Second Serve by Renée Richards with John Ames

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Taking a quick break from my usual historical novels to read a tennis-related book –  the story of Renee Richards, born Richard Raskind in a family of New York doctors, who, after transitioning from male to female, won a legal battle against the US Tennis Association to be able to compete in women’s events, reached the final of the ladies’ doubles and (partnering Ilie Nastase) the mixed doubles at the US Open, and later coached Martina Navratilova.  It’s not particularly well-written, and says disappointingly little about actual tennis history, but it makes some interesting points, including about the way in which sports players from minority groups attract a lot of press attention which other players don’t have to deal with.

There isn’t actually that much tennis in the book.  A lot of it details Richard (Dick)’s female conquests and Renee’s male conquests, which the reader probably doesn’t really want to know about, especially not in quite as much detail as it gives.  It also gives the impression of someone who was rather confused, rather than that of a transgender person who knew that they were a woman in a man’s body.  Young Dick seems to have had unhealthy relationships with both his mother and his sister, and in fact all the relationships within the family seem to have been strained.

They (I’m initially using gender-neutral pronouns because they write about Dick and Renee living inside the same body and vying with each other to get out) were a top student, who went to Yale, captained the tennis team there, qualified as a doctor and became a leading ophthalmologist, and also spent time in the US Navy, and had a lot of girlfriends.   They at one point made the decision to transition, and went as far as having hormone treatment and developing female characteristics, but then decided to go back to being a man, stopped the treatment, had surgery, and married a woman and fathered a child.   It’s very unusual to hear of someone going backwards and forwards like that.  It’s very sad: they said that they suffered periods of depression and contemplated suicide, and weren’t really able to find help despite seeing a number of very prominent psychiatrists.

Eventually, they came to the decision to undergo gender reassignment surgery, and moved from New York to California to begin a new life as a woman.  A lot of good points are made about the practical problems of passports, driving licences, certificates showing professional qualifications, etc, being in the name of a man when the person is now a woman.  These days, people would just explain, but, in the 1970s, Renee felt unable to acknowledge her previous identity as Dick in her working life, and had to try to establish her professional reputation all over again.  She was told that, as Dick had been quite well-known in the tennis world, she would probably be recognised if she took up playing tennis again, but she did so anyway – and was indeed recognised.

She was in her forties by this time, which is very late for someone to try to begin a professional tennis career, but she felt that she was playing well and had a chance of success in the big events, but was refused permission to play because of being transgender.  After various legal battles, and with the support of some big names, notably Billie Jean King and Gladys Heldman, she was allowed to compete in women’s events – although only in the US and South America, because there wasn’t a unified tour in those days and she didn’t feel that she wanted to fight any more legal battles in order to try to win the right to compete in Britain, France, etc.

The issue of transgender athletes is very much in the news now, thirty years later.  Several leading athletes have called for medical research to be done to establish whether or not a transgender woman has an advantage over a cisgender woman, but it all seems to be up in the air at the moment, and has been complicated by the separate issue of cisgender women who have naturally high testosterone levels … which seems rather an odd thing to penalise people for, as a lot of athletes have a natural advantage due to height or build, and no-one suggests that they shouldn’t be allowed to compete.

This book really isn’t very good, but, as I said, it does raise some good points.  One that’s very relevant at the moment, with the ongoing issues of a) racism in sport, very much in the news this week following the disgraceful scenes during England’s match in Montenegro, and b) why there are still no openly gay top level male footballers, is the amount of attention which players from any minority group attract, and how they’re expected to be spokespeople for the community concerned.  Hopefully most of that attention is positive and supportive, but many people may neither want nor be able to deal with that.  It would have been better to have heard more about that, and more about Dick/Renee’s personal issues and feelings, and less about all of Dick’s women and Renee’s men, but, hey, the book is what it is.  I wouldn’t spend too much money on it, but, if you happen to stumble across a cheap copy, it might be worth a read.

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Victoria (series 3) – ITV 1

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Oh dear. This was all very dramatic, and made for entertaining Sunday night TV; but it completely misrepresented the Chartist movement, Lord Palmerston, Queen Victoria’s relationship with her half-sister, and even the sort of clothing worn by the little princes. I’m rather annoyed about the portrayal of the peaceful Chartists as a baying mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace. As for Palmerston looking thirty years younger than he was, Feodora being turned into a jealous schemer in scarlet lace and the idea that the viewing public wouldn’t be able to cope with seeing little boys wearing dresses … come on, ITV, give us a break!!  Entertaining, yes; but an accurate portrayal of events and personalities would have been equally entertaining, and a lot less frustrating for historians!

According to this, Victoria resented the fact that her half-sister, Princess Feodora of Leiningen, had left Kensington Palace to get married, Feodora was jealous of Victoria’s position, and Feodora randomly turned up in London in the middle of the 1848 Revolutions, got on everyone’s nerves, and went around wearing scarlet lace dresses. Er, no. Victoria and Feodora got on extremely well, and Feodora, after her marriage, lived out her life at the Schloss Langenburg in Germany. For an accurate portrayal in fiction of their relationship, see the excellent books by Jean Plaidy and Cynthia Harrod-Eagles.  Come on, ITV, this is supposed to be a programme about Queen Victoria, not Dallas or Dynasty! Oh, and we’ve also got a fictitious duchess who’s going to have an affair with a footman, but at least that won’t be misrepresenting someone who really existed!

Palmerston would probably be quite flattered at being shown as a raffish man about town in his forties, when he was actually nearly seventy at the time, but it’s hardly very accurate! In the first series, Lord Melbourne was also shown as being a lot younger than he was. Do the scriptwriters have a problem with men past a certain age? The Victorian establishment certainly didn’t: the Duke of Wellington was in charge of dealing with any unrest in London in 1848, and he was getting on for eighty. My first ever encounter with Palmerston was in the context of his nearly dragging Britain into the American Civil War, which would not have been a good idea; but I’ve got quite fond of him since then, because of his support for Greek independence, reform in Central Europe, and Don Pacifico. And there’s certainly an argument that the Crimean War might have been avoided had he been Foreign Secretary in the mid-1850s.

There was certainly controversy over his outspoken support for the 1848 revolutions, but this programme made it look as if he was saying that everyone should go around chopping off monarchs’ heads, whereas he was actually speaking in favour of self-determination. As a sensible, liberal person, he realised that the nation state was, and is, the most successful and effective form of political unit ever known.  Being trapped in “a prison of nations” leads to instability, economic disparity, and an often violent break-up.  And, OK, he might have been fond of the ladies, but there was no need to suggest that he was some sort of pervert and no woman was safe in the same room as him.  Apparently Daisy Goodwin was trying to make him seem like Boris Johnson!  He didn’t seem anything like Boris Johnson, but he didn’t seem very much like Lord Palmerston either.

There were some annoying minor inaccuracies, as well. Someone was surprised that the Duchess of Devonshire had let her footman leave. There was no Duchess of Devonshire in 1848! The Duke wasn’t married, and his mother was long since dead. The first name of Cuffay, the leader of the radical faction of the Chartists wasn’t Samuel; it was William. Uncle Leopold had written to say that he was under threat from the revolutionaries. Seeing as there wasn’t a revolution in Belgium in 1848, I don’t think so. Then there was the thing with the boys’ clothes. Affie, being much too young to have been breeched, and probably Bertie as well, would have been wearing dresses, as little boys did in 1848. Instead, they were shown wearing kilts. In London. Apparently, the scriptwriters thought that viewers would have been confused by seeing boys wearing dresses. What??!! This isn’t a debate about gender identity: it’s a simple matter of what a particular section of the population would have been wearing at the time.

Irritating as that was, what really got to me was the way that the Chartists, who – admittedly apart from the radical wing led by William Cuffay, but their plans for armed insurrection didn’t actually come to anything – were a peaceful movement, looking for reform and certainly not revolution, were shown as an angry mob hammering on the gates of Buckingham Palace and throwing bricks through the Palace windows. And, for added drama, Queen Victoria was shown as going into labour in the middle of it all! (Princess Louise was actually born several weeks before the Chartist mass meeting of 1848, which was nowhere near Buckingham Palace anyway.)

What a load of rubbish! To be fair, the programme did initially stress that Chartism was generally peaceful and sought reform through constitutional means – universal male suffrage (female suffrage, annoyingly, doesn’t seem to have come into it), the secret ballot, equal constituencies, annual Parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for MPs, and payment for MPs to enable people who actually had to work for a living to sit in Parliament. The first People’s Charter was presented to Parliament in 1838, the year of the great Chartist meeting on Kersal Moor (I had to get that in!), the second in 1842, a year which also saw a series of strikes, especially in Lancashire and Cheshire (had to get that in as well!), and the third in 1848. A large meeting was organised in London, to form a procession, leaving from Kennington Common, to present the Charter to Parliament.

Unfortunately, it was all a bit of a damp squib in the end, not helped by the fact that some of the signatures were fake (some things never change). But it certainly wasn’t violent. Yes, there was some unrest later in the year. I like telling people that the only place in England which actually joined in with the 1848 Revolutions was Ashton-under-Lyne! But that was a fairly minor thing. There was also some talk of an uprising in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and, yes, in London. As happened after the original French Revolution in 1789, the authorities panicked and brought in legislation meant to stop public meetings and supposed plotting, and people were rightly angry about it. But to show radical Chartists attacking Buckingham Palace is completely inaccurate, and I think it was really quite wrong to do that: it gave a completely misleading impression of an organisation which played an important part in the move towards bringing democracy to our country.

I don’t think what happened abroad was portrayed accurately, either. OK, this wasn’t meant to be a documentary on European history, but it made it sound as if it was all about trying to overthrow monarchies. And, yes, Louis Philippe did take refuge in London, but he tried to keep a low profile: he certainly didn’t move into Buckingham Palace! The July Monarchy in France was overthrown, and replaced by the Second Republic. Which only lasted a few years, before the Bonapartists were brought back. Bourbons, republic, Napoleon, Bourbons again, Orleanists, Napoleon’s nephew, another republic … they never seem to be able to make up their minds in France! There were also uprisings in several German states, and in Austria. But not really in Belgium.

Reforms in Denmark and Switzerland. An uprising in Ireland, which wasn’t mentioned – although, to be fair, it wasn’t until later in the year. I’ve been doing some Hungarian history revision recently, and the Hungarian Revolution of 1848 went on for eighteen and a half months, before being crushed by Austrian and Russian forces. There were also uprisings in Austrian-ruled Northern Italy, Bourbon-ruled Southern Italy, German-ruled Poland, Austrian-ruled Ukrainian Galicia, Moldavia (Moldova) and Wallachia, It’s hard to think of anything comparable. The fall of communism in 1989, maybe. Or the “Arab Spring” might be a better comparison – promising a lot but sadly achieving very little.

And it wasn’t all about upheaval and violence, which was how the programme made it sound. It was liberal. It was the Springtime of Nations: it was about self-determination. To be fair, both Palmerston and Prince Albert were shown expressing some sympathy for the “revolutionaries”, but it still all came across as being about violence and chaos. Not impressed.

Sadly, most of the 1848 Revolutions were crushed. But, in Britain, the campaign for parliamentary reform went on. Now we can all, regardless of socio-economic status or gender, elect MPs. That was supposed to be the answer to everything. Many of the leaders of the 1848 Revolutions admired the British parliamentary system and wanted one like it. And look what a mess the bunch of idiots we’ve got in the House of Commons now are making of everything . But that’s beside the point. The point is that, whilst this was great entertainment, and whilst anything that gets people talking about history is welcome, it was chock-a-block with inaccuracies, and it will have given people unfamiliar with the period completely the wrong impression of what was going on. Black mark, ITV!

I was glued to every second of it, though … .

Some other posts about Queen Victoria 🙂 :

Victoria (series 1)

Queen Victoria’s Letters

Queen Victoria and her tragic family

 

Pose – BBC 2

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Could we have more TV series set in the 1980s, please? My music collection has never got out of the 1980s (except sometimes into the early 1990s), and it’s never going to! This is set in 1987-88, and is centred on the ball(room) culture of African-American and Latino LGBTQ people in New York. It’s been hugely popular in the US, and premiered here in the UK last night. The music’s brilliant and there’s quite a soap opera feel to it as well, as well as shades of ’80s music/dance films like Fame and Flashdance; but it’s also got a serious message, with some scenes of violence, and many of the actors having spoken out about their experiences of facing prejudice even, or indeed especially, from their own families. The producer’s giving all his profits from the series to LGBTQ charities. On a different note, it also features Trump Tower and the people who work there.

Whilst most of the characters are fictional, some of them are real people – notably Jose Gutierez Xtravaganza, who was very involved in developing “vogueing” and worked closely with Madonna on Vogue and the Blonde Ambition tour. The surname Xtravaganza came from the House of Xtravaganza, one of the “houses” associated with the ball culture scene, which provided alternative families for people who’d had issues with their own families. This series revolves around the (fictional) House of Evangelista – named in honour of Linda Evangelista – and House of Abundance.

It got off to a pretty hard-hitting start. Blanca, a transgender woman, was diagnosed with HIV. She decided to leave the House of Abundance and set up the House of Evangelista: she was the house mother, looking after young people who were alone. Then Damon, a 17-year-old dancer from Pennsylvania, was kicked out by his parents after telling them that he was gay. Those were very emotive scenes, with his dad hitting him and his mum coming out with a lot of Bible-basher comments. We next saw him sleeping on a park bench in New York. He tried to raise some money by dancing, and Blanca saw him and took him in, and he walked for the House of Evangelista at the balls.

I have to admit that I hadn’t realised that “walk” meant walk as catwalk poses, rather than actual dancing: the competitions at the balls involved people dressing for certain themes, and then doing catwalk poses and being judged on those. Hence “Strike a pose” in the Madonna song. “I know a place where you can get away. It’s called a dance floor, and here’s what it’s for.” The lyrics to that song are incredible: I’d never really thought about it much before! And a lot of the costumes were very 1980s – really glamorous and OTT.

However, it wasn’t just about having fun. Blanca told Damon about how her family had disowned her for being trans, and there was a lot of talk about how some of the ball contest themes involved seeing who could best pass as, say, a businessperson. There were some superb lines, about “the world of acceptability”, and how they felt that they didn’t “have access to the American Dream”, because of being both gay/trans and black/Latino.

There’s been a bit of a row this year over the decision that the rainbow flags for Manchester Pride should feature black and brown stripes. It’s been done at some events in the US, but not previously in the UK. Some people feel that it’s inappropriate because it suggests that the rainbow flag does not represent non-white people, whilst others feel that it highlights the fact that many non-white LGBTQ people face a double whammy of prejudice. This series is certainly highlighting that fact. And it’s got the biggest transgender cast of any TV series in history.

Then a different aspect of New York life was brought in – Stan, the aspiringYuppie who’d just got a job at Trump Tower. There’s a scene in Back to the Future in which someone in 1955 asks Marty McFly who’s president of the United States in 1985, and is both bemused and amused to be told that it’s Ronald Reagan, whom he thinks of as a film star. Imagine if someone had told you in 1987 that the president of the United States in 2017 would be Donald Trump. Who’s going to be president of the United States in 2049? It might be best not to think about that! A comment was also made about the fact that Donald Trump was so rich that he probably had a solid gold toilet, but Donald Trump’s toilet isn’t something that I really want to think about either!

Stan had a wife and kids (even though he looked about 12 – I’m clearly getting old), and he was living right in the middle of the “world of acceptability” – but he picked up Angel, a prostitute whom he didn’t realise was pre-op transgender until she actually stripped off. They then got involved, and there was a sense that everyone was pretending and everything was a bit fake.

And then it turned pure ’80s Fame/Flashdance. Damon had missed the cut-off date for sending his application form in to the dance academy where he was hoping to get a place. Blanca pleaded with the powers that were to give him a special audition. They agreed, and, of course, they loved him, and offered him a place on the spot. So that was quite a change-up from where the episode had started. We’d gone from this very tragic tale of a young lad being rejected by his own family to a Fairytale of New York. And this programme is both – it’s joy and tragedy and so many other things. I think I was watching mainly for the ’80s music, but I really got drawn in by the storylines and the characters, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the series. Highly recommended.

 

 

London: 2000 years of history – Channel 5 (episode 3 – gin and sewage)

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There is a vile stench in the House of Commons. It’s so bad that people are having to cover their noses. Meanwhile, the well-being of the working-classes is being completely ignored. I’m talking about 1858, obviously. I wouldn’t normally watch a programme about sewage (!), but, by talking about the railways, the “Great Stink” during the exceptionally hot summer of 1858 and the long overdue introduction of a proper sewerage system for London, this made some very good points about the importance of health and sanitation in history. I really want to write about Edwin Chadwick and James Kay Shuttleworth, and I’m having to make a huge effort to make myself write about London instead! There was also a lot of talk about gin and shopping. Not a hint of politics, and not much talk about economics. This was definitely different.

This episode actually started with the Great Fire of London, and the rebuilding of the city afterwards. This was pretty familiar stuff, but it then moved on to the growing division of London between the wealthy West End and the working-class East End, and how areas that weren’t affected by the fire lost out during the rebuilding; and then, in early Georgian times, grand houses for the well-to-do were built in the Mayfair area. Whilst the ton were living it up, the poor were turning to gin. OK, that’s a ridiculous generalisation – and it’s Channel 5’s, not mine! – but the expression about gin being the quickest road out of [any city you care to name] lasted well into the 19th century, and there was a particular increase in gin consumption in the first half of the 18th century, blamed for an increase in anti-social behaviour, until the Gin Act of 1751 made gin more difficult to obtain.

There followed some discussion of the development of the West End as a shopping area. It was also mentioned that London was full of professional criminals, and the need for security provided the impetus for the building of professional docks. So London was full of drunks and criminals. I’m not saying that: Channel 5 said it 😉 . And then on to the Industrial Revolution. I get extremely excited at any mention of the Industrial Revolution, but most people are familiar, from Bill Sikes drowning in a ditch if nothing else, of the pollution which it created, and of the appalling living conditions associated with it. I want to write about Engels now, but I’m trying hard to stick with London, seeing as that’s what the programme was about!

Then something I’d never really thought about very much – how, in the early days, the government intervened to stop railways from going right into the centre of London. So we have to get off at Euston or wherever, and get the Tube to wherever we want to go. It actually went on the technicalities of railway-building in rather a lot of detail, but, hey, some people probably found that interesting! The point was that the railways were moving out to areas beyond the city centre, meaning that people didn’t have to live close to where they worked.

Finally, the Great Stink, which I thought was probably the most interesting part of the programme. I’m not sure what that says about me! But vast numbers of people had died in a number of cholera outbreaks in the 1830s and 1840s, and it took a while for people to realise that that was because of drinking contaminated water, and not because of “miasma”. Even once doctors had provided clear evidence, the powers that be weren’t very interested. Sewage, slaughterhouse waste and industrial effluent continued to be dumped in or on the banks of the Thames. And nothing was done … until the very hot summer of 1858 created the “Great Stink”, and, with the smell in the House of Commons having become unbearable, a proper sewage system was finally built.

I feel like saying that the lesson from this is that, if we want anything done, we need to stink out the House of Commons! Seriously, though, this programme got from the 1660s to the 1850s without making even one reference to the Glorious Revolution, the War of the Spanish Succession, the Jacobites, the Seven Years’ War, the Napoleonic Wars, the Great Reform Act of 1842 or the Corn Laws. Instead, it talked about gin and sewage. And, do you know what? It was really interesting! Well worth a watch.

Fisherman’s Friends

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All right, all right, this isn’t historical, but I’m using the excuse that most of the songs in it are traditional songs.   And everyone knows these songs.  At one point in the film, the eponymous Fisherman’s Friends start singing “What shall we do with the drunken sailor?” in a crowded London bar, and all the other people in the bar join in.  What’s more, the scene would have worked just the same had it been set in Dublin or New York or Sydney.  So where do we learn these songs?   I remember being taught some folk songs and music hall songs at primary school.  Presumably not that particular one, as it’s a bit rude – although we always seemed to manage to learn slightly rude versions of some songs (Ta-ra-ra boom-de-ay springs to mind) as well as the proper words.  Both my grandfathers were very big on folk songs and music hall songs, as well.   And I do often listen to songs from “the second folk revival”.  I just need to point out that Ewan MacColl was from Lower Broughton 🙂 .  And that “Where have all the flowers gone”, sung by Peter, Paul and Mary in the 1960s and by my class at primary school in the 1980s, was based on a Cossack folk song.  I have now got completely and utterly off the point, because this film is about a group singing sea shanties in Cornwall, circa 2009!

Well, it’s sort of historical!   There’s a lot of talk about being the rock and roll of the 1750s.  And a lot of sea shanties, and indeed other folk songs and music hall songs, are about wars, or political events.  Even a lot of nursery rhymes are supposed to be coded references to political events.

It’s essentially a feelgood film, more than anything else, and it really is that.  There are some gorgeous shots in and around Port Isaac.  And there’s a nice story.  Well, two nice stories, intertwined, and both with happy endings.  Three music executives from London go to Port Isaac for a stag weekend.  There are a lot of clichéd but funny jokes about outsiders who do stupid things like parking their cars where they’re likely to get caught by the tide.  They come across the Fisherman’s Friends, a local men’s group who sing Cornish sea shanties in between going fishing and saving the lives of people in trouble at sea.

Two of the executives play a prank on the third by pretending that they want to sign the group. He falls for it, and promises the band a record deal.  By the time he finds out that he’s been had, he’s fallen for the band, the rural lifestyle, and a pretty woman who’s the daughter of one of the singers.  After various problems, and the sad death of one of the band members, the band get their deal, their first release makes the top ten, and our pal gets together with the pretty Cornishwoman, buys the local pub –saving it from closure – and moves to Port Isaac.

It’s really lovely 🙂 .

And the themes are historical, as well as the music. Seriously, they are!   The links between folk music and Cornish patriotism – I could write all day about examples of folk music as an expression of roots, of heritage, of patriotism, of nationalism, of keeping an oppressed culture alive, of resistance against an oppressor, of raising spirits in difficult times … and this is something you find pretty much everywhere in the world.   Then there’s the idea of life in a rural/smalltown idyll being better for you than life in a big city, and that’s very much a 19th century Romantic idea.

I actually get really annoyed when I read things written by patronising well-to-do Southerners (I’m talking 19th century here) who claimed that industrialisation and urbanisation destroyed some sort of Garden of Eden, as if life for everyone in pre-industrial Merrie England (or Merrie anywhere else) was perfect.  It certainly was not!   But, when it’s taking you an hour to crawl two miles through horrendous traffic, or you’re crammed up against the door of a tram with your face in someone’s armpit, or you’re frantically trying to do a dozen things in your dinner hour, looking at your watch every ten seconds as you wait in queues behind other people who are also frantically trying to do a dozen things in their dinner hour, or you’re practically in tears because the repair person says that they’ll be coming “between 12 and 6” and you’re stuck in an office/factory/shop and it’ll take you at least half an hour to get home … yep, the idea of the Romantic Rural Idyll doesn’t half appeal, because we’ve still got it in our heads that it’s the answer!

The story about the music executive and the romance and him buying the pub and moving to Cornwall is fictional, but the Fisherman’s Friends are a real band, and they were “discovered” by BBC DJ Johnnie Walker whilst he was on holiday in Cornwall, in 2009, and he got them a recording contract, and they’ve had a lot of success. They’ve also, sadly, suffered great tragedy, with the death of their manager and one of their singers when they were hit by a heavy steel door which fell whilst they were preparing for a show in 2003, and this film is in part a tribute to those two men.   And they’ve won an award for keeping folk music alive and bringing it to new audiences.  This film is hopefully going to bring their music to an even wider audience, and, with music lessons in schools increasingly being cut and, especially with kids today possibly not having the same chances that we did to learn traditional songs at school, that’s very important.

The Fisherman’s Friends throat lozenges don’t actually come into it, apart from a few puns, incidentally. They remind me of primary school as well.  The headmistress’s husband, who worked in the office, always used to have them.  He was a lovely man, who sadly died young.  Fisherman’s Friend lozenges always remind me of him 🙂 .  They taste bloody awful, though!!

Back to the film – to finish off, this is such a nice film!  I don’t suppose it’s going to win any BAFTAs or Oscars, because films like this usually don’t, but go and see it if you get chance.  And, if you do, I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did 🙂 .

 

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

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 Based on the author’s family’s own experiences in wartime Hungary, this book reaches areas that other Holocaust novels usually don’t, including the treatment of men who were both gay and Jewish, the sinking of refugee ships, the Hungarian forced labour battalions, the “unseen Holocaust” of mass shootings and the attempts to identify victims and let survivors know what had become of their loved ones once the war was over.   It’s had mixed reviews – have people not got the patience to read long novels any more? – but I thought it was excellent.

The main character, Andras, whom I think is based on the author’s grandad (or maybe her great-uncle) is one of three brothers from a lower middle class family in a small Hungarian town. Restrictions on the numbers of Jews admitted to Hungarian universities in the 1930s mean that he’s unable to pursue his dream of studying architecture at home, but he’s able to get a place to do so in Paris instead. His brother, meanwhile, goes to study medicine in Modena. Once in Paris, Andras becomes part of a circle of friends, all Jewish students from various different countries. One will eventually emigrate to what was then Palestine. Another will suffer particularly horribly because he’s gay, but will survive and become a hero of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising. Looking for a job because funding for Hungarian Jewish students is withdrawn, Andras becomes involved in the world of the arts, and begins a relationship with Klara, a ballet mistress who’s a connection of someone who met in Budapest, and who has a complex and troubled history.

It’s a very long book, and there are a lot of characters, a lot of politics and a lot of romance. If anyone’s reading this, I highly recommend reading it for yourselves and finding out all about the characters and what happens to them!   Andras is unable to continue his studies when the Hungarian authorities refuse to renew his visa. He has to return to Hungary, and he and Klara marry and settle in Budapest – but he’s conscripted into one of the forced labour battalions in which so many Hungarian Jewish men died, and sent to Nazi-occupied Ukraine.

There are a huge number of characters in this, and a lot of small sub-plots, some little more than a few lines, drawing attention to various aspects of the history of the times. We learn that Mendel, Andras’s childhood best friend, qualified for the 1936 Olympics – “muscular Judaism” being a big thing in parts of Central Europe – but the Hungarian authorities refused to let him compete because he was Jewish. As Oswald Mosley did in Britain, far-right groups try to whip up trouble in pre-war France. There are social class issues: Klara is from quite a well-to-do family, whereas Andras is not. At one point, both families, plan to flee to Palestine, but the man they hope will arrange it for them has doubts following the sinking of the Sturma, a refugee ship refused entry by the British authorities and then hit by a Soviet torpedo. Andras’s labour battalion is billeted in a former orphanage: the children have all been murdered.

The basic plot isn’t actually that complicated, though, so I don’t seem to be writing very much – I know I go on at great length sometimes!! – but there’s a lot of detail, and there’s a huge cast of supporting characters. As you do with Holocaust novels, you hope that they’re all going to survive, whilst knowing that many of them probably won’t – and, inevitably, that’s what happens.

We live through the agonising wait of the survivors in Budapest, as they wait for the lists of names of identified victims. I was going to say that it’s a bit like the famous scene in Gone With The Wind where the women wait for the casualty lists to come in from Gettysburg, but it’s even worse, because identification is being made by exhuming bodies from mass graves and looking for papers or dog tags or any other form of identification.   The work to identify all the victims is still going now, as are similar projects to try to identify the victims of other genocides. The place where the characters in this book go in search of news is somewhere I’m due to visit next month.

But the book does end on a hopeful note, with miraculous survivals, and then the leap forward to 1956, and the emigration to America … seen as the land of the free.

Considering how long this book is, I’ve really not written very much. I can’t fault the history, so I’ve got no moaning to do!   And, as I’ve said, it’s more about the detail and the back stories and the sub-plots than it is about the main plot and what happens to the main character, and I think that’s why some people have criticised it, saying that it’s too long for what it is. But I don’t agree with that: I don’t think there was really anything in this that didn’t add something, and I think the author’s tried very hard to write a different sort of Holocaust novel, and succeeded. It takes some reading, because it is long, and there are a lot of characters, but it’s worth the effort.

A Very British History – BBC 4

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This was a four-part series looking into the experiences in 20th century Britain of four different groups of people – “Romany gypsies” in the Home Counties, “Black Brummies”, “the Jews of Leeds”, and “Ugandan Asians” in the East Midlands.    Each programme in the series was presented by a member of the community in question, rather than the BBC pushing its own agendas, and, although there was sometimes a bit too much focus on personal family history rather than broader community history, it generally worked very well.

A BBC-led series would probably have focused largely on prejudice, in a way that attacked the wider community.   This didn’t, although obviously the issue of prejudice and how it was faced did come up.  There were old BBC films (with subtitles where people were speaking in Cockney accents!) of people making negative comments about gypsies.  I’m not entirely comfortable with using the word “gypsies”, because we’re usually told now that it’s offensive, but the presenter said that he was OK with it.  People who’d moved to Birmingham from the Caribbean in the 1950s and 1960s spoke about struggling to get mortgages, and of the abuse suffered by couples in mixed-race relationship.  Jewish people who’d lived in Leeds during the inter-war years talked about being called “Christ killers” at school (the old religious prejudice that’s now largely been replaced by other manifestations of anti-Semitism) and of Oswald Mosley trying to whip up trouble in areas with large Jewish communities.  And we were shown photographs of notices issued by Leicester council, saying that Ugandan Asians shouldn’t move to their city.

But there was overall a fairly positive feeling, with the Jews of Leeds and the Ugandan Asians in particular speaking about their pride in being British. One of the Black Brummies said that he felt that a lot of prejudice was due to ignorance and fear of the unknown; and that’s why programmes like this are important.  I know I’m always harping on about soap operas, but I think it makes such a difference when they include characters from minority groups!  TV can do a lot.  Only the Black Brummies programme said much about the influence of the culture of different groups on British culture in general – music, food, language etc – though, although the Jews of Leeds programme did mention Michael Marks and Montague Burton and their influence on the British fashion industry and British retail in general.  I’d like to have heard more of that, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour.

There was a lot of talk about socio-economic issues, and how all four groups had to some extent struggled with poverty. The Ugandan Asians who came to Britain had generally lived affluent lifestyles in Uganda, and then came here and initially had to take what jobs and houses they could get, before improving their situation through hard work.  British Jews have a very diverse cultural heritage, something that’s very rarely discussed on TV; but the family of the man presenting this programme had moved to Leeds from Eastern Europe in the late 19th/early 20th century, which is perhaps typical of the majority of British Jews, coming from very little to very little, and worked their way up the socio-economic ladder from there.  I’d take issue with the historian who said that their main reason for coming here would have been economic opportunity, rather than discrimination and persecution, though.  People from the Caribbean did move to Birmingham in the hope of better economic opportunities, though – and it was interesting to see film of smiling, very smartly-dressed people disembarking from a plane … but, having come here with high hopes, many of them initially found themselves in low-paid jobs and poor accommodation, as the Jews of Leeds had before them.

The Romany gypsies were in a different position, having done the same jobs for years but then being forced to change their way of life as technological change took away many of their traditional jobs on the land, and – an issue that’s also being faced by Bedouins in the Middle East – the authorities increasingly tried to discourage nomadic/travelling lifestyles. Barbara Cartland, who was a councillor in Hertfordshire, spoke out in support of Romany people in the Home Counties, which I never knew!  This was at a time when there were major problems over agreeing on sites where Romany people living in caravans could base themselves.

Government involvement played a big role in the experiences of both Romany gypsies and Ugandan Asians. Quite a lot of the Ugandan Asian programme was about the initial arguments about whether or not Ugandan Asians, expelled from Uganda in 1972, should be allowed to settle in the UK, and the belated organisation of an airlift, followed by the organisation of camps for people to live in until they found homes and jobs.  We saw pictures of noticeboards giving the names of areas in which jobs were available, and were told that the presenter’s family had ended up in Scunthorpe because that was where her dad found a job, and that other relatives had ended up in Leicester.

It was very different from the experiences of the Jews of Leeds and Black Brummies, who’d gravitated to areas where there was work but also, except for the very first to arrive, where there were already established communities. The Windrush Generation were encouraged to come here, “pull factor”, whereas Jews in Leeds had been looking for somewhere to go, “push factor”, but in neither case had the government really got involved in where people went when they got here – which was very different from the experience of the Ugandan Asians.

This issue came up quite recently, over the question of refugees from the civil war in Syria coming to Britain. The idea was that each local council should agree to take a small number of people.  I can see the reasons for that, because large numbers of people, regardless of ethnicity or language or religion or anything else, settling in one area at once is going to put a strain on housing and public services; but it’s not the way that immigration has traditionally worked, in Britain or anywhere else.  It didn’t really work with the Ugandan Asian refugee programme, either, with the vast majority of those concerned eventually ending up in either London or Leicester.

Some of what was said did wander off the point a bit. The programme on the Jews of Leeds got as far as the Second World War and then turned into Who Do You Think You Are, with the presenter visiting Vilnius, where his great-grandmother had come from, and learning that some of her cousins had been amongst the Jews massacred in 1942 in a village, now part of modern Belarus, about 80 miles away.  It was very interesting – I’ve been to the Vilnius Jewish Museum myself, and he was able to speak to an elderly lady who’d been living in the village at the time and remembered what had happened – and of course it was an important story to tell; but the programme was supposed to be about Leeds.   And the programme on Ugandan Asians tackled the issue of whether or not Asians in Uganda might have to some extent brought their expulsion on themselves.  It was brave of the presenter to tackle her own relatives and family friends about their attitudes towards black people, but, again, the programme was supposed to be about people’s experiences in Britain.   The other two programmes did stick more to being what the series title said, with the Romany gypsy programme showing coverage of the Appleby Horse Fair, and the Black Brummies programme discussing all sorts of things from hairstyles to dominoes to language.

Quibbles aside – hey, there are always going to be some quibbles! – , all four programmes were well worth watching, and I’m hoping there’ll be a second series at some point, covering the experiences of other communities.  British Chinese people seem to be very under-represented on TV.  There’s been a lot of immigration from Poland to the UK in recent years, but it’d be interesting to see a programme about Polish immigration to the UK in the aftermath of the Second World War.   There’s a long and varied history of Somali immigration to the UK.   There’ve long been communities with Armenian, Greek or Italian heritage in Manchester and elsewhere.   I’ve just been reading about Hungarian refugees who fled the suppression of the 1956 Uprising.  And, of course, Irish immigration to Britain has had a huge influence on British society.   And that’s to mention just a few groups.

It’s not helpful when organisations omit the word “Easter” from Easter egg hunts, and it’s not helpful when people start shrieking about “cultural appropriation” because a chef has served a dish or a singer has sung a song from a culture to which they don’t have a personal genetic link. However, it is helpful when programmes like these, explaining and celebrating the culture and heritage of the different groups within the British population, are shown.  And it’s also very interesting.  Good series.