Great Australian Railway Journeys – BBC 2


I really want Michael Portillo’s job. He gets paid for reading historical books and going on exciting railway journeys all over the world! And he seems to have become rather a cult figure: there were people in Australia holding a Michael Portillo lookalike competition. Seriously.

Whereas most British TV programmes about Australia focus on Sydney and Melbourne, this showed us the “Ghan” railway journey from Adelaide to Alice Springs to Darwin, featuring cute baby kangaroos, camels, and some thought-provoking discussions about the effect that the building of telegraph wires had on 19th century Australia. The most interesting bit, though, was about Aboriginal storytelling. As with the griots mentioned in the foreword to Alex Haley’s “Roots”, the idea of a trained human memory and just how much information people can recall and recount, and pass down the generations, is absolutely fascinating. The days of the epics and the bards are long gone here: we write everything down, or put it in our mobile phones. But the Aboriginal storytelling culture lives on. No other culture in the world can match that.

The paintings were brilliant too, but it was the storytelling that particularly interested me. We heard a lot about Aboriginal traditions and lifestyles in this first episode, and we also heard “Stolen Generation” stories about the horrific removal of mixed-race children from their families, and the effect that that’s still having now. Michael Portillo’s programmes are about a lot more than railways. But, in terms of the history of the railways, we were told about the competition between Queensland and South Australia to build railways across the Northern Territory, and also about how important the coming of telegraph wires to Australia was: before then, it was taking three to four months to get information between Australia and Britain, when information could be passed between Britain and the US in a few hours, at a time when most white Australians had family and friends in Britain, as well as the political ties.

Wildlife featured as well. Kangaroos! Camels. Apparently there are 200,000 feral camels in Australia. They were introduced there as beasts of burden … and went forth and multiplied.  Less excitingly but more importantly, cattle. And there was so much room, so much space … miles and miles of space.

Then, at the end, Michael attended an Anzac Day commemoration in Darwin.  As I said, this is about much more than railways.

All in all, a very watchable hour’s TV. But, however interesting the subject matter, it’s the presenter who makes or breaks programmes like these, and Michael definitely makes them. He’s an important reminder, amid all the abuse and nastiness that we’re doubtless going to have to put up with on our television screens and on our social media over the next six weeks, that politicians, whether or not we agree with their views, are just human beings like the rest of us. And he comes across as being a very nice one.  These railway programmes have been going since 2010, and may there be many more of them!


The Zoya Factor by Anuja Chauhan (Facebook group reading challenge)


It’s the final ball of the cricket World Cup final. Can our hero score the winning runs and take India to victory? Of course he can … oh, hang on, it’s gone to VAR. *Please* tell me that this is not going to become a thing in books?! Imagine all those school story scenes in which our hero/our heroine/a hitherto much-maligned character about to win acceptance at last scores the winning goal/try/run in the final seconds, and is triumphantly carried off the pitch on their team-mates’ shoulders, to be mobbed by cheering friends/wannabe friends, being reduced to everyone standing around waiting for a VAR decision. No. Just no!

I don’t usually read books set in the present day, but the October reading challenge was to read a book set in 21st century India, and, having an anxious-obsessive brain, I have to complete challenges or else I get stressed and feel like a failure. And I like reading books about India. I just wasn’t quite bargaining for the big moment being decided by VAR.

Our hero is Nikhil Khoda, the fictional captain of the Indian cricket team, but the main character is our heroine, Zoya Solanki, a young woman who inadvertently becomes seen as the team’s lucky mascot. She lives with her widowed father and their maid, in New Delhi, and she’s a bit of a young Bridget Jones, with neither her career nor her love life going very well, and constant worries about her weight and her hair. As part of her job at an advertising agency, she has to work with the underperforming Indian cricket team. After she’s had breakfast with them, they win a match. She was born on the day that India won the 1983 cricket World Cup, and her dad and brother have always been convinced that this was some sort of lucky omen. The media get hold of this, and it all becomes a big story. More breakfasts, more matches, more wins.

Along comes the 2011 World Cup. This was actually played in India, but, for the purposes of the book – in which all the players are fictional, incidentally – it’s played in Australia and New Zealand. The Indian cricket board offer Zoya an all expenses paid trip (for herself and a chaperone, an older, married lady from the agency), along with a substantial salary, to go to the World Cup and bring the team luck. There’s a suggestion of politics being involved – is the chairman of the selectors, who doesn’t get on with Khoda, trying to ensure that it’s only Zoya who gets the credit for any success? – but, by now, the Zoya Factor story is all over the news. And, as the team’s World Cup campaign gets off to a winning start, the talk intensifies.

Sports fans are superstitious. People have lucky pants, lucky socks, pre-match rituals, and so on. I solemnly waved my hand over a picture of David Beckham’s foot in order to help his broken metatarsals heal before the 2002 World Cup. I have been known to sit in ridiculously uncomfortable positions for ages whilst watching tennis matches, in case moving them is bad luck for “my” player. Remember when Oxford United had their stadium exorcised?!  And I wrote about the curse of Benfica only last week – The Greatest Comeback . So it’s actually not hard to imagine this happening anywhere, but it’s something that would probably particularly strike a chord in India.

I’ve got an Indian lucky charm in my car, which I brought back from India last year. It’s supposed to protect you on the roads. I’m not sure that I particularly believe it will, but, hey, it’s worth a try. Belief in the supernatural is particularly strong in India, as the author makes clear. Before long, Zoya’s being referred to as Zoya Devi (goddess), and a huge debate has broken out between people who believe wholeheartedly in her powers and people who say that India needs to move away from putting so much emphasis on spirituality – and even that it’s all a marketing ploy and she’s only in it for the money. Unfortunately, there have been cases of people taking advantage of other people’s beliefs – and sometimes it’s resulted in something a lot worse than organisations being ripped off financially.  But poor old Zoya’s just been cast into the spotlight completely unintentionally, and now the situation’s running away with itself.

All of a sudden, this ordinary young woman is at the centre of a very emotive national debate. It gets so far out of hand that her supernatural powers are blamed for a pizza delivery boy being knocked over, and even for skirmishes on the border between India and Pakistan.  It’s a particularly Indian take on the modern phenomenon of someone suddenly becoming famous for being famous, and how everyone then has an opinion about this person whom they’ve never even met.  It then goes even further, becoming, an international debate, with TV talk shows in other cricketing nations asking whether people believe in the Zoya Factor, and whether, if there is indeed something in it, it’s cheating and Zoya should be banned from contact with the Indian team.

Also, needless to say, a romance develops between Zoya and Nikhil, but the course of true love doesn’t run smoothly. The tabloids keep publishing stories linking him to a string of Bollywood babes, and claiming that he’s fathered an actress’s baby, and linking her with other members of the team. And she gets it into her head that he’s only after her because he thinks she’s lucky. However, he’s in fact very upset about the whole Zoya Factor story, because it means that the team’s success is being put down to her, rather than to their own talent, hard work and application.

Eventually, it all gets too much, and Zoya returns home before the final. She’s offered a big money advertising deal, based on the idea of herself as a goddess, and, unwilling to turn down a chance to make more money than she could ever have dreamed of, she takes it. And everyone turns on her. This is so typical of what happens – the media build someone up, and then knock then right back down again. She’s let down the team. She’s let down her country. She was only ever interested in the money. She’s conned everyone. From being seen as a national heroine, and indeed a goddess, she’s now being vilified everywhere.  One minute you’re the nation’s sweetheart, the next minute everyone’s slagging you off.  How often do we see this sort of thing happen?

Of course, it all ends happily, with India winning the World Cup, after Nikhil scores the winning runs off the final ball (complete with VAR) and then he and Zoya getting together.  But it wasn’t just a common or garden romance, or a common or garden sporting novel – it did make some very interesting points about Indian culture, about the conflict between traditional ideas and new ideas, and about the cult of celebrity in general. It wasn’t the greatest book ever, but I did rather enjoy it.

Pose (Season 2) – BBC 2


It was lovely to hear Pose‘s Dyllon Burnside singing “God Bless America” before the Rafa versus Medvedev US Open final last month … even when you were as nervous about the match as I was!  He’s spoken very powerfully about the issues he faced growing up as a gay black churchgoing Christian in the Deep South; and Pose in general seems to be having quite an impact.  The first episode of the second season certainly didn’t pull any punches, with scenes including a depiction of a much-discussed December 1989 protest during mass at St Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, against the Archdiocese’s attitude towards the HIV and AIDS crisis at that time.  On a lighter note, we got Madonna – where is Madonna these days, incidentally? – popularising “vogue” music, in the year of the pointy bra tour.  Sorry, the “Blond Ambition” tour.

Hands up, I was never particularly keen on all that dance stuff – give me “Like a Prayer” over “Vogue” any day – so I was very pleased to hear music from Roxette and Soul II Soul, much more my thing, as well!  The standout characters of the first episode, though, weren’t just the dancers and models but also the doctors and nurses who showed such compassion to people living with, and dying from, HIV and AIDS at a time when political and religious leaders were handling the situation very poorly.  The world badly needs more compassion, and less aggression.

I’m trying not to dwell on the fact that a lot of the cast won’t remember Vogue being number one, or the pointy bra thing.  The lad who plays sweet little Damon, who disappointingly didn’t feature much in this first episode, wasn’t born until 1999.  1999!  It was rather nice to see Sandra Bernhard and Trudie Styler: that stopped me feeling so old!   Ask me what’s number one now and I will not have the remotest clue, but name any number one from 1990 and I’ll be able to sing it.  OK, caterwaul it.  It’s quite strange seeing my time portrayed on TV.

Anyway.  This was a pretty hard-hitting first episode, with much of the emphasis on the HIV/AIDS epidemic.  As I said, it didn’t pull any punches.  As well as the “Stop The Church” protest, we saw funerals, coffins lined up, and even someone in a coffin.  We heard characters discussing how many people they knew had died of AIDS, and we were also told how less well-off patients were unable to access medication and had to rely on supplies left by better-off people who’d died.  It certainly got the point across.

However, there was plenty of music and dancing and ballroom competition as well – although sadly no Dynasty costumes as well!  It’s much darker than the first series was, though: there was no romance in the first episode of the new series and nothing about how Damon’s getting on at his Fame-like music school, and there were some quite violent scenes after one of the characters was mistreated by a photographer and other members of the House of Evangelista took revenge.  It wasn’t always easy watching, but it was absolutely gripping.  I started watching the first series for the ’80s music, but I’ve got really involved with the characters and the storylines now.  I’m not sure how many people in the UK are watching this, but I hope it’s a lot, because it’s something really different and it’s well worth the watching.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover


This book ends with a journalist from Manchester praying at the Viennese graveside of a Hungarian Holocaust survivor who managed Eusebio’s Benfica to two victories in the European Cup. It’s certainly something different.  I read a *lot* of books on Central European history and I read a fair few books about football, but I don’t think I’ve ever read one that combined the two before. The author clearly got extremely involved with his subject, and he does a great job of drawing the reader in as well.  I’ve read better-written books, but (it was only 99p on Kindle special offer, and) it was a fascinating story, both from a historical viewpoint and from a footballing viewpoint.

Football history as political history isn’t really a big thing in England, but it is very much so in many other countries.  We’re seeing that at the moment, with FC Barcelona issuing official statements about the situation with the Catalan independence leaders being unfairly jailed; and it can tell us a lot about politics and about in general.  The author obviously feels very strongly that insufficient recognition has been afforded to football players and managers who were affected by the Holocaust, both those who were killed and those who survived against the odds, and, amongst other things, he’s seeking here to redress a little of that balance.

This is a biography of Bela Guttmann, a Hungarian footballer and manager, whose name is surprisingly little well-known considering that he was the first manager to win the European Cup twice – although, as the author points out, managers weren’t as high-profile in his day as they were later. OK, everyone’s heard of Matt Busby and Bill Shankly, but how many non-British managers from the ‘60s can you name? Guttmann, although he doesn’t sound like the pleasantest of people – he was always falling out with players and club officials, and was involved in a rather unsavoury incident involving a fatal car crash – had a fascinating career, and a fascinating life in general.

He started off at Torekves, and then moved on to MTK Budapest, who aren’t one of the top Hungarian clubs now but won six titles in a row in the 1920s … and was with them whilst they were managed by Herbert Burgess, who was from Manchester and played for both United and City – he was one of the group of players, Billy Meredith et al, who moved from City to United after the 1905 bribery affair at City. The author clearly enjoyed getting in as Mancunian links as possible. Gold star for that!

Then he moved on to Hakoah Vienna, the all-Jewish Viennese team who won the Austrian league title in 1925. If the idea of a top football club in which all the players were of one religion seems weird now, remember all the hoo-ha when Mo Johnston became the first Catholic to sign for Rangers? It wasn’t that long ago! Hakoah were the poster boys of the “Muscular Judaism” movement of the inter-war years, which saw a far higher proportion of Jewish players and managers in football than there’s been before or since.  In terms of clubs managed by Austrian and Hungarian Jewish managers of this generation, we’re looking at, amongst others, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, AC Milan, Inter Milan, Torino, Feyenoord, Panathanaikos, Flamengo, River Plate … these are some of the biggest club names in world football.

The author clearly feels that this is a part of footballing history that’s been forgotten. However, it was largely a Central European thing so it’s perhaps understandable that it hasn’t received much attention in English-speaking countries.  It wasn’t until the 1950s that TV coverage and European club competitions brought about increased awareness of domestic football in other countries.  And the fact that Hungarian football in general, domestic and international, was so good in the 1930s has largely been forgotten: most football fans are familiar with the Magical Magyars of the 1950s, Ferenc Puskas (whom Guttmann managed in the late 1940s) & co, but certainly far less so with the teams of the ‘30s.

Hakoah went on a number of overseas tours, and became the first Continental club side to beat an English club side in England. Their victims were West Ham, LOL.  However, the club inadvertently shot itself in the foot with a tour of the US – seeing what a rapturous welcome they received there, as opposed to the anti-Semitism they so often encountered in Austria, Guttmann and a number of other players chose to join American teams. However, he later returned to Hakoah, also spent some time with Twente Enschede in the Netherlands.

In 1938, he got a much-prized permanent residency visa for America, and with many Hungarian Jews desperate to get away, you’d have thought he’d have grabbed it both hands – but, instead, he returned to Hungary, to become manager of Ujpest, and consequently ended up being in Hungary all through the war years, under the Nazi-allied Horthy regime, the Arrow Cross regime and then the Nazi occupiers. He was hidden for a while by the family of his Catholic girlfriend, but was then sent to a slave labour camp – alongside Ernest Erbstein, who later became manager of Torino and sadly died in the 1949 Superga plane crash. He survived, but many of his relatives were killed at Auschwitz.

After the war, he spent time as manager at umpteen different clubs – in Hungary, Romania, Italy, Argentina, Uruguay, Brazil, Switzerland, Portugal, Greece and Austria, as well as a spell as manager of the Austrian national team – but the pinnacle of his career was his first spell at Benfica, during which time they won the 1961 and 1962 European Cups. After a falling out with the club’s directors, he’s supposed to have said that Benfica wouldn’t win another European Cup for 100 years, and some Benfica fans genuinely believe that this was a curse – including Eusebio, who’s prayed at Guttmann’s grave to ask that the curse be lifted!- and that it’s the reason they haven’t won the European Cup since, despite losing five finals! He died, aged 82, in 1981 – not exactly in poverty and obscurity, but not all that far from it.

So that’s the actual story, but there are various themes running all the way through it. One is football tactics and managerial styles, with numerous references to Sir Alex Ferguson, Jose Mourinho (who was manager of United when the book was written) and Pep Guardiola. Another is the impact of politics on football. Hakoah Vienna were shut down within a few days of the Anschluss. Kispest, the year after Guttmann left them to move to Italy, were taken over by the army, and renamed Budapest Honved.  They were just referred to as Honved when I was a kid. We knew that Honved, Steaua Bucharest etc were army clubs, and that Dynamo Moscow were the Soviet police team, and so on, and it didn’t seem weird at the time because it was just the way it was … but it doesn’t half seem strange now, and it must have seemed even stranger at the point at which the clubs were actually taken over by the authorities. It’s not just an Eastern bloc thing either – when you look at the impact of politics on Bayern Munich, Barcelona … just be very grateful that we’ve never had these issues here.

And another is the ongoing history of anti-Semitism in Europe. Every chapter in which Guttmann moves to another European city is prefaced with a short account of an incident in that city or area involving anti-Jewish persecution – mostly from the Middle Ages, and not directly relevant to the subject matter, but clearly something that the author wanted to get across.

I think what most struck the author, though, was the fact that Guttmann didn’t speak about his wartime experiences. No-one in the footballing world really knew about his time in a slave labour camp until David Bolchover researched and published this book. Obviously a lot of Holocaust survivors didn’t talk about their experiences, because they found it too painful … but the impression you get with Guttmann is that he didn’t say anything because he thought it might affect his career, or, at least, because he didn’t want to draw attention to the fact that this had happened to him.

Last December, I went to Munich for the Christmas markets, and, whilst I was there, I went to see Bayern Munich’s stadium and museum. Bayern, who had a Jewish president and manager in the 1930s, were deeply affected by the onset of Nazism, but it wasn’t really spoken about until the 1970s, because they became seen as a great West German success story and no-one wanted to dwell on the horrors of the past.

In former Eastern bloc countries … this is a really sensitive area, and one which is still a big issue now, and it’s hard to think how best to put it. There does seem to be an ongoing issue with coming to terms with the past, even now. There haven’t been the educational programmes, or, until recently, the museums or memorials, which exist in the West. In Hungary and Romania, in particular, there’s the very delicate subject of the extent to which the local population were involved. And now, at least in Poland and the Baltic states, there seems to be an increasing emphasis on Soviet atrocities, with Nazi atrocities being emphasised less as a result. It’s a very difficult area to speak or write about, because it is so sensitive. And times are changing now. But it is an issue.

In June, Poland played Israel in a Euro 2020 qualifier in Warsaw, and, before the match, there was a ceremony to commemorate Josef Klotz, who scored Poland’s first ever international goal, and later died in the Warsaw Ghetto.  I didn’t know his name.  I’d heard of Hakoah Vienna, but I hadn’t heard of Maccabi Warsaw or Jutrzenka Krakow, the clubs whom Klotz played for, both of which (as far as I can gather) were dissolved in 1939.  As the author says, this is a part of European footballing history which isn’t spoken about.  This is a biography of a man who had a very interesting life and career, but it’s also a real eye-opener into a neglected area of history.

And, yes, footballing history does matter.  It tells us about life, and society.  The governments of both the UK and Bulgaria got involved after the recent disgraceful scenes in which black English players were abused and Nazi salutes made by Bulgarian “fans”.  And scenes like that show exactly why everyone should be aware of stories like this.  Very interesting book.

A Tapestry of Treason by Anne O’Brien


Anne O’Brien’s books are superb, and this one, about Constance le Despenser, Countess of Gloucester, born Constance of York and her role in the political machinations during the early years of the reign of Henry IV is no different. I do feel that she limits her appeal by writing about relatively obscure figures, though. It’s great that such a good author *does* write about the forgotten figures of history, rather than churning out yet another book about Anne Boleyn or Richard III; but the book is only really about the politics of the time and the personal life of the main character, with very little of the detail about the clothes, food, leisure activities etc of the time that some authors include, and so it’s only going to appeal to someone with an interest in medieval English political history.

However, if that *is* your thing, then this is well worth reading. English history is littered with the names of forgotten boys who could, and probably should have been king, but weren’t. Edgar the Atheling, Arthur of Brittany, Edward, Earl of Warwick … and Edmund Mortimer, whom Constance hoped to see replace Henry as king. It’s also littered with the names of forgotten royal women, and all credit to Anne O’Brien for giving them her attention, especially when a book about Constance le Despenser is never going to sell as well as a book about, or at least prominently featuring, a household name.

Constance was the daughter of Edmund, Duke of York, fourth son of John of Gaunt, and Isabella of Castile (no, not that Isabella of Castile, obviously), and therefore first cousin to Henry IV and first cousin once removed to Richard II. She was also the grandmother of Anne, Countess of Warwick (the one who was married to Warwick the Kingmaker). Her husband was the great-grandson of Hugh le Despenser, the one who’s supposed to have been Edward II’s lover, and his mother was a Ferrers of Groby, so he was related to Elizabeth Woodville’s first husband and the Grey family of Dunham Massey somewhere along the line. And he got to be Earl of Gloucester because he was related to the infamous de Clares, so he was also related to William Marshal, who features in a lot of Elizabeth Chadwick’s books. And she had an illegitimate child with Edmund Holland, grandson of Joan of Kent by her first marriage. You may wish to keep a royal family tree to hand, or else to refer to Wikipedia!

Anyway. The Yorks at this point weren’t in a position to challenge the Lancastrians, who were descended from Edward III’s third son. They only really got involved when Constance’s brother Richard married Anne Mortimer, granddaughter of Edward III’s second son. Whose mother was the sister of Constance’s lover Edmund. Not to be confused with another sister, who was Constance’s stepmother. According to this book, Richard wasn’t actually the Duke of York’s son at all, but was the product of an affair between Isabella of Castile (not that one) and Richard II’s half-brother John Holland, who was Edmund Holland’s uncle. Keep up!

Neither Richard nor Anne were really relevant at this point, Richard being second fiddle to his brother Edward, and Anne third fiddle to her two brothers, Edmund and Richard. Everyone swapped sides every five minutes and no-one seemed at all clear who was on Henry’s side and who wanted rid of him. Nor is it very clear why they changed sides – the author does her best with this, but it’s not easy when no-one really knows. Nor is the exact relationship between Constance and Edmund Holland known, but Anne O’Brien goes for the idea that they were secretly married and that Edmund then betrayed her by ignoring the marriage.

The book centres on two plots – the Epiphany Rising of 1399, intended to overthrow Henry and restore Richard II, after which Constance’s husband was executed, and a 1405 plot to overthrow Henry in favour of Edmund Mortimer … which involved Constance, her brother Edward, Edmund Mortimer senior (the uncle of Edmund Mortimer junior), and Edmund snr’s father-in-law Owen Glendower. It’s heavy on political history, and it really is very interesting if you’re into that, especially as it’s such a neglected area of history. The reign of Henry IV was famously covered by Shakespeare, but not very accurately, and it’s largely ignored in history teaching at schools and is a period most people don’t know much about.

The history can’t be faulted: there are things which we just don’t know the truth of, and which the author’s had to draw her own conclusions about, but there are no glaring blunders, or liberties taken with the known facts. But not everyone is going to want to read a novel that’s mainly political history, especially when it’s about a little-known figure in a little-known period – you’d think people would want to know about something different, but it doesn’t always seem to work like that, which is why there are so many books about the best-known figures in history.  But, if you want something and someone different, give this a go!

World on Fire – BBC 1


At one point during the second episode, we went rather rapidly from Sean Bean wandering along Great Ducie Street and Bury New Road to Nazi bombs reducing poor Warsaw to rubble.  This is certainly an ambitious series, covering storylines across a range of different locations during the early part of the Second World War.  I assume that it’s also an attempt to give screen time to groups who are often under-represented in both wartime dramas and history books: a lot of the action takes place in Poland, and we’ve also got a black gay Frenchman with a white American boyfriend, a French Jewish nurse hiding her identity from the Nazis, a German child with epilepsy, a Polish Catholic child refugee, two members of ENSA, a pacifist and a female war reporter.

There’ve been a couple of scenes that I haven’t been entirely comfortable with, although maybe I’m being oversensitive.   Also, one of the German characters is called Uwe Rosler. Seriously. OK, it’s been spelt Rossler, but come on!  And the fact that there are so many different locations and storylines makes it rather confusing.  Oh, and, speaking of locations, I’m enjoying spotting familiar places.  Strangeways was Strangeways, and Castlefield and the John Rylands Library have also appeared … and I believe that the scenes at Dunkirk, which we haven’t got to yet, were filmed at St Annes.  To get back to the point, it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad – and it’s getting better as the series goes on.

I assumed Harry was going to be a big hero, seeing as the programme started with him being arrested for clashing with Oswald Mosley’s supporters at a BUF rally in Manchester in March 1939, but he spends a lot of time moaning, and has been trying to keep two girls, both of whom are far too good for him, on the go at once. He’s from a well-to-do background, living with his snobbish mother in an extremely large house. Lois, one of his girlfriends, lives in Longsight with her brother Tom, who goes into the Navy, and her dad, played by Sean Bean, who, having suffered shell shock during the First World War, is an avowed pacifist. Incidentally, whilst I accept that Yorkshiremen aren’t big on doing Lancashire accents, could he not at least have tried?!  Julia Brown (Lois)’s attempt at a Manchester accent isn’t bad at all.  Ewan Mitchell (Tom) ‘s leaves a lot to be desired: he sounds more Mendips than Manchester!

Lois and her friend are a singing duet, and join ENSA. I like that. Dame Vera Lynn must be one of the most well-respected figures in the country, but you rarely see ENSA mentioned in either factual or fictional accounts of the Second World War.

Harry’s other girlfriend is Kasia, a Polish girl whom he meets whilst working as a translator in Warsaw. A big part of this series is showing the effect of the war on Poland, and I believe that it’s attracted a lot of interest from the Polish community in Britain. The first time I went to Warsaw, way back in 1996, we were shown of a video of the devastation of the city during the war, and its rebuilding afterwards. It really was blown to smithereens.

Unlike in The Aftermath, there’s been no soft-soaping of how the Nazis treated people. We’ve seen Kasia’s dad, with the Polish forces in Gdansk – we were shown the Defence of the Post Office in the Free City of Danzig/Gdansk, which is very well-known in Polish wartime history – and her mum, in her own home, both shot dead at point blank range. Her brother is able to escape, and eventually to join up with Polish forces after spending a long time on the run.  Harry marries Kasia (conveniently forgetting, even once he’s home, to tell either Lois or his mum) so that she’ll be able to accompany him back to Britain, but she chooses to remain behind, pushing her little brother Jan on to the train with him instead – and we see Jan’s experiences as a child refugee, including Harry’s mum becoming attached to him and defending him when he’s bullied at school.

Kasia later joins the Polish Resistance. Most viewers will be familiar with the work of the French Resistance, and to some extent the work of the Resistance movements in other Western European countries such as the Netherlands and Norway, but, although we hear about the Polish units serving with the Allied forces, we hear very little about the Resistance movements further east.

We’ve also got a female American reporter, working in Berlin. Reporters in war programmes are usually male, so that’s another tick for diversity.  A major part of her storyline is the problems she’s having in getting reports past the censors, another important issue. Over in Paris (filmed in Wigan!), we’ve got her nephew, a doctor, who’s in a same sex relationship with a gay black French musician. I don’t know how their story’s going to pan out, but this is doing the important job of highlighting the fact that many different groups were persecuted by the Nazis: we still hear relatively little about the treatment of gay people by the Nazis – thousands of gay men died in concentration camps – or the fact that black people were subject to the Nuremberg Laws in the Nazi-occupied territory.  One of the doctor’s colleagues is a Jewish nurse, and I gather that we’re going to see the two of them work together help patients to escape from the Nazis.

Back in Germany, the reporter is friendly with a couple whose child is epileptic, and who are terrified that the authorities will find out.  The Nazis began killing children with disabilities began in 1939, and forced sterilisation of people with conditions including epilepsy began as early as 1933.  This has been gone into in quite some detail – and we’re also seeing how well-intentioned reporting can be dangerous, with the couple terrified that her link to their family will be discovered and their child put in peril as a result.  Again, this is highlighting another facet of the Nazi atrocities, and one which isn’t always given as much attention as it should be.  I’m sorry that there are no Roma characters, but I suppose they could only have so many storylines: there’s a lot to keep up with as it is.

Any dialogue between Polish characters or between German characters has actually been filmed in Polish or German, with English subtitles. I wasn’t sure how well that was going to work – remember Eldorado?! – but it’s actually working very well … although it’s rather annoying if you want to do the ironing or something else at the same time as you’re watching!

So, there are a lot of things to praise … but, as I said, I was uncomfortable with a couple of scenes. There were some very unpleasant scenes outside Auschwitz on Holocaust Memorial Day in January, with far-right groups claiming that the effect of the Nazi occupation on the wider population of Poland is overlooked because there is so much focus on the Jewish Holocaust. And it wasn’t an isolated incident. Two scenes in this programme, one involving Harry’s mother assuming that Jan was Jewish and Harry asking sarcastically if she wanted him to go back and change him for a Jewish child, and one involving the American reporter complaining that the American media would report on the persecution of Jews but not on the situation in Poland in general, came dangerously close to suggesting the same thing. I don’t imagine that that’s what Peter Bowker meant, but it was badly put. Suffering at the hands of the Nazis is not some sort of competition.  Can we not go there, please?

I’m also having a few issues with the German family (the parents with the epileptic child) because of the Uwe Rosler thing. Is a storyline about the Nazis wanting to kill children with medical conditions really the place for football jokes?  And, given that the scriptwriter’s from Stockport, no-one’s telling me that the name isn’t intentional.   Some of the language doesn’t ring very true for 1939 or 1940, either.  But, hey, nothing’s perfect.

I was on holiday when the first two episodes were shown, and have only just caught up.  A new Sunday night 9pm drama usually becomes a major talking point, and this hasn’t, so I assume it hasn’t attracted the sort of viewing figures that the BBC must have been hoping for.  That’s a shame, because it’s worth watching.  I know some people think that there’s too much talk about the Second World War, but there isn’t.  There really, really isn’t.

Blood Queen by Joanna Courtney


This is a very entertaining read, with the legendary Lady Macbeth shown here as Cora, a spirited young woman kidnapped on the evening of her wedding to her childhood sweetheart Macbeth, forced to marry another man, and abused by both him and his brother before her eventual rescue by and reunion with Macbeth, after which she becomes a strong queen but certainly not the nasty piece of work depicted by Shakespeare. Meanwhile, Duncan, shown by Shakespeare as an elderly man, is shown here, more accurately, as being about the same age as Macbeth; and his wife Sybill plays a major role in the book.

It’s difficult to comment on the history, partly because it’s not an area with which I’m all that familiar and partly because there are so many gaps in the historical record, and what sources there are contradict each other; but, from what I gather, this is far closer to the known facts than anything Shakespeare wrote about the subject was. Macbeth didn’t murder Duncan, and there was no prominent Macduff in this period. And there were certainly no witches or ghosts: it seems that they were shoved in to please James I and VI, who was a) obsessed with witch-hunting and b) thought to be related to a figure called Banquo who featured heavily in “Holinshed’s Chronicles of England, Scotland, and Ireland”, from which Shakespeare got a lot of his historical “information”. It’s a good read in its own right, and it also sets the reader thinking about the many ways in which Shakespeare’s distorted popular views of history. I don’t think Ricardians have a good word to say for the man!

The basis of the book is the rivalry for the throne between two different branches of the royal family of Alba (the word “Scotland” wouldn’t have been used in Alba/Scotland at that time), due to a system in which the succession alternated between the different branches, but it’s more about personalities than politics – although, inevitably, there’s a lot of violence. The characters, including a number of minor but essential characters, are very well fleshed out, with the two main female characters at the heart of the action, there are some wonderful descriptions of homes and landscapes, and everyone seems to be rather obsessed with whisky!

It’s hard to go looking for historical accuracy because there’s so much that we just don’t know, and Scottish readers may well be annoyed that most of the names have been Anglicised, but I did really enjoy it. As for Shakespeare, well, he wasn’t trying to be a history teacher, and he could never have dreamt that his work would become so well-known that it would still be giving people the wrong impression over 400 years after his death! But the role of “Holinshed’s Chronicles” is fascinating: they were the source of a lot of the stuff Shakespeare used, but they’re virtually unknown. Having said which, they aren’t to blame for the liberties that Shakespeare took with Roman history, nor with Danish history!

I love Joanna Courtney’s idea of trying to reclaim the real history behind Shakespeare’s plays.  The Wars of the Roses have received a lot of attention in recent years, but the Macbeth era certainly hasn’t.  And she’s now written a book about Ophelia.  Another one for the Amazon wishlist!


The Beekeeper of Aleppo by Christy Lefteri


With Syria in the grip of yet another humanitarian crisis, this seemed like a good time to choose this book from my “TBR” pile.  Disappointingly, it says next to nothing about the fascinating history and culture of Aleppo, nor does it even try to explain the causes of the war in Syria, but it does do a reasonable job of conveying the message of the impact that the war’s having, and the experiences of refugees choosing to try to reach Western Europe, especially the exploitation of vulnerable individuals by people traffickers.  Over thirteen million people have been displaced by the Syrian civil war – and I’m assuming that those figures don’t include those displaced by the latest fighting.  “What was lost would be lost forever.  The Crusader castles, mosques and churches, Roman mosaics, ancient markets, houses, homes, hearts, husbands, wives, daughters, sons.”

The beekeeper idea came from a Syrian refugee and professor who’s set up a beekeeping project near the Standedge Tunnel.  It’s only twenty miles away, but I hadn’t heard about it until now, for some reason.  Bees are so deeply symbolic, and can teach people so much.  They work hard and they work together.

The book’s told from the viewpoint of Nuri, who left Aleppo with his wife, Afra, after their young son Sami was killed in a bombing raid, hoping to join his cousin Mustafa in England (the author always says “England” rather than “Britain”). Afra has psychogenic blindness after Sami’s death. It’s told as a series of flashbacks, so we know that they are now in England: we see Nuri thinking back to their leaving Aleppo, travelling to Istanbul, crossing to a Greek island, then being transported to a refugee camp in Athens, and then paying a people smuggler to get them fake passports which enable them to travel to England, where they turn themselves in to the authorities. It says next to nothing about Aleppo, other than a few vague references to souks and food, which I was quite disappointed by. It’s got an absolutely fascinating history, and is a city of many different cultures, and I was hoping that the book would bring that out, but it isn’t really about Syria. Apart from a couple of mentions of President Assad, it doesn’t even talk about the causes or progress of the war.

However, it scores in terms of its depiction of the dangerous journey out of Syria, and of the difficult conditions in the refugee camps on the various stages of their journey. It’s not a book that aims to guilt-trip anyone: it explains that there’s high unemployment in Athens, and that the authorities there are struggling to cope with an influx of people. It also makes a very interesting point about how resources are aimed at those seen as being the most vulnerable, but that other miss out as a result: at one point, they go to a help centre in Athens, and are told that Afra can come in and have a shower, but that Nuri can’t because the centre is only for women and children.

In particular, it addresses the issue of people smugglers. I know Sky News have tried hard to draw attention to this issue, both in terms of people trying to reach Europe from Africa, the Middle East, Afghanistan and elsewhere and in terms of people trying to reach the US from Latin America, but it’s something about which there isn’t enough awareness. The flimsy, overcrowded boats. The financial exploitation. And, worst of all, the horrific abuse of vulnerable people. The smuggler whom they approach demands more money, and says that Nuri has to work for him in order to earn it. During Nuri’s absence, he rapes Afra. It’s all told from Nuri’s viewpoint, so we see him coming home to find Afra covered in blood and her clothes torn, and we hear about how he wants to kill her rapist but doesn’t dare because he wants his help, but we don’t hear about the effect of the attack on Afra herself, and I’m not sure that that really works … but then the book is meant to be Nuri’s story.

Nuri’s got such a positive image of England … in his case, a yellow and purple and pleasant land, rather than a green and pleasant land, because he’s envisioning fields of rapeseed and banks of heather and lavender for bees to feed on. As they do. I’m nervy of anything that buzzes and stings, but I had a swarm of bees on the lavender bush in my garden for months this summer, and I got rather fond of them! It’s a romantic image, like you might think of Switzerland as a land of pristine lakes and mountains, Brazil as a land of football and samba or Australia as a land of outdoor sports and barbecues on the beach, but it’s all positive. Yet, if a white English person were to speak like that about England, some aggressive Guardian reader would immediately howl that they were racist and stuck in the 1950s. I got the distinct impression during a recent holiday in the United States that there were similar issues there.

I’ve been watching two travel series on the BBC, both about North America. One is the Hairy Bikers’ Route 66 programme, in which lovely Dave Myers and Si King meet members of many different communities, learn about their cultures, and are friendly and pleasant to everyone they meet, looking for the good in them all. The other is presented by Simon Reeve: I was looking forward to the first episode, because it included Vancouver, one of my favourite cities, but all that Reeve seemed to be interested in was finding excuses to make abusive, insulting comments about both the Canada and the US. I don’t know how we got so divided, but I do know that the world would be a much better place if more people took the Hairy Bikers’ approach and fewer people took the Simon Reeve approach. Like bees, we need to work together, not attack each other.

That’s what the real beekeeper of Syria, an academic from the University of Damascus, now a beekeeper of Huddersfield, wanted to do – not to attack and insult, but to build something positive.  He appealed for help, and a woman from Manchester (I had to get that in!) came forward with a hive of rare British black bees, to get him started.  He’s got lots of hives now, and the bees are producing honey.  It’s a lovely story, and it’s true.

Going back to the book, it’s not actually the most convincing of stories. I know that psychogenic blindness does happen, but it’s rare, and it comes across a bit like a storyline from Dynasty or Neighbours.  And, if they had the money to pay a people smuggler all along, why did they spend so much time in the deeply unpleasant conditions in the camp in Athens first? But it does get a message across, and Christy Lefteri is well-placed to do that, having spent time working with refugees in Athens.  There seems to be no end to this horrific situation in Syria – and it’s hardly just Syria, either.  Throughout history, people have been driven from their homes by war and persecution.  But, in this book, there’s always hope.  It should be a miserable read, but, somehow, it isn’t.  There’s something inspiring there.  It’s not a brilliant book, but I think it’s worth a go.


Sanditon – ITV. Wrong ending.


The endings of Jane Austen’s books aren’t always entirely convincing – you really do have to suspend your credulity with Sense and Sensibility, when Lucy Steele goes off with her fiance’s brother and Marianne Dashwood suddenly decides she’s in love with Colonel Brandon after having spent practically the entire book being in love with Willoughby – but they are always happy. Everyone gets married and, we presume, lives happily ever after. That is how Jane Austen books finish. And that is how Sanditon would have finished, had she lived long enough to finish writing it. Sunday night, 9 o’clock, period drama time. Three people had been stabbed in the Arndale Centre, Turkey had invaded Syria, no-one was doing anything about Yemen, United’s season was going from bad to worse … I needed escapism. Me and everyone else.  That’s what Sunday night period drama is for.

That meant Charlotte marrying Sidney, Esther marrying Lord Babington, some sort of redemption for Clara, and, possibly, Georgiana marrying Arthur. Charlotte and Sidney were obviously the main couple, but I also had my fingers crossed for daft-but-sweet Arthur winning the heart and hand of the beautiful heiress and proving that fat people can have happy endings (authors generally reserve them for thin people) too. The only snag was that there wasn’t a partner for nice young James Stringer, but he’d been offered a good job so he was still getting a happy ending of sorts. And Sanditon had been saved, by Sophie Winkleman making it the centre of high society and strongly hinting that she’d bring members of the Royal Family to visit. Well, she *is* married to the Queen’s cousin. Sorted. Or, at least, it should have been. But it wasn’t.  What on earth did Andrew Davies think he was playing at?  Sorry – not funny, not clever. Just wrong.  It feels like a school bully’s played a nasty practical joke and is taking great pleasure in having spoilt things for the rest of the class 😦 .

To be fair, Esther and Lord Babington did get married, and, hopefully, lived happily ever after. It wasn’t very clear what had happened to Clara, but, OK, she wasn’t my priority. James had been offered an apprenticeship to an architect. Georgiana and Arthur were smiling and laughing and dancing together, and she even patted his arm. He told his sister that he didn’t understand women and couldn’t imagine being married, but obviously he was just saying that, right? Sidney kept trying to propose to Charlotte but kept being interrupted, but clearly this was just to heighten the suspense. Finally, they were alone together, and he was just about to ask … and then Esther’s stupid brother caused a scene, and Sidney had to go and chuck him out (could someone else not have done this)?

Now, we’d already seen that Mr Stringer senior had accidentally started a fire. So presumably someone was going to be heroic and save him. Maybe Sidney, to make himself look even more dashing (in a brooding kind of way) and attractive? Or perhaps Arthur, thus impressing Georgiana? Or maybe even Edward, to redeem himself? No. Andrew Davies just had to spoil it. Stringer senior was burnt to death. Poor, lovely Stringer junior, who’d argued with him just beforehand, was left guilt-ridden, grief-stricken, and feeling obliged to give up his new job. And stupid Tom Parker hadn’t paid the insurance.

So how were the Parkers going to pay for the rebuilding? Well, obviously, Georgiana would marry Arthur, and lend her new brother-in-law the money.  Not that there was any reason why Georgiana’s money should have had to be spent on sorting out Tom’s mess, but it seemed to be the only reason all this’d happened.  In the meantime, Sidney took off to London, but told Charlotte that they would finish their “conversation” (i.e. the proposal) when he got back. Whilst it was pretty mean to kill off poor Mr Stringer, I couldn’t believe that at least Charlotte and Sidney weren’t going to get their happy ending, and hopefully Georgiana and Arthur too.

Then … oh FFS, how many more twists in the tale did Davies think we needed? Sidney got back, and announced that he was going to marry his rich ex, Eliza Campion. She who’d dumped him for someone much richer, and then been widowed … and had hoped to get back with him before he’d made it clear he wanted to marry Charlotte. It wasn’t even convincing. If she was so keen on him that she was prepared to marry him presumably knowing that he was only after her money, why hadn’t she married him in the first place? No matter – surely it was only a twist in the tale. As soon as Georgiana decided to marry Arthur, and offered to lend Tom the money, Sidney would be free to marry Charlotte.

And, hooray! At the last minute, as Charlotte was on her way home, her coach was stopped, on a very dramatic-looking clifftop, by a man on horseback. And, whaddaya know, it was Sidney!! Yay!! He’d come to tell her that it was all sorted. Or even that he’d decided to leave Tom to sort out his own financial mess, which, TBH, you couldn’t have blamed him for. Expecting your brother to dump his true love and marry someone else because you tried to cut costs by not paying the insurance is pushing it a bit, by anyone’s standards.

No. Andrew Davies was just enjoying getting everyone’s hopes up. Sidney said that he’d come to say goodbye. Then he rode off. And Charlotte, presumably, went home.  Scarlett O’Hara would have proclaimed that tomorrow she’d find a way to get him back, but Charlotte was too nice to do anything that would’ve stopped dozy Tom from being able to rebuild Sanditon.  So she didn’t say anything.  And that was it.

As I said, not funny, not clever. I’m sure Davies thought he was being very clever, but he really wasn’t. Come on, give us a break. There’s enough misery in the world. We wanted escapism. We wanted a happy ending. This was Jane Austen’s unfinished novel, so it should have been given a Jane Austen-esque ending. ITV were happy enough to take her name in vain to publicise it. Maybe the idea is that there’s going to be a second series. The Arthur-Georgiana situation was left unresolved as well, and a lot of Sanditon itself needs rebuilding, so there’s scope for one – but Jane Austen books don’t have sequels. They end with the heroine getting her man/the heroines getting their men. They don’t end like this.

No doubt some smirking or earnest types will tell us that real life doesn’t usually throw up happy endings and that we shouldn’t be so pathetic as to want them for fictional characters, but we do. This isn’t real life. That’s the whole point. It’s escapism. And Andrew Davies just spoilt it for us. Not clever. Not funny. Just nasty. Like a school bully playing a nasty trick and getting a kick out of spoiling things for everyone else.  That’s just how this feels – like a school bully’s made fun of us all.  Not impressed, Mr Davies.  Not impressed at all.


Catherine the Great – Sky Atlantic


At least the naked men in Sanditon weren’t running around brandishing scimitars.  What on earth are the people who wrote the scripts for this on?  Oh dear!  Back in 1986, there was a superb TV mini-series about Peter the Great.  I’ve been reading about 18th century Russia ever since.  The first holiday I paid for with my own money was a trip to Russia. I went for every Russian history module available at university. I picked the winner in the 1997 Grand National because of Catherine the Great (seriously)*.  My friend at university had a teddy bear called Pugachev.  So I was really looking forward to this,  But, sadly, it was more akin to Versailles, The Borgias and The Tudors, although admittedly without the wild historical inaccuracies, than to the brilliant series that got me hooked on 18th century Russia when I was 11.  It’s one of those series that’s mesmerising because it’s just so bad, but I was so much hoping it was going to be … well, good.  And it isn’t.

Ballrooms and bedrooms are fine up to an extent, but could they not have got a bit more history in?!  And, whilst Helen Mirren looks absolutely wonderful for 74, she was playing a woman who was only 33 at the start of the series!  Everyone else had been aged up to match (apart from Nikita Panin, who’d bizarrely been aged down), so, instead of an array of handsome, dashing young Orlovs, we got a group of blokes who’d been made to look like the cast of Last of the Summer Wine in colourful costumes.  Still at least they wore costumes.  Potemkin ran around stark naked (what is this obsession with bare backsides on TV this year?) whilst wielding a scimitar.  I wouldn’t have thought that was a very sensible idea, TBH.

And could they not even have checked basic facts?  They called the Empress Elizabeth Catherine’s mother-in-law.  No!!  She was Catherine’s husband’s auntie.  Or basic terminology?  “Serfdom” and “slavery” are not interchangeable terms.  I knew it was bad news when the programme started by helpfully informing us that we were in “St Petersburg, Russia”.  Did they expect that viewers might think we were in St Petersburg, Florida?!   Mind you, if we were, it would at least explain why not one person has addressed anyone else by their first name plus patronymic.  It’s Russia, OK.  Patronymics.  We need patronymics.

I want to write a long essay about all sorts of aspects of Catherine’s reign, but they’ve hardly even been mentioned.  We got a rather odd version of … well, I’m not actually sure if it was meant to be the Nakhaz or not, because it seemed to be too early for it, but I think it was.  Anyway, it only mentioned serfs, and completely ignored all Catherine’s plans for the other social estates.  The First Polish Partition’s been ignored completely.  The Russo-Turkish war has been mentioned, but only really in relation to various blokes arguing over who’s better than whom.  There has, to be fair, been quite a lot of talk about the Pugachevschina, but it annoyed me because Catherine just seemed to be going “Oh dear, this seems to be quite serious,” and asking Potemkin what to do.  And it’s failed to make the point that it put Catherine off making further reforms.

On the positive side, at least it hasn’t gone for the popular, prurient image of Catherine as someone who spent all her time chasing one man after another, and it’s made it clear that she was genuinely in love with her “main” lovers.  It hasn’t even suggested that Peter might not have been Paul’s father.  And I assume that they are not going to include the ridiculous horse story.  But it has shown an awful lot of scenes of Catherine gossiping with Praskovia Bruce, balls with men wearing dresses and women wearing breeches (which was actually more Elizabeth’s thing than Catherine’s, apparently because Elizabeth looked good in breeches and knew it), and men having playground “I’m more important than you so ner” arguments, rather than anything serious.  OK, I know it’s not supposed to be a documentary, but I did expect there to be a bit more about the actual events.

And, strangely, seeing as it quite clearly isn’t aimed at serious historians, there hasn’t been much explanation of what’s going on.  Much as I dislike programmes which treat you as if you’re stupid, this is not a part of history with which most Anglophone viewers are going to be familiar, and it jumped right in with Catherine visiting the former Ivan VI in prison without even giving his name, never mind explaining that Elizabeth had deposed him and Peter had been (his aunt) Elizabeth’s heir.  Also, putting the R or the N in “Catherine” backwards might work for a meerkat advert or a sign at a football match, but it just looks silly in a period drama.

The costumes are great.  The sets are great.  But precious little else about this is great.  I quite like the way they’ve shown Catherine’s sense of humour, and her comments about women in power, but the lines are written for an older woman with a lot of life experience, and that just wasn’t Catherine in the 1760s and early 1770s.  It feels as if they wanted Helen Mirren and wrote the part for her, instead of writing about Catherine.  And I appreciate that royal period dramas are going to focus on the court and the personal life of the monarch, rather than on what was going on in the country at the time, but there needs to be a balance and this was skewed way too far in favour of ballrooms and bedrooms.  Bleurgh.  I’ve been waiting 33 years for another mini-series based in 18th century Russia, and the wait really hasn’t been worth it!


*Just in case anyone is actually reading this, and wondered, when teenage Sophie/Catherine first went to Russia, she became pally with Count Gyllenborg, the Swedish ambassador.  I picked Lord Gyllene for the 1997 Grand National because the name sounded a bit like Gyllenborg.  All right, I’m weird.  But he won!