New Class at Malory Towers by various authors


This is a book of four short stories (not four full-length books), about four different new girls in the same form as Darrell, Sally & co, and with an eye to increasing diversity in GO books.  They’re not classics, but they’re not bad – although the quality does vary from one to another.  I’ll just say a bit about what I thought of each one, in case anyone’s interested!

The Secret Princess by Narinder Dharma – this was the third one in the book, but I’m putting it first because I thought it was the best.  Whilst I think it’s a little unfair that people criticise Blyton and other GO authors over the lack of non-white characters in their books, given that they were living and writing in a predominantly white society, I take the point that the lack of diversity in the books can make some readers feel excluded  I also take the point that, whilst the UK at that time wasn’t the multicultural society that it was today, girls would have come from other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth to attend British boarding schools.

The protagonist in this story is Sunita, an Indian girl who’s attending Malory Towers whilst her dad, a leading scientist, is working in the UK.  Without wanting to post a lot of spoilers, Gwendoline Mary mistakenly gets the idea that Sunita’s the daughter of a maharajah, and Sunita and the other girls play along with it.  It’s brilliantly done, because, whilst it makes the point that the character is Indian, it doesn’t in any way make her seem “other”: she’s just one of the gang with Darrell and the others, taking part in a practical joke.  I do feel a bit sorry for Gwen, who must be the most maligned character in GO literature, but she does ask for this one with her snobbery, which rings very true to how Enid Blyton wrote her.  Very good story.

Bookworms by Lucy Mangan – this is just a light tale in which Darrell becomes friendly with the girl in charge of the library, and starts reading some well-known books – Noel Streatfeild and CS Lewis are both name-checked!  Alicia gets jealous, and various pranks are played.  It’s hardly a classic GO tale, but it does play cleverly on the fact that GO characters are usually in with the in crowd, captains of the lacrosse teams, etc, whereas those of us who grow up reading GO books are more likely to be like Eustacia Benson in the Chalet School books – sat in a quiet corner with our noses in a book!   It flows very nicely, and it’s an entertaining little story.

A Bob and a Weave by Patrice Lawrence – hmm.  I think the author of this maybe tried too hard not to fall into the trap of making an ethnic minority’s ethnicity the be all and end all of the character, if that makes sense!   I’d read an interview in which the author talked about how she’d spoken to a number of black women, mainly originally from Nigeria, who’d attended British boarding schools, and that was what I was expecting to be reflected in the story.  However, the fact that the character, Marietta was mixed race, was only mentioned once, in a vague reference to her having dark skin like her mum – and even that could have been taken to mean that she was Asian, or white with olive skin, rather than that she was black.  There were references to her hair, and I think we were meant to read that as her having a traditional African hairstyle; but it really wasn’t clear, and I’m not sure I’d have picked up on it at all had I not read the interview.  I don’t want to read stories in which a character’s ethnicity is the only thing about them, and I certainly don’t want clichés or stereotypes, but, given everything that’s been said about making GO books more inclusive,  if you’re going to write about a black or mixed race character then you do need to make clear the fact that she’s black or mixed race.  Take Margot in the Trebizon books – her being black is not an issue in any way, but the reader is aware of her West Indian heritage.  This just seemed to miss the mark, somehow – although probably with the very best of intentions.

Marietta’s story was that her family worked in a circus, and that she didn’t want the other girls to find out about it.  It felt like a bit of a copy of the Carlotta and Eileen stories in the St Clare’s books, but I suppose it was very Blyton.  I just didn’t feel that it worked that well.  But that’s just my humble opinion, and other people may think it’s great!

The Show Must Go On by Rebecca Westcott – in this one, the new girl, Maggie, is Gwendoline’s cousin … but she’s a poor relation, having her fees paid by Gwen’s parents.  And she makes her mark early on by pointing out that it’s not actually normal “to have all your meals cooked for you and your clothes washed for you while [sic] you swan about the place, riding your ponies and sketching in art books”.  That’s definitely not something Enid Blyton would have written 🙂 – although it’s probably something I’d have longed to say had I ever gone to Malory Towers, not that I’d have had the nerve!   What is very Blyton is that the girls are supposed to be putting on a show, none of them can think of anything much to do, and, whaddaya know, it turns out that Maggie is a brilliant dancer.  There’s also a rather Brent-Dyer-esque plot involving an accident and a rescue.   And, hooray, for once, an author actually lets Gwen reform and become part of the crowd.   I think this is the one which would have worked best as a full-length book – it was a good story, but it felt a bit rushed.

So there we are!   And Malory Towers is very much in the news at the moment – I’ll be seeing the musical in September, and will probably be writing about that, if anyone’s interested!





Arabia with Levison Wood – Discovery


“Arabia” – a region which used to be associated with dashing explorers and adventurers, Scheherezade’s stories and magic carpets. Iraq – all the history of Mesopotamia, Sumer, Babylon, Assyria, Ur and Nineveh. I was really hoping that this programme would get beyond the image of the Middle East as a place that’s all about conflict and terrorism, and show us its history and cultures. Even a few falafels and a bit of oud music would have been a start. Instead, most of what we got was close-up coverage of the war against Islamic State. We see that on the news all the time: I really didn’t need to see it here too.  It was very interesting, although for some reason it made absolutely no mention of the Yazidis or the Assyrians; but it was nearly all about war, and there’s so much more to the Middle East than that.

This first episode started off in the Kurdish autonomous region of Iraq, close to the border with Syria, with the team being stopped from crossing the border into “federal Iraq” as tensions rose due to a referendum on Kurdish independence. The West let the Kurds down very badly after the First World War, and again after the Gulf War of 1990/91. The vast majority of people in Iraqi Kurdistan want independence, and that’s without even starting to talk about the Kurds in Turkey and elsewhere; but it’s not happening. I’d like to have heard more about Kurdish history and culture, but instead it felt more like an Indiana Jones film, with Levison & co making a dramatic dash to get to another border crossing before it closed for the night.  Very action movie, but not very informative.

Their next stop was Mosul. They stayed in a military safehouse – and took a taxi to the front line of the war against Islamic State. As you do. What we did see was very interesting – and very distressing, as we learnt that a man whom Levison interviewed had been killed by Islamic State only a week later, and heard a woman describing about how she’d been separated from her baby several months earlier and hadn’t seen him since. But there was no reference at all to what had been done to the Yazidis and the Assyrians, and, although we saw the horrific destruction wrought by the bombings, we didn’t hear about the damage done to historic/cultural sites – we were just shown piles of rubble. It didn’t even mention that Mosul was on the site of Nineveh – OK, whether or not people believe stories about blokes being thrown off ships and eaten by whales is up to them, but the point is that this is a city so ancient that it’s mentioned in the Old Testament.  Surely that merited at least a quick name check?

Obviously I’m not saying that a legend from thousands of years ago is more important than the terrible suffering of people today, but some background information and context would have been nice. It sometimes felt that the main aim of the programme was to be daring. Getting to the front line of the war against Islamic State. In a taxi!

Not that far from the devastated centre of Mosul, we saw shops and cafes – but we didn’t get to see any Iraqi cuisine. One good point that was made was that there were no women around, only men. That said a lot.

Then on to Baghdad. Things seemed pretty normal there, but all we got was people sitting around and talking about war – nothing about the traditions and lifestyles and history.  We did get to see Saddam Hussein’s bunker, though. But nothing about the city’s incredible history as a centre of learning and culture.  And not a falafel in sight.

The best bit actually came at the end, when Levison visited the marshlands in southern Iraq. He didn’t even mention that this was literally by the rivers of Babylon, though. Even if you’re not into either history or religion, or indeed Boney M, surely you’d mention the fact that you were by the rivers of Babylon?! Apparently not.

I well remember hearing about the Marsh Arabs back in 1991, but, as public attention moved away from Iraq after the war, I don’t think we really heard much about how Saddam Hussein ordered the marshes to be drained, displacing many of the Marsh Arabs and doing horrific damage to the ecosystem. It was good to see that things are looking up now, and to hear interviews with both men and women involved in traditional work in the marshlands. This was more the sort of thing I’d been hoping for.

Next week’s episode will include Yemen, and I very much hope that it might bring some attention to a tragically under-reported conflict – but I’m also hoping to hear more about the people of the places visited, and not just the politics.  Maybe it’s not as dramatic as mad dashes for border crossings, but I think we hear enough drama where the Middle East’s concerned!  Let’s hear about other things as well.


Trevor McDonald’s Indian Train Adventure – ITV


From plastic recycling plants to maharajas’ palaces, and a visit to the lovely city of Udaipur (where my Facebook profile photo was taken!), travelling on a train which was carrying four tonnes of food (for eating, not selling) and provided passengers with TVs. Fruit, spices, camels, elephants … and Trevor McDonald’s got more charisma than John Beecham will ever have! What’s not to like? Oh, and apparently you can travel the entire length of India by rail for the equivalent of £12. But not on the Maharajas’ Express, which Trevor was on. That’s a seriously luxurious train. And it stops at some seriously exciting places. How can I get a job presenting programmes like this?!

Next week, we’re getting the Taj Mahal and the rats’ temple. Been to both 🙂 . Let’s just say that the Taj Mahal was the better of the two! Even the rats’ temple was fascinating in its way, though. Everything about India is fascinating, and Trevor’s trying to show a lot of different aspects of it in this two-part railway journey series.

He started off in Mumbai, visiting a plastic recycling plant. It doesn’t sound that interesting, but it actually was – India recycles far more plastic than we do, and it was indicative of how fast the Indian economy is growing and developing.

There’s been a huge population shift from the countryside to the cities in recent years, but much of the economy is still agriculture-based, and it was sad to see, on the next stop, in Pachora, how badly the farmers there have been affected by drought. We tend to associate drought with Africa, and India with monsoons; but things are really bad there, after several years with below average rainfall. It was a stark reminder of just how dependent we all are on weather conditions, and how all the industrial and technological development in the world can’t, at present, really do anything to bring relief from drought: there are just no irrigation systems powerful enough to give the land there the water it needs. It’s not good.

After that, it was on to Udaipur – with Trevor reminding us that the princely states of India were never part of the British Raj. In 1947, the year of independence, there were well over 500 princely states, some big, some small, covering over 40% of the sub-continent. They all became part of either India or Pakistan. The princes were originally supposed to get an annual payment and be entitled to keep their private property and titles, but later governments didn’t stick to that agreement. Trevor met one of the sons of the present Maharana of Udaipur (although I seem to remember that there’s some sort of succession dispute between two brothers there?), and later met the present Mahajara of Jodhpur, and it was clear that neither of them were overly happy with the way things had gone.

Having said that, they’ve still got their wonderful palaces, many of which are now heritage hotels. The one which Trevor visited in Jodhpur is said to be the most luxurious hotel in the world. He was welcomed by dancers, and had rose petals strewn at his feet! Sadly, places like that are a bit out of my price range , but some of the hotels we went to did give us some very pretty garlands when we arrived, and the security guards were very good about posing in their glamorous uniforms with sad female tourists like me! Incredible palaces – so big, and imposing, and beautiful. The Maharaja of Jodhpur’s even got his own train, although sadly it doesn’t run any more.

There was lots of food in the programme, as well. Those wonderful fruit and spice stalls you see everywhere in India. Such glorious colours! And the food on the train looked amazing. Apparently the train driver will even slow down if the chef asks him to, so that nothing gets spilt! It’s the most expensive luxury train in the world. Two restaurants and a bar. Plates containing real gold. The price wasn’t mentioned, but I’m guessing that this journey costs just a bit more than £12. And tea with maharajas and princes to boot. As I said, how can I get a job presenting programmes like this?!  A brilliant hour’s TV, and another episode to come!

The Unwanted: The Secret Windrush Files – BBC 2


Early on in this programme, we were shown that Clement Attlee’s government preferred to fill the post-war labour shortage with white men who’d fought for the Nazis rather than black men who’d served in the British forces.  That set the tone for the rest of it.  Britain, unlike some other countries, has never had immigration laws officially based on ethnicity, but this programme showed how successive governments, of both main parties, tried to find ways of making it difficult for non-white people to settle here. We *are* talking governments here: business, and organisations like the NHS, did actively recruit staff from the West Indies. Nothing that the Establishment’s done really surprises me any more – we know that it’s covered up child sex abuse, the infected blood scandal, what really happened at Hillsborough, and who knows what else – but you can be shocked and appalled without being surprised, and there was some very unpleasant stuff in this programme.  I’m not sure that the argument about there being a direct line from the attitudes of the post-war era to the recent (and indeed ongoing) Windrush scandal entirely worked.  And I’ve also got a quibble about the programme not showing that discrimination in immigration and naturalisation systems is nothing new: it goes back to 1905, and arguably even to 1708.  But David Olusoga made some very interesting, important and distressing points, and showed us the paperwork, in black and white, that went with them.

Just a quick historical note, seeing as I said I had a quibble. In 1708, legislation was introduced allowing for the naturalisation of foreign-born Protestants, mostly Huguenots, living in Britain. It only lasted a few years, before the previous system of having to apply for an individual Act of Parliament in order to be naturalised was re-introduced, because people got hysterical at the thought of an influx of foreigners pouring into the country, but the point is that it was only for Protestants. To be fair, at that time Britain was at war with France, the Jacobites were hoping to regain the throne, and it was genuinely feared that foreign-born Catholics posed a threat to national security, but it wasn’t until the 1820s that anyone could be naturalised without taking the sacrament in a Protestant service. Apart from between 1753 and 1754, when foreign-born Jews, who unlike Catholics were accepted as being loyal to the British Crown, were also allowed to be naturalised – but that initially only lasted a year, because people got hysterical at the thought of non-Christians becoming British citizens.

Fast forward to the Aliens Act of 1905. The religious requirement in relation to naturalisation was long gone, but, in the midst of the second wave of pogroms in the Russian Empire, large numbers of Eastern European Jews were arriving in Britain. There’d also been an increase in the number of people arriving in Britain from China. No-one had moaned about (mainly Protestant) German immigration to Britain in the 19th century, but, as soon as you had large numbers of people who were mainly working-class, weren’t Christians and, in the case of the Chinese immigrants, weren’t white, in came the immigration restrictions.  The “wrong type of immigration” idea did not begin when SS Windrush arrived at Tilbury docks.  It goes back long before that.

Unlike what happened in some other countries, though, immigration and naturalisation laws in the UK have never been legally, officially, based on race (nor, since the 1820s, on religion, for the record). In the US, for example, Asian immigrants, mainly Chinese people working in California, were specifically denied the right to become US citizens until the 1940s, and, in 1921, immigration quotas were brought in, based on the numbers of people from each country living in the US in 1910 – i.e. making it a lot easier to enter the US from northern and western Europe than from southern and eastern Europe. I’m not having a go at the US, or at any other country, just making a point.

The difference in Britain – and a lot of this was due to the idea of promoting a sense of Empire/Commonwealth unity, not just the acceptance that legal discrimination on grounds of race (and we’re talking race by this time, because we’re mainly talking about the immigration of black and Asian people) was morally wrong – was that governments felt unable to bring in immigration laws which were openly racially-based. But, as David Olusoga showed, successive governments didn’t want non-white people coming into the country, and tried to find ways to keep them out, one way or another.

The programme did get a bit emotive in parts. There were lots of pictures of cute little kids, and interviews with people talking about the distress of families being separated. And it was strongly suggested that some of the Ukrainian soldiers who fought for the Nazis during the war and then settled in Britain, preferred by the government to Caribbean men who’d fought in our own armed forces, had been involved in war crimes – this is a very controversial subject, but the official verdict is still that they hadn’t. But it was generally factual. The cameras focused in on the documents, on the government and civil service paperwork, there in black and white, actual physical proof of what went on, so that we could see it with our own eyes. And it made for very unpleasant reading.

In 1948, as a result of changes to citizenship laws in other Commonwealth countries, the British Nationality Act was passed, confirming the fact that people born in British colonies were British subjects. That didn’t actually change anything, in that people from colonies and Commonwealth countries had already had the right to enter and remain in the UK without any restrictions.  But it did confirm it.

Also in 1948, the famous SS Windrush brought 802 people, many of them ex-servicemen, from the West Indies to Britain – the first of the “Windrush generation”. This was at a time when the country was facing a significant labour shortage due to the huge task of rebuilding after the war. The newly-created NHS, the railways, the Post Office and public transport all actively recruited staff from the West Indies during the late 1940s and the early 1950s, but the Windrush had barely docked before a group of Labour MPs approached Clement Attlee with their concerns about excessive immigration and a “flotilla” of ships bringing people from the Caribbean to the UK. (Some people have been keen to cast one major party or the other as the party associated with racism, but, over the years, both parties have been involved in racially-motived immigration policies. This is not a party political issue, and no-one should be trying to make it one.  Both main parties have been at fault.)

Meanwhile, the government introduced a programme to fill gaps in the labour market with Displaced Persons from various parts of Europe. And, yes, these did include some German POWs, and some people who’d served with the Ukrainian division of the SS. Most of them, to be fair, didn’t have any connections with the Nazis, and I think there was also some idea of “saving” them from communism (which the programme didn’t mention), but it’s certainly true that they didn’t have any historical, cultural or linguistic ties with Britain either, and yet the government wanted them to fill the gaps in the labour market in preference to black people who were British subjects and, in many cases, had fought for Britain during the war.

In 1950,a Cabinet committee was set up specifically to try to find ways to restrict “coloured” immigration into the UK. In 1953, hitting on the idea of trying to paint black people as scroungers, the government instructed labour exchanges to keep records of people claiming benefits, showing how many of those people fell into each of various racial categories. The programme actually showed examples of the forms used.

However, no immigration controls were actually introduced at this stage, and many people arrived in Britain from the Caribbean and other parts of the Empire/Commonwealth during the 1950s: at this stage, no steps were taken to change this. But, as the 1950s went on, racial tensions developed, and there was some serious unrest in 1958. As talk grew that immigration restrictions were going to be introduced, levels of immigration increased.

Then, in 1962, the system was changed.  The Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962 brought in a system based on employment prospects, with people to be divided into three categories –  skilled workers, and anybody with a guaranteed job, to be encouraged, and unskilled workers with no guaranteed job, numbers to be severely restricted.  On the face of it, it sounds quite reasonable. However, the programme showed us papers which clearly stated that the government believed that the restrictions would “operate on coloured people almost exclusively”, and that this was being done specifically to restrict numbers of “coloured” immigrants, without doing so “ostensibly”.

Then, in 1968, the system was changed again, restricting the automatic right of settlement in the UK to people who’d either been born in the UK or had at least one parent or grandparent brought here.  And, in 1971, the automatic right of Commonwealth citizens already in the UK to remain here was removed – although they would still be allowed to remain in UK if they had lived and worked here for five years.

The 1968 Act, passed shortly after Enoch Powell’s “Rivers of Blood” speech, wasn’t aimed at black people, but was rather intended to stop large numbers of Kenyan Asians coming into Britain after the Kenyan government brought in laws against them. David Olusoga did rather rush over this one, which I must say I wasn’t very impressed with. He didn’t interview any Kenyan Asian people, and he didn’t even mention the situation with Ugandan Asians seeking to come to Britain in 1972. Nor – typical BBC – did he explain that the 1971 Act was brought in as part of preparations for Britain to join the Common Market.

And the programme did lose its coherence at this point. It was explained that the 1971 Act granted Commonwealth citizens already living in the UK “deemed leave” to remain here, but that the burden of proof, if their right to be in the UK was challenged, was on the individual to prove that they did have the right to be here, not on the authorities to prove that they didn’t.

But then we were shown clips of Tony Blair and David Cameron saying that legal immigrants were welcome in the UK but illegal immigrants weren’t. That wasn’t about racism, or racially-motivated immigration controls, and it certainly wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation.  Different times, different immigration-related issues.  For everything that went on in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, no-one was talking about deportations. And, with regards to the 1971 Act, the people who wrote it couldn’t possibly have foreseen the issues surrounding immigration, worldwide, that would exist by the 2010s. Equally, the people who wrote the legislation in the 2010s never meant for it to affect people who’d come here legally and been here for over half a century.  To be fair, David Olusoga did say that the “hostile environment” legislation of the 2010s wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation, but … well I think that part of the programme could have been put together a bit better.  And why was there no reference to the destruction of the landing cards?  That’s been a big part of all this.  It wasn’t even mentioned.

Anyway.  I was reading in the Manchester Evening News only this week that there are still people, who’ve been here for decades, living in fear of deportation.  No, the legislation wasn’t aimed at the Windrush generation … well, the very kindest interpretation of the Windrush scandal is that it’s been about people being more concerned about ticking boxes than about other human beings’ lives.  A probably more realistic interpretation is that it’s been about heartless government departments so desperate to meet their net migration targets that they didn’t care if they ruined the lives of decent, innocent people, who were easy targets because they weren’t keeping under the radar because they had no reason to do so.  People who’ve lived and worked in the UK, quite legally, for decades,  have lost their jobs, been refused medical treatment, and even been dragged off to detention centres, because they haven’t got paperwork to show what they were doing in the 1960s.  Over 80 people have actually been deported, wrongly.  It’s one of the most shameful episodes in recent British history.

And the attitudes of successive governments from 1948 to 1971, wanting to restrict immigration not because of pressure on housing or public services but in order to “Keep Britain White”, a slogan in widespread use in the 1950s, is equally shameful – maybe even more so, because it was deliberate.  Some very nasty things go on in the corridors of power.  This programme showed us some of them.  It did not make for pleasant or comfortable watching.



Beecham House – ITV


Finally, a period drama set in India before 1857/58, and indeed even before 1803!   But, so far, it’s not really living up to the hype.  On the plus side, we got all the glorious colour of India – elephants, camels, lush gardens, and the wonderful colourful clothes and amber and pink buildings of beautiful Rajasthan (except that it was supposedly set in Delhi!).  We got mystery, and we got political and romantic intrigue.  On the minus side, I’d had a horrible feeling that Gurinder Chadha and William Dalrymple would badly mishandle the history, and they did – it gave a very misleading impression of what was going on.  Also, the characters’ behaviour didn’t ring true – a respectable young single woman going round to a strange bloke’s house for tea, and touching his arm?!  – and the bare-chested scything scene was such a rip-off of Poldark that I just had to laugh.  Mixed feelings about this – but it was only the first episode, so let’s see how it goes.

The scenery and the sets were stunning.  Was the City Palace in Jaipur used for the scenes with the emperor?  It certainly looked like it.  Such an amazing place!  The French mercenary bloke who used to be in Mr Selfridge was based at the glorious Amber Fort, near Jaipur, and Beecham House and the neighbouring home owned by the bloke who used to be in Ackley Bridge were filmed at two of the beautiful Rajasthani palaces which are how heritage hotels.  And the hills, the lakes, the gardens, the animals, the gorgeous clothes … it was definitely a feast for the eyes.  It was supposed to be in Delhi, though, not Rajasthan!   Well, OK, we did get to see a bit of the Red Fort!

The basic idea is that John Beecham has left the East India Company because he doesn’t approve of it, and has bought himself a palace in India, where he intends to settle down and earn his living by trading (although he presumably has plenty of money already), and be part of the local community.   Now, this sort of idea can work very well – think Dances With Wolves.   Admittedly that was made before the days of snowflakes screeching about “cultural appropriation” and “white saviours” and so on, but, in the 18th century, British attitudes towards India and relationships between the British and the Indians were very different from how they were in the days of the Raj, and I was hoping that this was going to show that, in a positive way.  However, given that Gurinder Chadha ruined Viceroy’s House by bizarrely claiming that Britain partitioned India as some sort of anti-Soviet plot, and William Dalrymple, however detailed his research and in-depth his knowledge may have been, ruined The Last Mughal by claiming that evangelical Christians were responsible for all the evils of the world, I should have known I was being over-optimistic!

Back to John Beecham, first.  One big difference between India in the 1790s and India in the days of A Passage to India, The Jewel in the Crown etc was that relationships between white British men and Indian women were much more acceptable in earlier times – and John B turned up with his mixed race baby.  What an absolutely gorgeous baby!  Well, twins, playing him.  Big smiles for the camera!  But no sign of the mother.  So this was all meant to be very mysterious.   There’s also a mysterious brother whom we haven’t met yet, but the preview of the second episode showed him smoking opium and surrounded by half-naked girls.  Two brothers who are completely different – nothing like a good cliché!  The cliché of “nabobs” at this time – think Jos Sedley in Vanity Fair – was that they were all complete prats, whereas John is supposed to be all brooding and into Indian culture and generally a big hero.  Who can cut down trees without having his shirt on, like Ross Poldark.

And, by the end of the first episode, two women were after him.  The first one was his neighbour’s daughter’s governess.  He asked her round for tea.  On her own.  She went.  Touched his arm.  Used his first name.  I know these are Georgians rather than Victorians, but even so!   The other one was a childhood friend, who’d travelled out there with his mother, apparently purely in the hope of bagging him because his mother had told her he was a good catch.  I was hoping that Lesley Nicol, as the mother, would have a good part, maybe a bit of battleaxe; but she was a real trope, dressed entirely in black (if she’s in mourning, we weren’t told) and whingeing about the weather. An old pal of John’s had also travelled out with them, reasons unknown.

I was assuming that the household staff’d play a big part in it all – although maybe that was all the “Delhi Downton” talk in the media – but they haven’t had much to do yet.  Nor have the neighbours: we barely saw them.  However, we did see a lot of the aforementioned French mercenary – who looks even better in military uniform than he did dressing Mr Selfridge’s windows.  Now, to be fair, he is a mercenary, but the programme definitely gave the impression that the French were allied with the Mughal emperor against the East India Company.   Rubbish.  The French were barely involved in India after the Seven Years’ War.  And they did have rather a lot else on their minds in 1795!

Furthermore, there wasn’t a single mention of the Marathas, who’d been fighting the Mughals for years.  By this stage, the emperor was only really a client king under their protection.  Nor was there any mention of the recent wars between the Mughals and the Sikhs.  Nor did they raise the fact that Mughal rule meant that an Islamic dynasty was ruling over a mainly Hindu population.  It was quite ironic, really – Chadha and Dalrymple were so busy being anti-British that they ended up demeaning Indian history instead, with this Eurocentric impression of events as being all about the French trying to help the Indians keep the British East India Company out of Delhi, instead of showing the relationships and conflicts between different groups of Indians.

Incidentally, Delhi is full of stunning buildings dating from both the British Raj and the Mughal era.  It does not have snowflakes wanting to show how politically correct they are by campaigning for them to be pulled down.  Just a thought.

I’m not defending the East India Company.   In fact, as the programme mentioned, Governor-General Warren Hastings had just been impeached on a number of charges – although he was acquitted.  I first got into Indian history in the late 1980s, when two of Britain’s best-known sports personalities were Scottish rugby union players Gavin and Scott Hastings, and I still want to call Warren Hastings either “Gavin” or “Scott” because the names got a bit mixed up in my head, but that’s beside the point!   But making out that 18th century Indian history was all about the Mughals versus the British East India Company is nonsense, and rather insulting to India.

Oh well.  There’s more to come.  We haven’t met the brother yet.  And I believe that there’s also an Indian princess, who may be the mother of the cute baby.  It was only the first episode – and it had been so hyped up that it would have been very difficult for it to have lived up to expectations.   I do very much hope it gets better, because this is a period of history that, because there’s so much focus on the Raj era, tends to be overlooked.  It deserves better.    Maybe the series will get better!


Things we did because of children’s books …


Making everyone in my primary school class sign my autograph album, sticking “Bold Bad Girl” notices on other kids’ backs in the playground, trying to make invisible ink with orange juice, tying “wings” on an armchair to see if it’d fly (it didn’t), telling myself that I liked Turkish Delight (I don’t), trying to write a pantomime (starring my dolls), insisting on having waffles on my first visit to America, hiding food to keep for midnight feasts and, to cap it all, insisting that my dad make up stories about Amelia Jane because Enid Blyton hadn’t written enough of them (sorry, Dad).  And even going to Oberammergau in 2010.  “Things we did because of children’s books” have come up in a few people’s blog posts recently, so I thought I’d write a couple of top ten lists.  And I think part of the reason I’m so keen on writing things in list form anyway is because Judy does it in Daddy -Long -Legs.

It was mostly Enid Blyton books. Despite (or possibly because of) the fact that teachers in the late ’70s and early ’80s had an absolute down on Enid Blyton, and were always telling us not to read her books, I adored them and so did a lot of the other kids in my class at primary school. We used to plot to sneak out of our respective homes at night, meet up and go off on adventures. We never did (and I’m not sure that there were that many adventures to be had – we lived on housing estates in North Manchester, not in smugglers’ coves or anywhere with stately homes haunted by banshees), but it sounded good. But here’s a list of ten things that I/we did do:

1. Sticking notices on other kids’ backs, like in The Naughtiest Girl in the School. This was actually the brainwave of another girl in my class – she and I were a very bad influence on each other! Unfortunately, they just fell off after a minute. How did they get them to work at Whyteleafe?! They must have used pins, but surely you’d feel it if someone was pinning something to your back!

2. Trying to make invisible ink with orange juice – thank you, the Five Find-Outers. It sort of works …

3. Tying wings (I think they might have been luggage labels) on to a big armchair that we used to have at home, to see if it’d fly like the Wishing Chair did. It didn’t. Very disappointing.

4. Hiding food from tea (including carrots, for some bizarre reason), so that my sister and I could have a midnight feast. But we were only little kids at the time, and we always fell asleep before midnight. And it wouldn’t have been quite the same as getting the whole class together round the Malory Towers swimming pool anyway.

5. Getting my dad (who is very good at making up stories for little kids) to come up with new stories about Amelia Jane, because I was put out that Enid Blyton hadn’t written more of them. Poor Dad!!

6. Writing a pantomime, like Darrell Rivers did. However, whilst Darrell had the whole of her class at Malory Towers to take the parts, I only had my dolls and teddy bears, which was a bit of a problem as (unlike Amelia Jane) they couldn’t actually talk.

7. Sending people to Coventry. Ouch. I feel awful about this now! The bitchy girls in the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books were always sending people to Coventry, and I’m afraid that we once decided to do this to someone who’d been causing trouble. We were only about 8 at the time, to be fair, and I don’t think it lasted past one dinnertime, but I do remember doing it.

8. Deciding that the island in Heaton Park lake was a mysterious island with strange things going on on it, like in The Island of Adventure. Highly unlikely. It’s very small, and clearly visible from the café, and somewhat devoid of abandoned mines or secret tunnels.

9. Trying to make a lacrosse stick by tying a piece of wood to a bin.

10. Telling myself that any bit of woodland I went into was the Enchanted Forest. I still kind of do this! I don’t expect to see Silky and Moonface, but being in woodland always makes me think of Enid Blyton books, even now.

And ten things from children’s books by other authors:

1. Getting everyone in my class at primary school to write messages in an autograph album, like Laura Ingalls Wilder did in … was in Little Town on the Prairie or These Happy Golden Years? I think autograph albums were a thing at the time anyway, but I liked the idea of being like Laura. I’ve still got it. One person wrote “Lose weight” – what a horrible thing to do!  Most of the other kids wrote really sweet things, though, or funny things.  Bless them! I wonder what happened to them all.

2. Having ballet lessons, so that I could be a ballerina like … I was going to say like Lydia in the Noel Streatfeild Gemma books, but, much as I loved those books, I couldn’t actually stand Lydia! Like Veronica or Jane in the Lorna Hill Sadler’s Wells books, then. Preferably Jane, so that I could marry Guy Charlton. This did not end well. Clumsy, unco-ordinated fat kids had to stand in the back row and weren’t allowed to do any proper dancing, just wave their arms about. I packed it in after a couple of years. So much for being a ballerina!

3. Convincing myself that, like Caroline Scott in No Castanets at the Wells, I would magically shed my “puppy fat” and become slim and glamorous once I got to my mid-teens. Thirty years after reaching my mid-teens, I’m still waiting!

4. Insisting on trying waffles almost as soon as I set foot in the United States for the first time, because Lilly Page made such a fuss about them in What Katy Did At School. As I soon found out, they are rather over-rated.

5. So is Turkish delight, as eaten by Edmund in C S Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It tastes like hair lacquer. Why did I keep trying to convince myself that I liked it?!

6. Wanting to live on a boat, like Noel Streatfeild’s Margaret in Thursday’s Child (and also various kids in Enid Blyton books). I mean, why?! I’d get claustrophobic. And what are the sanitary facilities like?!

7. Wanting to own a pony, like Jinny in the Patricia Leitch books. Again, why?! I am scared of getting close to horses! I always think they’re going to bite me.

Interestingly, the “because of children’s books” things that I was still doing even once I was supposedly grown up were mostly from the Chalet School books. That probably says a lot about how good Elinor Brent-Dyer’s writing is, certainly in the early part of the series. Mind you, there are also the things I still won’t do – including dyeing my own hair, after L M Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables dyed hers green by mistake. I even told my hairdresser that. She must have thought I was mad.

8. Telling my bemused modern history professor that, no, I did not want to write an essay about the French Revolution – I wanted to write one about the Austro-Hungarian Empire instead. And I got an A+ for it (apologies for showing off)! I would have explained, but I didn’t think he was really a Chalet School sort of person.

9. Having to have coffee and cream cakes all the time, whenever I’m in Central Europe, despite the fact that I very rarely drink coffee at home (I have umpteen cups of tea a day) and really should not be eating cream cakes. EBD, I blame you for this!

10. Going to the Passion Play in Oberammergau in 2010. Religion isn’t my thing, and I don’t think I’d have thought of going if it hadn’t been for The Chalet School and Jo. And I’m so glad I did, because it was a lovely experience, on a lovely sunny day.

Those are just 20 things. There are millions more.  I still have to remember not to call my best friend from school by the silly nickname we gave her because of a Beverly Cleary book, and which kind of stuck  – and which she prefers to forget about.  Having a February birthday, I used to write “The Secret Diary of [Name] aged x and 3/4” on diaries – thank you, Adrian Mole.  And I still tend to write lists mid-prose, like Judy does in Jean Webster’s Daddy-Long-Legs.  

And I’ve still never actually had a midnight feast …

Our Own Country by Jodi Daynard



This wasn’t a very good book, but, whilst reading it, I got into an interesting discussion about whether or not historical fiction should reflect the prevailing attitudes of the time and demographics that it’s about, given that there are always going to be people who feel differently. In this book, Eliza, a white woman living in Massachussetts at the time of the American Revolution becomes romantically involved with a mixed-race slave, they have a child together, and the relatives and friends with whom she’s living at the time are absolutely fine about it. My initial reaction was that the book was unrealistic – but, whilst it seems unlikely that that’s the reaction she’d have got, it *could* have happened.

Having said which, it really wasn’t a great book. That was a shame, because it sounded great. It’s rare for books to explore the experiences of slaves during the American War of Independence, or even to make the point about what a horrific paradox it was to speak about “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” when millions of people across what became the United States remained enslaved.  That’s usually left for books set during the Civil War – and it’s sometimes hard not to feel that writers are glossing over the fact that slavery existed north of the Mason-Dixon Line as well as south of it.  But we heard very little from the point of view of John, Eliza’s boyfriend, or from Cassie, the family cook to whom Eliza was very close, so the message never really came across.

It was pretty much all told from the viewpoint of Eliza herself, a young woman from a well-to-do family living in the colony of Massachusetts. Her brother was pro-independence, her father was a Loyalist. That again sounded like an interesting idea, showing how families were divided by the conflict, but, again, it didn’t really work – the brother moved away, and was later killed in action, and we didn’t really get to see the family discussing its members’ different viewpoints.

Nor did it help that the author had tried to be true to the time period by writing all the dialogue in what was presumably meant to be 18th century speech patterns, but sounded artificial.  Also, all Cassie’s speech was written in broken English.  I’m sure the author meant well, but I felt quite uncomfortable about it.

John and Abigail Adams featured quite prominently, as friends of Eliza’s sister-in-law, and there were some interesting observations about the privations which resulted from the war.  And a spy story, which I think probably made more sense if you’d read the book to which this is a sequel, which I hadn’t!

Overall, a good idea, but not very well executed.  And it ended with Eliza and John living happily ever after in Barbados, which I didn’t really get – did the author think that society in Georgian Barbados wouldn’t have had any problem with a white woman being married to a mixed-race man?  I wish I could say it wouldn’t have, but surely we all accept that it would.

So is it OK for historical fiction to show a relationship that flew in the face of societal norms of the time, be that because of class, race, religion, gender, one party being married to someone else, or anything else, without really showing the problems that the couple would have faced?  I’m not convinced that it is.  It’s not inaccurate as such, because it could have happened.  And lots of things happen in books which aren’t very realistic, so it’s not really fair to criticise an author for being unrealistic.   But it doesn’t really work for me.  But, hey, maybe that’s just me!

Gentleman Jack (episode 5) – BBC 1


This has been an excellent series from the start, but Sunday’s episode, in which Anne Lister, superbly played by Suranne Jones, spoke about how God had made her the way she was and it would be completely unnatural for her to have a relationship with a man, when she was only attracted to women, was incredibly moving. I feel like comparing it to Shakespeare’s “Hath not a Jew eyes” speech! There are a lot of issues arising at the moment about the attitudes of religious authorities towards same sex relationships, towards transgender people, and even towards vaccinations. People are entitled to their religious beliefs, but not when that extends to insulting, abusing, hurting, excluding and endangering other people. Anne Lister’s words, from two centuries ago, said it all so well.  Anne Lister, Sally Wainwright and Suranne Jones – three very admirable northern ladies 🙂 .

The only quibble I’d had with the programme so far was that it hadn’t mentioned Anne’s strong religious faith. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t want my Sunday night period drama being spoilt by anyone being preachy, but her religion is known to have been an important part of her life and personality, and so it needed to be included in order to give an accurate portrayal of her character. I’d even wondered if it was because the series is being shown simultaneously on an American channel and the BBC were wimping out of shocking viewers in Alabama who might not be able to cope with the idea that it is absolutely fine for an LGBT person to be a practising Christian (or practising member of any other religion). Sorry, BBC!

It was a very thought-provoking episode, with Ann Walker’s family and friends repeatedly telling her that she would risk not only being the subject of gossip but possibly being ostracised from society if it became publicly known that she was in a relationship with another woman, and Anne Lister being beaten up by a mysterious assailant who warned her to keep away from Ann. Ann Walker herself was feeling that she ought to accept the proposal of a man who’d once raped her – partly because she felt obliged to marry him after what had happened (and this still happens in some countries, where rapists are not prosecuted if they then marry their victims) and partly because she felt that she had to marry a man, any man, in order to look respectable. It’s not as if these attitudes are a surprise to viewers, but seeing them so well-portrayed really brings it home how difficult life was for the people affected by them.

This is period drama with serious messages – in a way that works really well. It’s so much more effective than (this is an ongoing argument over books for young adults) excluding any expressions of racism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, snobbery or anything else that someone might find offensive. Don’t pretend it doesn’t exist. Get it in there, get it out there, and show people the damage it does.

The Wool-Pack by Cynthia Harnett (Facebook group reading challenge)


This is a children’s book, the 1951 Carnegie Medal winner, set in Oxfordshire in 1493, about Nicholas Fetterlock, the 12-year-old son of a wool merchant. On the plus side, it was absolutely packed with detail about the period – what people wore, what they ate, how the wool was spun and sold, what people did for entertainment, etc. On the minus side, not very much actually happened! There was a plot about wool being stolen and sold illegally, but it didn’t really kick off until halfway through, and then, when the kids (Nicholas, his betrothed and a servant) caught the thief out, it was by sneaking into his barn whilst he was at the dentist (OK, the barber-surgeon!) and marking the sacks so the authorities could catch him later on – there was no real drama.

Very early on, there was some scene-setting with a bit of background information about the Wars of the Roses and how we were now in the eighth year of the reign of Henry VII, and Nicholas met some Italian merchants who told him about the Medici family and what was going on in Florence. There was also an uncle who was hoping to join John Cabot on a voyage to “the Indies” (slight historical fail there, seeing as Cabot didn’t arrive in England until a couple of years later!) and told Nicholas about Christopher Columbus. But national and international events didn’t really come it, and were barely mentioned after that: it was more about the daily lives of the Fetterlocks, and the Bradshaws (a very Lancastrian-sounding surname for a Southern family!), the well-to-do family of Cecily, the girl to whom Nicholas’s dad had betrothed him.

I’m pleased to say that Cecily was a very feisty girl who was fully involved in such adventure as there was! It’d be interesting to know what modern editors would make of Nicholas’s dad telling him that wives should be beaten into obedience, though. There’s a major ongoing argument about historical novels for children, and the extent to which they should reflect the attitudes of the times when those attitudes are not acceptable today. I’m pretty sure that that particular line would be struck straight out now!

The historical detail was amazing – there was just so much of it. I don’t know that all of it was 100% accurate, but, apart from the thing with John Cabot, there was nothing that was definitely inaccurate. The clothes they wore, the food they ate, the way in which the table was set, all the details about the wool trade and about the actual preparation of the wool, the church services … there was just so much information pouring off every page. Little details, like Nicholas being expected to kneel for his father’s blessing, and fake hermits asking for alms, and people returning from Santiago de Compostela disembarking from ships with cockleshells in their hats. There was a wonderful description of a fair, and we also heard about compulsory archery practice. I don’t think I’ve ever read a children’s book so rich in period detail. It was fascinating.

But not very much actually happened …

The drama, such as it was, involved one of the local men involved in transporting the wool colluding with the Italian merchants to steal it and smuggle it abroad, where it’d be sold illegally – which would have got Nicholas’s dad thrown out of the Staple, the powerful wool merchants’ guild which held a monopoly on wool exports from England. Nicholas, Cecily and Nicholas’s servant Hal uncovered the plot, and, thanks to them, the baddies were caught and Master Fetterlock’s name was cleared – but, as I’ve said, it wasn’t exactly a case of a thrilling showdown! And smuggling wool … OK, the wool trade was absolutely crucial at the time, but, as far as excitement goes, it’s not exactly up there with finding escaped Royalists/Jacobites or Napoleonic French/Nazi German spies hiding out at the bottom of your garden, which is more the sort of thing you usually get in children’s historical fiction.

Enid Blyton would have had them getting locked in the barn and having to work out some way to escape. G A Henty would have had the thief coming home unexpectedly, tying the kids up in woolsacks and throwing them on board a ship bound for the Continent, whereupon they would have joined Columbus’s second voyage, got caught up in the French invasion of Italy, captured Perkin Warbeck or possibly all three. Going home and just waiting to hear that the marked sacks had been traced was a bit tame! Children’s books don’t necessarily have to be full of dramatic adventures – as a general rule, no-one tends to get tied up and thrown on board a ship in school stories, ballet stories, pony stories, etc – but I do think the book could have done with a bit more action as well as all the descriptions of daily life, interesting and informative as that was.

Great for historical detail, and it’s nice to find a children’s historical novel that’s actually set in peacetime – most seem to be set either in wartime or when there’s fear of war breaking out – but I think a book for readers of the intended age range, or indeed any age range, needs to have more of a plot.

Our Classical Century – BBC 4


The soundtrack to the glorious summer of 1990 wasn’t anything by the Stone Roses or the Happy Mondays, or even one of my beloved power ballads. It was Luciano Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma. How mad (for it 😉 ) was that? Kids like us did not listen to classical/opera music. It was totally uncool. It was for old (i.e. over about 35) posh people in the Home Counties. Or Ken Barlow. And then, suddenly, it was for us as well. We even nicknamed one of our school bus drivers “Luciano” (there was a very vague resemblance, if you looked hard). The following year, Pavarotti sang in Manchester shortly after United won the Cup Winners’ Cup, in English clubs’ first season back in Europe after the ban. He wore a United scarf on stage. This was it – yep, classical music was cool after all!  Classic FM launched a year later. Nigel Kennedy’s Mockney accent was rather annoying, but, as the ’90s went on, along came Vanessa Mae, and she was brilliant. Suzy Klein, who’s the same age as me to within a few weeks, will probably have grown up with the same music as I did, but it still makes me feel really old to be reminded that Alexandra Burke, her co-presenter, is Melissa Bell’s daughter! But even people who aren’t old enough to remember the summer of 1990 know Nessun Dorma.  Vincero!  Vin-cer-o …!

I have to say that a lot of the stuff mentioned in this episode, about how classical music shed its stuffy image in the ’80s and ’90s, seems to have passed me right by at the time! I remember Bolero, obviously. Everyone remembers Bolero! I could have done without Alexandra Burke pointing out that she wasn’t born in 1984, but still.  And I remember classical music being used for TV adverts. We had to listen to Air on a G String in school music lessons, and, instead of looking blank like we usually did when the teacher asked if anyone knew what the piece was – I was OK with the 1812 Overture, because of its links with Russian history, and I must have recognised some things from the “Amadeus” film, but that was usually about it – everyone brightly pointed out that it was the music from the Hamlet cigar advert.

But I don’t remember the nation being “brought together” by a piece of classical music played at the funeral of Diana. Princess of Wales, although I remember Elton John singing Candle in the Wind, as clearly as if it were yesterday. And I have no recollection of a Venezuelan orchestra bouncing around whilst playing music from West Side Story, which the programme insisted was some great turning point in cultural history! Oh, and I never knew that Elgar supported Wolves – you learn something new every day! He wrote a football song called “He Banged The Leather For Goal”.  Seriously.

But Nessun Dorma in 1990 – oh yes. It was an interesting time, the summer of 1990. People Like Us, who were into football, were suddenly listening to The Three Tenors. People who were into high culture stuff were suddenly watching football.

I’ve got mixed feelings about the changes in football. Don’t get me wrong, no-one wants to go back to the days of hooliganism, but it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the pre-1990 days as I try desperately to work out when to book some shows I want to see in the run-up to Christmas, knowing that Sky and BT Sports and now Amazon Prime as well can change the dates of times and fixtures whenever and to whenever they feel like it, and it’s hard not to feel resentful knowing that, should my team get to a Cup final, I’ll struggle to get tickets because priority will be given to the prawn sandwich brigade. But feeling that, yes, classical music is actually for everyone after all – that’s a definite change for the better. I don’t actually listen to Classic FM, because I’m usually listening to stations that play ’90s power ballads instead , and I don’t usually listen to the Proms except on the Last Night, but I will listen to classical music sometimes, and I don’t feel that it isn’t for People Like Us.

And, when I think of 1990 – which I do quite a lot, because it was a really big year for me, for various reasons – I think, along with all the “Madchester” music, and along with Roxette, and Elton John, and The Beautiful South, and Sinead O’Connor, of Pavarotti singing Nessun Dorma, and making classical/opera music cool!