A Very English Scandal – BBC 1

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The one genuine hero in all this was a minor character, Leo Abse, the middle-class Welsh Jewish Labour MP who led the parliamentary campaign for the decriminalisation of homosexuality – whilst the Old Etonians were off murdering their ex-lovers’ pet dogs. The main characters were all thoroughly unlikeable.  Daniel Cleaver, sorry, Jeremy Thorpe, as brilliantly portrayed by Hugh Grant, was so bloody obnoxious that I just kept wanting to thump him.  I’d expected to feel some sympathy for him in the early part of the programme, as the victim of institutionalised prejudice and a blackmail plot; but he was just odious.  Snooty (in practically the first scene, he and his sidekick Peter Bessell were making fun of Harold Wilson’s Yorkshire accent), ruthless, self-obsessed, conceited, arrogant, entitled … and, whilst (hooray!!) I’m not old enough to remember the 1960s or most of the 1970s, by all accounts that was pretty much what he was like in real life.

As for Norman Scott (Norman Josiffe, until he changed his surname to that of an earl whom he’d convinced himself was his natural father), equally brilliantly portrayed by Ben Whishaw, however sympathetic the viewer might have felt about his mental health problems and financial traumas, it’s very hard to feel any sympathy for someone who tried to blackmail and ruin the career of a person with whom he’d once been in a relationship and had then received help from in finding work and accommodation.  As Peter Bessell pointed out, he at least had the strength and honesty to speak openly about his sexuality; so he deserved credit for that, but that was all.  So it was hard to warm to either main character.  But, as TV viewing, it worked really well!  Cosy Sunday evening viewing, like Downton Abbey or Victoria, it is not; but it certainly kept your attention.

(Just to be accurate, the dog-shooting incident actually took place eight years after the decriminalisation of male homosexuality in the UK, but I thought the contrast in priorities between the self-obsessed Thorpe and someone who was actually in politics to try to make a difference to society made the point well!)

You really couldn’t make this story up.  I don’t know who is and isn’t going to turn up in later episodes, but I assume we’re going to get Thorpe’s second wife, who’d previously been married to none other than the Earl of Harewood, Sir Jack Hayward of Wolverhampton Wanderers fame, who provided the funding to the Liberal Party which was allegedly used to try to pay Scott off, and George Carman, the barrister famous in Manchester for trying to keep the Hacienda open but whose first big case was the defence of Jeremy Thorpe against attempted murder charges.  And apparently Thorpe, back in 1960, was considered for the role of best man at Princess Margaret’s wedding.

It all makes for such a brilliant story.  Great TV.  A great book, I assume, although I haven’t read it.  The leader of a British political party, someone who stood a real chance of becoming Prime Minister in a coalition government, ended up on trial for plotting to have his blackmailing ex-lover murdered!   If it had been the storyline in a Jeffrey Archer novel, readers and reviewers would scoff at how far-fetched it was.  And yet it really happened.

And, in so many ways, it was a tragedy.  A promising political career ruined: Thorpe had to resign as leader of the Liberal Party because of the Scott saga. At the heart of it all, Thorpe’s relationship with Scott having taken place when both were single, was the fact that any public figure who was gay had to live in constant fear, knowing that his or her career would be ruined should that fact ever become public.  There was a very poignant scene in which Lord Arran, whose gay elder brother had committed suicide, spoke about the high rate of suicide amongst gay men, and said that they weren’t really killed by their own hands, but were murdered by society.  What a brilliant line, and what a tragic one.

You think, too, of all the other things that people have felt obliged to conceal about themselves over the years, because of prejudice.  Illegitimacy.  Ethnic or religious background – think of all the actors and singers who changed their names to conceal their origins, and the people who concealed the fact that they had non-white ancestry.  Be very glad that we’ve moved on from that – but remember that there are many countries in which that isn’t the case.  And we’ve still got a way to go, even now.  There are, famously, still no openly gay Premier League footballers.  And think of Will Young and – bah, I’ve forgotten the guy’s name, but another singer spoke out about this recently – being told to pretend to be straight, because record producers apparently thought that their popularity would be affected if they were known to be gay.  Which is bloody rubbish: Elton John sang at the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding reception!  And remember all the support that the late Stephen Gately got when he announced that he was gay?  But we’ve come a long way – and, in Jeremy Thorpe’s time, things were very different.

That was why I thought I’d feel some sympathy for him – before things got to the murderous stage, obviously! – but no.  The BBC did include one speech about Commonwealth immigration (I’d love to know if that was in the original script or if it was added in in the wake of the Windrush affair), but there was nothing else to show that Thorpe was a well-known anti-racism/anti-apartheid campaigner, his main redeeming virtue.  That was a shame.  He wasn’t all bad.  And it did show him having some affection for his son, but all I felt was overwhelming sympathy for his wife (his first wife, who later tragically died in a car crash), after we’d seen him talking about how he’d decided to get married because he hoped it’d give him a boost in the opinion polls.  OK, it wasn’t uncommon at the time for a gay man to marry a woman for the sake of being seen to be conventional, but the way he spoke about it was so callous, and we didn’t see how he met and courted his wife so we didn’t know if he felt any genuine affection for her or not.  He just came across as being a thoroughly nasty piece of work.

And yet he was pretty popular, at one time.  Was that all about charisma?  Well, charisma in a politician can be a very overrated trait!  Mentioning no names.

And the Scott saga went on for years.  The relationship between Thorpe and Scott took place in 1962.  Scott’d been working as a groom – how Lady Chatterley-ish is that?  He worked in Altrincham at one time: I didn’t know that until I did a bit of reading up on all this!   He started threatening to go to the press in 1965, but the press didn’t want to know.   That’s fascinating in itself.  We’re so used to the press falling over themselves to print stories about famous people’s private lives.  The story couldn’t be proven.  In the era of fake news, it’s quite impressive to think of the press turning down a story because it couldn’t be proven – although it’s hard to know how much of it was down to integrity and how much of it was due to fear of being given huge fines under the libel laws.  But, whatever the reasons, it says a lot about how good the Establishment were at covering things up back then.  When it comes to protecting someone from attempted blackmail when they’ve done nothing wrong, that’s a good thing; but, as we all know, there were other things which were covered up, by politicians, the BBC, the religious authorities, and other powers that be, at the cost of great suffering to young boys and girls.

Anyway.  But, all along, even though the story didn’t get into the press, Jeremy Thorpe was paying Scott off, and having to live with the knowledge that this could all come out at any time, in an era when gay people, even after decriminalisation, faced horrendous prejudice.  So, in 1968, he apparently decided to have him killed off.  And the TV programme was quite clear about that: we saw Jeremy Thorpe saying, quite clearly and unmistakeably, that Scott had to be killed.  Things like that don’t happen in British politics, do they?  Well, yes, they do.  OK, Thorpe always denied it, and he was acquitted, but … well, what do most people really believe?   It’s difficult to believe that the character portrayed in this series wasn’t capable of ordering his ex-lover to be murdered.

Nothing happened at that time, but, in 1971, Scott went to the Liberal Party with his tale – and was sent packing.  It then all died down again, until 1974, when papers containing details of the various goings-on came into the hands of the Sunday Mirror … which decided not to publish them.  The Sunday Mirror decided not to print the story, and handed the documents over to Thorpe!  Imagine that happening now!  However, Thorpe allegedly decided that enough was enough and that Scott had to be “dealt with”.  And this, in 1975, was when Scott’s poor old dog was shot dead.  I mean, I can’t stand dogs, but shooting one dead is a bit much.  Poor dog 😦 .

Did the gunman really intend to kill Scott, rather than his dog?  And, the crux of the matter as far as this story’s concerned, was this on Thorpe’s orders?  In 1976, the whole tale finally ended up all over the papers, after Scott was brought to court on charges of benefit fiddling and shouted his mouth off about Thorpe: claims made in court are exempt from libel laws.  So maybe the press were just scared of the libel laws, rather than being part of a cover up, or actually showing some integrity in not wanting to risk damaging someone’s career without being sure of their facts?  Whatever, into the papers it went.  And, in 1978, nearly twenty years after Thorpe and Scott met, Thorpe was put on trial on charges of conspiracy to murder his ex-lover.  Well, Scott’s generally referred to as his “ex-lover”, but he denied that Scott had ever even been his lover.

And he was acquitted.  But he’d already had to resign as Liberal Party leader, and his attempts to find a new career outside politics came to nothing.  Because no-one really believed in his innocence?  And then, because of Parkinson’s Disease, poor health also restricted his attempts to re-establish himself in public life.  That’s very sad.  But … well, he couldn’t get back into public life anyway.   It does seem that most people thought he was very lucky not to have been found guilty.  You couldn’t make it up.  Imagine – anyone reading this (I never know if anyone reads anything I write!), if you don’t remember the late 1970s, a senior politician being put on trial for the attempted murder of a blackmailing ex.  Nah, stuff like that doesn’t happen here.  We’re much too safe and boring.  Well, obviously we’re not!

As I said, it’s not cosy Sunday night viewing.  It’s exciting, but it’s also troubling, especially knowing that it’s a true story.  But the script is brilliant.  So is the acting, even if you do sometimes forget that Hugh Grant isn’t actually playing Daniel Cleaver or the baddie from Paddington II.  He plays all three parts in pretty much the same way!  But it really does grab, and keep, your attention.  Fact really can be stranger than fiction.

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Queen Victoria and her tragic family – Channel 5

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Oh, Channel 5!   You’ve reverted right back to type with this – dragging out a load of very old chestnuts, exaggerating them wildly, and only going a very slight way down several roads that were potentially very interesting, such as the mental health issues in the Hesse-Darmstadt line and the row over the use of chloroform in childbirth.   Dear oh dear!

The programme seemed to aim to show that Queen Victoria had ruined the lives of all her “tragic family”. (We’re just talking about her children here: it would take a very, very long series to discuss all her grandchildren!) That’s very unfair. Yes, they did have their share of tragedies. Leopold died young, of a fatal haemophiliac bleed. Alice died young, of diphtheria. Vicky (I’ve read so many books about Queen Victoria’s children that I think of them by their nicknames, sorry!) and Beatrice were both widowed young – and, in Vicky’s case, it was a tragedy for the whole world, because her husband’s premature death meant that her son was able to set Germany on the militaristic path that would eventually lead to the First World War. Louise’s marriage was unhappy, and Affie’s wasn’t brilliant either. But that was hardly Queen Victoria’s fault!  And show me any family that’s never been affected by premature deaths and bad marriages.

This first episode of three never even mentioned any of these genuine tragedies – although, to be fair, it was mainly about when the children were younger. But Vicky, Arthur and Affie, with all of whom Queen Victoria got on pretty well for the most part, were barely even mentioned: the programme focused purely on the negatives. All the same old stuff. Queen Victoria wasn’t good with babies. Well, OK, we all know that, but she was OK with the children once they were past the baby stage. And is it any wonder that she was frustrated by having nine pregnancies, especially at a time when upper-class women were supposed to retreat from public life whilst expecting a baby?

Admittedly, she was very critical of her children – the hackneyed tale about how she named a cow after Alice because she disapproved of her daughter Alice breastfeeding came out again, as did various comments about Lenchen (Helena)’s lack of good looks – but that wasn’t uncommon in Victorian times. The cultural and religious environment just didn’t favour praising children.

A lot of comments were made about corporal punishment, too, but that was very much the norm at the time, especially for boys. And surely, certainly by the standards of the time, Bertie deserved to put in solitary confinement after spitting at his tutor and teaching his younger brother how to smoke?! A lot of what was said about the girls was also wildly exaggerated. The palaces were “pressure cookers of sexual tension” … because the teenage Lenchen and Louise eyed up some good-looking valets?!   So Victoria pushed them into marriage?   What rubbish!   Princesses were expected to marry young, and their families were expected to find them suitable blokes. And Victoria never made any of her children marry the partners of her choice. And, guess what, next week they’re trotting out that silly rumour about Louise having had an illegitimate child.

Some of what was said, to be fair, was more valid. Talking about Victoria having “turned her home into a tomb” and “crushing the spirits” of her children was melodramatic to say the least, but, as we’re all aware, Queen Victoria went into extreme mourning after the death of Prince Albert, and that undoubtedly had a significant effect on her children. And, no, she doesn’t seem to have considered that they were also grieving, for the loss of their father.   Bertie was certainly given a hard time, because Victoria felt that his fling with an actress, which most upper-class Victorian father would have found amusing and even praiseworthy, had traumatised Albert, and that his illness was due to getting wet in the rain whilst out with Bertie. The younger girls missed out on the dancing and parties that they should have been enjoying in their late teens, and those wedding photos with a bust of the dead Prince Albert plonked in the middle of the family group are ghoulish to say the least. And we haven’t even got as far as the hassle that Beatrice was given when she wanted to get married.

So, OK, Queen Victoria’s children were undoubtedly affected by her very long and – it has to be said, however sympathetic you try to be – excessive mourning, and her undoubted selfishness and self-obsession. But “tragic family”? That’s a bit of an exaggeration. And they didn’t explore some avenues that haven’t been done to death and would have made the programme a lot more original. They did briefly mention the fact that some doctors tried to blame Leopold’s haemophilia on Victoria’s use of chloroform in childbirth, and the opposition to the use of chloroform by doctors and religious ministers (all men!) who claimed that women were supposed to suffer pain because of the sin of Eve or whatever, but it was only briefly. OK, the programme was not supposed to be a history of pain relief, but Queen Victoria using chloroform did – despite the nonsense spouted about a possible link to haemophilia – help to change attitudes.

And they only briefly touched on the life of Alice, who in many ways was the most interesting of Queen Victoria’s children. They mentioned that Victoria relied heavily on her immediately after Albert’s death, both emotionally and in terms of official business, and that Alice may have suffered from eating disorders for a time, as a result of emotional stress, but they said very little more. I don’t know when this programme was actually made, but, with last week having been Mental Health Awareness week and with Prince Louis having been given a name from the Hesse-Darmstadt side of the family, I really got thinking about Princess Alice.

She did find happiness with her husband and children, only to lose one child to haemophilia, another to diphtheria, and to die young herself. Her humanitarian work during the Austro-Prussian War’s interesting too. But I was thinking about the … I don’t know what you’d call it exactly. Alice herself seems to’ve held some quite controversial religious views, in her case mainly a case of denying the “miraculous” nature of some of what’s in the Bible. I don’t think that was linked to any problems she might have had with eating disorders, but two of her descendants, who both shared her name – the Tsarina Alexandra Feodorovna, originally Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, and Prince Philip’s mother, Princess Alice of Battenberg, both seem to have suffered from depression which got tangled up with an interest in mysticism in the Tsarina’s case and a “religious crisis” in the princess’s case. I know, I know – that’s got nothing to do with Queen Victoria, and I’m talking rubbish by saying that the programme should have gone into it all. But I wish it had done. It would have been a lot better than same old, same old, and a load of wild exaggerations!

And, on the subject of Mental Health Awareness Week, was it really appropriate to use the term “go nuts” when referring to the madness of George III. I personally go with the porphyria theory, but people in Queen Victoria’s time would have assumed that it was a mental health issue. “Go nuts”?! Seriously?!

Oh well. Channel 5 has traditionally not been the best of places for historical documentaries. I’d thought it was getting better. Now I’m not so sure!

 

 

 

Myanmar’s Killing Fields (Channel 4) and Burma With Simon Reeve (BBC 2)

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There are a lot of truly horrific things going on in the world at the moment, but the persecution of the Rohingya people in Myanmar/Burma is probably the worst.  Massacres.  Mass rape.  People being burned alive.  Babies being ripped from their mothers’ arms and thrown into rivers or burning buildings.   Soldiers breaking into schools and shooting the children dead.  It sounds as if it should be something from the past, the worst excesses of the past, but it’s going on now, today.   And, at the same time, we’re hearing reports about an increased atmosphere of freedom, of improvements in LGBT rights, and of the country wanting to open itself up to mass tourism.

Channel 4 used the name “Myanmar”, given to the country by its then-ruling military junta in 1989, a year after the brutal repression of a popular uprising, whereas the BBC stuck to the traditional name “Burma”.  Some people don’t like using “Myanmar” because they think that doing so legitimises the actions of a brutal regime, whereas others feel that the country should be called by its own official name.  Apparently, in the Bamar language – that of the majority ethnic group of the country – Burma is usually used when speaking but Myanmar when writing, and that was all there originally was to it, but it’s now all got tangled up in politics.  Anyway, which name to use is the least of the problems when considering the situation in Burma/Myanmar.

There are actually three major conflicts going on there, all involving the oppression of ethnic minorities, but it’s the Rohingya crisis which is causing the most concern at the moment.  The other two shouldn’t be forgotten, though – the Karen conflict, which has been going on pretty much since independence and which I remember getting very worried about whilst I was a student in the mid-1990s, and the Kachin conflict, which has been going on since the 1960s and seems to be flaring up particularly badly of late.

The current conflict in Rakhine state, home to the Rohinya Muslims (mostly Muslims, although some of them are Hindus) and the Rakhine Buddhists, flared up in 2012-13.  The root of the problem is the refusal of the Burmese (/Myanmarese, but I’m not writing both words out every time) authorities, since the military junta took power in the 1960s, to recognise the rights of the Rohingya.  The junta was dissolved in 2011, and it was hoped that the elections of 2015, which saw the parties led by Aung San Suu Kyi win a majority, would improve the human rights situation in the country, but that’s not happened.  Only eight “indigenous races” are recognised by the authorities, and the Rohingya – to whom they refer as “Bengalis” – are officially classed as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh.

The history of the Rohingya in Rakhine state is very confused.   The Rohingya trace their history in the area, historically known as Arakan, to the 8th century.  In the late 18th century, it was conquered by Burma.  Some of the Rohingya were deported to other parts of Burma, some fled to Bengal, then under the control of the East India Company, and presumably others remained.  There was then resettlement in the Arakan area, but no-one’s entirely sure whether this was by refugees returning from Bengal, by those who’d been deported to other parts of Burma returning, or by settlers from Bengal, or possibly a combination of all three.   During the Second World War, Japanese forces carried out mass rapes and murders of Rohingya Muslims, and forced many across the border into what’s now Bangladesh, then part of British India.  There was then movement into the area from what’s now Bangladesh by people fleeing the violence that erupted during Partition – possibly those forced out by the Japanese returning, possibly others, probably both.  No-one seems entirely sure of the exact historical truth of it all, but that’s not really the point.  The Rohingya have been denied the right to Burmese citizenship since 1982, and were the victims of military operations by the Burmese army in the 1970s and the 1990s.

In 2012, clashes broke out between Rohingya Muslims and the other inhabitants of the state, the Rakhine Buddhists, and severe restrictions were imposed on the Rohingya – who, in addition to being denied citizenship, had already had much of their land confiscated and been subject to forced labour.  Many were forced into ghettoes and into camps for displaced persons.  The Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army, an insurgent group, gained support as a result, and, in 2016, mounted a number of attacks on posts on the Burmese-Bangladeshi border.  The armed forces and police then began a major crackdown on the Rohingya people.

Massacres.  Mass gang rape of women and girls.  Homes, schools, mosques and businesses being burned to the ground.  Maybe as many as a million people, certainly over 700,000, forced to flee – mainly to Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, which can’t even begin to cope and has tried to send most of the refugees back, signing an agreement with the Burmese government in November 2017 to that affect.  The mass exodus really began in 2015, but numbers increased significantly last year.  Most of those refugees now in Bangladesh, the majority of them women and children – the men, especially the young men, have far less chance of escaping the attacks alive –  are in camps in areas at severe risk of flooding and, with flooding, of cholera outbreaks.   Not to mention the risk of being trampled by endangered wild elephants.

Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, the woman whom we all thought was so wonderful, initially refused even to let a UN team in to try to find out exactly what was going on.  It does have to be said that she doesn’t seem to have that much control over the army – and both she and the international community are afraid of upsetting the army too much, lest they mount a military coup and make things even worse.  UN officials and international leaders have called it ethnic cleansing, and possibly genocide, but just using those terms doesn’t really help.  As with the Syria crisis, the UN Security Council would be paralysed even if it tried to do anything – as Russia backs Syria, China backs Burma.    It’s the same problems everywhere.  No-one has any authority to intervene in an internal matter.  The UN Security Council wouldn’t be able to agree on action anyway.  Everyone is nervous about doing something that may lead to an even worse regime taking power.

The Channel 4 programme contained very little historical information but, to be fair, it wasn’t meant to be a historical documentary.  It was meant to show the photographs and videos made available to Dispatches by Rohingya activists, some showing the immediate aftermath of the attacks and others showing interviews with survivors.  It’s been made virtually impossible for international journalists to get access to the area, and there has been some false evidence provided by both sides, but Dispatches had made a huge effort to ensure that the evidence presented in this programme was accurate.  They’d got several different witnesses to corroborate each account, matched up the timing data on the photos and videos with the dates on which the massacres were recorded elsewhere as having taken place, and asked independent forensic experts to assess them.  They’d asked the Burmese military and political authorities for comment – but the only answer they’d got had been from one junior minister, who’d denied that any of it was happening.  And they’d, somehow, found some of those who were pictured and had survived in refugee camps in Bangladesh.  Most of them were women.  They spoke of having been gang raped by soldiers, and of their menfolk having been massacred.

There was a little lad in one of the pictures, maybe about 5 or 6, wearing an Arsenal shirt.  Just a sweet little kid.  He should have been running around, kicking a football.  Not witnessing what he must have witnessed.  A 9-year-old girl spoke about escaping from a house that had been set on fire whilst full of women and children.  Yes, there are many women and children in the camps, but many more never made it out alive.  And many of the women and girls, some as young as 12 or 13, were raped and mutilated before being killed.  Mothers and grandmothers spoke of being rounded up and of babies and young children being taken from them and thrown into rivers or burning houses.  People had been shut inside buildings which were set alight.  Soldiers had attacked schools, shooting the children or killing them with machetes.

The authorities there deny that this is going on.  They say that all they’ve done is to clear insurgents – “Bengali” insurgents.  A very small number of soldiers have received short prison terms for one attack, but that’s about it.

Aid agencies are doing what they can to help the refugees, the survivors, but they’re powerless to stop what’s happening.  World leaders have spoken out about it, but that’s as far as it’s got.  No sanctions have been imposed on Burma/Myanmar.  Leeds United’s owners have even taken it upon themselves to organise a tour of the country by their team, much to the disgust of everyone, including their own fan club.  There’ve been some protests, mostly in Islamic-majority countries, but very little – compare that to, say, the immediate and widespread condemnation of Monday’s killings on the border between Israel and Gaza.  No-one has called for assistance for the refugees in the way that people have called for assistance for Syrian refugees.  Some things make headlines.  Some things don’t.

Why?

The programme wasn’t historical, but the title was a term from recent history, which surely everyone will recognise.  No-one’s sure how many victims there were of the Killing Fields of Cambodia.  A million?  Two million?  Three million?

The border town where many of the refugees are living in camps is called Cox’s Bazar (sic).  It’s named after an 18th century British diplomat called Hiram Cox, a Scottish Highlander who helped to rehabilitate Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in the Arakan/Rakhine area in the 1790s.   These people have suffered centuries of persecution.  We can’t change what’s happened in the past, but, bloody hell, can’t someone try to do a bit more about what’s going on now?

The BBC 2 programme was completely different, and the two actually complemented each other very well – not that there was any official connection between them.  Simon Reeve does get on my nerves a bit, but he did a good job with this.  We got far more historical and cultural information about Burma/Myanmar as a whole in this programme – although I could have done without Simon fussing about a train window whilst explaining the damage done to the country by the military junta who destroyed its economy and cut it off from the outside world.

Far from Rahkine state, we saw the modern and historical sights of the beautiful capital city, now known as Yangon, historically known as Rangoon.  Incidentally, I know that this is a really, really stupid thing to say, but, whenever anyone mentions Rangoon, it makes me think of that storyline in one of the Five Find Outers books, in which someone’s sending anonymous letters made from words cut out of newspapers to Mr Goon, the policeman, and someone (presumably Fatty?) solves it when he realises that the “goon” bit actually comes from articles about Rangoon.  Sorry – I did point out that it was a stupid thing to say!  My brain runs along strange lines sometimes.  Er, most of the time, TBH.  Back to Yangon.  A civil rights activist whom Simon had met before spoke about the freer atmosphere in the country.  It all sat so strangely with what we know is going on in Rakhine province, as Simon repeatedly pointed out.

Part of the programme was in travelogue format, but it could never be separated from politics.  The country’s currency and which side of the road people drove on had been changed on the whims of military leaders.   He spoke to spirit mediums, and learnt about the role of spiritualism in Burmese culture – but, at the same time, he learnt that many of the male spirit mediums were gay, and had suffered repression under the junta but were finding things far better under the new regime.  That fitted in with what had been said in Yangon/Rangoon.  For a lot of people, things are better now.  Yet this new regime, which has improved the lives of some people, is responsible for horrors that almost defy belief.

He then moved on to a historic complex of Buddhist temples, and explained the importance of Buddhism in Burmese culture.   Like the Catholic church in medieval Western and Central Europe, Buddhism plays a central role in education and social welfare.  And, in 2007, Buddhist monks led the non violent resistance movement known as the Saffron Revolution.  Monks are the most respected people in Burmese society.  Buddhism is absolutely central to life in most of Burma.

And so, as in many countries, and it’s often particularly so in those which have spent time under foreign rule, the majority religion has come to be seen as an essential part of nationality, and this was promoted by the generals. When that happens, religious minorities tend to suffer.   Buddhism, as Simon said, is the most peaceful of the world’s major religions, but he spoke to a group of monks who are preaching … well, hatred’s the only word you can use, against Muslims.  That was a real eye opener.  Links between repressive political regimes and religion are hardly anything new – think of Alexander III’s Russia, or Franco’s Spain, in relatively modern times – but we’ve heard nothing here about these militant monks.  And, of course, these days they’ve got social media on which to post fake news stories.  I was aware of the links between Burmese nationalism and Buddhism, and of the antagonism towards the persecuted Rohingya elsewhere in Burmese society, but all this militant monk stuff really shocked me.  It clearly shocked Simon as well.

He also spoke to members of the Arakan Rohingya Salvation Army.  They spoke about the atrocities committed by the Burmese authorities, but they also repeatedly used the word “jihad”, and spoke of links to Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which hadn’t come across at all in the Channel 4 programme.  That was frightening.  If al-Qaeda should seize on this as an opportunity … don’t even go there.  Like the militant monks, that was something I hadn’t really thought of before.

This was a different sort of programme from the one on Channel 4, and it didn’t include graphic video footage, but the testaments of survivors of atrocities were similar.  Over half of those in the camp which Simon visited were children.  One little lad had to be reassured that the camera wasn’t a gun.  Then he chattered away about how he liked scoring goals but could play as a goalkeeper as well as a striker, and how he supported Barcelona.  He also spoke about murder, rape, and the loss of both his parents.  A little kid.

Simon said that he doesn’t understand why no-one’s doing more about this.  I don’t either.  He also said that he doesn’t see how the Rohingya will ever be able to return to Burma – and most of them do want to return, and Bangladesh doesn’t want them – without some sort of international protection force.   I don’t either.

The two programmes together complemented each other well, as I said.  One was brutal.  The other gave more background information.

Neither had any answers.  Except that someone needs to do something.  Now.  As in immediately, with the monsoons coming.  But no-one will.

It’s hard enough watching programmes like this when they are set in the past.  It’s even worse when they’re set now.

 

 

Syria: The World’s War – BBC 2

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Thank you to BBC 2 for showing both this and the programme on Burma/Myanmar which was on on Sunday night.  We get 24/7 news coverage these days, but we don’t get that many programmes looking at major current issues over a period of time, rather than just looking at what’s happened that day.  Well, as ever, it’s all going on in the Middle East at the moment – in addition to the wars in Syria and Yemen, neither of them showing much sign of ending, Hezbollah are stirring up trouble in Lebanon, Iran and Israel are at each other’s throats, two million people are displaced in Iraq, and over fifty people have just been killed in clashes on the border between Israel and Gaza.  The war in Yemen is sadly being largely ignored in the West.  That’s not true of the war in Syria, but is it “the world’s war”?

I don’t really know why the BBC chose that title for these two programmes, because there was very little in it about the impact on neighbouring countries, and not as much as I was expecting about outside intervention. Well, there were numerous mentions of Russia – the BBC isn’t very keen on Russia – and several of Iran, and a lot of talk about America, but Turkey, the one country which has actually barged into Syria, was largely ignored.  That was fair enough, because the programme was supposed to be about Syria, but it made the choice of title a bit daft.  More frustratingly, there was very little historical background information in it either.  The argument, insofar as there was one, was that the war was purely about Bashar al-Assad and his regime’s fight for survival.  And that’s a bit too simplistic, really.

OK, this is not the usual sort of civil war.  It isn’t really between ethnic or religious or regional groups, or even ideological groups.  It’s not like the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, or the war in Syria’s neighbour Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s, where you needed to go back through several centuries to understand the differences between the groups involved.  But there are sectarian and ethnic divisions, and a bit more talk about the Alawites, and about the position of the Kurds in Syria, would have been helpful.  We didn’t even really get much about the history of the Ba’ath party and the fact that repression of civil rights in Syria goes back several decades.  It was all very much “in the moment”.  I don’t really think that helped viewers to try to understand what’s going on – and it really isn’t easy to try to understand what’s going on in Syria, with different groups getting stuck in at different points.  Civil wars, or any wars, don’t just start spontaneously, without any roots in what’s happened in the past.

Having said all that, it did an excellent job of covering what has happened since 2011.  Representatives of various different groups were interviewed, and given the opportunity to put their arguments across.  It must have been extremely frustrating for the presenter, Lyse Doucet, when, for example, government representatives insisted that the hospitals they’d bombed weren’t really hospitals, but the BBC allowed them to speak.

And it was horrible – really, really horrible.  Pictures of bodies lying outside prisons, covered in polythene bags, the sort you use to cover clothes being taken for dry cleaning.  And the state of the bodies …  reminiscent of pictures from Nazi concentration camps in terms of how thin they were.  People talking about being tortured, and showing the terrible bruising they’d suffered from being tortured.  Tales of children so traumatised from endless bombing that they didn’t know how to relate to other human beings any more.  Accounts of massacre after massacre.  Families massacred in their own homes.  A man describing how he took photographs of children sleeping … and then realised that they weren’t sleeping, they were dead.  Killed in a gas attack.  Pictures of cities that are now just … well, bomb sites.  Completely devastated.  Ten years ago, Syria was a relatively prosperous country.  Now it’s a ruin.  I went to Egypt in 2007, and the Middle Eastern section of my travel brochure included a tour of Syria.  11 years ago, you could go there on holiday.  Now look at it.

And, if it is “the world’s war”, how has the world let it happen?  How many times do we say “never again”, only for it all to happen all over again somewhere else?  Well, as far as that went, the conclusion seemed to be that the world should just have stayed out of it completely and left Assad to it, because he was going to win anyway and, if he’d won more quickly, fewer lives would have been lost, fewer lives devastated.  And that the best thing the world can do now – other than Russia and Iran, who are backing Assad anyway – is just that, to leave him to it.  And the people interviewed were saying that because they couldn’t see any alternative.  If you remove a regime with nothing to put in its place, things can end up worse than they were to start with.

We know that.  Remove Charles I, and you get a bunch of dictatorial religious fanatics – why Oliver Cromwell is so often voted in the top few places in “greatest English person in history” polls is beyond me completely.  We learnt our lesson there – James II was only booted out once William of Orange had agreed to take his place.  Cromwell’s a fairly mild example.  Remove Louis XVI, and you get the Terror.  Remove the Tsar and Kerensky and you get Lenin and Stalin.

Remove Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi, and do you turn Iraq and Libya (I have no idea why I originally put “Lebanon”) into lands of harmony and plenty?  Hardly!  It’s horrific, isn’t it?  Two such evil men.  We rejoiced at their downfall.  Of course we did.  But everyone’s been sharply reminded that power vacuums can be just as dangerous.  It’s not a computer game – topple the bad guy and you’ve won.  Syria hasn’t got a Nelson Mandela or a Vaclav Havel waiting in the wings.  It hasn’t even got someone like Ho Chi Minh, or Francisco Franco.  How many people can even name a Syrian opposition leader?  Can anyone even define what “the Syrian opposition” is?

It’s all academic anyway, because Assad isn’t going anywhere.  The UN Security Council’s paralysed, and, even if it wasn’t, it couldn’t just go around removing countries’ leaders.  The only way would be if a group of powers decided to try to capture him on the grounds that he was wanted for war crimes.  But how would that be done?  Boots on the ground?  More casualties.  No way.  Special forces?  Maybe.  But then what?   It’s not happening.  The best anyone can hope for is that the war will end – which it will, because wars don’t go on for ever – , Assad will implement some sort of reforms, and some sort of rebuilding can take place, and some of the refugees return.  The programme didn’t even get that far.  It didn’t really talk about hope, or peace.  But, if it had done, it could only have been speculation.  It gave us facts.  This is the age of spin.  And, worse, the age of fake news.  No speculation.  No answers, because no-one’s got any.  But a lot of brutal, horrible facts.

It started with peaceful protests.  And spiralled into a war which has now lasted longer than the Second World War did.  What can we do?  Give money to aid agencies?  The programme didn’t offer any answers, because no-one has got any answers.  But it was a very well-presented factual documentary.

Surely everyone watching it could only wish fervently that someone did have some answers.  What a mess.

 

 

 

 

The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz

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I think I liked this book.  Yes, I did like it.  It’s … unusual.  It’s a “young adult” “coming of age” (apologies for use of clichés) book, set in 1911, written as a diary, about Joan, a 14-year-old girl who runs away from her family farm in Pennsylvania to become a “hired girl” in Baltimore.  In a lot of ways it’s a pastiche of late Victorian/Edwardian girls’ books, but it couldn’t have been written at that time.  I was going to say Anne of Green Gables crossed with Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, but a) it’s not actually as good as either of those, b) it’s about a girl who works as a housemaid and c) neither Anne nor Margaret are ever as silly as Joan is sometimes.  But along those lines.  Maybe a slight touch of A Woman of Substance too: I certainly can’t see Joan ending up as one of the richest women in the world, but there’s that sense of wanting to seem a bit more elegant and refined than her work allows.  And the prattling’s reminiscent of Angela’s Ashes. It’s really mean to keep comparing a book with other books, isn’t it?  I’m just trying to give some sense of it, because it is an unusual combination. And I get that thing about writing lists mid-sentence from Daddy Long Legs, whilst I’m on the subject of “young adult” books!

Other books do get mentioned a lot.  The main character, Joan Skraggs, who changes her name to Janet Lovelace when she runs away, is very keen on Jane Eyre, and to a lesser extent Ivanhoe and Dombey and Son, and is eager to find parallels between events in her life and events in books.  Yep, I used to do that when I was 14!  I still do, sometimes.  Not that anything very exciting happened when I was 14, but never mind.   So you get the idea that, like Anne Shirley, she’s got a vivid imagination and gets carried away with things!   But she isn’t able to do that at home.  There’s no Lake of Shining Waters or anything else there, just a father who, with her mother having died, expects her to do all the housework for him and her three brothers, and doesn’t want her to continue her education, even by reading at home.  When she rebels, her father burns her three beloved books, which had been given to her by a teacher, and she runs away to Baltimore, where she pretends to be 18 and gets a job as a hired girl/maid in the home of the well-to-do middle-class Rosenbach family.

I read some reviews on Amazon before I bought this, and not one of them had said anything about having someone trying to “better” herself by taking a job as a servant.  Am I being Terribly British here?   I mean, the term “hired girl” seemed odd to me, because that term is not used in British English: we would say that she was working as a maid.  It makes perfect sense that Joan feels she will have more opportunities doing paid domestic work for a third party, especially in a city, than she will doing unpaid domestic work on her family’s farm, but, snobbery aside – you would never in a million years have got one of the March girls, or even one of the Ingalls girls, or, once she’d got settled with the Cuthberts, Anne Shirley, taking a job as a maid – having a family farm is an American Dream.  She gives up being part of a family farm to become someone else’s servant.  But I can see how it means more independence and more opportunities for her.  Does that mean that the American Dream was a Man Thing, apart from a few exceptional women, like Eliza Jane Wilder, who had their own land?   Am I just totally overthinking this?  Yes, probably.  I overthink most things.

The Rosenbachs, on the other hand, are living the American Dream.  Mr Rosenbach, the head of the household, is the son of a German Jewish immigrant – a very large number of people, Catholic, Protestant and Jewish, came to Baltimore from Germany in the early to mid 19th century – and now owns a large department store.  He encourages Joan/Janet to read, lets her borrow the books in his library, and wishes that his own daughter Mimi was as keen to read as she is.  It’s not the usual master-servant relationship but, on the other hand, it’s a very Victorian middle-class (yes, I know that 1911 is not “Victorian”!) idea of encouraging self-improvement.  Central to the book are Joan’s relationships with the various members of the household – Mr Rosenbach, his wife, his two sons, his young daughter, his married daughter, and their housekeeper.

There is quite a lot of religion in this.  It’s OK, it’s not one of those Frightfully Pi old-style American girls’ books! Joan is not Elsie Dinsmore!  And she isn’t even someone like Jo March or Laura Ingalls, for whom religion is such an intrinsic part of their lives that they never really question it.  She classes herself as a Catholic, like her mother – her father is a Protestant – but has never had much religious education and has never been confirmed.  She’s keen to be a practising Catholic, and begins attending church and taking instruction, but she never just accepts what she’s told: she does think about it.

Then there’s the fact that we’ve got a Catholic girl working in a Jewish household, and the issues surrounding religion within the household.  I’m not quite convinced that a family who are so concerned about keeping kosher that they have separate meat and milk sinks would think it looked good to serve oyster patties at a bridge evening – I get that oyster patties are posh, but I just don’t find it very realistic – but the idea was to show the tension, which you get with any second generation immigrant family between the ideas of the Old Country and wanting to move onwards and upwards in the new country.  Interestingly, it’s the eldest son who wanted to stick with tradition.  With second and third generations, you generally find that the older generation wants to stick with tradition and it’s the younger generation which doesn’t.  With the Rosenbachs, the eldest son wants to go to a yeshiva and study Jewish religious stuff, instead of working in the family business.

He also wants to marry a girl from a Polish Jewish immigrant family, and that – the class and social differences between a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Germany in the early to mid 19th century and a Jewish family whose ancestors had moved to America from Eastern Europe in the late 19th century – is very rarely explored in books.  I was going to say Evergreen, but that doesn’t really work because the Werners’ background was all a bit complicated … I forget the details, but I think Sephardi ancestors from New Orleans were involved somewhere!

So, yes, there’s a lot of religious stuff, but it’s done in an unusual way.  And, for anyone who isn’t familiar with the laws of kashrut and wants to learn, here is your chance!   We hear everything that Malka, the traditionally-minded, Yiddish-speaking Jewish housekeeper, teaches Joan about keeping a kosher kitchen.  We also get a lot of potato kugels and lokshen puddings.

There’s one awkward bit, when Joan decides that she should try to preach the “true faith” to the Rosenbachs’ young grandson, and Mrs Rosenbach isn’t very pleased, but they get past it.  There are actually a lot of awkward bits involving Joan and various family members, notably when she tries to matchmake between the eldest son and a girl she thinks he likes; and it’s amazing that she never gets sacked, but that would have ruined the story!   She also becomes romantically involved with the younger son, who, like his brother, isn’t interested in the family business, but, unlike his brother, is an arty type who wants Joan to model for some paintings (not those sort of paintings – they’re all clothes on!).

OK, you always get a romance in a coming of age story, but I felt uncomfortable with this because he, a young man in his early 20s, thought that she was 18.  OK, there would still have been the class and religious differences, but there’s no sense that he’s the sort of man who’d have gone after a 14-year-old, and I just found it … well, as I said, uncomfortable.  It never goes beyond kissing, but even so.  Joan does prattle on a lot, and the reader could never think that she was much older than 18.  And she convinces herself that one kiss means that they’re getting married.  Somehow, however silly it obviously is, that comes across convincingly, and you do end up feeling sorry for her when she’s inevitably disappointed.   That’s when it all comes out, that she’s only 14.

Then it ends on a very Victorian self-improvement note.  Am I being really Lancastrian with the Victorian self-improvement thing?!  Mind you, Samuel Smiles was Scottish.  And quotes from Invictus, no less.  And all rather feminist.

It’s unfortunate that, especially given that it ticks the diversity boxes (and apparently we’re all supposed to be very keen for new books to do that) in terms of religion and indeed in terms of feminism – Joan might be rather silly, but she’s determined to continue her education, and she’s determined that she’s not just going to do what the men in her family say – there’s been some controversy over this book, because of this bit. “It seemed to me–I mean, it doesn’t now, but it did then–as though Jewish people were like Indians: people from long ago; people in books. I know there are Indians out West, but they’re civilised now, and wear ordinary clothes. In the same way, I guess I knew there were still Jews, but I never expected to meet any.”

It’s one paragraph, and there is nothing else anywhere in the book about Native Americans, but the use of the word “civilised” has sparked off a lot of controversy.  This is a really difficult area.  It is a fact that many, probably the majority, of people in 1911, and before then, and indeed long after then, held views on race, religion, gender, sexuality and class which would offend most people today.  That has to be reflected in books set in the past.  It would just be silly to have a member of the plantation aristocracy in the antebellum Deep South calling for racial equality, a grandee in 16th century Castile speaking in favour of religious toleration, or even a Victorian factory worker demanding that women be paid the same as men.  It would actually be offensive in itself, because it’d be denying the struggles that different groups of people have gone through, and are still going through, to try to achieve legal and cultural equality.

However, there is a problem when the book is aimed at readers who may not be old enough to understand that, because something is in a book, and is said by a “goodie” character, that doesn’t make it right.  This book seems to be being marketed at readers aged between around 11 and 15, but I can imagine a “good” reader of 9 or 10 enjoying it.  I don’t know what the answer to this is.  I find it quite upsetting to hear that people are saying that children shouldn’t read classics by the likes of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Mark Twain, or even To Kill A Mockingbird.  Once you start censoring people’s reading, and banning books – not that it would actually be possible to ban books of which there are so many copies in circulation – then you’re on a slippery slope.  We’ve moved on from those days, and I don’t think we want to go back there.  On the other hand, I started reading the Little House books when I can’t have been more than about 7, and, whilst I honestly can’t remember what I thought about the infamous “The only good Indian is a dead Indian” comment made by Ma Ingalls when I first read it, there obviously are very serious potential problems about a child of that age taking that sort of thing in.

I don’t know what the answer is.  However, as far as this book goes, it is only that one paragraph; and there are other books which are far more appropriate examples for a debate over all this.  It does strike me, though, that there are no black characters in the book, which seems very odd given that it’s set in Baltimore.  In fact, I didn’t get much sense of Baltimore at all: it could have been set in any East Coast American city, South or North.  Then again, part of the theme of the book is that Joan/Janet doesn’t get to meet many people, or to see much of the world.  And it is a children’s book.  Sorry, a “young adult” book!   It’s not fair to expect it to be like a book aimed at adults.  Am I an adult?  Yes, I am – I forget that sometimes!

Anyway, it’s worth a go.  It does have a lot of the old-style North American girls’ book in it, and minus the preachiness.  It’s not going to become a classic, but it’s not bad, and it’s just a bit different.

 

 

 

Csardas by Diane Pearson

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Hungary is much in the news at the moment, whether it’s fish finger apartheid (I am not making this expression up) or, rather more seriously, concerns over its right wing government’s attitudes towards freedom of speech and ethnic and religious minorities, and about the growth of far-right extremism generally.   So it was a good time to read this book, about this lovely country which deserves a lot better than it’s currently getting – but, given that I’m always on the lookout for historical fiction set in Central and Eastern Europe, I have no idea how I’ve never come across this book, set (mostly) in 20th century Hungary, before!  It’s older than I am.  And it’s excellent.  (And I can’t believe I’ve just used the terms “historical fiction” and “20th century” in the same sentence.  Bleurgh!!)

For some reason, I thought, when I found this going cheap for Kindle, that it was going to be set in the 19th century, so I was expecting Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich (Kiegyezes, in Hungarian – I’ve just had to look up because I’ve only ever come across the German term for it, which is probably quite telling).  When I think about Hungarian history, I think about the Arpadians, the Mongol invasions, the Battle of Mohacs, the Thirty Years’ War, the wars with the Ottomans, the Rakoczi Uprising and, as I said, Kossuth, Liszt and the Ausgleich.

I know what happened during the 20th century, obviously, but I’m better with anything that happened before the First World War … but I think it did me a lot of good to be made to think a lot longer and harder about what happened in Hungary from 1914 to … well, I was expecting the book to finish in 1956, with the uprising and the Soviet invasion, but it actually finished in 1948.  Oh, and, because it finished in 1948, I can’t get Ferenc Puskas and the rest of the Mighty Magyars in anywhere, so I’ll just mention them here!  Seriously, when I went to Hungary, people were far more interested in talking to me about that match in 1953 than about anything else!

Just going back to fish finger apartheid, to prove that I really didn’t make the expression up, apparently some food manufacturers are supplying supermarkets in former Eastern Bloc states with poorer quality fish fingers (this is also happening with biscuits, Nutella, cocoa powder and various other things) than the supposedly identical ones supplied to supermarkets elsewhere in Europe.  Honestly, this is true.  Hungarian, Polish, Czech and Slovak officials have held talks about it.  OK, OK, it’s not funny …

The book revolves one extended family, and, in particular, the four children – Amalia (Malie), Eva, Jozsef and Leo – of impoverished Catholic aristocrat Martha Ferenc, nee Bogozy, and her wealthy Jewish middle class husband, Zsigmond Ferenc.  Their niece Kati Racs-Rassay, the daughter of Zsigmond’s sister and her Catholic aristocratic husband, is the third of the three girls around whose lives the book revolves early on.  So you get the idea – this family is of mixed heritage.  But that wasn’t uncommon in the big cities of Central Europe at the time – although the book isn’t actually set in a city, but, mainly in an unnamed town, and also in the families’ country homes/farms.  We also have the Kaldys, who are of 100% aristocratic descent but haven’t got much money, Karoly Vilaghy, who is also 100% aristocratic but has even less money, David Klein, who is a member of the cultured, well-educated, liberal Jewish middle-classes, and Janos Marton, a very bright peasant boy who lives in poverty on the Kaldys’ estate.   So it’s very cleverly done – a lot of different social groups are represented.

I always feel bad about using the word “peasant”, because it has such negative connotations in England, where the idea of “peasants” really went out with the Middle Ages, but it’s different in most Continental countries.   Serfdom was not fully ended in Hungary until 1848 – only thirteen years before it was abolished in Russia, the country which most people would probably think of first when asked about the subject.  Budapest grew and expanded rapidly in the late nineteenth century, and became of the leading cultural centres in Europe, but most Hungarians still lived in the countryside.   Name the second biggest city in Hungary.  Can you?  It’s Debrecen.  United played their team in a Champions League qualifier 13 years ago: until then, I’d barely heard of the place.  So, yes, Hungary isn’t really a country of cities.  Several sections of the book are set in Budapest, though, and others are set in Vienna and Berlin.

The book starts in 1914, with the coming out ball of Kati Racs-Rassay.  It’s not quite like Gone With The Wind, where all the young men gallop off to war in the middle of the Twelve Oaks barbecue, but war breaks out fairly soon afterwards.   And it was, of course, Austria-Hungary which dragged everyone else into war.  OK, if it hadn’t been the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, it would have been something else – the Kaiser had been spoiling for a fight for years – but it was the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, or, rather, Austria-Hungary’s ridiculous behaviour towards Serbia as a result of it.  And there is very much that Gone With The Wind feeling there – one minute, Malie and Eva, like Scarlett O’Hara, have got nothing more to worry about than which young men they fancy and what they’re going to wear for their next social event, and, the next minute, they’re caught up in a long and terrible war – the difference being that we do actually see what the men in the army are going through, as well as what’s happening on the home front.

I won’t give the story away in terms of which of the beaux survive the war and which don’t, and who ends up married to whom, but suffice it to say that none of the three girls ends up with a man of her choice.  Despite that, one of the marriages turns out very well, one has its ups and downs but turns out OK in the end, and only one is a disaster.

The war, then. The Austro-Hungarian army  – I really want to write a long essay on the historical background going back to the 16th century and the marriage of Ferdinand Habsburg and Anna Jagellon, but better not – was initially involved on two fronts, one against Serbia and one against Russia.  Italy then declared war on Austra-Hungary in 1915, as did Romania in 1916.  As the war continued, the Empire began to fall apart, with the various Slavic groups within it calling for independence.  There was industrial unrest, and there were severe food shortages.  In October 1918, with the war obviously lost and everything collapsing, Hungary dissolved its union with Austria, and the liberal Hungarian People’s Republic was set up, in the Aster Revolution.

The British tendency is usually to focus on domestic issues and the Irish situation, when thinking about the period immediately after the First World War, so we probably don’t think that much about the follow-up mess.  Well, we do about the civil war in Russia, I suppose – I do, anyway – but not so much so about the wars between Russia and Poland, Greece and Turkey (even though Lloyd George and Churchill were all for Britain joining in with that), and Hungary and Romania.  What is generally acknowledged is that the settlements at the end of the First World War were, with hindsight, a mistake, and that the problems they caused contributed big style to what happened in Germany in the 1930s.  But what about Hungary?

What had been the Kingdom of Hungary lost two thirds of its territory, more than any other European state did in the post-First World War carve-up.  OK, much of that territory, notably Slovakia and Croatia, was largely inhabited by non-Hungarians, but Hungary also lost many areas where most or a majority of the population was Hungarian.  Sorting out borders when land empires collapse is a messy business, and there are areas all over Central Europe and the Balkans where political borders and ethnolinguistic borders don’t quite match, but it really is – and was – more of an issue for Hungary than for any other state.  Austria lost South Tyrol to Italy, and some other mainly German-speaking areas to Poland, but that was nothing compared to what happened with Hungary.  There are still large numbers of Hungarians in Vojvodina in Serbia (an autonomous province which, strangely, never seemed interested in independence from Serbia when Yugoslavia broke up), in Transylvania in Romania, and in parts of Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Ukraine and, in particular, Slovakia.  There’s been some unpleasantness very recently over Ukraine’s decision to ban teaching in Hungarian (and Romanian) in secondary schools, and there’ve been similar issues in Slovakia since 2009.

Hungary was also banned from having an air force or from having tanks, and, like Austria, was denied access to the sea.  And Czechoslovakia got most of the industry, because of where it was located.  I’ve usually tended to think of Hungary as getting most of the decent farmland, and Austria getting the worst deal economically, but Hungary was cut off not only from the industry but also from the banking and financial institutions.

The “Little Entente” of Czechoslovakia, Romania and the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, with strong support from France … well, didn’t exactly gang up on Hungary, but there was certainly a sense of being prepared to back each other against any attempts by Hungary to regain territory, and also against any prospect of a Habsburg restoration.  Hungary was still officially a kingdom throughout most of the inter-war period, albeit one without a king in situ, and to this day the Habsburgs are far more popular in Hungary than they are in Austria, so that was a concern.  So Hungary was not in a good place, to use the modern parlance.

Going back to the Aster Revolution and the Hungarian People’s Republic As with Kerensky’s government in Russia, that might have worked OK … but, in mid-1919, it was overthrown in a communist coup.  The Hungarian Soviet Republic was set up, and the Red Terror launched against those it considered its enemies.  It lasted four and a bit months.  Romania invaded.  Some Czechoslovak troops also invaded Hungary, and some Hungarian communist troops invaded Czechoslovakia, and set up a Slovak Soviet Republic, which lasted for three weeks.  Keep up!   The communist leaders did a runner, and counter-revolutionary soldiers launched the White Terror, torturing and killing communists, liberals … pretty much anyone else they didn’t like, especially Jews.  By 1921, it’d all calmed down, and Hungary went back to being the Kingdom of Hungary.  Without a king.  Effectively, a dictatorship under Miklas Horthy.  Nothing much was done do deal with economic inequality, and there was discrimination against ethnic and religious minorities.  Out of the frying pan and into the fire, over and over again.

The focus at this point switches to the men.  It’s not really great that the social stuff focused on the women and the political stuff on the men, but, OK, different times.  Both Leo Ferenc and Janos Marton are attracted by communism, and Felix Kaldy, the eldest Kaldy son, by fascism.  The far-right in Hungary, whilst – as in Germany – not generally popular with aristocrats, particularly appeals to Felix because of his anti-Jewish views.  Hitler also played on Hungarian feelings of injustice about the post-war settlement by talking about restoring some of Hungary’s lost territories – which he duly did, giving Hungary control of part of Czechoslovakia in 1938 and part of Transylvania in 1940 – and, during the Depression, Hungary had become heavily dependent on Germany economically.  When war came, Hungary allied with the Third Reich and joined it in invading first Yugoslavia and then the Soviet Union.  Leo’s sent into a labour battalion and Janos into the army, but both try to work with the Soviets, genuinely believing that the answer lay in communism.  Poor families like the Martons had gained nothing from the collapse of the Empire.  Families with Jewish connections, like the Ferencs, had been better off before.

Large numbers of Jews and Roma were deported to concentration camps – and this is the fate of most of the characters, other than those in the army or labour battalions, who are either Jewish or have Jewish ancestry.  Sent to Auschwitz where all of them, apart from Malie, are murdered.  Eva, her two children and Kati’s son manage to go into hiding – but, when the Red Army invaded Hungary in 1944, the Soviet troops carried out mass rapes of Hungarian women, and we hear that Eva and her daughter Terez were amongst those attacked.  This happened in Germany and Austria as well, and Japanese troops carried out similar crimes in China and Korea.  It continues to happen – it happened during the partition of India in 1947, in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s, to Yazidi women in Iraq, to women attacked by Boko Haram forces in Nigeria, to Rohingya women in Myanmar, to women and even children in refugee camps in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  It’s thought that Soviet troops raped two million women in Germany alone.

We don’t actually see the attacks on Eva and Terez, and we don’t see any scenes at all at Auschwitz.  I don’t know why the author chose not to show that: maybe it was something she found too difficult to write about, or maybe it was just that ideas about what was and wasn’t appropriate for inclusion in a mass market book were different in the 1970s, when the book was written.  We do miss large chunks of every character’s life, but that’s inevitable unless there’s only one main character, but it does particularly strike the reader that we don’t actually see Auschwitz.  But we hear bits about it.  And we know that Malie’s the only one of the characters sent there who comes back.

As the Soviets advanced, the Nazis retreated, wrecking the place as they went, and the Hungarian fascists continued to deport or murder thousands of Hungarian Jews.  After the war, Hungary’s pre-1938 borders were restored – minus a bit of land awarded to Czechoslovakia.  Some ethnic Germans were deported, as they were from Poland.  Elections were held in late 1945 – democratic elections, the first ones in Hungary on a universal franchise – and won by a centre-right peasant party.  But the Soviet-backed communists weren’t having that.  They forced the Smallholders’ Party into a coalition and, after failing to win the 1947 election either, they forced the Social Democrats to merge with them, and forced all opposition leaders out of the picture completely, mainly into exile.

Leo Ferenc and, in particular Janos Marton, had had such high hopes of communism.  When I was a little kid, I didn’t actually know what communism was.  I thought the word just meant “totalitarianism”.  Not that I knew the word “totalitarianism” when I was a little kid, but that sort of thing.  We were just taught that communists were baddies.  I remember being amazed when I found out what communism was actually supposed to be, and being told off when I remarked that it actually sounded like something … well, really quite good.  It’s never had the chance to be that, has it?  And, because of that, we forget how much hope people placed in it.  Leo and Janos both have their idealistic views shattered by the party apparatus.  Leo defects.  Janos tries to forge a life as an ordinary bloke, as far as possible from the political system in which he once played a big part.

The book ends before the passing of the Hungarian Constitution of 1949, but that set up the People’s Republic of Hungary, along Soviet lines.

I can hardly believe that, next year, it’ll be thirty years since the Berlin Wall came down.  It started with Hungary, didn’t it?  OK, Poland had Solidarity et al, but the 1989 thing started with people moving freely between Hungary and Austria.  Down came the Berlin Wall.  Down went most of the communist regimes of Eastern Europe.  Then, in February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  The lion was going to lie down with the lamb and we were all going to live happily ever after.  Remember that?  Lasted until the beginning of August, when Iraq barged into Kuwait.  Oh well, we had a few months of feeling optimistic.  We’re not exactly in that position now, and the state of affairs in Hungary is part of that.

The author does try to end on a positive note, with Eva and Malie reminiscing about their days as the belles of the ball and joking that they’re still the fabulous Ferenc sisters.   And, although the subject matter of the book sounds so depressing, it’s actually a very good read.  But poor Hungary.  It just seems, as I said earlier, to keep jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire.