because they disapproved of his working as a tennis journalist, and, by 1937, was coaching von Cramm, and therefore in the strange position of being an American coach helping out the Germans in a Germany versus the USA tie.  Shamateurism and all the horrendous hypocrisy of it is an interesting saga – and it was still going on in rugby union as late as the 1980s – but this book wasn’t long enough to cover that as well as Nazi Germany, and including bits about it just made things seem very disjointed.

Anyway, eventually, it was back to Nazi Germany, and a lot of talk about the Max Schmeling-Joe Louis boxing matches and the Berlin Olympics.  This, although something everyone’s heard umpteen times before, was interesting, and helped to set the scene in terms of the relationship between the Nazi authorities and sport, but, again, the jumping about between times and places made things seem quite incoherent, and I kept wishing that the author would just stick to the main point, about the persecution of tennis players.

Also, the author insists on using “English” where he should be using “British”, and makes some cracks about the British upper-classes being pro-Nazi.  The Davis Cup format was different in those days.  Britain, as defending champions, would play the winners of the semi-final in the championship match.  With Fred Perry – Stockport’s finest 🙂 – having recently turned pro and therefore being ineligible for selection, our chances in the final weren’t great.  Germany were considered easier opponents than the US, and so the British crowd – mainly upper-class, at Wimbledon in those days – were mainly cheering for von Cramm.  The author does acknowledge that that was the reason, but also trots out the old chestnuts about the upper-classes admiring Hitler.  Some of them certainly did, but it’s not very fair to generalise – and it wasn’t even relevant to the book.  He also talks about Charles Lindbergh being pro-Nazi – well, he may well have been, but, again, it just wasn’t really relevant to the subject matter.  Stick to the point!!

Having said all that, to be fair to the author, it wasn’t his fault that I’d only bought the book because my attention had been caught by what John McEnroe had said about von Cramm, and that it was von Cramm I wanted to read about.  So maybe I’m being unfair.

Anyway.  Eventually, we got back to the Davis Cup tie, even if we did get an interlude concerning Bill Tilden’s finances just as Don Budge was about to serve for the match.  Budge won, the US beat Britain in the final, and Gottfried von Cramm then spent a further eight months away – first in America, then in Japan, then in Australia.  Returning to Europe in the spring of 1938, he thought he was going to spend some time with his family and then head off to Paris, to play in the French Championships and to enjoy a reunion with Manny Herbst, who was living there.  Instead, he was arrested and charged under “Paragraph 175”, the Nazi anti-gay law.  He was also charged with breaching foreign exchange rules for sending Herbst his money.  And, like many other men, he was also charged on completely fabricated evidence of having a relationship with a man he’d had nothing to do with, this second man being someone whom the Gestapo paid to tell a pack of lies to help bring about convictions under Paragraph 175.

He got a much lighter sentence than many, one year in prison.  That was largely because he claimed that Herbst had been blackmailing him over the money – they remained friends, and it’s likely that Herbst, safely out of Germany, was only too happy to have been used as a scapegoat if it saved von Cramm from a longer sentence – and, by some bizarre logic, because his partner was a Galician Jew and so that apparently didn’t matter as much as if he’d been involved with an “Aryan” who was in need of protection from him.  But it was bad enough.  In protest, Don Budge organised a petition signed by several leading sporting names including himself, Helen Wills Moody and Joe DiMaggio.  King Gustaf V also protested against von Cramm’s imprisonment.  As with the support given to Daniel Prenn, it sadly did nothing to change the laws, but the fact that they stood by their friend really does say something.  Homosexuality was illegal in both the US and Sweden at the time, but these people still spoke out.

Possibly because of all the publicity, von Cramm was released early, after seven months.   He was lucky, if that’s the right word.  The book describes how many other gay men in Nazi Germany were transferred to concentration camps, identified there by pink triangles on their uniforms, given the worst jobs and savagely beaten by guards.  It was very upsetting to read, and it was very strange to be reading it in amongst descriptions of serves, volleys, lobs and groundstrokes.  And, almost unbelievably, those who survived were, when the camps were liberated at the end of the war, sent back to ordinary prisons to complete their sentences.

Paragraph 175 was not removed from the German law code until 1994, and it was only last year, 2017, that it was agreed to pay compensation to those convicted under it.

Von Cramm returned to playing tennis after his release.  He won Queen’s in 1939, but was unable to compete at Wimbledon – reports conflict as to why  – and was unable to compete at the US Championships after the American authorities refused him a visa because of his conviction for “moral turpitude”.  Incidentally, the book also notes that the US Lawn Tennis Association did not at that time allow black players to compete in its events, and that many American tennis clubs did not admit black or Jewish people as members.  Some of that sort of thing was still going on in the 1980s: I remember Tom Watson, one of world’s leading golfers when I was a kid, speaking out against it.

Despite everything that the Nazis had done to him, and despite the offer of Swedish citizenship, von Cramm felt obliged to join up when war broke out.  He returned to playing tennis after the war, and was later involved with the German Tennis Federation (and having been divorced from his first wife in 1937, was briefly married to Barbara Hutton for a time in the 1950s), before tragically dying in a car crash in 1967.  Tennis writers in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s included him as one of the leading players of all time.  His name isn’t very well-known now.  Maybe John McEnroe’s wonderful speech will ensure that it becomes so again.

At the end, we got a round-up of what happened to everyone else.  Daniel Prenn continued to play tennis after moving to Britain, and then became a very successful businessman, living on into his eighties.  Being a tennis player saved his life, really, because being banned from playing in Germany drove him to leave the country.  Tragically, though his widowed mother, who’d moved to Poland, and his younger sister, who’d moved to Czechoslovakia, were both killed in the Holocaust.  Don Budge won the Grand Slam in 1938.  He was sadly never the same player after suffering a shoulder injury during the war, but remained involved in tennis and lived a long and happy life.

Bill Tilden’s story was tragic, though.  He was also gay, and was convicted on two charges of indecent activity with under-age boys, probably trumped up by the homophobic Californian police.  California might have a liberal reputation now, but it didn’t repeal its homosexuality laws until as late as the 1970s.  He’s the only man other than Rafa and Roger to have reached ten finals at one Grand Slam event, and is regarded as one of the greatest tennis players ever.  But he didn’t get the support that von Cramm did, got into severe financial difficulties, developed mental health problems, and died of a heart attack at the age of 60.   In 2016 – yes, 2016, just two years ago – proposals to put up a plaque dedicated to him in his home city of Philadelphia were rejected.  A new biography of him’s due out very shortly, but it costs £31 to pre-order it on Amazon, so I won’t be reading it just yet.

Don Budge and Gottfried von Cramm remained friends, and played a number of exhibition matches in Germany, but were unable to play each other in America as the US authorities never allowed von Cramm back into the country – on the basis of a conviction handed down by a Nazi court.  So the US immigration authorities basically said that they agreed with a judgement made by one of Hitler’s courts.  That’s beyond appalling.   We’ve still got a way to go, but the huge backlash over the Tennys Sandgren Twitter affair hopefully shows that most people in tennis and in general are disgusted by racism and homophobia, and that’s encouraging.

The name of Gottfried von Cramm isn’t very well-known now.  It would be nice to think that John McEnroe’s very impressive speech will make it more so.  This is not a particularly good book – it’s disjointed, and the style of writing leads a lot to be desired – but it’s worth reading because of the subject matter.  As McEnroe said, people need to be aware of what went on in the past; and this book’s got a lot to tell its readers, whether they’re tennis fans or not.

Troy: Fall Of A City – BBC 1


I rather liked King Priam of Troy sounding as if he came from Burnage (although David Threlfall had managed to mix something else in with his Manchester accent, and I’m not entirely sure what it was), but I was less impressed by Paris asking Menelaus and Helen “How did you two get together?”.  I wasn’t expecting Homeric dialogue, or as near as you can get to it in English, but there are limits!  Also, I was rather disappointed that Helen wasn’t wearing gold spiral earrings.  I’ve got a pair of lovely gold spiral earrings which a man in the shop in Greece where I got them assured me were exactly what Helen of Troy would have worn. Yes, all right, I do know that the story isn’t true, and I’m fairly sure that the Iliad doesn’t make any reference to earrings anyway, but I was kind of hoping that she’d be wearing something like those all the same.  They’re very nice.

The idea of this BBC adaptation is to tell the story of the Trojan War from the Trojan viewpoint.  It’s quite weird, when you think about it, that the story of “the Trojan War” (complete with the Trojan Horse, which was actually a Greek horse!) is always told from the Greek viewpoint, and also that, even though the stories are written by Greeks, and the Greeks are the winners, the Trojans come across as the good guys.  We still talk about “working like Trojans”.  Virgil tried to make out that the Romans were descended from a group of fugitive Trojans led by Aeneas, and there’s even a legend, promoted by Geoffrey of Monmouth, that Aeneas’s grandson Brutus landed in Britain and founded London.  Why anyone would want to be descended from a wuss like Aeneas is beyond me.  Hector, yes, but not Aeneas.  But, to get back to the point, the Trojans are the ones we feel like we should be cheering for, so the BBC’s idea of showing things from their side, for once, sounds very promising.

Whichever side you’re coming from, it’s always difficult to portray Greek or Roman legends, or indeed Old Testament stories, on screen, because of divine figures mingling with mortals.  There’s no way of doing that without it seeming a bit awkward, and the BBC did their best with it.  Paris judged the contest of the goddesses, and was promised that he’d “get together” (to use the oh-so-elegant term used later on by the scriptwriters) with the most beautiful woman in the world.  Having been restored to the royal family, from whom he’d been abducted by wolves as a child (except that he wasn’t: he was actually dumped because of the prophecies that he’d bring about the ruin of Troy,) he was then dispatched on some sort of mission to Sparta, ruled by King Menelaus, who was married to Helen … who was, of course, the most beautiful woman in the world, with the face that launched a thousand ships.  And that was the last we saw of Troy for this episode.

Unfortunately, my two favourite Trojans hadn’t really featured.  Hector had only featured briefly, and so had his (and Paris’s) sister Cassandra.  None of the Greeks got an Abba song written about them, did they?  Cassandra tried to warn everyone what would happen, but, as the Abba song goes, “Sorry, Cassandra, that no-one believed you”.  And she met a very tragic fate.

I like Cassandra.  I don’t like Helen of Troy.  And there’s another “Trojan” thing – she wasn’t Helen of Troy at all.  She was Helen of Sparta.  So why does everyone know her as Helen of Troy?!  Helen is sometimes presented as a victim, who was abducted against her will, but the more common image, and the one I have of her, is of a bit of a bitch-cum-tart who abandoned her child and her husband and ran off with her lover, knowing that it would probably lead to war but not caring.  That’s not how the BBC presented her.  She was a ballsy feminist in this, going on about how she was a woman, not an object, and she’d do as she pleased.  This involved going off with Paris.  She had herself concealed in a wooden box, and Paris didn’t seem to know anything about it until he opened the box on the ship.

And that was as far as it got last night.  Achilles and the rest of the big Greek heroes haven’t even been mentioned yet.  Achilles gets on my nerves.  He’s like a Premier League diva who refuses to play unless the manager does exactly what he wants.  Agamemnon and Menelaus are both extremely annoying, I’m not convinced about Odysseus, and don’t even go there with the evil Ajax the Lesser.  And sacrificing your own daughter (Agamemnon sacrificing Iphigenia) is not really a very nice way to behave.  So telling the story from the Trojan viewpoint does seem like rather an attractive idea – especially as the problems Paris must have had adapting to becoming a prince, having not been brought up as one, go a long way towards explaining his reckless behaviour.  But the dialogue in this was just silly.  And why on earth was there an ostrich wandering round Menelaus’s palace?!

I’m not overly impressed with the BBC about this.  I don’t know … somehow it’s funny when Sky or Netflix produce something like Britannia, which is so bad that it’s good; but you expect “proper” drama from the BBC, and the Trojan War provides more than enough scope for it.  “How did you two get together?”  Seriously?!   Whatever next?  Priam screaming “Get outta my city”?

Oh well.  It’s only the first episode.  Maybe the dialogue will improve!  And maybe we’ll get to see a bit more of Hector and Cassandra.  And the ostrich was great.  I’m just not sure what it was doing in Menelaus’s palace.  Never mind …

Back In Time For Tea (Episode 2)- BBC 2


  Loving this!  Tizer!  I haven’t had that for years.  Donkey stones – which I got rather waffly about after last week’s episode.  Three flying ducks on the wall.  And pilchards.  For some reason, pilchards are associated in my mind with Enid Blyton … and I can’t pinpoint why, and it’s annoying me.  I can’t believe that they had pilchards at Malory Towers or St Clare’s, but maybe it was something they ate in one of the adventure series in which everyone has endless school holidays and the weather’s always nice.  But would snooty Julian Kirrin really have eaten something as working-class as pilchards?  Or was it something to do with Mr Twiddle being followed by the neighbourhood cats?  No; I think the Mr Twiddle thing was herring.  So where did the pilchards come into it?  It’s really bugging me now.  There must be a reason why I associate pilchards with Enid Blyton, but what is it?

Anyway, to get back to the donkey stones, I actually thought that “donkey stone” was a Manchester-ism, but it appears that it was used across the North … although Wikipedia informs me that the term did originate in Manchester, so I was sort of right!   Donkey stones were, of course, used for cleaning your front step with, and we saw Lesley, the mum in this surprisingly engaging series, duly donkey-stoning her front step as part of the 15 hour day put in by women who worked in the mills and then had housework to do as well.  Contrary to what some people higher up the social ladder may have thought, most working-class women were extremely houseproud and absolutely scrupulous about keeping their homes clean – a sign that you were respectable, not rough.  That feeling that you’ve got to keep the house immaculate has resonated down the ages in the industrial (or now sadly rather de-industrialised) North: I am constantly feeling guilty about not doing enough housework.  People who shrug that life’s too short to do more than the bare minimum of housework just do not get it 🙂 !

The second episode moved us on into the 1940s and the 1950s, with the house now looking much more comfortable.  There were three flying ducks on the wall, and I cannot believe that no-one mentioned Hilda Ogden when they saw them.  Come on.  You see three flying ducks on a wall and you immediately think of Hilda Ogden’s “muriel”, right?  Surely?  Well, apparently not in this case.  Oh dear.

However, with rationing still in force, providing meals was still a problem.  This was the golden age of allotments, and trying to grow food wherever else you had the chance.  The family also got two chickens, to provide eggs.  And one suggestion for breakfast involved pilchards, because they weren’t on ration – which was when I started worrying about why I associate pilchards with Enid Blyton.  Not that anyone in Enid Blyton books ever worries about rationing.  Statistics can be rather boring, but the statistics produced by social historian Polly Russell in relation to rationing and calorie consumption were fascinating.  Before the war, the middle-classes were consuming an average of around 1,000 calories per day more than the working-classes – and the middle-classes would generally have led far more sedentary lifestyles than the working-classes.  With the introduction of rationing, calorie consumption pretty much levelled out across the board.   Strange how Britain’s darkest hour actually made some things much fairer than they’d ever been in the good times.

Most people were consuming around 2,500 calories per day, which … well, it’s more than double what I’m supposed (I did say “supposed”) to stick to.  So people weren’t going short, as many had done during the Depression.  And it’s often argued that rationing did improve the nation’s health, by forcing people to eat a more balanced diet.  Less bread.  Fewer sweets.  But pilchards for breakfast?  Ugh!

Also on the subject of health, the birth of the NHS, in 1948, was mentioned, but from an unusual angle – that of the opportunities that it provided for young women (well, men too, but mostly women) by creating a large number of nursing and midwifery jobs.  Apparently, back in the early days, 11% of nurses and midwives came from Lancashire alone.  It was a great opportunity for bright, hard-working Northern girls.  We saw the two daughters learning about training as a nurse – including doing the hospital cooking, as well as the actual nursing work.  The idea of an invalid diet, often mentioned in books of the time, but rarely mentioned in these days of budget-consciousness, was a big thing then.

On to the mid and late 1950s, a time of increasing prosperity, and generally looked back on nostalgically as a golden age.  The family got a television.  Interestingly, it was pointed out that Continental families tended to prioritise washing machines and fridges, but, in Britain, it was tellies first!  Maybe that was something to do with the Coronation, June 1953 – something for which we saw a lovely street party being thrown.  I know a lot of people say that they got their first TV specifically so that they could watch the Coronation.  White goods too, often on the never never; and catalogue payment schemes were also mentioned as a sign of the new consumer society and the use of credit.  Attitudes towards credit haven’t half changed.  A lot of people of my grandparents’ generation never quite got past the idea that Respectable people did not get into Debt – that was for rough people and the louche upper-classes! – but does anyone still think like that any more?  Well, you’d never be able to afford any big item these days, if you saved up until you could buy it outright.

Also in terms of consumerism, we got commercial TV.  Granada!   The first Northern station – covering Yorkshire as well as the North West, back then.   And other leisure activities too – the two daughters were treated to an evening at a ’50s-style dance hall, with Bradford’s own Kiki Dee.  I’d love to have been around in the age of dance halls … although I’d’ve been the fat girl sat in a corner, with no-one wanting to dance with me!  But they always seem like so much more fun that modern nightclubs.

Also, with a five-day working week now the norm, the family went off for a Saturday picnic in the Peak District – the nation’s first National Park.  That was where Tizer came in.  I was rather put out that the three children had never heard of it!  It is still produced – although, sadly, not in Manchester any more – but you don’t really see it much these days.  It used to be so popular.  I associate it with being at my auntie’s house.  Maybe it was something that she bought more often than my mum did?  I must check with my cousins about that.  Anyway, I haven’t had it for years.   Coke was probably the quintessential drink of the ’80s, when I was growing up, but I didn’t like Coke then and I don’t like it now … although I do still know all the words to the Robin Beck song.

As we got towards the end of the 1950s, there seemed to be more and more food.  As Lesley, the mum, commented, it was as if, after the austerity years of the Depression and then rationing, people were going to the other extreme.  It’s often happened in history – think of the Restoration backlash against the Cromwell years.  The word “spread” was used a lot.  That’s a lovely ’50s word, isn’t it?  “Spread.”  No-one talks about “spreads” any more, because no-one’s ever got time to make one, so many people (me included) are constantly on a diet, and we’re all always being made to feel guilty about what we eat and how much we eat.  Someone should make a programme about that – the history of food guilt.  Anyway, no food guilt here.  No pilchards either, but it did make me think again about Enid Blyton books, and Elinor M Brent-Dyer books, and Lorna Hill books, and all those other children’s books in which everyone’s always tucking into huge spreads – but no-one ever seems to put on any weight!  Er, not that any of those books are set in working-class areas of the industrial North, but even so.

So much change, in just the fifteen years between the end of the Second World War and the end of the 1950s.   The mum and dad, even though neither of them can be anywhere near old enough to remember the 1950s for real, seemed quite sad that time was moving forward and they were moving away from those days when life was simpler and everything was less commercialised.  There’s a lot of sentimentality surrounding the 1950s … which is why I decided to write a second lot of waffle about one series, which i don’t usually do.  And I wonder if Tesco still sell Tizer …


Back In Time For Tea – BBC 2


The most interesting point made in this programme – involving the re-enactment of the lives of a working-class family in Bradford in the inter-war years – was that rent took up one-tenth of a typical working-class family’s income in 1919, compared to one-third now.  That said an awful lot.   A lot of the rest of it was pretty hackneyed stuff about how hard life was back in the day, especially during the Depression, but how much greater community spirit was … but the fact that something’s been said a million times before and become rather clichéd doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.

Yes, all right, we’ve all seen the Monty Python sketches about how hard life used to be, and heard grumpy old men saying that people today don’t know they’re born, but it is actually true.  The programme started off with the post Great War boom, then went through the difficult years of the early 1920s, things looking up later on in the decade, then the horrendous struggles of the industrial North during the Depression – including the hated means test – before life looked up again in the late 1930s.  It was quite a roller-coaster, and, of course, the bad times were especially bad for the mother, who was working full time in a mill whilst she had work, and then having to do all the housework as well, trying desperately to feed her family when there was practically no money for food.

We have heard it all before, and it has become clichéd, but it doesn’t hurt to hear it again, partly as a reminder of what happened in the recent past and partly because a lot of it is relevant to today.  People like my grandparents, and great-aunts and great-uncles, who lived through the Depression in the industrial North, and then lived through rationing, spent the rest of their lives being careful not to waste anything, and that’s something that’s being lost now.  There’s so much waste these days.  Then, on the other hand, we’re supposed to be an affluent society now and yet in some ways we’ve gone back to those times.  It’s great that, when I go to put something in the food bank box as I leave Tesco, it’s always full, but there were no food bank boxes ten years ago, and there shouldn’t be any need for them now. How have we gone back to the days of so many people not being able to put food on the table?   And we were also told that the two daughters would have to move down south to take jobs as housemaids, and that the number of domestic servants, which you tend to think of as falling after the Great War, actually increased in the 1930s, as the gap between the haves and the have-nots widened – something else that’s happening again.

There wasn’t all that much talk about the food itself, except that there was a lot of bread, and things like tripe.  I was expecting most of the programme to be about food, but it really wasn’t!

So, what about the more positive aspects?  Community spirit.  That’s another cliché – that everyone used to pull together, and you used to be able to leave your back door open all day, etc etc, but, again, it’s rooted in truth.  That’s something that we could do with getting back to.  More family time.  There wasn’t much mention of music or dancing, maybe because no-one in the family was a young adult and it was mainly young adults who went dancing, but the family did acquire a wireless once it got to 1939 (my grandad, right up until he died in 1987, insisted on referring to a radio as a “wireless” and a record player as a “gramophone”) we did see the family going to the pictures – not to see any of the well-known Hollywood stars of the era, but to see good old George Formby!  I once went for a birthday afternoon tea at a posh hotel in Blackpool, and it was hosting the annual convention of the Ukulele Society of Great Britain – yes, there is one!  Good old George :-).

Speaking of Blackpool, we saw the family having a break there.  I love Blackpool.  It gets me really upset when people make snooty comments about it.  It is the most amazing place, and I defy anyone not to feel happy after spending a day there!   It was great to hear the three kids say how much they’d enjoyed it.

We also got to see the parents enjoying a day out rambling.  Eating Kendal Mint Cake and singing Ilkley Moor.   This was a right Northern do J.  And the best thing about the rambling scenes was Anita Rani talking about the Kinder Scot Trespass.  The Kinder Scout Trespass, and the whole movement around it, was amazing.  A load of snooty landowners and gamekeepers being put in their places by little Benny Rothman from Cheetham Hill!   Let’s never forget the importance of what The Ramblers’ Association did back then.

I’d like to have seen a mention of the Jarrow Crusade as well, because that does say so much about the experiences of much of the industrial North during the Depression (and I’m saying that despite the traumatic events at St James’ Park yesterday afternoon … although I’ll just Mancunianise it a bit by pointing out that Jarrow’s MP at the time was Ellen Wilkinson), but I suppose there was only so much they could fit into an hour-long programme.   Anyway, just thinking about that, and the Kinder Scout Trespass … people did seem to be a lot better at making their point in the 1930s than they are now.  Maybe everyone’s too busy writing things on Twitter these days.  Or maybe everyone’s too disillusioned: organise a Kinder Scout Trespass or a Jarrow Crusade now, and the metropolitan elite’d be saying that the participants were all stupid and didn’t realise what they were doing, and that everything they said should be ignored.  Or maybe it’s lack of leadership.  Things just don’t seem to get done any more, somehow.

And the one bit that really did my head in was Sara Cox expressing surprise that the family had books in their house, because she apparently thought that working-class people in 1919 would be illiterate.  I just cannot believe that a woman of the same age as me, from Bolton, would have thought that!

This is a six-part series, and it’s a shame that the inter-war years all got squashed into one episode, whereas the more recent decades, which most people are going to be far more familiar with, are going to be spread out over five episodes.  But it was really much more interesting than I’d expected.  Re-enactment programmes can be a bit naff, but this one was really good.


The Amber Heart by Catherine Czerkawska


This is meant to be a star-crossed romance set against the complex political, social and ethno-religious background of 19th century Galicia (the Ukrainian/Polish one, not the Spanish one) … but there’s a delicious interlude in which Our Heroine is escorted round the sights of Imperial Vienna by a handsome nobleman who keeps buying her Viennese cakes and pastries.  We get long lists of these.  He even hires a personal patissier, in the hope of impressing the lady.  Maybe this is some sort of romantic fantasy of the author’s?  If so, it’s a pretty good one.  If anyone knows where you can find one of these cake-providing handsome noblemen, please shout up.

The Siege of Atlanta moment in this is the Galician Slaughter/Peasant Uprising of 1846.  Polish history puts a lot of emphasis on uprisings.  1794.  1830-1831.  1863-64.  The leaders of these are all lionised.  However, the 1846 Uprising – very badly timed, because if they’d waited another two years then Austria would have been trying to deal with Hungary and Northern Italy at the same time … although, in that case, Russia would probably have got stuck in – gets quietly overlooked because it ended up with the Poles all fighting each other and doing the Austrians’ job for them.  This is the first book I’ve ever found which deals with it as historical fiction, and one of very few books I’ve ever found which deal with the glorious confusion that is Galicia as historical fiction at all.

I don’t think the author quite knew how much historical/political background to give, and sometimes it seems as if she’s decided that she’d better explain things, so she includes some information about the Partitions and about the Habsburg Empire.  However, she doesn’t do it until after covering events which wouldn’t really make much sense if you didn’t know the background.   The Polish Partitions and the Habsburg Empire are both fascinating subjects, but I’m not sure that they’re that well-known in English-speaking countries, and it would have made more sense to have put the background info in first.  Having said which, it’s rather nice feeling that you’re expected to know what’s going on.  OK, I won’t write an essay on the Partitions, because this book’s about Austrian Poland/Ukraine and I always come at the whole thing from a Russian viewpoint.

Anyway.  A star-crossed romance.  Our Heroine is a Polish, Roman Catholic noblewoman.  Our Hero is a Ukrainian, Orthodox peasant.  You get the idea.  Come 1846, the Polish upper and middle classes staged a rebellion, centred on what was then the Free City of Krakow, with the hope of regaining their independence.  The Polish peasants in Austrian Poland (much of which is now part of Ukraine) rose up against the Polish landlords – serfdom still existed in Galicia at this point, although it was abolished two years later – and actually massacred a fair number of them, and the Austrians were able to put down both rebellions, but not before taking advantage of peasant support against the nobles.  And, to put the tin lid on it, a load of crops got destroyed in the chaos.  And Krakow lost its status as a free imperial city and was incorporated into the Habsburg Empire, which it wasn’t very pleased about.  So it’s probably no wonder 1846 doesn’t get spoken of in the same terms as 1863-64 et al.  It was a pretty major disaster from a Polish viewpoint.

Our Hero rescues Our Heroine from the peasant mob who attack her home and murder her husband, and, having fancied each other for years, they then get together.  It doesn’t fit in that well with the historical facts, though.  The uprising was in the Polish areas, not the areas where most of the peasantry were Ukrainian (or Ruthenian, or identifying as Orthodox rather than Catholic … the terminology’s a nightmare with Galicia).  The villages also seem to be very much mixed Polish and Ukrainian, which I’m not sure they would have been … although it’s meant to be set near Lviv (referred to in the book, correctly in terms of historical context, by its Austrian name of Lemberg), and that was much more mixed before the Poles moved out after Lviv was moved from Poland to Ukraine the Second World War … mostly to Wroclaw, which needed repopulating after the Germans had been booted out when it was moved from Germany to Poland.  That all makes complete sense, doesn’t it 🙂 ?

Oh, and how come all the Ukrainians are Orthodox?   Given that we’re near Lviv/Lwow/Lemberg, shouldn’t most or all of the Ukrainians be Greek Catholic?  I don’t like that expression in a Ukrainian/Belarusian context, and think that “Uniate” is far better, but apparently people prefer “Greek Catholic” and “Uniate”‘s seen as being a bit offensive.  Come to that, why are none of the characters Jewish, bearing in mind that we’re talking about Galicia in the mid-19th century?

Oh well, I suppose a bit of historical licence can be forgiven.  It’d spoil the story if the hero and heroine weren’t of different nationalities and different religions, as well as from different social backgrounds!   The idea is that everything’s against them.  It’s a lifelong relationship: the amber heart of the title is a necklace given to him by her mother, who dies after catching smallpox whilst trying to nurse his mother through it.   They never actually marry, and in fact they both marry other people, but they’re involved on and off for years, and have two children who are passed off as being someone else’s.  Funny how some of the greatest romantic novels of all time work like that: The Thorn Birds is the obvious one, and A Dark and Distant Shore is another.  This doesn’t come even close to being in that league, but it’s so rare to find a book set in Galicia.  James Michener’s Poland is, in part, and there’s Michael Andre Bernstein’s Conspirators which is great, but they aren’t sagas about the lives of particular characters like this is.  And there’s quite a bit of interesting description about the homes and lifestyles and customs of both the nobles and the peasants.

There’s even a feminist angle: Our Heroine does not remarry after her husband dies, but runs her estate on her own, with the help of Our Hero as the estate manager.  At the end, whilst it’s usually the bloke who dies first, leaving the woman to ruminate on what might have been – with the obvious exception of Wuthering Heights – in this case she dies first, and he actually does a bit of a Heathcliff: he doesn’t go around kidnapping people and forcing them into marriage, but he does mope around and drink too much for a while.  Then he dies too.  Hmm.  Books that just do the happy ever after thing end with the couple getting married: books like this inevitably end with one or both of them dead.

And finally, what of the cake-buying nobleman?   Well, he doesn’t get the girl either.  She leaves Vienna, and moves back to her country estate near Lemberg/Lviv/Lemberik/Lwow/Lvov.  At least all the commonly-used versions of the name begin with L:  Bratislava/Pressburg/Pozsony’s far more confusing.  Her cousin lives in Vienna for many years, and puts on loads of weight from eating all the cake.  Seriously, this book gives the distinct impression that all anyone does in Vienna is eat cake.  Ahem – not that I’ve got a photo just above the computer of myself in a Viennese coffee house with a huge piece of Sachertorte in front of me.  And I’m always moaning about how much I struggle to lose weight.

Anyway, you’d think that someone – one of these irritating people who eat cake all the time but never put on an ounce – would have snapped him up, but no.  He continues to adore Our Heroine, and, having sussed out what’s going on with her and Our Hero, he reflects sadly that he offered her cake when all she really wanted was rye bread.  That’s supposed to be some great allegory for the whole thing, but it doesn’t work because she carried on living in her big house, with her servants and her expensive gear, so it was hardly as if she was managing on bread and salt all for the love of Our Hero.  But it’d be a brilliant line if she had been.   So, he doesn’t get the girl, but they’re best friends, probably more like sister and brother.  It’s quite sad for him, but it’s nice as well.  Sometimes people aren’t destined to be a couple, but there’s no reason why they can’t still be friends.

Incidentally, I’ve never yet made it to Lviv, but I remember thinking in Krakow (and in various other Slavic areas which used to be part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire) how nice it was that you could have black bread for breakfast and Austrian-style cake for afternoon tea!   And that’s Mitteleuropa.  As of this week, the Berlin Wall has been down for longer than it was up.  That really makes me feel old!   But I think we still see Europe in terms of Eastern Europe and Western Europe, the way we did during the Cold War, and it’s time to stop that.  And that probably goes right against the grain (bad pun about Ukraine as a major grain producer entirely intended) of the 1846 attempt by the Galician nobility to get away from Austrian influence … and which all went wrong.  Very unusual choice of background for a book, and that’s nice.  It’s hard finding books set in Galicia!




The Unseen Holocaust – H2 (History Channel 2)


It’s a shame that this programme, made a few years ago but repeated for Holocaust Memorial Day, wasn’t on one of the more mainstream channels, because there really is a problem about the lack of attention paid to the murders carried out by the Einsatzgruppen (Nazi death squads).  It was decided before Euro 2012, which was hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, to make a film about the three Dynamo Kyiv players murdered at Babi Yar (Babyn Yar), which, if done properly, might have drawn attention to the subject, but it all went wrong because the director insisted on following the inaccurate Soviet propaganda version of events rather than the facts … and that sums up a lot of what’s gone on with the evidence about what the Einsatzgruppen did in Eastern Europe.  The countries mostly affected were the modern-day states of Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and parts of western Russia.

It should also be noted that Romanian troops were responsible for the massacres carried out in Odessa; and that Hungarian troops were involved in the Kamianets-Podilskyi massacre, in a region of Ukraine horribly fittingly named after Bohdan Khmelnytsky.  I find the fact that Ukraine makes a hero of Khmelnytsky, the man responsible for the horrific massacres of 1648-57– there’s even a huge statue of him outside St Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv – rather sickening, and the guidebook I took to Ukraine with me in 2008 said that a lot of visitors feel that way, but that’s beside the point.

The year before, I’d been to Poland.  As soon as I said I was going to Poland, before I’d even said that one of the places I’d be going to was Krakow, people said that they assumed I’d visit Auschwitz whilst I was there – which I did.  Going back to Euro 2012, as soon as it was announced that the England squad would be based in Krakow, the press said that they assumed that some of the players would visit Auschwitz – which they did.  Everyone, hopefully, knows about Auschwitz, and the other death camps, and it’s very important that they should do so.  But it’s also important that people should know about the murders carried out by the death squads, and, as this programme emphasised, those killings aren’t really spoken, or written, about.  Krakow is a lovely, lovely city, incidentally, and it should never just be associated with visiting Auschwitz.

I’d always wanted to see Kyiv – or Kiev, seeing as it’s still better known in the West by its Russian name.  Kyiv the Golden.  The Golden Age of Kievan Rus.  Vladimir the Great.  Incredible city.  Cathedrals, gates, the Dnieper.  And, whilst our group was there, the tour guides said that they could arrange for a visit to Babi Yar (again, better known in the West by its Russian name, rather than as Babyn Yar) for any of us who felt that we’d like (if that was the right word) to see it.  When, I got back, and was boring people with holiday stories as you do (this was before everyone was on Facebook on their phones whilst on holiday), I got a lot of blank looks when I mentioned Babi Yar.  Hardly anyone had ever heard of it.  This is a site where up to 150,000 people were killed, including almost 35,000 people in one two-day massacre alone.   That was just one site.  There were many others.

When the Red Army began to regain ground, war cameramen and camerawomen took films and photographs of what they found, and this programme showed some of those. Bodies upon bodies.  Local people, traumatised by what they’ve found, mourning their dead.  The narrators of the programme also read out some of the testimonies of the few people who’d miraculously survived and of the local people and Soviet soldiers who found the bodies – those bodies which hadn’t been destroyed – afterwards. The camera personnel deserve huge credit for what they did: it’s thought that twenty-five per cent of them were killed in action.  It didn’t make for easy watching.

Jeremy Hicks, the main narrator also made the interesting point that, in a way, this has even more relevance to today than the death camps did.  It was a fair comment. There are no gas chambers operating today, but there’ve been plenty of reports in the last few years of groups of people, many of them civilians, being taken away and shot in Syria and Iraq.  Over 8,000 people were murdered at Srebrenica in 1995, and that was only a year after the genocide in Rwanda.

So why doesn’t everyone know about this, in the same way that everyone knows about the death camps?  The photos and the film reels are there.  Why hasn’t everyone seen them?  They were broadcast as part of Soviet news reels at the time – admittedly more to arouse the anger of the population against the Nazis even more than simply as a public information service, but the same’s true of a lot of official broadcasting in wartime.  But then they were pretty much shoved into a Soviet film archive and ignored for over sixty years, until they were shown to British film historian Jeremy Hicks in 2006.

Two main reasons were suggested.  On the Eastern side of the Iron Curtain, Stalin canned them because they didn’t fit with the image of the war’s impact on civilians which the Soviet Union wanted to present – the heroics of the Siege of Leningrad, the Siege of

Stalingrad, etc.  On the Western side of the Iron Curtain, even though some people must have known that there was film/photographic evidence of what had happened, there was so much distrust of the Soviet Union that no-one would have been sure how much of what they were seeing was what it looked like and how much was … well, “fake news”, to use the term we hear so much about these days.

What a tragedy.  Did Donald Trump junior hold clandestine meetings with Russian officials or not?  Does it really matter that much?  But something like this, something so important not being made available because of a desire on the one hand to manipulate the popular view of history, and on the other hand because of an inability to trust something that really is rather obviously what it looks like … that is very frightening.  However, even without this coverage, surely this is a subject about which more should have been known.

After Kyiv was liberated, in 1943, the Red Army took a number of Western journalists to Babi Yar, and also arranged for them to interview survivors.  Anatoly Kuznetsov’s documentary novel about Babi Yar was published over fifty years ago.  He defected from the Soviet Union to the UK, with evidence from survivors and even with photographic film.  And that’s looking at what was made known about just one site.  Why aren’t these massacres more widely known about, talked about and studied?  Why is the focus so much on the death camps?  Maybe it’s because what happened in the death camps, the scientific, industrialised killing, was the darkest chapter in human history, because mass shootings had been carried out before and have been carried out since, but the victims of the Einsatzgruppen deserve to be remembered too, as everyone involved in this programme repeatedly pointed out.

There was also some talk about how the suffering of some groups of people is emphasised more in the West, and the suffering of other groups more in the East.  That is something that’s been an ongoing issue in Poland, in particular.  It seems rather distasteful to look at the Holocaust like that.  Many different groups of people were persecuted by the Nazis and their allies.  It’s hardly a competition as to who suffered more or who deserves the most attention.   But the victims of the death squad, the “bullet Holocaust” to use a term which I think was coined by Jeremy Hicks, deserve to be remembered, and there doesn’t seem to be anything like the same awareness of their fate as there is of those who were killed in the camps.  I’d like to see this programme shown on prime time TV on one of the main channels.  Everyone needs to see this.







Nigel Slater’s Middle East – BBC 2


All right, this is a cookery series, not a historical series, but how refreshing to have a series about the Middle East which shows us a side of the region that doesn’t primarily involve war, terrorism or human rights abuses.  How refreshing too that it encompasses different cultures of the Middle East, and just the Arabic-Islamic culture which tends to be what springs to mind when the words “Middle East” are mentioned.   Next week’s episode is about Turkey, the country which makes the best savoury food in the world.  What a terrible shame that recipes weren’t exchanged during the siege of Vienna 🙂 – the combination of Turkish savoury stuff and Austrian sweet stuff would be unbeatable!  The third of the three episodes will be about another non-Arab country, Iran.  And this week’s episode was about Lebanon, the one Arab country of the three, and one which must be one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, about 54% Muslim (pretty much equally divided between Shias and Sunnis), 41% Christian (mainly Maronite, Greek Orthodox, and Melkite) and 5% Druze.

Anyone who grew up during the 1980s will be accustomed to the use of the word “Beirut” as a synonym for “disaster zone”.  However, as Nigel pointed out very early on in the programme, it was known as “the Paris of the East” in the 1960s.  And how great to hear him talking about “the Levant”, a term that rarely seems to be used these days – with “the Middle East” being used as a generic term for the whole region, and with the sense that it’s set apart from the rest of the world.  The term “the Levant” reflects the fact that Lebanon and its neighbours were historically very much part of the Mediterranean world too.  He also reminded us that Lebanon is far more liberal than most other Arab countries.  OK, there are certainly issues there, but nothing like there are in somewhere like Saudi Arabia.

There were reminders of Lebanon’s troubled recent past, obviously.  It was touching to hear about an ice cream shop in Beirut which had barely closed for a day all through the civil war, and which was still physically scarred by war damage.  It was sad to hear that some of the traditional foraging places for herbs were no longer safe because of the danger of unexploded cluster bombs, although heartening to hear that the herbs were now being cultivated elsewhere.  But how lovely to hear that the same pastries were eaten by Muslims at Eid and by Christians at Easter.

It was interesting too to hear about preserves.  Yes, all right, preserves don’t sound that interesting, but they really are – first of all when they involve the gorgeous fruit that can be seen growing in the Levant, and also when you’re being told about the importance in Lebanon of preserving fruit to be eaten during the harsh winters.  Apparently the Lebanese army opens snowbound roads so that jam can be taken to Beirut!   That’s a true story to make you smile, but it’s also a reminder of just how severe the winters in parts of the Middle East, especially in mountainous areas, can be – and that’s very relevant at the moment, when there’ve been some heartbreaking reports this very week about Syrian refugees freezing alive whilst trying to make their way to Lebanon in blizzard conditions.

The savoury food all looked pretty good too!  And, for those of us who did grow up in the 1980s,  when the name “Lebanon” pretty much translated as “war zone”, how heartening it is just to know that a programme like this can be made.  A thoroughly enjoyable hour’s watching.


Rewriting history? The Polish Holocaust speech bill


Rewriting history seems to be, worryingly, a term that we’re hearing more and more these days. It generally runs alongside trying to stifle free speech and debate.  And now it’s causing an international row, following the passing by the Polish parliament of a law making it a criminal offence to state publicly that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”.

Hopefully, no-one is for one minute trying to say that “the Polish nation or state was responsible or co-responsible for Third Reich crimes”. And it’s quite understandable that people in Poland object to the blatantly incorrect but all too frequent use of the term “Polish death camps” when referring to Nazi concentration camps on Polish soil.  But the passing of this law has led to considerable concern amongst historians and others that it will stifle debate about and even research into the events of the Nazi period.  Where is the line to be drawn between saying or writing about the complicity by individuals in Poland with “Third Reich crimes” – in 2001, on the 60th anniversary of the Jedwabne pogrom in which over 340 Polish Jews were murdered by their Polish neighbours, the then president of Poland stated clearly that the murderers were Poles – and falling foul of the new legislation?

This isn’t the first time that there’s been controversy over the present Polish government’s attitude towards the events of the Second World War. There was a long, drawn-out wrangle over the Museum of the Second World War in Gdansk, which finally opened last spring after considerable arguing between the government and historians over the extent to which the museum should focus on Poland’s experience – by which the government meant Poland’s suffering and Polish resistance to the Nazis – as opposed to telling the entire history of how the war affected the whole of Europe and beyond.  Wanting to focus on your own country’s experiences is reasonable to some extent, but this latest controversy goes much further than that

It’s not just Poland where there are issues concerning the presentation of the events of the Second World War. Unless it’s been changed since I was there, the video which is shown to visitors at the Second World War Museum in Riga focuses almost entirely on the Soviet invasion and occupation of Latvia, with next to nothing being said about the atrocities committed there by the Nazis.  And collaboration and support for the Nazis is a very sensitive subject everywhere.  We’ve all heard the stories about how hardly anyone in Austria’s seen The Sound of Music.  There’s a lot of evidence for complicity in Nazi atrocities by local people in Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania and elsewhere, but it isn’t really spoken about.  But it isn’t actually banned.

Statues are being pulled down in America. Certain British universities and even Virgin Trains have tried to restrict the sale of certain newspapers. Where do you draw the line between trying to avoid offensive speech and interfering with free speech? It’s a difficult one.

It’s hard to see any other countries following Poland’s lead. For one thing, the present Polish government is not exactly renowned for its free thinking. Concerns have already been raised over its interference in both the media and the judiciary. For another thing, no other country has the same place that Poland, through no fault of its own, has in the history of the Holocaust. But this is a worrying development. It’ll be interesting to see where things go from here.