Little Women


I thoroughly enjoyed this.  I wouldn’t say it was as good as the critics are making out, purely because it jumps backwards and forwards in time, and anyone who hasn’t read both Good Wives and Little Women several times is probably going to be completely confused.  However, if you are familiar with them, then it’s great – excellent performances from the entire cast, and gorgeous shots of beautiful New England.  It’s a very 21st century interpretation – religion is out, politics are in, and feminism and humour are played up.  Obviously not everything in the books can be fitted into a film, but pretty much all the iconic scenes are there … just in a very strange order.

Religion out!  None of the Pilgrim’s Progress stuff is mentioned – which is a wise move, because it doesn’t really work on screen.  More importantly, the preachy stuff is out.  Meg is not, apart from a bit of moaning from Laurie, made to feel guilty about borrowing a friend’s dress and getting dolled up for a party.  Mr March does not make patronising remarks about Jo’s behaviour.  And, hooray, no canaries die!  So Marmee is a much more appealing character than she is in the books.  I still wish she’d got Jo a new party frock, though.  If the Marches could afford to employ a servant, send Amy to a posh school and give food away to the Hummels, then surely they could have run to a length of poplin.  Failing that, didn’t Marmee have an old dress of her own that could have been made over to fit Jo? Ma Ingalls would never in a million years have let Laura go to a dance in a damaged frock.

Politics and feminism are in.  I think everyone assumes that the Marches are Abolitionists, but it’s never actually spelt out in the books.  It is in the film.  Quite strongly, too.  Marmee tells a black friend that she’s “ashamed of her country”.   And Professor Bhaer talks about going to California because they’re more tolerant of immigrants there.  That’s interesting.  We’re in the 1870s, so before the big waves of immigration from Eastern and Southern Europe that get the denizens of Beacon Hill calling for immigration restrictions, but there were issues even before then, especially from the Hungry Forties onwards.  I’m not sure what Chinese-Americans are going to make of the idea that California was some kind of great melting pot, though.

We also get Jo arguing with her publisher over his insistence that fictional female characters be married, and Amy making a powerful speech to Laurie about how married women have no rights to their own property or even to their children.  The idea of Jo wanting to be a boy/the man of the house whilst Father’s away is very much toned down, in favour of Jo wanting women to have more choices.  Aunt March, on the other hand, is shown as being obsessed with the idea of the girls marrying well – which doesn’t really come out in the books, except when she says she doesn’t want Meg to marry John Brooke, and that’s there more as a way of making Meg realise how she feels than anything else.  That scene’s missing from the film.  So is the scene with Laurie and Amy getting engaged in a boat.  They have a snog at a chateau instead!  There’s a lot of kissing and hugging, perhaps more than there should be in the 1860s/1870s.

Aunt March is given a bigger role generally.  She’s the one who takes Amy to Europe: the rather pointless Carrol relations are missed out.  Mr Laurence only has a bit part, but he’s more appealing than he is in the books, and there’s a nice scene with Jo comforting him after Beth’s death – in the books, he seems to be forgotten when Beth dies.  A lot of older books have storylines in which an adult develops a close relationship with a child who’s not a relative, in a very nice, innocent way, but I’m not sure authors feel able to write those sorts of storylines any more, which is understandable but sad.

And, as I said, pretty much all the iconic scenes are in.  The only one I really missed was Meg struggling to make jam!  And there are some really, really famous scenes.  Jo having her hair cut, Amy burning Jo’s book, Amy falling through the ice … .

I thought Beth’s death could have been “done” a bit better, though.  And I didn’t like the way they showed Amy and Laurie’s return.  In the books, the Marches know that Amy and Laurie have got engaged, just not that they’ve actually got married, and Jo’s said even before then that they’re well-suited.  In this, it comes as a complete shock, with Jo assuming that Laurie’s coming home to propose to her again, and being ready to accept.  Amy even says that she’s been worried about how Jo will react.  I just wasn’t keen on that, because it upsets me that a lot of people vilify Amy as someone who commits the ultimate betrayal, stealing her sister’s man, and it isn’t like that at all.  Jo has turned Laurie down, and therefore he’s quite entitled to marry anyone else he likes.  Amy does generally come across very well in this, though, and I’m glad of that.  I wish fans wouldn’t give her such a hard time!

And the humour is played up, which is good.  OK, the jam scene’s missing, but there’s a lovely ensemble scene in which the rest of the family suss that Jo and Professor Bhaer (played by a French actor whose German accent sounds very Gallic, but never mind) are keen on each other, and persuade Jo to go after him.  The theatricals are nicely done, as well – enough to get the point across, but not too much.  And there isn’t one weak performance.

The jumping about is very confusing, though, especially as the characters aren’t introduced: it’s just assumed that you’ll know who they are, and what’s going on.  It also gives the game away: it means that you know from the start that Meg marries John and that Jo turns Laurie down.  I’d be interested to know what anyone who’s seen the film without having read the books made of it.  But, as long as you do know what’s going on, it’s a very entertaining couple of hours’ viewing.







Great Lives: Enid Blyton – Radio 4 and The Tiger Who Came For Tea – Channel 4


There was quite a contrast between these two Christmas Eve broadcasts, and not in the way I might have expected.  The tiger, who can be pretty scary, was just good fun in this lovely, cheerful interpretation of Judith Kerr’s books, with music by Robbie Williams, whereas the programme about Enid Blyton, who’s brought so much joy to so many children, was rather sad, focusing on her unhappy childhood and difficult relationship with her own family rather than on her books.

Like a lot of children, I grew up with Enid Blyton.  I was so obsessed with the Noddy books that I knew them off by heart.  I insisted on having them read to me for bedtime stories, and, if my tired mum or dad tried to miss a bit out, I’d howl with indignation.  I drove my dad mad to make up more stories about Amelia Jane, because there weren’t enough of them to suit me.  Nearly everyone in my class at primary school was into the Famous Five, the adventure and mystery books, and to some extent the Secret Seven, and the girls at least were very keen on the Malory Towers and St Clare’s books.  When someone scribbled on the walls of the boys’ toilets, we tried to look for clues, like the Five Find Outers would have done.  The culprit never was officially unmasked, but I have my suspicions as to whom it was!  And my sister and I solemnly collected bits of food from our tea, to have for midnight feasts … although, at that age, we never managed to stay up till midnight!

As far as the criticism which Enid Blyton now gets showered in … well, it never occurred to me, as a little kid, that the golliwogs were any sort of racist symbol, any more than it occurred to me that Aslan’s resurrection in the Narnia books was any sort of religious allegory.  I blithely assumed that, had I gone to Malory Towers, I’d have been best mates with Darrell and the rest of the in crowd, never stopping to think that they’d have made mincemeat of a fat swotty kid with a Northern accent. And I still don’t see why people think the books are sexist.  OK, Anne in the Famous Five books and Lucy-Ann in the Adventure books are rather wussy, but they’re only two characters.

I can understand a lot of the criticism of the books now, though, but I do feel that Enid Blyton gets a lot of criticism which other authors, apart from Laura Ingalls Wilder, don’t.  No-one complains that The Tiger Who Came To Tea is sexist because Mummy’s at home making cakes with Sophie whilst Daddy’s at work, or calls Shakespeare as a bigot because of his portrayals of Shylock and Fagin, Dickens a bigot because of his portrayal of Fagin, or Jane Austen as a snob because all her heroines are from posh backgrounds.

The programme was ambiguous about all that.  You can argue about it until the cows come home.  But it did talk a lot about the poor quality of her writing.  One of my primary school teachers once complained to my mum and dad that I wrote like Enid Blyton!  I only wish I did, given that she sold over 800 books.  Teachers had a real down on Enid Blyton in the early 1980s, and I think they always have done … rather paradoxically, given that most kids love the books.  The programme did claim that there wasn’t much competition in the children’s book market during Blyton’s heyday, and that that was why her books were so popular, but I thought that that was rather unfair.  Kids like the books because they’re exciting … and the books probably do have to be about the upper middle classes due to that, because only kids from well-to-do families are likely to go to boarding school or go away for the entire school summer holidays.

It also said a lot about her difficult family life – the breakdown of her first marriage after both she and her husband had affairs, the way she airbrushed her first husband, the father of her two children, out of her life, her difficult relationship with both her mother and her children, and the trauma she suffered when her father ran off with another woman when she was in her early teens.  Her mother, understandably in the society of the times, pretended that he was just working away, and it’s thought that that’s partly why Enid became  so involved in telling stories.  It even said that she had fertility problems because the trauma of her father leaving affected her physical development.  I’ve no idea if that’s medically possible or not, but that’s what it said.  And it does have to be said that she doesn’t sound like a particularly nice person.

All rather miserable, really.  But it praised her business acumen, and pointed out that, as a woman in a man’s world, she had to be tough.  Even more importantly,  it acknowledged that her books have got so many kids into reading.  And she deserves respect for that, and that’s why hers was a great life.

It also talked about food!  There is so much food in her books … mostly published at a time when rationing was in force and children could only dream of all those enormous teas and picnics.  And, of course, food is key to The Tiger Who Came To Tea as well, although that was published long after rationing had ended.  The tiger is a bit scary, as I’ve said, because he eats them out of house and home and even uses all the water from the tank … but no-one wants scary stuff on Christmas Eve, and this production was all smiley and happy!  I wasn’t convinced about Mummy wearing a green dress, a blue cardigan and an orange coat all together, nor about Daddy going to work in checked trousers, but never mind!   Purists may have found some of the cartoon scenes a bit too modern, but I thought it was all good fun, and a perfect antidote to the doom and gloom that the soaps seem intent on serving up over the festive season.  It was a real treat.

So that was Christmas Eve, for supposed adults who still like children’s books!  If you’re reading this, thanks for doing so, and I hope you had a very Merry Christmas and wish you all the best for the new year xxx.

A Merry Tudor Christmas with Lucy Worsley – BBC 2


I’ve always rather fancied the idea of Christmas at the court of Henry VIII, although I dread to imagine how many calories people must have got through.  Eat, drink and be merry … before the Puritans come along and put the kybosh on it all!  Decorate your work tools so that they can’t be used: come on, folks, get those office computers festooned with holly and icy.  Keep dancing into January, and then get stuck into a Twelfth Night cake that’s a full yard in diameter.  And make sure you get Henry a good prezzie, because he’ll be opening it in full view of the entire court.  This really was good fun, and, it being the festive season, Lucy’s dressing up didn’t seem that annoying for once.

Henry apparently spent £7,000 on Christmas festivities in 1509.  That’s a serious amount of money even now, never mind over 500 years ago.  And he didn’t even eat most of the food that was put in front of him.  Well, not then, when he was young and slim, anyway.  However, the leftovers were given away to the poor.  Marinated pigs’ ears wouldn’t really do it for me, but it was fascinating seeing the re-creation of the sort of things that would have been on the menu then.  The intricate creations in marchpane particularly caught my eye. You see them abroad sometimes, especially in Sicily, but it’s rare to see them here.

Roast beef … now, that’s more my thing than marinated pigs’ ears would be.  And it was interesting to hear about the Welsh influence on the mead they drank – it’s well-known that Henry VII was keen to play up his Welsh links, but you don’t think so much about Henry VIII doing the same.  A lot of drinking went on!   It’s easy to fall into the Victorian trap of imagining a Merrie Englande that never actually existed, but, in the case of Tudor Christmases, it really did.  Court masques.  Carol singing.   The Lords of Misrule on Twelfth Night.  And all that food!

Twelve days of feasting.  The biggest difference between Christmas then and Christmas now is probably that, in Tudor times, it was all about the Twelve Days of Christmas, with people fasting during Advent.  The pre-Christmas fast still seems to be a thing in some predominantly Orthodox countries, but it certainly isn’t here.  The partying starts well before Christmas Eve, and then no-one really knows what to do with themselves during “Twixmas”, and it’s usually back to work and diets on January 2nd.  I’ve always wanted a Twelfth Night cake, ever since I first read about them in Katherine L Oldmeadow’s Princess Prunella!  Maybe not one a yard across, though.

Of course, this was only at court, but, even for the less well-off people, Christmas was a time of celebration.  Homes were decorated with greenery – and that’s a tradition going way back before Christianity.  Lords of the manor would usually give out food.  “We want some figgy pudding … we won’t go until we get some!” There were mummers’ plays.   And sports were enjoyed – rather miserably, they were banned for much of the year, to stop rowdy behaviour and to make people concentrate on archery.  Except at court, obviously.  Play as much tennis as you liked there!  But, at Christmas, play as much as you liked anywhere!

Then along came the Puritans.  Mind you, I keep going on about the Puritans spoiling people’s fun, but, until the early 1830s, there were over 30 Bank Holidays in England – secular holidays like Oak Apple Day and Bonfire Night, as well as religious holidays.  Wakes weeks were still going until very recently.  William Harrison Ainsworth writes about Twelfth Night festivities in Manchester well into the 19th century, and Dickens mentions Twelfth Night as well.  So a lot of these festivities long outlasted the Puritans … but didn’t make it through till today.  Shame!  As Lucy said, early January can be a pretty miserable time, and a bit of singing and dancing would liven it up no end.

I really enjoyed this.  It was good fun.  We do still have quite a Puritanical culture in many ways, and it’s easy to frown at excessive eating, drinking and spending, but life is short, winter nights are long, and people deserve to enjoy themselves.  £7,000 in 1509’s money – Google informs me that a labourer’s annual wage would have been £5 to £10 – does seem a bit extravagant, though …




Let the critics moan all they like about this: I enjoyed it.  OK, it’s rather weird seeing some of the most famous humans on the planet sporting digital fur; but I’m not sure how else it could have been done.  Pantomime-style zip-up animal costumes?  Lycra and face paint?  I’m really not sure why everyone’s getting so worked up over the costumes – although the tails, which seemed to have minds of their own, were a bit disconcerting!  The music was great, the night-time shots of cats dancing round London were like a modernised, extended version of the classic “Step In Time” scenes from “Mary Poppins”; and Francesca Hayward stole the show even with so many big names in the cast.  I now look forward to someone making a film version of “Starlight Express”, in which Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba & co are made to look like humanoid trains: that really *would* traumatise the critics!  Speaking of trains, would someone put Skimbleshanks the Railway Cat in charge of Northern Rail, please?  He is sorely needed.

The problem with CATS is that there isn’t really a storyline.  No-one’s manning the barricades, fleeing from the Nazis, reshaping Argentinian politics or killing their girlfriend’s brother in a gangland feud.  There isn’t even a light romance.  I’m sure Grizabella’s life history’s very interesting, but we don’t hear about it.  I’d love to know how Old Deuteronomy came to be the one making the Jellicle choice, but we aren’t told.   It’s very bitty, and that’s why, even though some of the songs are so good, it’s never been one of my favourite musicals.  So it was always going to be difficult to make a successful film version of it.

Then there’s the issue of the costumes – but, as I’ve said, I’m not sure what the alternative was.  Incidentally, I’ve got great admiration for the people whose characters were just encased in digital fur with no clothes over them: you’d have to be pretty body confident to do that (although I gather that some CGI came into play there too!).  Oh, and would someone please tell the shrieking snowflakes, who are calling the film racist because a mixed-race actress is wearing (or whatever the correct term is for being covered in by CGI) white fur, that Victoria is the White Cat.  Hence the white fur.  The clue’s in the name.

But, if you know the stage version, you’ll know not to expect too much of a storyline. And is the digital fur really so big a deal?  It’s all about the music – and the music is great.

Francesca Hayward, as Victoria, is the star of the show, but there are also good turns from Judi Dench, Ian McKellen, Idris Elba, Jennifer Hudson, Laurie Davidson, dancer Robert Fairchild and various others.  And seeing the cats dancing round London is quite cool, even if I am getting rather sick of films being set in London.  Maybe I’m missing something, because the reviews have been pretty universally awful, but I really did enjoy it.

Don’t expect too much of a story.  Accept that humans digitally dressed up as cats look rather odd.  Accept that this isn’t Les Miserables or The Sound of Music, but that it was never going to be. Ignore all the silly puns about the film needing spaying, putting down or consigning to the litter tray.  And then just sit back, lighten up – hey, it’s Christmas! – and enjoy the music and the dancing.  It’s actually rather good fun.



I’m joining in with a Word Press Book Challenge, suggested in the interests of festive inclusivity :-).  The idea is to mention one book for each of the eight nights of the festival of Chanukah, which starts tonight. So I have amused myself by listing eight books, some of which are old favourites and some of which were new reads this year, with (gloriously tenuous – I have an over-vivid imagination) links to the Chanukah story.  I’ve got football, the Chalet School, Coronation Street, Little Women, Renaissance Italy and the Napoleonic Wars in here, amongst other things.  I know.  I’m weird.  Also, if you Google “Chanukah”, it comes up with a really cute cartoon – give it a go!

Thanks to  The Chocolate Lady   for suggesting this.  Sorry that I’m not very good at finding books to fit categories suggested elsewhere, but these are my eight books … in no particular order.

The Lights of Manchester by Tony Warren.  Lights – Chanukah, Festival of Lights.  We hear a lot about “diversity” these days, and that’s important, and wonderful up to a point, but it gets rather silly when, for example, you get people claiming that the new CATS film is racist because the colour of the fur on one of the costumes doesn’t match the actress’s skin tone … without stopping to find out that he character concerned, Victoria, is also known as “The White Cat”, so her fur has to be white.  It’s nothing to do with racism!  I do wish everyone would try a bit harder to look for the good in society, instead of assuming the worst.  Most people are actually rather nice.  Anyway, in this lovely book from the 1990s, written by the late creator of Coronation Street, the main character is white and Protestant, but her soul mate and eventual husband Barney is Jewish, her best friend Mickey is gay, her friends Judy, Monica and Delia are all Catholic, and Delia’s husband Carlton is black.  Tony Warren wasn’t trying to make a point, or to prove anything, or to accuse anyone of anything, like some people seem to do incessantly.  He was just writing about life, and people, and Manchester life and people in particular. I first read this book just before the festive season in 1992.  It’s an all-time favourite.

No Ballet Shoes in Syria by Catherine Bruton.  The baddies in the Chanukah story are Syrian.  Except that they’re actually Greek.  Like Cleopatra and the rest of the Ptolemy brigade were Egyptian, but actually Greek.  Anyway, the baddies are the rulers of  “Coele-Syria”, an area now forming parts of Syria, Lebanon and Israel, and are generally referred to as “Syrians”.  This book, also set in Manchester, came out this year, and is about Syrian refugees.  It’s an important subject, and I love the way it uses a traditional GO-type format to tell a modern-day story.

Circe by Madeline Miller.  As I said, the Syrian baddies are actually Greek!   This book’s about Greek gods rather than real Greeks, but I’m including it because it’s the last book I read.   I believe there’s a mini-series coming, so fingers crossed that it’s shown somewhere I can see it!

The Red Tent by Anita Diamant.  The Chanukah story isn’t actually in the Jewish or Protestant versions of the Old Testament, although it’s in the Catholic, Orthodox and Eastern Orthodox versions … I always thought it just wasn’t in, but apparently it depends which version you’ve got.  How very confusing!   Anyway, I was going to say that, although it isn’t actually in the Bible, but make that “although it isn’t actually in all versions of the Bible”, it’s still a religious story, and they tend to feature blokes as heroes, so it’s great to have a book which focuses on some of the female characters in the Bible … and this one’s become hugely popular.

Hunting Midnight by Richard Zimler. This is primarily set in the very lovely city of Porto. No, it isn’t about football: it’s about the Napoleonic Wars. It’s also about crypto-Jews. There’ve been a lot of times during which, for one reason or another – being Jews or Muslims in the Spanish or Portuguese Empires, being “heretics”, belonging to a Christian denomination that’s on the opposite side to the authorities during/after the Reformation, belonging to any religion in a strict communist regime – people have been able to practice their religion only in secret. This was also the case in the Chanukah story, in which the Syrians-who-were-actually-Greeks were busy Hellenising everything. According to a great historical tradition dating back two millennia (ahem, which was possibly invented in the 19th century, rather like a lot of those wondrous “age-old” Christmas traditions, but never mind), Jews meeting in secret to study religious texts would, if caught by the Greek-Syrian authorities, pretend to be playing a game with spinning tops.  No spinning tops in this book, sadly, but Richard Zimler’s books are always interesting.

The spinning tops are actually historically accurate, i.e. relating to that period of history, even if their link to the story may possibly be a bit tenuous.  And, if you do look at the Google cartoon, you’ll see them in there.

The Greatest Comeback by David Bolchover. This one is about football! And the author’s from Manchester, and a lifelong United fan. The link here is that the Maccabees, the heroes of the Chanukah story, whilst they were possibly more interested in playing with spinning tops than in playing football, have ended up with a load of sporting clubs named after them, the most famous being Maccabi Tel Aviv and Maccabi Haifa, who are often involved in Champions League or Europa League action. This book’s a biography of a Holocaust survivor who went on to manage Benfica to European Cup glory.

The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park. I was trying to think of a book which involved olive oil, to go with the Chanukah oil story, but the best I could think of was a book set somewhere where I’ve seen lots of olive groves, so either Greece or Italy. This one’s set in Renaissance Italy, where the heroine, Grazia dei Rossi (who is Jewish, although I don’t think she ever mentions Chanukah!) works as a secretary for Isabella d’Este, daughter of the ruler of Ferrara and wife of the ruler of Mantua. Both of those areas have lots of olive groves!

Little Women by Louisa M Alcott. A sub-plot in the Chanukah story involves a woman called Hannah, who has seven sons. Although, apparently the books about the Maccabees, which are or aren’t in the Bible depending on which version you’ve got, don’t actually mention her name, but she’s usually called Hannah … although in some countries she’s called Miriam. Or Solomonia. Anyway, Hannah and her sons are arrested by the Syrian king. Who is actually Greek. Pass the doughnuts, someone: I’m confusing myself here.  Anyway, I thought it’d be easy to come up with a book about someone called Hannah, but it wasn’t. However, we do have Hannah, the March family’s faithful old retainer in Little Women – and, seeing as there’s yet another new film version of Little Women due out later this month, I thought that that was quite apt. And I do like to have American Civil War books on my lists.

And … because there are actually nine candles, because one is needed to light the other eight, and because it seems a bit weird not to have a Chalet School book on the list, book number nine is Peggy of the Chalet School by Elinor M Brent-Dyer. When Peggy Bettany returns to her friends after her surprise appointment as the new Head Girl, Judy Rose teases her by chanting “See the Conqu’ring Heroine Comes” … referring to “See the Conqu’ring Hero Comes” which (although it’s actually a veiled reference to the Battle of Culloden!) is about Judah the Maccabee, the leader of the Maccabees.  Incidentally, someone has put up a giant lime green menorah (well, a metal one with fluorescent tape on it, but it looks lime green!) by the side of the road not far from chez moi, and, every time I walk past it, I think about all the Chalet School fandom jokes about characters liking lime green clothes, furnishings and even vehicles.  It’s certainly hard to miss!

Told you I had an over-active imagination!  Thank you to anyone who’s read all that.  Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Season’s Greetings, Happy Holidays, Cool Yule, or any other form of festive greeting you prefer.  They all work.  Peace and goodwill to one and all xxx.


Charles I: Killing a King – BBC 4


Can you put a head of state on trial?  When deciding whether to do so, bear in mind that you may end up with a religious extremist running the country.  I’m referring, of course, to the events of December 1648 and January 1649.  The trial and execution of Charles I (neither of which should ever have happened) are such a huge turning point in English/British history, so this should have been absolutely fascinating … but it didn’t half drag on.

Lisa Hilton’s quite interesting to listen to, but it could all have been fitted into one hour, never mind three. She must have spent over five minutes talking about how Charles had lost a diamond out of his watch, and his servant was looking for it. And I didn’t really need to know that Charles wondered if you could grow melons in Wimbledon, although it was more interesting than hearing in quite so much detail about how Parliament couldn’t get the wording of the charges against him right, so the paperwork kept going backwards and forwards. Enough!!

The key lesson from it all was that religion, red tape and the refusal of silly men to compromise cause more trouble between them than anything else.  Some things never change.  But it really needn’t have taken quite so long to say so.

It didn’t really get interesting until we actually got to the trial, and that was right at the end of the second hour. Until then, it was … well, religion, red tape, and the refusal of silly men to compromise. Cromwell & co thought God was on their side – complete with visions from some woman who thought she was some sort of visionary. Charles thought he was an anointed monarch with a divine right to rule. Well, to be fair, he was an anointed monarch.  (Not just a common or garden head of state, like … er, a certain other person who may shortly be going on trial.)  And the court had no authority: he was quite right about that. But I thought the divine right stuff was overplayed. OK, it was what Charles thought … but this is England. I’m saying “England” because the Scots weren’t consulted about all this, and were justifiably very narked about it. Monarchs had been overthrown before.

But there hadn’t been all this legal stuff before. And that was really the point of what the BBC 4 were saying. It’s terribly English, isn’t it? Everything has to be done legally. I mean, this is England, where Parliament abolished purgatory! It’s very interesting in its way, and you can argue about it until the cows come home, both over Charles I’s execution and over the Glorious Revolution. I tie myself in knots about it: I still can’t reconcile it all in my head, even after all these years of thinking about it. Rightful kings, social contracts … you go round in circles with it all. But it’s best in small doses. I’m sure someone enjoys reading books like Leviathan and Two Treatises of Government, but they really are horribly boring!   Small doses, BBC 4.  Small doses.

If Charles I had agreed to some sort of compromise, then maybe it could all have been different.  Executing a king was such a huge step to take, and I don’t think it was one that anyone set out to bring about.  Elizabeth I would never in a million years have got into that sort of mess.  But the Stuarts were pretty good at getting into messes.  There were a few bits about Charles’s personal life, and they broke up the legalistics a bit, but not much.  I appreciate that the legal issues were very important, and continue to affect Britain, and indeed the rest of the English-speaking world, today.  But it just went on a bit – and it is not like me to say that a history series “went on”!

A bit less legal stuff and a bit more human interest, though, and this could have been far more watchable. Early on, Lisa was talking about the terrible human cost of the war. All those families who’d lost breadwinners, men who’d been left permanently disabled, women who’d been sexually assaulted by soldiers, people who’d lost their homes. There was a fascinating petition from a man in Leicester, saying how his son had been killed and his wife had lost her mind through grief. Very sad, but interesting to hear. And there was also a brief reference to the miserable old Puritans wanting to do away with Christmas. No dancing. No singing. No exchanging presents. The risk of a 55 shilling fine – 55 shillings, in 1648!! – if you broke their rules. All those stories about Cromwell banning football and mince pies get people talking every time!

All in all – I’m glad that the BBC are giving this attention (this is a follow-up to Downfall of a King, which was shown in July) to such an important period in our history, but it just moved too slowly.  And it didn’t even mention mince pies!


A Refuge for the Chalet School by Amy Fletcher (Facebook group reading challenge)


Elinor M Brent-Dyer’s The Chalet School in Exile, seen by many people as the most important book in the series, falls into two distinct parts – the Anschluss and the flight from Austria forming the first half, and the re-establishment of the school in Guernsey and the early months of the war forming the second half, with a gap in the middle. Presumably the gap was left because the book was long enough already, and Elinor wanted to bring the story on to a wartime footing without waiting another a year; but it means that the reader misses several key events, including a birth, a marriage and a death. This book fills in the gap. As the school’s closed at this time, it’s not a school story, but one of the main attractions of the Chalet School world is that it *is* a world, not just a school. I really enjoyed seeing, in a very well-written book, several much-loved characters settle into their new lives, particularly those who are sometimes neglected in the “canon” books, and some of the domestic details which Elinor wrote so well in her La Rochelle series alongside more typically Chalet School scenes.

If anyone’s reading this – warning, it will make no sense unless you’re familiar with the series.  Sorry!!  But, if you’ve never read the Chalet School books, you’re missing a treat – give them a go!

It must be very difficult to write Chalet School fill-ins, partly because readers will have their own ideas about what happened and they won’t always agree with the author’s, and partly because of the problems of trying to work around all the inconsistencies in Elinor (EBD’)s books. Was Marie Pfeifen’s husband called Andreas or Andre? It changes within the same book sometimes! Was he Austrian or French? How come Daisy had never seen England before 1940, when she stayed there for a while in 1938?! There are uncertainties as well as outright inconsistencies – when did Jo convert to Catholicism, and where was Biddy whilst the school was closed? I have great admiration for the way Amy Fletcher and other fill-in authors cope with it all, and for the trouble they take in explaining why they’ve interpreted things as they have.

Wartime books also have the additional issues of being tied into real life events: it’s the one period during which the series is set at definite points in time. The book isn’t overly political, but we do see Madge’s distress at hearing about Kristallnacht (and let us hope, in 2019, that the new Labour leader will work hard to rid the party of the scourge of anti-Semitism), Jo and Jack’s disgust at the Munich Agreement (something which many people applauded at the time, appalling as it seems now), and the sadness at the news of the sinking of the Athenia.  We also hear the characters’ fears for the friends they left behind in Austria and Germany.  (As I’m typing that, I can hear Christopher Plummer’s voice saying “Austria?  There is no Austria”.)  And we get the actual declaration of war, and Jack’s departure, which are rather bizarrely missed out in The Chalet School in Exile (Exile).  And, on a happier note, we get the white Christmas of 1938.  This is the Chalet School world in the real world.

One of the standout features of the Chalet School series is the incorporation of the events of 1938-1940, in particular, into the books, and I just want to say again how brave it was of Elinor to write Exile, published in 1940. To bring a Nazi mob murdering an elderly Jewish couple and a Catholic priest, and the death of a longstanding character in a concentration camp, into a school series was such a big thing to do. And, whilst I don’t suppose the Gestapo were monitoring the contents of children’s books, who knows what might have happened? A lot of people would have thought at least twice before sticking their heads above the parapet.

The style of writing in this is quite similar to that in EBD’s books: there’s nothing that will grate on the Chalet School fan. I found Anna speaking English with German syntax a bit much, but no more so than I do Biddy O’Ryan’s Oirish accent or Flora and Fiona McDonald’s “pig sister” Highland speech.  Anna’s escape from Austria is very sensibly explained, incidentally – EBD’s comment about her getting herself “smuggled” out always makes me think of a French aristocrat escaping the Terror by hiding in a laundry basket, but this version makes far more sense!  So does the explanation of Rolf Maynard’s mysterious death – and it’s rather nice to see Jack’s relatives here, given that we never actually get to see any of them other than Mollie in the EBD books.

The content’s different to that of most Chalet School canon books or fillers, but that’s inevitable because of the circumstances – and I really liked seeing Jo going for fittings for her wedding dress, and house-hunting with Jack, and setting up home. I don’t know how much that would have appealed to me when I first started reading the books at the age of 8, but most Chalet School readers now are adults and therefore more likely to enjoy the domestic stuff! (Am I an adult?!)   Having said which, I must also have been around 8, or even younger, when I first read about Meg March, Anne Shirley, and Laura Ingalls setting up home with their respective husbands, and I’ve always loved all that.  As with Meg, Anne and Laura, we get a few domestic mishap scenes, which are very Jo and work very well.

We also get to see Jo getting ready on the day of her wedding, which we do with Janie Temple in the La Rochelle books but don’t with Madge in the Chalet School books – and the depiction of the wedding itself, with some humour and some sentiment but not too much of each, was great. It’s also nice seeing David and Sybil meeting baby Josette, and there are some lovely “nursery” scenes – EBD does these very well in Exile, but not elsewhere – and a very enjoyable chapter in which we see the Chalet School ladies and the La Rochelle ladies getting to know each other. It’s not typical Chalet School stuff, but I think it’ll really appeal to most fans of the series.

Things that weren’t how I personally would have imagined them … Jo choosing some of her nieces/nieces-by-marriage but not others as bridesmaids, and Jem leaving it to someone else (Gisela) to tell Daisy and Primula about Margot’s death. This is just my personal view: obviously we don’t know how EBD would have written any of this! There often seem to be bridesmaid politics at Chalet School weddings, and Sybil often seems to be the one to miss out (Elinor really did have it in for poor Sybil), but I wasn’t keen on the idea of Jo, as shown here, having Peggy and Daisy as bridesmaids but leaving Bride, Sybil and Primula out. It seemed very mean. But then I also think it was mean of Juliet not to ask Grizel, Daisy not to ask Sybil, Josette and Ailie, and Simone not to ask Sybil (poor Sybil!)!

And I just can’t imagine Jem leaving it to someone else to break the news of Margot’s death to her children, nor an intelligent 12-year-old like Daisy not realising that something was wrong – but that’s just my view. I hate that whole storyline, but that’s EBD’s fault, not Amy’s!   EBD seemed to want surplus adults removed, so first Ted Humphries and then Margot Venables got bumped off. And Daisy and Primula were packed off out of the way whilst Margot was dying, which seemed to contradict completely everything that was said about giving the Balbini children chance to say goodbye to their mother.  Always riles me!  And there are various hints about what’s expected in November, when I don’t suppose Jo would have gone full term with triplets, but then EBD doesn’t say anything about them coming early – obstetrics don’t seem to have been her strong point!

Sorry, enough moaning!  Back to singing the book’s praises.  I loved the scene involving a Christmas play put on at Bonne Maison – it was very Chalet School, without dragging on and on like some of the plays do, and with all the humour that we get in the Tyrolean books – it’s quite reminiscent of the time when Jo & co use some of Madge and Jem’s best stuff for charades, but with that lovely Chalet School Christmas sentiment as well.   And, hooray, Gretchen and Jakob/Jacques Monier/Le Mesurier were included.  I’m so chuffed that Amy did that: the poor kids usually get forgotten.  It was also nice to see how Gillian, Joyce, Grizel, Rosalie, Biddy and Cornelia fitted into things whilst the school was closed, and to see more about the plans for reopening the school.  As I said, the Chalet School isn’t only a school.  It’s a world.

The portrayal of Jo in this book is great – she’s involved with everything, and does a bit of fainting, but without ever being OTT and annoying.  And it’s a joy to see Madge still at the centre of things too. The book ends with Jack’s departure, to join up, and Jo being comforted by the knowledge that there’s always hope.  The reader knows, as neither they, the characters nor EBD herself did in 1940, what lies ahead.  They know that the Chalet School, the San and the characters will soon have to uproot themselves again, when Guernsey falls to the Nazis.  They know that the war will go on for six long years.  They know that Jack, after being feared dead, will come home safely.  They know that most characters will survive the war, but some will not.  It must be very hard to get that poignancy and uncertainty into the book when we know what happens, but I think Amy manages it.  It was a brave move to take on this, seminal, part of the series, but she’s done a wonderful job with it.  GGBP still have copies of this book – if you haven’t got yours already, order them whilst you still can!

Lucy Worsley’s Christmas Carol Odyssey – BBC 4


I was expecting this to be just a bit of festive fun, but it was actually surprisingly moving. Lucy Worsley really can do moving, when she’s not dressing up and being irritating. We love to sing. Even when you’re me, and you were told to mouth the words at the school Christmas concert because your voice was so bad that you were putting the other girls off. We feel a need to sing together, whether we’re cheering our team on at football matches or singing Don’t Look Back In Anger when we’re trying to come to terms with a devastating terrorist attack.

Christmas carols go back to the days of wassailing, long before the winter festivities were taken over by the Church. The Puritans wanted rid of them, and any religious-themed music not actually using words from the Bible was frowned on for decades after that, well into the mid-18th century. But people wanted to sing, and, as Lucy said, carols were “the people’s music” – and the religious authorities had to give in. During the famous Christmas truce of 1914, carols were sung, and “Just for a little while, they brought comfort and comradeship, and a little bit of peace”. I think we could all do with some of that. Let the midwinter festivities, regardless of whatever form of religion, if any, they’re associated with for you, be about coming together. Singing’s a really good way of doing that. Even when you’re me, and you were banned from singing out loud during the school concert!

The programme started off with wassailing, and a reminder that midwinter celebrations go back long before they became associated with the Nativity story. We then got some Tudor jollification, complete with a picture of a Tudor Father Christmas. I’ve always rather fancied the Tudor court idea of stuffing yourself for twelve days, but I’m fat enough already – not that that seemed to bother Henry VIII, in his later years. Then the Reformation, and the infamous Commonwealth period – which I prefer to call the Interregnum, but no-one else seems to use that term these days! – when the Puritans were calling the shots and, as we all know, a lot of the Christmas traditions were banned. Out went any form of singing in church other than psalms set to melodies.  Even long after that, the Church of England wasn’t keen on carols –  and the Methodists deserve a big festive gold star for promoting them.  Eventually, the Established Church gave in – the first non-Biblical one it OKd being Hark the Herald Angels sing.

It was quite hard to get it all to fit in with the history of carols, because we don’t actually know how or where most of them came from, and that’s complicated by the fact that, in most cases, the words and the music originated separately! And we honestly don’t know if there are hidden meanings behind, say, The Twelve Days of Christmas. But we did hear quite a bit about the history of some individual carols. Is O Come All Ye Faithful actually a Jacobite song, referring to Bonnie Prince Charlie rather than having anything to do with Christmas? Yes, probably! How far does In The Bleak Midwinter reflect Christina Rosetti’s struggles with mental and physical health problems? I didn’t know that O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by an American minister who’d gone on a pilgrimage to Bethlehem to get away from the Civil War – why did I not know that?!

And, whilst the story of the Silent Night music and the flooded church organ is well-known, something that’s never really mentioned is the fact that the actual words date from slightly earlier, 1816, the year after the end of the Napoleonic Wars which brought such upheaval to the Salzburg area, passed around like a parcel from ruler to ruler. It was the first year of “heavenly peace” for a long time. And that’s the carol most closely associated with the Christmas truce of 1914. Lucy seemed quite emotional whilst she was talking about it. I really hadn’t expected this programme to be quite so moving. It was lovely.

This isn’t a carol (nor was it in the programme, but I’m sticking it in anyway) but it is a Christmas song – Queen’s Thank God It’s Christmas, sung by the late, great, Freddie Mercury.

Oh my love
We live in troubled days
Oh my friend
We have the strangest ways
All my friends
On this one day of days
Thank God it’s Christmas
Yes it’s Christmas
Thank God it’s Christmas

Could we have some peace and goodwill to all men (and women), please?  Some tidings of comfort and joy?  And some heavenly peace?   Waes Hael (good health)!!   Well done, Lucy.  I really enjoyed this.

Pack Up Your Troubles by Cynthia Harrod-Eagles


This is the final book in the “War at Home” series – taking us into mid-1919, and reminding us that the Great War didn’t end with the Armistice. The Treaty of Versailles wasn’t signed until June 1919, and the treaties concerning Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire weren’t signed until the summer of 1920. It was many months before all the troops were able to come home, and, of course, there was the Spanish flu pandemic to cope with as well.

Many people had lost loved ones. Others had to cope with life-changing injuries and what we now call PTSD. Relationships had changed for ever, jobs that had been left often weren’t there for those coming home to return to, the role of women had changed considerably, and, despite the joy of peace and the return of those who’d survived – and most of those who served did survive – it wasn’t easy for anyone to pick up the pieces of their lives and carry on.

But there was happiness too. New starts. Marriages. Babies. A lot of different aspects of how people dealt with the end of the war are covered in this book, and it’s an interesting read. My main quibble is that, as she did with the Morland Dynasty books, Cynthia Harrod-Eagles created too many characters for her to be able to deal with satisfactorily in a fairly short book, and some of the people we got to know in the earlier books merit little more than a few lines here. Many of the loose ends are tied up, but others aren’t. Most of the characters get happy endings – or happy new beginnings. Others don’t. But that’s pretty realistic, isn’t it?

Although it’s called the “War at Home” series, a lot of the characters haven’t been at home at all for much of it. When the book starts, plenty of them are abroad, on active service or as volunteers. Edward Hunter becomes part of the British delegation to the peace conference – and it’s great to see that included in a historical novel, because it very rarely is. And one thing that often gets forgotten is that a general election was held on December 14th, little more than a month after the Armistice. With the huge increase in the electorate, and that fact that millions of voters were still abroad with the Armed Forces, it must have taken an incredible amount of organisation. It’s good to see that mentioned here, especially in terms of some women being able to vote for the first time – and the Irish Question being addressed as well.

Most of the book is set “at home”, though – with the various different members of the Hunter family, and their servants. I don’t want to say too much in case anyone’s reading this and is planning to read the book and doesn’t want spoilers, but we see a range of issues raised. How will men returning from the war fit back into civilian life? As we sadly know, they’re not returning to “homes fit for heroes to live in”, or really any sort of society fit for heroes to live in: there’s widespread unemployment, and social unrest. What effect will their return on their families? Can marriages damaged during the war be saved? Will couples who got together either before the war or during the war go on to marry? How will women whose lives have changed beyond recognition due to the war adapt to peacetime?  What should be done about war memorials?  I thought that there could have been a bit more about the changes in society as regards the class system, but I suppose that the author could only fit so much in.

That’s the only problem with it, really – the author could only fit so much in. The book really needed to be longer. Some of the characters outside the “core” family featured quite prominently in earlier books, but are barely mentioned at all here. Even Diana Hunter, who was arguably the main character in the first book, only appears here through the eyes of others. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, but I was left wanting more. That’s a sign of a good book, but it’s a bit frustrating when it’s the end of a series! Maybe a series about the same characters during the Second World War will follow? I’d certainly be up for reading it.

My grandad used to tell me a story about the day his dad came home from the Great War. They were going to meet him at the railway station. Grandad was only a little boy at the time: he must have been just coming up for 4. My great-grandma dressed him in his best clothes, and warned him severely not to get himself mucky before his dad had seen him. They were just about to set off when the door opened and my great-grandad walked in: he’d managed to get an earlier train, but hadn’t been able to let them know. I always liked that story, when I was a little girl. I never really thought much about what happened afterwards – how Grandad, who can only have been a baby when his dad went away, got used to having this strange man around, and how my great-grandad had to adapt back to civilian life, and how they all had to cope with their grief for the relatives – three close family members – and friends who’d been killed. Ask anyone when the First World War ended, and they’ll say it was on November 11th 1918. But its effects carried on. They still do.

The story of this book is that the war didn’t really end.  Its effects – and some of those were good, with the role of the women and the relationship between the social classes changed for ever – continued to be felt by those who lived through it for the rest of their days, and it was well after the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918 before people could even start trying to resume any form of normality, or find a new normality.  And this was in Britain – how much harder must it have been for people in areas where the actual fighting had taken place?  This is quite a short book, and it’s bitty because there are so many different characters involved, but there’s a lot to be taken from it.  Well worth a read.

Vienna Blood – BBC 2


I don’t usually watch detective/murder mystery programmes, but this one appealed because it was set in early 20th century Vienna – and what a brilliant evocation of time and place it provided.  We got the elegance, the buildings, the music, the art, the development of the study of psychology … and, beneath it, something sinister, which the viewer knows will come to the surface in the 1930s.  The actual detective stuff was fairly bonkers, but it was worth watching for the setting.

Two lots of serial killing (so far, with a third episode to come).  Mostly involving women.  Either the scriptwriter or the author of the books on which it’s based is weirdly obsessed with violence against women and dead female bodies, which is a bit creepy.  The first one involved a séance and someone getting shot on the Riesenrad.  The second one involved a duel and someone murdering people he thought represented characters from an opera.  As I said, a bit mad.  But the solving of them using Freud’s new science was pretty interesting.

Our hero is Dr Max Liebermann, a British junior doctor living in Vienna for nebulous reasons to do with his dad’s emporium.  He’s working alongside a rather useless inspector, Oskar Rheinhardt.  Max is a devotee of Freud.  We also got a musical evening at which Mahler played, and an art exhibition given by Klimt.  And all those lovely, elegant buildings.  Beautiful, beautiful Vienna.  The only thing lacking was the coffee house culture.  No Sachertorte. No strudel.  What was going on with that?!

But there were unpleasant elements to it too.  Max was frequently called “Dr Jew” by colleagues, and the subject of some other nasty anti-Semitic cracks: a review in the Independent compared it to reading a Momentum member’s social media feed.  And there was an extremist group mounting attacks on black people and immigrants to Vienna from the Slavic parts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.  Vienna is beautiful … but dangerous.  As is the study of psychology – we were actually shown electric shock treatment being carried out.

So there was a lot going on.  This is something very different – it’s been compared to Sherlock Holmes, but Sherlock Holmes isn’t set in the fascinating cultural melee that was Vienna in the early 1900s.  I’m quite sorry that there are only three episodes.  Another series, please!