Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 3)

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The third episode of this fascinating series was as interesting as the first two, but also rather irritating in parts.  The BBC seemed determined to mock and criticise most things about 1950s grammar schools, rather than letting either pupils or viewers make up their own minds; and the kids got a bit snowflake-ish for the first time – I had to laugh when one of them asked if the free school milk provided by the post-war government was semi-skimmed, and another complained that there was no alternative offered.  And it really threw me to realise that we’re now as far from the 1980s/early 1990s as the 1980s/early 1990s were from the 1950s.  That’s frightening!  That is really, really frightening!  Still a great episode, though.

My mum and dad both went to grammar schools in the 1950s.  They both went on to further education, which none of my grandparents had done.  A lot of families across the UK can tell similar stories: grammar schools offered incredible opportunities to many people who would not have had those opportunities without them.  So I’ve always had a very positive image of the grammar school system.  However, I have to say that I hadn’t realised that grammar school provision was so uneven across the country – the programme said that 35% of children were able to attend grammar schools in some parts of the South East, but only 10% in Nottingham – nor, which certainly wasn’t the case round here, that in some areas there were far more places available for boys than for girls.

Fair point about the system not exactly being ideal, but I still felt that the BBC was being deliberately negative.  They put a lot of emphasis on lessons on deportment and elocution, which I’ve never heard anyone who went to grammar schools in the 1950s mention, and it was made to sound as if the schools were trying to drive a wedge between the children and their families.  I’ve never heard anyone say that that was their experience of grammar schools.

There was a lot of negativity about the actual lessons, as well.  The impression given was that grammar school pupils were just expected to sit in silence, copy things down from the blackboard (are you still allowed to use the word “blackboard”?) and learn them by rote.  Consequently, the kids and the teachers did nothing but complain about it.  Er, no, BBC – I don’t think so!  Does anyone seriously believe that that was how all grammar school lessons were taught?

Having said which, I quite like the idea of sitting in silence in class!  I wouldn’t speak in lessons in secondary school, because I was always convinced that everyone would laugh at me, so sitting in silence and learning things off by heart would have suited me quite nicely 🙂 , and saved me from getting all those comments at parents’ evenings and on school reports about how I wouldn’t speak up in class … although it certainly didn’t reflect anything I’ve ever been told by people who were educated at grammar schools in the 1950s.  I wouldn’t have liked the hats, though.  I think my school did away with hats in the 1970s, so, mercifully, we didn’t have to wear them in my day!  And why were the male teachers wearing hats indoors?  Isn’t it incredibly bad manners for a man to wear a hat indoors, unless it’s for religious reasons?!

OK, enough moaning!  They did at least manage to point out that grammar schools offered a lot of opportunities for girls.  Most of the lessons we saw were with the girls, whilst we saw the boys taking part in the school harvest scheme, helping to pick fruit.  I love fruit-picking and would rather have enjoyed that … but they didn’t get paid much, and the idea eventually died off.  We also, as already mentioned, heard about the provision of free school milk.  And, no, it wasn’t semi-skimmed, and there was no alternative for kids who didn’t drink milk!!

The series is doing a superb job of tracing the way in which schools have been the conduit for trying to improve children’s health; and we also heard about school dinners, and how they were nutritionally balanced, and, of course, off ration … if not necessarily very nice.  And how kids were made to stay in the dining room until they’d finished what was on their plate.  That brought back memories!  It didn’t happen at my secondary school, and we were allowed to take out own food after the first two years of secondary school anyway, but they used to try it at primary school!  One lad, who was incredibly fussy and hardly ate anything other than bananas, must have been kept behind every day.  It didn’t work: he still wouldn’t eat the school dinners.  No-one ever succeeded in getting me to eat rice pudding, either.  We didn’t get free school milk, though.  Maggie Thatcher had done away with it by then.

And they’re also making a big effort to include a variety of activities in these programmes, rather than just focusing on what actually went on in the classrooms.  No rifle training in this one, but we did get the cycling proficiency test.  Ugh!  Now that really did bring back bad memories!  By my day, in the 1980s, cycling proficiency tests were taken at primary school.  Only four kids in the entire class failed; and of course I – the person who later went on to fail four driving tests, before finally passing at the fifth attempt! – was one of them.  I can remember who two of the others were, but, annoyingly, I can’t remember who the fourth one was.  That’s bugging me now.

I’m quite sure that they’ve all long since forgotten about it, but, being someone who’s had a lifetime of anxiety issues, I took it to mean that I was useless.  On top of that, I shortly afterwards got a lecture from a doctor about how fat I was, and how I needed to take more exercise, like cycling … so the cycling proficiency test trauma got tangled up in my mind with being a fat failure.  I was a seriously mixed-up ten-year-old!   However, I’m probably the only person in the entire world who’s ever been traumatised by the cycling proficiency test: I’m just strange!  Most of the kids in this seemed to enjoy it, even though teenagers riding bikes is fairly rare these days.  It was pointed out that a lot of teenagers used to cycle to school in the 1950s.  That’s unusual now.

Next up came the use of projectors.  My secondary school was still using projectors in the 1980s!  Mainly for French lessons, for some reason.  Languages weren’t  mentioned in this episode: instead, the girls had to watch a cringeworthy sex education programme about a girl called Susan whose mum was having another baby.  Well, at least something was being explained to them: you hear stories about girls who knew nothing on that subject even when they got married.  Strangely, this was for girls only.  No such lessons for boys.  That was … interesting.  Was it assumed that boys would find out elsewhere, or that boys just didn’t need to know about babies?

Most of this episode involved separate activities for girls and boys, and we saw the boys being made to do cross country running.  When we were little kids, my sister and I used to refer to some tunnels which could be seen in the distance from a nearby park as “Daddy’s running tunnels”, because we knew that Dad had had past those tunnels as part of school cross country running.  They were miles from where what used to be the local boys’ grammar school was!  Poor Dad 🙂 .  None of the boys in this seemed overly keen on cross country running, and the teacher said that he hadn’t got very fond memories of it either!

After that, the BBC had to get CND in there.  I’m not sure how big a part CND actually played at grammar schools: I suspect not nearly as much as the BBC made it seem that they did.  Then we got 1950s milk bars, and some lovely 1950s music, which was good fun.  The verdict of the children was that out of school time was starting to feel much more modern, but that what actually happened in school seemed a long way in the past.  It didn’t to me, which made me feel old!

It was good to hear their views, but I felt that the BBC generally tried to give a very one-sided, negative, view of the grammar school system.  However, they did invite Joan Bakewell, who went to Stockport Grammar School for Girls, to speak about her experiences, and she gave both sides to the story, explaining that going to grammar school had opened up a   world of opportunity for her, but that her sister hadn’t passed the eleven plus and had missed out on them.  I don’t know what the answer to the grammar school debate is, but I wish the BBC hadn’t tried so hard to tell us, instead of letting us decide.  All the same, it was another interesting episode.  A lot of people seem to be talking about this series, and that’s always a sign that it’s worth watching!

 

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Spanish Lavender by Joan Fallon

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I was hoping that this was going to be about the International Brigades; but unfortunately it was just a rather silly story, poorly-written and littered with irritating errors (“expatriate” was repeatedly spelt “ex-patriot”!), about a girl running off to take photos of the Spanish Civil War and getting involved with two men and a baby.  However, it did raise the never-ending question, very relevant in a week in which there’ve been reports of Syrian children dying of cold and hunger in refugee camps, of whether or not the international community should intervene in civil wars.

I’m not sure that the Life on Marbs idea of British expatriates (or indeed “ex-patriots”) living in the Marbella/Estepona/San Pedro area was really a thing in the 1930s.  However, OK, there would have been some Britons living there – although someone should really tell the author that they would not have referred to themselves as “Brits”, a term which didn’t exist until the Second World War.  Amongst them is our heroine, Elizabeth Marshall, a young woman in her 20s from a well-to-do middle-class family, living with her parents and brother.  With civil war raging and the Nationalists about to take Malaga, it’s decided that all British citizens in the area should be evacuated to Gibraltar, and then to Britain.  The evacuation of non-Spanish nationals was certainly true enough.

The dialogue’s poor, the characters are wooden, and silly mistakes such as the spelling of  the Spanish housekeeper’s name as “Conception” rather than “Concepcion” are annoying, but the book does make some good points with its descriptions of the bombing of Malaga by the Nationalists, with German and Italian assistance, and the desperate attempts of civilians to try to escape from a city bordered by water and mountains.

When the Marshalls reach the coast, they wait for a ship … and Elizabeth decides to run away, to take photos of what’s going on.  It’s supposed to sound brave and heroic, but it’s not really very convincing.  However, she gets to Malaga, where she rescues a baby who’s been abandoned in the street.  This is presumably meant to be very poignant, but the storylines just don’t work very well.  She meets up with a Spanish aristocrat, Juan, and an Englishman, Alex … and Juan checks her into a posh hotel so that she can get milk for the baby (as you do).  Then the baby dies anyway.  I’m not sure what the point of that storyline was.  And Elizabeth and Juan become lovers.

They all decide that they need to get out of Malaga, and head for Almeria.  En route, they’re caught up in a brutal attack by Franco’s forces on civilian refugees.  It’s thought that up to 5,000 people were killed in the attack, and many other citizens of Malaga were raped and murdered when the Nationalists took the city.  German and Italian forces bombed the refugees from the air, and Nationalist ships attacked them from the sea.  They couldn’t get away: there was no means of escape.  This isn’t a very good book, but this is something that’s largely been forgotten, and the book’s coverage of it is pretty accurate.  Norman Bethune, a Canadian doctor working with the Republicans, did indeed rescue as many of the injured as he could.  As far as the story goes, Juan, who’s been badly injured, is taken to Almeria by Bethune.  Elizabeth and Alex follow on foot.  When they reach the city, he’s nowhere to be found, and they’re left to assume that he’s died and been buried, alongside many others, in an unmarked grave. However, the reader learns that he’s still alive and has joined the Republican army, hoping that Elizabeth, who’d refused to leave without him, will go home to Britain and safety.

Then, just as it’s getting interesting, we suddenly jump forward to the 21st century!  We learn that – why does this always happen, in books?! – Elizabeth, having duly returned to her family, had found out that she was expecting Juan’s baby, and had accepted Alex’s offer of marriage.  It could have been quite good.  Elizabeth’s photos could have been published and she could have made a name for herself.  Juan could have turned up a few years later – and we learn that Alex went back to Spain, found out that Juan was alive, and never told Elizabeth.

But we don’t get any of that.  Instead, we get a rather boring story about how, after they’re all dead, Elizabeth and Juan’s granddaughter Kate finds out that Alex wasn’t her biological grandfather, goes to Spain, and, within about five minutes, has found Juan’s surviving relatives and been welcomed into the bosom of his family (who’d tried to cover up the fact that he existed, because they were Nationalists).  There are a lot of references to golf.  Kate meets two different men, but neither relationship is really developed properly.

None of the storylines are developed properly, really; and, as I’ve said, the characters are wooden and the dialogue poorly-written.  But this is the first time that I’ve ever come across a novel which covers this little-known massacre: Spanish Civil War novels in English are usually set in Catalunya, and usually refer to the massacre in Guernica, in the Basque country, and never mention Andalucia.

We’re told that Elizabeth is angry and distressed about why other countries are doing nothing to help, especially when there are British ships at Gibraltar.  (We know now that the Gibraltarian authorities secretly aided the Nationalists – not during the massacre, obviously, but in general.).  There was a lot of debate at the time, especially in Britain, France and the USA, about whether or not to intervene.  A Non-Intervention Committee was formed, and no-one was supposed to be getting involved, except as observers and to protect international shipping, but Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and to some extent Salazar’s Portugal all aided the Nationalists, whilst the Soviet Union and to some extent Poland and Mexico provided support to the Republicans.

There was huge international press coverage of the war, and of course the International Brigades – who are now seen as being quite romantic – were formed.  Opinion in Britain and elsewhere was deeply divided.  It was feared that involvement by foreign powers could spark a pan-European war.  And “boots on the ground” in other countries’ civil wars … well, think of Korea, of Vietnam, of Iraq.  It never ends well.  But can it ever be OK to stand by and do nothing when you know full well that civilians are suffering, horrifically.  We know what’s going on in Syria.  We know what’s going on in Yemen.  We know what’s going on in the sadly misnamed Democratic Republic of Congo.  There aren’t any answers, but the Spanish Civil War was the first time after the formation of the League of Nations that the subject came up.  The war killed about 500,000 people, similar to the estimated death toll in the Syrian Civil War.

There are no answers, but there are a lot of questions.  This book isn’t very good, but it does ask some of those questions, and make you think about them.

American History’s Biggest Fibs with Lucy Worsley – BBC 4

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This certainly didn’t pull any punches. It was actually quite malicious; and I’d love to know what an American audience would make of it.  Remember the days when Auntie Beeb was actually neutral?!  Anyway.  I’ve been studying American history since 1986.  It’s one of the things I go back to if I’m having a bad spell with anxiety, because it reminds that me that I’m still me.  My specialist period’s the Civil War, and I’m rather looking forward to seeing Dr Lucy debunking some of the myths about that; but I do tend to get a bit soppy and romantic over the Revolution.  I’ve got my own little model of the Liberty Bell.  And I’ve even got a copy of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution (which I last night located behind my copy of the National Trust Book of Scones, for some reason).  But I do know very well that most of it is more romance than fact, and there was nothing factual in this programme that I found surprising or that I’d even really argue with.  It was still quite “interesting” to see the BBC absolutely lay into the United States like this, though.  I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before The Donald (he who thinks that it was the Canadians who burnt down the White House in 1812) got himself elected president.

Is it really weird for a British historian to get soppy over the American Revolution? Or is it a Mancunian rebel thing 😉 ?  I got genuinely emotional at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and even more so at the National Archives in Washington, seeing original copies of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.  (Maybe a bit less so at Boston Harbour, because the thought of all that tea being wasted was rather upsetting.  I’m very fond of tea.)   It’s all that “land of the free” stuff.  It really does get to you … even when you’re a Civil War specialist and can talk about the history of slavery in the US until the cows come home.

So, we started off with the basic point that the Declaration of Independence was actually made on July 2nd, 1776.  I remind people about that every Fourth of July – and probably really annoy them, sorry! Then we jumped back to 1773.  Lucy Worsley did surprisingly little dressing up in this: Michael Portillo dressed up when he covered the Boston Tea Party, but Lucy didn’t.  I did wonder if maybe she was trying to get herself taken more seriously, but there was some dressing up later on.  Incidentally, if someone is trying to get themselves taken more seriously, maybe they should avoid using the word “fibs” in the title of their programme.  It sounds like something you say to a naughty five-year-old who’s insisting that they weren’t the one who left toys out all over the floor.

It was pointed out that Washington, Franklin et al weren’t very amused by the Boston Tea Party – not so much because it was a waste of good tea as because it involved the destruction of private property. As we all know, the British and American well-to-do classes in Georgian times were obsessed with private property.  And it meant that those who’d been arguing against no taxation without representation were made to look like criminals.  Big black mark.  A bit of a dig was also made about the modern use of the name “Tea Party” by people who are … shall we say, not exactly associated with liberty and equality.  I nearly added “and fraternity” there – oops, wrong revolution.

Next up for debunking was Paul Revere’s ride. No, Paul Revere did not make a daring solo ride to warn the people of Lexington and Concord that the British were coming.  There were two other blokes involved, and Revere himself was captured at Lexington and never even got to Concord.  Paul Revere’s always annoyed me, for some reason.  I don’t know why, given that I do get soppy over the Revolution.  Lucy, quite rightly, put the blame for the Paul Revere myth on Longfellow.  That’s twice in a week that I’ve had a go at Longfellow (who also wrote Evangeline).   I much prefer Longfella.  Sorry – couldn’t resist that.

And then there was the idea of the American army as being made up of gallant farmers. Er, yep, I think we’re all a bit past that, and know very well that it was, or at least became, a professional army, but the myth persists.  I actually blame Oliver Cromwell for this.  He’s the main reason (Louis XIV is the runner-up, but a long way behind) that people in Britain got so paranoid about the idea of professional armies, and that idea crossed the Atlantic.  It took the Duke of Wellington to change people’s minds here, but he, obviously, didn’t have any influence in the US, and so the idea of the army of gallant farmers remained a romantic ideal.  It just isn’t actually true.   And, of course, the Second Amendment had to get a mention there.  Whilst I think practically everyone in the UK wishes that America would tighten up its gun controls, the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Between that, the digs about immigration and the digs about fake news … well, as I said, I don’t think they’d have shown a programme like this before Mr Trump took up residence in the White House.

Ah yes, presidents. The great George Washington … slaveowner.  I’ve recently read Monticello, by Sally Cabot Gunning, and a lot of that revolves around the paradox of Thomas Jefferson owning slaves.  I didn’t get soppy at Monticello, nor at Mount Vernon.  It’s worth noting that Revolutionary France did abolish slavery (although Napoleon restored it a few years later).  As we all know, the new United States did not, and many of the Founding Fathers, including Washington and Jefferson, were slaveowners.  You can’t call that a myth, or indeed a fib, because no-one pretends otherwise, but … well, you can tie yourself in knots trying to reconcile the idea of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness with another nine decades of slavery.  Not to mention with the lack of rights for women.  The treatment of Native Americans.  Discrimination against non-Protestants. I love the United States and am not criticising her any more than I’d criticise any other country, but … it just doesn’t sit very well with the idea of the “land of the free”.

And poor old George III. Dear old Farmer George, with his fifteen kids and his health problems, cast as some sort of tyrant.  This really does annoy me.  Have a go at Parliament, by all means.  Either in the 1770s or today!   But it’s extremely unfair that the myths of the American Revolution cast George III as a tyrant.  In fact, it’s not even fair to class Parliament as tyrannical.  Look at what was going on in most Continental countries at the time!   But the specific point being made was that the colonists originally saw George III as an ally against Parliament, and that that changed – with Thomas Paine, who didn’t even move to the colonies until 1774, being the one who called for independence.  John Adams apparently said that American independence wouldn’t have happened without Paine.  In the wonderful North and South trilogy by John Jakes, Cooper Main idolises Paine … and I think that was where I first came across Paine.  But no-one talks about him very much in connection with the American Revolution, more about the Rights of Man.  And poor old George III got labelled as a tyrant.  He was nothing of the sort!

This was tied in with the myth of Who Started It. Well, you get that with all wars.  It’s always the other side’s fault.  But, with a civil war, which the American War of Independence was, there’s always a build-up beforehand.  The British blamed the colonials.  The colonials blamed the British.  And I’m not happy with the terminology there, because most of the colonials would have regarded themselves as British.  Interestingly, that was one road Lucy never went down … that of the American Tories, who remained loyal to the British Crown.  I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour, but I would have thought that that was quite a big issue.  American history tends conveniently to forget how many Americans actually fought for the British!  The role of Native Americans wasn’t really covered, either.  I suppose that doesn’t class as a “fib”, because American history doesn’t pretend that most Native Americans didn’t support the British (apologies for appalling sentence construction there!).  It just rather ignores the subject.

The Spanish got ignored, as well. It’s Aussie Open fortnight, OK: my brain’s running along rather Spanish lines ATM!  And, whilst I’m having a moan, I’d have liked a mention of the fact that the great Bostonian supporters of liberty were hitting the roof over Catholics in Quebec being allowed civil rights.  But the programme pretty much made out that the French were responsible for the Americans winning the War of Independence.  I think that’s a bit of an exaggeration.  It’s a reasonable point … but it’s an exaggeration.  But, yes, it was definitely all part of the … well, the so-called “Second Hundred Years’ War” that began with England fighting Louis XIV and ended with the United Kingdom defeating Napoleon.  It most certainly wasn’t just about the Thirteen Colonies.

They couldn’t even let the actual Declaration of Independence alone. I really do think some Americans would get very upset by this programme!   As a kid, I remember getting terribly confused by the fact that the battles of Lexington and Concord took place in 1775.  It didn’t make sense.  The whole thing didn’t kick off until 1776, so how could there have been battles in 1775? Why was the “shot that was heard around the world” fired a year before independence was declared?  Well, ahem, the fighting actually kicked off well before the Declaration of Independence – so presenting the said Declaration of Independence as something peaceful and heroic and idealistic is seriously misleading.  Well … OK, but I do wish the programme hadn’t clearly taken so much delight in knocking all those ideals.  There really was something quite nasty and vindictive about it … and, only an hour earlier, I’d been watching another BBC programme which had been pretty nasty and vindictive about the idea of grammar schools.  The BBC is supposed to try to present a balanced view of things, but it doesn’t do that with anything any more.

After that, it felt as if they were just looking for stories to tear apart. The idea of Molly Pitcher at the Battle of Monmouth is probably rubbish.  Well, like a lot of stories, it’s probably an amalgamation of various different stories about various different people.  That’s hardly uncommon, in history.  And the idea of the Liberty Bell ringing to proclaim the Declaration of Independence is untrue as well, we were told, not least because the steeple of the Pennsylvania State House was under repair at the time.  I don’t know.  OK, there wasn’t any big proclamation on the actual day of the declaration, but there are certainly accounts of bells being rung a few days later.  And no-one’s entirely sure what sort of condition the steeple was in at the time: there’s a lot of confusion about that. The Liberty Bell idea partly belongs to the 1830s, when it got tied in with the Abolitionist movement, but it was certainly a “thing” during the War of Independence, when it was hidden to prevent it from being melted down for use as munitions, and that does suggest that it was associated with July 1776.  I think Lucy was a bit too dismissive there.

After the Liberty Bell, we moved on to the Statue of Liberty. Hang on.  What’s the Statue of Liberty got to do with the American Revolution?!    It wasn’t built (do you “build” statues?) until a century later, and it wasn’t dedicated until 1886!  This was basically a dig at Donald Trump.  I’ve got a little model of the Statue of Liberty as well, incidentally, and I had as copy of part of Emma Lazarus’s poem stuck up next to it at one time!   We were told that everyone was getting rather cynical about the idea of liberty by the 1880s, and that the Emma Lazarus poem changed the meaning of the Statue of Liberty into being a symbol of the USA opening its arms to immigrants.  Oh come on, BBC!   I won’t repeat what I think of Donald Trump’s ridiculous idea about building a wall on the US-Mexican border, but what on earth has that got to do with the Revolution?  This was supposed to be a history programme!

It finished up with the Alexander Hamilton musical. That at least was relevant to the Revolution, but most of what was said seemed more of a comment on the current state of race relations in the US than on “fibs” about the Revolution.   It was all getting a bit silly by this point.

There was some interesting stuff in this, and it’s been a while since we’ve had any sort of new programme about American history, but I’m getting rather sick of the BBC shoehorning political opinions into everything. EastEnders. Holby City.  When I want to watch someone putting forward their views on the current political situation, I’ll watch a political programme.  This was supposed to be a history programme!  But, as I said, I get soppy over the Revolution.  If next week’s programme debunks the ridiculous idea that the Civil War (and it wasn’t a Civil War, but unfortunately you can’t say “War Between The States”, the more accurate term, without someone thinking you’re a racist) was about ending slavery rather than about preserving the Union, and if the following week’s episode debunks the myth that “the Russians” (why can’t people say “Soviets” instead of “Russians?!) were the big bad guys of the Cold War, then I’ll stop moaning and start praising!

 

Great Canadian Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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Next Monday’s episode is about one of my favourite cities in the whole wide world, Vancouver 🙂 , and  Thursday’s episode is going to finish in another place that I’m very fond of, Quebec City; but last night’s episode was about Prince Edward Island and I’m not passing up an excuse to write about Anne of Green Gables.  It also discussed people who’d sailed from Wester Ross to Nova Scotia – let’s just get The Proclaimers in there 🙂 .  I think Thursday’s episode’s also going to cover the Acadian Expulsions, but that will probably involve Evangeline and I’m not writing about that for anybody.  It’s like Uncle Tom’s Cabin: you feel under some sort of moral obligation to think it’s wonderful, whereas it actually just makes you want to throw up.  The Green Gables books, on the other hand, genuinely are wonderful, and it was lovely to hear people saying that they felt that Anne, Gilbert & co were the soul of Prince Edward Island.

We started in Pictou, Nova Scotia, where Michael Portillo was shown round the Hector, a ship which carried some of the earliest emigrants from the Scottish Highlands to Canada, in 1773.  OK, the programme didn’t actually say that they sailed from Wester Ross, but they probably did!  It did say that around 15% of Canadians have Scottish ancestry, and we saw a lot of tartan signs, and people playing the bagpipes and dancing Scottish reels.

It was, however, rather frustrating to hear the local guide claiming that the emigrants in 1773 were leaving Scotland because “English landlords” had taken over the Highlands after Culloden. What a load of rubbish.  The suppression of Highland culture after Culloden was appalling, but the Clearances, which forced a lot of people off their land, were the work of Scottish landlords trying to make their estates more profitable.  Scottish author Reay Tannahill covers this very well in one of my all-time favourite historical novels, A Dark and Distant Shore, although that covers the second wave of clearances, in the 1820s.  All right, I appreciate that it wasn’t meant as a political comment, but there’s a lot of tension in the world at the moment, and it doesn’t really help when people go around blithely claiming that the English were to blame for this or the Germans were to blame for that or the Russians were to blame for the other, when it isn’t even true!

Rant over!   It was more interesting to hear about the appalling conditions on board the ship – something covered in a lot of detail in Vilhelm Moberg’s The Emigrants, which is about Swedish emigrants to the American mid-West in the early 19th century, but says much the same as the guide in Pictou was saying about the Hector.  We also heard about how people wanting to leave the Highlands were tricked by the organisers of “emigration schemes”, who promised them land and supplies – which, of course, never materialised.  I’d hesitate to use the term “people traffickers”, because it’s not as if people were being forced into slavery/sex work, but there were certainly a lot of unscrupulous people around.   And, as Michael said, you have to admire the tough folk who made that journey and then made new lives for themselves in a strange place and under difficult conditions.

We then heard a lot about lobsters. OK, whatever!  And then on to Prince Edward Island.  Not too much about actual railway journeys in this episode: we saw Michael riding a bike along a disused railway line!   He was heading for Cavendish, where “the” Green Gables house is.  It was owned by L M Montgomery’s grandparents’ cousins, apparently.  She (LMM) was brought up by her grandparents after her mother’s death: her father was a real-life example of one of those widowers you find so often in books, who leave their motherless children with relatives.   I’m so jealous that Michael got to see the house!   I did consider a Maritime Provinces trip for this year, and seeing the Green Gables house was the main attraction.  I went for something else in the end, but I’ll do it one of these days, hopefully!

I love the fact that Michael did talk about Anne of Green Gables, just as he talked about Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books in an earlier series, and I think I remember him talking about Louisa M Alcott as well.  People can be quite snotty about books that were aimed mainly at young girls, but he’s shown them the respect they deserved.  I do love Anne, and the way she makes everything so romantic and such a drama!  I love her romance with Gilbert.  I love her attempts at writing a book.  I love the fact that she goes off to college and that she becomes a teacher.  I have never dared try to dye my hair at home, because of that scene where Anne accidentally dyes her hair green!   And so I loved the fact that the people Michael spoke to did genuinely seem to feel that the books were an essential part of the island’s culture – not just as a way of attracting visitors and peddling tourist tat, but … well, the word “soul” was actually used.  OK, he was talking to people who worked at the Green Gables house, or who were taking part in the Anne of Green Gables musical which has been running for three months a year for fifty-four years, but even so.

We also got to hear about harness racing, particularly associated with Irish settlers, and about red loam soil And then he finished up by saying that Prince Edward Island’s main interest for historians is that it was the scene of the Charlottetown Conference of 1864, which was what really set the ball rolling with Canadian confederation … although, when the Dominion of Canada was formed, in 1867, Prince Edward Island didn’t actually join in, remaining a separate entity until 1873.  Saying that Confederation was about railways was pushing it a bit 🙂 .  OK, railways were an issue, but the ramifications of the American Civil War, general economic issues and the fact that the existing system wasn’t really working did have a bit to do with it as well!

Charlottetown is, therefore, very important in Canadian history. And Confederation is very interesting.  I once delivered a bit of a lecture in it whilst I was sat in canoe on a river (or was it a lake?) in British Columbia.  Seriously, I did!  The canoe supervisor guy for some reason started firing questions about Canadian history at us, and the rest of the group, being more into outdoor sports than history, just didn’t answer … er, so I gave a mini-lecture about Confederation.  I am so weird, I know.  But saying that the Charlottetown Conference is more interesting to historians than Anne Shirley and Gilbert Blythe and co?   Hmm … I’ll have to have a good long think about that one!

Colette

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This was all right for a wet Sunday, but it didn’t really do Colette justice.  Her life story is fascinating, and a good script could have combined glamour and scandal in Belle Epoque Paris with some serious points about women’s rights, sexuality and transgenderism, and made a very interesting film.  This unfortunately didn’t quite manage it.  Also, it suddenly stopped whilst she was only in her 30s, missing out the most successful periods of her life.  And there was very little historical context: I wasn’t expecting a long discourse on the Entente Cordiale or the Dreyfus affair, but a bit of scene-setting would have been nice!  And was it really necessary to show the husband using the chamber pot?!  Talk about too much information!  It was all right; but it could have been a lot better.

Colette, born Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette in 1873, later Sidonie-Gabrielle Villars by marriage, is one of France’s best-known female novelists.  In brief, she was born to a rural family in reduced circumstances, married a famous author and publisher known as Willy, and moved to Paris with him. His books weren’t making enough money to fund their extravagant lifestyle.  She wrote the “Claudine” novels, considered very racy at the time, and they proved to be incredibly popular; but he, having put under under huge pressure and even locked her in her room until she’d done what he considered enough writing for the day, claimed all the credit for them.

Meanwhile, he was having affairs with a load of other women, and she then began having affairs with other women as well – encouraged by him, because he thought it’d provide good material for the books!  The film shows them both at one point having an affair with the same woman, played by Eleanor Tomlinson from Poldark.  Colette then moved on to a relationship with “Missy”, Mathilde de Morny, whose mother was allegedly the illegitimate daughter of Nicholas I of Russia and whose father was the half-brother of Napoleon III.  Missy wore men’s clothing, at a time when it was actually illegal (seriously) for women to wear trousers, and the film shows them (that’s “them” as a gender neutral pronoun, not a plural) preferring to be referred to as “he” rather than “she”.

Colette had by this time had begun an acting career as well, and an on-screen kiss between her and Missy caused a riot at the Moulin Rouge – that was one of the bits that the film did quite well.  Acting was how she supported herself after she and Willy separated and eventually divorced – but the film didn’t go that far.  Nor did it show, except in a few slides at the end, her taking legal action to get recognition of the fact that she was the true author of the Claudine books, her later literary success – including the publication of Gigi, on which the famous musical’s based- and her two later marriages, nor mention the fact that she was honoured by becoming the first female author to be buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery.

Question – what do you do about accents, in an English language film set in a non-Anglophone country?  Some of the reviews of the BBC production of Les Miserables have moaned about the characters being given Cockney accents, but what’s the alternative?  You can’t have everyone speaking in ‘Allo ‘Allo French-accented English.  Nor can you really have working-class characters speaking RP: it’d sound wrong.  It felt strange in this that everyone sounded Terribly English, when you knew they weren’t.  The exception was the Eleanor Tomlinson character, who spoke in a Southern drawl that was supposed to show that she was from Louisiana – except that it sounded far more Charleston than New Orleans.

The story of Colette’s life really is very interesting, and the film’s worth seeing because of that.  And for some lovely scenes in the French countryside, although I think they were actually filmed in England!  The “Gay Paree” thing was done quite well too, with nice costumes and some good scenes showing salons and the theatre.  Dominic West as Willy and Keira Knightley as Colette both played their parts well, he as the controlling older man and she as the young wife who finds her own identity and has the guts to strike out on her own.  There was also a very touching scene in which Denise Gough as Missy explains how she never felt comfortable in women’s outfits and knew that she’d “come home” when she borrowed her brother’s clothes.

So there were plenty of positives, but I just felt that the film didn’t tell the story of Colette’s life, or make the very important points about attitudes towards women, towards same sex relationships or towards transgenderism, as well as it could have done.  It raised important points, but the way in which it got them across didn’t quite work.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (second episode)

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Much of this second episode, covering the inter-war period, felt like “the BBC does Girls’ Own” 🙂 .  Country dancing, the importance of modern foreign languages, compulsory naps, the evils of heedlessness and disobedience, the open air school movement, kids being told that they had to “talk posh”  … yes, this all sounded very familiar to fans of 1920s/30s-era school stories.  We also got women’s football, forest schools, and – bringing back horrible memories! – school medicals.

First up, Esperanto lessons!   The programme made it sound as if Classical Greek and Latin had been the only languages taught in schools before the Great War, which wasn’t quite right, but there was certainly a big shift towards modern foreign languages in the 1920s.  As the pupils perceptively pointed out, this also showed a shift towards internationalism and seeking greater understanding of other cultures.  It just screamed “Chalet School” 🙂 ! Except that, instead of learning French or German, the kids were learning Esperanto.

Esperanto was a brilliant idea. OK, the idea of trying to replace people’s first languages, which are an incredibly important part of history and culture, was terrible;  but the idea of everyone speaking a common second language was brilliant.  Ludwik Zamenhof, its creator, grew up in an area where six languages (Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Belarusian, German and Lithuanian, and thus three language groups and three alphabets) were used.  I read a lot of Eastern European history and I actually find places like that fascinating.  Just so gloriously confusing!!  There are towns in what’s now Ukrainian Galicia which have names in Yiddish, Polish, Ukrainian, Russian, German, Hungarian, Romanian and Slovak!  However, it probably wasn’t quite so fascinating to be living there, under what must have effectively been a system of linguistic apartheid.   Anyway, sadly, Esperanto never caught on.

In between teaching Esperanto, the teacher was reading a book about school discipline, which was teeming with words like “heedlessness” and “disobedience”, all greatly beloved by GO authors. Does anyone still use the word “heedless”?  Great word!  We then moved on to School Certificates, which, whilst they always make me think of Alicia in the (post-war) Malory Towers books, played a big part in improving social mobility by giving working-class children a chance to go to university … if the family finances allowed, which, unfortunately, they usually didn’t.

Then school medicals. Ugh.  I apologise in advance for going off on a rant here, but it seems like, every time I put the TV or radio on at the moment, some patronising person is going on about how kids being fat is the worst problem facing our society.  Never mind the fact that some families are struggling so much that kids are being found scavenging through school bins for food: no-one seems interested in that.  Only in stigmatising overweight kids.

Our school medicals, in the late 1980s, were carried out by the visiting school nurse. She was very nice, but, if you were a fat kid, like I was, she put you on what was known as “The List”.  Capital T, capital L. Then, every so often, you would be sent a nasty little note telling you that you had to go to the medical room to be weighed.  This would be during lesson time, so you’d have to ask to be excused.  It was so humiliating.  Even worse, during the first few years of secondary school, we were weighed at the start of every term by the sadistic PE teacher.  She could easily have written everyone’s weight down herself, but, in order to maximise the humiliation, she would ask one of the kids – invariably someone very slim – to write them down.  And she would bellow out your weight at the top of her voice, so that most of the kids who were waiting could hear.  It was absolutely horrendous.  Kids would skip breakfast, and, if the weigh-in was in the afternoon, sometimes skip dinner as well, in the hope of making themselves a pound or two lighter.

I really hope that all the people who keep harping on about the evils of kids being overweight understand all the mental health problems that they’re storing up for the future by destroying children’s confidence and making them feel that overweight kids are second-class citizens. That feeling never goes away.  Anyway, sorry, rant over!  In the inter-war years, of course, it wasn’t obesity that was the issue, but malnutrition – and so the idea of weighing and measuring children at school was genuinely well-meant.  We were told that the average height of the class in this programme was nine inches taller than the average height of working-class children of the same age in the 1920s.  We also saw the kids having the circumferences of their head measured … but let’s not go there, because it smacks of eugenics.

As I said about the first episode, there was genuine concern about the nation’s health, following the publication of reports into poverty and also, in particular, because of the poor physical condition of many of the young men joining the Armed Forces.   As well as the horrible medicals, children in the inter-war years were dosed with cod liver oil, which famously tastes disgusting but is actually very good for you.  The Open Air School movement, which inspired some of the storylines in the recently-published The Chalet School Annexe, reviewed here, was also discussed.  A much better idea than the horrific school weigh-ins!  So too were compulsory naps, which come up in Monica Turns Up Trumps.  The idea of having a rest in the middle of the day seems quite attractive now 🙂 , but I don’t think it would have done when I was fifteen … and the kids didn’t seem very impressed, saying that they felt as if they were being treated like they were back in the nursery.

Weight-related traumas apart, it was very interesting to see the development of the idea that schools should play a big role in trying to improve children’s health. Unfortunately, it’s gone too far.  There was a report on Sky News this morning about staff at a school in Stoke “monitoring” packed lunches (why, regardless of whether you live in the dinner-eating North or the lunch-eating South, is it always “school dinners” but “packed lunches”) for unhealthy food.  Excuse me?  I don’t think even Stalin made teachers “monitor” packed lunches.

Following that, something much more cheerful – women’s football!   I wrote here about how popular women’s football became, and how it was then banned for years.  The programme is really drawing attention to the gender discrimination in schools throughout much of the twentieth century – not just against pupils but also against teachers, as we saw a female teacher being dismissed because of the marriage bar.  I can remember people of my grandparents’ generation still holding these attitudes when I was a kid – that it was wrong for a married woman, who had a husband to support her, to take a job that could go to a man or to a single woman.  The programme made it seem like out-and-out discrimination, and of course it was, and it seems horrifying now; but unemployment in some areas during the Depression was very high, and people were desperate.  But I think the BBC were scared to risk narking the PC brigade by making that point!

We also saw the girls having to learn domestic science, whilst the boys learnt physics and chemistry – subjects that were really being pushed at this time, with the Great War having shown up how poor science education was in British schools, compared to German schools. Germany still seems to do far better than us in that department!

I wrote about the domestic science debate when I waffled about the first episode, here, so for a different angle on it, how about what Girls’ Own books have to say?  Chalet School girls learn both general science and domestic science.  Hooray!   However, there’s the most appalling speech in which the science teacher tells the girls that they all need to learn domestic science so that they can be good wives and mothers, and, if the Good Lord doesn’t bless them with husbands and kids, they can help those he has so blessed!   The headmistress in the Dimsie books informs the Head Girl that the role of girls is to be the mothers of the future soldiers of the nation, and a young woman in the Abbey books is told that she should abandon her plans to go to university and take a course in childcare instead.  Immediate post-war eras tend not to be good for women …

Sara Cox took the next lesson, which involved listening to a BBC programme on the wireless. My late grandad, bless him, was still referring to the radio as “the wireless” in the 1980s.  We didn’t listen to BBC programmes on the radio, by my day, but I can remember watching BBC “education” programmes on TV, when I was 6 or 7.  There was a series called Zig Zag which was about history.  Evidently being a budding historian even when I was in the infants, I loved Zig Zag!  And there was another programme which did a countdown from 10 to 0 before the actual content came on.  We used to count along with it, and then yell “Blast off” instead of “Zero”.  It seemed very funny at the time 🙂 .  Then there was Me and You.  The theme tune went “You and me, me and you,” … and you could always guarantee that some of the class (usually the boys) would sing “Poo and wee, wee and poo”.  I’m afraid we didn’t always have very good manners at our primary school 🙂 .

However, the inter-war radio programmes seemed more concerned with trying to get kids to use “received pronunciation”. As the BBC pointed out, it really was well-meant, given that class and regional prejudice meant that talking posh would give people a better chance of getting a good job, but it didn’t half seem snobbish, and neither Sara nor the kids took it very seriously.  This again is something that comes up in Girls’ Own books, where regional accents are very much frowned on.

However, Girls’ Own books, especially those by Elsie J Oxenham, and to some extent those by Elinor M Brent-Dyer, are very keen on the folk revival and, in particular, on country dancing!   The BBC explained a bit about the background to this, and we then saw kids learning some country dances.  I’d love to have done that, instead of horrible PE lessons with the aforementioned sadistic PE teacher.  She was probably very nice when she was with her family and friends, but she absolutely had it in for fat kids who were useless at PE!  It looked like really good fun – and it’s keeping old traditions alive.  OK, a lot of the “folk” stuff was actually a Victorian invention, but even so!

This was followed by a brief flirtation with the forest schools movement, with kids being let loose in the woods and left to their own devices. Then there was just a very brief section about schooling during the Second World War.  The First World War was pretty much skipped over, and the Second World War was only given a few minutes – gas masks being given out, and some talk about the Dig For Victory campaign.  That was a shame, but I suppose there are a lot of programmes about life in wartime, and the makers of this series decided to focus more on other things instead.

The message that’s coming out through every topic that’s been covered is just how close the tie is between schooldays and social attitudes. It’s quite frightening, really.  OK, kids aren’t getting brainwashed like they are under some regimes, but the education system is constantly being adjusted to reflect the prevailing attitudes of the times, whether that’s about the curriculum or whether it’s about accents or weight or gender roles.  Most of that’s done with genuinely good intentions, but it can be quite problematic in the long-term if you’re made to feel that you’re inferior because you’re overweight or because you speak with a regional accent, or that you can’t study certain subjects because you’re a girl.  And, whilst the introduction of School Certificates was a positive move, how often has the exam system been mucked around with since then?  The debates never end!!

Great Alaskan Railroad Journeys – BBC 2

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Russian Orthodox churches, stunning scenery, and cute furry sea otters.  All in one thirty-minute episode.  Hooray!  Sadly, as Michael Portillo, resplendent in a burnt orange jacket and royal blue trousers, and his guides made clear, the history of Alaska is nothing like as beautiful as the views – an all-too-familiar story of native peoples and native wildlife populations decimated by the effects of outside involvement.  Lots of history in this first episode, along with lots of gorgeous scenery – in what is by far the biggest of the United States, seven times the size of the United Kingdom, but with a population of under 750,000.

First up, Ninilchik, with its glorious Russian Orthodox church.  I like Russian Orthodox churches 🙂 .  Founded by Russian settlers in the 1840s, it’s now an officially-designated Alaska Native village, and most of the people there, including the gentleman who showed Michael round, are of mixed Alaska Native and Russian heritage.  The man explained that many of the Russian men who came to Alaska – the first settlers arriving in the 1780s – married Alaska Native women, and a joint culture developed.

Sadly, whilst this talk of intermarriage and a mixed culture sounded all very nice, it was explained that the Russian period was actually disastrous for the indigenous population.  As happened when Spanish conquistadors and settlers arrived in Central and South America, and in so many other cases, the native peoples, with no immunity to European diseases, was devastated by disease.  They were also treated appallingly by the Russians – first forced labour, then actual enslavement, especially in the Aleutian Islands where disease, conflict and slavery killed up to 85% of the population.

From there, we got a bit of light relief, as he visited another area with Russian heritage, where there was a Russian tearoom.  There used to be a Russian tearoom in Bacup.  Then it moved to Skipton.  Then it closed down, and I was very put out.  Anyway, this one’s still going – and we got the obligatory dressing up bit which Michael seems to like to include in most episodes.  More interesting than the dressing up were the samovars.  I love samovars.  And even more interesting than the samovars was the fact that the owner of the tearoom was an Old Believer.  Sadly, the programme failed to mention, presumably largely because it would have been totally irrelevant, the fact that some Old Believers back in Russia became involved with the textile industry and therefore established links with Lancashire; but I’m mentioning it because I like telling people that.  Yes, I do know that I’m about the only person on the planet who finds that interesting, but Old Believers in general are very interesting.

Moving swiftly on, before I start going on about the Schism of 1653, the current goings-on over the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church, or anything else.  On to Seward, where, whilst sailing round Resurrection Bay amid the most spectacular views of snow-covered mountains, Michael and his guide discussed the Alaska Purchase – made by the United States from the Russian Empire for $7.2 million, in 1867.

Russian explorers first made landfall in Alaska in 1741, with the first Russian settlement there being established in 1784, and the Russian-American Company getting stuck into the incredibly lucrative fur trade.  I always think of the most valuable furs as having come from Canadian beavers, and was interested to hear that those from Alaskan sea otters were considered better.  Obviously wearing fur is not acceptable now, but it was such a huge trade at the time … but things didn’t go as well as the Russians had hoped.  Conflict with the native peoples, who bravely resisted Russian settlement, competition from British-Canadian and American companies, and, above all, the stupid, thoughtless, over-hunting of fur-bearing animals, with no thought for what was going to happen in the future.

So.  1867.  Two years after the end of the American Civil War.  Eleven years after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, six years after the sort-of-emancipation of the serfs, four years after the outbreak of the Polish-Lithuanian rebellion.  And a year after the attempted assassination that, along with the rebellion, probably frightened Alexander II off continuing along a liberal, reformist path – and he, the Tsar-Liberator did so much, with the military, the judiciary, and the administration.  Not to mention the fact that the Russian government was skint after the Crimean War, and needed money to pay off landowners (after emancipation) and build railways.  And in the middle of the Great Game, with Russia stressing that Britain might try to take Alaska … which I think was very unlikely to happen, because Britain was far more worried about Russia trying to barge into India, and had already made it clear that we didn’t want Alaska.  Anyway.  Russia decided to sell.

And America decided to buy.  William Seward, who negotiated the Alaska Purchase with the Russians, was an interesting character.  I think of him primarily in terms of his role in Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet, but he was involved in anti-slavery activities long before the Civil War, and, whilst some early Republicans had Know-Nothing backgrounds, he’d always spoken out in support of immigrants and backed the rights of non-Protestants.

As was pointed out, Seward said that the Alaska Purchase was his greatest achievement.  It certainly turned out to be a brilliant deal for the Americans.  Seal fisheries, to start with.  Poor seals  😦 .  And then all that gold.  Not to mention all the other minerals there.  And, of course, the oil fields.  The Russians found some gold in the 1840s, but, bizarrely, didn’t do anything about it.  Barely three years after the American takeover, gold mining began in earnest, and, come the 1890s, it all just went wild.

That was years later, though.  At the time, it seems to have been far more about the infamous concept of Manifest Destiny.  And the Americans seem to have been as concerned as the Russians about keeping the British out.  Those were the days, when Britain had a strong government and a strong opposition!  Canada – and the Alaska Purchase took place in the same year as Canadian Confederation – was already part of the British Empire, so I’m not sure why the Americans thought it would make that much difference if Britain were to take Alaska.  Well, the idea seems to have been to weaken British Columbia by sandwiching it between two parts of American territory, but I’m not sure what they thought was actually going to happen … but anyway.  Anglo-American relations were pretty bad at that time, Britain having the needle about US agents having illegally captured two Confederate diplomats from a British ship in 1861 (I remember once writing about that in my rough book whilst not paying attention during a maths lesson when I was about 15.  I was a very weird teenager!) and the US having the needle about Confederate warships having been built in Birkenhead.

The deal wasn’t entirely popular in America at the time, with some people feeling that the money would have been better spent on Reconstruction.  Having seen, on my travels through some of the southern states, how places like Natchez and Memphis have never really recovered from the Civil War, there’s certainly a very strong argument in favour of that … but, from a wider economic viewpoint, Seward made the right choice.

Well, he did from an American viewpoint.  Oh, and Michael didn’t go into nearly all this much detail, in last night’s thirty minute episode, but I’m just indulging myself because I love writing about both Imperial Russia and 1860s America 🙂 .   From a Russian viewpoint, with the benefit of hindsight, it was a pretty bad move.  As Michael remarked, imagine how different the Cold War might have been if Alaska had been part of the Soviet Union.  For that matter, imagine the effect on today’s geopolitical situation of Alaska being part of Putin’s Russian Federation rather than Trump’s United States.

All of which rather ignores the fact that the land wasn’t Russia’s to sell – and Michael, who was being shown around Seward and its environs by an Alaska Native gentleman, did make that quite clear.  There were only a few hundred Russians there at the time, and yet Russia sold, and America bought, land on which around 50,000 indigenous people were living, and neither side seems to have given two hoots about the rights or views of those indigenous people.

This was only the first episode, and I would like to think that future episodes will explain that the American treatment of the Alaska Natives was also pretty shocking.  The territory (for lack of a better expression – it wasn’t even an official “territory” until 1912, and only became a state in 1959) was initially put under military control, and, as was done elsewhere in America, attempts were made to convert the native peoples to Christianity and to Americanise their way of life, and Alaska Natives were not granted US citizenship until 1921.  I’m not having a go at either the United States or Russia, any more than at Britain or many other countries, but these issues need to be raised, and raising them in popular TV programmes is far more helpful than pulling down statues or

And the over-hunting also continued under American control.  It was also interesting to hear that concerns were raised in Michael’s guidebook published in 1899, about rising temperatures and the retreat of the glaciers.  I grew up in the 1980s, when we kept hearing all about acid rain and the hole in the ozone layer, and we tended to think of concern about climate change as being a fairly new thing.  Evidently not.

One thing that wasn’t mentioned (I wonder if it might come up in a later episode?), which was incredibly controversial, was that, after Kristallnacht, there was a proposal by the US Department of the Interior to settle refugees from Nazi Germany in Alaska – which, as Alaska wasn’t a state at that time, could have been done without causing issues with the very unpleasant US immigration quota system.   The idea, which was intended more to boost the American presence in Alaska than to help refugees, didn’t go down very well and nothing ever came of it, but I just thought that that, and the German settlements set up along the Volga at the same time as Russia was first getting involved in Alaska, were worth a thought … at a time when there are so many people living in refugee camps around the world.  /irrelevant point that just occurred to me.

Anyway – from 19th century history to the aforementioned cute furry sea otters.  Michael visited a wildlife centre, where he got to feed an extremely cute rescued sea otter pup.  It’s good to know that sea otter numbers are now making a comeback.  It’s causing some issues with fishermen (that should probably be “fisherpeople”, but even so.

From Seward, he (Michael, not the sea otter) took a wonderfully scenic railway journey towards the Spencer Glacier.  I would so love to do that!   The Alaska Railroad was built in the early 20th century, and Michael was told that, rather than being to transport gold, it was more a case of needing a way of transporting coal.   Gorgeous views.  And, hey, this is technically supposed to be a programme about railway journeys, not a historical documentary series!   Fascinating though the history of late 18th and 19th century Alaska is, it was all fairly gloomy, and it was good that the programme ended on a more cheerful note, with these spectacular views.

I have to admit that I wasn’t sure how a journey through Alaska was going to fill a whole week’s worth of episodes.  That’s quite a bit of screen time.  But, on the basis of last night’s episode, Alaska’s got more than enough to fill all that time and more.  And keep up the good work with including lots of history in there :-).  History and scenery together – excellent combination!