Edwardian Britain in Colour – Channel 5

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How good was this 🙂 ?  Working-class life in Edwardian Lancashire (and a bit of Cheshire and Yorkshire!), captured on film and enhanced by colour.  Cotton mills in Hollinwood, coal mines in Golborne, Wakes Weeks in Blackpool, brass bands in Accrington, the 1902 Preston Guild, hat-making in Stockport, pleasure gardens in Halifax and day trips to Mobberley.  Images of Edwardian Britain are usually of the great and the not-necessarily-good, on grand occasions; but this was all about ordinary life.  The presenters were all so cheerful and so clearly genuinely interested, as well, with no lecturing or moralising or pontificating.  And there’ll be more next week, when we’re getting trade union and suffragette marches.

I’m not sure whether these were the famous Mitchell and Kenyon films or not. I’d assume so, given that most of them were of Lancashire.  If so, where was the film of the Burnley v Newton Heath match?!  Oh well!

The colour was nice, but I think the films would have worked fine in black and white as well – the important thing was what the films were telling us about Edwardian life, and seeing the faces of the men, women and children in them and knowing that these were all real people, living real lives. Sad, too, seeing young lads and knowing that many of them must have lost their lives in the Great War.  There are a lot of paintings, and, for more recent times, photos, of royalty, and politicians, and other well-known people; but there aren’t many of ordinary people, and there certainly aren’t many of daily life.  By Edwardian times, plenty of ordinary people did have their photos taken, and a lot of us will have family photos from that time, but it was generally a case of going to a photographer’s studio for a special occasion such as a wedding, with everyone in their best clothes and formal poses, not photos of everyday life.  Even now, when everyone’s posting photos on Facebook and Instagram all the time, you don’t see many photos of people at work.  Not that anyone desperately wants to see photos of people at work 🙂 , but, for social history purposes, those sorts of images are incredibly important and informative.

The programme actually started with shots of Queen Victoria’s funeral, but soon moved on to a parade in Accrington, to mark Edward VII’s coronation. Led by a brass band!  As the programme said, there were so many parades in those days – political, religious, pro-temperance, etc.  We still have parades, and a lot of them are very lavish, but I don’t think there’s that community feel to them any more, because the days when everyone socialised with their neighbours, and often worked with them as well, have gone.  It was also interesting to hear a black historian speak about the fact that some of the people in the parade were wearing “blackface”, and, rather than doing the PC thing of yelling about racism, explaining that this was meant in an inclusive way, to show that people of all races were included in the British Empire and were a part of the celebration.

And those lovely banners!   There are quite a few of them at the People’s History Museum.  That idea goes way back, certainly to Peterloo and before.  Really beautiful, embroidered banners that a lot of work must have gone into – not like now, when people carry scruffy placards with slogans written on them in felt tip pen.

After that, we did get some shots of That London – the docks and the markets. So busy!   You don’t see that often, now – everyone hard at work, in the great outdoors, all those people and all those goods. Women working in the markets, all sat together, shelling vegetables.  Men carrying huge crates around.  Everyone busy busy busy, such a hive of activity.

Then back to Lancashire, with film of the collieries in Golborne – one of the Wigan pit villages, just off the East Lancs Road. I used to have a very nice client based there.  The boss once bought me a chocolate ice cream 🙂 .  And my dad used to have a pharmacy in another of the Wigan pit villages.  We actually saw shots of men working in the mines, in horrible conditions, and of the pit brow lasses working at the coal face; and it was brought to life even further with interviews with people whose relatives had worked there.  Fascinating stuff.

As was explained, in Lancashire it was the norm for women and older children to work, as well as men. I remember one of my old university lecturers once talking about the cultural differences between places where the traditional industries provided work for both men and women, and places where they didn’t.  Then he got off the point and started going on about how Middlesbrough was a real “man’s town” and that that explained a lot about Brian Clough; but never mind!  Anyway, in the Lancashire textile and coal towns, it was the norm for women to work.  And, without wishing to perpetuate stereotypes, those women were generally pretty tough cookies.  We saw shots of people coming out of the Alfred Butterworth Mill in Hollinwood, between Manchester city centre and Oldham – thousands of people, all employed at the same place.

It was interesting to see that the women all had their hair covered. The presenter compared that to wearing a hijab.  I think it was as much about keeping warm, and protecting the hair from dirt, as about it not being respectable for a woman to show her hair, but head coverings were certainly the norm for everyone then.  It’s something you really notice on photos from those times – everyone’s wearing some sort of hat/other head covering, whether it’s flat caps at football matches or top hats at Ascot (men’s hats/caps were a real sign of social class, as the presenter said).  Clogs and shawls … those days are gone.  Most people wear the same stuff all over the Western world these days!

It was also pointed out how highly-skilled a lot of the work done by women was, although they certainly wouldn’t have been paid in accordance with that. Whilst it would have been difficult to film inside a mill, with all the machines going, there were shots of a woman sewing, and you could see how intricate the work was – and also that she was nicely-dressed, and wearing a necklace, and certainly not some sort of downtrodden, dehumanised factory worker stereotype like the people Dickens wrote about in Hard Times (how I hate that book … although admittedly it was set far earlier than this).

Next up, hatters in Stockport, complete with an interview with a man who’d worked as a Stockport hatter. Stockport County, like Luton Town, are still known as “the Hatters” … as Northampton Town are known as “the Cobblers,” Stoke City as “the Potters”, Sheffield United as “the Blades” and so on.  Those nicknames aren’t used as much as they used to be, but they’re a reminder of the traditional industries of certain areas.  Again, it’s very skilled work.  And work associated with entire communities.

Then we moved on to film of children – all rather formally dressed, and many of them with jobs, some attending school in the mornings and working in the afternoons, and few staying on at school after the age of twelve. There was such a big class divide in children’s lives in Edwardian times: you think of the Mary Poppins books, for example, and contrast the lives of children like Jane and Michael Banks (yes, all right, I know they weren’t real!) with those of working-class children.  But, again, there wasn’t a sense of being oppressed, for lack of a better word – more of trying to get out there and earn money.  Obviously I’m not saying that that was a good thing, just that it was how it was.  As the presenter said, there wasn’t that sense then, at least not for the working classes, of adult responsibility not starting until at least the age of eighteen.

It has to be said that these films didn’t show the workhouses, or the worst inner-city “slum” areas, but the programme could only show what there was.

Everyone looked quite cheerful, really. The Edwardian era does have a very jolly image – “It’s grand to be an Englishman in 1910”! – the Golden Age between the repressive Victorian era (which actually wasn’t that repressive) and the horrors of the Great War.  But, as we keep being reminded in Great British Railway Journeys 🙂 , it was an era of social flux; and, as we know from the reports which brought about the welfare reforms of 1908-1911, it was also a time of severe poverty.  Yet everyone looked so full of life.  All these individual people, in all these communities.  Unless you live in a soap opera, very few of us now live in a world where we work with our friends and neighbours, and our friends and neighbours are the same people, and where everyone in the area works in the same industry, and goes on holiday to the same place, at the same time.  Times move on, and I can’t say I particularly want to work in a cotton mill, or see a load of people I know whilst I’m walking along Blackpool Prom; but seeing it all on film was fascinating.

I’m not trying to do a “They woz poor but they woz happy” thing, but some books do have such patronising passages about (depending on the time and place) “the peasants” or “the serfs” or “the industrial proletariat”, and lose sight of the fact that these were all individual human beings, living their lives.

And, by Edwardian times, those lives generally included time for leisure. The rest of the programme concentrated on leisure, rather than work.   Young children from Altrincham going on a day out to Mobberley, for a taste of country life.  I used to know someone who lived in a farm in Mobberley: I wonder what happened to her!   Altrincham’s quite a well-heeled area, and would have been so even then, but the idea seemed to be to get kids away from urban/suburban areas and into the countryside: we saw them running around in the fields, and having races.   You don’t really get that now.  School trips are all about being educational!

Then the next part … well, it wasn’t leisure as such, more of a celebration, and a tradition that goes back to the 12th century AD – the Preston Guild, held every twenty years.  Does the expression “once every Preston Guild” exist in the rest of the country, or is it something that people only say in Lancashire?!  Like we raise our glasses to “the Queen, Duke of Lancaster” whereas the rest of the country just says “the Queen”?!  Lovely pictures of the parade, and all the people, and the formal ceremonials as well.  This was in 1902.  The Guild’s meant to be held every 20 years, but, because of the Second World War, there was a 30 year gap after 1922, with the next one being held in 1952 … so the most recent was in 2012, and I actually went to that, because it does only take place … well, once every Preston Guild!

We also got some film coverage of people enjoying themselves at pleasure gardens. The ones on the film were, ahem, over the border in the West Riding, near Halifax.  They’ve gone now.  So many of the pleasure gardens have.  There’s a Metrolink stop called “Pomona”, and the name caused all sorts of confusion when the stop first opened, because most people had never heard of the Pomona Gardens, which closed back in the 1880s.  It’s a shame, because they were a great idea, and you could see how much people were enjoying themselves there.

Finally, the greatest seaside resort of them all – Blackpool!   If anything symbolises the growth of leisure in the later Victorian and Edwardian eras, it’s Blackpool Tower, built in 1891.  I still get excited when I get to the part of the M55 where you get your first glimpse of the Tower.  I actually get excited well before that, when I come off the M61 on to the M6, and know that I’m not that far from the junction with the M55.  I’m so used to the fact that Blackpool’s got three piers – I think the North Pier’s my favourite, but they’re all special – that I never really think about how unusual it is to have three piers in one resort, or even about the fact that seaside piers must have been a huge novelty when they were first built.  Times have changed, and we no longer have the great Wakes Weeks exoduses to Blackpool, with everyone from one town heading off their at once.  We don’t really even have Wakes Weeks any more: we still had “local holidays” in the ‘80s, when I was a kid, but deindustrialisation and the standardisation of school holidays have put paid to that.  But we still have Blackpool!

We take having a certain amount off work for granted now, but how exciting must it have been when people first started being given time off work, even though it was unpaid, and even more so when more and more people became able to go on trips to the seaside. We saw film coverage of the Winter Gardens, and the Blackpool Tower circus.  I’ve never seen elephants in the sea at Blackpool: that certainly doesn’t happen now!   And everyone was dressed up.  Even in the 1950s, on the photos of my mum and dad’s childhood holidays in Blackpool, everyone’s in their best clothes, because you made an effort when you were going to the seaside – it was a big thing.  So many people!  I always moan about there being too many people anywhere where I am, unless it’s a sporting event or a concert, but it looks exciting on film!

It was all exciting, in its way. The colour was great, but, as I’ve already said, it would have been fascinating in black and white too.  Films definitely capture something that the written word, however eloquent, can’t, and even paintings and photographs can’t – and these are some of the earliest films of ordinary life in our region, in our country.   I really did enjoy this programme.

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 7)

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I was still at school at the beginning of the 1990s, but most of this episode on that decade seemed a million miles away from my day. All that technology in the classroom!  I was way too old to have a Tamagotchi, and I only watched the odd episode of Byker Grove.  I recognised all the music, though, so I was obviously still “with it” – well, as far as I ever was!    It was good fun to see some of the Cool Britannia stuff again.  Oasis over Blur every time: it’s a Manchester thing!   But the BBC’s obsession with pushing their political agenda has really marred this series.  Claiming that everyone in the ‘80s was far too self-obsessed to raise money for charity?  They should be forced to issue a formal apology to Bob Geldof for saying that.  And what was all that rubbish about the government stifling creativity by making people draw wheels?   Also, why does the BBC seem to think that everyone wants interactive lessons with as much pupil participation as possible?   What about all those of us who just wanted to fade quietly into the background?!

Hearing teenagers refer to the 1990s as “back then” and say that their parents had been at school in the 1990s made me feel about 100, but at least it was said to the background music of a Happy Mondays song. No reference to the whole “Madchester” phenomenon, though.  Boo!  I remember going on a school trip to the British Museum in 1990, and – uniform not being worn on school trips, presumably to make sure that no-one’d be able to identify the school if anyone did anything terrible – everyone turning up in hooded tops and Joe Bloggs jeans, and strutting round thinking how incredibly cool we were compared to people in London!   We did, however, get Italia ’90.  I was doing my GCSEs then.  I had three exams – three!! – on the day of the group match between England and the Republic of Ireland.  Very stressful day!   It was good to see that the kids knew all about it.  Italia ’90, I mean, not my GCSEs.  And those wonderful Panini sticker albums we all had.  We also heard about Game Boys.  Not being very technologically-minded in those days, I never had one – but my sister did, so I used to play Tetris on hers!   And about all that awful modern art – unmade beds and stuffed animals.  I didn’t get it then, and I don’t get it now.  Give me a nice landscape painting any day!

Back with the actual school stuff, we were reminded about the introduction of school league tables. Ah yes.  If I remember rightly, the first league tables came out during my first year at university.  They’d somehow made a mistake with the points for my school, so it appeared far lower down the league tables than it should have done.  The headmistress hit the roof – understandably – and my school ended up all over the headlines of the news!   Needless to say, the programme, and especially that one really irritating teacher (the one who claimed she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before) did nothing but moan about the National Curriculum and the league tables.  The kids featured in this all seemed very bright and well capable of formulating their own opinions, but Sara Cox was clearly trying to lead them towards saying what the BBC wanted them to say, which really did annoy me.    What on earth was all that whingeing about creativity being stifled by being expected to draw a wheel in art lessons?  What exactly do you expect to do in school art lessons?  I can barely draw a straight line with a ruler, so I never had any artistic creativity to stifle 🙂 , but it all seemed like a lot of moaning about nothing.

The moaning about the school dinners was more justified. I appreciate that the government was trying to cut costs, but it really wasn’t one of their better ideas.  But, again, the BBC had to politicise it by encouraging all the kids to say that the government was being hypocritical by allowing vending machines in schools at the same time as they were trying to encourage kids to do more exercise.  Yes, it was a fair point, but a) it all seemed very sanctimonious, b) Sara Cox was clearly trying to put words into the kids’ mouths and c) the BBC is supposed to be politically neutral.  Going back to the point about exercise, Jet from Gladiators – a programme I could not bear! – turned up to take the PE lesson.  There’s been a lot in this series about PE lessons.  How I hated PE!   I would have hated it in any generation!

There seemed to be a lot more about social change and popular culture than about actual school life in this programme – although, to be fair, they did try to tie it into education. The introduction of the National Lottery – and, yes, some of the money did go to schools – was very exciting at the time, although I do now have a nostalgic yearning for the days when everyone did the pools, which were never the same again after the Lottery came in.  No mention of the death of Diana, Princess of Wales, strangely.  The reaction to it all was ridiculously OTT, but it was a very, very big thing at the time.  The Spice Girls got a brief mention.  I’m not sure that the “Girl Power” thing actually influenced society, but it certainly got a lot of attention.   The “coming out” storyline in Byker Grove in 1994  was also covered.  As I’ve said before and have said again, soap operas and similar programmes have done far more to change attitudes over LGBTQ issues, and many other issues, than any sort of official campaign ever has.  And, as much as I often criticise the BBC, kudos to the EastEnders scriptwriters for tying in the recent storyline about the death of Dr Legg with references to the worrying rise in anti-Semitism both in the 1930s and today.

There was also a load of rubbish about how the 1980s was all “me me me”, whereas the 1990s was all about raising money for Comic Relief. Er, what?!   I do remember raising money for Comic Relief at school.  Some of the teachers did “The Stonk” in assembly, which, given that my school was quite formal and old-fashioned, was quite an event.  But schools were involved in raising money for charity in the ‘80s, as well, and long before the ‘80s.  My school chose a different charity every term, and tried to raise money for it.  Saying that no-one in the “Thatcherite ‘80s” was bothered about helping other people, when you think about Live Aid, and all the money raised for disaster appeals both in the UK and abroad (the ‘80s was very much the decade of the charity single), not to mention the BBC’s own Children in Need appeals, and the 1988 ITV Telethon, was just disgusting.

One of the fundraising ideas was a fashion show. Ugh, ugh, ugh!   I cannot think of anything worse.  Maybe it would’ve been great fun if you were slim, glamorous and confident, but … I feel ill just thinking about it.  I suppose that anyone wanting to take part in a reality TV series is going to be confident, but what about all the people who aren’t?  Earlier in the programme, they’d been going on about how wonderful drama lessons were.  Not if you were the sort of kid who just hoped no-one’d notice you were there, and was convinced that everyone was laughing at you behind your back because they thought you were fat and weird, they weren’t!

On to the 1997 general election. They were very positive about Tony Blair: given the general tone of the programme, I’m amazed they didn’t slag him off for not being far left enough.  I completely fell for the whole Tony Blair New Labour thing.  I genuinely thought that he was a decent bloke with a real vision for the country.  Hah!  These days, I change the channel the minute he appears on TV: the very sight of his face makes me want to slap it!   I wish we could get back that feeling of optimism about politics, though.  If a general election were to be called tomorrow, it’d be a case of trying to decide which party was the least bad, not of voting for any positive reason.  Both main parties are a disgrace, and I cannot think of even one politician whom I’d genuinely like to see as Prime Minister.  The positivity of 1997 seems a very long time ago.  Well, it was a very long time ago.   22 years! Bloody hell – how did that happen?!  I was rather put out that they didn’t mention the truly great leader of the 1990s – the one and only Sir Alex Ferguson.   Unlike Phoney Tony, he never let us down!

Most of the rest of the programme was about technology, and made me feel like I was a dinosaur because we had none of it when I was at school. I never used Encarta.  I remember having CD roms for professional exams in about 1998, but certainly not when I was at school.  Web design lessons.  CDs giving advice on job options – and the only mention in this episode of gender-based educational differences, with a comment that the CD never even asked the user’s gender.  Tamagotchis – I remember the craze for them, but I was way too old to have one!  And dial-up internet – which I still had until … about 2010, I think.  The kids seemed to think it was all like something from a completely bygone era.  That made me feel very old!   Hooray for the Take That music, though.  I shall be going to see Take That in a couple of months’ time – I may be a child of the 1980s, but I can do the 1990s too!  Well, some aspects of the 1990s.

Asked which decade they preferred, neither the kids nor the teachers seemed very sure. The general opinion seemed to be that there were good aspects and bad aspects of each of them.  That’s life, I suppose!   There’s one more episode of this to come, but that’s going to be about imagining school life in the future: the exploration of the past’s over.  It’s been very interesting, despite the BBC’s political machinations, and I’m looking forward to seeing what they choose for the next “Back in time” series.

The Silver Crest by Kornei Chukovsky (Facebook group reading challenge)

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In English language school stories, a common trope is for a character to be accused of something they haven’t done, and for the culprit then either to be found out or be shamed into owning up, and Our Hero/Heroine to be vindicated and the dishonourable baddie, hanging their head in shame, to be punished, preferably expelled.   (Well, except in What Katy Did At School, where Katy sanctimoniously decides to “live it down”, and Bella gets away with it all.)   In this book, a true story written by a Soviet era children’s author about his boyhood in late Tsarist era Odessa, that doesn’t happen – because he’s the illegitimate son of a peasant washerwoman mother and a Jewish father, and the wrongful accusation is just an excuse to kick him out of a good school that’s being purged of perceived undesirables.  However, he eventually triumphs over the system by completing his secondary and university education via correspondence courses.   It’s very different from the sort of school story that Anglophone readers are used to.  And it makes no mention of the alternative version of events, which is that Chukovsky and his mate, the future Zionist leader Vladimir/Ze’ev Jabotinsky, were both expelled from school for their political activities … which might have been more interesting, if rather less appealing to readers in Soviet times.   Odessa is a fascinating place: I’m not sure I’ll ever get the chance to go there again (I went in 2008), but I’d certainly like to.

It’s only a short book, and doesn’t go into much detail. The reading group challenge for February was to read a children’s book originally written in another language.  I wanted something Russian that wasn’t going to cost me a fortune, and this was recommended.  Yes, I do know that Odessa is now in Ukraine, and also that the transliteration from Ukrainian is Odesa.  I’ve been there!   But it’s still mainly Russian-speaking, so I’m sticking with “Odessa”, and the book is actually subtitled “A Russian boyhood”.  There are tantalising glimpses into the fascinating multicultural society of Odessa in the 1890s: several characters have Greek names or German names, and there’s a reference to the main character’s mother, a Ukrainian peasant woman, having hidden a Jewish neighbour during a pogrom; but it is a fairly short and simplistic book, although it would probably be difficult to follow without some prior knowledge of the history of the Russian Empire.

The author, Kornei Ivanovich Chukovsky, was born Nikolai Vasilyevich Korneychukov. I don’t know where the patronymic came from: it wasn’t from the name of his natural father.  In this book, which is the story of his own youth, he says that he didn’t at that time know who his father was.  I don’t know whether that’s true or not.  He spent some time working in London as a correspondent for an Odessa newspaper, and then, back in the Russian Empire, was imprisoned for allegedly insulting the Romanovs.  In Soviet times, he was based near Moscow, became a very well-known children’s author, and used his position to help other authors, including Anna Akhmatova for whom his daughter worked as a secretary, who were being persecuted by the regime.

His mother had been a maid for his father’s wealthy family in St Petersburg. Due to the differences in class and religion, they never officially married, and she eventually moved, with Nikolai/Kornei and his older sister, to Odessa.   The book, as I keep saying, is quite short, but it does give us an idea of what life was like for poor people in the Odessa of the 1890s.  It doesn’t go on about evil-oppressive-capitalist/imperialist systems, and in some ways is reminiscent of the kind of memoirs you often get about British working-class life – we never had two ha’pennies to rub together but everyone pulled together and kids could play out in the streets kind of thing.  What’s never mentioned is how Kornei came to be attending the gymnasium, i.e. the top level of secondary schools, from which pupils would generally go on to university.  The only likely explanation is that his father was paying, which does make it rather unlikely that he didn’t even know who his father was.  I suppose it would have spoilt the whole mood of the book if we’d been told that this poor family were getting financial support from a wealthy middle-class source!  I may have this all wrong, but I doubt there’d have been free places, and I can’t see that his mother could have made enough for the school fees by taking in washing.

His mother’s extremely proud of the fact that he’s at this school – and has the silver crest of the school on his cap. She’s desperate for him to get on in life.  This doesn’t happen in British school stories (I know I’m putting a very British interpretation on this, but the idea of the reading group challenge was that we’ve all read loads of British children’s books, and are looking at something different!)  In those, it’s very rare for someone from a working-class background to attend a top school, or to be shown aiming to get on in life – which is incredibly annoying, because pulling yourself up by the bootstraps was a big idea in the 19th century, but never made its way into school stories, which were generally written between around 1900 and 1960.  And it’s interesting that they’re working within the system of Imperial Russia: there’s no sense of wanting to change the system, only of wanting to work with it.

The book starts with young Kornei, who reckons that he’s always near the top of his class – boasting is a definite no-no in English language school stories, so there’s another cultural difference – trying to help his friends cheat in a test. There’s no suggestion that cheating is wrong: he’s just being a good friend by trying to stop his mates from getting bad marks and consequently getting into trouble.  It backfires.  So he’s got a bad reputation with the teachers, and he does actually deserve it.  But then he’s blamed for egging on another boy to try to hide his bad marks from his parents.  It doesn’t actually seem like that much of a big deal, but apparently it was.   And he’s expelled.  A teacher symbolically rips the silver crest off his cap.

He naively assumes that the truth will out and he will be vindicated. He initially expects that the real culprit will own up.  But there’s no way.  This boy is from an influential family who are very ambitious for him.  There’s no way he’s going to chance getting into trouble at school – and it’s his mum who explains this to Korney.  Then he assumes that his friends, who know the truth, will speak up for him.  They don’t.  Then, eventually, someone tells him that it wouldn’t achieve anything even if they did – he and several other boys from “undesirable” backgrounds are being kicked out because the authorities want to purge top schools of unsuitable elements, and the incident with the other boy hiding his bad marks is just an excuse.

There were certainly moves in late Imperial Russia to make sure that the gymnasia were turning out boys who’d promote … the phrase “Orthodoxy, autocracy and nationality” belongs to the reign of Nicholas I rather than that of Nicholas II, but that sort of idea. As the book points out, it was part of the very reactionary attitude taken by the government during the reign of Alexander III.  After the assassination of the “Tsar-Liberator” Alexander II in 1881, and, really, before that, going back to the Polish-Lithuanian Uprising of 1863-4.  I’m resisting the temptation to write a long essay on Imperial Russia, because this isn’t really a history book!   So I don’t find it hard to believe that boys would have been expelled for reasons that had nothing to do with their actual schooling or with bad behaviour.

Was it a class war thing? The authorities were paranoid about any hint of revolutionary activity.  So I wouldn’t be surprised if the real truth of it was the alternative version of events, which is never even hinted at this book – that Chukovsky was running a satirical student magazine with his friend Vladimir Yevgenyevich Zhabotinsky, later better known as the militant Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, and that that was the reason he was expelled.  But, then again, the decree of 1887, referred to in the book, did say that working-class children should be kicked out of top schools because they should be encouraged to stay within their milieu rather than thinking about university.

Could it have been partly a religious/cultural thing, as well?  This was the era of the May Laws.  His father isn’t mentioned in the book, and there’s no suggestion that the authorities, or even Kornei himself, knew anything about him, and it’s made clear that Kornei and his mother and sister are Orthodox Christians, insofar as they bother with religion at all – but could the Jewish connection have been a factor too?

Whatever the exact truth of it, he was expelled from school for socio-political reasons. And, whilst this honestly doesn’t come across as being propaganda, in the end we are left feeling that our hero has been the victim of an unfair and oppressive system.   But he doesn’t go off and join a revolutionary movement.  Instead, he beats the system – and, yes, he does beat the system! – by gaining his secondary school and university qualifications via a correspondence course.  And the book ends with a note saying that he hopes the reader will love all his friends and family, but also that he hopes they’ll hate all the baddies – the headmaster, the school inspector, etc, and, interestingly, that there are still people like them around.

As a story, and it is meant as a children’s book, this isn’t bad.  There’s plenty of stuff about japes he gets up to with his mates, nasty teachers, girls he fancies, and so on.  As a history book, it doesn’t tell us that much, but it does give us some glimpses into a time in which the author had grown up but which is now gone, and into the absolutely fascinating culture of late 19th century Odessa and its very diverse population.  It really is a very, very interesting city, and I’m glad to have had the chance to visit it in 2008.

It doesn’t tell us much of the politics of Odessa … once I realised when and where the book was set, I was expecting more about politics and revolutionary activities, especially as the book was written in the 1930s. The original, 1938, edition, apparently opened by quoting the part of Stalin’s constitution that stated that all children had the right to an education, including at university level, paid for by the state, so there were very strong political overtones there.  I didn’t really sense any suggestion that most people had much interest in politics … although I gather that the 1938 version was much more political than the later version which was translated into English and which I read.   And the idea of the self-made man who beat the system is really more redolent of Victorian Lancashire than of Tsarist Odessa.  Very Samuel Smiles … and he does actually mention reading books by Samuel Smiles.  He taught himself English, and he seems to be a great admirer of Britain – which, again, has strong overtones of Victorian Liberalism, which I wouldn’t quite have expected from a book written in Stalin’s Soviet Union.  But Chukovsky wasn’t a typical Soviet author, and this isn’t a typical book of any sort of genre – it’s very different, and, whilst it’s only short, is worth a read, and a lot of thinking about.

Mary Queen of Scots

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What on earth?!  Elizabeth, Mary, and Bess of Hardwick wandering around in a laundry.  The Four Marys praying on the bedroom floor that Darnley had managed to hit the jackpot.  When he wasn’t carrying on with Rizzio – as if Rizzio, even if he actually had been interested in blokes, would have looked twice at an idiot like Darnley.  John Knox’s hair and beard were rather mesmerising: I wonder if he ever washed them.  Why did French-raised Mary have a Scottish accent?  Why was the Earl of Lennox (played by Mr Bates from Downton Abbey) getting so stuck into everything?  What happened to the Battle of Carberry Hill?  Shouldn’t the Casket Letters and the umpteen plots have got a mention?  Worst of all, how dared they present Elizabeth as such a wimp? I was spitting feathers about that!   She was shown as splitting her time between getting upset, having soppy conversations with Robert Dudley (who looked about 14), and taking advice from Mike from Neighbours.  Whereas Mary must have spent most of her time having her very elaborate hairdo sorted out.  Much as I love an excuse to talk about the 16th century, the best bits of this were the shots of Hardwick Hall and the Scottish countryside!

Why mess about with a story that would grab anyone’s attention exactly as it was?  The life of Mary Queen of Scots is something that you just couldn’t make up.  It makes even the most OTT of soap operas look mild by comparison.  And why make everything that happened in her life  – well, everything that happened during the seven years of her forty-four year life that it covered – about her relationship with Elizabeth?

Having started off being negative, I’m always very pleased to see a film, especially one that’s going to grab attention because of its big name cast, about history.  We’ve got two big films this year about Stewart/Stuart queens, this and The Favourite.  Always good to see history in the headlines, even though this film’s been well and truly overshadowed by The Favourite.  And it’s big names, and this time I’m talking historical figures rather than actresses and actors, that get people talking.

There’s sometimes been a lot of debate between historians over whether history is about important individuals and landmark events or whether it’s about long-running trends and movements.  It’s probably less relevant now that the age of empire and the age of communism are both over, because that idea that history’s moving onwards and upwards towards something has rather been shown not to work.  Obviously there are long-running movements, but even they tend to involve individuals and events. The study of them does, anyway.  You wouldn’t talk about the fight for women’s suffrage without mentioning Emmeline Pankhurst, or the Reformation without mentioning Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and Henry VIII, or the Renaissance without mentioning Leonardo, Michelangelo, Raffaello and Donatello (sorry!).   We like to talk about people.

And we like rivalries.  Rafa and Roger.  United and Liverpool.  Barcelona and Real Madrid.  Oasis and Blur.  Gladstone and Disraeli.  And there seems to be a particular fascination with the idea of a rivalry between Elizabeth and Mary, Queen of Scots.  The 1971 Mary, Queen of Scots film focused on it as well.  Maybe it’s because there haven’t been that many queens regnant in history, and having two in one island was unique, with the added spice that they were first cousins once removed and Mary, by both the laws of primogeniture and the terms of Henry VIII’s will, had the best claim to be Elizabeth’s heir.  And, in the eyes of those who didn’t recognise the validity of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, had a claim to be in Elizabeth’s place.  All set against the background of religious strife across Europe, Mary’s ties with France, and the threat to Elizabeth from England’s real rival – Philip II of Spain.

Were their lives so entangled?  There was no actual conflict between England and Scotland at this point; nor was there likely to be.  This wasn’t the age of Flodden Field or Bannockburn.  Scotland was too weak and divided to attack England, and England wasn’t interested in trying to conquer Scotland. Different factions in Scotland were seeking English help, England couldn’t afford for France or Spain to get too involved in Scotland and possibly use it as a back door to attack England, and there was the ongoing worry that someone might try to put Mary on Elizabeth’s throne.  And Mary did want to be named as Elizabeth’s heir.  So, all right, I suppose it is quite difficult to talk about one without talking about the other – especially if the focus is on Mary, who ended up spending much of her life under house arrest in England.

But do you have to decide that you’re going to talk one up and talk one down?   You can’t support two rival football clubs, but, with historical figures … I don’t see why you can’t appreciate both.  With Elizabeth, I find it very easy, because there is just so much to admire.  With Mary, I’m never entirely sure what I think.  That’s partly because we don’t know what happened at the crucial point of Mary’s reign – her marriage to Bothwell.  There are such completely different versions of events, and we just don’t have the evidence to tell us which one is true.  At one extreme, there’s the idea that the two of them were lovers, and conspired to murder Darnley so that they could marry each other.  (Bothwell’s previous wife was also shoved out of the way, but at least she was divorced rather than bumped off!  The film never even mentioned her.)   At the other extreme, there’s the idea that he kidnapped her, raped her repeatedly until she became pregnant (she later miscarried), and forced her to marry him.  The film went somewhere down the middle – she wasn’t involved in the murder, but went off with Bothwell voluntarily, believing that he could protect her, but then he gave her little choice but to marry him.  I’ve read so much on this subject, and I’m still not sure what to believe.

This film was definitely trying to talk Mary up, though.  It went out of its way to show a positive portrayal of her – despite all the stupid mistakes she made.  I could have lived with that, though.  It was much better than the idea of her as a romantic tragic-heroine/Catholic martyr who was nothing but the pitiful victim of events and other people’s decisions.  But the fact that it was so negative about Elizabeth put me right off.  It just didn’t work at all.  In fact, in that bizarre fictitious scene in the laundry, the script pretty much admitted that it’d got it wrong!   Elizabeth said that she’d always been jealous of Mary.  Was she?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  But then she said that she’d realised that she didn’t want to be like Mary after all.  Now, that was more like it.  But did Elizabeth really spend so much time thinking about Mary?  Was Mary really so obsessed with Elizabeth that she kept sending her letters saying that she wanted them to be sisters, as this film suggested.  Didn’t each of them – and obviously I’m talking about the period before Mary fled to England and was imprisoned – have enough going on in their own lives to spend quite so much time obsessing about each other on a personal basis as well as a political basis?

So what did the film actually show?  It opened with eighteen-year-old Mary’s return from France, following the death of her first husband.  Despite having lived in France since the age of five, she spoke with a Scottish accent – as did the Four Marys.  And despite a long and apparently difficult voyage, her complicated hairdo was immaculate. It stayed like that all the time, whether she’d been galloping about on horseback, on the road for hours, or anything else.  And she seemed a fair bit older than eighteen.  All right, you can’t show someone looking the right age all the time, and there are worse inaccuracies than accents and hair that never gets messed up, but it was just annoying.

She then proceeded to Edinburgh, where she met up with her half-brother, the Earl of Moray.  It was rather difficult to tell who was who, because names weren’t often given, and all the men had beards … although no-one else’s beard was as spectacularly long and messy as that of John Knox.  This is an intriguing part of history, because Mary’s always seen as a Catholic heroine, yet she didn’t try to replace the Protestant lords who’d taken control before her return.  Was that because, whilst she’s often seen as being anything but politically astute, she knew not to pick a fight she couldn’t win?  Or was it because she didn’t want to put herself offside with Elizabethan England?  Probably a bit of both.  The film did actually cover this fairly well: it could have skipped over the politics and just concentrated on the more audience-friendly topic of her love life, but, to be fair, it didn’t.

We did get quite a lot about Mary’s relationship with Darnley, though.  And this was all messed up.  A lot of it was more about Elizabeth than about Mary!  What was going on with Elizabeth’s involvement in Mary’s search for a new husband?  This is something else I’m never quite sure about.  She surely can’t seriously have thought that Mary would marry Robert Dudley, son of an executed traitor, grandson of a tax collector and known by everyone to be her ((Elizabeth’s) own “favourite”.  The film suggested that she did, though.  I really don’t know.  It seems a strange thing to suggest just to try to stir it, but I can’t believe that Elizabeth seriously thought Mary would consider the idea.

If they’d shown Elizabeth thinking it was a good idea because it’d give her influence in Mary’s camp, and even being amused by the idea of trying to humiliate her by suggesting such an unsuitable husband, it might have worked, but, instead, they just showed her being emotionally dependent on Dudley, going on about how much she needed him, and also being very dependent on Cecil (Guy Pearce), which I found incredibly annoying.  Elizabeth I, with the heart and stomach of a king, who’d survived so much already and was going to survive so much more.  It’s annoying enough when people present Mary as being a weak little woman.  It’s unbearable to see a film doing that with Elizabeth.

A lot was made of Elizabeth’s near-fatal case of smallpox.  It must have been absolutely horrendous, to put it mildly, and she must have suffered severe emotional scars as well as the physical pox marks.  And it panicked everyone, because she hadn’t named an heir.  But the film makers seemed determined to seize on it just to show her as being weak and vulnerable, worrying what everyone’d think of her afterwards, rather than in terms of its political consequences.  And they never mentioned Mary’s health problems at all.  It’s thought that she may have had porphyria, and have passed it on down the line to George III: we can’t be sure of that, but she certainly had bouts of illness during the period covered by this film, and they weren’t shown at all.  She was depicted as being very fit and healthy, galloping around on horseback, doing a lot of dancing … not a suggestion of any sort of flaw, for lack of a better way of putting it.

Next up, Darnley and a lot of scenes involving galloping round the Highlands.  Elizabeth was shown to be very upset and concerned about the marriage.  I suppose she must have had concerns, especially as Darnley was also a descendant of Henry VIII, but I go with the view that she knew Darnley was a complete idiot and was happy for Mary to marry him rather than someone with political acumen.  The film, however, determined to show Mary in a positive light, showed Darnley as the perfect suitor … right up until his wedding night, when he got drunk and went off with Rizzio, Mary’s musician and secretary.  Ridiculous.

For a kick off, no-one has that much of a personality transplant overnight – you don’t go from being the perfect potential husband to being a violent drunk, just like that.  And, whilst Darnley might well have been bisexual, there’s never been any suggestion that Rizzio was interested in men.  He was widely rumoured, although falsely, to be Mary’s lover.  I think that bit just got put in so that they could include a scene with Mary assuring Rizzio that she had no problem with him being gay, to show that she was tolerant and open-minded – as with another scene in which she assured a Protestant soldier that she wasn’t bothered what religion people were.  But Rizzio wasn’t gay, and he certainly wasn’t involved with Darnley.  As for that scene in which Mary coaxed Darnley into doing the deed with her, apparently just once, and then got the Four Marys to pray by her bedside whilst she crossed her legs and rolled backwards … who on earth dreamt that up?!

Then all the big drama!  Starting with the conspiracy of the Protestant lords against Mary, Darnley dithering over whose side he was on, and the murder of poor old Rizzio in front of his heavily pregnant queen.  OK, obviously this did all happen – but why was the Earl of Lennox shown as being behind it all?!  And bullying Darnley into striking the final blow, to prove that he was a real man?  I suppose they’d got themselves in a mess by making out that Rizzio had been having it off with Darnley, when in fact people were saying that he’d been having an affair with Mary, but it was just all wrong!   It’s one of the most dramatic events in Scottish history, and they managed to make a mess of it!

Mary duly gave birth to James – and, according to the film, wrote a load of soppy letters saying that she wanted Elizabeth to be his second mother.  I don’t think so!   Then what one of my school history teachers, who was rather given to dramatics – which were actually a pretty good way of keeping the class’s attention – described as “The Mysterious Death at Kirk o’Field”.   Darnley’s house was blown up by gunpowder, and the bodies of Darnley and his servant, killed by strangulation rather than by the explosion, were found nearby.  Bothwell was tried by the Privy Council but cleared of murder – although four of his servants were later convicted.  To this day, no-one knows who was actually responsible.  Was it Bothwell?  Was it the Earl of Moray?  Could it have been the Earl of Arran, who was probably the next heir to Scotland after Mary and James?  Was Mary involved?   We just don’t know.  The reign of Mary Queen of Scots is so, so frustrating, because we just do not know what really went on!   No film can be criticised for the way it deals with that, because no-one knows the truth.

I’ve already mentioned how it portrayed Mary’s marriage to Bothwell – and, again, no-one can be criticised for how they interpret something over which there’s so much confusion.  But it went way off piste after that.  The Battle of Carberry Hill, in which Mary was captured by lords opposed to Bothwell, just got passed over, and Mary’s imprisonment at Loch Leven, miscarriage and escape weren’t even mentioned.  Instead, the next thing we knew, Mary was over the border and into England – OK, obviously this bit was true – and meeting Elizabeth in a laundry!!

What on earth?  The 1971 film also showed Mary and Elizabeth meeting.  They didn’t!   I get that film makers like the idea of a dramatic showdown, but it never happened, and it’s so annoying when films, or TV dramas, just … well, lie!  “Poetic licence”?  You shouldn’t be using “poetic licence” with two of the best known figures in British history!  And I can’t even decide if the scene was effective or just plain silly, with Elizabeth hiding behind the drying sheets and Mary chasing her round until they eventually came face to face.

I suppose it was dramatic in its way.  And some of what was said wasn’t that unlikely.  Elizabeth probably did envy Mary’s beauty and glamour.  She must, surely, have envied the fact that Mary had a son and heir.  But I doubt she envied Mary’s “bravery”.  I’d imagine she probably thought that Mary had very poor judgement and had got herself into one mess after another.  But this is all speculation: I haven’t really got a clue what the great Elizabeth I thought about Mary, Queen of Scots, and nor have the scriptwriters.  But we do all know jolly well that Elizabeth and Mary never met, and it’s very irritating when historical films portray false events, and don’t even explain in a foreword or afterword that they’ve made them up.

After the laundry scene, it just jumped to the end, with Mary’s execution – although the very end wasn’t even about Mary, but about Elizabeth and her regrets.  All the years of Mary’s imprisonment, the Casket Letters and their part in the ongoing debate about what really went on between Mary and Bothwell, all the plots … none of that got a mention.  OK, the film was long enough as it was, and it would have taken another film to have got all that in, but it meant that only half a tale was being told.  I hope they don’t make a sequel, though, because I dread to imagine what they’d do with that!

This was a fascinating period of history.  There was no need to mess with the facts: they were exciting enough as it was.  And, whilst it was gratifying to see Mary not being presented as a passive victim of events, I’m just beyond annoyed at the portrayal of Elizabeth.  Not overly impressed with this film!   I wouldn’t have missed it, because I don’t like to miss a historical film and this period of history is so familiar to me, but … well, I won’t ever be watching it again!

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 6)

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In this episode, the series made it to my era – the glorious 1980s!   Big earrings, Tricolore, scented rubbers, backing your books with wrapping paper, and the best music in the history of the world.  I’m not sure which schools in the ’80s had talking robots, synthesisers, spaceship-building lessons, carpets on the classroom floors and computers in every room, though: mine certainly didn’t!   The Hand of God, Scott and Charlene’s wedding .. ah, yes, I remember it all as if it were yesterday.  I actually remember it much better than I remember what I did yesterday!

I felt very old when the programme started with kids saying brightly that their parents had been at school in the ’80s, and senior teachers saying that they’d been at school in the ’80s.  But I felt much better when Sara Cox started handing out sweatbands, Panini stickers and big earrings: those were the days.  I went through a phase of thinking that wearing huge Bet Lynch earrings made me look really grown-up.  It didn’t!

The kids made a fuss about there being carpets in the classrooms.  Was this really a thing in ’80s schools?  We certainly didn’t have carpets on the classroom floors, and most of the desks had been there since at least the early 1970s!   Backing books with wrapping paper brought back a lot of memories, though.  Was that particularly an ’80s thing?  Maybe it was.  A few teachers made us use that horrible sticky plastic, which I could never get to lie flat without having a load of bubbles in it, but most teachers let us choose our own wrapping paper.  Bizarrely, I can still remember which wrapping paper I had for certain books in certain year.  I’m not sure I remember anyone feeling that it was meant to promote individuality as part of Thatcherite culture, though!   And those fancy rubbers!  My sister and I had a huge collection of them.  Ah, the good old 1980s!

The BBC, naturally, had to have as many digs at Margaret Thatcher as it could.  Whilst the woman was most definitely never top of my Christmas card list, they really did go overboard.  Maggie Thatcher was trying to impose Church of England values of people by making them sing “He who would valiant be” in assembly.  Er, Maggie Thatcher was a Methodist!   And I rather like “He who would valiant be”.

Were school houses an ’80s thing, meant to promote competition?  My mum and dad’s schools both had houses in the 1950s.  And they’re a big thing in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, which are set in the 1970s.  We didn’t actually have houses at my secondary school, although I know they were introduced there some years after I left.  We did, however, have them at primary school – and about the only position of responsibility with which I’ve ever been entrusted was being a primary school house captain.  That year, my house won both the house points trophy and the sports cup.  I’m not showing off by saying that, because I was worse than useless at sports and it was no thanks to me that we won!   This was in July 1985, and United had won the FA Cup two months earlier – so, when I was presented with the Sports Day Cup, I did the full Wembley thing and kissed the cup, held it above my head, and led all the other members of the house on a lap of honour!  I must have had more confidence in those days: I’d have been the last person anyone would have made house captain at secondary school.  The kids in this programme seemed quite keen on the idea of houses.

Next up, CDT lessons.  I was so bad at those!  Our teacher was obsessed with sanding the edges of things.  I don’t think we ever did much other than sand the edges of bits of wood and plastic.  Apparently, CDT lessons were supposed to promote technology or something.  Oh well.  Then came a maths lesson, with a talking robot!  What??  I can remember seeing talking robots on TV, but we certainly never had them in school.  The kids loved it.  I’d have loved having talking robots in maths lessons, as well.  But we never did.  Nor did we build space shuttles in science lessons, and then try to launch them in the playground.  Was my school exceptionally technologically backward, or was the BBC just trying to make education in the 1980s seem a lot more exciting than it actually was?

We did, however, have Tricolore textbooks for French.  They seemed to become a bit of a cult thing, and symbolic of the 1980s.  They never seemed that exciting at the time!   I think changes in language teaching were a big feature of the ’80s, though, especially once GCSEs replaced O-levels and CSEs.  Listening and speaking became much more a part of the lessons than they’d been before.  Ah, Tricolore.  It even included lessons on chatting people up!

This was all sounding far too much like fun, so the BBC then switched to the issues of unemployment and riots.  I’m surprised the programme never mentioned Adrian Mole, because I think he gets the early ’80s, including the worry about unemployment, across really well.

After that, it was back to the technological fun and games in the classroom, though.  Computers in maths lessons.  Ah, those BBC and Acorn computers!   Playing Croaker and Killer Gorilla if you had an Acorn, as we did, or Frogger and Donkey Kong if you had a BBC.  We certainly didn’t use them in school maths lessons, though.  My secondary school had about half a dozen computers between over 700 kids.  They all lived in one room, and each class only had a few computer studies lessons each year – and, with four or five kids to each computer, you didn’t really get to do very much.  I think my primary school just had one computer, which lived in the little room which we used for recorder club practice sessions.  The kids in this programme had great fun playing with the early computers, but I don’t think that really reflected what schools were like in the 1980s.

Then, Nik Kershaw came in, to show them how to use synthesisers!  I absolutely love 1980s electro-pop.  I could write about it for hours.  We never got to use synthesisers in school, though.  If only we had.  And we certainly never had breakdancing lessons, which came up later in the programme!   I’m sure the kids had great fun with it all, but it didn’t exactly reflect the realities of school life in the 1980s!   I’d have been useless at breakdancing, but I would have loved the chance to play around with a synthesizer!  The music was the best thing about this programme.  1980s music is the best music ever – fact!

Then back to the subject of socio-economic rest, and the teachers’ strikes.  I thought they might have talked about the miners’ strike, which was such a big thing at the time, but they didn’t.  I suppose it didn’t have as much impact on the West Midlands, where this is being filmed, as it did on the North and the East Midlands.  If this had been filmed in the North, I think Hillsborough would definitely have been mentioned, as well.  Maybe the fact that neither that nor the miners’ strike came into it says a lot about regional divides.  And we’re hearing a lot at the moment about social unrest in France.  It’s a reminder of how bad things can get.

No home economics lessons in this episode, but we did get the other series favourite – PE.  The boys had to do cross country running.  My school was all-girls, but our “brother school” over the road had this sadistic thing known as “the Sprog Jog”, whereby all the new little first years, practically as soon as they’d arrived at the place, were made to do this long cross country run.  I was so glad that girls didn’t have to do that, and so sorry for the boys!   According to this programme, girls did rhythmic gymnastics.  Er, not at my school, they didn’t.  And I can’t remember hearing about any other schools at the time doing rhythmic gymnastics, either!

As they said, everyone was (and still is, of course!) more into football than cross country running or rhythmic gymnastics or anything else.  The 1986 World Cup!  The Hand of God!   I went to Buenos Aires in 2016, and they are obsessed with Diego Maradona there.  Thirty years after the Hand of God, everyone in our group pulled faces and muttered unrepeatable things every time his name was mentioned.  I remember going into school the next morning, and everyone writing “Maradona is a cheat” and “The referee left his glasses in the dressing room”, and so on, all over the blackboard.  Given the circumstances, the teacher didn’t tell us off.

The programme then moved on to a completely different subject – the AIDS awareness campaign.  What a mess the government made of that.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – it was the Mark Fowler storyline in EastEnders that educated my generation about HIV and AIDS.   The government campaign just panicked people.  I appreciate that, at the time, there was no treatment, so they were trying to frighten people into being careful, but it was just all wrong.

And it got linked in with appalling homophobia, and the infamous Clause 28 which was brought in in 1988.  I remember Jimmy Somerville, in particular, campaigning against Clause 28, and also the Pet Shop Boys, and Michael Cashman who played Colin in the groundbreaking EastEnders storyline about same sex relationships, and various others.  It wasn’t repealed until 2003.  I genuinely can’t remember any issues with homophobia at our school. Manchester was usually at the forefront of the equal rights movement.  We were quite convinced that two of our female teachers, one of whom was our form mistress at one time, were together, and no-one had a problem with it.  However, I remember hearing about a very nasty incidence of homophobic bullying at the boys’ school, and there was often really horrible stuff in the press.  That was one of the unpleasant sides of the 1980s.  Again, EastEnders deserves praise for its work in promoting LGBT rights.  So – and this often gets forgotten – does Dynasty.

On a more positive note, it mentioned the abolition of corporal punishment – which was in 1986.  I was at secondary school by then, and corporal punishment wasn’t used there anyway.  However, some of my primary school teachers had smacked kids, and the headmaster at my cousins’ primary school had hit kids with a slipper, even in the 1980s.  the pupils in this programme seemed very surprised that it hadn’t been abolished earlier.  It is actually quite strange that it was allowed to go on throughout the supposedly liberal 1970s, and then abolished in the more disciplinarian 1980s.

Then on to consumerism and the growth of the service sector.  Business studies.  Er, we didn’t do business studies.  We did economics, but not business studies.  We had lessons involving advertising campaigns, which was what the kids in this programme were doing, as part of our GCSE English work, though.  The economy was very much switching from the industrial sector to the services sector at this time.  Again, there were big regional divides here.  The North suffered badly under Thatcherism.

Speaking of GCSEs, my academic year was only the third year to take them, but, apart from the changes in language teaching which I’ve already mentioned, I don’t think we really felt that we were guinea pigs, or that that much had changed from the days of O-levels and CSEs.  And I remember there being a fuss when the National Curriculum was brought in, but, looking back, I’m surprised that that wasn’t done earlier.  The headmistress in this programme did a lot of moaning about how it was the start of the government telling you what to teach, but does she think that she should just be able to teach whatever her own personal interests are?  I know it’s a controversial area, because education does get used as a political football, but I think there does have to be a National Curriculum.

It finished on a more light-hearted note.  The kids were shown that episode of Neighbours – the one with Scott and Charlene’s wedding.  Quite a few of them didn’t know who Scott and Charlene were, which made me feel old.  I’d have expected them to recognise Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan, even if they didn’t know the names of the characters.  I can remember the date the wedding was shown in the UK – November 8th, 1988 – without even having to think about it.  It is difficult to overstate just how obsessed kids of my age, girls and boys alike, were with Neighbours in 1988.  Everyone watched it.  Everyone talked about it.  Teachers who wanted to show that they were “down with the kids” would mention it in lessons.  Although it’s still going, its popularity hasn’t stood the test of time in the way that Coronation Street‘s has, but, back then, it was the programme!  I’m humming “Suddenly” by Angry Anderson as I write this …

Then Sports Day.  We had Sports Days at primary school.  Mercifully, we did not have them at secondary school.  If you were a sporty kid, they were probably great fun.  If you were the useless fat kid who couldn’t fit under the obstacles in the obstacle race and usually came last in everything, they were not!   And then more music, hooray!  It finished up with “Waterfall” by the Stone Roses, who were really big in 1989.  Where was the “Madchester” culture in this, incidentally?  Maybe they’re going to put it into the episode on the 1990s.  I’ll be rather narked if it’s not mentioned at all!   “Waterfall” is currently enjoying a big revival, because it’s been turned into a football song to celebrate Ole Gunnar Solskjaer being the manager of United – and the programme makers couldn’t possibly have anticipated that when this was filmed, so it’s quite a weird coincidence that they chose that song to close the programme with!

I rather enjoyed this nostalgia fest, and I think the children quite enjoyed this episode as well, but, whilst I appreciate that the BBC were trying to make it seem entertaining, it didn’t really reflect the realities of school life in the 1980s.  Synthesisers, breakdancing lessons, talking robots … maybe not!!

Book Bub Valentine’s Day challenge – top ten literary crushes!

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To mark Valentine’s Day, Book Bub posted a list of top book crushes.  I’d never heard of some of them, probably because I don’t read fantasy novels, but the ones I did know were a mixed bag.  Heathcliff – the man who kidnaps young girls and forces them into marrying their cousins.  Mr Rochester – the man who keeps his wife locked up in the attic and tries to commit bigamy with the governess.  Seriously?!  But Gilbert Blythe, Rhett Butler and Mr Darcy – ah, that’s a bit more like it!   Atticus Finch – well, I suppose he gets marks for integrity, but he’s not really all that interesting.  They were all blokes, and there didn’t seem to be a corresponding list of women, which was a bit weird, but maybe they think it’s only blokes who attract admiration from readers!

OK, I need to think of a list of ten.  Excluding people who actually existed, which rules out the major characters of quite a lot of my books!   And, seeing as I can’t make decisions and would never manage to put them in order, this is going to have to be in alphabetical order.

  1. Gilbert Blythe from Anne of Green Gables. Gilbert seems to have made most of the other lists I’ve seen, as well!
  2. Rhett Butler from Gone With The Wind. OK, he’s very annoying, and I would probably get on much better with Ashley Wilkes, who usually had his head in the clouds and his nose in a book, but I love the way Rhett’s always there when he’s needed. There’s a lot to be said for that.
  3. Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia. Preferably as played by Ben Barnes in the film. So much nicer than Peter or Edmund!
  4. Guy Charlton from the Sadler’s Wells books. Everyone laughs at me for this!   OK, teenage Guy, in the Marjorie and Patience books, is a bit of a pain, but Guy as an adult, sorting out Nigel for bullying Jane, rescuing Jane when she gets lost on a Scottish mountain in New Year’s Eve, and then telling her that he quite understands that she’s putting her career before him (unlike Sebastian Scott, who gets in a huge strop when Veronica prioritises her career) … if I was doing this in order, Guy would definitely be at or near the top of the list. And everyone laughs at me for this.
  5. Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice. OK, another one who can be annoying, but he’s also there when he’s needed. He’s also a wonderful brother. Oh, and he owns Pemberley. Shame about the first name, though. OK, I know it was his mother’s maiden name, but what did Elizabeth call him in private? Fitz? Will?
  6. Angelo Ibanez from the Sadler’s Wells books.   The Sadler’s Wells books are very romantic!   And I need a Spaniard on the list 🙂 . Angelo, unlike his annoying friend Sebastian, is a perfect gentleman who is polite to everyone and never sarcastic … and he comes to Caroline’s rescue when her life seems to be a mess, and sweeps her off her feet into a new world of personal and professional success. My two favourite Sadler’s Wells girls are Mariella and Caroline, but I think Caroline edges it because I sympathise with her weight traumas!   Having been the fat kid, Caroline becomes beautiful and glamorous at the age of fifteen, when her puppy fat magically disappears. For years, I hoped that that would happen to me. It never did! But that all got bound up in my head with the idea of being swept off your feet with someone like Angelo, so I’ve always liked him. Even though he isn’t Guy.
  7. Count Sergei Nikolayevitch Kirov from the Kirov saga. This is the first Count Sergei, who dies in the first book, not his half-brother, who dies in the second book!   Well, I’ve got to have a Russian in here somewhere, haven’t I?! This is a really melancholy Russian story – Sergei is in love with Anna, his sisters’ English governess, and asks her to marry him. He adores her, and he’s so sweet, but she turns him down. He then finds out that she’s actually in love with his father. His stepmother conveniently dies, and Anna and the father live happily ever after, but poor Sergei is killed in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s very sad 😦 .
  8. Orry Main from North and South. Preferably as played by the late, great Patrick Swayze in the TV series. All right, as his life spirals downwards he walks around looking a mess and drinks too much, but nobody’s perfect, and I do sympathise with that feeling of your life getting out of control. He’s the perfect honourable gentleman – like Ashley Wilkes is meant to be, but without Ashley’s wimpishness
  9. Dr Jem Russell from the Chalet School books. Not only does he take on Madge’s sister, wards, nieces, nephews and sundry other hangers-on, but he’s fine with Madge continuing to run her own business after they’re married – as Rhett Butler is with Scarlett. Best of all, when Madge is upset because people are making unkind remarks about her weight, and decides that she needs to go on a diet, he tells her that she looks fine as she is. That earns him a huge amount of gold stars. I have heard so many nasty remarks about weight over the years that I remember every time anyone’s ever said anything complimentary to me, even really random things like the time I asked a bloke in a newsagent’s in town if he had any sugar free Polo mints and he said I didn’t need to worry about having sugar free stuff. Bless!   I remember all the nasty remarks, of which there’ve been far more, as well, so I love Jem for telling Madge that she looked fine as she was
  10. Captain Frederick Wentworth from Persuasion. I love the way that he goes back to Anne, his first love, when there are younger and prettier girls after him. He’s lovely.

There.  Ten!   A lot of my favourite books don’t feature on this list, because they don’t seem to have decent heroes.  I’m not sure what that says about anything!    And, if anyone does happen to be reading this, please make your own suggestions!   Just not Heathcliff or Mr Rochester, please

 

Green Book

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This wasn’t what I expected – and, whilst it wasn’t the best film ever, it asked some very interesting questions.  I thought, given the title, that it was all going to be about someone’s experiences of racism, but it went beyond that, and also explored the issues of not fitting the expectations, both external and internal, of a particular demographic group, and trying to cope when you end up feeling that you don’t fit in anywhere.  Even now, never mind in the 1960s, society isn’t set up for individuals.   That all sounds very deep and meaningful, but the story’s told by way of an old-fashioned, “buddy movie”, two totally different people thrown together and bonding type stuff, not very subtle and sometimes more than a bit cringeworthy, but good for plenty of laughs. It veers from the complex to the crude within seconds, at some points. Incidentally, since when was “dramedy”, which I saw on one website the other week, a word?  It sounds like some sort of camel.  “Comedy-drama” will do nicely, thank you.

Also, I was stupidly chuffed to discover that Mahershala Ali’s full first name is Mahershalalhashbaz.  I’ve never come across that name in real life before.  I assume that his parents got it from the Bible, and not from Clover Carr’s poem in What Katy Did At School!

Anyway.  This is based on the true story of African-American classical pianist Don Shirley and his Italian-American driver/bodyguard Tony Vallelonga, on an early 1960s concert tour through various states including parts of the racially segregated South.  The script was written partly by Nick Vallelonga, Tony’s son, but some people who knew Don Shirley well have apparently questioned its accuracy, especially in terms of the way it shows the two men bonding and becoming friends rather than just being employer and employee.  That’s quite complex, because the racial issues of the time make the fact of a black man employing a white man to be his driver/minder a very big thing, but the “buddy movie” light entertainment comedy element of the film relies on them developing a close personal relationship.

I’d love to know how accurate the depictions of the two men, as well as their relationship with each other are, because they both sometimes seem a bit … what’s the word?  Overblown?  I wouldn’t say pantomime-ish, but certainly a little OTT.  Tony is quite a caricature of a working-class NooYoik Italian-American.  He never stops talking, works as a bouncer at a nightclub where most of the punters seem to be Mafiosi, and spends the rest of his time with his large and very noisy family.  Women in the kitchen, men in front of the telly, but everyone is devoted to each other.  They do not mix with anyone who is not Italian-American.  He’s also a caricature of a certain type of working-class bloke, commonly found in soap operas and comedies in the 1970s and 1980s, generally.  He hits out with his fists before he thinks, swears all the time, eats with his fingers, and, whilst driving the car, smokes, eats, drinks and then throws the rubbish out of the window.

He also throws two glasses in the bin after two black plumbers working at his house drink out of them.

Don, Dr Shirley, is the complete opposite.  He’s elegant, cultured and refined.  He lives in the most beautiful apartment, full of antiques.  He dresses impeccably, his manners are perfect, and his grammar is perfect.  However, he’s so uptight and snooty that you want to yell at him to loosen up a bit, especially when he’s lecturing Tony about his speech and his behaviour.  Both of them would fit very well into a sitcom, but sitcom characters are supposed to be a bit OTT.  Superb performances from both actors, with the scripts they were given, but I think we could have done with a bit more subtlety in the way both men were written.

The rest of the people in this film aren’t exactly subtly portrayed, either.  Every white character in the South is a racist.  The very first time Dr Shirley sets foot in a bar south of the Mason-Dixon line, he gets beaten up.  When he and Tony go into a posh menswear shop, the sales assistant assumes that it’s Tony who wants to try on an expensive suit.  Every single person they see, black or white, gawps at the sight of a white guy driving whilst a black guy is sitting in the back.  At one point, the car breaks down in a rural area where several black people are working in a field.  More like a scene from a cartoon than a scene from a film, every single person stops, tools in hand, to stare when Tony gets out and lifts up the car bonnet.  And, everywhere they go, the police are just waiting to arrest them.  I’m not saying that this inaccurate, just that it’s a bit heavy-handed to generalise about entire populations of entire regions like that.

However, whilst the film is a bit heavy-handed, the fact of racism in the South in the 1960s is just that – a fact.  The title of the film comes from a guidebook, produced annually from 1936 to 1966, for African-American motorists, because of the very common problems of being refused accommodation, or service at restaurants, or even being told that they couldn’t fill up their vehicles at petrol stations.   This was going on all the time.  A century after emancipation, this was going on all the time.

We don’t actually hear that much about the book, though.  We do occasionally see Tony referring to it for suggestions of places to stay, but, otherwise, the impression given is that he and Dr Shirley didn’t bother to read it – which, for the purposes of the film, is a good thing, because it means that the viewer gets to see just how bad things were, because they don’t avoid trouble.  They haven’t been going long before they take a wrong turn whilst driving at night, get lost, and are pulled over by two policemen – because a black man is in an area which black people are not allowed to be in after sundown.

A brief historical note here.  “Sundown towns” were not particularly a Southern phenomenon.  There were many in other parts of the United States too.  Nor was it always, or only, black people who were excluded.  Some places excluded Jews, Native Americans, Chinese people or Hispanic people.  Welcome to the land of the free.  In the 1960s.  Not the Middle Ages.  The 1960s.

Tony punches one of the policemen.  Again, this all seems a bit overboard.  Maybe it did actually happen, but … would anyone actually do that?  But, for the purposes of the film, it has to happen.  He and Dr Shirley both end up locked in the only cell at a very small police station.  Eventually, the police acknowledge that they’ve got the right to a phone call, so Dr Shirley makes a call … and, the next thing you know, Bobby Kennedy, in his capacity as Attorney General, is ringing this two bit police station to say that the police have got to let them go.  Tony thinks that he’s going to be dining out on this story for the rest of his life.  Dr Shirley finds the whole thing utterly humiliating.  It’s taken away his dignity.

That’s probably the biggest point that the film makes about racism – that it strips Dr Shirley of his dignity.  For all his talent, his education, the way he speaks, the way he behaves, the racist attitudes with which he’s confronted keep challenging his dignity.  He may have the class to appreciate an elegant suit, and the money to afford it, but the manager of the shop won’t even let him try it on.  He’s denied admission to hotels, restaurants and even toilets.  Maybe the title “Green Book” doesn’t really work, because the idea of the Green Book is to enable people to avoid situations where they’re likely to face awkwardness and trouble.  Obviously no-one should have to think like that, and people should be able to go where they want, but, even now, you see comments in guidebooks saying that, for example, women travelling alone would be well advised to avoid a particular place.  Tony and Dr Shirley keep running into trouble.

The next time Dr Shirley ends up being arrested isn’t actually about race: it’s because he’s been caught in a sexual encounter with another man.  Tony bribes the police to let him go.  Again, Dr Shirley is upset at having had to resort to underhand tactics to get out of the situation, but, as Tony points out, it would be very awkward for him, in the climate of the 1960s, if this arrest became known publicly.  It’s already been mentioned that Dr Shirley had been married to a woman, although he’s now divorced, so we’ve previously got the impression that he’s heterosexual.  In an emotional conversation with Tony afterwards, he says that he doesn’t feel as if he’s accepted anywhere.  It seems that he’s referring to sexuality, as well as race, but the subject of sexuality’s never mentioned again, so we don’t really know exactly what’s going on.  I don’t really know why the scriptwriters put that in if they weren’t going to develop it properly.

Tony, on the other hand, is happy and secure within his world.  He hasn’t got much money, and he’s got no qualifications, and his manners are appalling, but he knows exactly who he is and where he belongs.  He’s part of a big working-class Italian American New York extended family, within a working-class Italian American New York community.  He’s happily married.  Part of the “bonding process” is that he writes terrible letters to his wife, Dr Shirley dictates romantic letters for him to write instead, and his wife is thrilled – even though she knows very well that someone must have helped him with them.  But he and his wife and their children are all very happy together.  And they’re part of a big network of relatives and friends, all of whom are working-class Italian-American New Yorkers.  He’s fine with that.  He doesn’t particularly want to learn about different things, and he certainly doesn’t aspire to what might be considered a more cultured lifestyle, or a more multicultural lifestyle.

Do you ever think that it might be easier to be like that?  Maybe by the 1960s, things were starting to change, but, before that, a lot of people never moved out of the communities in which they grew up, and never mixed with different people.  Whilst doing some family history research, I found that, on one side, my great-great-grandparents had lived next-door-but-two to each other.  Not quite marrying the boy/girl next door, but as near as makes no difference.  There are still people whose lives aren’t too far removed from that.  Is it tragic, that their lives are so narrow?  Or is it easier to be like that?  And, once you’re out of that sort of set-up, you can’t really go back.

We know very little about Dr Shirley’s background, so it does feel as if some of the pieces of the jigsaw are missing.  He’s very far removed from the stereotype of what a black man in the US in the 1960s should be, but what we don’t know is whether he was brought up like that or whether he’s distanced himself from that.  There’s a mention of a brother whom he doesn’t speak to – although apparently that isn’t true, and he got on perfectly well with his brother.  We don’t meet any of his relatives, and he doesn’t seem to have any friends who aren’t connected with his work.   Whether it was the way he was brought up or whether it was his own choice, or just the way his life panned out, he’s completely detached from “black culture”.

He’s barely even heard of Little Richard and Aretha Franklin, and doesn’t recognise their music when it comes on over the car radio.  He doesn’t eat fried chicken – which is quite a motif of the film: people keep going on about fried chicken.  Food is such a big part of culture.  People who’ve become detached from a cultural group, or even people whose parents or grandparents became detached from a cultural group, will often still eat the food associated with it.  And, in 1960s America, it’s still expected that part of the experience of being black is to grow up in poverty.  At one point, Tony says that he’s blacker than Dr Shirley is, because he does live in a working-class neighbourhood.  Dr Shirley doesn’t disagree.

And, for all his success, he’s deeply unhappy.  And, because of that, he drinks.  And it’s because he feels that he doesn’t belong.

It all sounds so ridiculous, this idea that, in order to belong, you have to conform to cultural norms.  Surely that’s the most prejudiced thing of all.  And yet that’s how it is, even now.   And it’s coming as much from people inside a particular community as from people outside it.  More, if anything.  There are so many films and TV programmes and comedy acts which play on stereotypes of particular groups, and most of that is coming from people within those groups.  Fair enough, as long as no-one’s getting offended by it?  But doesn’t it just make harder and harder for the people within those communities who don’t fit those stereotypes?

That word “community” – it gets used in so many ways, these days.  People talk about “the black community” or “the Islamic community” or “the LGBT community” as if everyone who fits that particular demographic is somehow supposed to have the same beliefs and outlook and interests.  You’re talking about millions of completely different people, living different lives, in different areas.  And yet, all the time, you get political commentators saying that a particular party’s trying to appeal to the X community, or has lost support amongst the Y community.  Or else it’s retailers trying to appeal to the A community or the B community.  As if you’re supposed to vote the same way, and have the same likes and dislikes, as everyone who’s from the same ethnic group or religion or part of the country as you, or is of the same sexuality, or even the same gender.  And then you get people claiming to be spokesmen/women for that community, as if they can somehow represent all these millions of different people.

It’s actually getting worse.  We’ve now got this “cultural appropriation” thing going on, as if you aren’t even allowed to sing particular music or make particular food or wear particular clothing unless you’ve got a personal connection to the demographic group from which it originates.  What is that about?  And people are accused of betrayal if they have a partner from a different demographic group, or express views which aren’t those which people from their ethnic or religious background are “supposed” to have.

Everyone wants to belong.

Or do they?

Dr Shirley doesn’t want not to be seen as black.  He’s not trying to get away from being black, just from the idea that black people have to be a certain way.  He’s actually one of the people who sees himself as being a standard bearer for a particular group, because the reason he’s touring the South is to try to change people’s attitudes, to overcome the stereotypes of what a black person is like.  One of the other musicians explains this to Tony, who’s struggling to understand why this very talented man, who can get as many well-paid gigs as he likes in places where he’s treated with the respect he deserves, is putting himself through all this unpleasantness.  He thinks he can take on the attitudes of racists in the South, and change their minds.  And it would have been great if that was the way things had gone, but it wasn’t.

At one concert, which was meant to be in North Carolina but was actually filmed at the beautiful Houmas House plantation in Louisiana, which I’ve visited, he’s welcomed by the host and hostess and their guests, and sits down at the dinner table with them – even though they do serve up friend chicken – but, when he asks to use the toilet, he’s told that he’ll have to use a grotty outhouse: the proper gents’ toilets are only for white men.  He says that he’s not using the outhouse and, if they won’t let him use the other toilets, the second half of the concert will have to be delayed whilst he goes all the way back to his hotel, uses the toilet there, and comes all the way back.  The host agrees.  We’re left thinking how absolutely ridiculous the host’s attitude is, but we’re also left wondering why Dr Shirley doesn’t just tell him exactly where he can shove both his piano and his toilets.  Tony says that, if anyone treated him like that, he’d use their luxury carpet as a toilet.

Dr Shirley says that what matters is to be dignified.

However, in order for the film to work, either someone’s going to have to give in and accept that they’re in the wrong, or he’s going to have to snap and say that he’s had enough.  Attitudes are, sadly, not going to be changed by a concert tour, so Dr Shirley has to decide that he’s not taking any more –  and, of course, this happens at the last concert of the tour.

It’s in a posh club, on Christmas Eve.  Tony, Dr Shirley and the other musicians want to have a meal at the club’s restaurant before the concert, but the restaurant is whites-only and, despite the fact that all the white people in the restaurant are only at the club because they’ve come to hear him play, Dr Shirley is not allowed in.  He’s told that either he should eat somewhere else, or that some food can be brought out to him in the miniscule dressing room.  Enough’s enough, and he walks out.  He and Tony go to a bar where Tony is the only white person in the place.  And he plays the piano there.  Mostly jazz music.

And then, after this grand denouement, after he’s finally had enough, after he’s accepted that what he’s tried to do hasn’t worked, after he’s stood up for himself – and done it in an immeasurably dignified way, rather than walloping someone as Tony would have done – the film suddenly turns into one of those warm fuzzy Christmas films that get repeated on the Sky Christmas channel all the way through December.

Will Tony make it home in time to have Christmas dinner with his wife, his kids, and their enormous extended family?  As head north, it starts snowing heavily.  They can hardly see for more than a few inches in front of them.  And then they’re pulled over by a policeman.  Oh no!  Are our heroes going to spend Christmas Day in the cells?  Fear not.  This policeman just wants to tell them that they’ve got a flat tyre.  Tony changes it.  They drive on.  But Tony’s tired.  He really can’t drive any further.  So Dr Shirley takes over.  And they make it back to New York City just as Tony’s lovely wife Dolores is dishing up.  Hooray!   And Dr Shirley is invited into join them.  Bless!  Everyone hugs and kisses.  Merry Christmas!

I suppose they wanted a happy ending, and that was the only way of doing it.  The tour didn’t change people’s attitudes.  Dr Shirley didn’t find inner peace and a sense of belonging.  But we got our happy Christmas dinner scene.  A bit of a non sequitur, but, hey, why not?  We don’t have to fit films into pigeon holes as being comedies or dramas, or being buddy movies or films about racism or films about angst or anything else.  This film doesn’t really fit into any one standard category.  It’s just itself.  And people should be able to be just themselves, but the world doesn’t work like that, and it can be very hard if you don’t fit in.  There are better films than this about the evils of racism, but this one’s a bit different, and, whilst it’s got its faults, it’s got plenty to say, and all of that is well worth listening to.

 

Back in Time for School – BBC 2 (episode 5)

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I think this series, covering the 1970s this week, has lost the plot – which is a great shame, seeing as it’s doing the 1980s next week. Seriously, how many schools let kids skive off PE and spend the time in a meditation sanctuary room instead?   If only!   I’d have been the first one in there.  Not to mention missing lessons to play golf for “personal fulfilment”, calling teachers by their first names, and serving up the produce of home economics lessons for school dinners.  And please would someone tell the BBC that not all kids want lessons that involve role play and “active participation”?  Confident, outgoing kids might, but give me the set-up from the 1950s episode any day!  And did your old school have loudspeaker systems like Rydell High?  Mine certainly didn’t!   But, hey, they did mention Grange Hill!  Good old Grange Hill 🙂 .

I’ve been getting increasingly annoyed over the way the BBC’s used what began as a very interesting series to push its own political agenda; and it reached ridiculous proportions this week, when we were informed that the introduction of comprehensives was part of the same cultural shift that included women’s lib and the Race Relations Acts. What??  The most sensible comment in the entire episode was when one of the teachers said that education was constantly being used a political football.   I don’t think anyone would disagree with that, but need the BBC use programmes about education as political footballs, as well?  And every episode of Casualty and Holby City now revolves around criticising the NHS.  Enough!

Anyway. Back to the point!  I think this was the first time we’d seen inside a staffroom.  In between looking at copies of The Sun and discussing page 3 girls – the circulation of the aforementioned newspaper apparently doubled when the page 3 pictures started, which says rather a lot, and none of it good – the teachers commented that the loudspeaker system reminded them of Rydell High.  That was my reaction as well.  Did schools in the ‘70s actually have loudspeaker systems?  My school certainly didn’t have one even in the 1990s.  Announcements were made either in assembly or on notes sent to classrooms.  Assembly in this programme involved singing Kum Ba Yah.  The original version, not the one that goes “He scores goals, my Lord, he scores goals”.

Then on to a “commerce” lesson, in which everyone had to pretend that they were on an aeroplane. The BBC enthused about how brilliant this was.  I have no idea why.  What was it supposed to achieve?  And the gender division issue raised its head again, with girls being told that they couldn’t take the roles of pilots.

More interesting was the tuck shop, selling sweets. Oh yes!  We had one of these for a couple of years, although it was something to do with the Young Enterprise Scheme rather than actually being run by the school.  My then best friend and I – although this was in the ‘80s, not the ‘70s – used to buy X number of sweets each to eat on the bus on the way home, and we had a series of “landmarks” at which we ate the next sweet.  No wonder I was always so bloody fat!

Then on to decimalisation and school banks. This bit was fascinating.  By my day, we didn’t have school banks.  The big banks had all started running accounts for children, and tried to appeal to us by offering rewards or free gifts.  I had all the Nat West piggies.  Other kids had free schoolbags given away by the Midland – which was incredibly confusing, because it meant that umpteen people had the same bag.  I quite like the idea of a school bank, although it must have meant a huge amount of admin work for the staff.  Having said which, would you really want teachers knowing how much money you had or didn’t have?  Maybe not.

We then moved on to that staple of British school life – the lectures about how your hair was too long (for boys) or too messy, and how you shouldn’t be wearing make-up for school.   I’m amazed they didn’t add lectures about customising the uniform.  This is one that pretty much everyone in every generation will have memories of.  Being fat and uncool, I once decided that I was going to make myself look cool, just for once, by turning up at school wearing bright orange nail varnish.  One of the other girls told me that I looked as if my hands had been hit by the fallout from Chornobyl.  So much for looking cool 😦 .  The teachers weren’t impressed either.  Then there was the time that two of the lads at the boys’ school decided to see if it was true that, if you went for weeks without washing or cutting your hair, it would start cleaning itself.  Our jumpers were too long.  Our skirts were too short.  Our coats were the wrong colour.  Yep.  We’ve all been there!

In this programme, three kids were banned from going on a school trip because of issues around hair and make-up. Why are schools so obsessed with how kids look and dress?!  They are, though.  This bit was very realistic.  The trip wasn’t very exciting, though – it was to Spaghetti Junction.  Apparently, this was typical of a geography field trip in the 1970s.  How horrendously boring!

After that, the programme went a bit berserk, as the BBC tried to make out that the 1970s were all about schools letting kids do whatever they wanted. Student councils.  Were these common in the ‘70s?  And schools where kids called the teachers by their first names, and got to choose whether or not they even turned up at school, and, if they did, whether they went to PE lessons or sat in a very lavishly-decorated “sanctuary”.

PE in the ‘70s was apparently supposed to be about “personal fulfilment”. I have to say that that wasn’t a bad idea.  I was worse than useless at team sports, and something like golf or archery might have suited me better – but was it really practical?   A couple of kids go to the nearest golf course, or presumably the nearest municipal golf course as I can’t imagine private golf clubs wanting schoolkids wandering around their courses, others go to the nearest archery butts (if indeed there were any nearby archery butts), and so on?  I don’t really see how it would have worked.  Surely only very few schools can have done this?  I appreciate that the BBC was trying to make this entertaining, but I’d rather have seen something that was typical rather than something that was extreme.

There were also “Black Studies” lessons. Again, I don’t know how common these were – and two people who were called in to discuss them said that there’d been no such things at their own schools in the 1970s!   It was an interesting concept, though.  It was a genuinely well-meaning attempt to promote race relations by teaching about Afro-Caribbean culture, but there was something quite discomfiting about the idea of teaching “Black Studies” as if black culture was somehow “other” and apart from the mainstream; and that was how both the children and the teachers, of all ethnicities, seemed to feel as well.  It was meant well, but it just wasn’t the best of approaches.  It was mentioned that some schools had Afro-Caribbean carnivals, and these seemed to work much better.

Next up, home economics. This series is obsessed with home economics!   They made curry, which was then dished up for school dinners.  Hmm.  I know this happens in books, but I’m very glad that the stuff I made in the home economics room never got served to the other kids.  My mum and dad and sister had to help eat it, and I think they’d rather it’d all been chucked in the bin.  This was the first time that home economics lessons were co-ed.  Good to see – although this concept hadn’t reached our schools even by the time I left in 1992.  Although CDT lessons started at the girls’ school whilst I was there, cookery and sewing were not taught at the boys’ school.  But ours were fairly old-fashioned places, it has to be said!

Then, in line with the gender equality thing, we were told that, with far more mothers working, after school clubs were started. And the after school club was shown an episode of Grange Hill!   I loved Grange Hill.  I wish it’d never been scrapped.  It was great!  Even in the late ’80s, when everyone got obsessed with Neighbours and Home and Away, we still watched Grange Hill as well.

And, to finish up, a school disco. Er, yep.  As with role play and “active participation”, teenage discos were great if you were a confident, outgoing kid, but rather less so if you were the shy fat kid hiding in the corner or the toilets!   Mind you, if you’re the sort of kid who’s going to be on a reality TV series, you’re not going to be the sort who hides!

The teacher who complained last week that she’d never heard “Jerusalem” before said that she’d found this week “inspiring” and had taken a lot from it. It figured.  None of the other teachers were very impressed, and the pupils weren’t that keen either.  And now I’m waiting to see what they do with my era, the 1980s.  From what the preview showed, it’s going to suggest that all classrooms in the ’80s were full of computers, synthesisers and robots.   No.  They weren’t.  Any more than schools in the ’70s let you skive off PE to sit in a “sanctuary”.  This series has gone a bit mad!

Danny Dyer’s Right Royal Family – BBC 1

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I thought that this was just going to be silly; but some of it was genuinely touching. Danny Dyer, evidently *not* being an avid reader of the works of Jean Plaidy 😉 , had never heard the tales of the Plantagenets’ turbulent family history before; and was clearly moved by hearing how Henry II had faced rebellion by his own sons, and Edward II had had to marry a woman even though he was probably gay – and then met a very horrible end.  There was a lot of wisecracking, but he was obviously taking it all pretty seriously and taking it all in; and he was just so enthusiastic about everything that he made it a joy to watch.

As we know from watching Who Do You Think You Are, Danny Dyer, who grew up on a council estate in the East End and usually plays or fronts series about East End hard men, recently found out that he was descended from Edward III. Yes, all right, all right, so are zillions of other people, but it was clear how much it meant to him to find that out.  And this was a voyage of discovery for him, because he obviously knew very little about the Plantagenets.  Schools fail big time on teaching kids about the Middle Ages.  Such medieval history lessons at we had at school involved drawing pictures of the Bayeux Tapestry, motte and bailey castles and pie charts of how medieval monks spent their time.  And that was about it.   Maybe the teacher would actually have preferred to be teaching art rather than history.  And why would anyone think that a class of 11-year-old girls wanted to draw pie charts showing how medieval monks split their time between eating, studying and praying?!  Even at university, the medieval history modules weren’t great.  So thank you, Jean Plaidy, for introducing me to the glorious soap opera that was the lives of the Plantagenets!   And thank you to the BBC for doing the same for Danny Dyer.

We actually started well before the Plantagenets, with King Rollo. The real one, not the one in the cartoon.  This was good, because there can be a tendency for royal history programmes to start with William the Conqueror and ignore everything that went before.  There was a lot of dressing up and re-enactment in this, so, yes, we did get Danny dressing up as a Viking, but the Viking re-enactors whom he met in Sweden were keen to tell him about Viking life, dispelling all the Victorian myths about horned helmets and so on, and explaining how Rollo pretty much came from nowhere to become Duke of Normandy and found a dynasty.  Danny said, whilst visiting Scandinavia and later Paris, that he’d had no idea that the word “Norman” actually came from “Norseman”, and that was a good point.  We’re all taught about the Battle of Hastings, but the fact that the Normans were descended from Vikings, and the very complex personal and political ties between England, Ireland, Norway, Denmark and Normandy tend to be ignored.

Danny was pretty impressed by what he learnt about King Rollo, and it was also great to see a historical programme (of sorts!) covering something different, rather than Henry VIII all over again!    Even when we got on to William the Conqueror, the focus wasn’t on all the same old, same old stuff about the Battle of Hastings and whether Harold was or wasn’t shot in the eye, but on the Tower of London and the way in which the Normans imposed their authority on the country.  Yes, it was pretty daft when Danny was presented with a set of faux Norman era coins showing his own face on one side and a simplified version of the West Ham crest on the other, and when he dressed up as a knight and tried to drive a lance through a watermelon, but this was never going to be a serious documentary!   And the hunting laws – we also saw him shooting arrows in the woods – have played a fairly big part in English history.

He was so enthusiastic about it all!   What about the swearing and the “unusual” slang words and the wanting to hug everyone all the time?  Well, if he’d been putting it on to present a certain image, it might have been annoying; but he was just being himself.  I’m not suggesting that everyone should go around saying “fuck” in one of the most important churches in Europe (Saint-Chapelle in Paris), but maybe it’s not a bad thing sometimes to show that history’s not just for people talking in … shall we say “ a scholarly way”?

Then on to Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, one of the most interesting couples in the whole of British royal history.   My one big moan about this programme was that it gave a very one-sided view both of Henry II and of Louis IX of France.  I appreciate that they were only spending a short amount of time on each person, and couldn’t go into too much detail, but they might have pointed out how badly Henry treated Eleanor!   I find it hard to have much sympathy over the whole “Revolt of the Eaglets” thing, because I just don’t like the man.  Anyway.  This is another neglected area of history – not just what was going on at home, but the extent of the Angevin Empire.  Thomas Becket got a mention as well, although only a passing one.

Danny was so interested in it all. And his take on the rebellion of Henry II’s sons against him was that they were “ungrateful little brats”, which in some ways did sum it up very well!  And humanised it.  Yes, this is history, these are kings and queens and princes and princesses, but it’s also about family fallings-out and family breakdowns.  A couple’s marriage breaks down, there are tensions between siblings, the kids want to take control of the family business, the parents are each accused of favouring one kid over the others … it’s like a soap opera storyline, isn’t it.  As I’m always saying, if schools taught people about all this, instead of making them draw pie charts about the daily lives of monks, everyone would be a lot more interested in medieval history!

Then, for something different, over to France, to learn about Louis IX. I read The Life of Saint Louis when I was 18.  I am not in the habit of reading medieval hagiographies, but I had to read it as part of my degree course.  The book does go on a lot about the Seventh Crusade, but it doesn’t really tell you about the role Louis played in persecuting Cathars and Jews and promoting the work of the Inquisition.  Louis is a big hero in France.  Like Isabella of Castile is a big heroine in Spain.  OK, let’s not get on to the thorny issue of the attitude of the medieval authorities towards anyone who didn’t toe the line in the religion department.  All Danny was told was that Louis was a very pious man who shunned luxury, and tried to help the poor and marginalised – which, to be fair, he did.  We also heard about how Louis obtained many supposed relics, including the supposed Crown of Thorns.  And how he was very into self-flagellation.

Almost 500 years after the English Reformation, the culture here has developed in a very different way to that of countries where most people are Catholic or Orthodox.  And our culture here is now very secular.  We tend to shy away from religious talk in this country.  That, as far as I’m concerned, is no bad thing; but, when we’re talking about the Middle Ages, we really can’t do that.  Even if you’re looking at the present day, rather than the Middle Ages, it can be quite a culture shock when you go abroad and see shrines by the side of the road, or religious images in hotel receptions and dining areas.  I don’t mean that in any sort of critical way, just that it takes some getting used to.

We got Danny dressed up in a brown shift, walking along like a penitent. And then he visited the Saint-Chapelle, where the historian accompanying him told him that Louis had been canonised, and that a vial of his blood was regarded as being miracle-working.  I got the impression that she genuinely believed this.  I’ve no idea what he actually thought about it all, but the magnificence of the chapel, with stained glass windows all round, and I’m guessing probably a strong smell of incense, was clearly quite dazzling and overwhelming, and, on top of that, being told that one of his ancestors had been canonised … it was a long way from West Ham and Albert Square, and it was really getting into a different sort of medieval mindset.    And you wouldn’t have got that in a programme fronted by someone who knew about history, because it wouldn’t have been new to them, and that was partly what made this programme so interesting.  That and the personal element, because we never forgot that, however many umpteen generations away, these actually were Danny’s ancestors.

Then back to England, for the sorry tale of Edward II. Son of the great Edward I, father of the great Edward III.  Lost the Battle of Bannockburn, upset all the barons, was deposed by his wife, Isabella the “She Wolf” of France, and her lover, and may or may not have been murdered by having a red hot poker shoved where the sun doesn’t shine and used to burn out all his innards.  OK, the red hot poker story probably isn’t true, but (whilst there’s the odd romantic novel that shows him escaping abroad) he did meet some sort of very sticky end.  He also had the bad luck to be king at the time of the Great Famine of 1315.

Was he romantically involved with Piers Gaveston and Hugh le Despenser, or were they both just close friends? Well, no-one really knows, but it’s quite likely.  The medieval re-enactment  bit in this programme involved a woman dressed up as Isabella shouting about having a husband who preferred guys.  OK, the way it was done was a bit silly, but it was really touching to hear Danny talking about how difficult it must have been for Edward, if he was gay but had to marry a woman to try to produce heirs, and indeed to forge an alliance with France, and seeing that he was clearly moved by it.  When you’re used to the Plantagenet soap opera, it’s easy to forget how it must all seem to someone hearing it for the first time, especially when it’s someone who’s found out that they’re directly descended from these people.

It was interesting that they chosen Edward II, rather than Edward I or Edward III.  Human interest over legal or military achievements.  The main reason that we hear so much about the reign of Henry VIII isn’t because of the importance of the Reformation on the development of Parliament and English culture – it’s because it involves a story of someone dumping their loyal partner of many years to go off with a younger, better-looking model, and that story resonates with every generation.

Speaking of Henry VIII, the programme then jumped on to the Tudor and Stuart eras. By this point, Danny’s direct line had long been detached from royalty – but travelled down through Elizabeth Seymour, sister-in-law of Henry VIII, and Catherine Tollemache, nee Cromwell, great-granddaughter of Thomas Cromwell.  First up, a visit to Wolf Hall, now associated with those ridiculously overrated books by Hilary Mantel.   This mainly involved Danny dressing up like one of Henry VIII’s courtiers, joking about codpieces, and being taught Tudor court dancing, singing and etiquette.   There’s so much on TV about the Tudors that this just didn’t have the same fascination as the earlier stuff, but he got really stuck into it all – and it was quite sweet when he kissed an effigy of John Seymour, Elizabeth’s father.  Then on to Helmingham Hall, seat of the Tollemaches, where he was joined by his wife and children and they all got dressed up.

They joked about how it was like one of those “And here’s what you could have won!” moments from Bullseye.  Maybe it was more like a real life version of one of those Edward Rutherfurd novels where two branches of a family tree go in completely different directions.    If everyone could all employ the services of professional genealogists with all the time and resources they needed, who knows what they’d find?  But this was great, because it was like a soap opera storyline and yet it was all real, and the fact that Danny Dyer was so into it all meant that the viewer couldn’t help but get drawn into it all with him.  I thought I’d be moaning about how silly this all was – I mean “Right Royal Family” is hardly the most promising of titles – but I genuinely enjoyed it.  Good stuff!

Heaton Park on Great British Railway Journeys – BBC 2

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All right, it was only for a few minutes, but I was very excited about it!  Several generations of my family have spent numerous hours of their lives in Heaton Park.  My primary school was (and indeed still is) next door to the park.  We used to have Sports Days there.  In the second year infants, we had a “nature table” on which we proudly displayed leaves, twigs, pine cones and assorted other things which we’d carefully collected during walks there. When we were in the juniors, we went there to do “educational” things like drawing pictures of Heaton Hall, although we were far more interested in rolling down hills and throwing bits of grass at each other.  At weekends, my sister and I would sit on “the lions”.  Everyone who grew up round here remembers sitting on “the lions”!  When we were older, we took our little cousin there.  I still go there a lot: I live within walking distance.  It’s rare for me to be there for more than a few minutes without seeing someone I know.  I watch all Michael Portillo’s railway programmes, and this one felt like the series was coming right to my doorstep.

In last night’s episode, Michael arrived in our great and wonderful city at Victoria station, and then visited the Manchester Art Gallery – not so much to look at the art as to discuss the 1913 attack on the gallery by three suffragettes.  Yes, all right, all right, damaging artwork is not ideal, even though the idea was only to damage to glass casings, but campaigners for women’s suffrage had tried to make their point by peaceful means, and got nowhere.  This particular attack took place on the day after Emmeline Pankhurst had been given a three year prison sentence.

Oh, and you could see my favourite cafe, The Vienna Coffee House, in the background, as Michael was going into the art gallery.  Sadly, he didn’t pop in for a drink and one of their highly recommended cakes, salads or sandwiches afterwards, but I’m just giving it a mention even so 🙂 .  I’ve been going there ever since it first opened.  It’s extremely nice.

Michael also visited the site of St Peter’s Fields, where, of course, the Peterloo Massacre took place on August 16th, 1819.  The Free Trade Hall was built on the site in 1850s, and, in 1905, was the scene of the famous incident in which Christabel Pankhurst and Annie Kenney heckled Sir Edward Grey, and were later, after refusing to pay a fine, carted off to Strangeways.  That was really the start of the militant phase of the suffragette campaign.  Michael talked about all of this, and also visited the Pankhurst family’s former home, now a museum and a women’s community centre.

With last year’s centenary of (some) women finally being given the vote, and this year’s forthcoming bicentennial of the Peterloo Massacre, there’s a lot of focus at the moment on Manchester’s history as a city – in fact, I’m going to say the city – which took the lead in the fight for democracy in the UK.  I am so, so proud of all this, and very pleased to see this part of our city’s history being covered in this lovely series.

I’d assumed that he was visiting Heaton Park – to which he travelled from town on the Metrolink – to see the Heritage Tramway, and that we’d be hearing all about how, back in the 1870s, the new Manchester to Bury line had to be diverted through an expensive tunnel because the Earl of Wilton, who owned the park and the hall before selling them to the council in 1902, refused to let it go through his land.  However, instead of focusing on selfish aristocrats, the visit to Heaton Park was all tied in with Manchester’s history as the city which promotes the rights and needs of the ordinary people.  Hooray!  (Although it was rather a shame that the tramway didn’t get to appear on TV.)

There’s a well-known local garage called Grimshaws.  Well, it’s now officially called Pentagon, but everyone still calls it Grimshaws.  I used to take my car there for MOTs, when I was in my old job.  Anyway, the garage developed from a bicycle shop owned by one William Grimshaw, who, when he wasn’t selling bikes, also sold gramophones, and was known as the “Gramophone King”.  In 1909, he heard the famous tenor Enrico Caruso sing at the Free Trade Hall. We used to have our secondary school Speech Days at the Free Trade Hall. They were horrendously boring, but being in the Free Trade Hall was always exciting.  I’m still annoyed that the council sold the Free Trade Hall off to be converted into a hotel.

Anyway, to get back to the point, the enterprising Mr Grimshaw recorded the concert (you’d never get away with doing that these days!), and then played the recording on a gramophone at Heaton Park a few days later.  This was the first time a gramophone concert had been held in the open air in this country.  40,000 people turned up!  And – despite our “lovely” climate – the idea soon caught on.  More concerts at Heaton Park, and William Grimshaw was also asked to hold gramophone concerts at other parks, first locally and then nationally.  There was no way that most people would have been able to go to concert halls regularly, and there wouldn’t have been that many tickets available anyway; but this brought music to the masses, and out in the fresh air which Edwardians were so obsessed with.  And it all started here.  Brilliant!

It was very exciting indeed – well, it was for me! – to see Michael sat on a bench on the path where you go up from the lake towards the hall and the farm centre.  And the aerial shots were amazing.  I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen aerial shots of Heaton Park before.  They looked so good!  And then he went out in the lake in one of the lovely rowing boats which are available to hire.  The far side of the lake, the wooded area, is just land, and behind it’s a car park, but, when I was a kid, I liked to pretend it was one of those islands that people got stranded on in Enid Blyton books, and that I was going to go there and have a big adventure.

I’d like to say that I used to play tennis there as well, but, being a fat and unfit kid, I was always better with imagining and daydreaming than exercise.  Oh well.  However, we heard all about the importance of the park in the changing role of women, as the Victorian era gave way to the Edwardian era, and how women would go to the park to cycle and to play tennis.  And, even better, to attend suffragette rallies held by the Pankhursts!  I’ve mentioned about fifty million times that I went to the same secondary school as Christabel, Sylvia and Adela Pankhurst, haven’t I?  We heard that crowds of up to 200,000 people (I’m sure I’ve heard 50,000, but I’ll definitely go with the figure of 200,000 given in the programme!) attended the great Heaton Park suffragette rally of 1908.  It didn’t mention the fact that suffragette activists burnt down the Heaton Park bowling pavilion … but they did.

I’m not going to say anything about burning down a bowling pavilion 😉 , but, had I been around in 1908, I’d like to think that I’d have been at that rally.  Had I been around in 1909, maybe I’d have been at the gramophone concert.  I did go to an Oasis concert at Heaton Park a century later, in 2009!   I have spent so much time in that park over the years!  Very, very exciting to see it featured in this lovely series.