Flight from Syria: Refugee Stories

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BBC 2 are showing a two-part documentary on Syria later this week, and hopefully that’ll give some more historical background to the conflict. In the meantime, this short book (well, collection of articles) is available free for Kindle at the moment, and gives some basic pointers, especially about the complex demographics of the country, how that demographic mix has probably been broken permanently, and how it impacts on the attitudes of other countries.

Most of the books I’ve read about the area have been about either the Crusades or the Ottomans, which are both interesting topics but, even with the Ottoman period, don’t help that much in understanding what’s going on at the moment, which I think everyone needs to try to do. I was mainly looking for some more information about the different ethnic and religious groups within Syria, as background information.  A few other general points from these articles, though.  One important point is that many Syrian families have six or more children, so many of the refugees are children, which, apart from being particularly upsetting, creates additional practical problems in terms of the need for schooling.  Another, as has often been pointed out in the media, is that this is a different sort of refugee crisis to those seen in Africa and elsewhere: most refugees are arriving by car, with a number of possessions, and, whilst there are many people living in refugee camps, the majority of them are living in towns, cities and villages.

Some parts of the book are very critical of other countries, especially the countries closest to Syria, for not having done more to help, but other parts acknowledge that this is an impossible situation for everyone. Lebanon in particular, Jordan and to some extent Turkey all have their own problems, and are not equipped to deal with an influx of refugees on this scale.  It criticises some Western countries, praises others, criticises Russia and makes no mention of the Gulf states.

The demographics, then. Apparently, due to the types of questions asked and not asked during censuses, no-one’s entirely sure of the demographics of pre-war Syria.  In terms of religion, it’s well-known that the majority of the population is Sunni Muslim, and that was about 77% of people, whilst Assad and the most of the others in positions of power are Alawite Muslims, and that group represented about 12% of the population, with 8% being Christian and 3% Druze.  Syria had a sizeable Jewish community at one time, but, due to hostility because of poor relations with Israel, most Syria Jews had emigrated by the mid-1990s.  In terms of ethnolinguistics, about 85% were Arabic speakers, 9% Kurdish speakers … and that presumably left 6% speaking various other languages.

There were, and are, a lot of minority groups. Many of the survivors of the Armenian genocide settled in Syria, especially in Aleppo which had had an Armenian community since the eleventh century, and their descendants have lived there since.  They’re mainly Oriental Orthodox, Their heritage is Western Armenian, from the area of historic Armenia now part of Turkey, so there are cultural differences from the (former Soviet) Republic of Armenia, but many Syrian Armenians have fled there.  And they’re being welcomed there, because they’re generally quite well-to-do and well-educated, and Armenia needs that.  This hasn’t really been reported here. I’ve always been interested in Armenia, so I’d’ve picked up on it if it had.  However (this is according to Wikipedia, which I turned to for further information!), some of the refugees have settled in the disputed area of Nagorno-Karabakh, which is causing issues with Azerbaijan.  So Armenia and Azerbaijan are both being affected, and that’s something we’ve heard next to nothing about.  And, with Armenia welcoming Syrian Armenians, it seems unlikely that many of them will return, so that’s going to be a permanent change in the demographic make-up of Syria.

Then there are the Turkmens. They sound as if they should have arrived with Baybars, during the Crusades, but most of them are actually descended from Turks who settled in Syria during Ottoman times.  They’re mainly Sunnis, but some are Alevis – not to be confused with Alawites.  Turkmen refugees have generally headed for Turkey, and so have many Arab and Kurdish refugees.  Turkey, being mainly Sunni, isn’t keen on Assad, but its main concern at the moment is the Kurdish question.

The Kurds have been let down over and over again. That’d be a very long article in itself.  And, whilst the Assad regime claimed to be supported by minorities – one reason why hostility towards groups like Armenians has grown since the war began – it actively discriminated against Kurds, who weren’t even supposed to speak Kurdish or to give their children Kurdish names.  The breakdown in authority has freed Syria’s Kurds from those restrictions – but at what horrendous cost?   Many of them have fled to Turkey or Iraq, both of which are countries with a history of discriminating against Kurds, or worse.  And, of course, Turkey’s attacked Kurdish areas of Syria.  What a mess.

The uprising must have originally given particular hope to the Kurds. It also gave hope to various other sections of the population mentioned in the book – gay people, who hoped that it might bring about the decriminalisation of homosexuality in Syria, and women who disliked feeling obliged to wear a hijab as the Assad regime became more religiously conservative.  It all began in hope.

So did the Kurdish uprising in Iraq, after the Gulf War. Some of the Kurds in Syria were refugees from that conflict.  There’s a lot of talk in the book about “double refugees” – especially Palestinians.  Jordan, which has such a large Palestinian population already and is concerned about its own demographics, has been particularly reluctant to admit Syrian Palestinians – some of whom are actually treble refugees, having come to Syria to escape the civil war in Lebanon in the 1980s. Lebanon, quite understandably so after its own years of civil war, and with its delicate sectarian balance between different Christian and Muslim groups, is even more concerned about the impact of admitting large numbers of mainly Sunni Muslim Syrians and Palestinians – but, even so, has taken in around one million refugees into an existing population of only around four million.

There are smaller groups, too. Assyrians, mainly speaking Aramaic.  Sounds so Biblical.  They’re mainly Christian – some are Oriental Orthodox, others belong to a Nestorian church set up in the 1960s.  Yazidis, whose counterparts in Iraq have been so horrifically persecuted by Islamic State.  Circassians, mainly descended from people who fled to Ottoman Syria during the Russian conquest of the Caucasus in the nineteenth century – and many of whom have taken refuge in the Circassian areas (the peaceful ones, not Chechnya or Dagestan) of the Russian Federation.  Greeks, both Muslims and Christians.  Yarmouks, of African descent.

A lot of things in Syria are very badly broken, and this is about people in general, and people as individuals, not about an ethnolinguistic/ethnoreligious mix. But there was that mix, and it’s broken now.  People interviewed in the various articles in the book speak about the days when people had friends and neighbours from different backgrounds – different “millets”, to use the Ottoman term.  It’s reminiscent of comments made by people speaking about their lives in Northern India before the violence that accompanied Partition, or in Bosnia-Herzegovina before the war there in the 1990s.  Wars do end.  The one in Bosnia-Herzegovina did.  The one in Lebanon did.  The one in Syria will, eventually.  But you can never return to the status quo ante.  Do countries ever get over civil wars?  Spain hasn’t, after 80 years.  America certainly hasn’t, after over 150 years.  Are we still dealing with issues from the seventeenth century.  You can certainly argue that we are.

This is a collection of articles, rather than one continuous narrative. Some of the language is very … casual, for lack of a better word.  And it’s very short.  But it does make you think about aspects of the situation in Syria and its neighbours which you might not have thought about before.  Read it – it’s worth it.  And well done to BBC 2 for commissioning the forthcoming documentary, as well.  It’s such a complex situation, with so many different groups involved, and so many other countries affected as well, and it’s difficult to try to get your head round it all.   I could do with some historical novels about Syria, but I’m struggling to find any, other than either those set during ancient times or those about the Crusades and told from a European viewpoint, which aren’t really what I’m after.  I have got a 900 page book on the subject waiting to be read, but I really haven’t got time to tackle it at the moment (and my book mountain already makes Mount Everest look like an anthill) … but this one’s very short, and well worth a read.

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Miss Saigon and other musicals – some musings, on a nasty wet day

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Some settings/backgrounds for musicals.  The Vietnam War (Miss Saigon), Nazi anti-Semitism and homophobia (Cabaret), poverty and crime and domestic violence (Oliver!), pogroms in Tsarist Ukraine (Fiddler on the Roof), destitution and the failed June Uprising of 1832 (Les Miserables), the Cold War (Chess), the Anschluss (The Sound of Music), corruption and excessive populism in politics (Evita), ethnic tensions and gang warfare (West Side Story), racism in the Deep South (Show Boat), war and racism (South Pacific).   And I haven’t seen Hamilton yet, but I believe that that contains plenty of socio-political messages too.

I was just thinking (sorry, this is all going to be more than a bit gloomy), whilst watching Miss Saigon last night, about how some of the world’s best-known musicals are centred on deep-rooted political and social issues –  many of which are, regrettably, still relevant today, many years after whichever part of the past they’re set in.  Yes, all right, all right, not all musicals are like that!   There are plenty of jolly, cheerful ones, like Mamma Mia and Anything Goes.  Even I can’t really find too much of a significant historico-political message in Cats or Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  It would be seriously pushing it to say that Annie Get Your Gun was about feminism, Starlight Express contained subversive messages about progress (the electric trains being defeated by the old steam trains!), Mary Poppins was about the suffragettes or Grease was about the problems of peer pressure.  Phantom of the Opera has a historical setting but isn’t really a historical story.  And no-one ever points out that, when they make a state out of this territory and call it Oklahoma, “they” will be taking away the last bit of what was supposed to be “Indian Territory”.

Then there are the musicals which do make a point, but maybe not in such a profound way as those like Miss Saigon and Cabaret.  Rich-poor/class divides in Annie, Dirty Dancing and My Fair Lady.  Family tensions over tradition and religion in The Jazz Singer.  How far is The Wizard of Oz an allegory about the problems in rural America during the 1890s?  Chicago is, obviously, about the issues of the Prohibition era.   And then there are the ones about Bible stories.   But I was thinking about the ones that really do go deeply into political and social issues.

 

One of the most profound political statements of all time – it is, honestly!! – is that political leaders need to remember that it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right.  No, that was not said by a philosopher or political theorist: it was said by “Mrs Anna” in The King and I, when talking to the Siamese Crown Prince Chulalongkorn about slavery.  The real Anna Leonowens was quite a mistress of fake news, but that’s beside the point!  The King and I deals not only with slavery but also with the horrific treatment of a woman given to the king as a gift, and with the political and cultural implications of Western attempts to gain influence in the Far East.  I love what she says about how it’s not a question of what we want, but of what is right, though.  That line really should be better known than it is!  Chulalongkorn, when he became king, actually did abolish slavery in Siam … but, even in the 21st century, the practice of slavery, whilst no longer legal anywhere (although Mauritania didn’t abolish it until 2007) still exists, notably in the forms of human trafficking, and of the enslavement of women by groups such as Islamic State and Boko Haram.

That was really what I was thinking – how most of these issues haven’t gone anyway.  In fact, they’re rather dominating the news at the moment.   Not Vietnam as such, but the Vietnam War is the ultimate lesson in how getting involved in a civil war in another country tends to end in disaster – especially if it’s, in part, a Cold War proxy war.  Yes, horrendous things are happening in Syria, but getting involved militarily really isn’t going to help.   And, as has been pointed out several times in recent months, the Cold War, sadly, seems to be back with a vengeance … even if it hasn’t started taking over chess again yet.

Then we’ve got governments which seem to lean worryingly far to the right in both Poland and Hungary, and the increasing involvement of the Freedom Party in Austria … where The Sound of Music was only shown on TV for the first time a few years ago.  The 25th anniversary of the senseless, evil murder of poor Stephen Lawrence, and Tom Daley’s speech about the appalling lack of LGBT rights in many Commonwealth countries and elsewhere are important reminders of the fact that racism and homophobia remain significant problems in society; and some worrying speeches were made in the House of Commons last week on the subject of anti-Semitism, which of late seems to be rearing its ugly head more and more.

A recent report in the Manchester Evening News actually used the word “Dickensian” when referring to poverty, homelessness and poor quality housing.   Les Miserables is to some extent about “rich young boys”, but a lot of the rich young boys are killed … and the outstanding characters are Jean Valjean, forced to steal a loaf of bread in order to feed his family, and Fantine, forced into prostitution when she loses her job.  There was a report on Sky News only this morning about the increase in rent arrears, evictions and the use of food banks – linked to the problems caused by the introduction of the universal credit system.  Incidentally, which of the working-class characters in Les Miserables “make it in the end”?  The Thenardiers, who are thieves and con artists!   That’s quite a (les) miserable(s) thought, really.

That’s Paris.  Oliver! is set in London, and West Side Story in New York, over a century apart, but both involve crime and violence, although Oliver! has more in common with Les Miserables in that it shows the lives of the desperately poor – I don’t really like the word “underclass”, but it is relevant in these cases.  Gang warfare in West Side Story, crime and violence in Oliver! … it’s not knife crime as such, but it’s all coming from the same direction.

Then there’s Evita.  Actually, Eva Peron is still hugely popular in Argentina: I went there in 2016, and she’s still such a heroine there.  So, is “bread and circuses” politics, as the Romans would have put it, what works after all?   It’s interesting that “Lula”, the ex-president of Brazil, is attracting considerable support ahead of his corruption trial.   There are certainly some parallels between him and Eva Peron.  Plus ca change …

 

But what is noticeable about a lot of these musicals, apart from Les Miserables, is that there is a sense of hope there, and that that’s usually the American Dream.  Strangely, that’s more in the later musicals than the earlier ones.  Simon Schama said, in one of his BBC history programmes, that Somewhere Over The Rainbow was the ultimate American Dream song, and it is, and that was 1939, but The Wizard of Oz wasn’t actually about American Dream stuff.  There isn’t much of an American Dream in Show Boat, and Maria, Anita, Bernardo, Chico etc in West Side Story have found out that the American Dream really isn’t all it was cracked up to be.  I’m not trying to be critical of America, by the way: I love America!  I’m just saying how things come across in the musicals.

“There are no cats in America, and the streets are paved with cheese.”  Well, An American Tail‘s a musical, isn’t it?!  Going to America isn’t mentioned in The Sound of Music, but we all know that it was where the (von) Trapps ended up. Tevye and his family, in Fiddler on the Roof, escape the pogroms and move to Chicago.  In Miss Saigon (immigration laws having changed since the days of Tevye’s family and the Mousekewitzes), The Engineer is desperate for a visa to enable him to get to America, and Kim kills herself so that her ex, Chris, will take their son to live with him in America.  Chris and his friend John both talk about how they genuinely believed that, as Americans, they were going to Vietnam to “do good”.  That feeling’s kind of gone now.  As I said, I’m not trying to criticise America: you could say the same about believing in spreading British justice across the globe, if that featured in musicals.   Whatever propaganda might appear on TV in Turkey or Russia or elsewhere, how many people actually believe that interference by other countries in Syria is just about trying to “do good”?

Ugh, this has got really doom and gloom-ish!   I think it must be because, although Miss Saigon was brilliant, there was a ¼ hour delay because of a technical hitch, so my mind started to wander, at a time when I was a bit fed up because we didn’t know if or when things’d get going again!   The next musical I’m due to see is the new stage version of An Office and a Gentleman, and that should be cheerful and uplifting – and, hooray, it’s full of lovely music from the 1980s, the greatest musical decade of all time!  Ah – speaking of the 1980s, how about Billy Elliot?  That’s set during the miners’ strike, but it still manages to be cheerful and uplifting, at least at the end.  Mind you, your chances of being saved from poverty by your artistic talent are probably not really that much greater than your chances of being saved from destitution by a long-lost rich grandfather (Oliver!), parent’s guilt-stricken ex-boss (Les Miserables) or random other benefactor (Annie).   West Side Story’s probably more realistic.   Oh dear, down the path of doom and gloom again …

I suppose one of the things with musicals, and with books, films, plays, etc – and it’s no coincidence that many of the greatest books ever written, such as Gone With The Wind and War and Peace, are set in troubled times – is that they personalise the issues, and that that makes you think about them in a different way.  The characters may be fictional, but there were Kims, Fantines, Nancys, and all the others.  And there still are, even if in different places.

OK, doom and gloom waffle over!  Well done if you’ve actually bothered to read it all – which I don’t suppose anyone actually has!   It’s just so sad that, over forty years after the end of the Vietnam War, the world’s still stuck in this relentless cycle of wars and refugee crises.  And that, over 180 years after Oliver! is set, both poverty and crime on the streets of London, and elsewhere, are actually getting worse.  Right, doom-laden rant definitely over now.  I’ll try to find something more cheerful to write about next time!

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society

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The theme of this film, set in Guernsey and London in 1946, wasn’t actually so much the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands as the fact that books bring people. So, if you happen to be reading this, and you’re doing so because you know me through book-related matters, we are living proof of that 🙂 . If you happen to be reading this for any other reason, hello – it’s always nice to know that someone actually reads my wafflings! I’m not sure how many people have found romance through books – please let me know if you have! – but a lot of us will have found friends that way.  In this age of the computer, the laptop, the tablet and the Smart Phone, book clubs and fora have become very popular.

And The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society, in the film (and the book on which it’s based), was a book club … formed because its members needed to give the Nazi occupiers of Guernsey a valid-sounding excuse for why they were meeting. No, they weren’t meeting to organise clandestine resistance activities – it wasn’t that sort of book – but to eat a pork roast made from an illicitly kept pig, which was where the pie came in. I have read the book, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, but must admit that I don’t remember being particularly impressed by it; but I did really enjoy the film.  The book involved a lot of letters, but films can’t really work with letters, so don’t expect it to be too similar to the book.

It was set in 1946, as I said, so it wasn’t directly about the occupation of the Channel Islands, but several of the scenes were flashbacks to the years of the Occupation.  Is it just my perception, or was the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands something that never used to be spoken about in the UK itself?  Back in the day, the only reason I was aware of it was because it was mentioned in the Chalet School books.   It just wasn’t spoken about.  And that’s even though many of the children who were evacuated – 50% of the civilian population of the Channel Islands, including 80% of the children, were evacuated to the mainland – came to towns near here – Stockport in particular, and also Oldham, Rochdale and Bury.

Was it because there was a sense of shame that the UK was unable to stop the Nazis from occupying some of the soil of the British Isles, Crown dependencies, from using slave labour there, and from deporting some of the islanders to concentration camps?   Did people not want to admit that that had happened?  Or am I just being over-dramatic?  I just don’t remember it being mentioned.  Then that changed.  There was a drama series in 2004, called Island at War, with Joanne Froggatt as a Channel Islander who became involved with a German soldier.  And there’ve been other films and books since, notably Another Mother’s Son, and documentaries showing the fortifications built by the occupiers.  Maybe it’s just part of the general upsurge in interest in the Second World War since … I think maybe since 1945, when there was so much attention on the fiftieth anniversary of VE Day.

Anyway.  It didn’t actually start in Guernsey: it began in London, with young author Juliet Ashton.  It seemed very glamorous for 1946 – all posh clubs for dinner and dancing, smart frocks, nice hairdos, bright red lipstick, etc – but presumably the point was to draw a contrast between the life that Juliet, although she’d suffered the tragedy of losing both her parents in the war, was living, with her rich American boyfriend, and the lives of the people on Guernsey and indeed most of the other people in Blitz-ravaged London.   Then she received a letter from one Dawsey Adams, a man in Guernsey who’d bought an old book she’d sold, which had her name and address in it, and was writing to ask her if she could give him the address of a bookshop in London – there being no bookshops left in Guernsey – as he wanted to buy a particular book.  They began corresponding, and she decided to go to Guernsey to attend a meeting of the society.

OK, this was rather far-fetched 🙂 .  But, hey, it was a story.  Do people still write their names and addresses in books, by the way?  People in books are always coming across old books in libraries, with someone’s name in them.  We used to write our names and addresses – “Manchester, Lancashire, England, the United Kingdom, Planet Earth, Milky Way Galaxy, The Universe” – in books when we were kids, but do adults still do that?  Anyway.  Juliet’s boyfriend proposed, and she said yes, but she felt that something was missing from her life and her work … you could see where this was heading.

In Guernsey, she met the members of The Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society. Not all the characters from the book were in the film, but I suppose they had to cut something to get it into two hours. There were some gorgeous shots of beautiful scenery, but I have to say that it didn’t seem all that Guernesias otherwise.  In fact, I’m not sure that even the scenery was Guernesias: I think a lot of it was filmed in Devon.  The odd word of Guernsey patois was thrown in, but the characters spoke in a range of British mainland accents (with a hint of Dutch, in the case of the actor playing Dawsey).  Oh well.

She heard some of their tales about the Occupation, but there was a Big Mystery, involving Elizabeth McKenna, the young woman who’d founded the society and also the mother of a young child being looked after by Dawsey. So was Dawsey, who of course was young and handsome, Elizabeth’s partner and the father of the child? No. Phew!

At this point, it felt as if there should be some very dark secret, presumably that one of the characters had been involved in collaboration, and that that was why they were all so reluctant to talk about what had happened.  But it wasn’t really that.  The film, and the book, have been criticised in some reviews for being too cosy and fluffy … but they haven’t claimed to be hard-hitting war films, to be fair.  Elizabeth had had a relationship with a German soldier – but he was a really nice German soldier, and proof that not all Germans were Nazis, etc etc, so that was all OK.  Except that it wasn’t, because he’d been caught sneaking off to meet her, and had been shipped off elsewhere, whereupon his ship had been torpedoed and he’d been killed.  And – and this was the nearest we got to the horrors of the war – Elizabeth had tried to help an escaped slave labourer, a neighbour had informed on her, and she’d been sent to Ravensbruck.  There’d been no word of her since, and her friends were raising her child.  One of the characters, Amelia, who’d lost her husband in the First World War and her daughter and unborn grandchild in the German bombing, was terrified that the child’s paternal relatives would take her away.

Juliet got involved in it all, and decided to stay on – and her American fiancé was able to find out that Elizabeth had been killed at Ravensbruck.  So, yes, the horrors of the Occupation were there … but only in the background, though.  The awfulness of Elizabeth’s death and of the use of slave labour, the sufferings of the civilian population during the occupation, and the experience of the children who were separated from their families for over five years, all seemed very much secondary to whether or not Juliet was going to dump her fiance – and get together with Dawsey.

Which, inevitably, she did.  I always feel rather sorry for the discarded partners in “finding yourself” books/films!  The “finding yourself” element is easier to put across in a book than in a film, but there were, to be fair, quite a lot of references to feeling that things were fated, and that you knew people as soon as you met them, etc.  It’s just not that easy to get that to work in a film.  The point was also made that the book club formed a bond between several lonely people at a very difficult period in their lives, and about the incredibly importance of both books and companionship … but, because the story wasn’t actually set during that period, that didn’t come across as well as it might have done, either.

So, Juliet felt far more inspired in her writing, moved to Guernsey, married Dawsey, settled into life amongst the Guernsey and Literary Potato Peel Pie Society crowd, and felt that she’d found herself. That was what the book was about, and I’m not criticising that any more than I’d criticise Gone With the Wind for not giving us detailed battlefield scenes; but it’d be interesting to see the events of the war, as they affected the characters, as they took place, rather than just hearing about them later, so to speak.  Sadly, Mary Ann Shaffer died before the book was even completed, and I’m not aware that her niece Annie Barrows has any plans to write a book like that,

It’s a nice, cosy film, and, as I was feeling a bit stressed this morning, it was just what I needed.  If you’re looking to learn more about the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands, you may come away disappointed.  If you’re happy with a comfort film, and can get your head round the fact that a film involving one of the darkest periods of British history is intended as a comfort film, then go and see it – and you will really enjoy it.  Just don’t expect it to be something it isn’t.

 

 

The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella

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This book would have been a lot better had the author been able to decide what he actually wanted to write – a serious historical novel, a light romance or a rip-off of ‘Allo ‘Allo. He should have stuck to the light romance, because he did quite a good job of that.  The basic plot involved James, a British officer stationed in Allied-occupied Naples during 1943 and 1944, tasked with dealing with the numerous applications for British soldiers to be allowed to marry their Italian girlfriends, and his relationship with a young Italian war widow, Livia, who did the cooking at Allied HQ.   It was a reasonable enough idea for a book, but it was such a mix of different genres that it got a bit silly.

The Italian girlfriends were all prostitutes. That’s a stereotype of Naples that goes right back to the French invasion of Italy in 1494.  “See Naples and die” (of syphilis).  OK, obviously there was a lot more prostitution in wartime than in peacetime … but all the girlfriends?!  And, whilst there was mention of women being forced into prostitution because they had no other means of survival in wartime, they all rather seemed to be enjoying it – like Yvette and Mimi in ‘Allo ‘Allo.   And any Italian men who weren’t away fighting were involved in the Mafia: the entire city was a sea of corruption.  Meanwhile, the Americans were all loud and brash, whereas the British were all jolly good fair play types.  Throw in a few ‘Allo ‘Allo-esque language issues.  “Do you lick nipples?”  for “Do you like Naples?”  (as if an Italian would refer to Napoli as “Naples” anyway!). It would’ve worked quite well in a 1980s sitcom, but I don’t think the book was actually meant to be funny – well, not in a farcical way, anyway.

As a light-ish romance, it worked much better. There were all sorts of problems in their way.  He was meant to be discouraging relationships between soldiers and local girls, so it was going to look really bad if he embarked on one himself.  What were they going to do after the war – could he settle in Italy, or could she settle in Britain?  The back stories were quite interesting.  James  had been involved with a girl at home, and it was all very suitable but they were more like friends than lovers, and then she, going into the Land Army having transformed herself, had dumped him because she’d met someone she really loved.   Livia had loved her late husband, but had realised that she didn’t want the conventional life that a woman in Southern Italy was expected to lead.  And there was all this stuff about cooking, with detailed descriptions of meals, which was very entertaining and really good fun.

Then he suddenly seemed to have decided that, seeing as he was writing a novel set in wartime, he really ought to make it more serious … but went way overboard in doing so. Vesuvius erupted, but, thanks to an evacuation operation organised by the Allies, the effects weren’t nearly as bad as they could have been.  That is actually true.  James was in the thick of it all.  Well, OK, you want your main character at the heart of the action.  Livia’s father was injured, and, in order to get medication for him, she got involved with an unwanted Mafioso suitor.  She then turned down the said suitor’s proposal, and, in revenge, he arranged for her to be taken away as part of a group of women who were going to be sent to a brothel in the German-occupied part of Italy in order to try to win the war by infecting all the German soldiers with syphilis!   The author said that this was actually tried in France, incidentally.

However, en route to German-occupied Northern Italy, the women were shipwrecked! They were rescued by partisans, and joined up with them.  Some serious and interesting points were made about how close Italy came to becoming communist, and also about how the promises of equality made by communists might well have appealed to women used to the very patriarchal society of Italy, and Southern Italy in particular.  But the whole thing with the Mafioso suitor and the winning the war with syphilis and the shipwreck was just so OTT that it was hard to take anything seriously after that.

Meanwhile, James had given up his desk job and headed for the front line, and there were some effective descriptions of warfare, and of the death of his best friend … but it just didn’t fit very well with all the “lick nipples” stuff from earlier in the book. Then, of course, in the middle of wartorn Italy, he managed to find out exactly where Livia was, and … you get the idea.

You have to be a really brilliant author to pull off comedy (and some of the “comedy” in this wasn’t even very funny, and the stereotyping was arguably quite offensive), romance and serious history all in the same book, and Anthony Capella’s not in that league. It was all right, but he should have just made it a light romance with a lot of food talk.  He did those bits rather well.

 

 

 

 

Julius Caesar Revealed – BBC 1

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Mary Beard really doesn’t like Julius Caesar, and she did a very good job of letting us know why – in particular, presenting him as the prototype for certain current politicians whom most of us probably aren’t particularly keen on either.  And, towards the end of the programme, she pointed out that removing a dictator without any sort of plan as to what system of government you’re going to put in his/her place can end up making things worse rather than better.

The trend these days does seem to be for historical documentaries to draw as many comparisons as possible between the figures and events of the past and those of today.  I’m never sure whether or not that’s a good idea.  If I’m watching a programme about Julius Caesar, do I really want to be thinking about Vladimir Putin?  I’m watching it because I want to be thinking about Ancient Rome, not about 21st century Russia.  And making those sorts of comparisons isn’t really very fair to anyone.  It’s not very fair to compare Messi or Ronaldo to Pele or Bobby Charlton or Eusebio, never mind to start comparing politicians across a distance of more than two millennia!   However, it did make for very entertaining viewing.  Mary Beard is great!  And isn’t it nice to see a female presenter who doesn’t feel obliged to tart herself up in order to be on TV?

Julius Caesar, then.  The anti-establishment candidate.  The one who wasn’t part of the Roman political elite.  Nothing wrong with that in itself: I certainly can’t be doing with the political elite.  But, as we all know, it can sometimes get out of hand.  In Caesar’s case, that didn’t involve the sort of shift towards extremism that we’re currently seeing in parts of Central and East Central Europe; but it did lead towards dictatorship.  If we’re doing comparisons, think the 1920s and 1930s.  So how did he do it?

The Gallic Wars.  Honestly, that book is so boring.  My main recollection of it is of my Latin teacher droning on and on about it on the day on which the draw for the next round of the 1990/91 Cup Winners’ Cup was due to be made.  If the lesson finished on time, I was going to be able to whip my Walkman out of my schoolbag, put my headphones on, and hear the draw whilst on my way along the corridor to the next lesson.  Back then, draws didn’t take an hour like they do now.  But no.  She waffled on and on, and I missed the draw.  Obviously that wasn’t Julius Caesar’s fault, but it made me dislike De Bello Gallico even more than I did anyway.  Also, every time anyone mentions Julius Caesar, I think of Kenneth Williams in Carry on Cleo.  “I came, I saw, I conked out.”  “Infamy!  Infamy! They’ve all got it in for me!”

Anyway, to get back to ancient Rome, the Romans got De Bello Gallico in small chunks – like Donald Trump’s Twitter feed, only hopefully with rather better grammar and syntax.  Caesar, whilst he was off in Gaul and therefore away from the centre of power, sent these dispatches back and got people to read them out in the street.   Mary Beard made some very good points about how much easier it was to put forward your own view of events, especially in wartime, in the days before TV and cinema, or war photography.  It was probably the 1991 Gulf War – “The skies over Baghdad have been illuminated …” – which ushered in the era of what’s pretty much live coverage of warfare, but, even before that, pictures like the famous, horrific images of the aftermath of napalm attacks in Vietnam were making it difficult for politicians to give the impression of “mission accomplished” without any counting of the cost.  None of that for Caesar: he could say whatever he wanted.  At least that’s one thing that’s changed.  Then again, pictures can be manipulated too … but, anyway, photographic evidence was something that Caesar didn’t have to deal with.

And he came up with clever soundbites.  “Veni, vidi, vici” – “I conquered” rather than “I conked out”.  He really pioneered the use of the soundbite, and it’s a technique which is, obviously, still in use, probably more now than it’s ever been.  Having gained power, he was the first person in the West to have his portrait stamped on coins.  And he had busts of himself sent out all over the Empire – think of all those statues of Lenin and Stalin, and those huge pictures of Mao Zedong, Hitler and Mussolini.  She also suggested that he liked wearing laurel wreaths to cover up his bald patch, which was quite an amusing thought.

And he was hugely popular.  This was despite the fact that some of his actions in Gaul and elsewhere were controversial even at the time.  Mary Beard even used the word “genocide”.  Even if not that, they seem to’ve been as much about his personal ego as anything else.  What some politicians and military commanders will do because of their own ambitions and their own egos … now there’s something that’s true in every era.

And it was despite the fact that he wasn’t really a very nice bloke, and that his personal life seemed to consist of one scandal after another.  Yep. It wasn’t hard to see what sort of comparison Mary Beard was drawing there.  One comparison she didn’t make was the way he got himself appointed dictator for life, in which there’s an obvious parallel with Xi Jinping, but I think this might have been filmed before the latest political reforms in China.

Having said all of that, I thought she could have given him a bit more credit as a military commander.  You have to do that with Napoleon as well.  And he did sometimes show compassion towards his enemies.  Also, to be fair to him, the Roman political system was a corrupt mess, and it badly needed sorting out.  It’s just that, when someone comes to power promising to sort out the mess … well, look what tends to happen in any country, in any era, following a coup or a revolution.

The lesson to be drawn from a lot of this was that, the more things change, the more they stay the same.  I want to credit Jon Bon Jovi with that line, but apparently (thank you, Google) it comes from a 19th century French writer called Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr.  But the main point of it was that Caesar pioneered so many of the techniques used by modern politicians, and how great his influence was.  The Julian calendar was in use across Europe until … well, the 16th century in some countries, the 18th century in Britain, and the 20th century in what was then the Russian Empire.  The terms “Tsar” and “Kaiser” both come from “Caesar”.  We still talk about “crossing the Rubicon”, or being “stabbed in the back”.  How many other people, ever, have had that sort of influence on politics and culture, and still have it after over two thousand years?  It’s incredible: it really is.  So can you really compare Julius Caesar to anyone else?   And yet much of what he did was so similar to what certain politicians do today – because he showed how to do that and how to make a success of it.

And yet he ended up stabbed in the back.  By members of the elite.  And what happened next?  Civil war.  Caesar being deified!  And one man rule.  Overthrow a dictator without having some pretty clear plans as to what’s going to happen next, and things tend to go rather horribly wrong.  Iraq.  Libya.  There are a lot of other examples, over the centuries.  You can even say England – Oliver Cromwell was worse than Charles I.  That’s Charles I, “King and Martyr”.  Nicholas II of Russia, “Bloody Nicholas”, is a saint in the Russian Orthodox church.  Then again, even well-planned political reforms can end up going horribly wrong.  I’ve often wondered what Mikhail Gorbachev makes of Vladimir Putin. Apparently he told Interfax the other day that “The situation hasn’t been this bad in a long time, and I am very disappointed in how world leaders are behaving themselves. We see evidence of an inability to use diplomatic mechanisms. International politics has turned into exchanges of accusations, sanctions, and even military strikes”.  That’s as sensible a comment as I’ve heard from anyone recently.

Anyway, back to Julius Caesar.  The Roman geezer, who squashed his nose in a lemon squeezer – sorry, just had to get that it somewhere.  Mary Beard’s main point, I think, was that Julius Caesar, more than two thousand years after his death, is still hugely influential.  And perhaps that, as much as you have to admire him for that, it’s not necessarily a very good thing.

What is good is Mary Beard.  She’s brilliant!  Studying Roman history’s fallen out of fashion.  If anyone can bring it back into fashion, she can.

 

 

 

 

Civilisations – BBC 2 (it’s getting better!)

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This series started slowly, but it’s improved drastically; and the last two episodes, “The Triumph of Art” and “First Contact”, really did get it spot on.  The aim of this programme, Civilisations rather than Civilisation, was to tell the history of art on a global scale, as a deliberate contrast to the Eurocentric picture presented by the 1960s series.  Setting out with that sort of aim, however worthy, can go rather wrong sometimes.  Remember Eldorado?!   In the first episode of this series, they tried too hard and jumped about all over the place.  However, Simon Schama and David Olusoga got it bang on in the episodes just broadcast.

Mention Renaissance art, and you think of Italy.  I remember our history A-level teacher asking us to name some Renaissance figures, and – this being 1990 – everyone chorusing “Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello”.  Ask me now to name some Renaissance figures, and I’ll give you the same answer.  Sorry!   I never even liked those silly turtles … but say “Renaissance art” and you think Italy.  Wonderful, glorious, sunny, colourful Italy!

Well, we got Italy.  Of course we did: it would have been all sorts of wrong if we hadn’t.  But, in the same episode, we also got the Ottoman Empire, the Mughal Empire and Spain.

Ask me about Suleiman the Magnificent, and you’ll get a long lecture on the Battle of Mohacs, the First Siege of Vienna, the conquest of Belgrade and the Knights of St John being thrown off Rhodes.  Because that’s what we do, don’t we?  We primarily associate Suleiman, even though we call him “the Magnificent”, with war.  Yet we primarily associate Italy at the same time (yes, OK, part of the same time, I do know that the Renaissance went on a lot longer than Suleiman’s reign did!), the period of the Italian Wars – yep, wars, the clue’s in the name – with art.  That’s very silly, really J.  Incidentally, whilst this programme must have been filmed some time ago, the inclusion of the reign of Suleiman was really rather timely – partly because Viktor Orban rather worryingly appears to think that we’re still living at the time of the Battle of Mohacs, and partly because Suleiman was the son of the Ottoman emperor who conquered Syria … and the Ottomans did quite a decent job of ruling Syria for 300 years or so, before it all went pear-shaped.

Anyway, back to art – and the glorious Suleimaniye Mosque.  If someone’s sufficiently interested in the Ottomans to know about Mohacs et al, or even just if they’ve been to Istanbul, they’ll know about the Suleimaniye Mosque.  But it’s highly unlikely to be the first thing that springs to mind when you think about Suleiman, despite the fact that it bears his name (having said which, hands up everyone who hears the words “Sistine Chapel” and immediately thinks “Ah, yes, Pope Sixtus IV”), and the name of Mimar Sinan, the architect, isn’t known in Britain at all.  Western images of the Ottoman Empire tend to involve either scimitars or harems.  But it’s absolutely stunning – both the building itself and the artwork inside it.  Simon Schama suggested that Suleiman and the Renaissance-era popes were after the same thing, to try to surpass the Hagia Sophia.  I think that might have been pushing it, but sometimes you have to do that to try to make a link and make a programme flow!   But how fascinating to have the glorious art of Suleiman’s Ottoman Empire and the glorious art of Renaissance Europe presented side by side.  I don’t think I’ve ever thought of that before.

I’m better at making links with wars, because that’s what we’re used to.  Here goes!  Back to the Battle of Mohacs.  Hungary – which was, incidentally, probably the first place outside Italy to get really stuck into the Renaissance, and which should probably have got a mention in this programme but didn’t – was split, and the part which didn’t go to the Ottomans ended up under the control of Ferdinand Habsburg, who, when his brother Charles V died, also ended up as Holy Roman Emperor.  I’m making a link here: I’ll get to it in a minute!  The Spanish part of Charles’s domains passed to his (Charles’s) son Philip II, who was succeeded by Philip III, and then by Philip IV.  What about the Renaissance in Spain under the three Philips, then?  Nah?  Too busy being Black Legend-ish?  Too reactionary-Catholic?  When you think about Renaissance art, you just don’t really think about Spain – Aragon and Castile – do you?

But how about Velazquez?  All right, this was possibly cheating a bit.  The art of Velazquez came well after the glories of the High Renaissance and the art and architecture of the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent.  But they weren’t so far apart that it was inappropriate to put them all into one programme, to make comparisons between them, and to talk about the links between them.   We bandy about terms like “the West” and “Europe”, and sometimes forget that even parts of Western Europe have sometimes seemed a bit cut off from that.  Spain never normally gets a look-in when Renaissance art’s being discussed.  It was very interesting to see it included.

How about the Mughals?  Akbar the Great?  Jahangir?  Shah Jahan.  Ah, yes, we all know about Shah Jahan – he built the Taj Mahal!  And the Red Fort.  Mughal political and social history is sadly very little-known in the West, but, although it’s unlikely that many viewers would have heard of the I’timad-ud-Daulah, built by Shah Jahan’s stepmother as a mausoleum for her father and described by Simon Schama as “perfect”, everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal.  It’s far better known in the West than the Suleimaniye Mosque is.  In fact, I think it’s probably far better known in the West than most of the architecture – I said “architecture”, not “art” – of Renaissance Europe is.  But, although, as with the work of Velazquez, it wasn’t built so long after the Renaissance that it was appropriate to discuss them together, I’ve never seen that done before.  The idea of the programme is for the viewer to appreciate all forms of art, not just to compare and contrast them, obviously, but it is fascinating to compare and contrast them, and to think about them on a world scale.  We just don’t normally do that.  We’re not taught that way.  We do things in bits!   This was a very ambitious series, but it’s working now.  It really is.

And (OK, I know that starting sentences with “and” and “but” isn’t very nice, but I’m not writing an English literature essay), apart from a few slightly tenuous links, it never felt forced.  And it never felt … what’s a good way of putting it?  Overly politically correct?   There’s a trend now, especially with some people writing about literature, to go on and on about people in the West disrespecting Eastern culture, and even to try to make the viewer/reader feel guilty.  This didn’t do that at all.  It was about appreciating everything.  East, West, areas of Europe seen as being artistic leaders and areas of Europe seen as being reactionary – there was a glorious flourishing of art and culture in all of them.

The next episode started with how sad it was that some beautiful Benin bronzes had ended up in the British Museum, being disrespected by people who thought African art was primitive; and I thought, oh dear, here we go.  I’m not saying that it’s not sad; but the previous episode had been so positive, and we get more than enough negative stuff on TV and in the press as it is.   However, it turned out that that wasn’t the tone of the “First Contact” episode at all: it actually was really positive.  We tend to forget the positive stuff.  It’s easy, now, to forget that, in the days of the Voyages of Discovery, the West had huge respect and admiration for Eastern culture, and was after the things that the East produced and the West didn’t or couldn’t.  That was also true of the early days of British involvement in India.  And Western countries, and Russia, were desperate to set up trading links with China.

I’m talking about “the East”, but the programme began by talking about West Africa, and you’d be inclined to say that there wasn’t the same respect in Europe for West Africa that there was for, say, China.  Was that more because of lack of knowledge and lack of contact than anything else?  There was never a Silk Road linking Europe to Africa, the way there was between Europe and Asia … and Benin bronzes never became part of Western culture in the way that Chinese pottery or lacquerware did.  But David Olusoga showed us artwork from Benin, depicting the Portuguese traders who went there in the 15th century, and also showed us how Portuguese art and architecture showed African influences.  He also went on about how a rhinoceros influenced the spread of printing – er, I’m not convinced about that, but it sounded good!  This sort of thing is never discussed.  It’s usually all about the slave trade.  Of course, we should talk about the slave trade, but let’s talk about these positive aspects of “first contact”, as well.

Then on to the Spanish in Mexico and elsewhere in the Americas.  It is really difficult – and I love Spain! – to do this without getting Black Legend-ish!   Long before the days of colonial guilt, you wouldn’t find too many English historians talking about the Spanish in the Americas without getting Black Legend-ish!   So well done and thank you, David Olusoga and the BBC, for looking at it positively and talking about syncretic faiths and syncretic cultures.  I haven’t yet made it to Mexico, but I could have cried when I saw the destruction wrought by the conquistadors on the wonderful buildings, especially the religious buildings, in Peru and Bolivia … but I was also fascinated to see how, in Lima and Cusco and elsewhere the images of Mary and Jesus and other religious figures were dressed in real fabrics, and people had brought, for example, toys to “give” to the images of the baby Jesus.  You don’t see that in Europe.  In Bolivia, at Copacabana – the beach in Brazil is named after a shrine at Lake Titicaca! – the image of the Virgin Mary kind of doubles as the moon goddess: both are worshipped.  There are elements of this in the West Indies as well: voodoo is essentially a syncretism of Christianity and African spiritualism.  And the Day of the Dead festival, on which the programme concentrated, combines Catholic and Aztec traditions wonderfully well.   The influence worked both ways, as David pointed out – Spanish art began to show South American influence.

This has always gone on.  We’ve just marked Easter – which was probably (there’s some debate about it) named after a Germanic goddess called Eostre.  Passover and Easter might commemorate different Bible stories, but they both involve lambs and eggs, and the Easter Bunny tradition goes back to    The Romans were very good at pairing up their gods and goddesses with local gods and goddesses – Minerva was equated with Sulis, of Aquae Sulis fame, and with Athena.  Christmas is a glorious syncretism of Yuletide festivities – trees and mistletoe and Yule logs and so on – and the Christian Nativity story.  There are issues when cultures collide and combine, and people can get quite upset about it – don’t get me started on people referring to Father Christmas as “Santa Claus”, and people in countries where Christmas presents are traditionally brought by the Christ Child get even more upset about the Santa takeover! – but there are positives there too.  And it’s certainly a lot more positive than the usual presentation of the meeting of European and African or Asian cultures as negative and racist.

Some of this wasn’t strictly about art, but never mind!  The next bit was, though – the Netherlands and Japan, maybe not the most obvious of pairings.  You think of the Dutch in Indonesia, and of Japan as shutting itself off from the West, but we were shown how that wasn’t really the case, and there were contacts there … although Japan, which, like China later on, was put off by annoying missionaries, sought to restrict Western influence, whereas the Netherlands went mad for Eastern artwork and Amsterdam became the major market for it.  Britain went mad for it as well: you’ve only to look at the contents of any stately home to see that!

It finished up with the British in India.  Well, it had to – that’s what most viewers would probably have thought of if asked about cultural contact.  The Royal Pavilion in Brighton had already been mentioned, by Simon Schama in the previous episode: this was more about paintings, and some of the early buildings.  The White Mughals era, for lack of a better way of putting it, was a real meeting of cultures, and … well, as I’ve already said, look at the contents of any stately home, and think about the influences of Asia.  And look at the Indian paintings we were shown in this episode, and think about the British influences.  Everyone’s got so much to learn from everyone else.

It ended on a negative note, though, with the rather incongruous construction of the Neoclassical Government House in Kolkata/Calcutta, modelled on Kedleston Hall.  It’s a gorgeous building, but it looks a bit daft and out of place in India.  Then again, putting ancient Greek style buildings in 18th century Washington DC was a bit daft too … er, but that’s totally irrelevant.  I don’t know how next week’s episode (this week’s is about “colour and civilisation”, and will give me an excuse to get soppy about Venice, hooray!), about imperialism, is going to pan out, but it would be nice if it could focus on some positives.

We get enough negativity, and sometimes it feels as if some people, unable to accept that “the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”, are trying to turn everything about history into something negative.  How wonderful to see some aspects of history which have very often been shown as something negative shown as anything but.  Brilliant from the BBC and the presenters.  This series really has come on in leaps and bounds since it started, and I’m so glad they I persevered with it!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

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This is a rather depressing book, although I’m not honestly sure what else I should have expected from a novel set in an asylum. It sounded like it was going to be a romance.  It was actually more about attitudes towards mental health patients in early twentieth century Britain, and, in particular, about eugenics.  It’s easy to forget that belief in eugenics was widespread and quite “respectable” until the horrors of the Nazi period completely discredited them, and there are frightening stories of forced sterilisations being carried out on people well into the second half of the twentieth century.

The book’s set during the exceptionally hot and dry summer of 1911, and – as in The Go Between, set in 1900, and I’m sure there must be other examples but I can’t just think of any! –  there’s a sense that the tension is going to keep rising for as long as but not after the hot weather lasts.  There’s also a sense of the tension outside the doors of the asylum, with the railway strikes, and the Liverpool general transport workers’ strike and the riots which broke out during it.  The location is the High Royds Asylum at Menston, near Leeds, but the author’s confusing renamed it “the Sharston Asylum”, making it sound as if it should be in Wythenshawe.

There are all sorts of horrifying and terrifying real life stories about people who were locked up in mental asylums for no good reason, such as women who’d had illegitimate children, or (although not so much in Britain, but certainly in a lot of countries) people who’d opposed the regime in power. There are even more stories of people who did have severe mental health problems but, instead of being given treatment that might have helped them, were, even in the twentieth century, very badly-treated. Even some of the treatments that were supposed to help just seem so barbaric now.

The main characters are Ella Fay, who’s been sent to the asylum because she broke a window at the textile mill where she worked, John Mulligan, who’s suffering from depression after the death of his child and the dissolution of his marriage, and Charles Fuller, a delusional doctor who thinks that he’s going to become a world leader in the field of eugenics, and that the patients are his to experiment on. There are various minor characters, including Ella’s best friend Clemency, who commits suicide after Fuller stops her from reading her beloved books, and John’s best friend Dan, who speaks Polari – a language usually associated with gay culture pre-1967, but also, as in this case, with travelling showmen, merchant sailors and various other groups.

Clemency is from quite a well-to-do family, who are genuinely concerned about her, which is interesting – it would have been far easier to have brought in a stereotype about a family wanting a “mad” child shoved away out of sight because of fears about “the taint of hereditary madness” damaging the family’s reputation. Clemency says that she actually prefers the asylum to life outside, because, in the asylum, no-one’s trying to push her into an unwanted marriage.  It’s a shame that we don’t hear more about her, and about Dan – we never find out what happens to her – but the book is largely about Ella, John and Fuller.

Fuller’s focus through it all is on Winston Churchill, the Home Secretary, whose attention he hopes to attract, and the novel draws attention to how close Britain came to legalising the forced sterilisation of mental health patients – something which was legal in Japan, for example, until the 1950s.  It could well have become part of the Mental Deficiency Act of 1913, although in the end it didn’t, and was proposed again in 1931.  A lot of well-known names on both the right and left wings were associated with it – Churchill’s the one on whom Anna Hope concentrates, but others included Arthur Balfour, William Beveridge (of Beveridge Report fame), J M Keynes, and Sidney and Beatrice Webb.

This was just in Britain: the eugenics movement was far more popular in the US and in many other countries in Europe and elsewhere. Sixty thousand “mental defectives” were forcibly sterilised in the US, around a third of them in California, and many others were barred from marrying.  It also happened in Japan, Norway, Denmark, Switzerland, Iceland, France, parts of Canada and elsewhere.   And then, of course, there were, and these went on long after the Nazis, other eugenics-related policies, such as the “Stolen Generation” tragedy in Australia and the ethnic immigration quotas in the US.

So much for a romance!  Well, there is a romance.  Charles Fuller doubles as a musician, and the asylum holds weekly dances at which the male and female inmates, usually separated – men doing work such as quarrying and farm labour, women work such as laundry – were able to meet.  John and Ella meet, and there’s an exchange of letters – facilitated by Ella’s friend, as Ella can’t read or write.  Working outdoors, and the relationship with Ella, do a lot for John.

Ella becomes pregnant, and, as part of Charles Fuller’s strange scheme to monitor John, is released. In a rather bizarre sequence, Fuller decides that John will become the first patient in his unauthorised forced sterilisation experiment, and has actually got him anaesthetised, and the scalpel poised, when he’s called away to answer to Clemency’s family about why better care wasn’t taken of her.  John comes round from the chloroform and is able to do a runner.  That bit really was rather silly and OTT, which was a shame because the book addressed some important and very serious issues about mental health care.

The power of doctors is another issue – it’s not one which is discussed as much as the wider issues of eugenics and mental health “care”, but it’s certainly there: John’s future, and that of Clemency, the woman who killed herself, were in Fuller’s hands. I’ve seen interviews with people in Spain who had their babies stolen because they weren’t considered suitable parents by Franco’s regime, and many of them said that they never questioned what they were told about their babies having died because the word of a doctor was not to be questioned.

There’s no happy ending. Well, there is, sort of, but not for Ella. She and John are never able to find each other again, and eventually both give up trying.  Their daughter eventually traces John a few years after Ella’s death, and is able to establish a happy relationship with him, so that’s a happy ending of sorts. But if you’re after a romance, don’t go for this.  If you want to learn more about early twentieth century attitudes towards mental health patients – and, even now, attitudes towards people with mental health issues leave a lot to be desired, despite the various recent campaigns supported by members of the Royal Family and many others – then maybe try it.  It’s not brilliant, but it raises some interesting points not often covered in novels … or indeed anywhere else.