Malory Towers


As a little girl, I was obsessed with Malory Towers.  When I was 6 or 7, one of my primary school teachers even complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like “a miniature Enid Blyton”.  I only wish I did – I could use the zillions of pounds she must have earned in royalties!  I tried to write a pantomime like Darrell Rivers did – with the parts going to my dolls and teddy bears.  I told my sister that we were going to have a midnight feast and we had to nick food from our tea.  You get the idea.  Then, as I got older, I began to find aspects of the books more and more unpleasant.  The bullying, the malice, the snobbery.  Let’s face it, as a swotty fat kid with a Northern accent, I wouldn’t have lasted five minutes at the place.  Alicia and Betty would have made mincemeat of me!  But I’ve still got that childhood affection for the books, for the midnight feasts and the seawater swimming pool and the tricks played on teachers, and I booked to see this stage adaptation pretty much as soon as tickets went on sale.  And it was a really nice interpretation of the books – not exactly faithful to them, and with some elements that verged on being spoof-like, but with added depth given to the problem characters to explain their unpleasant behaviour, and an overall emphasis, on friendship, pulling together, and becoming the sort of kind, strong women whom Miss Grayling talked about in her legendary welcome speeches.

It started with a group of girls in a modern school, and my heart sank … but that was only some silly intro bit that’d been added for no good reason, and it didn’t last long!  Soon, we were off to Malory Towers. No midnight feasts, and only one trick, but we did get the swimming pool – thanks to the clever use of graphics and other special effects, which formed a big part of the performance. There’s obviously only so much that you can show on stage, especially in a production that’s only aimed at relatively small theatres, but the graphics were very effective in showing things that couldn’t have been included otherwise.

Only seven characters featured – Darrell, Sally, Gwendoline Mary, Alicia, Bill, Mary-Lou and Irene. If I’d had to pick seven of the girls to include, I’d probably have gone for exactly the same seven (ignoring the fact that Bill didn’t actually appear until the third year, and this was meant to be the first term of the first year), but I did wonder how it was going to work without Miss Grayling, Miss Potts, Mam’zelle et al. However, in the end I didn’t really miss them that much – and Miss Grayling did feature when needed, as a silhouette and a disembodied voice!  Headmistresses in school stories are always terribly wise and inspirational – I was fully expecting some sort of inspirational speech on my own first day at secondary school, and was rather put out when all we heard about were timetables and lockers and dinner queues – and we needed her words to remind us what Malory Towers was supposed to be about, but the emphasis was on the girls and the bonding between them.

It was a musical, but the music wasn’t really that memorable: it was all about the storyline.  As far as that storyline went, several storylines, from different books, had been combined, so it wasn’t for the purists. There was also a clifftop rescue scene which had more echoes of the Chalet School than of Malory Towers, and a Shakespearean play storyline which had more echoes of Kingscote than of Darrell & co’s pantomime. Even aspects of the characters had been merged: Bill was an “Honourable”, whereas in the books that was Clarissa. However, the general themes were there, and much of the story hinged on the iconic scene in which Gwendoline holds Mary-Lou under the water in the swimming pool and furious Darrell slaps her. That scene’s been taken out of some modern reprints, which rather annoys me.  It’s meant to be violent. The whole point of it is that slapping people isn’t acceptable. And it’s much more dramatic than the storyline in which Darrell’s framed for breaking a pen, which is what causes most of the first term’s trouble in the book.

As far as the portrayal of the characters went … well, for a kick-off, most of them didn’t have posh voices, so maybe yours truly would actually have been OK in this version of Malory Towers!  Well, if the other girls could have got past the fat and swotty stuff!   And the only two who were really true to how they were in the books were hot-tempered but good-hearted Darrell and timid Mary-Lou.  They were all a bit caricatured – but it has to be said that Enid Blyton’s characters can be rather one-dimensional, certainly when compared to Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s or Antonia Forest’s. But this adaptation did give more depth to the two problem girls – Alicia and Gwendoline Mary. Alicia, rather than being malicious and, it has to be said, rather a bitch, was shown as playing the part of class comedian to try to cover up her academic failings. That was venturing a long way from the books, in which Alicia was very clever, but it fitted with the purpose of the show, which had everyone coming together at the end to support each other.

As for Gwendoline, in the books she was only redeemed towards the end of her final year, when her dad became ill. In this version, we were told that the reason she was so badly-behaved wasn’t that she was spoilt, as it was in the books, but that she had a troubled home life because her dad was suffering from shell-shock after the war.  And her dad actually died – it was strongly suggested that he’d taken his own life – and the other girls rallied round her, and so she became part of the crowd.   Again, it was a long way from the books, but it worked for the purposes of this show. It was also interesting to see the effects of the war on this generation of young people brought into the story. It was never mentioned in the books.  It really did all get quite dark, partly with the suicide storyline and partly with Gwendoline half-smothering Mary-Lou with a pillow, driving her into running away.  The books certainly weren’t all jolly hockey sticks, with some pretty nasty stuff going on, but this took things to a different level.

Sally’s story was changed as well – she was far more serious and bossy that she was in the books, and her issues were put down to, rather than jealousy of her new baby sister as they were in the books, being neglected by parents who weren’t really interested in her. Again, it all formed part of this idea of the girls needing each other, and realising that in the end. Irene didn’t really feature much, and had lost her scatterbrained nature and her interest in maths: she was the one character whom I felt could really have done with a bit more of a story and a bit more action.

And so to Bill, who’s had all the press coverage because the part’s being played by a non-binary actor. Some of this has been bigotry from the religious right and is therefore best ignored, but there’s also been some valid concern, from people who are not in the least bit transphobic, that the casting decision gives the impression that a cisgender female has to be into frilly pink girly stuff and that a tomboy can’t identify as being female.  The issues of gender identity and sexuality weren’t actually referred to, but there was certainly something going on.  Bill was referred to as a “knight in shining armour” for her part in the clifftop rescue, strode about in jodhpurs and riding boots, like a Jilly Cooper character, whilst all the others were in school uniform, and shared a “moment” with Sally when their parts in the Shakespearean play required them to kiss.

I personally have never seen Bill as being non-binary or transgender: whereas George (Georgina) of the Famous Five dislikes being seen as a girl and is pleased when people see her as a boy, there’s never any suggestion that Bill identifies as anything other than female. But, like many Girls’ Own fans, I see Bill as being gay, and imagine her ending up in a relationship with Clarissa Carter. There’s a lot of fanfic “shipping” the two of them – and quite a bit of it is by authors who are themselves gay and say that they identify with the characters and find it helpful that characters like them do exist in older books for children. I think we’re also meant to see Miss Potts as being a lesbian – she’s a rather clumsy stereotype, unlike Miss Wilmot and Miss Ferrars in the Chalet School books, but the point is that there are strong LGBT undertones in some Enid Blyton books, although it’s George rather than Bill who doesn’t want to be seen as a girl, and so there’s no “agenda” involved in portraying that in stage or film or TV adaptations. Children’s books of that period did not include openly gay characters – the first children’s book I read which did include an openly gay character was The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, and that wasn’t written until the 1980s – but there were definitely those aspects to Malory Towers and other Girls’ Own stories.  Anyone claiming that it’s been made up for political correctness or to push an “agenda” or anything else really needs to have a good read of the books!

Nevertheless, as I said, this wasn’t for the purists, because storylines and characters had been changed; but the general themes, the positive themes, of Malory Towers and of Girls’ Own books in general were all there.  Pull together, work with your friends, try to deal with any aspects of your own character – a bad temper, jealousy, bullying tendencies – which are problematic – and try to “learn to be good-hearted and kind, sensible and trustable, good, sound women the world can lean on”!   It’s great to see Malory Towers back in the news, and it was great to see a lot of teenage girls there last night, and some younger children as well.  I’d thought it was all going to be people aged 35 and over, but it looks as if the Girls’ Own baton is being carried on into another generation.  Hooray!!  Or, as Enid Blyton would have said, hurrah!


Downton Abbey



This was great fun for a wet Sunday morning.  Don’t be expecting anything too deep and meaningful – a lot of the plotlines were more Enid Blyton or Nancy Drew/ the Hardy Boys than serious period drama – but it was always entertaining.  As everyone will know from all the adverts, it revolves around King George V and Queen Mary paying a visit to good old Downton.  It involves various near-disasters, a lot of sitcom stuff involving feuding staff, a sub-plot with some long-lost relations, and one of the Downton family inadvertently sorting out some royal personal traumas!   The Dowager Countess and Cousin Isobel play off each other brilliantly; and there’s also plenty of romance, with Mr Barrow finally finding a nice boyfriend, Tom finding a new girlfriend, Daisy deciding she definitely wants to marry Andy, and Miss Baxter growing closer to Mr Molesley.  There is a bit of serious stuff about life both upstairs and downstairs in there too, and there’s a sad twist in the tale which I won’t give away.  It won’t be winning any Oscars, but it’s certainly a must for Downton fans … and so, in case anyone’s reading this, I won’t put any major spoilers 🙂 .

Other than Lady Rose and Atticus, pretty much the whole cast is involved, with those who’d moved away from Downton Abbey coming to visit/coming out of retirement for the occasion.  The King and Queen are going to be spending a night at Downton, en route from Raby Castle (which I sincerely hope did not have horse manure all over the car park, as it did when I went there) to Harewood House (which I must visit again some time).  Cue all sorts of excitement in the village, where the local grocer declares that this is the pinnacle of not only his career but his life, and all sorts of panic at the house.  Needless to say, things do not run entirely smoothly, as the boiler packs up, Edith’s new ballgown goes missing, Daisy makes republican remarks, Tom thinks he’s being suspected of being a terrorist, and everyone worries because one of the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting is a cousin of the Dowager Countess’s, with whom she’s long since fallen out.

Then the royal staff, including a comedy French chef who wouldn’t be out of place in ‘Allo ‘Allo, insist that they’ll be doing everything, putting the Downton lot’s noses completely out of joint.  However, thanks to a sleeping draught, a hoax phone call, two people being locked in their bedrooms and the Queen’s dresser being caught pilfering (see what I mean about Enid Blyton?), the Downton staff get their moment of glory after all.  Hooray!

Meanwhile, the cousin turns out to have a big secret.  And, speaking of plots involving long-lost relations, I see that ITV are doing an adaptation of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia. I hope it’s better than the book!  Tom unearths a dangerous plot which he bravely foils by running through the streets, with Mary chasing after him (see what I mean about Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys), and rugby-tackling the villain.  It’s also suggested (inaccurately) that Princess Mary, who featured strongly in The Queen’s Lost Family , is having marital problems … which Tom also, albeit inadvertently, sorts out!   And Edith is sad because she thinks that noblesse oblige means that too many demands are being made on her husband, but Cora gets the Queen to sort it out.  As you do

On a more serious note, poor Mr Barrow is caught up in a police raid on a gay jazz club – having only just found out, to his sadly soon suppressed delight, that there are gay clubs.  However, he’s rescued by one of the royal valets, and the two of them later get together.  Yay!  And share an off-screen night and an on-screen snog.  Tom and one of the visiting maids, who is part of the cousin’s mysterious secret, also share an on-screen snog.  Daisy and Andy do not snog, but agree to get married, after he proves his love by, er, vandalising a boiler pump.  Miss Baxter and Mr Molesley do not snog either, but meaningful glances are exchanged.

There’s quite a bit of pageantry, with the King reviewing the Yorkshire Hussars, and there are some glamorous ballroom scenes.  And a lot of food.  And some absolutely glorious shots of Highclere Castle and its grounds.  What a gorgeous place … although not as nice as Edith’s new home, filmed at Alnwick Castle!

It isn’t all escapism.  Reference is made to the General Strike.  The pilfering dresser talks about how unfair it is that there’s so much disparity between the lives of the haves and the lives of the have-nots.  And, whilst Robert and Cora don’t seem very bothered about the future of Downton Abbey, Mary wonders whether it’s worth going on … when running a stately home and a country estate is all so stressful.  Never having run either and never likely to be running either, I’ll have to take her word for that!  But it’s a fair point – a lot of upper-class families did end up selling their homes, or handing them over to the National Trust.

Then, as I said, there’s a rather sad twist in the tale … but it all ends on a positive note, with Carson saying that Downton Abbey will still be standing in a hundred years’ time, and that the Crawleys will still be there in a hundred years’ time, even if Mrs Hughes/Mrs Carson isn’t entirely convinced.  Who knows?  I like to think that they’re still there, raising some of the money for the upkeep by opening up the gardens to members of the public, and, hey, maybe hosting pop concerts in the grounds!   I don’t know if this is the last we’ll see of the Granthams, but they’ve given us a lot of entertainment over the years, and, nearly four years after the TV series ended, it was good to see them back.

1944: Should We Bomb Auschwitz? – BBC 2


Another Second World War programme, this one about the very difficult question of whether, having learnt about the atrocities taking place at Auschwitz-Birkenau from two incredibly brave men who managed to escape, the Allies should have tried to destroy the gas chambers by bombing the site. Those in favour felt that doing so might save the lives of the hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews whom the Nazis were planning to exterminate, and also that it would make a strong moral point. Of those opposed, some were concerned about the risk of killing tens of thousands of prisoners in the process, whilst others, the majority, felt that it was more important to concentrate on winning the war.  There are no easy answers, but this programme asked a lot of important questions.

It was presented as a docu-drama. I think that that format does work better than the rather dry format of a professor sitting behind a dusty old desk, but it did feel quite strange to see something as horrific as the two escapees describing their experiences at Auschwitz being shown as a “drama”. One of them was played by David Moorst from Peterloo … and I know that this sounds daft, but hearing all these horrors described, as if by an eye-witness, in a Lancashire accent, really hit me particularly hard. What courageous men Rudolf Vrba and Alfred Wetzler, the two Slovakian Jews who, in April 1944, somehow managed to escape from Auschwitz and make it from Nazi-occupied Poland into the Slovak Republic, a Nazi client state, were. Why are their names not better-known?  We should all know those names.  And how courageous also were the people working for the Jewish underground in the Slovak Republic and elsewhere.  Before going to Budapest earlier this year, I read a lot about their work in Hungary.  Incredible.

One of the underground leaders interrogated them about what was going on – and we’re talking a real inquisition. How horrific for them to be grilled like that, after everything they’d been through already, but obviously they had to make sure that the report was convincing, and that people wouldn’t just dismiss it as some kind of propaganda or even fantasy … because it was so far outside the scope of human experience that people were going to struggle even to begin to take it in.

I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t aware of what the Nazis had done. I honestly don’t know whether someone – a family member, or maybe even a teacher – told me, or I read about it, or I just somehow gradually absorbed it as little kids do.  But I feel that I’ve always known about it, and that everyone around me has always known about it.  It’s hard to try to comprehend how people in 1944 and 1945 felt when they found out what was going on, because this was something new to history. Mass shootings, prison camps – people knew about these, both in the context of the Second World War and in the context of previous dark periods in history.  But to find out about these extermination camps, about the industrial killings of thousands of people a day – how did they process that information?  And that was why the report had to be so detailed, and to be factual rather than emotive.  People would struggle to believe it otherwise.

The first report, the Auschwitz Protocol, was prepared by the end of April 1944, and a copy of it was somehow transferred to the American-run War Refugee Council in Switzerland. I’m not quite clear on what was going on with post coming out of Switzerland at this time, but apparently they couldn’t get the full report out, so an edited version was distributed – but it said more than enough.

The rest of the programme alternated between what was going on with the report and what was happening to the Hungarian Jews, which worked very well: it really got across the message of what was going on. I visited the Budapest Ghetto only a few months ago, and I read quite a few books about it beforehand, but actually seeing the deportations on film – there was a lot of film, from both Hungary and from Auschwitz – was really horrible . And there were interviews with survivors. They genuinely had no idea what they were going to. They smelt a strange smell when they arrived at Auschwitz, but thought it was some sort of industrial process, or even a bakery. They were separated from other family members on arrival, but just assumed they’d been sent to a different barracks: it was only later that they realised that they’d been murdered.

Meanwhile, the British, other Commonwealth and American forces were preparing for the D-Day landings, the Americans were also advancing on Japan, and the Soviets were advancing through Eastern Europe.  Everything was happening at once.

The report reached Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Secretary, in London. It also reached the War Refugee Board in Washington. The people at the Swiss end were urging the Allied authorities to bomb Auschwitz, or to bomb the railway lines which led to it: they were in no doubt that this was what had to be done. In London, Eden called in Chaim Weizmann and Moshe Shertok.   Weizmann, the future first president of Israel, was born in what’s now Belarus but lived in Manchester for decades and was very involved with the “Manchester School of Zionists”, whose other members were mostly old girls of my old school and old boys of our “brother” school (sorry, I do know that that’s irrelevant), and is a very familiar name … well, to me, anyway.  Shertok, later the second prime minister of Israel, had spent most of his life in what was then Palestine.  It’s quite interesting that Eden called in Jewish Agency/Zionist leaders.  Somehow, I would have expected the Foreign Office to call in someone more from the Anglo-Jewish Establishment. I don’t know why.  Anyway, that’s beside the point.

They were in favour of bombing Auschwitz.  Although it’s all a bit confusing and a lot of changing of minds seems to have gone at various points, it seems that so was Eden, and so, when the report was passed to him, was Churchill.  We were shown some of Churchill’s letters: it was clear how deeply, deeply shocked, distressed and traumatised he was by the news. It does seem that there were some people at Westminster who dismissed the report as some sort of attempt to try to guilt-trip Britain into letting refugees in, but Churchill and Eden were certainly not amongst them.

The Allies did have pictures of the Auschwitz-Birkenau. The airmen who’d taken them could have had no idea what they were photographing, presumably thinking it was an industrial site, but, putting them together with the drawings made by Vrba and Wetzler, it was pretty clear where the gas chambers were. But obviously there was no sort of precision bombing then, and any sort of air raids would probably have killed many or all of the prisoners. Forty prisoners were killed when Allied bombs aimed at a nearby factory hit the site in the September.

However, no-one seems to have been willing or able to make a decision, even over something so big and even when so many big decisions were being made about so many things. British and American Air Force leaders were consulted, and the commander of the US Air Forces in Europe seems to have supported the idea. The British Air Ministry seems to have argued against it, because of “operational reasons”, but it’s not clear whether this meant in terms of actually being able to hit the site or concerns about killing prisoners or anything else. It’s all very vague and very unclear.

Over in Washington, nobody even told Roosevelt. I find that really weird. OK, you can’t bother the president with everything, but this was pretty big, to say the least. And, yes, he was in poor health – but then why not tell the vice-president, or the Secretary of State? It doesn’t seem to have got much past some fairly junior minister at the War Office. Someone must have told Roosevelt at some point, but we don’t seem to know when. And yet the news was getting out – there were rumours flying about.  In fact, the news had spread sufficiently for a huge demonstration to be held in Madison Square Garden, in August 1944.

The full text of the report eventually reached the US, and presumably Britain as well. In Washington, the War Refugee Board was definitely in favour of bombing, but the War Department wasn’t. And, in London, Weizmann was told that bomb attacks on Auschwitz weren’t possible. Frustrated at the lack of action, the War Refugee Board linked the report to the press. The word “Genocide” appeared emblazoned across the front page of the New York Times.

Nothing was done.

As we know, Auschwitz-Birkenau was eventually liberated by the Soviets on 27th January 1945.

About 140,000 Hungarian Jews survived. The Soviets liberated around 6,000 people at the camp, although some of them were too ill for their lives to be saved. 15,000 others, maybe more, died whilst being marched away from the camps as the Nazis tried to cover up what had been going on. Some were transferred to other camps, and were liberated there.

The BBC interviewed a number of prominent Holocaust historians, including Deborah Lipstadt. Most of them seemed to feel that the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz-Birkenau – but not so much because it would have done any good as because it would have sent a message to the Nazis, and to history, that what they were doing was morally unacceptable – to put it ridiculously mildly.

I don’t know. I can certainly see the argument that bombing the camp would have killed tens of thousands of innocent people. I don’t know that it would have done much good anyway – there were other death camps, and the Nazis had other ways of killing people. But not on that scale, though? Could bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau have saved tens, even hundreds, of thousands of lives?

And I don’t claim to be a military expert, but, if there were air raids being made close enough to the site for it to be hit by accident, and given the scale of the bombing on Germany and elsewhere at the time, how much could it have affected the war effort if a number of raids had been made on Auschwitz rather than on other targets? But I am presumably missing something major, because the general verdict seems to be that the reason no action was taken was that it was considered more important to focus on winning the war. I can certainly see the argument that winning the war sooner rather than later would save lives.  And, whilst I hear the argument that bombing Auschwitz-Birkenau would have made a moral statement, it’s easy to talk about moral statements seventy-five years on, when you’re not trying to win a war that’s already been going on for five years.

There aren’t any easy answers, but I wish we knew what the answers that were reached actually were. The questions were asked. The issues were raised and discussed. It’s not as if it was a subject that just never arose. It was decided not to bomb Auschwitz: that’s the only answer we really have. I’m sure that the people who made that decision had very good reasons for it, and felt that it was the right choice. And talking about it now isn’t going to make any difference. But I want to know exactly what those reasons were, and which of them carried the most weight.  And, for all the discussion, and all the speculation, no-one can give me a definitive answer on that.  I really wish they could.

A Quintette in Queensland and Verena visits New Zealand by Elinor M Brent-Dyer


These are two of the four “geography readers” written by Elinor M Brent-Dyer (EBD), the author of the Chalet School series and many other books, in 1951, intended to inform readers about different Commonwealth countries.  They’re intended to be educational but are written as stories – one about five cousins on a sugar cane farm in Queensland, and one about a girl touring New Zealand.  The word “reader” makes me think of an American school text book, but, whilst these are clearly meant to be educational, and contain a huge amount of information, they are stories, and they’re quite good fun.  Also, given that these books were written nearly seventy years ago, it does EBD great credit that it’s made clear to Verena that “Some of our finest men have been Maoris”.  There are a lot of info dumps, but they’re all interesting, and they’re all woven into the stories.  I enjoyed these far more than I was expecting to.

A Quintette in Queensland is about a group of five children at a sugar cane farm in Queensland. Is “farm” the right word? I keep wanting to say “plantation”, but that’s obviously wrong. Station, maybe? Anyway!  We’ve got the three children who live there, and their two cousins who are visiting from New Zealand during the long school holidays. Three boys and two girls – four of whom are aged between 14 and 16, and one who’s younger. So, apart from the setting, it’s quite an Enid Blyton/Lorna Hill/Arthur Ransome set-up. The kids are all at boarding school, which seems a bit unlikely, and the book’s set in July – which fits with both the British long school holidays and the cane cutting season, but certainly doesn’t fit with the Australian school year. You’d think EBD would have realised that! Oh well, never mind. Seeing as she seemed to think that Toronto was full of French-speaking convent schools and that fictional countries moved around the Balkans at will, I suppose we shouldn’t be too surprised. Bless her!

It’s only a short book, so we don’t get to know any of the kids that well, but they’re all generally nice kids – no-one is bossy, or a troublemaker. The three who live there are the children of the owners, rather than of the people who actually cut the sugar – although it is pointed out that it’s hard to get domestic staff there, so the mum has to do the housework herself (yes, really!).  The girls have to help – and Chalet School fans will be amused to find that this includes taking the mattresses off the beds and airing them every day. The boys do not have to do housework, but the older boys help with cutting the sugar. This was published in 1951, so I’m not going to moan about the gender division of labour, but I’m just pointing it out!   And, although the girls and the younger boy have to take shelter in bad weather, later on, whilst the older boys front it out, the girls do generally get to be equally involved in everything, and no-one suggests that machinery and industrial processes won’t interest them.  Hooray!!

EBD does write quite well about mixed gender groups.  She never really tries it in the Chalet School series, except in Joey & Co in Tyrol … and it’s not easy to judge the quality of someone’s writing on a book in which a man who’s planning to take off in a home-made spaceship turns out to be someone’s long-lost cousin.  I’m always sorry that we see so little of the Russell and Bettany boys.

Anyway!  There’s a huge amount of information in it. I’m afraid that all I really know about the Australian sugar cane industry is that Luke O’Neill in The Thorn Birds devoted himself to cane-cutting, instead of living with his wife Meggie. However, apparently everything in the book is pretty accurate, with the possible exception of a reference to houses having “winter rooms” that were only used when heavy rain meant that people couldn’t leave their homes. We hear about the plant life, the animal life (especially the toads!), and, in a lot of detail, about the processes of cutting and refining the sugar cane, and about the lives of the owners and the staff … although the staff don’t really don’t feature that much.  We even hear about the type of clothing that the cane cutters wear.  The idea that they need to wear clothes made of material that absorbs sweat, to make sure that they don’t get rheumatism, is very EBD, a bit like keeping your blazer on whilst hiking up a mountain on a swelteringly hot day, but the idea that wet clothes caused rheumatism was certainly very common back in the day.

Then, at the end, the children go on a camping trip – with the parents initially in attendance, which would never have happened in a Blyton, Hill or Ransome book! This being an EBD book, there’s a weather trauma and a medical trauma, but it’s nothing very serious – thanks to the use of permanganate crystals. Chalet School fans will know that Stephen Venables, Jem Russell’s nasty brother-in-law, met a sticky end after wandering around in rural North Queensland without permanganate crystals!

All in all, it’s very readable, and it feels a lot less didactic than the sections in the Swiss Chalet School books in which mistresses lecture the girls about the places they’re visiting.  I was a historian pretty much from birth  :-), so I quite like the info dumps on the school trips, but I know that a lot of people don’t … and I’m not convinced that the Chalet School girls do!  The story format in these “readers” works really well.

Verena visits New Zealand has much more of a typically EBD set-up.  Thirteen-year-old Verena has been very ill with scarlet fever, and “outgrown her strength”.  An uncle who is over in Britain from New Zealand on business offers to take her back with him for a year (as you do), because the sea air and the wonderful New Zealand air will be just what she needs.

This one, without wanting to give too much away,  feels far more like a plug for immigration!  Emigration, rather, seeing as it seems to be aimed at a British audience.  There’s a lot of talk about how wonderful the education system is in New Zealand, and the opportunities there.  But it’s made clear that only people who want to work on the land are needed.  No white collar workers.  And definitely no wusses – only tough people!  Seems like a rather insensitive thing to say to someone who’s so weak that she’s been told to take six months off school, but a lot of EBD characters do tend to be a bit tactless!

Again, there’s a huge amount of info, but this is about the country as a whole, not just one area or aspect of it.  Verena visits Auckland, Wellington, Christchurch, and the geyser, hot baths and mud pools at Rotorua, and volcanic Mount Tarawera, as well as spending time at her aunt and uncle’s sheep station (station? farm?) and seeing the shearing, and at fruit farms and a family friend’s dairy farm.  We also hear a lot about New Zealand’s history.  I found this one more interesting than the first one, but that’s just a personal thing: I’m better with history and travel than with tractors and toads 😉 .

Verena also visits a Maori village, and her aunt talks to her about the Maori people.  Modern readers may be a little uncomfortable with the use of the word “civilised” and the fact that wearing European clothes is seen as a marker of this, and obviously this is quite a challenging subject at the moment, ahead of the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook’s landing, but we need to remember that the book was written nearly seventy years ago.  “Auntie” makes it clear to Verena that Maoris have equal rights and equal privileges with white people, and are able to get into top jobs.  “They are intelligent and friendly.  Some of our finest men have been Maoris.”  Bearing in mind that this was written in 1951, I think that EBD deserves great credit for it.

Verena, presumably having recovered from her illness (which I don’t think is actually mentioned again after the first chapter!), then starts at a school in New Zealand, and makes friends with a girl whose family are from Akaroa, which was established as a French settlement. The friend explains that her grandma came over from France (I’m not sure that any French settlers actually did come over after the initial group arrived in 1840, but never mind), and likes to be addressed as “Grand-mere”. She then explains that the rest of the family are as English as everyone else, because, after all, they are New Zealanders!  I’ve been told by older people from both New Zealand and Australia that many people there still regarded themselves as being very British (EBD has a habit of using “English” rather than “British”, even when talking about places in Wales!) even into the second half of the twentieth century, but I think EBD did go a bit overboard there!! But credit to her for including a little-known piece of New Zealand’s history and heritage.

The two stories are quite different – the Queensland one contains a lot of detail about the ins and outs of the sugar cane industry, whereas the New Zealand one’s more of a travel guide to New Zealand as a whole.  But they’re both good reads, and I think that children reading them at the time would have learned a great deal from them without ever feeling that the books were like school text books.  I’m really looking forward to reading the other two stories, set in Canada and Kenya, when they’re republished.

Incidentally, I’d love to know how EBD came to write these books, which are quite a departure from her usual stories. The introduction written by GGBP, who’ve republished the books – thank you, GGBP, because they were incredibly hard to get hold of previously! – suggests that her publishers, Chambers, were hoping to widen their readership in different parts of the Commonwealth with books written about those countries by an already popular author, but I don’t really follow that. Although these are stories, they’re primarily meant to be educational, and surely they were intended to teach British children about other countries. Kids living in those countries presumably had plenty of educational books about them, written by people who actually lived there or had at least been there! If it was about selling more books worldwide, surely school stories, holiday stories or adventure stories set in the countries concerned would have sold better – maybe involving some of the many CS connections there.

It’s also pointed out that the local authorities seem to have been involved, certainly for the Queensland story which contains a huge amount of information which would probably have been difficult for EBD to access in the UK. Is it possible that they’d approached Chambers about the possibility of their producing books educating British children about their region/country?

They presumably can’t have been thinking of attracting tourists.  How about attracting immigrants?  Whilst this was the age of the Ten Pound Poms, it’s hardly likely that EBD’s audience of (mainly) girls aged between 8 and 14 would have been inspired to plan a career in cutting sugar cane, seen as a male-only job.  The one about New Zealand, however, does very much seem like it’s encouraging people – as long as they’re hard enough!! – to think of moving there.  Or maybe they just wanted people to know more about their region/country?   I think we’re now obsessed with the idea that anything taught to children has to be taught for a reason.  It doesn’t!

Perhaps the people at Chambers thought that there was a lot of interest in different parts of the Commonwealth at this time, and books on the subject by an established author would sell well? Maybe they thought schools would buy them? Hey, maybe EBD just fancied trying her hand at something a bit different!  Whatever the reason, I’m very glad that she did write these, and I’m glad that, thirty-six years after I read my first Chalet School book, I’ve finally had the chance to read these too.

Hairy Bikers: Route 66 – BBC 2


What a lovely programme this was – a real joy to watch.  No-one sniping at or about anyone, no-one telling anyone else what to do, no-one trying to score political points.  Just two very nice men on a trip along America’s Route 66 (and it included a lot of American history, OK, so I wasn’t just watching it for the food!), being welcomed everywhere they went, and respecting all the different cultural traditions – including Italian, African American, Amish and Bosnian – they experienced.  Well done, guys,  This was great.  The food looked great too.  Especially the apple pie!

The first leg of the journey took them from Chicago to St Louis.  It started with a lot of talk about Chicago’s historic meat-packing industry (see, I said it was historical!) and how that attracted large numbers of Italian immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  We got Italian beef sandwiches, and heard about how the restaurant concerned had started as a cover for an illegal gambling den!   Then we heard about the movement of large numbers of African Americans from the Deep South to Chicago, and how barbecued rib tips became a speciality at African American restaurants.

Moving on into rural areas of Illinois, they visited the small towns of Atlanta, which was prospering, and Lincoln, which sadly wasn’t, and heard about how Route 66 brought business to small communities along the way.  And they got some amazing-looking apple pie!

They were then invited to visit an Amish community, on the understanding that they didn’t film anyone’s faces, and heard about the Amish traditions and way of life.  They were actually asked into the kitchen to do some of the cooking.  Meat loaves!

Finally, they visited a Bosnian (I assume Bosnian Muslim, from the names?) community, in St Louis – which apparently has the largest Bosnian community outside the Balkans.  I wouldn’t personally have picked baklava, which I’m not keen on, but never mind!  We were told how the restaurant there was a real community hub, and a focal point for new immigrants looking for help settling in.

They’re going to be meeting many more communities, including Native American communities, in future episodes.  I look forward to watching them.  This was just really, really, lovely – and the world needs more loveliness!  Dave and Si are great.  And, hey, food is great!  Even it is full of calories …

The Wide, Wide World by Susan Warner (Facebook group reading challenge)


I read this partly for a reading group challenge and partly as research into the history of the North Eastern United States: I have definitely *not* taken to reading Victorian religious novels!  In fact, I was really quite uncomfortable about the thought of reading anything in this genre, especially given the current issues in the United States and Australia.  However, sections of it really weren’t bad.  OK, they were soppy, but certainly not so sick-making as to be unreadable, as some sentimental Victorian books are.  There were some lovely descriptions of the countryside, and life in a farming community in mid-19th century America.  And a lot of talk about food!  But … the religious stuff killed it.

I can live with basic preachy bits, the type you get in Little Women or Heidi, but not this sort of thing.  OK, some of it was just melodramatic stuff, like the heroine’s dreadful dilemma when the uncle to whom she owed obedience insisted on her committing the terrible sin of drinking a glass of wine.  But some of it was very, very disturbing.  Telling a little girl that, if she doesn’t love the Lord enough, her family and friends will die, to punish her for loving them more than she loves the Lord.  Even worse was when another young child died, and, instead of trying to comfort his bereaved family, several of the main characters celebrated because he’d converted from Catholicism to Evangelicalism on his deathbed.

Then there was the control freakery, which always goes hand-in-glove with religion in books like this, and usually also seems to involve grown men kissing little girls on the lips. I didn’t actually dislike the main character, and I felt genuinely sorry for her in that she was often with people who failed to respect her intellect, but the “happy ending” left me cold because her future husband was the most horrendous preachy control freak, always telling her what to do and what to think.  The only hope is that she changed her mind before exchanging any legally-binding vows!

Oh well.  Let’s just say that I won’t be rushing to read anything else in this genre!

Our heroine is Ellen Montgomery, a little girl growing up in New York City, circa 1850.  No exact dates are given, but that was when the book was published.  So it’d be after the Second Great Awakening, although before the Know Nothings.  Ellen’s dad, a misogynistic control freak, has lost all his money (although he can still afford to employ several servants), and is obliged to take a job which involves travelling to France.  Ellen’s mum, who is seriously ill (details of illness not given, but probably consumption/TB), is travelling with him, as going to France may save her life (did the author think the whole of France was in the Alps?).  Ellen is dispatched to the countryside to live with her paternal aunt and grandma, whom she’s never met.  The reader may wonder why she’s never met them.  She does too.

She’s escorted there by some unpleasant acquaintances, but is befriended on the ship by a creepy old man who keeps wanting to kiss her and gives her the lecture about loved ones being killed as punishment.  She thinks this is wonderful.

She doesn’t get on with the aunt.  At first I thought the aunt was all right, apart from the fact that she wouldn’t send Ellen to school, but it later turns out that she actually is a nasty piece of work.  But, at this point, we learn that she didn’t like her brother, Ellen’s dad (I don’t blame her), and he’d forgotten to tell her that he was dumping Ellen on her, never mind ask if it’d be OK, so I think she could be forgiven for being a bit narky.  Ellen tries to study at home, and is befriended by an older girl called Alice Humphreys.

The descriptions of the countryside, and Ellen and Alice’s exploration of it, are genuinely lovely.  They get caught in bad weather and both get ill afterwards, but that’s par for the course for everyone from Jane Austen to Elinor M Brent-Dyer.  There are lots of descriptions of food, quite reminiscent of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Farmer Boy.  Some fairly minor incidents and issues are described in quite a lot of detail, such as the difficulties of eating a potato with a fork that’s only got two prongs!  And, impressively, Ellen is very particular about the importance of leaving the kettle to boil before making tea.  Everyone should know that tea has to be made with boiling water 😉 .  In particular, there’s a really nice section about an “apple bee”, when all the neighbours come round at harvest time to help with paring the apples and chopping the pork, and have a party afterwards.

The deathbed conversion scene is just after that.  Never mind trying to comfort the bereaved parents: they were all too busy congratulating themselves on having brainwashed the kid into converting.  The poor parents.  And .. ugh, just the whole thing.  If an adult or an older child wants to convert to or from a religion, then obviously that is entirely up to them, and good luck to them if it works for them.  But this …. it’s bad enough parents or teachers trying to brainwash kids with religion, without strangers doing it.  And the total disrespect for other faiths and denominations!  Ugh. It’s likely that the parents of the child who died came to the US to escape the Irish Potato Famine.  There are recorded cases of so-called charitable organisations in Ireland offering food to desperate, starving people if they agreed to change their religion.  Ugh.  Ugh, ugh, ugh!

OK, enough of this, before I end up writing an essay about the Boxer Rebellion!

There are, to be fair, a lot of characters who are genuinely kind, and aren’t trying to brainwash anyone.  There’s the man who assists Ellen when she’s trying to do some shopping on her own, because her mum is too ill to leave the house.  There’s the maid who makes sure that she gets plenty to eat, when the people she’s travelling with aren’t interested.  And there are several neighbours near her aunt’s farm.  And, later, when the action moves to Scotland, there’s a nice housekeeper.

As time goes on, Ellen gets to know the neighbours better.  There’s a house party over Christmas and New Year, which she’s invited to, and which is described in detail.  OK, Ellen gets very stressed when the other kids play guessing games on a Sunday, and nearly bursts into tears on numerous occasions, but it’s generally quite nice!   The fly in the ointment is Alice’s preachy brother, John, who lectures Ellen about how weak she is and how she needs to resist sin, and, although he’s a grown man and she’s only about eleven, keeps kissing her on the lips.  Ellen thinks he’s great.  The reader is presumably meant to agree.  His one good point is that he recognises that she is a very intelligent young person and that her studies are important – but he wants to mould her opinions, not help her to develop her own.

Then Ellen’s mum dies, but her aunt doesn’t tell her: she finds out when she overhears two of the neighbours talking about it.  I did go bang off the aunt at this point – fair enough, this is pretty bad stuff!  It gets worse later on.  The aunt is definitely a baddie.  And Ellen’s dad’s ship is lost on its way back to America.  Ellen isn’t too bothered about her dad dying, because he was horrible.  He was horrible, but it’s interesting that she isn’t criticised for lack of filial respect or obedience or whatever.  And the aunt marries one of the nice neighbours.

More lovely descriptions of farm life – butter churning and so on, like something of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s but more detailed.  But it’s spoilt by control freak John telling Ellen that she’s not allowed to read story books and her drawing is crap.  But she thinks he’s wonderful, and only wants to be with him and Alice.  But then Alice gets ill – I assume with consumption/TB, from what it says about red cheeks – and dies. Think … well, I was going to say Helen Burns or Beth March, but neither of them went around lecturing younger girls about hellfire and damnation, so maybe not.  But it’s that general “too good for this sinful world” thing.  Ellen for some bizarre reason moves in with Alice’s dad, to keep house for him … despite the fact that she’s only in her early teens.  She works really hard, but creepy John just lectures her about not spending enough time reading the Bible.  Not a word of thanks.  Thankfully, he then has to go away on business, to England, although he leaves a load of orders about what Ellen is and isn’t allowed to read.

Next up, it transpires that Ellen has a maternal grandmother, uncle and aunts living in Scotland.  There an awful lot of long-lost relations here!  Her mum fell out with them when they opposed her marriage. And they want her to go and live with them.  Well, they did three years earlier, but the nasty (paternal) aunt stole both the letter and the money that’d been sent to pay for Ellen’s passage across the Atlantic.  Ellen doesn’t want to go, because it’ll mean being parted from creepy John and his dad, but she has to go because it was what her late parents wanted  (this is covered in the stolen letters).  It’s not quite clear why it was OK for her mum to go against her parents’ wishes, but never mind.

Random observation.  At one point, there’s a mention of the room being “redd up”.  I thought the author must have read this expression in Jane Eyre and liked it, but Google informs me that what, thanks to Charlotte Bronte, I’d always thought was an old Yorkshire term (I’m a Lancastrian: I do not claim to be an expert in Yorkshire dialect!!)) was originally a Scottish term, which became popular in Pennsylvania and is still commonly used in the Pittsburgh area.  Well, I never knew that!

The Scottish relations initially seem to be very nice.  Hooray!  Although they don’t seem to know the difference between England and Britain, which is rather odd.  Her uncle shows her round Edinburgh, and hopes to teach Ellen her Scottish history.  She already knows quite a bit.  She’s remarkably interested in Mary Queen of Scots, and is apparently unconcerned that Mary did not dramatically convert on her deathbed (well, her scaffold) or indeed anywhere else.  However, she is concerned about James IV having worn an iron belt as penance for his sins.  She informs her uncle that this is not the way to obtain forgiveness for one’s sins.  It is unclear how this is supposed to be relevant to the Battle of Flodden Field.

Ellen’s knowledge of history is actually rather impressive.  It all gets a bit Make America Great here, but a lot of 19th century books are quite nationalistic, and, anyway, it’s a very welcome change from hellfire and damnation.  George Washington was apparently perfect in every way. Hanging spies was fine, as long as it was George Washington who ordered it.  Robert the Bruce was not perfect.  Nelson ran off with Lady Hamilton.  Ellen originally thought that Nelson was perfect, but creepy John made her see otherwise.  Heaven forfend that she should have an opinion of her own.

Then, disaster strikes!  The seemingly nice uncle pours Ellen a glass of wine. But creepy John is a temperance advocate!  “That glass of wine looked to Ellen like an enemy marching up to attack her.”  The uncle makes her drink it.  Oh no, not another control freak!  He also gets Ellen to call him “Father”.  This is terrible!  Now that she’s called him “Father”, she will have to obey his every word, even if he makes her drink wine every day!  She has nightmares in which creepy John dresses up as a medieval king of Scotland and smashes her wine glass with his silver scabbard.  That says it all, really.  She isn’t advocating temperance for the very valid reasons that many people did, such as the hope that it would reduce domestic violence.  She’s just been made to feel that she’s got to follow creepy John’s every edict.

She also has a long chat with a Swiss tutor about Austrian history (as you do).  He tells her how wonderful Andreas Hofer was.  Once creepy John and his dad are off the scene, people actually seem to be OK with Catholics.  The Swiss tutor seems like a nice guy, and respects Ellen’s learning without trying to tell her what to think, but sadly he doesn’t feature very much.

Things settle down, but she’s uncomfortable because the rich Scottish relations treat her like a plaything and aren’t interested in what she thinks about anything.  I did feel quite sorry for her – they’re very controlling.  OK, they don’t understand why she’d rather read the Bible than go to parties, but that’s her.  They’re also very possessive: they don’t want her even to talk about her friends in America.  Of course, she’s desperately missing creepy John, whom she refers to as her “brother”.  Eventually, he turns up, and says that it’d taken him ages to get her address.  There’s a lot of talk about how eventually they’ll be together for ever.  Presumably this means that they’ll get married – at which point one hopes that they will stop referring to each other as brother and sister.  This is meant to be a happy ending.

Len Maynard, in one of the Chalet School books – I think it’s Joey & Co in Tyrol – is horrified when someone thinks that Len could be short for Ellen (it’s actually short for Helena), because she associates the name Ellen with The Wide, Wide World, which she thinks is sickening.  Len is pretty preachy herself, so that says a lot.  But Jo March in Little Women actually cries over the book.  Seriously, Jo?  Maybe she was actually crying at the thought of poor Ellen being tied to creepy John for the rest of her life!  The only hope is that they probably won’t be able to marry until Ellen comes of age, because the controlling relatives don’t want her to go back to America.  So, hey, maybe she’ll see sense and send him packing?  Nah.  It’s not going to happen, is it?  Poor Ellen.  Doomed to live out the rest of her life as a surrendered wife.

Cut out the religion and the control freakery, and parts of it wouldn’t have been bad. As it was – ugh.  I admit that I was pre-disposed against this book because I’m very uncomfortable about what is going on at the moment with the attitude of “religious lobbies” towards issues such as science teaching in schools, and, in particular, LGBT rights, but I just did not like it.  People like creepy John aren’t concerned with trying to be good people and lead good lives.  They’re concerned about control.  And he establishes control over Ellen when he’s a grown man and she’s a vulnerable child, and the poor girl is condemned to live under that control for the rest of her life.  Bleurgh!!

The Boston Girl by Anita Diamant


I wasn’t expecting Anita Diamant to be able to match the heady heights she reached with The Red Tent, but nor was I expecting this, a first person account of a girl growing up in early 20th century Boston, to be quite so miserable.  The narrator bizarrely remained relentlessly cheerful all the way through, but what a catalogue of doom and gloom!  Her sister committed suicide.  Two nephews and a close friend died in the Spanish flu epidemic.  Her mother suffered a fatal stroke during the bar mitzvah of a third nephew, who was then killed in the Second World War.  And another close friend nearly died following a backstreet abortion.  The social history was interesting, especially the campaign for child labour laws, with which both she and her husband got involved, and her job as a social worker amongst women in need, but even that was all about suffering.  I think the reader was meant to admire the fact that the narrator was still smiling at the end, as an elderly lady telling her story to her granddaughter, but it was like binge-watching EastEnders – misery upon misery!!

The social history was interesting, as I’ve said.  The book didn’t go into much detail about anything, really, but it touched on the relationships between the different socio-economic and ethno-religious groups in Boston, the effects of the Great War and the Spanish flu epidemic, and the changing role of women.  It also mentioned the struggle for protection for child workers – associated with the early 19th century in the UK, but still going on in the 1930s in the US – and the transportation of orphans and abandoned children to the mid-West, where some of them were badly treated … but that was only touched on, and it didn’t really fit into the story of Addie (the narrator)’s life.

There was also quite a bit about the clashes between Orthodox and Reform Judaism, partly as a generational clash thing with Addie’s dad being very suspicious of Reform synagogues and Addie’s granddaughter eventually becoming a Reform rabbi.  And the whole thing was liberally sprinkled with Yiddish words, some of them certainly not in general use in English, which was fine if you understood them but must have been very confusing for readers who didn’t: there was no glossary to explain what they meant.   Prohibition also got mentioned repeatedly, mainly in the context of people breaking it 🙂 .

The narrator evidently didn’t feel sorry for herself, and we were told at the end that everyone thought she was wonderful, so presumably we weren’t meant to feel sorry for her.  It didn’t read like a misery memoir, because she was always cheerful and good-humoured, but she seemed to be dealt one blow after the other  OK, very few people’s lives are easy, but Addie didn’t half seem to get more of her share of grief!  It wasn’t even very well-written.  If you want to read a book by Anita Diamant, stick to The Red Tent!

Lost Films of WWII (second episode) – BBC 4


This nearly had me in tears – the interviews, more than the videos. One man who spoke about, as a 6-year-old boy, being very excited when his grandad came to meet him as he walked home from school … only for his grandad to have to break the news that his dad’s plane had been shot down over Germany. After decades of trying to find out exactly how their dad had died, in 2016 he and his brother were contacted by a German researcher, and they were able to visit the site where the plane came down, meet an elderly German man who, as a 12-year-old boy, had seen it happen, and visit the grave in which the crew had been buried. They’d brought back some bits and pieces from the plane: they said it was all they had of their dad. The brother didn’t even remember him: he’d only been a baby at the start of the war. Some of the film was incredible – that people had actually filmed parts of the Battle of the Mediterranean, the North Africa Campaign and the D-Day Landings. And how brave of people living in occupied Jersey to film what was going on, after filming had been banned, knowing what the Nazis might do to them if they were caught. There was also coverage of the war at home, including children Digging for Victory at a school in Sandbach.  And German POW camps.  To this day, I don’t know whether the story that our school home economics block was built by German POWs is true or not!

There was a lot of actual war coverage in this, and also coverage of British ships in the Far East before war with Japan actually broke out. It’s amazing that people did actually film it – even though they weren’t always supposed to. I suppose the worst that could have happened was that they’d have had their film confiscated and been disciplined, but people living in the occupied Channel Islands could have faced imprisonment and even death for recording what was going on. The personal stories were so touching. One man remembered how his family had become friendly with a Soviet POW, one of the men being used by the Nazis as slave labour, and how, when the man had stopped coming to their farm, they’d sadly had to assume that he’d died. Then, when Jersey was liberated, the man appeared at the celebrations: he’d escaped, and been in hiding. Back on the British mainland, people were being encouraged to put money into National Savings and fundraise for the war effort: that’s an aspect of the war that isn’t talked about much, and it was interesting to see films of fundraising drives.

Towards the end, we got film of the VE celebrations, but then, on a more sombre note, the focus switched to how people in the defeated nations were affected. We saw something of the devastation after the atomic bombs were dropped on Japan, and the bomb damage in German cities. There was also quite a bit of film of German POW camps in Britain … which reminded me that I’d missed “The Keeper” when it was on at the pictures (it wasn’t on for long, and I just hadn’t got time to see it), and must keep an eye out for it being shown on Sky. There was always a story at my school that the home economics block had been built by German POWs. The school was destroyed during the Christmas Blitz of 1940, and rebuilt after the war, and it’s certainly quite possible that German POWs were sent to work on the rebuilding, but why the story attached to the home ec block rather than any other part of the school is a mystery!

Continuing with the Second World War theme, eighty years after war was declared, next Thursday there’s a programme on BBC 2 about whether or not the Allies should have bombed Auschwitz.  It’s a very difficult subject, and I hope the BBC do it justice.  The TV channels really are going all out for Second World War programmes this month, and some of them have been excellent.

Copper – alibi


I don’t usually watch crime dramas, but, seeing as this one’s set in Civil War-era America – which I started reading up on when I was 11 – I thought I’d give it a go; and I’m quite enjoying it. It’s set in New York City, in the aftermath of the Draft Riots, and it’s not so much about the war or about crime as about the interactions between the Irish community, the black community and the wealthy WASP community. The three main characters, an Irish policeman, a black doctor and the son of a wealthy WASP industrialist, all served in the Union Army, and saw action together at the Battle of Chancellorsville … the site of which I dragged my long-suffering family round when I was a teenager. It also features Prussian prostitutes, political corruption and a lot of dead bodies.

It was shown in the US, by BBC America, in 2012-2013, but has only now appeared on British TV. And, sadly, there are only two series. I’m so sick of this happening! OK, some things do get past their sell-by date, but there’ve been so many good programmes which have been pulled after only one or two series.

Anyway. Our main guy is Kevin Corcoran, an Irish policeman based in the working-class, multi-ethnic Five Points area of New York City. At the start of the series, his daughter has just been murdered, and his wife is missing … although he doesn’t actually seem that bothered about his missing wife, and is quite happy with his mistress, the Prussian madam of a brothel.

There’d long been a substantial black community in Five Points, and, especially during and after the Potato Famine, large numbers of Irish immigrants, fleeing hunger and poverty, moved into the area. The other big group of immigrants in New York City at this time were the Germans, but they don’t really feature in this (apart from running brothels!). Racial tensions grew due to competition for jobs, and increased considerably after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation, with many white working-class people believing that black people from the South would flood into the city, looking for employment.

The (in)famous “Tammany Hall” Democratic Party political machine had encouraged Irish immigrants to register as US citizens so that they could vote. When the draft for the Union Army took place in July 1863, black men were generally excluded as they weren’t regarded as citizens, and wealthy white men could buy their way out of it by paying for a substitute. This left white working-class men, many of whom, in New York City, were Irish. Violence broke out, and the rioters targeted black people – who were hardly to blame for the grossly unfair draft system. Tragically, over 100 people were killed, and considerable damage was done to homes and businesses.  Many black people then moved away from the area, into Upper Manhattan – the violence changed the area for ever.

Going back to the draft system itself, talk about a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.  And it was the same on both sides.  OK, plenty of rich men did fight, most of them volunteering, but the draft system was appalling.  The list of draft-dodgers who paid for working-class men to take their places includes Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller.

The series starts the following year, but the shadow of the Draft Riots hangs over it. The wife of Matthew Freeman, the black doctor, lost her brother in the riots. There’s been some criticism over the character of Freeman, with people saying that there wouldn’t have been any black doctors in the US at this time, but he’s actually based on a real person – James McCune Smith, who was born into slavery, freed when New York state finally emancipated its slaves in 1827, qualified as a doctor in Glasgow, and then returned to New York – moving out to Upper Manhattan after his apothecary’s shop was destroyed during the Draft Riots. However, Freeman, unlike Smith, wasn’t freed: he ran away. He does a lot of forensics work for his pal Corcoran, and it’s interesting to see what forensics were like in the 1860s.

Then there’s Robert Morehouse, who’s from a wealthy WASP family, and whose life Freeman, his one-time valet, saved. Quite a bit of the action is set in the Morehouse home, and most of it involves his British wife, who’s very supportive of the black community – the white elite in New York City provided a lot of aid to black people affected by the Draft Riots – and her circle.

It is intended as a crime drama, and people do keep being murdered! But the murders always take us into the complexities of these different communities, and the interactions between them. Sadly, not much is said about the actual war and its causes and effects, although there’s been one interesting argument between Corcoran and Freeman about whether the war was to free slaves or force the seceded states back into the Union.  I’m with Freeman on this one: no-one is telling me that the war was fought to free slaves.

It’s not exactly deep and meaningful, but I think it works quite well even so. This isn’t some silly little spoilt snowflake saying that all pictures of white men should be ripped off university walls just purely because they’re of white men, and thinking that that shows how “woke” she is. This is an accurate portrayal of a time and a place, and of how things were in that place at that time. We see that, whilst some of the Morehouses’ friends are of the “No blacks, no Jews, no Irish” country club sort, the tensions between different groups are arising mainly because of socio-economic conditions. One thing that hasn’t really been gone into is how it’s unscrupulous employers who benefit from this – when the working-classes are divided, it’s far easier to keep wages low and working conditions poor.

There’s a lot of violence. There’s a lot of swearing – the language used is of the time, so it includes the use of words that are now seen as highly offensive but are historically accurate. The N-word is used to describe black people, and Jews are referred to as “Hymies”. It’s not for the faint-hearted. And it’s not the best series ever, but it’s not bad. I’m just sorry that there’s so little of it. Why do TV companies keep scrapping things so quickly?! Mercy Street, The Crimson Field, Home Fires … bring them back, please!!

Lost Films of WWII – BBC 4


Apart from the text-speak title – seriously, BBC, “WWII”?! – this was a fascinating hour’s television showing “home movies” from the Second World War and the years immediately preceding it, including coverage of the Sheffield Blitz, the Dunkirk evacuations, the work of the Home Guard, munitions factories and even German preparations for war filmed during holidays in Central Europe in 1937-39. It also showed film of the Yealand Manor Evacuation School in North Lancashire, where Elfrida Vipont, children’s author and fellow Old Girl of my old school 🙂 , was headmistress.

People probably thought that they’d be using their exciting new cine cameras to film days out and celebrations with family and friends … and then ended up with all this instead. Personal history is very “in” at the moment, especially with interest in genealogy growing all the time, and relatives and friends of the people who’d shot the films were interviewed and gave additional insights into what’d been going on. Most poignant was the film of members of the RAF Coastal Command, which had been lost for years because the film maker hadn’t been able to watch it, because it featured so many friends who hadn’t survived. Official films are interesting, but there’s an additional element to those made by ordinary people, with no agenda.  So much information about the Second World War has been lost, because those who lived through it didn’t feel able to talk about.  These films are still here, and they’re very precious.

Chillingly, early on we were shown a recording of a British Union of Fascists march through London. Then it moved on to film shot by a dentist from Middlesbrough during a series of holidays on the Continent in 1937 and 1939 … charming shots of stunning views, pretty buildings and people in traditional dress, but, in amongst that, signs of the danger ahead. His son told about how he’d had some of his film confiscated after filming at a railway station in 1937, because it was considered a sensitive zone. He’d also filmed some of the anti-Jewish notices in public places, horribly shocked by them. As the son said, we’re used to seeing everything on film and photos now, but that’s pretty new. I remember, during the Gulf War of 1990, finding it quite a novelty to be pretty much seeing live TV coverage of what was going on. After seeing all that in 1937, I don’t think I’d have been going any further than Blackpool for my next holiday, but this man and his family went to Belgium in 1939, and were actually able to film the building of the Siegfried Line. How frightening – but how interesting to have witnessed that, and recorded it.

It then moved on to films of evacuees. Pictures of children saying goodbye to their parents at railway stations are quite common, but this also included film of the school for evacuees opened at a Quaker Meeting House near Lancaster. I was slightly uneasy when they started talking about testing out new social and educational ideas, but the children all seem to have been very happy there, and to have received a good education as well. I was surprised that it didn’t explain that Elfrida Foulds was the author Elfrida Vipont, but I suppose her books aren’t that mainstream. She went to my old school for a while, before moving to a Quaker boarding school. Most of the kids were so young, and it must have been such a shock to be in such a different environment from what they were used to. A lot’s been written about the positives and negatives of evacuation, but, at the time it seemed like the right thing to do. As well as evacuees from Manchester and Liverpool, most from Quaker families but not all, the school took in a number of Jewish refugee children from Nazi-occupied countries, and the film shows one of these children playing in a tree. There were a lot of flowers there. It looked like a happy place.

But then it was on to actual war coverage – one man had even been able to film the Dunkirk evacuations, and planes flying overhead during the Battle of Britain. People who were interviewed spoke about being quite convinced that an invasion was imminent. The Home Guard recordings were shot in the Yorkshire town of Thornton, which I pass through if I’m heading over to Skipton or Ilkley or Bolton Abbey. It’s nowhere near the cost, but people feared invasion by parachutists. There was a story about how people thought they’d seen a parachutist landing, but it turned out to be a pilot dropping some fish and chip wrapping from Harry Ramsden’s out of his plane! That was amusing, but the superb films of Sheffield during the Blitz were just distressing. I’ll never forget the upset of seeing the mess in Manchester city centre after the IRA bombing in 1996. That was just one area, with thankfully no lives lost, few injuries, and the damage confined to business rather than homes, and that was bad enough. How horrific to see your city centre just reduced to rubble – and, worse, the damage to residential areas. And, above all, the deaths – all those lives gone, just like that. A man who’d been 9 at the time recalled how his father and brother-in-law had helped to dig people out. And how a 200lb bomb had dropped on his house, but, miraculously, had failed to explode. Strangely, he said that he wasn’t scared, and it all seemed quite exciting … until his brother-in-law, to whom he’d been very close, was lost at sea.

Next up came film of women at war – in the Armed Forces and a munitions factory. That was rather rushed through, but I suppose you can only fit so much into an hour. Then a film, shot in Belfast, of young men in the RAF coastal command. The niece of one of the film makers explained that he’d found it too distressing to watch it later years, because so many of the friends who featured in it had been killed. He’d told his commanding officer that he didn’t think some of the planes they were using was safe … and, for his pains, had been taken off active service.

These are ordinary people’s recordings of extraordinary times.  There aren’t many of those, going further back into history.  OK, obviously cine film didn’t exist until the late 19th century, and was way too expensive even for the middle-classes until the 1930s, but, even in terms of written records, there’s very little to tell us what the butcher, the baker and the candlestick maker actually witnessed during the Norman Conquest, the Peasants’ Revolt, the Hundred Years’ War, the Reformation, the Civil War or the Glorious Revolution, and not that much even from the 18th and 19th centuries.  Now, we record everything – although I’m not sure how future historians are going to go on, seeing as they won’t be able to access decades’ worth of people’s social media timelines or e-mails!   Films, photos, diaries, letters … they’re all so important.  It’s wonderful that this film coverage is now being made available on national TV.  Thank you, BBC 4.  This was great viewing.