Hild by Nicola Griffith


I was expecting this to be about nuns at Whitby Abbey. Instead, it involved the future St Hild having a passionate affair with her maidservant and then making an incestuous marriage to her illegitimate half-brother.  So it would be fair to say that it was a lot more exciting than I was anticipating!   Apparently it’s intended to be the first of a trilogy, though, so the nuns at Whitby Abbey will presumably materialise in the second and third books.

Novels about the Dark Ages are hugely problematic, because we just don’t know very much about what went on. They often become more fantasy than history, which is understandable, but, from a historian’s viewpoint, very frustrating.  They often involve Vikings, presumably because most readers are going to be familiar with the Vikings, even if that entails a totally inaccurate image involving horned helmets et al 😉 .  And they usually focus on male warriors.

This book doesn’t do any of those things. There is a sense of fantasy, but I think that’s inevitable when writing about people about whom so little is known.  There is an element of the supernatural, with the idea of Hild as the king’s “seer”, but that was part and parcel of the culture – and, when you think about it, it’s no more fantasy than the beliefs of today’s organised religions, just less familiar.  And a lot of what people imagine to be the product of Hild’s imaginary powers is actually information that she’s cleverly found out by keeping her ear to the ground and sending people out to find out what’s going on.  There are no Vikings – the raid on Lindisfarne wasn’t until 793AD, and this was set in the 610s, 620s and 630s.  Don’t get me wrong, I like Vikings, but I was looking for Anglo-Saxons and Celts!   And much of the focus is on women – Hild herself, her mother, her sister, various other royal women, and their female friends and servants.

Nicola Griffith is very keen on the concept of the “gemaecce” or “gemaecca” – a formal friendship between two women who are not blood relatives or romantic partners but who live and work together. It sounds fascinating, and it would be great to write a long essay on the role of female friendships in literature, but, although the word is real, she made the concept up.  She says that she “repurposed” the term.  “Repurposed” sounds like something that an American politician would say, but never mind!   Most of what’s in the book is invented, but it has to be, because we just don’t know very much about Hild’s life, and we don’t know nearly as much about the events and lifestyles of the time as we do about, say, the Tudor period.  “I made it up,” she says in the afterword.  Well, our Yorkshire neighbours are supposed to be blunt!

It’s a period that most people know very little about, and, whilst that gives the author a lot of scope for invention, it also means that there’s no real framework, and very little to work with – so it’s really very brave to tackle something like this by way of a historical novel, rather than fantasy. She’s stuck to the facts where they are known – although she’s got Hild as the niece of Edwin of Northumbria, whereas she was actually his great-niece.  It’s such an incredibly crucial period of English history, the overlap of Anglo-Saxon – and Jutish, although the poor old Jutes tend to be forgotten! – and Celtic cultures, and the Conversion.  Some of the characters are Anglo-Saxons, some are Celts, and some are of mixed heritage.

The known figures are there – King Edwin of Northumbria (Deira and Bernicia), Hild’s mother Breguswith and sister Hereswith, and Hereswith’s husband, Ethelric of East Anglia. The events that are known about – or known insofar as we can know them, mainly from the writings of Bede – are there, the alleged poisoning of Hild’s father whilst he was in exile in the Celtic kingdom of Elmet.  That isn’t in Wales or Scotland or Ireland, but in part of what’s now the West and North Ridings of Yorkshire.  Everything’s so … blended, for lack of a better way of putting it!   We see the characters switching from Anglo-Saxon English to Brythonic Celtic dialects.  We even get a lot of Anglo-Saxon words in both the narrative and the dialect. Because that’s how it went – it wasn’t just a case of one population being moved along as another one came in.  It rarely is.

The other crucial overlap, of course, was between Christianity and … ugh, I don’t like the word “paganism”, because it always sounds so condescending and negative. Between Christianity and traditional polytheistic religions, let’s say.  I love the way Nicola Griffith tackles this.  A lot of … OK, this isn’t a fantasy novel, but there is so much overlap in writing generally between the Dark Ages and fantasy novels and mythical worlds, and C S Lewis and J R R Tolkien in particular have to have Christian undertones to everything.  Not that I ever picked up on the religious undertones in the Narnia books when I was a kid: they passed me by completely!

Anyway, to get back to the point, some authors would have made a big spiritual deal of the actual conversion scenes, whereas others would just have been completely cynical about it all. The way Nicola Griffith deals with it is just works really well for me – Edwin has decided that he and other members of the court should be baptised (this is what actually happened, on Easter Day 627), and it’s for political rather than religious reasons, and none of them really know very much about Christianity – it’s just case of going through a ceremony.  Hild wonders if she’ll feel, or even be, different afterwards; but she doesn’t, and she isn’t.  “I’m still me.”   I really liked that.  I’m not in any way knocking anyone who has found a religious ceremony to be a very profound process and has felt different afterwards, but we are who we are, whatever we think or do about religion.  And history shows that most people do just go with the flow, whether it’s the Conversion or the Reformation.  There are always going to be some people who do feel very deeply about it all, but I really liked Hild’s reaction as shown in this.

In between the political events (and I’m including the Conversion in that), there’s just so much in this, about the lives of the people – their work, their food, their socialising, their entertainments, their travelling around, and their relationships. The maidservant with whom Hild becomes romantically and sexually involved is originally a slave – I think most people are well aware that slavery was practised in England in Celtic, Roman and Anglo-Saxon times, but it’s not written about very much, and maybe it’s a subject that should be covered more.  There’s a lot about weaving, which took up so much of women’s time during the period – but not in a boring, technical way.  We meet people of all social classes.  We also see the importance of literacy, at a time when most people were not literate (and before the Church took control of education) – Hild is able to read and write, and her sister learns to do so in order for them to be able to keep in touch.  There’s an awful lot in it.

Much of that will be historically accurate, insofar as the amount of information available allows it to be, but we sadly know very little about Hild’s life. We know about her parents and her sister, and that she was Edwin’s great-niece, and we know that she became Abbess of Hartlepool Abbey in her early 30s and then, famously, Abbess of Whitby Abbey – making it so prestigious that it was chosen as the venue for the first ever Synod within the Kingdom of Northumbria.  From what Bede says, she was an intelligent and widely-admired woman, who gave advice to kings and princes and was the patroness of the poet Cadmon.  But we have very little idea what went on in her life before she became an abbess.  For all we know, she might have had an illegitimate half-brother, and been married off to him!  OK, it’s highly unlikely, and I’m not sure why Nicola Griffith came up with that storyline, but we just haven’t got much clue.

And, for all we know, Hild may have had a relationship with her maidservant. Nicola Griffith points out that there’s nothing anywhere to tell us about views on sexuality in the Dark Ages.  Her view is that it was Christianity which made sexuality an issue.  There are certainly arguments for that: we know that it wasn’t a big deal in Ancient Greece, for example, for people to have relationships with partners of both sexes.  Maybe in some ways, it wasn’t until Victorian times that same sex relationships really became seen as a social, and legal, no-no.  If you look as late as the Stuart period in England, it was widely known that James I was bisexual, and there were also rumours – although they probably weren’t true – that so were both William III and Anne; and no-one seems to’ve had a problem with that.

It’s not a big deal in the book, because the idea is that being bisexual wasn’t a big deal in the 7th century, but the book has won a bisexual fiction award.  There is unfortunately still a big problem in the attitude of most religious towards LGBT issues, so including LGBT themes in a book about a saint could be seen as controversial, but I don’t think that’s what the author intended – as she says, we don’t know much about attitudes towards sexuality in the Dark Ages, and it’s quite possible that it just wasn’t an issue, and people just formed relationships with partners without being too bothered about whether they were men or women.  Although, if she did mean to be controversial, who could blame her?  I’ve read several comments on social media about the distress caused to friends by the negative attitudes of their respective religions towards LGBT issues.  And there’s also the issue of many religions towards women – the point’s made in this book that Hild doesn’t find Christianity particularly positive about females.

But we don’t know. A lot of work has been done on Anglo-Saxon history.  Do first year undergraduates at Oxford still have to study it, or has that changed now?  But we still know very little about it, compared to most of the other historical periods generally covered in historical novels, and that is very frustrating!  But as much as possible of what is known is woven (pun intended – there is a lot of weaving in this book!) into the fabric (again, pun intended) of this novel, alongside what’s a product of the author’s imagination.  And it’s a good read, and I’m quite disappointed that the rest of the trilogy hasn’t been written yet.  Just don’t be expecting to read about the lives of nuns, because there are no nuns here!


The Tudor Crown by Joanna Hickson


Hooray, a book that gives a positive view of Lady Margaret Beaufort, someone of whom I am a great admirer and who has been very unfairly maligned in a lot of novels in recent years. There seems to be a trend these days to try to present Richard III in a positive light: I don’t know whether that’s just for the sake of going against the traditional view or whether he’s become, even before his remains turned up in a car park in Leicester, a bit of a cult figure.  As a result of that, other figures of the time have been having their reputations blackened, and Margaret’s one of them.  I’m having none of it, nor, I’m pleased to say, is Joanna Hickson.  Richard dunnit, OK!

This book, although it does cover the crucial period from 1483 to 1485, and also the period of the second part of Edward IV’s reign (i.e. 1471 to 1483) doesn’t really cover all the same old, same old stuff about the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower, Elizabeth of York wearing the same frock as Anne Neville, the machinations of the Duke of Buckingham, and all the rest of it, though. It does mention all of those events, obviously, but it doesn’t really focus on them.

In some ways, it’s quite annoying that there is so little politics in the book. It seems quite frivolous at times, because so much of it’s about the domestic lives of the characters.  But, fascinating though the high politics of the time is, it’s all been done to death.  Some authors try to do something completely different, but that can end up being utter twaddle, like Philippa Gregory making out that Perkin Warbeck really was Richard, Duke of York.  And, fascinating though it is that there are such completely different versions of the same events (I don’t know why anyone thinks “fake news” is a recent thing, when it so clearly isn’t!), repeating the same arguments becomes rather … well, repetitive.

Joanna Hickson does take the traditional view, i.e. the Tudor view, that Richard usurped the throne – although even I’m prepared to admit that he probably did so because “Woe to thee, o land, when thy king is a child” – and had the princes murdered.   I thought that “woe to thee” quote was Shakespeare, but Google says it’s the Bible.  Shows what I know!!   However, she doesn’t really show that much about Margaret negotiating with Elizabeth Woodville, and all the “Song of the Lady Bessy” stuff isn’t there at all: Elizabeth of York only really features early on, as a child.  The focus is on Margaret’s domestic life, at court (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms) and with Thomas Stanley, and on the future Henry VII’s time in Brittany and France.

The popular image of Margaret is of the famous portrait of her wearing what looks like a nun’s wimple, and she is generally portrayed as someone who was stern, strict, ascetic and obsessively pious. This book shows a new side to her, as someone who enjoyed court life and giving entertainments, and also as someone who was very close to her many official and unofficial wards – poignantly, it’s suggested that this was partly due to her sadness at being unable to have more children after Henry’s difficult birth when she was so young.  It’s a side to her that’s not usually shown, even in novels, and it’s very appealing.  Her strength of character, her learning, and her devotion to Henry make her one of the most admirable personalities of the time, but it’s nice to see this softer side to her as well – and it does all seem to be fairly accurate.

The sections about Henry, other than the Battle of Bosworth Field itself, are all fictional, though. That’s not because the author isn’t sticking to the facts: it’s because we don’t know the facts!   So much has been written about the 1470s and early 1480s, but virtually none of it concerns Henry – and his uncle Jasper – ‘s time in Brittany and France.  I would think that that’s because Henry was keen to play down the fact that he’d spent so much time abroad, but it does leave huge gaps in his story.

This book features the fictional mistress and illegitimate children of Jasper Tudor, who were in one of Joanna Hickson’s previous books, and also features a fictional relationship between Henry and a local woman, who dies, along with the baby, in childbirth. It’s made clear in the afterword that all of that is fictional, and it’s hard to know what to say about it, but it is well-written and makes an engaging storyline.  As the author says, it seems unlikely that Henry wouldn’t have had any romantic relationships before his marriage.  It’s strange that we know so little about that period of his life, when we do know so much about the Tudor dynasty in general.  We’re so used to seeing what was going on in England at the time, especially in the period between Edward IV’s death and Bosworth Field, and it’s easy to forget about Henry kicking his heels on the other side of the Channel and probably thinking that he was going to be there for the rest of his life.

What an incredible change for him!   William I was Duke of Normandy before he became King of England, William of Orange was the Stadtholder of the United Provinces, George I was the Elector of Hanover, and, for that matter, James I was King of Scotland.  Henry IV and even to some extent Edward IV had had their time in the thick of all the political intrigue.  But Henry VII had been completely out of it.  Someone with no political experience suddenly being in charge of the country does not always work very well – mentioning no names! – but Henry did the most incredible job of being king.

Neither he nor his mother were exactly up there in the charisma stakes, and, especially coming in between the charismatic Edward IV, the controversial Richard III and the most recognisable king in English history, Henry VIII, they’re never going to get as much attention as they deserve. So it’s great to see a book that focuses on both of them, and that doesn’t present them as being boring, vile or both.  It’s a shame that so little’s known about Henry’s life in exile, but Joanna Hickson’s made a good story out of it, and has explained that it’s not factual.  This isn’t the most challenging or thought-provoking book you’ll ever read, but there are plenty of challenging and thought-provoking books about this period already, and this one’s that bit different.


Knightfall – History Channel


A Downton Abbey reunion, the quest for the Holy Grail, and some genuinely thought-provoking points about life in medieval Paris.  Quite an interesting combination, and it was much better than I was expecting.  The pun in the title is awful, but it refers to the fall of the Knights Templar – the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, to give them their title, although poor they most certainly were not!

There are very few organisations about which there are as many myths, legends and conspiracy theories as there are about the Knights Templar. Did they have the Holy Grail, and bury it under Rosslyn Chapel?  Or maybe in Valencia Cathedral?  Or the Basilica of San Isidoro in Leon?  Did they have the Turin Shroud?  Or another shroud, the Sovran Cloth, which supposedly ended up in Glastonbury?  Were they somehow involved with the Ark of the Covenant, and is it buried in Ethiopia (and does that all sound a bit Indiana Jones?)?  Is the fact that Philip IV of France arrested their leaders in France on Friday, 13th October 1307 the reason that Friday 13th is supposed to be an unlucky day?  Was it a Curse of the Templars which caused the male line of the Capetian dynasty to die out – leading, incidentally, to the Hundred Years’ War?  Hey, did some of them even escape from France and sail to North America?  They feature in books as diverse as Ivanhoe and The Da Vinci Code.  People think there are a lot of conspiracy theories around now?  They’ve got nothing on the stories that have been told about the Templars over the years!

So what are the actual known facts? The Templars, founded in 1119, in the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem, and so named because their original HQ was on Temple Mount, were originally supposed to protect pilgrims.  Helped by the backing of St Bernard of Clairvaux, they became the “in” charity of the 12th century, and developed into both a powerful fighting order and an incredibly wealthy and successful business organisation – the world’s first multinational corporation, really.  The Temple Bar area of London, and the Inner and Middle Temple Inns of Chancery, for example, get their name from the Knights Templar, who used to own the land there.  So do Temple Newsam, the stately home in Leeds, Temple Sowerby near Penrith, and numerous other places.  They even owned the entire island of Cyprus, at one point: they moved their HQ there after the last Christian possessions in the Holy Land fell.  But then Cyprus was taken by the Egyptian Mamluks, in 1302-3.  So where did the Templars go from there?

Well, in 1307, as already mentioned, Philip IV of France arrested the leaders of the French Templars. And a load of others too.  They were forced to confess to all sorts of heresy and corruption, and their leaders Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charnay were burned at the stake – on a scaffold in the middle of the Seine, in front of Notre Dame, just for extra drama.  The order was formally disbanded by Pope Clement V, under pressure from Philip IV, in 1312, and its assets transferred to the Order of the Knights Hospitallers.  To this day, nobody really knows what went on.  Did the Templars just disappear into history, just like that?

The series opened with the Siege of Acre in 1291. Fascinating place, Acre (Akko) – lots of remains of Crusader buildings to be seen there. The Crusaders lost control of Jerusalem in 1187, but took Acre a few years later, and it became their capital city.  Once it fell to the Mamluks in 1291 –Robyn Young’s book Crusade covers this brilliantly – the Crusaders were pretty much finished in the Holy Land, although they did hold some minor possessions there until 1303.

It didn’t actually look very promising at first. The scenes of the fighting and the Templars fleeing, filmed in Croatia, were just a bit too gloriously technicoloured, somehow – it made me think of a computer game rather than a TV series.  And no-one seemed interested in their property, in Jerusalem or even in their comrades, only in protecting the Holy Grail – which, according to this, the Templars did indeed hold.  It’s fiction, OK!  Even the Mamluks seemed more interested in the Holy Grail than anything else!   It looked as if it was going to be a cross between a 1980s action movie (not that I didn’t love the Indiana Jones films and the Romancing the Stone films, but I was looking for medieval history with this!) and some kind of semi-fantasy thing.  Anyway, the Grail was on a ship which was hit by flaming arrows and promptly sank.  We saw the Grail (and wouldn’t you have thought they’d at least have put it in a box!) sinking deep into Davy Jones’ Locker.  Oh dear.

Fast forward to … well, it wasn’t 100% clear when. Certainly before 1307, as the Templars were still going.  It seemed to be the time of the Great Expulsion of the Jews, which was 1306 (whereas England only had the one Edict of Expulsion, in 1290, there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing in France, but the one during Philip IV’s reign was definitely in 1306), but the reigning Pope was Boniface VIII, who died in 1303.  Hmm.

Boniface, the Jews of France and the Templars all fell foul of Philip’s quest for money and power. There are all sorts of theories about the Templars being dissolved because they’d uncovered some mysterious secret, or were engaged in nefarious practices, but, with apologies for being boring, it was probably simply because Philip didn’t like the idea of any organisation other than the Crown holding so much wealth and power, and also because he owed the Templars a fortune.  He’d come into conflict with the Church for the same reason.  That would ultimately lead to the Schism, and had already led, in 1303, to poor old Boniface being tortured by Philip’s agents and dying shortly afterwards.   And Philip owed a fortune to France’s Jewish community, as well as to the Templars: we saw him praising the Jews of France, especially for their work as doctors, but he wanted to get out of paying his debts.   He chucked out the Lombard bankers as well.  Yes, he owed them a fortune too!

The Templars were still going, but they didn’t seem to be doing very much other than chasing women and acting as loan sharks. Our hero, Brother Landry, played by Tom Cullen from Downton Abbey (the one with whom Lady Mary spent the night in a hotel, before deciding not to marry him), was not happy about this.  It was a bit of a Downton Abbey reunion, really!   Julian Ovenden (who played another of Lady Mary’s spurned suitors) is in it as well, playing Guillaume de Nogaret, Philip’s nasty Chancellor; and Pope Boniface VIII (who will turn up in the next episode) is played by Jim “Carson” Carter.   Anyway, Brother Landry pointed out that the Templars should really have been doing something useful – such as protecting the Jews, who were being given a lot of grief (the Templars are indeed known to have protected French Jews, although more because they had a lot of Jewish tenants than anything else), helping the poor in general, or, you know, trying to retake Jerusalem.  Landry is going to make himself “useful” by having an affair with the Queen, incidentally, but we haven’t got to that bit yet.  This is not true, by the way – not least because Landry didn’t actually exist!

Anyway, the Templars did heroically intervene to save the Jews of Paris, who, having been thrown out of their homes, were then ambushed whilst on the road. However, they couldn’t save their own leader, Godfrey.  Having seen a piece of fruit lurking on a building, which was apparently a sign connected with the Holy Grail (don’t ask me), he’d gone chasing off, only to be ambushed and killed, by a group of nasties who also murdered some poor young village girl whose fiancé had tried to help Godfrey.  Landry became the new Master and Commander of the Paris Temple, and found out that, previously unbeknownst to him but known to Godfrey, the Holy Grail was actually in France.  So now, of course, our Templar pals are going to try to find it.

It’s an interesting mix of fact and fiction – and not just fiction as in having fictional characters, but as in myth/legend, with the quest for the Holy Grail tied in with the very real events of the Great Expulsion of the Jews and the suppression of the Templars. The title does sound more like a computer game or a kids’ fantasy series than historical fiction, and the opening scenes weren’t that promising, but, once it got going, I genuinely enjoyed it.  It was much better than I’d expected!




Who Do You Think You Are? (Olivia Colman) – BBC 1


Some episodes of this are better than others; and this, kicking off the new series, was a particularly good one. OK, technically the series started with the Michelle Keegan episode, which was also interesting, but that was shown weeks ago!   The Olivia Colman episode not only included some fascinating “human interest” stories, about the eventful lives of the ancestors of someone who’d said that she hadn’t expected to find too much drama in her family tree, but took us back to the lives of the British in pre-Mutiny India, something we don’t hear nearly enough about.

The Victorians cast a very long shadow, and, given their achievements, rightly so. But that does mean that the attitudes of Georgian times aren’t given enough attention: there can be the idea that the views of “the past” mean the views of the mid to late Victorians.  And Georgian times were very different.  Take Jane Austen’s novels.  Lydia Bennet runs off with Mr Wickham, and lives with him before they’re married.  Maria Rushworth, nee Bertram, leaves her husband and runs off with Henry Crawford.  We hear all about Willoughby’s history of seducing young women – and Wickham wasn’t behind the door in that department either.  Emma’s friend Harriet is “the natural daughter of Someone”.  It’s a long way from the Victorians covering piano legs because even pianos weren’t allowed to show their legs in public!

Then there were attitudes on race and colonialism. It’s a controversial area, and one which it would take hours to go into properly.  But, in the second half of the 19th century, it probably wasn’t very likely that a well-to-do British family would have taken in the mixed race daughter of one of its scions.  The illegitimate mixed race daughter.  Whereas that’s exactly what happened with Olivia Colman’s great-great-great-grandmother, Harriot Slessor – born in a remote part of India in 1807, half a century before the Mutiny, to a British officer and his Indian mistress.

Sadly, her father died when she was only three, and we don’t know what happened to her mother, but Olivia learnt that Harriot’s grandmother had sent for her, paid for her passage to Britain, and given her everything she could. She was nicknamed “India Harriot”: there seems to have been no attempt to cover up her mixed heritage, as there perhaps would have been later on.  Think Anna Leonowens of “The King and I” fame.  OK, what happened to Harriot was only one person’s experience, but it was … well, I was going to say a lovely one, but it was actually rather sad in parts.  Although she was going to a loving family, it was to a strange country and people she didn’t know.  And then her first husband, whom she met on board a ship going back to India, died shortly after their marriage.

It was suggested that her mixed heritage made it difficult for her to find a husband in England, so not everyone was as open-minded as the Slessor family were, but she did marry twice, both to white British men. She and her second husband remained in India for many years, and then retired to the Home Counties, where they lived a comfortable life.  He presumably made money in India and was from a comfortable background anyway, and she inherited a considerable sum of money from a great-aunt.  It doesn’t seem to have bothered her family in the slightest that she was illegitimate or that she was of mixed race.  OK, this was only one person’s experience, and doesn’t necessarily typify the attitudes of the time, but I think it’s a very Georgian/early Victorian story, and I think Harriot’s upbringing may well have been very different had she been born sixty years later.   Thankfully for her, she wasn’t.

I’m not knocking the Victorians, but the image we have of the British in India tends to be that of the later Victorians, and of the first half of the 20th century, and it’s not always very positive, especially in today’s socio-political climate. Books like E M Forster’s A Passage to India perhaps have a lot to do with that.  And the pre-Mutiny British in India tend to be seen as idiots, like Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair.  Stories like that of Harriot Slessor can tell us a lot, and show us that maybe we need to rethink some of the common ideas and images about the British in India.  As the lady who showed Olivia round the area where Harriot was born pointed out, there were many relationships between British men and Indian women back then. Obviously there are books like White Mughals, about mixed race romances, about the 18th century, but it’s still the image of the clubs and the hill stations in late Victorian and early 20th century times that dominate.

There was a lot more in this programme, too. Harriot’s second husband’s father, Olivia’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, had accused his first wife of adultery, and then been granted not only a legal separation but the right to remarry – to a woman with whom he already had two children.  The two children born before their marriage were treated exactly the same as those born after their marriage – and this was in a very middle-class family.  Again, very Georgian!

We also heard about Harriot’s grandmother, also Harriot, and how she’d spent a lot of time in Porto, where her soldier husband was based.   From a human interest viewpoint, we heard – how wonderful to be able to read your great-great-great-great-great-grandmother’s letters! – about her sadness at leaving her elderly mother behind in Britain, and her sons at British boarding schools … something else we associate with Victorian and early twentieth century times, and which we need to remember went back well before that.  It was also a reminder of the longstanding bond between England/Britain and the very lovely city of Porto, and the very lovely country of Portugal generally.  Harriot’s husband was in the army, whereas a lot of the Brits based in Porto were there because of the port wine, but that’s another story!

Finally, we learnt that the elder Harriot’s mother had been born in Paris and come to Britain as a Huguenot refugee. That was well into the 18th century, so long after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes and the main wave of Huguenot emigration from France to the British Isles and elsewhere, but that just went to show that the issue of religion in France continued to be an issue even into the 1720s/1730s.  The distant relative who told Olivia about their common ancestor made the point that the Huguenots were the first group of people to be termed “refugees”.  This was right at the end of the programme, and we didn’t hear very much about this lady, but the whole subject of people moving around between England, Scotland, Ireland, France  and Low Countries, over a long period from the middle of the 16th century to the start of the 18th century – in fact, the middle of the 18th  century, if you include the people who left Scotland after Culloden – for religious and political reasons, often linked, is fascinating, and something we don’t hear enough about.

Mostly it was fairly small groups of people, but around 50,000 Huguenots came to the British Isles. Their influence on the textile and cutlery-making industries here, and the watch-making industry in Switzerland, was just immense.  Britain and Switzerland’s gain, and France’s loss.  There was quite a lot of immigration at that time – people moved from the Netherlands to Britain with William of Orange, and they included Jews as well as Protestants.  And, in 1709, 13,000 migrants from Germany – dubbed “the Palatines” as some of them came from the Palatinate – arrived in Britain, claiming that they were refugees, but it turned out that a lot of them were economic migrants, and there were social issues because most of them were poor and unskilled, many of them were Catholics when they’d claimed to be Protestants fleeing persecution.  There was a big row over immigration policy, and the difference between refugees and economic migrants …  some things don’t change!

But the Huguenot immigration does generally seem to have gone really well, and it would’ve been interesting to hear more about Olivia’s Huguenot ancestor.  However, you can only fit so much into an hour’s episode, and the story of her Eurasian (Anglo-Indian originally meant “British living in India”, with “Eurasian” being the term for someone of mixed heritage) great-great-great-grandmother and how well her life turned out was absolutely fascinating.  And Olivia had had no idea that her family had any connection with India at all.  Who knows what there might be in anyone’s family history that they have no idea about?  It’s just great when this programme can uncover something completely unexpected like that.  Wonderful episode.

History in the making – a summer to remember (one way or another!)


The spell is broken.  England are out of the World Cup, and, for a while yesterday morning, it poured with rain – the first rain we’d had in weeks.  I’m incredibly proud of everything that our young, inexperienced group of players and our inspirational manager have achieved, and we desperately need rain to put out the fires on Winter Hill and Saddleworth Moor, but I just want to turn the clock back to Wednesday afternoon, when everything seemed possible!

The football was still the headlines of the news yesterday morning, the morning after the night before, and we were still hearing about the twelve young lads and their coach being rescued from the caves in Thailand (although it’s so sad that one man died during the rescue effort, and possibly a bit tacky that there’s already talk of making a film about it all) … but then came Donald Trump, our incompetent embarrassment of a government, and yet another year of Twelfth Day of July unrest in Northern Ireland.

For a few weeks, we were Somewhere Over The Rainbow.  Skies are blue, and the dreams that you dare to dream … .  (Incidentally, Simon Schama, the historian and TV presenter, once made a thought-provoking point about how that song could only have been written by the child of immigrants who’d fled persecution for the American Dream.)   Yesterday morning, the skies were grey, and it was sinking in that the World Cup was not coming home after all.  But, hey, what a time we’ve had!   Before the World Cup started, we didn’t dare hope for any more than getting out of the group.  Not to mention all the catastrophising about how the tournament was going to be spoilt by racism, homophobia and Russia’s troubled relations with the rest of the world.  And look what we got instead!   Talk about the feelgood factor.  It felt as if the whole country was singing Three Lions.

And we’ve still got Wimbledon!   Well, OK, this isn’t a national thing, but it will make me ecstatically happy if the French Open champion can win his third Wimbledon title on Sunday.  OK, I’m not holding my breath.  Nole looked worryingly good yesterday.  Balkan double?  Croatia win the World Cup and Serbia win Wimbledon?  How weird would that be?  And there are so many stories of the horrors of the wars of the 1990s tied up in all that.  Sport can give so much.

We hoped.  And we dreamed.  Everyone, including Princes William and Harry, was saying “It’s coming home”.  That song!   1996 was weird.  It started off being all so exciting.  I’d just been to Prague for a belated 21st birthday weekend away, and the Czech Republic were based in Manchester for Euro ’96, so the flight home was full of football fans.  There was such a buzz in the air.  Then the IRA blew up our city centre.  So we didn’t quite get the ongoing 1996 feelgood factor.  But we got the song.  Everyone gets the song!  Everyone’s been singing it.  Friends who normally have little interest in football have been posting on Facebook about how excited they are.  The day of the semi-final was even dubbed Waistcoat Wednesday, with people posting pictures of themselves wearing waistcoats in honour of Gareth Southgate!   At 7 o’clock on Wednesday evening, the streets were deserted.  Everyone was watching the match.  We were all in it together.

That hasn’t happened too much lately.  And the leadership qualities displayed by Gareth Southgate, and the sense of team spirit he’s instilled in the team, the togetherness, the unity – well, there’s been precious little of that around either.  I do appreciate that Theresa May’s in a difficult position, but, come on, two years to agree an internal position on Brexit, and then it all falls apart within three days?  How on earth are we meant to negotiate with the EU when Cabinet members can’t even agree amongst themselves?  Summoned to Chequers, told to put their mobile phones away, like a bunch of naughty schoolkids in detention – and then the whole thing falling apart anyway.  That’s not Three Lions; that’s Madness’s You’re An Embarrassment.

And the Opposition are no better.  Jeremy Corbyn’s inability to deal with anti-Semitism within the Labour Party is extremely concerning, as well as embarrassing.  And does anyone have the remotest clue what Labour’s policy on the best way of getting us out of the EU is?  No, me neither.  And all this talk about “Brexiters” and “Remoaners”.  The decision’s been made, OK?  You may as well label people as Hanoverians and Jacobites, or Roundheads and Cavaliers.  Move on.  But it’s very difficult when both main parties are making such a mess of everything.  There is not one senior politician at Westminster who inspires a scrap of confidence.  Leadership?  Togetherness?  Unity?  Hah!  Gareth Southgate for PM!   I’m telling you, he could only do better!   He and the players brought us together.

Sport does this.  London 2012.  Andy Murray winning Wimbledon.  Oh, it can go horribly wrong well, we all know that; but it can do this.  There’s something a bit different about it this time, though.  It’s not just the success – whilst it lasted.  It’s the team spirit.  This is not the so-called “Golden Generation” of Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard & co, or the 1998 squad which included the likes of David Beckham and Alan Shearer.  Most of these players weren’t even household names before the tournament began.  But they’ve connected, to use a modern-day buzzword – with each other, and with the fans.  They got it.  We got it.

And the skies were blue.  And the sun shone.

I think it actually started with the Royal Wedding.  We’ve watched Prince Harry grow up.  We saw that little boy walking along behind his mother’s coffin.  We’ve seen him get himself into trouble.  And then we’ve seen him as a hero, whether it’s been serving in Afghanistan or helping to organise the Invictus Games.  Very few people have got a bad word to say about him.  And we’ve seen his romances with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas end in tears, and longed for him to find his happy ever after.  And now, hopefully, he has.  We’d have been delighted for him whomever that was with – but the fact that his fairytale princess is a mixed-race American divorcee actress somehow did that bit extra to bring people together.  It reminded us that it doesn’t matter who you are.  It doesn’t matter who you love.  It doesn’t matter about race, religion, sexuality, socio-economic status … any of it.  All that matters is that people are happy.  It was the stuff of fairytales, but very modern ones.  It brought everyone together.  We needed that.

The sky was a perfect cornflower blue.  Not a cloud in it.  The sun shone down.

And then, as the sky continued to be blue, and the sun continued to shine, Gareth Southgate and his band of brothers gave us hopes and dreams, and showed us what leadership and togetherness are about – something that our politicians don’t seem to have the first clue regarding.

This is history.  Twenty years from now, we’ll be looking back on the early summer of 2018, and we’ll be remembering how it was hot and sunny for days and days on end, and how we got to the semi-finals of the World Cup.  We don’t know what lies ahead – but do we ever?  In 1990, we were riding the crest of a wave of hope, with the Berlin Wall down, Nelson Mandela released from prison and Germany set for reunification.  Well, that soon went pear-shaped, didn’t it?  Croatia, where they were celebrating as we cried, could tell us all about that.  In 2018, everything’s a mass of uncertainty.  But maybe it’ll all turn out for the best?  Well, you never know.

52 years of hurt can go a long way towards stopping you from dreaming.  I mean 52 years since 1966, OK – I have not personally experienced 52 years of hurt!  The first World Cup I remember was 1982!   But we’re dreaming again.  There’s a positivity in the air.  There’s hope, and there’s pride.  And there are waistcoats!

There were things I thought I might never see.  Growing up in the 1980s, you seriously began to wonder whether United would ever win the league again.  We waited 26 years.  City fans waited longer.  We waited 77 years for a British man to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon again.  Going back to 1990, or, rather, to 1989, I’m not sure that we thought we’d see the Berlin Wall come down in our lifetimes, or that Nelson Mandela would ever be released from prison.  We certainly never thought we’d see Prince Harry marry a lovely mixed-race American divorcee actress.

Things change.

And, yes, “We’ve seen it all before” and we know all about semi-final heartbreak.  But people are already looking ahead to Euro 2020.  And the country’s come together.  We’ve been reminded that we can do this.  We can do leadership.  We can do unity.  We can do hopes and dreams.  Thank you for that, Gareth and the boys.  We needed it from someone, and we’ve got it from you.  And we’ll never forget this summer.  We’ve been living through history in the making.



Smashing Hits! The 80s pop map of Britain and Ireland – BBC 4


The music of the 1980s is the soundtrack to my life.  Well, to be strictly accurate, the music of the late 1980s and the early 1990s was the soundtrack to my formative years, but, however you put it, 1980s music is “my” music.  I’ve only got to hear the few first bars of a hit song from the second half of the 1980s and I am right back there: I can tell you exactly when it was from, and exactly what was going on both in my life and in the world in general at that time.  Take this morning.  I was in the gym (I go before work during Wimbledon), and on came Sweet Child O’ Mine.  I only needed to hear a few notes of it and I was back in 1989, listening to our form teacher read us the Riot Act over a load of graffiti having appeared in the locker area.  I don’t think the culprit was ever actually unmasked, but I do know that the lyrics to Sweet Child O’Mine were part of the offending artwork.

Life isn’t like that any more.  I haven’t got a clue what’s number one in the charts.  I assume people do still use the terms “the charts” and “the top 40” (and I remember when it was the “the top 30”), incidentally?  My sister and I used to find it hilarious that Mum and Dad referred to the charts as “the hit parade”, and that our late grandad, bless him, insisted on referring to a record player as a “gramophone”!    It’s rather depressing to think that I’m now just as out of touch as we thought they were back then.  Do millennials even know what a record player or a tape/cassette player is?  Do they ever go into a shop and buy a piece of physical media with music on it, or is it all downloads these days?  It’s a different world these days.  So it’s very nice that BBC 4 are allowing me to step back into my world for a little while, with this three-part series about the music of the 1980s.  Because it was the best music ever, right?!  Yep.  That’s what old people say.  It’s what Mum and Dad used to say, in the 1980s and 1990s, about the music of the 1950s and 1960s!

Do little kids still have playground versions of popular songs, by the way?  Like we used to have in the early 1980s?  “Relax, don’t do it.  Pick your nose and chew it.”  “Uptown Wally.  She’s been living in a Tesco trolley.  She had it off with the Action Man.  She left her knickers in an ice cream van.”  Maybe we were just weird at our primary school.  And that was actually rather rude for primary school kids to have been singing, come to think of it.  Er, moving swiftly on …

This is a different take on music history, because it’s about the way in which different British cities produced different music.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, but, it many ways, everything seems so uniform, so samey.  You go on holiday, and you’re in France or Germany or Italy or Spain and there are billboards everywhere showing adverts in English.  The same with slogans in shops or bars.  What??  What is wrong with the language of the country you’re in?  And there are branches of McDonald’s and Starbuck’s everywhere.  It’s all the same.  I tell you, three cheers for Greggs, who make a big effort to stock cakes and pastries that are relevant to the part of the country that each particular branch is in.  The National Trust do as well, to be fair.  I love it when I see bara brith in the tea room at Chirk Castle, or Scouse in the tea room at Speke Hall.  Uniformity is boring!

Towards the end of the 1980s, things did get rather uniform, thanks to Stock Aitken Waterman.  Whether it was Rick Astley from Newton-le-Willows and Sonia from Liverpool, Kylie and Jason from Down Under, or Big Fun who were a mixture of Mancunians, Midlanders and Londoners (what???), it all sounded the same.  Don’t get me wrong – I love SAW songs.  I would never have admitted that, back in the day, because only really uncool people admitted to liking SAW, but, come on, everyone likes those songs, don’t they?  But it was all artificial, and manufactured, and samey.

And then came the “Madchester” era.  Hooray!   I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in London in 1990.  No school uniform on school trips.  Presumably so that, if anyone did anything terrible, no-one would be able to tell what school they came from!  Practically every single kid turned up in a hooded top – bought from places like Stolen from Ivor – and a pair of jeans by Joe Bloggs of Cheetham Hill.  We thought we were the coolest thing ever, strutting round That London in all our Manchester gear.  “You’re twisting my melon, man.”   It was a local thing.  Like Merseybeat’d been in the ’60s.  There was a lot of local stuff going on in the ’80s and early ’90s.  Music meant something: it came from places and times and cultures.

“Madchester”, coming at the end of the 1980s, is going to be covered in the final episode of the three.  Next week’s Scotland, Wales and Ireland.  I’ve just booked to see The Proclaimers in November: I’m very excited about that.  I’d be even more excited if it was Wet Wet Wet, but I did get to see them a couple of years back.  Anyway, the first episode was about London, Coventry and Sheffield.  And it took us right back to the early 1980s – which was before my musical time, so it was quite educational, because I don’t really remember the “scenes” of that time.

First up, the New Romantics.  Definitely before my time – although I remember my older cousin being obsessed with Duran Duran.  I love Spandau Ballet’s music, but Through the Barricades is the only one of their hit songs that I was really into at the time at which it was out.  Incredible song!  True, To Cut A Long Story Short and Gold are incredible songs too.  Is there anything around now that can come even close to matching music like that?   And Karma Chameleon was one of the first records I owned: Boy George was such an icon, even to younger kids.  The programme, presented by Kim Appleby – and I well remember the sadness when Kim’s sister Mel died so tragically young, and the admiration for Kim as she bravely went on with her music career as a solo artist – and Midge Ure (“Oh, Vienna … ) explored the Soho scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s, and how that gave rise to Adam and the Ants, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club.

Duran Duran are from Birmingham, obviously, just before I offend anyone by seeming to count them in with the Londoners!   In fact, I thought Birmingham should have been given more credit here, because it was just as much of a New Romantic centre as London was.  And a lot of the talk was about the success of British bands in America.  “The second British invasion.”  British music was big.  It was so big!

A lot of this was put down to MTV and the influence of videos.  We didn’t have MTV, until the advent of satellite TV in the late 1980s.  We only got to see the much-discussed videos on Top of the Pops and The Roxy, about an hour a week in total.  But what a big deal the videos became!   I remember the first time that the video for Madonna’s Like A Prayer was shown in the UK.  There’d been a huge fuss about it, because it’d offended the Vatican!   That evening, I went round to my then best friend’s house for tea, and she and I and her brother were sat there, waiting for the video to be shown, like it was some world-changing moment!

And Smash Hits, the music magazine, was also given a lot of credit for the rise of the New Romantics.  Ah, Smash Hits!  Both it and Just Seventeen used to come out on a Wednesday.  In the third year of secondary school, we used to have double physics on a Wednesday afternoon.  I’m sure the teacher was a really nice woman who was much loved by her family and friends, but a) she couldn’t hold the class’s attention and b) she never seemed to notice what any of us were doing.  So we’d all sit there reading Smash Hits and Just Seventeen!  I never did learn very much about physics, but ask me anything about pop music in 1987 or 1988 and I’ll probably be able to tell you!

Sadly, the New Romantics movement didn’t last.  The programme put its demise down to Adam and the Ants miming on The Children’s Royal Variety Performance, during which they were apparently on in between The Krankies and Rod Hull and Emu.  I don’t remember that, so I’ll have to take Midge and Mel’s words for it.  But the music lives on.  ’80s music lives on!!

Next up came Coventry and ska, and, with this, much more of a sense of a particular city’s history and culture.  Sorry, London, but you don’t do regional identity in the same way as other cities do!  I was only thinking about The Specials last week.  “Free Nelson Mandela”.  Ghost Town is the other Specials song that everyone knows – and, as Mel and Midge pointed out, that (again, before my musical time, really) said so much about 1981, the year of the riots in Toxteth and Brixton and elsewhere.  Music then was so much more about time and place than it seems to be now.  And a big element of ska was the influence of Jamaican culture on Coventry.  Funny, we’re hearing so much about immigration at the moment, but I’m not really getting a sense of Eastern European influence on music.  Or am I just too old and out of touch to know what’s going on?!

I’ve never really been into ska, TBH.  But this was Coventry’s thing.  A smaller city having such a big influence on music.  And then it was on to electronic scene, in Sheffield.  Again, its heyday was a bit early for me, but I love some of these songs.  “Don’t you want me, baby?”  “Shoot that poison arrow to my hah-ah-ah-ah-ah-ah-heart!”  And, again, it was about a time and a place – deindustrialisation in a Northern city in Margaret Thatcher’s Britain.  The Human League, Temptation and ABC were the groups discussed.  “All I’m saying. It takes a lot to love you.”   Wonderful stuff.  And all rooted in Sheffield, a city badly hit by the economic problems of the era.

The synthesiser!   That led on – although the programme didn’t go into this – to the later electro-pop music, and that really was my era.  A-ha.  The Pet Shop Boys.  Erasure.  There was even a group called Electronic – a collaboration between the wonderful, wonderful Pet Shop Boys and Manchester’s very own New Order.  “However I look, it’s clear to see, that I love you more than you love me.”  Sorry, that’s way off the point.  Sheffield!  Early 1980s!  The banning of Heaven 17’s “We don’t need this fascist groove thang” by the BBC, in case it offended the president of the United States.  Maybe that song needs a bit of a revival?!

And that was Sheffield.  London.  Coventry.  Sheffield.  Music that grew organically out of the culture of a particular city, at a particular time.  All a bit mad, in its way.  But natural.  Not manufactured.  Not artificial.  Not uniform.  And all so very gloriously 1980s!   There will never be another musical decade like the 1980s, and the music of the 1980s will never die!


Trevor McDonald: Return to South Africa – ITV 1


I’ve never known another time of hope quite like February 1990. Three months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  “Our march to freedom is irreversible.”  This was it.  We’d cracked it.  The lion was going to lie down with the lamb, and we were all going to live happily ever after, in a world of peace and love, flowing with milk and honey.

It lasted just under six months. And even they were interrupted by IRA violence.  And the Strangeways prison riot – although admittedly that all seemed rather exciting, with rioting prisoners regularly waving to our school bus as it passed by.  At the beginning of August, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait.  War resulted, in January 1991.  In June 1991, Slovenia and Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, and all hell then broke loose: we saw things we’d never again thought could happen in Europe.  So much for the bright new world.

But South Africa, despite some horrendous outbreaks of violence there, remained a beacon of hope. Apartheid was dismantled, and, in 1994, Nelson Mandela became president – and up went the rainbow flag.  It’s all rather romanticised in the film Invictus, depicting South Africa’s hosting of and victory in the 1995 rugby union World Cup.

It’s difficult to overstate how much South Africa loomed in the consciousness of my generation, growing up in Britain. There’s nothing like it now.  The slightest thing that happens in the Middle East makes headlines, but it’s not the same.  It’s a shame, really.  Maybe something might be done about, say, the persecution of ethnic minorities in Burma/Myanmar, if there was some sort of movement that even came close to the worldwide anti-apartheid movement.  Jacob Rees-Mogg was saying something – not particularly historically accurately – the other day about the repeal of the Corn Laws, and that got me thinking about just how huge the Anti Corn Law League was in the history and consciousness of Manchester.  The anti-apartheid movement was like that on an international level.

It was at every level, from the big to the ridiculously small. That huge concert in 1988, to mark Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday.  Free-ee-ee-ee-ee Nelson Man-DE-E-E-LA.  The rows and debates over the rebel cricket tours.  What was the name of the tower block that Del and Rodney and Uncle Albert lived in, in Only Fools and Horses?  Nelson Mandela House.  We even had Gimme Hope Jo’Anna on the tape that was played as background music in school gym lessons.  And eat a South African apple?  Not we!  Maggie Thatcher might think that it was OK to trade with an apartheid regime, even at the risk of splitting the Commonwealth, and the supermarkets might think that it was OK to stock South African produce, but not one morsel of fruit produced there was passing the lips of any self-respecting teenager.  All right, all right, we didn’t really imagine that F W de Klerk actually gave two hoots whether we were eating South African apples or not, but it was the principle of the thing.

What divided South Africa united so many other people. Quite strange, really, when you think about it.

So. 1994.  The rainbow nation.  Not all black and white.  It’s crucial to remember, without wanting to go too far into Afrikaner religious beliefs, the Boer War or anything else, that there aren’t just “White South Africans”.  There are Afrikaner-speaking white South Africans, and English-speaking white South Africans, and white South Africans speaking other languages.  There aren’t just “black South Africans”: there are black South Africans from many different cultural and linguistic groups.  There are South Africans of Asian descent.  There are the mixed race “Cape Coloureds”.  And, of course, there are the “Khoisan” people.  There are urban communities and rural communities.  Different regions.  Different religions.  It’s complex.

Trevor McDonald was privileged to be able to interview Nelson Mandela back in 1990. He returned to South Africa for this one-off programme, to mark what would have been Mandela’s 100th birthday.

I went to South Africa in 2011. My main memories of that wonderful holiday aren’t to do with my impressions of race relations: they involve Table Mountain, penguins at the Cape of Good Hope, sitting on an ostrich (don’t even ask), safaris in the Kruger National Park, the glorious scenery, the trees and flowers, explanations of Zulu culture, having a very English cream tea in the middle of the botanical gardens in Durban … all sorts of things!   But one of the things I most wanted to do whilst I was there was to visit Robben Island: it seemed so important to see where Nelson Mandela had been held prisoner for so many years.  And I was struck by the fact that all the white people on the guided tour there were tourists from other countries.  All the South Africans on the guided tour were black.

There were other things, too. A “Cape Coloured” taxi driver told me – and I’m assuming it wasn’t a chat up line! – that interracial romantic relationships in South Africa were still rare, and asked if that were the same in the UK.  And, when the TV in the reception area of one of the hotels was showing an English Premier League match – it was our neighbours Bolton Wanderers, although I can’t remember who the other team were! – it was only, apart from British tourists, black South Africans who were watching.  The idea of Afrikaners being into rugby union, Anglo whites and Asians being into cricket and black people being into football still seemed to be around then. But hopefully that is changing now, and everything’s becoming more integrated.  Hey, sport’s important, OK!

So what did Trevor find? Well, it started off on a very positive note, as he met an estate agent who was busy selling posh homes to members of the growing, prospering black middle class.  This was in Soweto, of all places.  I’m not sure that we really needed the close-up view of the toilet, but never mind.  Some of them weren’t just “nice” homes, they were really luxurious.  This was what black people were aspiring to now, she said.  Not even thirty years since black people hadn’t even been allowed to own property there.  It sounded like some sort of South African Dream.

Yep. Only for the few.  Next up, a squatter camp.  Democracy was only for people with money, one man said.  Everything was worse than it had been under the apartheid regime.  No jobs.  No money.  Seemingly very little hope.  And this was black and white people alike: Trevor said that he’d often seen black poverty on previous visits to South Africa, but had not previously seen white people living in these sorts of conditions.  The white people there said much the same as the black people.  Everything had got worse.  Most people were only able to eat because they got food from a food bank.

However, the barriers between black and white people had been broken down there. Because everyone was in it together.  Well, that was progress of a sort, but not exactly a very positive sort.  And, despite that, one white man said that it felt as if the system now was one of reverse apartheid.  That’s nonsense, in that the proportion of black people living in poverty far, far, exceeds that of white people living in poverty.  But the fact that the change of regime had seen some people who’d previously been doing OK dragged down into poverty was hardly something to celebrate.

Later, he spoke to an Afrikaner woman who said that she and her husband had both lost their jobs because of the government’s affirmative action policies. Their employers had been required to take on a certain number of non-white staff, and so they’d been dismissed to make way.

In an ideal world, everything would be run on a purely meritocratic system. But this is not an ideal world.  Without affirmative action, it’s almost impossible to break a cycle of generational poverty.  Jobs, money, educational opportunities, connections, aspirations … on and on it goes.  Laissez-faire doesn’t really work when you’ve got a situation where one group of people have held all the cards for so long.  There has to be some form of affirmative action – something that looks set to become an issue in the US in the coming weeks, incidentally.  And affirmative action is, in many ways, only redressing the unfairnesses of the past.

Yet that woman and her husband were not personally responsible for decades of apartheid. You can bet your life that those people who were actually in positions of power during those years, and are still alive, are not going short of anything.  How would you feel if, having done your job to the best of your ability, you were chucked out on your ear just so that you could be replaced by someone of a different race or age or gender, to enable your employers to meet a government target?  And with little chance of finding anything else, because all potential employers were going to be in the sameboat.  Hard done by, to put it mildly?  Angry?  Bitter?  So what’s the answer?

This was in a place called Kleinfontein. A gated community.  OK, you get gated communities in a lot of places these days, because of fear of crime.  But this one was Afrikaners only.  OK, you get plenty of communities where most of the people come from the same ethnic/cultural/religious background.  All big cities have areas which are associated with particular groups.  But this wasn’t a particular quarter of a city: it was an isolated community.  And it was Afrikaners only.  People from other ethnic/cultural groups actually weren’t allowed to move in. They weren’t even allowed to come in to work: a man there explained, rather proudly, that all the houses had been built by Afrikaners, even though most construction workers in South Africa were black.  It was really very creepy.  And yet there’s apparently no law against this.  I can’t imagine that any non-Afrikaner person would want to live in a place like that, with the sort of people who do want to live in a place like that.

I don’t know. Is that sort of set-up so different from the many areas of many towns and cities dominated by one particular group of people?  As an extreme example, what about Belfast, where you have Loyalist areas and Nationalist areas?   The people living there claimed that they wanted to identify with a particular culture and live amongst their “own” people, and that’s probably what you’d hear in any ethnic quarter of any town or city.  But … yes, this is different.  Not even allowing people of different races in to work.  That’s very creepy indeed.  It’s horrible.  I wonder what they do about delivery drivers, or repair people – do they not let them in unless they’re Afrikaners?  How on earth does that work?  I don’t know.  I don’t think I want to.

The place after that was another gated community, but this one was the lap of luxury. Serious, serious luxury.   Apparently these sorts of places are becoming increasingly popular in South Africa.  Swimming pools, horse riding, absolutely enormous houses, huge grounds, all amid stunning scenery – you get the idea. Very nice.  And security.  That was a big thing – security.  The people who live there are mostly whites, but, unlike the Afrikaner-only community, this wasn’t so much about race as about money – and it’s still, despite what we saw in Soweto at the start of the programme, mainly white people who have that sort of money, at the very top end of the economic scale.

This was probably the crux of the programme, because so many things came together. From the exclusive gated community, Trevor went to visit two prisons.  At both the luxury estate and the prison, everyone was talking about the same thing – violent crime, most of it perpetrated by gangs.  Within prisons as well as on the outside.  And this is what so often happens – when people are excluded economically and politically, that will result in a rise in crime, in radicalism or in both.  It’s hardly unique to South Africa, but it is particularly bad there, because of black communities being marginalised for so many years.  And it’s a vicious circle, because it perpetuates racial tension.  This has happened in parts of America, and to some extent Britain, France and other countries too.  Poverty and exclusion and lack of opportunity and hope breed crime.  Round and round it goes.

By this point, I was beginning to wish that I hadn’t bothered watching. It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

It never is, is it? The Great War was supposed to be the war that ended all wars.   It was barely twenty years after it ended that the Second World War broke out.  The reforms introduced after the Second World War – and a very happy 70th birthday to our wonderful NHS today – were supposed to provide care for everyone from the cradle to the grave.  I think about that when I’m making my weekly donation to the food bank in Tesco.  How many revolutions/regime changes have been backed by idealists but ended up making things worse?   How many countries have celebrated independence only to find it leading to dictatorship, civil war or both?   What practical difference did the emancipation of the serfs in Tsarist Russia actually bring?  A hundred years after the emancipation of slaves in America, the struggle for black civil rights was still going on.  The “still marching” slogan has been used a lot this year: a hundred years after some women were given the vote in the UK, the fight for equality is still going on.

Every time I hear someone compare the situation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip to apartheid in South Africa – and this happens a lot – I want to (I’ve written about this before) give them a long lecture on the history of Zionism and remind them that it wasn’t meant to be like this.  And sometimes it ends in total betrayal – Aung San Suu Kyi used to be spoken of as “the Nelson Mandela of South East Asia”, but look at all the horrific things going on in Burma/Myanmar now.

South Africa’s nothing like either of those examples. But it’s never that easy or that straightforward, even when you’ve had someone like Nelson Mandela to lead the way.

Trevor went to Robben Island. There, he was shown round by Mac Maharaj, who’d been held there as a prisoner, and had later served as a government minister.  And there, there was hope – from a man who pointed out that Rome wasn’t built in a day (he didn’t use that expression, but it’s one that sums it up well).  South Africa’s got a long way to go, but it’s come a hell of a long way from where it was in 1990.

That would have been a good place to finish, but, instead, Trevor went on to a winery. Nice places, South African wineries!   There, he spoke to the owner about the issue of land ownership in South Africa, and how most of the land remains in the hands of a small number of wealthy white people.  Land redistribution has so often been used in history by a new regime either to reward its own supporters and consolidate its power – from the Norman Conquest to 17th century Ireland to 20th century South America.  Sometimes it’s done not for power but out of a genuine desire to make things fairer.  I was going to cite Australia in the 1940s, but I’m afraid my knowledge of that is based on The Thorn Birds!  Oh well, The Thorn Birds is probably accurate, right?  There are apparently plans to try this in South Africa, but not much has happened yet … maybe because of fears of a repeat of what happened in Zimbabwe, where Mugabe’s land reforms helped to ruin the economy.  But, at this particular winery, the staff, mostly black, had been given a stake in the business and the land.  And it was working really well.  Apparently, the wine even tastes better!

So it ended on a note of hope. And things don’t change overnight. Mac Maharaj said that Nelson Mandela would be pleased with what’s been achieved so far.  I hope so much that he would.

But I’m just going to be a bit self-indulgent here. I’m supposed to be writing about South Africa in 2018, not about Britain in the 1980s and certainly not about myself.  But the teenage years are often a time of wide-eyed idealism, and I was 14 when the Berlin Wall came down, and when Nelson Mandela was released from prison.  I can remember, on January 1st 1990, seeing TV pictures of people dancing where the Berlin Wall had been.  It was supposed to be a new era.  And, oh, that incredible speech that Nelson Mandela made when he was released from prison.  “Our march to freedom is irreversible”.  We really thought we were getting somewhere.  There’ve been moments, since then.  I actually fell for all Tony Blair’s talk, in 1997.  I remember feeling a bit tearful during Barack Obama’s inauguration speech.  But they were just brief moments.  Nothing’s ever really come close to that feeling of hope at the end of 1989 and the beginning of 1990.

But I still hope that one day it will.