Jamestown season 3 – Sky 1

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Inviting someone round for tea and then chopping their head off at the table’s a bit anti-social, really, although displaying severed heads on spikes was a tradition for centuries: London and York were particularly into it. This is one of those so-bad-it’s-good series – it’s certainly never going to win any awards for historical accuracy, but it’s entertaining; and I love the fact that most of the settlers have northern accents 🙂 . It’s also the perfect antidote to the “culture wars”. No demi-religious myths about founding fathers, no cringeworthy romanticised stuff about Pocahontas, no snowflakey suggestions that all male white settlers are bad.  Instead, we get diversity, with strong white, black and Native American characters, strong male and female characters, and, in this series, a disabled character (with a Lancashire accent) but without anyone (other than the troubled gay Puritan bloke who sadly lost his head whilst he was having his tea) being preachy. There should be Polish builders, though! The real Jamestown colonists brought in Polish artisans … who then launched the first ever labour strike in the New World. And without anyone getting their head chopped off.

The programme’s moved away from the original storyline of the three young women making new lives for themselves – and Alice has now departed … so that Sophie Rundle can marry Suranne Jones in this new historical drama series set in Halifax. I wish the BBC’d get a move on with showing that: it’s started in the US, but not here, which is rather strange. She (Alice, not Sophie) decided to leave because her husband Silas has run off to join the Pamunkey. Verity hasn’t had much to do yet in this series, but Jocelyn, the other member of the original trio, continues to play all the blokes off against each other and get her own way – go Jocelyn!  Although she’s being very nasty to poor little Mercy the maid, who, as if being bossed about by Jocelyn wasn’t bad enough, got clouted with a scythe-thing by the nasty Puritan Virginia Company secretary (before he lost his head) for snogging Silas’s brother. That’s the little brother, who used to be Sean in Emmerdale. Not the big brother, who’s Max Beesley.

OK, the whole thing’s a bit daft, but it does cover the serious issues of the positions of slaves, and of female settlers, in Jamestown society, and this series is going to tell us more about the clashes between the settlers and the Pamunkey. And, as I’ve said, it’s good to have a series which covers the arrival of settlers in what was to become the United States without making it look like either some sort of religious destiny thing, some sort of romanticised thing, or some sort of white supremacist thing. We’ve just got a variety of characters – some white, some black, some Native American, some nicer than others but that’s because of their individual personalities and not because of their ethnicity – trying to make lives for themselves.

It’s hardly the most historically accurate series ever, but it deserves credit for that. And it is very watchable! Oh, and the scenery’s lovely – it’s actually filmed in Budapest, not Virginia, and, having just been to Budapest and been on a nice boat trip up and down the Danube, I’m having great fun spotting bits of Margaret Island and the shores!  This is the last series, so enjoy it whilst it lasts.  I’ll kind of miss it once it’s gone, but not many programmes seem to last beyond a few series any more …

 

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton

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This is a very well-written children’s book, telling the story of a family of Syrian asylum seekers in Manchester in the style of a traditional ballet book, with the Mary Martin/Miss Arrowhead role of the fairy godmother ballet teacher poignantly being filled by an elderly lady who came here as a Jewish refugee from the Nazis.  It really does get across the messages of the situation in Syria and the issues faced by asylum seekers – and also the teacher’s experiences as one of the Kindertransport children eighty years earlier, making the point that there are refugees in every generation – in a way that the intended audience, probably children aged around 9 to 12, will be able to understand. Older readers will get a lot from it too.

11-year-old Aya, her mum and her baby brother have come to Manchester from Aleppo: what’s happened to her dad isn’t explained until later on.  At the start of the story, they’ve already been here for several months, but there are flashbacks to what happened in Syria.  I’m not normally keen on books which jump around like that, but I can see that starting in Aleppo and describing the war there might have been too much in a children’s book.  Like many people fleeing Syria, they’d led a happy and comfortable life there, the dad being a doctor – who’d spent some years working in the UK and spoke fluent English, which he’d taught Aya.

They came to the UK via Turkey and Greece, so, because they should have claimed asylum in Greece, the first EU member state they came to, their claim for refugee status in the UK is complicated. I don’t want to get political – and the issues around the asylum situation are far more multifaceted than the author seems to want readers to believe, even allowing for the fact that she’s writing for children – but I don’t think anyone could argue that the asylum claim process isn’t inefficient and doesn’t take too long; and we see that the family are in limbo for months whilst they wait for a decision.  They receive help from volunteers at food banks and advice centres, but also meet with some hostility from their landlord when they cannot pay their rent.  The author’s keen to make the point that her characters have their pride: when a kind girl gives Aya some old leotards and ballet clothes that she’s grown out of, Aya feels uncomfortable about being seen as a charity case.

The book doesn’t try to explain all the complexities of the war in Syria and who’s on which side and why – does anyone, never mind a child of around 11, actually understand that? – but it explains that attacks on peaceful protests spiralled into civil war, and it doesn’t shy away from describing bombings and telling us that Aya lost friends in the bombings, and that other people she knew were detained and haven’t been seen since.  Children in the intended readership age group are old enough to know about this, and fiction is a very good way of getting the message through.

We learn that Aya was injured by shrapnel and has a permanent scar as a result, and also that her mum is struggling physically and mentally after leaving Syria too soon after the difficult birth of her son.  The combination of that and the fact that she (the mum) doesn’t speak English puts a huge amount of responsibility on Aya’s shoulders.  What can bring joy and hope back into her life?

And that’s where we get this fascinating mix of genres – the title of the book is an obvious act of homage to Noel Streatfeild, and this is a very 21st century story combined with a traditional Girls’ Own story.  In the community centre where they go for advice, ballet classes are being held in another room – and we learn that Aya had ballet lessons back in Aleppo and was very keen.  There’s a moving scene later on in which some of the girls in the class are surprised to learn that there were ballet classes in Syria, a country they only associate with war, and Aya is sad that they don’t initially realise that life there was once perfectly normal.

In true GO style, Aya goes to watch the lessons, is invited to join in, and is so brilliant that Miss Helena, the teacher, offers her the chance to attend classes without paying – but, evidently understanding that she doesn’t want to be seen as a charity case, invites her to pay her way by helping out in the classes for younger children.  We later find out that Miss Helena, who was originally from Prague, came here on the Kindertransport, alone, and became a world famous ballerina.

Having Miss Helena in that role of what I’ve called the “fairy godmother ballet teacher”, a classic ballet book trope, is inspired.  She later tells Aya all about her own experiences – and this again is something that’s so important for children in the intended readership age group to know – and the point is made so well that war and persecution and refugee crises happen in every generation, over and over again.

Aya makes friends with a girl called Dotty, the daughter of another world famous ballerina – who wants her daughter to follow in her footsteps. There’s a sub-plot about how Dotty doesn’t really want to be a ballerina.  That’s very Lorna Hill – think Mariella Foster and Vicki Scott.  And the girls in the class arrange a concert to raise funds for the refugees – that’s very Girls’ Own too.

In some ways it is a classic children’s ballet book, and yet at the same time it’s a million miles away from Ballet Shoes or A Dream of Sadler’s Wells.  It’s all woven together very cleverly.  Aya and Dotty get locked in at the ballet studio after staying late to practise, standard enough storyline … but then Aya has a panic attack, and we learn about how she and her family travelled from Syria to Turkey in a container on a lorry, and nearly suffocated.  And about the conditions in the refugee camp.  It doesn’t spell out the dangers there, especially for women and girls, but there are mentions of it being unsafe to go out at night, of screaming, and of Aya feeling uncomfortable at the way some of the men look at her.

It is a children’s book, despite some of the hard-hitting subjects it covers, and adult readers will need to suspend disbelief over some aspects of it.  If Miss Helena started attending ballet classes before the Second World War, she must be the oldest ballet teacher in the world!  And would Dotty’s posh family, who live in a mansion – in an area near woodland, so does that suggest Alderley Edge? – be sending their daughter to ballet classes in a community centre in an underprivileged area miles away?  But try to ignore all that – it’s necessary for the story!

Dotty’s family have got their own swimming pool.  Dotty invites Aya to swim in it with her … and that brings about another flashback, this time to the flimsy boats making the crossing from Turkey to Greece, and that’s when we find out that the boat Aya’s family were in overturned, as so many did, and her dad drowned.  There are all these juxtapositions – from a ballet studio to a refugee camp, from a swimming pool in a mansion to people drowning whilst being taken across the Aegean in boats that aren’t fit for purpose, by unscrupulous traffickers who care nothing for human lives.

And Dotty, and another girl in their ballet class, are auditioning for the Royal Northern Ballet School.  Sadly, this doesn’t actually exist 🙂 .  But think Sadler’s Wells/Royal Ballet School, but based near Manchester.  If Aya can get a scholarship there, she’ll be entitled to stay in the UK because she’ll get a study visa.  She’s missed the preliminary auditions, but Miss Helena manages to swing it so that she can be seen anyway.

Just as an aside, it doesn’t specify which part of town any of the action’s taking place in, but there are some definite clues on the journey to the ballet school.  They seem to be heading across town on the Mancunian Way, and then out on to Chester Road, past the two Old Traffords 🙂 .  So they must be based on the north side of town, to need to cross town to get to the south side … which suggests the Cheetham Hill/Crumpsall area.  Then they keep going, so that’ll be straight down the A56 in its various incarnations south of the city centre, and it sounds as if the ballet school building is based on either Dunham Massey or Tatton Park.  I just had to try to work that out!

As Aya rehearses for the audition, she remembers dancing in the refugee camp, and thinks about how dancing is universal.  I’ve also seen videos of little kids in refugee camps playing football, just like little kids do in Manchester and Madrid and Munich.  Football, dancing, singing …  they don’t care who you are or where you are.

Of course, the audition is on the same day as the final asylum hearing.  Aya’s overcome with anxiety, and also with feelings of guilt at the thought that, if she succeeds, she’ll be granted a student visa but her mum and brother may still be deported.  And – this is very Girls’ Own, in a very un-Girls’-Own scenario – she faints in the middle of it all.  She doesn’t feel that she can go on, until Miss Helena explains that she lost her parents and sister in the Holocaust and turned round all the survivor guilt into believing that she had to make the most of the chance that she’d been given and that dancing was her way of making something beautiful out of the saving of her own life and the loss of theirs.  The pairing of the two characters who’ve both been through so much, in the traditional ballet book roles of the poor but brilliant student and the fix-it teacher, is a very clever touch, and very well executed.

I won’t give away the ending.  But I will mention the afterword, in which the author talks about “lightbulb books” for children, and how that’s the sort of book she’s tried to write.  She’s certainly ambitious: she talks about aspiring to write something that’s like When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit and The Silver Sword and also like Ballet Shoes, The Swish of the Curtain and the Sadler’s Wells books.  Time will tell how this book’s received, but I do hope that a lot of people will read it, and get a lot out of it.  It uses the term “the kindness of strangers” over and over again.  That’s something that we should all aspire to.

My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira

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I was very sorry that both The Crimson Field and Mercy Street were cancelled – having been interested in the history of nursing in wartime since I read the Ladybird book about Florence Nightingale when I was in the third year infants 🙂 – and I’m always up for an American Civil War book. So this book, about a young woman working in a Union army hospital in Washington DC, definitely appealed. I didn’t find it nearly as good as it was hyped up to be; but it was quite interesting, and it certainly depicted the horrific conditions in wartime hospitals very well.

The basic storyline was that Mary Sutter, a 20-year-old woman from a well-to-do middle-class family in upstate New York, was a skilled midwife who wanted to become a surgeon. I’m not convinced that, in the 1850s and 1860s, a young single woman from a wealthy family in the eastern US would have been working as a midwife, but never mind!  She was repeatedly turned down for apprenticeships (the idea of applying to medical college doesn’t seem to have come into it), but, when war broke out, ran away from home to apply to become a nurse.

Being very young and quite attractive, she was turned down by Dorothea Dix, the Union Army’s Superintendent of Nurses. I first came across Dorothea Dix when I was 12, in John Jakes’s wonderful Love and War, in which Virgilia Hazard became an army nurse. Virgilia was plain-looking and over 35, so she met Miss Dix’s requirements!  Mary didn’t, but she eventually persuaded a doctor to let her work in his hospital, by agreeing to see to the cleaning and supplies and so on as well … and, of course, she did a great job, and assisted in some surgery.

What the book did well was to make a point about the lack of opportunities for women, and also about the appalling conditions within the wartime hospitals. Just going off the point slightly, one thing that never comes up in discussions about Gone With The Wind is that Scarlett and Melanie both worked in a hospital in Atlanta almost throughout the war. And, looking at real life people, Louisa M Alcott worked as a nurse during the war, and she was actually at the front. Er, where was I? Conditions in wartime hospitals. As the author pointed out, it didn’t seem to occur to the authorities – and you can say the same about both the Union and Confederate sides – to try to learn from Florence Nightingale’s work during the Crimean War. The book really did get that across very well.

However, some of the plot was more than a bit daft. Everyone kept falling in love with everyone else. Mary and a new neighbour fell in love after about two minutes, then two minutes later he fell in love with and married her twin sister. There was this whole cliched twin thing going on – Jenny got the looks, Mary got the brains. Two surgeons also fell in love with Mary, and she seemed to be in love with both of them as well. And one of her midwifery patients left her husband two minutes after meeting Mary’s brother.

There was also a rather melodramatic plot in which Jenny died in childbirth and everyone blamed Mary for not having been there – and Mary felt particularly guilty as part of the reason she’d run away was that she was in love with Jenny’s husband. Not to mention a bizarre back story about how all Mary’s matrilineal ancestors had been midwives and one of them had delivered a dauphin of France. And, although the actual military campaigns were mentioned, no-one seemed very interested in the actual causes of the war, or what they were fighting for.

So it’s not the greatest book you’ll ever read, but it’s not bad, and it does tackle the important subject of medical treatment during wartime. I’m rather confused by some of the reviews which seem to put it in the same league as Gone With The Wind and North and South, which it most certainly is not, but I’ve read worse … and it’s only the author’s first published novel.   And I do wish the TV companies would bring back The Crimson Field and Mercy Street

 

The Youngest Sister: A Tale of Manitoba by Bessie Marchant (Facebook group reading challenge)

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Bessie Marchant’s books are great, because her girls get to have all sorts of hair-raising adventures and never need to be rescued by boys!  I was expecting this, published in 1913, to be primarily an adventure book, as most of her books are – the blurb did say “a series of adventures” – but, although it started off with our heroine saving a man from drowning, it turned out to be quite an eclectic mix of genres, with shades of Little House on the Prairie, What Katy Did and Little Women … and then a load of adventures to finish up with!   There were some ridiculously far-fetched coincidences, but it was quite enjoyable, and I liked the idea of having a main character who was neither a self-confident leader, too good to be true nor in need of reform: she was nice without being annoyingly perfect, and her main fault (insofar as it was a fault) was a lack of self-confidence, which I think a lot of readers would identify with.

Heroines of adventure books usually are courageous and outgoing, but Bertha Doyne was … I was going to say a bit of a wuss, but that’d be unfair because she actually was very brave when she needed to be, just, as I’ve said above, lacking in confidence.  Like Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books, she was the youngest of three sisters who’d been orphaned and left without much money.  However, unlike Elizabeth and Anne Temple, the two older sisters, Anne and Hilda, had both got jobs.  Bertha hung around the house, in Nova Scotia, doing the cooking and cleaning and feeling inferior (although she really wasn’t as annoying as that makes her sound), until one day she saved a man from drowning and decided that she clearly wasn’t that useless after all.  But, before she could do anything about it, Anne got married and moved to Australia, Hilda went on a tour of Europe as a governess/companion, and Bertha was packed off to Manitoba to stay with a married cousin, Grace, who’d been very good to the three girls when their mother had died but now lived in the middle of nowhere and had umpteen kids.

She hadn’t been there long before Grace fell off a horse and was paralysed, which meant that Bertha had to do all the housework, look after the kids and look after Grace.  Then most of their wheat, and their neighbours’ wheat, was destroyed by fire.  Bertha’s heroic efforts (hooray!) to stop the spread of the fire meant that things weren’t as bad as they could have been, but Grace’s husband had to go off on an “expedition” because it paid well and they were desperate for money.  And then it turned out that he’d been conned so he wasn’t going to get paid at all.

So much for an adventure novel!  And Bessie Marchant’s books are usually fairly cheerful, but I was beginning to get the horrible feeling that this was going to turn into some sort of preachy religious novel, with Bertha feeling duty-bound to stay there and sacrifice herself for everyone else’s well-being, even though her eldest sister had sent the money for her to go to Australia, and Grace never complaining about what had happened to her.  But it actually never got like that.  It was always quite clear that Bertha was thoroughly pissed off about it all, rather than accepting it with sweet contentment, and that the disaster with the wheat wasn’t some sort of test of their spirit but a result of the farmers’ stupidity in relying solely on one crop.  And Grace, whilst she didn’t complain, certainly didn’t deliver lectures on the School of Pain and the School of Love – just kept on hoping that she’d eventually recover.  In the end she did.  As people in books often do.

Various other things were going on too.  In between the various disasters, Bertha had been trying to get some writing published – like Jo March in Little Women, although it didn’t occur to her to try writing “trash” (I do wonder what was in some of the stuff Jo wrote!) just to try to bring some money in.  And, when she’d rescued the man from drowning, he’d put his coat on her to keep her warm … and she’d found a load of diamonds in the pocket!  As you do.  But he’d never come back for them, which was very odd.  And then he’d disappeared.  Also, it had transpired that Tom (Grace’s husband) had a nasty but rich old uncle, who’d just been robbed.  Fancy that!  Bertha had been stressing about the diamonds and returning them to the mysterious coat owner ever since she’d found them.

Then, whaddaya know, the coat owner turned up, thousands of miles from where she’d last seen him!   Not only once, but twice – first, he just happened to be passing whilst the wheat was burning, and came to her assistance, and then she saved him (again) from a runaway sled in a blizzard.  As you do.  Only she didn’t realise who he was until it was too late – and then she decided that she’d have to ride thirty miles or so to the nearest town, and hope to catch up with him there.

But, on reaching the town, she found out that the mystery man, Edgar, was no longer there: he’d taken a job as a navvy and was miles away by then.  But she was so stressed about the diamonds that she decided she’d have to go to the railway camp … but, en route, the end carriage in which she and her chaperone were travelling became uncoupled from the rest of the train, and, with nobody else seeming to notice, was left perched precariously on a rickety bridge in a gale.  Ah, this was more like Bessie Marchant!   The chaperone was swept out of the door by the gale, but Bertha rescued her.  Hooray!  And eventually they did get to the railway camp.  It turned out that Edgar was not in a fact a navvy by trade, but was a nice middle-class bloke (which was a jolly good job, because Bertha really fancied him and obviously we wouldn’t have wanted her taking up with someone with no prospects) who’d been forced to work as a navvy after being wrongly accused of embezzlement.  It was all happening now!   But, when she tried to hand over the diamonds, he said that he knew nothing about them and had no idea how they’d got into his pocket.

Right.  He then offered to escort her home, because her chaperone was too traumatised by the carriage on rickety bridge affair to travel back immediately.  I’m not sure that this was very proper, but never mind.  On reaching the hotel where they had to wait for the train, he found, waiting for him, a letter bringing the news that his name had been cleared.  Wa-hey!!  But, oh no – they also heard that everyone on Tom’s expedition had been found frozen to death.  More woe!   On reaching home, they found that the nasty rich uncle was there, full of contrition and offering to support Grace (who was still recovering) and the kids.  Oh well, that was one thing sorted – that’d leave Bertha free to ride off into the sunset with Edgar.  Er, no, sadly not.  Edgar wanted to marry Bertha, obviously, but felt that he couldn’t ask her because a) he still hadn’t got any money and b) he didn’t want to ruin her writing career (he clearly hadn’t read any GO books in which married women continue to write books).  And Grace couldn’t possibly accept charity from the rich old uncle, because he was nasty, so Bertha would have to stay with her.  Oh dear.  Oh dear indeed.

Then, as if things weren’t bad enough, the nasty old uncle recognised Edgar as the man who’d robbed him – yes, of the diamonds.  Of course, there was a perfectly simple explanation.  They’d both been attending meetings at the same hotel, and had left their coats in the cloakroom.  Obviously you’d really leave a coat with a bag of extremely valuable diamonds in the pocket in an unattended cloakroom in a public place.  Edgar had picked up the wrong coat without realising it.  And not noticed that there was anything in any of the pockets.  Bertha handed over the diamonds … but the uncle collapsed with the shock of it all.  Edgar rode post haste to get the doctor … and, en route, found a man lying collapsed in the road.  It was Tom!  He’d miraculously survived!  Hooray!

The uncle then obligingly died, leaving the diamonds to Tom and Grace.  Bertha’s book was published, Edgar got a good job, and Bertha and Edgar got married and presumably lived happily ever after.  OK, OK, it was ridiculously far-fetched, but it really was quite a good read – I was genuinely quite excited as I waited to find out how Edgar had come to have the diamonds!   It combined a number of different genres quite well, and Bertha made a good heroine.  It’s available for free on Amazon, and I think it’s also on Project Gutenberg, and, for free, it’s certainly worth a go.

Pilgrimage: the Road to Rome – BBC 2

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Wouldn’t it be wonderful to have the time and opportunity to get away from it all for a few weeks and travel along a historic route, dating back well over a thousand years, through the glorious Swiss Alps and beautiful Northern and Central Italy, in blessed peace and quiet?  OK, OK, I’d end up whingeing about the heat, the insects and the lack of proper sanitation, not to mention any walking uphill, but I still love the idea of it.  Like last year’s series about the Camino to Santiago de Compostela, this is following a group of minor celebs, with different backgrounds and beliefs, along a traditional pilgrimage route, this time the Via Francigena (“French/Frankish Way” – it doesn’t sound nearly as good in English!) from Martigny (near Verbier) to the Vatican City.  Featuring St Bernard dogs, thermal baths and wine.

The Via Francigena actually starts from Canterbury, but I suppose that would have taken too long!   They’re using various modes of transport, but the last 100 km (just over 60 miles), from Viterbo to Rome is being done on foot.  And the “pilgrims” involved are Stephen K Amos, Mehreen Baig, Katy Brand, Brendan Cole, Les Dennis, Lesley Joseph, Greg Rutherford and Dana Scallon.

I’ve been to various pilgrimage sites – as a holidaymaking historian, not as a pilgrim (although I think I get some sort of medieval pilgrimage gold star for having been to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela)! – relating to various different religions/denominations, but, due to being a wage slave, it’s only ever been for the day.  I love the idea of being able to take a couple of weeks, or more, and walk the historic routes – having time out to think and to take in the experience and to see the different places along the way.

I’m not sure that I’d go for the Vatican City, though.  It’s an incredible place to visit, but there’s too much else going on there.  It’s so grand and so full of incredible artwork, and also so much an administrative centre, and it’s surrounded by Rome, the Eternal City, in all its ancient and modern glory … and it’s all just too much to feel really spiritual.  OK, all pilgrimage sites are busy and touristy, and you’d probably feel a lot more spiritual if you weren’t stood in a horrendous queue to see whatever you’d come to see, looking at your watch to see how long you’ve got before you need to be back at the coach, hoping fervently that you’ll have time to get something to eat and drink and that there won’t be a long queue for the toilets.  But I think that places that exist purely or mainly as religious sites – and it can be any religion or denomination; you don’t have to “belong” to that religion or denomination yourself to appreciate the place – maybe work better as “spiritual” places.  Having said which, the Vatican is great, and our eight celebs got to meet the Pope at the end of their journey (which will be shown in the final episode, on Good Friday)!

It’s actually the journey that’s the most interesting bit, though, more than the destination.  We don’t hear that much about pilgrimage routes – although I think that the National Trust are going to try to start promoting some of the old routes within the UK – but they are very much a “thing”. I was quite surprised to see how many pilgrims were heading into Santiago de Compostela when I went there.   It’s not necessarily a religious thing – it’s that taking time out.  It could be, say, the Inca Trail.  Or, nearer to home and with rather fewer altitude sickness issues, the Pennine Way.  Along the Via Francigena, our pilgrims – although they were using apps and Google maps! – found pilgrimage signposts, and “donativo” refreshment places and hostels primarily serving people travelling the route, and had their pilgrimage passports stamped at each stop.

And it seemed so quiet, for all that it’s a “thing”!  OK, maybe other people were just politely asked to move whilst the BBC were filming, but you often see TV programmes filmed amidst hordes of people, so I doubt it.  Peace and quiet are so, so hard to find!  Even when you’re in your own home, even if you’re not answering the phone, there are often dogs barking, kids yelling, cars and motorbikes revving their engines, or someone mowing the lawn or playing music loudly.  And there’s usually a nagging feeling that you really ought to be doing one of the seventy billion things on your To Do List (capital T, capital D, capital L!).

That seemed to be how the “pilgrims” were looking at it too – I don’t think St Peter was mentioned once, and even Rome itself was only mentioned in terms of going the right way, but there was a lot of talk about peace and “mental space” and time out.  There was some general talk about faith and religion, though.  In Viterbo, it’s traditional to go into a Catholic church and receive a pilgrims’ blessing.  Some of the group – with Lesley, who’s Jewish, and Mehreen, who’s Muslim, amongst the most enthusiastic – chose to do this, but others said they didn’t feel comfortable about it.

There was more talk on the subject at other points of the journey, as well.  Dana, a practising Catholic and the most religious member of the group, said that religion is very important to her, but alluded to the “difficult time” in the Catholic church at the moment – i.e. with the child sex abuse scandals.  Stephen said that, as a gay man, he doesn’t feel that any religion welcomes him.  Les spoke about how his mother had once been very religious, but had lost her faith after being shunned by her church when she had a child outside marriage.  Brendan Cole summed it all up very well by saying that the problems are not with particular formal/organised religious, but with some of the people in them.

It was great to see people discussing sensitive issues – faith and religion are awkward topics to discuss, because people can be very sensitive about them –  without arguing and shouting each other down.  I’m so, so sick of seeing social media posts in which people use the word “stupid” (or worse) to describe anyone whose views on a political issue differ from theirs.  Some people will be abusive towards anyone who disagrees with them over a sports event, a film, a TV series, a book … anything!  This was just nice.  It was nice TV.  And it’d be a nice thing to do.  Just given the time …

 

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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It makes a refreshing change to read a book which treats the Pendle Witch Trials as what they were, the state-sponsored persecution of vulnerable people, resulting in the judicial killings of eight women and two men, rather than as some sort of Gothic romance or Disneyfied fairytale. I understand the desire to bring tourists into the Pendle area, but I could scream every time I hear the X43 bus route, linking Manchester to Colne and passing within a few hundred yards of my house, called “The Witch Way”, and see silly pictures of pointy hats and broomsticks on the sides of the vehicles. This book, whilst it features real people, is fictitious, but set against the background of the Lancashire Witch Trials of 1612, and ties the story of Alice Gray (or Grey), the only one of the accused to be acquitted, to that of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the then mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley.

See what I mean!!

 

It’s the author’s first published novel, and that does show: it’s lacking a bit in style and polish, and some of the language is anachronistic … but very few people produce Gone With The Wind at the first attempt, and it’s a pretty creditable first effort. The author’s not a historian, but she’s clearly done a lot of research into this particular subject. Whilst most of the characters are real people – including the Shuttleworths, the people accused of witchcraft, Roger Nowell who was the magistrate presiding over the trials, and Thomas Potts who was the clerk of the court – the story is fictional, but Stacey Halls hasn’t really messed with the known facts, and has explained clearly in the afterword that this is a work of fiction. If only all authors would do that!

It’s very much a book about women, told in the first person with Fleetwood Shuttleworth as the narrator. In fact, none of the men come out of it well at all. Fleetwood’s husband Richard Shuttleworth is keeping a mistress (the character is Judith Thorpe, another real person, who did later become his second wife). Alice Gray’s father doesn’t care about her plight. Roger Nowell is more interested in furthering his own prospects than in seeing justice done, and will manipulate anyone and anything he can in order to get a result. It emerges late on that Fleetwood, as a child, was abused by a man her family planned for her to marry. And Fleetwood has a very low opinion of the king.

The question of motives in the Pendle Witch Trials is fascinating, especially as we can only guess at how people’s minds were working. Why did some of the “witches” confess? Were they genuinely convinced of their own powers, or were they tortured to a point where they’d have confessed to anything? Why did some of those involved denounce their neighbours and even members of their own families – were they settling old scores, or thinking that doing so might save their own skins, or, in superstitious times, did they genuinely believe what they were saying? To what extent was misogyny a factor? In witch trials everywhere, the majority of those accused were women. Even now, the word “witch” is often used as a term of abuse against women in positions of power, whereas “wizard” is used as a compliment.

Were Roger Nowell and others hoping to win favour by convicting people of witchcraft, knowing how strongly King James felt about the subject? How much was this about the authorities trying to impose control in what was then a fairly remote area? How much of it was motivated by anti-Catholic feeling? Catholicism remained strong in the Pendle area, as in many other parts of the North, long after the Reformation. And, as is so often the case in any form of state-sponsored persecution – the Spanish Inquisition’s probably the best historical example, and the anti-gay laws in Brunei prove that this is still an issue – religion, in this case Protestantism, was both a motivating factor and an excuse. And, once an idea’s taken hold, hysteria soon sets in, and the situation takes on a life of its own.

We don’t see much of the actual “witches” here, but Roger Nowell features prominently, and is very much shown as being out for himself, whilst other people are caught up in the panic and ready to believe that witchcraft is at work. We all struggle to accept that things can just happen: we want a reason, an explanation. In times when there was little scientific knowledge to provide that, if a family member suddenly died or suffered a life-changing illness, or a horse dropped dead, or a cow stopped producing milk, or a crop failed, it was all too easy and convenient to put the blame on a “witch”. It may have been to settle a personal score or it may have been genuinely believing, whilst distressed and grieving, that someone had done harm. And the reign of James I, and, later, the Civil War period, provided very fertile soil for that.

James I (of England, 1603-1625) and VI (of Scotland, 1567-1625), was in many ways an excellent king at a very difficult time, had a real bee in his bonnet about “witches”, apparently partly due to getting it into his head that witchcraft caused the storm which nearly sank the ship carrying him and his new wife Anne of Denmark from her home country to Scotland. There were witch trials in many places in the period from around 1450 to 1750, but James was particularly obsessive about the subject. In 1597, he published a book called “Daemonologie”, about witchcraft, and apparently he even personally supervised the torture of women accused of being witches. “Daemonologie” is mentioned several times in this book. It was hugely influential.

The Pendle Witch Trials of 1612, part of the Lancashire Witch Trials which also involved alleged witches from other parts of the county, became very well-known because so many people were involved, and because of the publication of the proceedings by Thomas Potts. “The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster” – copies available on Amazon for around a fiver, four centuries later! Then, in 1848/9, William Harrison Ainsworth wrote a “romance” based on the trials – not at all historically accurate, but very popular. And, just over a century later, Robert Neill wrote another one. Today, you can buy “witch” costumes and little models of “witches” from shops in the Pendle area, the Pendle tourist info office by the Boundary Mill car park near Colne will provide you with all manner of leaflets about “witch trails” in the local area, and, as I’ve already said, the X43 bus route linking the Pendle area with Manchester is called “The Witch Way”. I get the desire to bring in tourists to boost the local economy, but I find it to be in rather poor taste. Nine people were judicially murdered (and an tenth in a separate trial, and one died whilst awaiting trial). We’re not talking about Mildred Hubble and Miss Cackle.

So what did happen? The known facts are explained in this book, as part of the story. A young woman called Alizon Device, on her way to Trawden Forest (note to self, must get to Wycoller Country Park some time this spring), got into an argument with a pedlar called John Law, and cursed him. He suffered a stroke shortly afterwards, and his son accused Alizon Device of witchcraft. This opened a can of worms, much of which seems to have been due to a feud between two local families, the Demdike/Device family and the Chattox/Whittle family. Various allegations were made of harming and even murdering people by witchcraft, and then there was a meeting at Malkin Tower, the home of Alizon Device’s grandmother, on Good Friday 1612, which (may well have been a secret Catholic service, but) was alleged to have been a witches’ coven.

Twelve people were arrested. Family members, notably Alizon’s nine-year-old sister Jennet Device, gave evidence against each other, and some of the “witches” confessed. It really isn’t clear why they would have done that, although they may well have been genuinely convinced of their own powers. In a poor area, at a time when it was difficult to keep body and soul together, especially for women – and with the safety net of the convents long gone – being a “wise woman”, or even claiming to have magical powers, was a way of earning a living. Or maybe they were tortured to the point where they gave in and gave the inquisitors what they wanted.

The book suggests that Jennet Device may have hoped to be adopted by the Nowells. Her story’s particularly interesting: a nine-year-old child wouldn’t normally have been allowed to give evidence at a trial, but James I was so obsessed with witches that he allowed the normal rules of court to be suspended in cases of witchcraft trials. It would have been easy to depict her as a frightened little kid being manipulated by powerful authority figures, but that’s not how she comes across here, and she makes a fascinating character. It’s also suggested that the Devices made allegations against the Chattoxes to try to divert attention from their own family, which certainly seems realistic. However, whilst it’s generally accepted that Alizon Device, in particular, did genuinely believe herself guilty, it’s suggested here that those who confessed did so only because of torture. At the end of the day, we just don’t know: we can only surmise. But the account given does suggest that Alizon confessed in court when confronted by John Law – which doesn’t happen in this book, which shows Law as being so badly affected by his stroke that he was unable to speak clearly. Having said that, what’s in the account given by Thomas Potts may not be 100% accurate. It’s not thought to be wildly inaccurate, but it should be noted that both he and Roger Nowell did indeed do quite nicely careerwise out of it all.

The book doesn’t really go into the witch trials and what was going on with the Devices and Chattoxes in detail, though – the focus in terms of the accusations is on Alice Gray, the only one of the accused to be acquitted. Her name’s normally spelt Grey, but it’s spelt Gray in this book … but spellings of names do vary. More annoying, though, is the spelling of Westmorland as Westmoreland: the extra e does appear in some Georgian and Victorian documents, but it’s certainly not used now and it’s unlikely to have been used in the 17th century. I didn’t really need to see “now Cumbria” added to it, either, but that’s probably just me.

A few other things grate, as well. “Mr” and “Miss” were not used in the 17th century, a gentlewoman like Fleetwood Shuttleworth would not have used her first name when introducing herself to complete strangers of a lower class, “Mum” and “Dad” certainly sound far too contemporary, and there’s the odd bit of language in the narrative that sounds distinctly 21st century American – even though the author’s local. And some of the plot’s very far-fetched: the idea of the heavily pregnant teenage wife of a local squire roaming around remote parts of the countryside on her own, going into alehouses and threatening to shoot people has to be taken with an extremely large pinch of salt. But it is the author’s first published book, and it’s far better than a lot of books I’ve read by long-established authors.

There’s a definite touch of the Victorian Gothics about it, especially with the appearance of animals which we’re presumably meant to think could be “familiars”. A house is set on fire, and that made me wonder if the author had, consciously or unconsciously, been influenced by Charlotte Bronte, who’s known to have stayed at Gawthorpe Hall and to have based Ferndean Manor on nearby Wycoller Hall. Just a thought.

We don’t know why Alice Gray, accused alongside Katherine “Mouldheels” Hewitt of murdering a child, was acquitted. In this book, she’s shown as being a midwife, employed by Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the 17-year-old mistress of Gawthorpe Hall near Burnley. It now belongs to the National Trust, and is quite a nice place to visit. It’s got a painting of a meeting of the Cotton Famine Relief Committee, which I always get excited about! In 1612, the house did indeed belong to Richard Shuttleworth, later High Sheriff of Lancashire and then a Parliamentarian colonel and MP. His first wife was Fleetwood Barton, and we know that they had two sons, one born not long after the trials.
There’s no evidence to suggest any connection between the Shuttleworths and any of the Pendle “witches”, or even that Alice Gray was a midwife, but it’s a plausible idea. “Wise women” were often amongst those suggested of witchcraft, and having being spoken for by someone with influence in the area would explain Alice’s acquittal.

The story is that Fleetwood has suffered three miscarriages and has found a letter which she takes to mean that neither she nor her unborn child will survive her fourth pregnancy. She meets Alice by chance, whilst feeling unwell, and, when Alice gives her some infusions which make her feel better, becomes convinced that only Alice can bring her and her child through the pregnancy alive. When Alice is arrested, Fleetwood is determined to save her. The explanation given for the story behind Alice’s arrest is again, whilst entirely fictional, quite plausible – that she found John Law after his stroke and tried to help him, and that the child she was alleged to have murdered had died of what would now be recognised as an epileptic fit, but that the child’s widowed father, with whom she was romantically involved, had blamed her. It all gets completely melodramatic, with Fleetwood threatening to shoot the bereaved father and persuading him to give her a signed testament saying that Alice was innocent, collapsing on the way home, going into labour, and persuading her husband to read the testament out in court so that Alice would be freed and could come to save her life in childbirth!

As I said, it needs to be taken with a big pinch of salt. But I enjoyed it, I was very impressed by the fact that the author explained what was fact and what was fiction – I do wish all authors would do that – and, most of all, I was so pleased to see someone treating a romanticised episode in our county’s history, and our country’s history, as what it really was. The story of the Pendle witches isn’t about pointy hats and broomsticks, or black cats and cauldrons. It’s about persecution.

In some countries, this still goes on – there are still cases of women being put to death for alleged witchcraft. In many other countries, vulnerable groups of people are persecuted for a wide range of other reasons. It certainly isn’t romantic and it certainly isn’t funny. But the Pendle area is beautiful, and well worth visiting. And this book’s worth reading – not bad at all.

 

Countryfile (70 years of national parks) – BBC 1

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Four of the six people arrested during the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass of 1932 were from Cheetham Hill, and “The Manchester Rambler”, the song famously inspired by it, was written by Ewan MacColl from Lower Broughton, so I do tend to get very parochial about it 😊 … although I do acknowledge that it was a Sheffield thing as well as a Manchester thing!  Workers of the north unite!   Whilst the trespass didn’t bring immediate results, it played a crucial role in the campaign for access to the countryside to all and in the creation of national parks – and the people jailed over it were rightly hailed as heroes in this BBC programme.  2019 marks the 70th anniversary of the passing of the National Parks legislation, which led to the creation of Britain’s fifteen national parks – the first one, fittingly, being the Peak District, and the second, a few weeks later, my beloved Lake District ❤, where I’ve just spent the weekend.

Countryfile marked the anniversary by visiting seven of the parks – the Peak District, the North York Moors, the New Forest, the South Downs, the Pembrokeshire coast, the Cairngorms and Exmoor.   I was very sorry that they didn’t include the Lake District, I have to say.  I love the Peak District, but the Lake District is my favourite national park by a country mile.  Every romantic word that Wordsworth wrote about the Lake District is true!  The Yorkshire Dales is a third one that’s near enough to me for day trips.  Sadly, Northumberland National Park isn’t near enough for day trips, but it’s somewhere else I’m very fond of … partly because of the Lorna Hill books (Guy Charlton ❤!).  And neither of them got a mention either.  But, OK, they couldn’t get round all of them in an hour-long programme, and they had to give other parts of the UK a look in too!

The programme started off with a large group of people walking though the Peak District in the footsteps of the Kinder Scout Trespassers.  When I say “walk”, the group included people in specially-adapted wheelchairs: it was good to see accessibility being considered.  It also discussed the work done by Ethel Haythornthwaite, the founder of the Friends of the Peak District, and how important being able to get into the countryside was to her whilst she was suffering from severe mental health problems following her first husband’s death in the First World War.  The countryside is a great balm to troubled souls.  I know that well!   Later, it went right back to the early 1800s, to talk about agricultural pioneer John Knight, who dreamed of creating a national park of sorts – long before the term existed – in Exmoor.  And then all the way back to the 16th century, to talk about Huguenot refugees (before the Edict of Nantes was even passed, never mind before it was revoked) working as glass-blowers there, and how there are still glass-blowers working there.

There wasn’t much more history in the programme, sadly, but it did make some extremely important points about the issues faced by national parks – partly due to the inevitable issues of funding, partly due to climate change and the damage caused by severe weather, and, unfortunately, mostly the problems caused by inappropriate behaviour by a minority of visitors.  There’ve been arguments ever since Victorian times, when the railways made the countryside and the seaside accessible to people who’d never have been able to get there otherwise, about overcrowding in places like the Lake District; and it seems to be a particular problem in the South Downs, which has a far greater population density than most other national park areas, about the effects of large numbers of people coming into rural areas, and about anti-social behaviour.

I find this quite difficult to write about, because, as a little girl, I read so many books where it was all tied in with snobbery, in a way that still makes my blood boil!   Characters like the Famous Five are always making snooty remarks about “day trippers” – i.e. the people who are enjoying a day out, which they’ll have been look forward to for months, as opposed to the people who can afford to spend the entire school summer holidays in some picturesque location! – and blaming them for every gate that’s been left open or every piece of litter that’s been dropped!

Countryfile wasn’t like that at all, though, I’m pleased to say!  It was making the point that these are working landscapes, and that it’s not acceptable for people to treat them however they like.  As much as the national parks belong to everyone, setting up an unauthorised campsite close to areas where they are livestock is not appropriate.  And the worst problem of the lot is people failing to keep their horrible dogs under control, and sheep and other animals being attacked as a result.  I was reading the other day that the NFU (National Farmers’ Union) insurance company has called for changes to the Dangerous Dogs Act because of the growing numbers of attacks by dogs on sheep and other farm animals.  And there are issues about overcrowding.  That’s no-one’s fault – it just reflects the fact that the roads in the countryside weren’t built for huge numbers of cars, and that there isn’t room for parking for all those cars, nor are facilities in small villages able to cope with vast influxes of visitors.

This is sounding negative now!  It wasn’t a negative programme: it was a lovely programme, showing some of the most beautiful areas of our beautiful country (even if it didn’t include the Lake District, which is the most beautiful part of all!).  But, as with so many things, it’s essential to remember not to take what we’ve got for granted – and to show courtesy and respect to other people, to animals, to birds, to plantlife, and to the environment in general.

Due to the unfortunate fact of being a wage slave on Monday, also on Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (“The Manchester Rambler” – “I may be a wage slave on Monday, but I am a free man [or indeed woman] on Sunday”), I’ve yet to make it to the non-northern national parks covered by the programme.  I suppose I must have been through the South Downs on the way to Brighton when I was 13 (long before the South Downs even was a national park), but that doesn’t really count.  I would love to visit the Pembrokeshire coast, and especially to see Caldey Island because of its Chalet School connections, and the New Forest because of Children of the New Forest.  And I’ve been wanting to go to Exmoor ever since seeing the Polly Walker/Clive Owen/Sean Bean BBC adaptation of Lorna Doone when I was 15.  Yes, all right, all right, I don’t suppose much of it was actually filmed in Exmoor, but anyway!  And I’ve only ever made it to any part of the Scottish Highlands once.

I suppose that proves everything that those who took part in the Kinder Scout Mass Trespass said – that most of us don’t have much time to enjoy the countryside, and that that makes it incredibly important for us to have access to it in the time that we do have.

So it was certainly worrying to hear those involved in running our national parks, and those who farm within them, talking about the problems that they’re facing.  Without wanting to get political over this, there are big issues with severe funding cuts.  And, as already mentioned, there are issues with poor behaviour by some of visitors, especially in relation to dogs not being kept under control.  It’s certainly concerning.  Let’s never forget that the general public didn’t always have access to these beautiful places, and that people fought long campaigns, even spending time in prison in some cases, for our “right to roam” – which, even now, is limited, in England and Wales, and that we didn’t even have that much enshrined in law until 2000.   And let’s hope that ways can be found to deal with the challenges which the parks are facing at the moment, so that we’re able to keep enjoying them in the years to come.

And all hail the Kinder Scout heroes!  Quick chorus of The Manchester Rambler, anyone (as ever, if anyone’s actually read this!!)  😉?

 

 

The Chalet School and Cornelia by Katherine Bruce

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There are a lot of things about Cornelia Flower, one of the most memorable characters in the Chalet School series, which are never satisfactorily explained. Notably, how she was suddenly transformed from being a lying, cheating bully, breaching the Chalet School code of honour in pretty much every way, in her first few weeks at the school to being naughty but nice thereafter, and how she came to have such a close relationship with Mademoiselle Lepattre. This book covers the second half of the term which Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD) described in The Head Girl of the Chalet School, which, as the foreword explains, was very eventful but rather rushed through, and answers some of the questions. I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers remaining, though – maybe they could be answered in a sequel at some future date 🙂 ?

It can’t be easy trying to make sense of the contradictions in someone else’s work – and, as is often said in discussions in the Chalet School magazines, Facebook groups and internet fora, the books were written for children and EBD can’t possibly have expected them to be analysed in quite as much detail as they are now. I like to think that she’d be very pleased to think that there was so much interest in and discussion about the Chalet School books, nearly a century after the first one was written, though. It’s a great testament to how well-loved the books are.

It’s certainly very strange that Cornelia is described as a liar and a cheat, i.e. dishonourable, just about the worst thing that a Chalet School girl could be, shortly after arriving at school, and is so unpleasant that she not only reduces Simone to tears but also nearly comes to blows with peaceful Frieda … and then she becomes a perfectly nice girl without any sort of explanation/drama! The series is full of girls who, one way or another, are brought to see the error of their ways, but we normally at least see some sort of showdown scene, usually with one of the major characters involved. And there’s hardly anyone who’s as bad as Cornelia seemingly is to start with; and, when a new girl is difficult in any way, there’s usually something in her background that explains it, which there isn’t in Cornelia’s case.

So it’s all a bit of a mystery, especially as we’re never even told what she lied about or how she cheated – although, to be fair, Cornelia appears during only the fourth book in the series, when both EBD and the Chalet School were still finding their way. The explanation given here, that she never actually did lie or cheat and it was all a misunderstanding, and also that she’d clashed with Jo because Jo had been in a bad mood due to her worry about Madge following the birth of David, makes a lot of sense. I’m assuming that anyone reading this, if anyone at all actually is reading it, is familiar with the Chalet School books and knows who all these characters are, by the way!

And there are several one-to-one scenes with Mademoiselle Lepattre which show how their relationship develops. I think Mlle deserves that as much as Cornelia does, because, whilst she always comes across as a lovely person, she seems like a very weak headmistress when handling Eustacia and the feud with St Scholastika’s.  Her handling of Thekla’s behaviour is also poor, and asking the prefects to decide about Biddy’s future is just bizarre. Madge is shown as becoming a mother figure to Juliet, Robin and to some extent Grizel in the early books, and it makes sense that Mlle, the next person in charge of the school, would have come to fulfil that role for Cornelia, whose mother has died and who doesn’t seem to have any grandmothers, aunts, older female cousins or other mother-figures in her life, but we never actually get to see it happening. It’s great to have that gap filled in.

It’s also nice to see Mlle commenting that no-one minds the odd practical joke, as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone. That’s one of the joys of the Tyrolean era – no-one objects to a bit of harmless mischief. Compare that with, for example, the Middles in Peggy of the Chalet School having to endure an all-day punishment for using Regency language.

The book does cover a term that’s already covered in “canon”, and so, inevitably, there’s a certain amount of repetition of scenes and events that we already know. It’s the third recent fill-in book to cover a term that EBD wrote about herself, and, much as I’ve enjoyed reading them all and much as I love the Tyrolean era, I’m hoping to see future fill-ins covering areas in the chronology where there are gaps. The gap in the middle of The Chalet School in Exile is crying out to be filled, as are various parts of the wartime years.

We do see the revisited scenes from a different angle, generally Cornelia’s point of view, though. The rescue scene at the end is the obvious one, and another is Marie and Andreas’s wedding – one of my favourite parts of the entire series. I love the insight into the local culture, and I love the fact that the servants/domestic staff are treated as people with their own lives, not just ciphers who are there to serve the other characters. EBD wrote a lovely scene, sadly cut by Armada, in which Jem says how pleased he is that Marie and Andreas have got together; and the Pfeifens are as much a part of the early books as the Mensches or the Maranis are. Sadly, that doesn’t survive the Tyrolean era. By the end of the Swiss books, Rosli has worked for the Maynards for eight years without the reader even being told her surname!

There’s not really anything new in those scenes, though, but we do get to see a lot of other things which EBD either skipped over or only mentioned retrospectively; and I really enjoyed seeing those. During the Tyrolean era, the books aren’t “just” school stories in the way that they are later: the family lives of major characters form a big part of them, and a whole world develops, with many Old Girls living nearby. As time went on, and the average age of readers got younger, it probably made sense to focus more on the school and on schoolgirls, but, now that most readers are “grown-ups” (am I a grown-up?!), I think there’s room for hearing more about events out of school.

Madge having such a difficult time giving birth to David is one such instance of an important event only being touched on by EBD. When Jack Maynard turns up and tells Jo that she’s got to come to the Sonnalpe at once, and is quite brusque with his own sister, who’s clearly shocked and upset, it’s clear that Madge is in a bad way; but EBD couldn’t say much more because some of her young 1920s readers might well have been thinking that babies were found behind a gooseberry bush or brought by a stork. She’s often criticised for unrealistically suggesting that Jo gives birth to triplets with very little effort, and is winning swimming races against super-fit Roger Richardson shortly after giving birth to twins; but what happens with Madge reminds us that she was well aware that childbirth could be dangerous. Madge’s gynaecological history is quite interesting, with both Sybil and Ailie arriving well before they were expected, come to think of it!  Anyway.

Now, we get to see Jo’s anxious questioning of Jack as they head up to the Sonnalpe, and the conversations between her and first Jem and then Madge when she arrives. We also get to see the new parents and the new auntie with David. His arrival’s a really big thing for the school – it’s a real community at that point, and the girls get busy making toys for him, and scrap over who’s going to get to hold him when Madge visits. Later books say that David looks like Madge, but it’s nice to see Jem trying to claim that he looks like his own side of the family (as people tend to do with new babies!), and mentioning his sister Margot, to whom EBD doesn’t refer at all until later in the series.

A lot of events that are referred to but never actually shown at all are worked into the book, as well. Gisela’s wedding. Wanda’s wedding. Three weddings in one book does sound a bit more Hello! than Chalet School, but they’re all very different, with Wanda’s wedding involving a trip to Vienna, somewhere we never see the girls visit in the original books. Joey’s climb up the rocks, which she refers to in The Coming of Age of the Chalet School. I’m never entirely convinced by EBD’s insistence that so many people invited the entire school to their weddings, and I’m even less convinced by the idea of Wanda and Friedel interrupting their honeymoon in order to attend a school concert, but fill-in authors obviously have to work with what EBD tells us! Poor Friedel!!

Much of the plot of The Head Girl of the Chalet School is a bit bonkers, really! I always cringe a bit over Herr Arnolfi being referred to as a “madman” and a “lunatic”, but, OK, EBD was writing over ninety years ago. The whole story reads very uncomfortably to modern sensibilities – man holds young girls prisoner – but it was written in very different times. There’s quite a strong flavour of Victorian Gothic about it, in a lot of ways. And it’s early in the series, and EBD does try out a lot of different ideas early on – Eustacia’s accident is very reminiscent of What Katy Did. It certainly is different, as opposed to all the avalanches and blizzards we get in the Swiss books!

The idea of the salt caves was great, but is never really followed up on, so it was lovely to see the girls getting to visit the caves, and hear about local businesses preparing hopefully for an influx of visitors. And I really liked Katherine’s explanation that Herr Arnolfi had been a professional museum and that his illness was the result of the stress and pressure of his career: I thought that worked very well. There are so many minor characters in the Tyrolean books, and in The Head Girl of the Chalet School in particular, some recurring, some only appearing in one book, and I always want to know more about them! And I think he deserved a background story. Tales of someone living alone in a remote area, with local people saying they’re the devil or whatever, belong more to times well before the 1920s, but they certainly exist. It’s a sad story, and his life deserved that extra information.

In a different way, I’m not comfortable with Jo referring to Sophie Hamel as “Fatty” and making spiteful remarks about how a boat she was in would have capsized had Sophie been one of the party; but it does tie in with something she says in Two Sams at the Chalet School, and also with her nasty comments about Frau Berlin’s weight in The School at the Chalet. Considering that personal remarks are supposedly considered “ill-bred” in Chalet School land, there are an awful lot of digs about people’s weight all through the series. Three cheers for Jem Russell for telling Madge (in Joey & Co in Tyrol) that she looks fine as she is and doesn’t need to go on a diet! I enjoyed seeing the boat/rock-climbing incident, too. It’s so frustrating when EBD refers to something in a later book, and you think you must have missed it, or forgotten it, or that it’s been cut out of a paperback edition, and then you find out that, no, it’s just not there at all!

There’s also quite a lot of Austrian history in this. Good good! My personal specialisms are British, Russian and American history, but one of my best marks at university (apologies for “bucking”, as Grizel would say) was for an essay on Austrian history, and the tutor involved really couldn’t understand why I insisted on going for Austrian history rather than something more obvious such as the French Revolution. I would have explained, but I didn’t think he’d understand 🙂 . It’s told in a way that should appeal even to readers who aren’t historians, rather than sounding like something copied out of a textbook as it has to be admitted that some passages in the Swiss books do!

It’s also good to have Mr Flower’s back story filled in: the reference in The Chalet School in Exile to his having spent time in South Africa strongly suggests that his wealth came from some sort of involvement with precious metals or minerals, but we’re never actually told, whereas it’s expanded on here. I love the idea of his father having been a Forty-Niner, and of he himself having travelled the world and taken Cornelia with him.

There’s definitely something of the international man of mystery about him! Not so much at this point, but certainly later on. As I said, I’ve still got a lot of unanswered questions about the Flowers! Most of them relate to the period covered by The Chalet School in Exile, set several years later, so obviously they couldn’t be answered in this book, but maybe they could in some future book 🙂 ? Why on earth did Mr Flower buy up the school buildings – what was he planning to do in a fairly remote part of a country that had just been annexed by the Third Reich? And, the following year, what was he doing in Bordeaux, and how come umpteen other characters all ended up there with him?

There’s also a cryptic remark earlier on about Cornelia getting such mothering as not even Mademoiselle Lepattre could provide. I can only assume that EBD intended to provide Cornelia with a stepmother and then forgot about it! Finally, why did the late Mrs Flower give Cornelia two Russian-sounding middle names – Naida (an abbreviation of Nadezhda) and Anastasia? Anastasia is obviously associated with the youngest of the Grand Duchesses, and I’m guessing that Naida was a misspelling of Nada and that EBD got the name from Nada (Nadezhda) Mountbatten, nee Torby, Marchioness of Milford Haven. Maybe she just liked reading royal gossip … or did she have some mysterious link to the Romanovs?!

Anyway! This book does a great job of answering the main questions that arise when we first meet Cornelia, and of describing events which EBD mentions but doesn’t show. There’s the odd EBD-style-ism, notably Friedel von Gluck being described as Bernhilda’s fiancé rather than Wanda’s fiancé, and the odd typo such as Carinthia being spelt “Carinithia”. And I’m fairly sure that Andreas never worked at the school, and that Marie moved to Die Rosen – I gather than the references to “Die Rosen” as “Die Blumen” are genuine EBD-EBD-isms, and have just been replicated here 🙂 – as soon as Madge and Jem got married, rather than after her own wedding, but, hey, no Chalet School book would seem at all authentic without one or two slips.

It’s a very enjoyable read, and I know that an awful lot of Chalet School fans have already bought it and read it. There’s something magical about the Tyrolean era of the Chalet School, and anything that takes me there is incredibly welcome!

For Folk’s Sake: Morris Dancing and Me – BBC 4

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Passing through town on the Metrolink on Saturday, I was intrigued to see a group of Morris dancers performing outside Manchester Central (G-Mex). Cecil “the Prophet” Sharp would have been over the moon about that! It turned out that it was part of the Joint Morris Organisations National Day of Dance, launching the 2019 Manchester Folk Festival Programme. Those involved included the Stretford-based Manchester Morris Men, who featured prominently this BBC 4 documentary. Morris dancing in North West England, and in some other parts of the country, traditionally included women, but the “Morris Ring”, founded in 1934, only admitted all-male sides … until last year. With numbers dwindling, it agreed to admit mixed-gender and all-female teams … and a lot of the blokes are not happy about this.

We’re not talking a storm in a teacup here. In one village, a woman who’d joined the local Morris side – not even as a dancer, but as a musician – had been given such grief that she and her husband had moved to another part of the country!  Feelings on this matter run very high. There’s the “adapt or die” issue – new blood is urgently needed. And some men, especially the younger element, feel that society has changed and people now prefer to socialise in mixed gender groups. However, others feel strongly that admitting women to their sides would destroy Morris dancing’s traditions. It’s partly about the actual art of Morris dancing – one man compared it to admitting women to a male voice choir – and partly about heritage.

It’s hard to know how much of the Morris dancing traditions are genuinely historical and how much were the invention of folk revivalists looking for ideas of a mythical Merrie Englande, but the general idea of Morris dancing is thought to go back to the 16th century. The revival of Morris dancing, after it had largely died out amid the social and economic changes of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, is considered to have dated from 1899, and is closely associated with Cecil Sharp – founder of the English Folk Dance Society and known to me and other readers of “Girls’ Own” books as “The Prophet” in Elsie J Oxenham’s Abbey books.

As Richard Macer, the presenter of the programme, explained, Cecil Sharp at one time worked closely with a woman called Mary Neal – who sounds absolutely fascinating, but that’s another story. However, they fell out, and, one way and another, the idea that male Morris dancing was superior to female Morris dancing took hold. It was also explained that Morris dancing had experienced a heyday in the 1970s, but had been declining since then. With a lot of Morris dancers now ageing and approaching a point where they’ll probably have to consider retirement, what does the future hold? Part of the programme involved Richard himself learning Morris dancing, with the Manchester Morris Men, and, at fifty-odd, he was about twenty years younger than the average age of the side.
It would be very sad to see the tradition die out – and traditions, in cultures all around the world, die out frighteningly easily.

So what’s going wrong? I love to watch traditional dancing, in any country or region. And Morris dancing’s linked with other traditions, too. The programme started off by showing Morris dancers escorting a May queen at a procession through a Norfolk village. And, towards the end, it showed the wonderful Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony. At one time, there were rushcart ceremonies all over the area, usually during local wakes weeks, but they’ve pretty much died out. The one at Saddleworth, though, is a really big event, and that’s largely due to Morris dancers.

But … well, the dancers themselves admitted that Morris dancing doesn’t exactly have the coolest of images. Flowers on hats, bells on knickerbockers, brightly-coloured socks and ribbons, waving hankies … it’s often seen as a bit naff. Yet no-one would ever think of Spanish flamenco, Scottish reels, Russian kazatskies or Bavarian schuhplattler dancing as being naff, would they? As one of the men said, maybe we just get embarrassed very easily in England!

Another issue is that, in many rural areas, Morris dancing is a big local “thing” and young lads would traditionally follow their dad, grandads, uncles et al into the local Morris side, and that was how the sides kept going. With more and more people moving away from where they grew up, that’s becoming a problem. And, in towns and cities, that idea of Morris dancing as a community thing doesn’t really exist anyway. I must say that I had no idea that there was a Morris dancing side in Stretford! They train in a church hall which is about a mile and a half from the two Old Traffords. It’s not exactly somewhere I’d particularly associate with folk dancing.

But will women join, given the option? We hear about a lot of arguments over male-only or female-only organisations, most famously the row over admitting women to The Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St Andrews. It’s usually a case of members of the excluded gender demanding admission. That doesn’t seem to be the case here. The Morris Federation and Open Morris both admit male-only, female-only or mixed-gender teams, and there was no suggestion that female Morris dancers were all that fussed about being excluded from the Morris Ring, and certainly not that they were lobbying for admission.

The suggestion came from an all-male side, in Leicester – and even that particular side hasn’t actually admitted any women! Whilst the vote on the issue resulted in a landslide majority in favour of admitting women, it was left to each individual side to decide whether they wanted to do that or not. And most of them, so far, have decided not to.

Do women even want to join sides that are currently men-only? Richard spoke to some members of a women-only side – all considerably younger than our Manchester Morris pals – and they said that they preferred to operate as an all-female group. No-one (I hope!) wants to see anyone suffering discrimination, but most of us do like to spend some time socialising in an all-male or all-female environment. There’s an issue with arrogance here, as well. There’s long been this attitude that male-only Morris dancing is better than female-only or mixed-gender Morris dancing. And the Morris Ring, which has been a bastion of that attitude, is only prepared to admit women now because it thinks that its sides aren’t going to survive otherwise, and hasn’t made any secret of the fact.

But I didn’t get the impression that any of the men Richard was talking to were male chauvinists. They just wanted to keep their traditions, and they also wanted to have some male-only time and activities. Richard pointed out that it’s usually male-only organisations which are coming under pressure to admit women, not the other way round. It has to be said that that’s a fair point. You don’t hear of campaigns for men to be allowed to join the WI, do you? And we weren’t talking about the days of the FA banning women’s football, or women being denied access to top level golfing facilities or the best seats at cricket grounds. There are women-only and mixed-gender Morris sides. By the end of the programme, I found myself hoping that the male-only sides would be able to continue, and – hey, I’m the person who’s always reminding everyone that I went to the same school as Christabel Pankhurst! – I hadn’t expected to feel like that.

And Richard had clearly ended up feeling like that as well. He’d got really into it, especially after discovering that his granny and grandad had met through Morris dancing and his great-aunt had corresponded with Cecil Sharp. He was rather upset at being told that, unfortunately, he wasn’t good enough to dance at the Saddleworth Rushcart ceremony, and delighted when he was deemed good enough to dance at an event in Mossley. The guys were really into their traditions – the names used for people holding particular positions in the sides, the annual meet-up to honour the memories of old Morris dancing friends who’d died, and so on. And these were the traditions of a male-only organisation. He observed that some of them felt that there was honour in sticking to traditions even if it meant that the sides couldn’t go on.

A crucial point he made at the end was that male-only Morris dancing was about masculinity and male bonding without any hint of the “toxic masculinity” culture which is sometimes associated with men-only activities. He even said that male Morris dancers could be role models for young men – and, as he said, the idea of bells and whistles and flowery hats being associated with masculinity sounds a bit mad, but it does actually work. And they were enjoying themselves! They were having such fun, and so were the people watching them – and they were also keeping an old and important tradition alive. It would be a tragedy if Morris dancing died out.

But, having said all that, the Manchester Morris Dancers didn’t participate at Saddleworth, because they weren’t able to muster a full side. And they’ve now voted to admit women members, largely because they need to boost numbers, and hope that admitting women will attract more people, especially younger people, both female and male. I really hope they’re able to keep going, and the same with other sides across the country. Morris dancing is not seen as cool, and that’s the big problem – but who’d have thought that knitting and sewing and baking and so on would become cool? Is “cool” still a cool word? I am old and out of touch!! So maybe there’s hope for Morris dancing. I really do hope so. Richard Macer got rather attached to the Manchester Morris Men, and to Morris dancing in general, because of this programme. I did too!