Mediterranean with Simon Reeve – BBC 2

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Money laundering in Malta, Mafiosi in Calabria, olive blights in Puglia, cave dwellers in Basilicata and blood feuds in Albania, not to mention pelican hunting and turtles swallowing plastic.  Then, in the second episode, the partition of Cyprus, Christian refugees in Lebanon, Hezbollah’s “terrorist Disneyland”, Israeli desalination plants, and recycled bricks in the Gaza Strip.  Well, this is definitely a different view of the Mediterranean.  It’s been extremely interesting so far, and there are still two episodes to come.  It’s also been rather worrying.

No-one uses the term “Levant” any more, do they?  It used to be a term for the Eastern Mediterranean.  Then it came to mean parts of the Middle East.  It’s quite telling that there aren’t really any words in common usage that refer to both European countries and Middle Eastern/North African countries: it’s as if people can no longer think of them as having anything in common.  The term “Maghreb” is used for the North African Mediterranean countries, and, when we say “Mediterranean countries”, we generally just mean European countries bordering the Mediterranean.  It’s sad, really.  I was made extremely welcome in Egypt (2007), Israel (2008) and Morocco (2010).   Do most of in the West even think of the Middle East and North Africa when we hear the term “Mediterranean”?

And even the image of the European Mediterranean as one big holiday resort, sun, sand and sangria, is well wide of the mark, as this programme set out to show.  It wasn’t exactly cheerful, but it didn’t pretend to be.  Simon Reeve can actually be quite annoying, because he’s so determined to get his personal political views in there.  Obviously he’s entitled to his views, as everyone is, but he’s making travel programmes for the supposedly neutral BBC, not political broadcasts.  Having said which, he’s genuinely enthusiastic and genuinely entertaining, and his programmes are always very watchable.

The series kicked off with Malta.  The George Cross island.  Very popular holiday resort. But now, sadly, a major centre for money laundering.  There’s been quite a bit in the news about this.  Low tax rates have attracted all sorts of businesses there, and some of them are more than a bit shady.  Dodgy goings on with gambling. Sales of passports.  It’s now been two years since investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered, after exposing corruption at the highest levels of government there.  Something’s seriously rotten there.  It didn’t make for pleasant viewing.

The role of the Mafia in Sicily and parts of the southern Italian mainland is far better known.  It’s unfortunately got quite a glamorous image in the West, thanks to Marlon Brando and Al Pacino!  Great film, but it really isn’t glamorous at all.  Simon went for a change from the Sicilian Mafia, and instead told us about the Ndrangheta, the Calabrian Mafia, said to control 3% of the Italian economy, and now the most powerful Mafia group in Italy.  They’re not even just in Italy: they operate all over.  They’re the ones linked with the kidnapping of John Paul Getty II, the subject of another recent TV series.  They are super-powerful.  And they’ve got an incredible underground warren of tunnels, big enough for cars to use as well as people.  It’s like something out of a James Bond film, but it’s real life.  Frightening stuff.

Frightening in a different way were the tales of Xylella, the blight affecting olive groves in the Puglia region of Italy, and of the turtles being affected by all the plastic in the Italian part of the Mediterranean.  People were in tears as they told Simon of the effect that Xylella’s having on olive groves that have been there for centuries.  Parts of Spain and France have also been affected.  It’s very worrying, and, as yet, there’s no effective solution.

Seeing turtles who’ve almost choked on plastic was distressing as well, but at least something can be done about that.  Simon spoke to two people who are running a turtle sanctuary, and it was heartening to see one turtle being released back into the sea after being effectively treated.  Plastic pollution’s big news at the moment.  Maybe something will be done about it.  Efforts are at least being made.  Matera, Basilicata was a symbol of hope as well – as recently as the 1950s, people were living in caves there, in one of Italy’s most deprived areas.  But times have changed, and it’s now enjoying quite a boom.  I gather that there is some concern about Disneyfication, especially as the caves have been used as a film set on several occasions, but the horrific poverty is hopefully a thing of the past.   More positive news came from Albania, where the hunting of pelicans has been banned – although unfortunately it’s still legal elsewhere, notably Egypt and Lebanon – and pelicans are now thriving in huge wetland lagoons.

But the other section on Albania was just horrifying.  I’ve heard about the blood feuds there, but I don’t think I realised before just what the practical effects can be on people’s lives.  These blood feuds between families go on and on for generations.  It sounds like something out of the Middle Ages, but it’s still going on.  We were told the horrendous story of a teenage boy who cannot leave his house for fear that members of a family embroiled in a longstanding blood feud with his family, over something that happened decades ago, might kill him.  Just a young lad – just a kid.   He was sat there, doing his schoolwork – he’s being home-schooled, by a visiting teacher, because he daren’t risk leaving the house to go to school – and talking about how he wants to play football and his favourite player’s Ronaldo, like any young lad might.  He can’t leave the house in case someone murders him.  He’s “in blood”.  And he’s hardly the only one.  Many, many people in northern Albania are in the same position.  In Europe, in 2018.  Bloody hell.

It’s a far cry from the image of “the Mediterranean” as a place of sunny beach resorts … but that’s the whole idea of this series.

The first episode was, whilst troubling, free of controversy.  Hopefully, most people aren’t going to come up with any arguments in favour of organised crime, money laundering, pursuing blood feuds and destroying wildlife.  The second episode was different.  First up, Cyprus.  Simon spoke to both Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots, and also to British UN peacekeepers patrolling the buffer zone in the middle of Nicosia, Europe’s last divided city.  There was a barricade literally in the street.

I was expecting to hear Greek Cypriots and Turkish Cypriots calling each other, but what I wasn’t expecting was everything that was said about the tensions within the Turkish zone.  This isn’t something that’s been widely reported here.  Comments were made about the frustration of being cut off from the rest of the world, and of everything having to be routed through Turkey, but more worrying was the “social engineering”, as Simon put it, being carried out by the Turkish government.  I’ve got considerable sympathy with the reasons for the 1974 invasion, but not with this.  Thousands of people from Turkey, mainly from rural areas where the culture is conservative and strictly Islamic, are being offered incentives to settle in Turkish Cyprus, and the government’s funding the building of mosques.  The native culture of Turkish Cyprus is far more secular and liberal.  This is quite frightening, given what we know about Erdogan’s regime in Turkey.  I really hadn’t expected that.

Then on to Lebanon.  I thought this was going to be all about Beirut, but it wasn’t – we got some fascinating shots of an ancient Maronite monastery.  I was fortunate enough to visit a Coptic monastery in Egypt in 2007, and there’s something quite special about Middle Eastern monasteries.  They just … go way back.  But the Coptic Christians of Egypt are being increasingly persecuted, and so are Christians in Syria and Iraq.  It was interesting to hear about the influx of Christians into Lebanon, but also rather upsetting.   This is a huge problem now.  It’s not so long since most of the countries of the Middle East had sizeable Jewish and Christian populations.  Things are very different now.  It’s not good.

Worse came when he headed south, into the area controlled by Hezbollah.  And they really do control it – “a state within a state”.  He visited an extremely strange “tourist attraction” which Hezbollah have spent $20 million building – the “terrorist Disneyland”.  Full of spoils of war from the conflict between Hezbollah and Israel.  Talk about gruesome.  And at least you can cross the border between the two parts of Cyprus.  To get from Lebanon to Israel, he had to travel via Jordan.

The Israeli section of the trip was actually far more positive.  We saw people enjoying themselves on the beaches in Tel Aviv, and we heard about the technologies which Israel’s developed for extracting gas from the Mediterranean and for turning sea water into drinking water.  We hear about desalination plants in the Gulf sometimes, but I hadn’t heard much about those in Israel before.  The Israeli processes are very energy efficient, and don’t use chemicals.  Impressive.

The point was made that Israel, because of the issues with its land borders, is more reliant on the Mediterranean than probably any other country.  99% of its imports arrive by sea.  99%!   It’s obvious when you think about it, because they’re hardly going to arrive via Lebanon, Jordan, Syria or even Egypt; but I’d never really thought about it before.  One of the Israelis interviewed said that Israel felt like an island.  It wasn’t dissimilar to what Turkish Cypriots had said about feeling cut off.  All this conflict, around what we think of as a sea for swimming in and cruising through.

And from Israel to the Gaza Strip.  Going through a very long and strange border crossing, Simon said it felt like being dehumanised and going into a cage.

Since 2007, land border crossings on both the Israeli and Egyptian sides are closed, and a sea and air blockade’s been enforced by the Israeli authorities, with buffer zones existing along the borders with both Israel and Egypt.   The concerns about terrorism are quite understandable – the BBC guys, travelling in an armoured car because Westerners are at risk of kidnap there, were rather perturbed to be told that they’d just passed an Islamic Jihad post – but the blockade’s taking a terrible toll on civilians there.

However, there’s still some hope.  Simon spoke to an engineer – a female engineer, I’m pleased to say! – who’s invented a type of brick made of recycled coal and wood ask, to circumvent the problem of import restrictions.  She’s doing a great job.  And yet she’s hampered by constant shortages of electricity.  And the fishermen to whom he spoke next said that there are no fish within nine miles of the coast, but that they aren’t allowed to sail beyond six miles of the coast.  They didn’t seem to feel that there was much hope.  It’s a horrible mess.

Simon said that he didn’t want to take sides, and that he just feels terribly sad to think of all the opportunities for peace that haven’t been taken.  I think a lot of us would go with that.  It’s a very distressing situation.  So are most of the others covered so far in this series.  Crime.  Blood feuds.  Environment damage.  War, terrorism, dangerous borders.  It’s not really what we associate with the Mediterranean – and that’s the point of this programme, and it really is including some very interesting material – the final two episodes will presumably bring more of the same – and making the viewer think long and hard about it all.  Well done to Simon Reeve and the BBC for drawing attention to all of these situations.  This series is well worth watching.

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The Flu That Killed 50 Million – BBC 2

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We all know that Manchester does things better than London, but, in this tragic case, it’s not really a reason to smile. When Spanish flu swept across the country in 1918, the medical authorities in Manchester took steps to try to stop it from spreading.  Whilst still affected, our city therefore suffered considerably less than other cities did.  Meanwhile, the idiots in Westminster did very little, for fear of affecting munitions production and causing a panic that would affect morale.  What, and letting a highly contagious pandemic rage unchecked didn’t cause any problems?!  228,000 people died in the UK alone.  Maybe that number would have been far less had something been done about it.  I expected this programme to make me feel sad.  It did, but it also made me feel angry.

The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 killed an estimated 50 million people. It could have killed as many as 100 million people: no-one really knows.  It’s thought that around 500 million people caught the flu – and, due to the interaction between the virus that caused it and the immune system, healthy young to middle-aged adults were the most likely to die.  It first seems to have broken out in Kansas, in late January 1918, with a second wave then beginning in Massachusetts (Wikipedia says, although the programme didn’t, that the second, even more severe, strain also appeared in Brittany and Sierra Leone at around the same time) in September 1918.  Nobody’s sure where the virus actually originated: there are various theories.  And it spread pretty much right across the world, even to remote areas.  Then it seems to have mutated into normal flu, and the pandemic ended fairly quickly.  But so many people had died, and so many survivors had lost loved ones.

Of course, this coincided with the final year of the Great War. People thought that, finally, it’s over, we’ve survived, we can try to get on with their lives – and then this happened.  Celebrations of the Armistice were breeding grounds for the flu, all those people in close proximity.  And one of the main reasons it spread so quickly was that so many people were on the move because of the war.

Many British (including, at that time, Irish) troops falling ill were brought home to be treated. Did it not occur to anyone just what a bad idea that was?  This was 1918, not 1348: people understood about infection.  Little was known about viruses at that time, so doctors and scientists weren’t able to isolate the cause of the flu and find anything to try to counter it – keeping people warm and giving them Bovril was mentioned, sadly not really much help – but how can it have been considered a good idea to move people around when they had a highly contagious disease?  Healthy troops coming home on leave also carried the virus with them.  A map showed how it spread from the Channel ports across the country.  As with most contagious diseases, densely-populated, overcrowded areas were hit worst.

On 29 September 2018, USS Leviathan, carrying 11,000 people, left New York for France. By the time she reached Brest, around 2,000 people were ill, with the deadly second strain of the flu, and 80 had died. Patients were carried on shore: there are reports of a convoy four miles long.  The programme was done partly as a docu-drama, and the representation of conditions on the ship was just horrific – talk about a plague ship.

Why was the ship allowed to dock? Why wasn’t it put into quarantine?  Why weren’t arrangements made to try to treat people on board?   I don’t know: maybe leaving healthy people on there would have been cruel – but couldn’t some sort of arrangements for isolation have been made?  Maybe it just wasn’t practical.  Or maybe they wanted to get the healthy soldiers off the ship and to the Front – that’s the one explanation that does make some sort of sense, I suppose.  Ships travelling all over the place carried the disease with them.

Going back to the first wave of infection, the flu reached Manchester in June 2018. James Niven, the local Medical Officer of Health, kept detailed records and statistics of the spread of the flu.  It was worse on the north side of the city, my side, more densely populated and more industrialised.  A graphic showed the flu moving from the city centre, where it’d arrived at the railway stations, into the outskirts and suburbs.  It was very strange and frightening seeing it moving across North Manchester, my home turf, right through the areas where most of the older people I knew as a kid would have been living in 1918.

Thanks to Dr Niven, steps were taken in Manchester to try to reduce the spread of the disease. Leaflets were distributed, posters put up, and a film called “Dr Wise” shown at cinemas, advising people how to reduce the risk of infection.  Schools, Sunday schools and some places of entertainment were closed.  OK, there were still many cases and many deaths locally. The programme followed the story of a young girl called Ada Berry.  Her entire family caught the flu.  She survived – and lived to be 99 – but her parents and brother both died.  Many others died too – to the extent that there was a backlog of funerals, because there weren’t enough coffins or enough gravediggers to keep up with the number of deaths.  But the pandemic was definitely much less severe here than it was in other cities.  Had even those steps been taken everywhere, things wouldn’t have been nearly as bad as they were.

But the powers that be in London – and, whilst public health matters were still dealt with at local level at the time, orders from the central government would have applied nationwide – decided that no steps should be taken to try to stop the flu spreading, on the grounds that suspending public transport, closing factories etc would have affected the war effort (and the spread of the flu didn’t??), and wouldn’t even go as far as Niven did, closing schools and places of entertainment, and even just advising people on what precautions might help them, because of concerns about the effect on morale. Apparently (although this wasn’t mentioned in the programme) the Cabinet didn’t even discuss it until Lloyd George himself caught it, in the September, and it wasn’t brought up in Parliament until the end of October.  There had actually been plans in place for dealing with an epidemic, but they weren’t brought into force.  I understand that difficult choices have to be made in wartime, but it’s hard not to think that the authorities got this one very badly wrong indeed.

And it wasn’t just the British authorities. The reason for the name “Spanish flu”, when the pandemic actually started in Kansas and affected many other countries before it reached Spain – killing, amongst others, King Alfonso XIII – was that the press in neutral Spain were able to report in detail on what was going on, whereas the press in combatant countries, on both sides, said very little.  And, when the second, and far more deadly, strain of the flu broke out, in an American army camp, a doctor who wanted to seal the camp off to stop the disease from spreading was shouted down by his superior.  The Australian authorities, by contrast, refused to allow any ships at all to dock in their country until the pandemic was over.  OK, it wasn’t really practical for every country in the world to try to seal itself off, but surely more could have been done.

Sadly Dr Niven’s story didn’t end happily. He did a huge amount to improve public health in Manchester: the death rate per 1,000 population almost halved during his term of office.  And he was recognised for his work, during his lifetime.  But he suffered from depression after he retired, and ended up taking his own life.  What a tragedy.

The Ministry of Health, now the Department of Health and Social Care was set up as a result of the pandemic. It was also mentioned that female doctors came to the fore whilst all this was going on.  We didn’t hear about the long-term effects of the pandemic in other countries, but there’s only so much you can say in an hour.  Quite a bit of that hour, especially at the end, was spent talking about what lessons can be learnt from the events of 1918, and what might happen if a similar virus took hold today.  Without wishing to sound complacent, I’m not quite sure what the point of that was, seeing as medical science today is so much more advanced as to make comparisons with 1918 rather inappropriate.  Having said which, as the programme – which seemed determined to scare the hell out of viewers, telling us that 200,000 people would be killed in the UK if a virus with a similar infection rate and similar fatality rate took hold – pointed out, new viruses do seem to appear from nowhere, and then mutate.

I could really have done without that bit. Those killed by the 1918 pandemic deserve to be remembered, without either scaremongering or trying to make their experience relevant to the present day.  Whilst it’s important to learn from the past, there’s no need to try to make everything about today – like that bizarre programme last year which tried to turn the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 theses into a discussion about the wretched European Union.  As we mark the centenary of the end of the Great War, let’s also spare some thoughts for those killed by the Spanish flu.

There’s a book called Song of Songs, by the late Beverley Hughesdon (also from North Manchester!), about a Great War nurse.  It’s not the best book ever – some of it’s very odd – but there’s a section in it in which the main character says that she feels as if vengeance thinks it’s been cheated by the end of the war, so it’s played its trump card – the flu pandemic.  That’s how it must have felt.  What a horrible, horrible time – and how frustrating to think that the government could have taken steps to ameliorate it, and chose not to do so.

Albert: The Power Behind Victoria – Channel 5

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This was very watchable, and impressively accurate by Channel 5’s standards. I don’t know why it claimed to be telling an “unknown story”, given that it didn’t say anything that hasn’t been said a zillion times before – although it’s the first time I’ve ever heard anyone describe Prince Albert and Sir Robert Peel as having had a “bromance” (I love that idea!) – but it was still interesting.  What have Channel 5 got against Queen Victoria, though?  First, they showed that series which wildly exaggerated the tension between her and her children, and then, in this, they pretty much made out that she was hysterical and unstable.  Give the woman a break.   Be virtually imprisoned by your mother until you’re eighteen, and then produce seven children in nine and a half years (and another two later), and I think most people would be a little less than cool, calm and collected.

I think Queen Victoria must have been really worried about people thinking she was unstable. There are various theories about what caused George III’s problems, and I still go with the porphyria theory even though a lot of people don’t, but, at the time, it would just have been classed as “madness”.  Given the 18th and 19th century ideas about the “taint” of hereditary madness, any sort of irrational behaviour in his descendants – and Victoria was certainly temperamental, and prone to some extreme reactions – would have caused mutterings.  She’d have been so upset by this programme L .

I myself could well have done without all the comments about hysteria and instability and the suggestions that politicians preferred to deal with Albert because Victoria was “unstable”, not to mention the remarks about Victoria being entirely reliant on her husband. It sounded more like a run-through of some of the main arguments put forward against women’s suffrage than anything else.  OK, there was some element of truth in it, but it wasn’t half exaggerated – just as much of what was in Queen Victoria and her Tragic Family was exaggerated.

The stuff about Prince Albert, though, was fairly good – even if it was by no means “an untold story”. It was presented as a docu-drama, which seems to be the “in” format these days, and is more entertaining than the old-bloke-sat-behind-desk format.  I’m not sure why they had to give young Albert such a weird hat and haircut, though.  He looked more like Windy Miller from Camberwick Green than a handsome prince!  We got all the usual stuff about him initially being unpopular and seen as a scrounger, kicking out Baroness Lehzen, Osborne House, Balmoral, Christmas – as was pointed out, Albert didn’t actually introduce Christmas trees to Britain, but he probably can be credited with popularising the idea of the cosy family Christmas that we still know and love today! – and his closeness to his eldest daughter.  The presenters did seem determined to show Albert as an ideal father, in contrast to Victoria who was shown as being a rather cold mother, and jealous of Albert’s relationships with their children.  Victoria certainly wasn’t going to win any mother of the year awards, but I’m not sure that Albert would exactly have been up for father of the year either.  The Prince of Wales certainly wouldn’t have thought so.  The term “control freak” springs to mind!  But not according to Channel 5.

OK, the way they presented the personal stuff wasn’t great! Much better was what they said about Albert’s contribution to public life.  This was the great age of progress, reform, improvement … all those Victorian ideas.  Science and industry – not only the advances themselves, but the way people got on with them.  Contrast the way in which railways sprang up all over the country with today, when it takes the councils months just to fill in a pothole!   And the idea of civic duty – think Josephine Butler and her campaign against the Contagious Diseases Acts, or  Elizabeth Fry and her campaign for prison reform, or all the girls’ schools (like the one I went to) founded in northern cities by local bigwigs, not as businesses but out of a sense of public duty.  Think the Co-operative Movement, and the friendly societies. Athenaeums.  Public libraries.  Victorians really got on with things!  All right, all right, none of those examples involved Prince Albert, but that was the sort of culture that he was involved in promoting.

Random thought. If Robert Peel hadn’t died in 1850, relatively young, might Albert’s work have been a bit less London-centric?   The programme went on about the Royal Albert Hall, the Science Museum, the V&A, etc – yes, all very nice, but all in That London.  OK, railways made it easier for people to travel to London from elsewhere in the country, but Albert doesn’t seem to’ve made too much effort to get involved with projects anywhere else.  Hmm.

On a more positive note, it was pointed out – and this was also shown in the ITV drama series Victoria – that he first made his mark, particularly impressing Sir Robert Peel, with a speech at an Anti-Slavery convention.  The history of abolitionism in Britain, the US and elsewhere is fascinating, and very important: it was probably the first big “cause”.  Incidentally, it should be remembered that Prince Albert arguably stopped Britain from being dragged into a war with the United States in 1861.  But, whilst it would have been a step too far for the Queen herself to have addressed the meeting,  it was considered quite appropriate for her husband to do so, and also for Robert Peel to be at the meeting – and this was at a time when, obviously, slavery was still legal in several places, notably the United States and Brazil.  Royals have their wings clipped now, and, to some extent, political leaders do too.  Be diplomatic.  Imagine a senior politician today making a speech like Gladstone’s “bag and baggage” one.  But Albert was able to speak out about the number one cause of the day.  And he did.

He got involved with so much else, as well – as a “support and patron”, as the programme said, but royal support and patronage does such a lot to boost any cause. And a lot of it was in really unfashionable areas.  Calling him “a champion of the working classes” was probably exaggerating, but his interest in improving public sanitation is well-known, and hardly the sort of thing people would have expected a prince to be getting involved with.  I think it was reasonably fair comment to say that he made some of these causes “mainstream” – although people like Edwin Chadwick (three cheers for the Mancunian!) and James Kay-Shuttleworth (from Rochdale) had been calling for improvements in living conditions for the working classes long before Prince Albert came along.  The programme didn’t mention them.

And the Great Exhibition was probably his greatest triumph. All the nastiness and sneering in the press, trying to knock something down before it’d even got going, saying it was going to be a waste of time and money – some things never change, do they?!    That was where the money for the museums came from.  Yes, it made a huge surplus – funny how that rarely seems to happen with big public projects these days!  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.  The programme sadly, though, failed to mention one of the most important things about the Exhibition, that it had the world’s first modern pay toilets, for which you had to spend a penny, hence the expression.  Sorry, that’s really lowering the tone, isn’t it?!  It did mention that cheap tickets were available, so people from all classes were able to attend.  Albert’s triumph.  Britain’s triumph.

How much did Prince Albert influence the world we live in today? It’s very hard to say.  He was a part of something: he didn’t create the Victorian world.  But he certainly played a huge part in it.

And did he work himself into an early grave? We still don’t know how he died, and we probably never will.  Typhoid fever from bad drains, the original version?  Stomach cancer?  Crohn’s Disease, as suggested in this programme?  Coupled with obsessive overwork, weakening his health.  Very sad.

He was 42. His son-in-law, Emperor Frederick III of Germany, died at 56.  He had 14 years longer than Albert but, as his father lived to be 90, he only had 88 days as emperor, and he was too ill by then to do anything.  For all the good work Albert did in Britain, I think what he wanted even more was to see his daughter Vicky, who, as the programme said, was very like him, and her husband, bring about liberal reforms in Germany.  Well, Albert died ten years before German unification, but it was probably something he hoped would come.  That side of things never got a look-in in this programme.  Fair enough – the programme wasn’t meant to be about Germany.  But no-one questions the fact that Frederick was a great admirer of his father-in-law.  Had he (Frederick) lived longer, Germany would probably have developed very differently, and maybe there’d never have been a First World War, and then there’d never have been a Second World War.  Everything could have been so different.  And a lot of that would have been down to Prince Albert.

It wasn’t to be. But Albert certainly achieved a fair amount, and is well worthy of admiration and respect.  I just wish that the makers of this programme hadn’t found it necessary to knock Queen Victoria so much.  Channel 5 really does seem to have it in for her.  Thank goodness that ITV hasn’t!

The Twentieth Wife and The Feast of Roses – Indu Sundaresun

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Everyone’s heard of the Taj Mahal. Most people will know the term Mughal/Moghul/Mogul, but probably in connection with either a local takeaway or as a term for a successful businessperson.  Not many people, even in the Indian subcontinent, will have heard of the Empress Nur Jahan.  And I’m not sure how familiar most people in the UK are with the history of the Moghul Empire, because no-one teaches us much about pre-colonial Asian history.  Novels about royal families are a brilliant place to start learning about an unfamiliar period in history – especially when they involve such an interesting character as the Empress Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa.  If you want something to learn about Northern India, or even if you just want a good read about something different, give Indu Sundaresun’s books a go.

The main character in these two books is, as I said, Nur Jahan, or Mehrunnissa (1577-1645), the twentieth and favourite wife of the Emperor Jahangir. Her niece Arjumand, known as Mumtaz Mahal, married Jahangir’s son, the future Emperor Shah Jahan, who famously had the Taj Mahal built as Mumtaz’s mausoleum after she died giving birth to their fourteenth child.  It’s ironic that the publishers are marketing these books, along with Shadow Princess, which is about Jahan and Mumtaz’s eldest daughter, as “the Taj Mahal trilogy”, because Indu Sundaresun is keen to make the extremely good point that Mehrunnissa, who exercised political power and was a patron of the arts, at a time when it was very rare for a woman to do so, is all but forgotten, whereas Mumtaz, who didn’t actually do very much other than repeatedly conceive and give birth, has achieved immortality because of a beautiful building.

Shadow Princess is well worth a read as well.  It shows, amongst other things, the battles between several brothers, resulting in one brother having the others murdered, and also makes the point that, romantic as the Taj Mahal seems now, people at the time weren’t actually all that thrilled about vast amounts of taxpayers’ money being spent on an elaborate royal tomb.  It also shows the shift in attitudes from Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s keenness to incorporate elements of different religions into the life of an Islamic court to Aurangzeb, Shah Jahan’s successor’s, destruction of Hindu temples and fiscal discrimination against his Hindu subjects.

Just to go off the point slightly, on a recent trip to Northern India I found it interesting that most of the major buildings in older parts of Delhi, and of course the Taj Mahal in Agra, were built by the Islamic rulers of a predominantly Hindu state, and that most of the newer buildings in Delhi were built under the British Raj, but that there’s absolutely no thought of pulling them down or complaining that they’re symbols of oppression or discrimination.

Anyway, to get back to the point, Mehrunnissa is the star of the first two books. They’re written in a way that makes them very easy to get into but at the same time conveys a huge amount of information about the Mughal court and the Mughal Empire, everything from life in the harem/zenana, including the rivalries between the various different wives, to political machinations within the court, to wars with rival powers.  And the romance between Mehrunnissa and Salim/Jahangir, of course!

In brief, Mehrunnissa is born, on the road in what’s now Afghanistan, to a Persian noble family fleeing to Hindustan. They’ve got so little at the time that she’s almost abandoned at birth, but her father rises to become one of Emperor Akbar’s Grand Viziers, and Mehrunnissa goes to live at court.  The romantic version of events, which is the one shown in these books, is that she and Jahangir took a shine to each other from early on.  Spoilsports now say that this never actually happened.  Oh well.  Whatever, she was married off, unhappily, to a Persian soldier, by whom she had one daughter – whom she later married off to one of Jahangir’s sons, hoping (in vain, as it turned out) that her daughter would become Empress in turn.  After he died, she married Jahangir.

By that point, she was in her thirties. Women at the Mughal court were generally considered past their sell-by date by then, but she was the one who had the Emperor’s affection when there were plenty of younger models he could have gone for instead.  Go Mehrunnissa!   And, at a time when women were not expected to exercise power, and bearing in mind that she was only part of the royal family by marriage, she was pretty much the power behind the throne.  Jahangir was a little too fond of booze and opium.  She sat with him when he held court, issued coinage in her own name, dealt with the various Western powers looking to establish or increase their influence in what’s now India, was involved in consultations with ministers, and raised an army to fight a rebellion – even riding into the thick of things on a war elephant.

She is brilliant!   Rags to riches.  Well, OK, not quite, but her family were in dire straits when she was born.  Bagging the emperor when everyone would have expected him to be more interested in some silly young thing.  Wielding political power at a time when women weren’t supposed to.  And commissioning a tomb for her father which is generally agreed to have been the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.  Not to mention taking care of hundreds of orphans, mostly girls.  She should be right up there amongst the female icons of history.

But she isn’t. Her story ended rather sadly – confined to effective house arrest by her stepson.  As many other strong women have been, she’s been painted by those historians who have written about her as – well, a conniving bitch, not to put too fine a point on it.  And her name isn’t really known much now, even in India and Pakistan.  Whereas the Taj Mahal is one of the most famous buildings in the world, arguably the symbol of India.  I loved the Taj Mahal, and I’m so glad I’ve seen it, and I agree that it’s quite romantic that Shah Jahan loved Mumtaz Mahal so much that he wanted to build such a splendid tomb for her, but … well, it’s a bit strange that the Mughal Empire has been immortalised by the symbol of a marriage and a death.  I suppose it makes a change from triumphal arches and grand palaces, eh?  Anyway, these books shouldn’t be being marketed as “the Taj Mahal trilogy” at all, and it’s rather insulting to Mehrunnissa that they are!

I wasn’t actually looking for a “strong women of history” novel. I just wanted to find out more about the Mughal Empire.  And this book really is a good starting point for that.  But I really did like the character.  And I liked the author’s writing, and will be looking for more of her books if I ever get through my existing book mountain.  We aren’t generally taught much Asian history in British schools and universities, and these books make the Mughal court in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century seem very accessible.  Read and enjoy!

Against the Inquisition by Marcos Aguinis

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You don’t necessarily expect a book about the Spanish (well, Peruvian) Inquisition, culminating in the main character being burnt at the stake, to be described as a “stirring song of freedom”; but this book really is quite inspiring. And it’s a true story – the story of Argentinian crypto-Jewish doctor Francisco Maldonado da Silva, born in 1592, who spent 12 years out-arguing the Inquisition before eventually being condemned to death.  It holds a lot of lessons for both the present and the past, and was written by an Argentinian author who lost many family members in the Holocaust and played an important role in promoting democracy in Argentinian culture after the fall of Galtieri.  The original Spanish edition was published in 1991, but it’s only recently been made available in English.

Obviously, Peru was under Spanish (maybe I should say “Castilian” … but maybe not, by this point) rule at this point. The book actually covered quite a wide part of Spanish South America: Francisco is born in Argentina, studies medicine in Chile and is imprisoned in Lima, and part of the story is also set in the Cusco area.  The fact that part of it was set in Cusco is significant, as that’s the area most closely associated with the pre-conquistadorian history of Peru.  The indigenous people of Peru were later deemed to be outside the jurisdiction of the Inquisition, which operated from Peru from 1570 unto 1820, but not in the early years.  The reader sees indigenous people, black slaves and people of mixed race being targeted, and also meets minor characters accused of, amongst other things, witchcraft and homosexuality.

It’s also relevant that Francisco’s family are of Portuguese descent. Portugal was under Spanish Habsburg rule at this time – I’ll refrain from writing an essay on royal genealogy, much as I’d love to.  Therefore, so was Brazil – at a time when it was under attack from the Dutch (and there are plenty of references to the Eighty Years’ War).  “New Christians” of Portuguese descent seem to have come under particular suspicion.

There are various minor characters who fall under suspicion for a number of reasons, but the book’s original Spanish title was “La Gesta del Marrano” and the story is about the persecution of crypto-Jews. It jumps backwards and forwards quite a lot, but, basically, we see Francisco as a young child, see his family torn apart when the Inquisitors take his father away – and help themselves to all the family’s possessions  – and his mother dies shortly afterwards, and see him grow up a devout Catholic, taught by monks.  We then see him train as a doctor, be reunited with his father, and turn to Judaism.  Initially, he does as his father did, lives outwardly as a Catholic, and tells his Catholic wife nothing about his background and beliefs, whilst secretly meeting up with other crypto-Jews to celebrate festivals and rituals.  But, eventually, he has enough: he wants to live openly as what he is, to be what he identifies as. “I am what I am.”

It’s possibly a bit confusing for readers who aren’t familiar with the background of the expulsion of Jews from Castile, Aragon and Portugal but I think the religious practices, and the specific culture of the crypto-Jews – things like keeping the key to a lost family home back in the Iberian Peninsula – are explained fairly well.  As recently as 2014, the Spanish government granted dual nationality to people like the da Silvas, should they choose to seek it: this is something that has remained relevant for over half a millennium.  That’s quite unusual: I’m struggling to think of comparable examples.

One thing I did find unusual about this book, in terms of books about crypto-Jews, was that it was nearly all about men. There is a lot about Francisco’s father, also a doctor.  We meet him again years later, a broken man forced to wear the “sanbenito”, the penitential garment forced on people by the Inquisition.  Francisco’s father explains crypto-Judaism to his elder son, Francisco’s brother, and he’s taken away by the Inquisition as well.  Francisco grows up a devout Catholic, and only turns to Judaism when it’s all explained to him by his father.  Women barely feature.  Francisco’s mother and wife are both from “Old Christian” families, with no Jewish heritage.  His sisters are devout Catholics, and it’s one of them, a nun, who denounces him.  Often, with a book about South American crypto-Jews, you realise what’s going on when you see mothers and daughters, in a supposedly Catholic household, lighting candles on a Friday night.  Not with this one. We do meet some women who are practising crypto-Jews, but it’s very much a male-dominated book – fathers and sons, groups of male friends.  Male priests running the Inquisition, of course.

There’s also a minor point about clashes between the Inquisition and the Jesuits. It is only a minor point, but it’s interesting because, from an English viewpoint, we probably tend to lump them all together.  All part of the Black Legend.  I love Spain, OK.  I was in tears when the Spanish flag went up during the medal ceremony for the 2008 Olympic tennis men’s singles event!   I am not getting Black Legend-ish.  All countries and cultures have shameful things in their past – and sometimes in their present.  But … well, we do say “Spanish Inquisition” rather than just “Inquisition”.  And this is a true story.

It’s not meant to be anti-Spanish, though. And it’s not meant to be anti-Catholic.  The point is made over and over again that Francisco thinks Jesus was a good man, and that the basic ideas of Catholicism are about being good people, leading good lives.  It’s the institutions of the institution that have gone wrong – it’s elements of the Catholic Church, not Catholicism.  That is very relevant at the moment, when hardly a month seems to go by without yet another horrific tale of child abuse by members of the clergy coming to light, and also when Islamic fundamentalists are carrying out such atrocities.

He spends years in prison, debating with the representatives of the Inquisition. They can’t break him. They can’t out-argue him.  They come to admire his incredible knowledge of religious texts, and his way of interpreting them.  At one point, he goes on hunger strike and nearly dies, but then he decides that it’s his duty to fight on, partly for the sake of a number of other alleged crypto-Jews who’ve also been arrested.  Ultimately, he’s burnt at the stake.

There isn’t really official recognition of martyrdom in Judaism in the way that there is in Christianity. (Masada??). If there was, he’d certainly be recognised as one.  And it’s not just that he died for his particular faith.  It’s, and this must really have called out to an author who lived through the Dirty War in Argentina, that he stood up, not only for what he believed in but for the right to believe what he believed in, and to live openly as what he chose to be.  Human rights.  So many people over the years have been persecuted because of their religious beliefs or their political beliefs or their sexuality or just because they were different in some way.  It’s still going on, in so many places.

Most people choose to go with the flow, to bend with the wind … er, that’s enough clichés for one sentence!   Change your religion, profess loyalty to the regime in power, keep your head down and get on with it.  Most of us wouldn’t have the strength to do otherwise.  There are plenty of arguments in favour of going with the flow and bending with the wind: Francisco’s wife is left destitute, their two young children are left to grow up without a father, his patients are left without a skilled and well-respected doctor.  And it takes some strength to live a lie as well – but no-one should have do that, to bear that pain every day.

It feels wrong, in some ways, to talk about finding inspiration in a book about such a horrific topic. The “stirring song of freedom” line’s Mario Vargas Llosa’s description of the book, by the way.  This is a book about evil, masquerading as some sort of attempt to bring about religious “purity” in society.  It’s a book about persecution.  But persecution can bring about inspirational individuals.  Frederick Douglass springs to mind.  Nelson Mandela, maybe.  People like that can change the world.  This book isn’t going to change the world, but it’ll certainly make you think.  And admire.  I don’t know why it’s taken so long for this to be made available in English, but, now that it has been (sorry, my Spanish isn’t up to reading a whole book in it!), it’s well worth reading.  It’s relevant to everyone.